I manage to get myself out the door at ten to six in the morning. Twilight is just beginning to creep into the sky as I board the bus. Emma is the driver, and we have a grand old time geeking our way out to Uluru itself.
We stop in the “sunrise viewing” car park for coffee. It is instant coffee; I have tea instead.
Several buses from one of the large touring companies are parked here. As I head along the wooden boardwalk, I encounter a relative crush of humanity. I reach the platform at the top of one of the dunes, I confirm that we have an excellent view of the horizon, but it is impossible to get a photo with fewer than two dozen human beings in it. What for me would be a moment of transcendental calm is fenced in by the clicking of camera shutters and the bursts of bluish flash light, by the murmurs and giggles of men, women, and children, from all parts of Asia and Europe, who are determined to maximize their photo-to-dollar ratio on this Desert Sunrise Experience.
I decide after a few minutes of this that I’d rather be in the car park. It turns out to be impossible from there to get a photo with fewer than three or four human-constructed buildings in it. I give up and get back in the bus.
The Cultural Center, run by the indigenous Anangu people who are the custodians of the land we walk on, is roughly constructed but pleasantly laid out. The paths are arranged in spirals which encourage the walker to proceed around the building in the same sense (counterclockwise, in my case). The main center I walk into is filled with references about what in the Pitjantjatjarra language is called Tjukurpa, the aggregate cultural history, cosmology, and moral traditions of the Anangu people.
There are many notices in which the Anangu people request visitors not to climb Uluru. They list various reasons: the top of the rock is sacred and the experience of climbing is part of an important ritual for Anangu men; the climb is dangerous and many visitors end up seriously injuring themselves or dying, creating legal problems and bad karma; the erosion and pollution of a hundred thousand climbers damages the fragile desert landscape and hurts everyone. There is a guest register which doubles as a petition of sorts, exhorting people not to climb. Yet, importantly, it does not seem to be forbidden outright.
I wonder why it is so hard for people to respect the local traditions: the Anangu own the land (as far as Western law is concerned), and attempts at explanation make it sound as though they need external justification to set their own boundaries. It’s easy for me to feel self-righteous, but congratulating oneself on being a “good guy” is just another form of privilege and entitlement: we shouldn’t need, or ask for, a cookie from the people being oppressed just for doing what’s right.
An old man comments at the desk that he’s dismayed by how many people are climbing the rock despite the injunction not to. After he signs the register, I follow suit. When I head to the cafe, I find him there as well. It turns out he is a Canberra-area resident, and an indigenous Canadian — a member of a Pacific Northwest Native American tribe. He’s semi-retired and makes his living through casual work on databases and computer networks. We sit down and share our coffee and company. He’s very chatty, and quite a character.
After a twenty-minute walk to the meeting place for the free Uluru tour I’m going on, I see where the climb is taking place. The slope of the rock face must be a 45-degree grade in places; looking at the rock from afar later, I see this is one of the shallowest grades up which it is possible to climb Uluru. In a heartbeat, desire flits through my chest, and I picture myself at the top, with the flat expanse of desert below me and only sky above. Then, ashamed, I stuff these images back into my mental closet.
Accommodations have been made. A track has been worn thin from what must by now have been millions of European feet since the 1950s. A chain hangs from a series of posts, something for climbers to hang onto, which I’m sure no Anangu man ever got to use — or would be interested in using — on the same climb. The flux of tourists in both directions, of all nationalities, even at half past nine in the morning, is astonishing. Some, on coming down the mountain in kitschy sequined crowns, crow in delight at their accomplishment. Uluru, I just climbed Uluru, one American man shouts to a waiting friend. Ayers Rock! an Australian woman loudly corrects him with a raucous laugh.
The sign in front, bearing the prominent title
Please Don’t Climb
in six languages, bears poignant witness. I wonder if these people even read it.
On a closer look at the slope, I conclude you’d have to be a daft bugger to try and climb that thing. As the Anangu imply, it’s only one slip to a broken neck. With proper climbing equipment or years of experience it would be one thing, but for millions of unprepared foreigners just off the plane? How hard would it be for your foot to betray you?
I sit waiting for my tour and try not to be a jerk about it.
The ranger guiding our tour gives us a lot of useful information, but goes about his business in a very long-winded way: he seems to spend more time apologizing about how he has no time to explain everything to us than he does actually explaining. He qualifies things obsessively, with many statements not far out of his mouth before he explains that that isn’t quite right, it’s just an analogy and he doesn’t know much about the ways of the indigenous people, but maybe he can give you sort of an idea, mostly.
He talks about the ways of the Anangu people: how their oral tradition encodes, as stories, maps to hidden water, recipes for medicines, best practices in forestry and conservation, and moral and ethical codes. It’s easy for Western hippies to talk emptily about how everything is connected, but in this case, the stories relate to each other in a dense web of knowledge about every part of the landscape and the Anangu people’s place in it. In the harsh desert environment, hospitality is the law of the land; I think momentarily of the similar importance of hospitality in Mediterranean cultures. Accumulating material possessions is anathema in a nomadic culture in which you must carry everything you own — but you don’t care about them because you can easily recreate anything you need from simple materials in the environment. If you fall on hard times, your extended family will take care of you, and so Anangu extended families are as tight socially as Western nuclear families.
Eventually we come to why we are still allowed to try to climb Uluru, and it is much as I thought quietly to myself: it’s in the European value system to overcome things as individuals. Such an imposing formation screams out to us to climb it. It would be almost as insane for us not to try it as to try it. Australian tourism ads encouraged a whole generation of white Australians to climb Uluru, and it’s not the Anangu’s way to make sudden decisions to stop things. They deliberate, making sure they understand the ramifications for the future — public outcry and pressure from the tourism industry over lost income among these. The numbers are in decline, but by the time they’ve paid their pretty pennies to come to the Red Centre explicitly to climb Uluru, it’s too late to stop them.
The tour has gone way, way over the ninety minutes I scheduled for it, so I no longer have time to walk around the base of Uluru as I had planned. The ten-kilometer walk allegedly takes about three and a half hours to enjoy properly. So after a lunch of carrots and hummus, I decide to walk down along one direction until it’s time to come back to the car park to be picked up.
I am richly rewarded. Uluru seems like a charming enough rock from afar, but not obviously unlike the sedimentary mesas of Arizona’s high desert. Up close, the two couldn’t be more different. The rock’s side is rippled, undulating, and is inundated with bizarre features — pock-marks, deep gashes and wounds in the stone, corrugations of ancient sediment carried by tides at the dawn of life, caves and overhangs sheltering a honeycomb of multicolored features. It could be Mars, could be the moon of a distant gas giant, could be a detail from a Dali painting. But it doesn’t seem like Earth.
I heard some astonishingly varied birdsong earlier in the day, but was unable to identify the bird. Here there are clouds of tiny desert birds I’ve never seen before, and have trouble capturing on my woefully inadequate camera. Their distinctive call fills the air — they have red beaks like finches, but they’re “only small”, as our ranger guide might’ve put it. They seem to be regulars. I will ask Emily about them later and learn that they are indeed zebra finches, one of her favorite birds.
On the way back I encounter another singular sight — my first red-capped robin, much smaller than I expected. It alights on a branch just a few feet from me. I signal to the noisy tourists behind me, waving and then pointing; they stop dead in their tracks, just as I did.
They’re still staring long after I’ve gotten my photos of the little bird and continued on towards home.