by Sally Hammond
I want to ask her, should Australia install a sound and light show on the side of the rock? Perhaps a little laser show, or maybe a fountain of fireworks from the far side of Uluru – a sort of desert version of the grand finale of the Olympic Games? Perhaps that might hit the spot with jaded tourists.
No doubt her companion would be delighted at the prospect I reckon. She grumbles back, “I can't believe we spent thousands of dollars to come see the sun set on a rock!”
But this is Uluru, not any old rock in the centre of Australia. The world's largest pebble (that's official) was, until 17 years ago, universally known as Ayers Rock, named for the boss of the white discoverer, Gosse. It’s the world's largest cleanskin monolith, and has been around a mere 60 million years or so.
The traditional owners, the Anangu people, by comparison have been here a lot less - 22,000 years - but that's still enough to give them intimate knowledge of this mysterious outcrop smack in the middle of thousands of square kilometres of vast stony saltbush desert.
To walk through this country with a local aboriginal person is a rare treat. You sense the harshness, feel the thirst, taste the isolation of one of the world's most remote places. You fear falling foul of the spirits of the desert. It sends a shiver through you, despite the blistering heat, and you take a step closer to the group. How long would I last alone out here? A few hours? A day, tops.
Ever since white man sighted this massive red umbilicus, the 'because it's there' mentality has urged people to climb it. Interestingly (and blindingly understandable, once you key into the spiritual mindset of the indigenous people) the Anangu never did.
To them it was the touchstone of their being; a place they knew almost instinctively to come to for water, learning and companionship. Some say Uluru means 'meeting place', but the traditional owners deny this. Uluru, they insist, means Uluru. It is, simply, the name for this place.
To these people too, the constant stream of 'minja' - their name for tourists, meaning ants - streaming over the florid face of the rock is a distressing sight. They simply ask people not to climb, and their request, soft as their voices, is never strident, always politely firm, but their concern is twofold.
Of course the spiritual significance of the rock makes a climb on it tantamount to clambering onto a carved god for a happy snap (you'd be arrested in a Buddhist country for this) or scaling the main altar in a cathedral. But as much as this pains them, the basic aboriginal concept of responsibility for one's fellows almost supersedes this.
"Aboriginal people," we were told by the Park Manager at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre, "believe that older people should protect their children. If they allow people to behave dangerously on their property, then it is a very bad thing."
Most people who have trouble up there on the two to three hour return walk succumb to heart attack or heat exhaustion (temperatures can soar into the high forties here, although the walk is closed when it reaches 36C), but there are no details about how many might suffer illness triggered by the stress, days or weeks after they return home.
Other people simply fall, affected by strong winds, or stumbling on loose rocks. Anything but a walk in the park, climbing Uluru is a hard, hot, and potentially dangerous activity. Sadly, of course, this is what attracts so many people in the first place.
The Anangu people say: Please don't climb. At all.
So why, we asked, is the chain that runs like an ant trail up the face of the rock still there? Why not remove it entirely? Pull it up, simply refuse to allow people to make the climb? After all, the Anangu people, made up of several distinct language groups were granted inalienable ownership of the land in 1984. Which in itself was a strange thing, when you think about it.
The explorer, Gosse, arrived here in 1873, adding it to South Australia's list of assets in their northern territory, but the rock sat as it always had, the country's giant punctuation mark. Until the 1950s, tourism was limited here to the hardy and the foolhardy. Many of the earlier explorers died in the attempt to even reach the country's Red Centre. The rock itself was seen as the centre of the Centre, although Alice Springs, 465 lonely kilometres by road to the north-east is closer (but not quite) to being the geographical centre of Australia.
Currently however, the climb is still on, although the chain assistance begins high enough up the rock to discourage some. Better still, go first to the Cultural Centre, an ochre-coloured building that coils serpent-like on the red sands a kilometre from Uluru. Here, in displays, videos and art, you can glimpse something of this people's kinship with the land, their 'learning book'.
But no white person - even Australian-born - should feel inadequate if they can't entirely get it. The Anangu don't ask for total comprehension. Just don't' climb the rock, they ask.
The perfect alternative is the two- to three-hour walk around some of the base of the rock, led by trained AAT Kings tour guides who point out the sites connected with legends, the wealth of bush tucker plants and some of the sacred sites: the caves where young boys waited nervously for their initiation rites; another where women ground grass seeds to make into a bread as rich as muesli. Squatting under a bush shelter, our guides scribbles in the fine dust, attempting to put the geology of the place into lay person's terms.
Right now you wouldn't change places with the minga (ants) on top of this baking rock for quids. The view from the top might be expansive, but the perspective from the base is so much more intense. To reinforce this, participants in the base walk get a classy and culturally sensitive "I Didn't Climb Ayers Rock' certificate.
‘Don't climb,’ say the Anangu people, and finally you can begin to see why.
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