To Climb or Not To Climb?

The Un-Climb
By Dagmar Busshoff
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Five a.m. surprises us after a sound sleep punctuated by the howl of dingos . In the darkness, we board a bus for sunrise at Uluru. Cold desert air has replaced the warm breeze from the evening before. Our bus is the first to reach the viewing area, but before long we are joined by a dozen more. About two hundred spectators crowd the parking lot waiting for daybreak. All goes silent as the first rays strike the rock. Slowly, the sun reveals Uluru in spectacular reds and oranges.

"It is our job to inform you that the Anangu prefer that you respect the cultural significance of Uluru and not climb it," announces the bus driver to our group as we file back aboard. This bombshell requires more explanation. "When Anangu look at the land, and the features and things living upon it, there is visible evidence that ancestral beings still exist." He goes on to explain how Uluru and Kata Tjuta are part of a wide network of significant places linked by iwara (tracks) left by ancestral beings during their travels. These are the "songlines" described by Bruce Chatwin in his book by the same name.

The route typically taken by visitors to the top is a traditional path used by ancestral Mala men on their arrival at Uluru. The path is of spiritual significance. Accordingly, the Anangu prefer it not be used as a common footpath.

This leaves us with the unenviable task of forsaking our anticipated climb or showing disrespect to the true inheritors of Uluru. Although Anangu make no effort to impede climbers, it would be akin to visitors scaling the flying buttresses of Notre Dame for a better view of Paris. Given this context, it doesn't take long to make our choice.

While others climb, we circle the base, passing sacred aboriginal grounds like the Kantju waterhole and Mutitjulu (Maggie Springs). Our guide points out wildlife and blooming plants, both visible because it had rained twice the previous month. We delve into the geology and mythology of the area, and get a look at some of the numerous aboriginal cave paintings.

Five hours we spend discovering the rich cultural heritage of the site. When all was said and done there were no regrets about not scaling to the summit. Sometimes conquering a natural wonder is the least satisfying route towards appreciating it.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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