I love rock. Big rocks like cliffs and mountains, or little rocks like boulders and pebbles; I am naturally compelled to climb them, run them, admire them, stand on them. I like beaches probably because I view them as a huge collection of very tiny rocks.
Thus, the visual image of Uluru (formerly called “Ayers Rock”) has been etched in my visual memory for forty years, since I first saw it Life magazine or something. The synapses in the reptilian part of my brain went like this: “See huge rock. Very big, very dramatic, no other rocks around it. Must go climb it someday”.
So I did.
Uluru is that huge red sandstone monolith out in the middle of the Australian Outback. It juts up alone from a vast flat plain almost in the exact center of a country that is the same size as the continental US.
HOW TO GET THERE?
1) Fly – This is by far the easiest, and is for tourists. You drop in, snap your pictures, get the heck out.
2) Drive – This is for hard core bushwhackers. The mileage is huge from all four directions, and there is nada in between.
3) Train – This is way cool. For cultured and sophisticated people.
4) Bike – For the truly hard core. Or insane.
As you presumably guessed, I boarded the train in Adelaide, bound for Alice Springs, a 27 hour trip. The Ghan is one of those “nouveau classic” train trips – construction started way back in 1878, but the rails didn’t make it to Alice Springs until 1929, before which the final mileage was traversed by riding camels (thus the name). This lasted until 1980 when they abandoned the track due to constant flash floods and termites wiping out the ties, and constructed a new line using concrete ties. Finally, it wasn’t until 2005 that the present modern service began. It was an instant hit.
I can see why. This train travels the entire N-S length of the Australian Outback, a whopping 3,000 kms (they finally completed the segment to Darwin in 2004, 100 years late). During peak travel season (winter) the train itself is a stunning one kilometer long, complete with on-board chefs, fine dining, sleeping cabins and hot showers. Originally called “The Afghan Express”, because imported camels and drovers from Afghanistan made the whole thing possible, The Ghan now is a very reasonable way to traverse the interior, and/or stop off in the Red Center to visit Uluru.
I was too cheap for deluxe, so paid $149 for a Seat. Reality finally began to dawn on me however, so I did what all savvy travelers do: starting snooping for a way around this:
a) 27 hours is a very long time for me to sit in a chair, especially next to 59 other people;
b) Believe it or not, I am getting old and either am a wimp or now think I deserve better than this;
c) I then discovered that by asking the conductor for an upgrade after the train left the station, a substantial discount on a sleeper compartment could be had. Plan C worked: 15 minutes into the journey, I gave the conductor another $150, and bumped up into my own private sleeping compartment! Now that’s what I’m talking about! For $299 I not only had a $706 sleeper, but I had the double compartment to myself. Private bed and sink, a power outlet to sustain my electronic window to world (laptop with USB Modem), with a physical door to close off the world to everyone around me, and a big picture window toward the part of the world I was interested in. Hanging out, enjoying the delicious Thai food take-out and bottle of wine I brought on board, iChatting with Galen, all the while watching the Outback scenery gently roll by. Getting there was possibly the best part.
THE ROCK; almost forgot.
In 1985 all the land around Ayers Rock was given back to the local Aborigine tribe, the original name “Uluru” (which doesn’t mean anything) was re-instated as a dual name, and the land was then leased back to the federal Park Service for management. I was somewhat surprised to find the entire emphasis is very non-recreational, and mostly non-sightseeing; it’s managed as a cultural resource.
I was too excited to sleep that night, so got up at 5 am, and in complete darkness drove into the Park. Like I said at the beginning of this Post: gotta climb that Rock. But at the parking area a big sign said: “Climb Closed” and the gate was padlocked. WTF. Fortunately there was an elderly Japanese couple that got there even earlier than I did, who told me the Ranger had come by and told them she would open the climb at 6:30 am. So I waited. Here’s the deal: they really don’t want you on this thing. While not forbidden, the Park Service will close this route if it’s too hot, too cold, too dark, too windy, or too anything; they make a big effort to discourage anyone from setting foot on Uluru, and this includes not providing clear information in order to make it more bothersome.
Finally the rangers shows up, lambasts a tourist who is about to set off in street clothes with one just-purchased pint of water in his hand, telling him the climb takes 3 1/2 hours, the temperature is predicted to be 38 today (100F), and that 35 people have died doing this (not sure how, but they still are finding skeletons at the base). Finally unleashed, I scamper up in 24 minutes. I instinctively calculate the possibility of round-tripping this puppy in under :30 … can’t resist you know? … but realize this just isn’t appropriate behavior in this situation. (In a lengthy conversation later, a ranger tells me the summit will probably be closed permanently in the next 5 years). I explore around the extensive summit … this massive rock is a veritable sea of undulating sandstone (and find out later that one is not supposed to do that) … then scamper back down as the next person arrives at the top. The Rock is Arkose Sandstone, very monolithic (no cracks or joints), very old, and cranks 348 M straight out of the plain (no talus or foothills).
At the base I went on a guided nature walk, see some really primitive (no joke intended) rock art, and note that this part of the Outback is far more verdant than I expected (12″ rain/year, compared with 7″ for Grand Junction). I then break off to run the Base Trail (9.4 km) before the temp hits that 38C and the flies drive me crazy. I naturally scope out a few potential and one probable alternate 4th class route to the top, but reluctantly put them out of my mind. Fuhgitabotit. I learn of at least one named 5th class route established prior to the 1985 significant closure.
Next stop is the Cultural Center, featuring an excellent conversation with a ranger (here’s what few in Australia know: there are about ONE MILLION feral Camels wandering around the Outback). There’s another scenic area with a trail (Kata Tjuta/the Olgas), but the good part closes at 11 am due to heat so that’s out for today. I drive back to Yulara, swim in the pool, eat lunch … and it’s just 2 pm. What to do now? Yulara is literally a company town, all the lodging, shops, etc owned by one hospitality corporation. It’s surrounded by the Park with it’s 4 designated trails, by Aborigine land, and the Curtin Springs Cattle Station (over one million acres!). The whole place is comatose until the evening when a guy with a guitar steps into the outdoor dining area/bar, plugs into his boombox, and spends a sorry 2 hours trying to sing Van Morrison songs.
Time to whip out the laptop, rebook my airfare, and return to Sydney the next day.
Uluru is a fabulous piece of geology and geography, and a very worthwhile spectacle and hike, although quite short. Getting there is an expensive undertaking no matter how you do it; a Sleeper on The Ghan is certainly my recommendation.
Once there, options are very limited due to the private ownership, restrictions therein, and the desolate nature of the surrounding country itself. I think the government has done a terrific job managing a cooperative reconciliation with the native people. And while I normally love experiencing and learning different cultures, for unknown reasons I drew a blank on this one – no criticism of them; just how it was for me. It’s not easy to directly engage here – there are few native guides, many natives speak minimal english and aren’t interested, and our “kupa” (honky) (actually “uninitiated man”) culture is more radically different from theirs than any indigenous people’s I’ve ever encountered.
To climb it or not? This turns out to be a big topic. Think Shiprock and Devils Tower. Instead of how-to directions, the available Visitor Information strongly emphasizes, “Please Don’t Climb Uluru!”. Apparently the Aborigines never did it (except in legends). It is sacred to them and they’d prefer no one touch it. Fair dinkum. But I spent some time with this query, and that is not how I feel in my heart. Like on many other topics, I think differently than they do. I make my world sacred by my activity. I climb mountain because this is how I honor them. This is my ritual activity, and it increases my respect and connection with the world, which is a good thing. If they do close the summit of Uluru permanently, I won’t complain a bit – it’s their country and culture, and they should do whatever they want to honor the message in their hearts. In the meantime, I will do the same.
In conclusion: I love the desert and I love rock – this is absolutely one of the iconic desert/rock images in the world – and I’m glad I went – I had to go there. You probably don’t. Especially if you’ve ever been to Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon, or Zion.
Full PHOTO GALLERY here.