Wrong Turn on Uluru Part 2

Here is the second instalment of a 3-part essay written after witnessing the beginning of the rescue effort for three climbers trapped on Uluru last year. I'm sharing these stories in celebration of the recent decision by Anangu with Parks Australia to close the Climb on Uluru.

If you missed it, you can read Part 1 here.

Despite the drama at Uluru, we still still had our usual Monday caseload at the clinic. Two of our nurses were at the Rock in case medical assistance was required in the rescue of the three young men trapped up there. The other nurse and I stayed at the clinic caring for the day’s patients. Towards the end of the day we paused to notice the late afternoon light through the high windows. I wondered whether the rescue would proceed as sunset approached.

“Did you hear about the guy who was there overnight last year?” I said to my colleague.

“The Taiwanese fella?” she said. “I read about it on the net. That must’ve been hairy.”

“He fell twenty metres into a rock-hole. He was still a really long way up,” I said. “He’d tried experimental routes away from the climb track before, his friends said.”

“Reckless boy,” she sighed.

“Learned his lesson harshly. His friends stayed with emergency workers at the base of the Rock all night, shouting up at him with a loudhailer. It must’ve been a spooky experience for all of them. He’d fallen off a cliff into a pool about a hundred metres above the ground. It was the middle of Winter —

“It gets really cold here in winter, doesn’t it?” suggested the nurse.

I nodded. “It was six degrees that night. Half-wet with icy water in shorts and a t-shirt, he was. Poor man. It must’ve taken so much strength to survive. Lucky he was young and fit.”

“He couldn’t be rescued during the day?”

“We couldn’t find him soon enough. There’s not many pilots can fly close to the Rock. It’s dangerous!

“All that afternoon they searched from him with the ‘copters and planes. Finally saw him just as darkness was falling. The man waved to the pilot. We thought he was alright.”

“He had multiple injuries, though, didn’t he?”

“He was a mess. We didn't know how badly he was hurt 'til they got him out. I was told that we had only one helicopter pilot here who was able to land on the Rock. Then it took all day to get people to him. So dangerous for the rescuers. They finally winched him up to the ‘copter just before nightfall next day. It was close. We were all worried that he’d have to spend another night up there. It’s hard to imagine how he would have survived that.

“Our nurses were there all day — one at the top of Uluru and another down below.

They brought him into the clinic about 7. He had a broken leg, a broken pelvis, fractured vertebrae, facial fractures. Have to say he was remarkably calm.”

“I read that it cost him a lot,” my colleague continued.

“Eighty-four thousand dollars in medical fees, the newspaper said,” I replied. “And a world of pain.”

After work that Monday evening Claudia and I went by the Rock. We saw the clinic ambulance and Police and Parks vehicles, their drivers gathered along the road.  

There was a helicopter hovering high up, approaching the face of the Rock — an unnerving sight as we drove by. I wasn’t on duty. We were on our way to visit a friend at the nearby community.

“Maybe that’s where the idiots are,” Claudia said, referring to the three young men needing rescue. She doesn’t approve of people climbing the Rock. “I can see people at the top. Maybe the helicopter just dropped them off,” she said. Peering, I could see a few tiny figures at the place where Uluru’s sharp ridged top met the twilit sky. I thought of the Anangu, who call visitors who climb the Rock minga – ants.

On the way back from our friend’s place, as the sun set behind Uluru, we stopped to greet our colleagues. “Just rubber-necking are yez?” said the police chief with a warm smile. One of our Remote Area Nurses was there, at police request. I apologized for my intrusion. “Not a bad thing for you to know what’s going on,” she said graciously.

I listened to the team discuss the situation.

One co-ordinator was doing his best to keep connected to the rescue team on top of Uluru via radio and mobile. Radio frequency waves came and went. At one point the young men trapped below made a phone flash in the encroaching shadows. It was startling.

“Surely they’re not taking pictures?” I asked.

“No, the rescue team asked them to do that. I just heard them on the radio,” my colleague replied.

A repeated flash lit up the giant cavern the young men stood in. We glimpsed tiny masculine silhouettes with their hands on their hips. They were in what normally looked like a hole or dent from the ground below. The face of the Rock is steep and corrugated. I could imagine that the rescuers at the peak might see something like sheet lightning from behind an invisible swelling of ridged rock below them.

“The rescue team won’t be able to see much of that light. There’s too much of a bump on the ridge above the cave,” the liaison said as we craned our heads.

A harsh wind arose as darkness fell. The key man on the scratchy radio looked worried. “It’s so dark. The moon doesn’t rise until after nine o’clock. I don't know what they expect to do in the dark”. It was approaching 7pm.

Before the moon rose. The camera sees stars invisible to the eye. The three young men waiting to be rescued are visible halfway down the picture. A rescuer's head-lamp above shows them climbing from the top, near the highest visible point.

Before the moon rose. The camera sees stars invisible to the eye. The three young men waiting to be rescued are visible halfway down the picture. A rescuer's head-lamp above shows them climbing from the top, near the highest visible point.

The group on the ground discussed whether shining lights up the rock face would be helpful. Headlights and beacons would not reach the path the rescuers had to gingerly negotiate. Neither could lights from the ground reach up to the cavern where the young explorers were because of the Rock’s convexity below it. And there was a risk that the lights might blind the descending rescuers.

Trusting their expertise, I went back along the darkened road to where Claudia had set up her tripod.

“Can you tell where they are now?” I asked Claudia. She has a working knowledge of some of the markings and pits which show the clefts, chasms, caves and waterholes on Uluru. Each one tells a story. She could see things humans couldn't with her camera’s eye if she left the shutter open, gathering photons. I could see nothing on the blackness of the Rock, but made some guesses by our position on the road and our proximity to the Mala walk.

“They’re just above and to the left of the row of belly buttons on the swelling above the Mala Pouch,” she said.

The Mala. By  John Gould  - "Mammals of Australia", Vol. II Plate 57

The Mala. By John Gould - "Mammals of Australia", Vol. II Plate 57

The Mala walk is one of the important walks at the base of Uluru. Passing through shady eucalyptus forests, nourishing grasslands and an acacia creek-bed, it takes the visitor to many spectacular caves, each with different smells, stones and outlooks. Many feature rock art, which speaks of tens of thousands of years of Indigenous visitors: artists, marriage brokers, traders and scholars.  Much more recent aluminium signs, created by collaboration between the Anangu and Parks workers, explain something of the cultural significance of the caves and cliffs.

The path begins near the start of the Climb. People bypass the climbers with a grounded and openhearted spirit that contrasts with the brash enthusiasm (or obligated dread) that the climbers have when they start their strenuous exercise.

Initially, the Mala Walk takes you to the giant honeycombed rock and cave where the marsupial mole Itjari-itjari has its Tjurkurpa (pronounced 'chook-orr-pa' in English) — which means the spirit animal’s teaching, its learning, its journey represented by, and resonating in, the landscape. They don’t let people into the Itjari cave anymore, one ranger unofficially told me, because people kept scattering ashes there and the rangers had the unpleasant job of sweeping them out.

The walk continues to the Teaching Cave, where Aboriginal boys were educated. Small stone seats and ancient rock paintings on the wall and ceiling carry faint notes of the sweetness of a kindergarten room. Further along, in the Ancestors’ Cave, mouldings in the wall, highlighted by guano, personify ancient beings that impress and intimidate, if you have that sort of imagination.

A little further along the Mala Walk, still hugging the base of Uluru is the Kitchen Cave, directly below where the young men were trapped. Called Kulpi Minymaku (the mature women’s cave) in Pitjatjantjara, it is a tall, open cave with smooth stones and a soft sand floor. By day, you sit in its coolness, contemplating a view across the plain. It’s easy to imagine mothers grinding seed here, calling to children to come have cakes baked from tiny rye-like seeds of the surrounding grasses.

View from a flour grinding stone in the 'Kitchen Cave' on a rainy day, 2012. © Claudia Jocher 2017

View from a flour grinding stone in the 'Kitchen Cave' on a rainy day, 2012. © Claudia Jocher 2017

Continuing along, you come quickly to an area where photography is forbidden. The Mala Pouch is a small, deep cave, uterine in shape. This area is concerned with fertility and conception. Anangu women have sacred business there, and men are not allowed, except when asked to help, say, to catch a snake. The desert people have a very marked gender division, but it is not an oppressive separation. They understand their interdependence.

All of these features were in deep secretive darkness now. Watching the rescuers’ headlamps as two of them inched along the crest of the Rock, my mind flashed back to the Herculean process of getting last year’s young man winched up to the ‘copter — the loose scree on the eroding rock surface giving way beneath feet, the lack of any hold for the ropes except an ancient boulder. I felt a surge of deep respect and awe for the team attempting this even more treacherous night-time rescue.

“Why don’t they just leave them there overnight?” asked Claudia, adjusting her camera. “They’re healthy. It’s not cold. It might give them a bit more time to think about what they’ve done.”

“You’re really angry with them,” I observed.

“Oh, I’m not worried about those three dickheads,” she went on. “Remember what our friend said?” She named an Anangu friend, a Traditional Owner. “The Rock protects itself,” he said. According to him, anyone who did ignorant, disrespectful things to Uluru or Kata-Tjuta would suffer mental illness years later.

This was a familiar theme. Claudia and I lived at the local Aboriginal community for years before we came to live uptown at the resort where we now work.  Friends, including former rangers, who’d retrieved people stuck on the Rock, or the bodies of people who died there, told us terrible tales. One had to climb up to retrieve a body as lightning struck the Rock, climbing on the metal chain that attracted great crashing bolts. He still shook when he talked about it. Another friend told of picking up the body parts of a fallen climber. “The hands get smashed up first, when they try to cling,” she said.

As Claudia worked her camera, I thought of how Uluru sits at the intersection of awe-inspiring and awful, respect and fear.

“Do you remember that photo you took, that gave you trouble?” I asked Claudia.
“Of course, I do,” she said. “Nearly got me killed.”


The concluding part of this 3-part essay comes next week.