Elated by last week's decision to close the climb on Uluru, I'm sharing this story in three parts. I wrote it after a long night watching the attempted rescue of three young men trapped on the Rock last year.
The desert night spilled brilliant stars and the luminous haze of the Milky Way outlined the black within black that was Uluru, the stone mountain.
From where we stood, Claudia and I could see the headlamps of the rescuers, their earthly LED beams lighting the rock grey; the beams poured from the foreheads of invisible people on top of the Rock. The rescuers had been flown to the top of the Rock just before sunset. As we watched from below, their lights shone separately - I counted seven.
At times the lights coalesced into one glaring beam. I imagined the leaders of the rescue team putting their heads together to discuss their plan to descend to the crevices of Uluru. One of them sat quietly for a few moments on the weathered, brittle surface of the massive mountain. I imagined them breathing deeply for calm: checking harness, checking belay devices. Far below them the three young men they’d come to rescue were stuck inside an enormous chasm.
I’d heard that they were stuck on the Rock late that morning at the clinic where I work. My wife Claudia and I live at the resort town outside Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park in the central Australian desert. I’m a local doctor. Claudia works on call as a community ambulance driver. The climbers had tried to take a different route down, a 'wrong turn’. They had no medical problems, yet. A team of rescuers had to come from Alice Springs, the nearest town, 480 km away.
Uluru dominates our small community, about thirty kilometres distant. The grand red rock is more than twice the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza and about nine and a half kilometres around. Arguably the most visited tourist attraction in Australia, it is also perhaps one of the most profoundly misunderstood places on a hundred thousand bucket lists. This, despite the best efforts of the National Park rangers, the many educated tour guides and the Aboriginal Traditional Owners who teach and work with them. The Rock attracts tourists from around the world, eager to pack its sublime, inexpressible spiritual power into their average day-and-a-half itinerary.
Aboriginal visitors and sojourners at Uluru have been sustained by this area and developed a relationship with it over tens of thousands of years. It was first seen and mapped by European Australians in the 1870's and named Ayer's Rock after a colonial government administrator. Throughout last century the government takeover of the Rock and its surrounding land, coupled with the rise of tourism from the 1940's, alienated the Traditional Owners.
In a historic victory Land Rights were restored to the Traditional Owners with ceremony in 1985. The Anangu, as the Aboriginal people in this area call themselves, agreed to lease the area of the National Park back to the Australian government for 99 years. This enables tourists to keep visiting the Park. The name of the inselberg was changed from Ayers Rock to Uluru. Enriching Aboriginal knowledge of the place began to come to the fore in an unprecedented, satisfying way. The Anangu were opposed to tourists climbing the Rock by a secure majority and began to clearly communicate this to all who would listen. But over thirty years later, many overseas travel agents have still not caught up with the times. ‘Ayers Rock’ is part of a package – ‘You’ll see this and then you climb it.’ So some of our visitors still arrive with climbing on their minds.
But climbing Uluru is extremely dangerous. It brings a lot of worry to those of us who have to care for the lost, killed or injured. Our little clinic, which serves people within a 200 km radius, is quickly consumed by emergencies. Appointments are cancelled and fellow townspeople who need medical attention have to wait – sometimes for days - while we tend to hurt climbers and then recover from the exertion of caring for them.
For the Anangu, the hurt runs deeper. Uluru is sacred to Anangu. It is not a mountain to be climbed and conquered. It is a place for spiritual guidance, a place to be revered and feared. Every time a tourist climbs Uluru, they leave a slippery psychic scar up the steep side of it, while further eroding the Rock itself.
There has been a chain embedded in the Rock as a handhold since 1964 (it was extended in 1976). For many years climbing the Rock was just what you did. Claudia and I have friends and family members who have made the climb. It has taken time for non-Anangu to begin to understand.
The first time I was able to visit Uluru, about twenty-five years ago, I did not have an opinion one way or the other about climbing the Rock, despite my own Aboriginal heritage. Although I’d seen and loved the hand-back of ownership to Anangu on television, I was confused about what it meant.
On a tour then, I visited Mutitjulu waterhole. In the cleft of a valley at the base of the Rock, it is one of only three permanent water sources in the vast desert region. You approach it by walking deep into a valley of curved stone, sensuous as a giant woman’s thighs.
“This waterhole was so very precious,” our driver said when we returned from our walk. “In times of drought, people approached it on their bellies, using grass as a straw, so as not to contaminate it. Of course, you can’t drink it now.”
“Why not?” someone asked. We were all surprised. The place seemed pristine.
“It’s contaminated with e.coli. When it rains, water washes faeces down from the top of Uluru. The climbers go up early in the day. Of course, there are no toilets up there. Their stools are preserved in the dry atmosphere until rain washes them down.”
That was when I began to feel that people should not climb Uluru.
On the other side of the Rock, there have been signs asking people not to climb Uluru for more than a decade now. The signs are now translated into half a dozen languages. Many more people, including those from far away, understand that the Rock is not for climbing.
Decades after my first visit, now working as a doctor in the community, I knew all too well the kind of diseases desert-dwellers have to live with and how water is truly the elixir of desert life. Uluru itself is an everyday presence in my life.
The rescue team was just beginning the night’s work. Claudia took out her camera.
Photographing the Rock is one of Claudia’s great obsessions. Our colleagues from the emergency services tolerated us happily. We knew enough to stay out of their way. A thorough professional, Claudia is conscientious about not offending anyone. We perched in the dark between parked cars. Our murmuring voices and the whir of the camera shutter as it slowly opened and closed were the only signs that we were there. Claudia, her dark, curly hair falling about her face, leaned intently over the camera.
“So where are they?” I asked. Having spent hours studying the face of Uluru, Claudia knows the markings and pits on that face.
“They’re above left of that row of belly buttons on the swelling above the Mala Pouch,” she pointed. I tried to make out the features she described, but could see nothing in the dark. I guessed the three young men were about 200 metres up.
“Well, if they tried to climb over that belly, they’d slide down and be killed,” I said.
“Those idiots must’ve climbed down that cascade of waterholes until they got stuck. They're a long way from the official path,” Claudia replied.
In the darkness we saw one of the head-lamps moving. It looked like someone was inching along a sloping ridge, just a little below where the rescuers were organising themselves at the summit.
“What are they doing?” Claudia asked. “They’re surely not going to attempt it in the dark?”
“I spoke to the policeman in charge. The rescue team reckons they can do it. Ambitious, isn’t it?”
“Insane,” said Claudia.
PART 2: Next Week