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Red earth, blue sky and green leaves – The monolith Uluru

The biggest monolith (single piece of rock) in the world is in Australia. It is a massive red rock in the middle of the Australian nowhere. I had wanted to visit Uluru (also called Ayer’s Rock) for a while and got my opportunity in 2018.

I had heard years ago that the Anangu (local aboriginal people) considered the rock to be sacred and did not want people to climb it. Apparently one would be following the path of their ancestors if one climbed the rock and therefore it was not a good thing to climb it; clearly something was missing between the premise and the conclusion. I found it bizarre that some people could declare a feature of the landscape to be sacred and decide that it should not be climbed. Then again, the Anangu officially owned the land, so they should be able to do whatever they want with it. And here comes the problem: they make you pay through the nose to visit the goddamn rock, but they don’t want you to climb it.

The goddam rock
The goddam rock

The park management was a serious monopoly with extortionate rates. They charged AUD $5 for one hour of WIFI at my hotel ($20 for one day) and I put up with a dormitory bed for $45 per night because I couldn’t justify spending upwards of $300 for a night in a room for myself. Transportation options were limited and also expensive. Customer service was mediocre by Australian standards. I was not feeling very respectful of the Anangus’ beliefs or wishes. The last point which sealed the deal for me was the fact that climbing the rock would no longer be allowed from October 2019. I had to climb Uluru and I had to do it on this trip.

Shortly after my flight left Sydney for Uluru, I saw the ground turn red. As I got off the plane I observed the contrast between the gloomy skies of Sydney and Melbourne and the blue skies of the Australian Outback. Heightening the contrast was the red powdery sand and the greenery of short trees all around us. A free shuttle bus took us to our hotel, Outback Pioneer Guest House. The journey was just a few minutes and the driver provided useful information through the ride. He advised us to get nets to prevent flies from getting in our faces and to apply sunscreen and to carry plenty of water, among other things.

I took the bus driver's advice and bought myself a net
I took the bus driver’s advice and bought myself a net

I walked a red dirt path to the town centre. I realised that I needed to think about dingoes as I walked this area (my fear of dogs is well documented). The creatures don’t bark, so I had no idea how dangerous they actually were. Alternatively I could have used the free shuttle bus. The tourist information centre had all the available operators in one place for our convenience (and because the local management had probably successfully stifled any competition in the name of aboriginal rights). I was keen on doing a helicopter flight and was told that a space might be available that day – if the already-booked parties were the weight they said they were and not much heavier. I told them that I was 77 kilos; I weighed myself: 81 Kg, including my boots, phones and other stuff on my person. They told me that I would probably be able to go, provided that the others were not too over the limit. I was told after a few hours that we would be over the weight limit. They wouldn’t be able to load enough fuel for a safe margin of error, so I had to fly another time.

The red dirt path
The red dirt path

I went to a nearby lookout that was just 10m elevated from the guest house and watched the sunset. My newly-bought fly-net came in handy as the flies were really bothersome otherwise. Signboards all over the area warned us to keep off the dunes as they were fragile. How the devil did the Anangu roam the place in ancient times if they had to keep off the dunes?

Sand dunes from above
Sand dunes from above

Myself and my dorm-mate Uwe awoke at 4:20 AM to watch the sun rise. The bus dropped us off at a car park and the driver pointed us to the path. The occasional light on the side of the path told us that we were on the right track. We came across a fork in the path. While the rest hesitated, I arbitrarily chose the right fork and walked on, making Uwe and me the first at the viewpoint. We could see Uluru. Over the next half hour we saw the colours of the rock change through shades of red as the sun slowly rose. The rock was lined with ridges along its visible exterior with the shadows falling on the gaps in between them.

Sunrise
Sunrise

We left the place minutes after sunrise. The bus dropped us off at the Mala carpark, the base next to the climbing trail. We had to arrive prior to 8 AM in order to be allowed climb the rock in the summer months of December to February. Consequently we had done the sunrise tour and arrived by around 7:20 AM. As we arrived, the driver looked at the signboard and announced that the climb was closed on account of strong winds at the top of the rock. It was a steep non-technical climb of 348 metres on red sandstone. From about 30 m up, a chain was laid that seemed to go all the way up. There would be a handhold and this would have been easier than at least two climbs that I did the preceding year. Too bad that it was closed.

Climb closed
Climb closed

Uwe and I did the trek around the rock. For a desert, the area was surprisingly filled with leafy plants and trees. We walked over more of the red, dusty earth. The vegetation consisted of lots of grasses and shrubs, but there were places that were also filled with trees. In many places I noticed that grasses and shrubs had been burned and had charred leaves and stems; I was informed that this was intentional on the part of the Anangu to maintain the environment. No, I didn’t entirely get it either. In any case, the Australian bush was clearly more than just dunes of sand.

There was a surprising amount of vegetation
There was a surprising amount of vegetation

The rock surface of Uluru, on close inspection, had similar features to corroded iron. Patterns and protrusions on the rock reminded me of rusty iron gates. It turns out that the oxidation of iron particles in the sand (i.e. rusting) was indeed what gave the rock its colours.

Rusted iron?
Rusted iron?

Along the path signboards told aboriginal stories. There were many stories of anthropomorphic animals: lizard man, snake woman, etc. The stories talked of war and violence, chases and deaths, promises broken and lies told. It was occasionally hard to tell when the stories told of actual humans and when of animals. Perhaps the ambiguity was intentional. There were a number of stretches where photography was prohibited on account of the site being particularly sacred and the stories of the site needing to be handed down on location between the elders and their grandchildren. As before, I find this to be an unpleasant imposition for a rock in the middle of the desert that we were paying big bucks to see. We did the entire circuit, along with two small diversions – the Mala Walk and the Kuniya Walk. There were areas in the rock that were reserved for the adult men, the women, the kids, the elderly, the adolescents boys learning the skills of adult men, etc. depending upon the activities they would perform there. The men would handle their kills from hunting, the women would cook, the kids would play, the elderly would relax and teach the kids, etc.

Cave paintings
Cave paintings

We returned to Yulara by bus. I went to the information centre and checked on my helicopter / plane ride options. The woman at the helicopter desk was very unhelpful when asked what differentiated the helicopter ride experience from the plane. “Have you ever ridden a helicopter before?” “No.” “There you go.” I had never ridden a light aircraft before either. The monopoly that the whole park was enabled the operators to get by with ridiculous prices and terrible customer service. 

There were 7 of us including the pilot as we boarded the a little Australian-made single-propeller plane . I wanted to ask to ride shotgun, but the pilot Travis had already decided where we were all sitting, presumably adjusted by weight. We could hear the chatter on the local broadcast channel of the four or so planes in the sky in the area, along with the control centre. Our plane had the call sign Hotel Quebec Echo. Travis did not ask us to put our phones in flight-safe mode. If the little plane we flew in could function without needing to set 8 phones in close proximity to flight safe mode, the fancy electronics of a commercial jet could probably handle a few mobile signals. We taxied down the runway and were airborne at only 70 knots (about 130 Kmph). We gained altitude to 2500 feet (about 750 metres) and headed to Lake Amadeus.

I took a ride in this baby
I took a ride in this baby

Amadeus was a mostly-dry salt lake. The lake was quite large with patches and pools of water here and there; it looked more like an agglomeration of tiny lakes than as one single lake. There was some water in it on account of recent rains, so there was a bit of colour. The white parts of the lake were relatively dry, where the water had evaporated totally and the salt had precipitated. Black parts still had a little bit of water. Then there was the water itself. Animal tracks went across the dryer parts of the lake. Travis said that they belonged to camels. Islands filed with green vegetation stood within the lake. The most interesting island looked like a green smiley face.

An island in Lake Amadeus
An island in Lake Amadeus

After having our fill of the lake, we flew up to 4000 ft and turned toward Kata Tjuta / The Olgas. These were gigantic red lumpy rocks protruding from the ground. Trips to Kata Tjuta were done only in the early mornings at this time of the year on account of extreme heat (50 degress Celcius in some areas). In contrast, Uluru could be visited at different times during the day, but in summer the climbs were closed by 8 AM.

Kata Tjuta / The Olgas
Kata Tjuta / The Olgas

After this, we flew to Uluru and watched the colours change as the sun set. We headed back to the airport and landed as the darkness started to fall over the land. I noticed something funny: I had done a long trek around Uluru that morning with no trouble, but it was on the plane when I was sitting down that I got the most dehydrated. I finished off an entire bottle of water on the hot plane while completely inactive.

Sunset colours
Sunset colours

Uluru had upended only a few expectations. The place was surprisingly green for a desert. It was harder to get around and see than I had hoped. I very predictably didn’t return with significantly more respect for the local culture. Despite my best efforts I had not been able to climb it. And now I probably never will.

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