The Climb

Chris Johnston, 14 August 2018

It was in 1966, after two fatalities in 1964, that a chain was installed along a portion of the track up the flank of Uluru, upgraded in 1976, and vandalised in 2017 by a man outraged that the Climb was still open. The last official death count I could find was in 2010. Then it was 36 people. But, as I am writing, another man has died there, just last week. The Climb was said to be the main reason people come to Uluru – to the Rock. Even Princess Diana climbed. But now only one in five climb. Soon the Climb will be closed.

* * * *

Its’s 2001, I’m in a bus, headed for Uluru. An early morning pick-up in the Alice Springs’ darkness, and now bundled up with eight soon to be friends, we are heading out. Our trip, run by the incongruously named Sahara Tours, will take us on a circuit through central Australia’s top spots, Alice to Uluru, Kings Canyon and on to Palm Valley, a week of camping out under the stars. It’s my first trip into the Centre to see the landscape that entranced me when I flew across Australia from Cairns to Perth three years before.

It’s really early, still dark. Most of us are snoozing. A swell of music suddenly fills the bus; wake up time it seems. Ahead, outlined against a lightening sky is a hump – Uluru. But our driver and guide Scott has tricked us – he laughs and tells us it’s Mt Conner, but stay awake because soon Uluru will appear, the solid rock of song, the place of pilgrimage to the Centre. Sleepiness turns to chatter. We swap names and countries. I’m the only Australian, and the oldest. Everyone wants to climb. And for most it’s Ayers Rock, not Uluru. Climbing is not what I have come for.

* * * *

The Rock plays hide and seek. It’s there and then it’s gone. Barry Hill in The Rock: Travelling to Uluru (Allen & Unwin 1994) writes: ‘The first glimpse of the Rock. What a sight! All of a sudden, while you are gazing across the undulating dunes, it surfaces on a crest, out of the rough of a wave with the bulk of a whale. You look again, and it’s gone. Then around the next bend, there is it again’.

In a bus, speeding along the tarmac, the game of hide and seek is quickly over. Past pilgrims took it more slowly, by necessity. In 1873, William Christie Gosse, the leader of an exploratory party seeking out pastoral interests – and said to be first white man to see the Rock – took three months to get to the Rock from Alice Springs. Hill records Gosse’s words: ‘what was my astonishment to find it was one immense rock rising abruptly from the plain … the most wonderful natural feature I have ever seen’. Today the Emu Run bus tour from Alice Springs can get you there and back in a day.

* * * *

The Climb – as it’s called – is a track worn into the surface of the Rock. There are metal posts and a heavy chain on the uphill section, and a painted line along the top. Peter Severin, then owner of Curtin Springs Station, installed the first section of the chain. As reported in the ironically titled article Unchained melody in The Saturday Paper (2.4.2016), he said he needed the work – there was a drought and income was scarce – and besides it would make climbing safer. He supports the Climb remaining open, describing the experience as exhilarating: and besides ‘Ayers Rock belongs to all Australians’.

But underlying all the arguments about respect, who ‘owns’ Uluru, and the right to climb anything big, most of the serious argument has been about money. Tourism created the Climb. The product mix was strictly ‘the Rock, the climb, sunsets and sunrises’. Until quite recently, the tourism industry still called this place Ayers Rock, evoking a well-known brand for the lucrative overseas market, and visitors arrived expecting that to climb would be the highlight of their trip.

In 1999 the Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer apologised for climbing in the past, prompting tourism industry responses, reported in The Age (15.2.1999) that they would never support a total ban. In 2001, the Climb was closed for almost three weeks as a mark of respect after the death of an Anangu elder. In response the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Denis Burke called on the Federal Government to overturn the closure, arguing that the reputation of the Australian tourism industry was at stake. Owners of the resort at Uluru, added to the debate, suggesting that a US tourism company was considering dropping Uluru as a destination. The Federal Minister stood firm; the Climb was closed for the period of mourning. The tourism industry’s campaign continued but slowly, but surely climbing dwindled; from 70% of visitors climbing in 1990 to less than 20% today.

The first tourists probably climbed. Mountford – ethnologist and explorer – brought Knox Grammar School boys down to the Rock from Alice Springs in 1950, following the tracks left by previous ‘expeditioners’. Back then, a trip into the desert was an expedition, on sandy tracks, with vehicles often bogged or with blow-outs. Everything carried with them. Mountford had been to the Rock years before – and climbed – but that’s a story for another time.

* * * *

I am sitting in the shade at the waterhole – Mutijulu – on the south side of the Rock, well away from the Climb. The trees are whispering as a gentle breeze flows across, rippling the water. I imagine a ghostly camel train sailing by, quiet, steady, and comfortable in this place, the echoes of earlier visitors still resonant in the vastness of this landscape.

* * * *

Our bus is getting nearer. Uluru looms up. Approaching from the north we take in the classic view, the Rock majestic. An image known so well from postcards – red, glowing and alive – was first capture on film in 1894 by Baldwin Spencer, scientist and photographer for the Horn Expedition. Today, it’s ours and its real, for the first time.

Through the park gates, a wave from the ranger. Closer now. Our driver and guide points out ‘the Climb’. As we get closer we see a cluster of people low down on the Climb. We see the chain, and we see the paler track up the Rock where the surface had been worn off by so many feet. The bus stops. We watch.

* * * *

Thinking back to that moment so many years ago, I dramatize it in my mind into a cacophony of our voices:

‘What’s happening up there on the rock? Everyone is walking down, no-one is climbing. Shit, there are paramedics up there and a man lying down between them. People are starting to gather around them, crawling across the steep slope to get there. I think they are doing CPR.’

‘My god, maybe he’s dying there, right in front of our eyes. Must be a heart attack. Why do old people put themselves at such risk? That man must be old if he’s had a heart attack. How stupid.’

‘Now others are scrambling across to help. Oh no! Someone has just slipped and is rolling down the rock … this is madness. Oh, thank god, they’ve stopped rolling, they must have found a hand-hold.’

‘They have stopped the CPR, and the man isn’t moving. There’s stretcher being carried up the chain … hand to hand up the climb …’

But it wasn’t like that. It was quiet in the bus. We didn’t know what was happening until later. We didn’t know we were witnessing a stranger dying right there.

Instead we went to the campground, boiled the billy, unrolled our swags. No climbing today. Later around the campfire, Scott shared the news. A man had died on the Rock. The climb would be closed tomorrow by the traditional owners, the Anangu, in grief and respect. For us, he said, we’ll make an early start and go to Kata Tjuta to see the sun up, our backs to the Rock and what we had witnessed today.

* * * *

What would it be like to climb? I’ll never climb. In 2018, you can climb via You-Tube: on offer are many recorded climbs to choose from. I decide to climb with Aaron. His climb on 24 June 2017 is presented in three 15 minutes episodes recorded via GoPro – a head-worn camera – and branded ‘Ayers Rock/Uluru in 31 degrees!’

Before we head up the Climb with Aaron, some facts: the Rock is 348 metres high (equal to a 95 storey building), the path is about 1.6 kilometres long, and it’s steep and treacherous. Most deaths are from heart attacks, but fall off and you’re dead too.

Aaron’s climb doesn’t have a voice-over. His soundscape is heavy breathing, the clink of his hands on the chain, the slurping of water. His viewscape is rock and chain, and occasionally a look behind to the landscape. He passes people coming down, but few stop to talk. Some blokes seem hearty, full of swagger, while children look apprehensive. Women are few, and some go backwards down the chain, or scoot on their bottoms facing forward down the precipitous slope.

Right at the top, there is no chain – white painted dashes like centre-of-the-road markings show the way. It’s still steep and the path is narrow with drops on either side into the giant snake-carved hollows. Snakes? That’s another story.

When Aaron looks back and down, it’s terrifying. At last he’s at the top, camera out and it’s a ‘take’. Two thousand people have joined in his climb via the virtual You-Tube world, and now I have done that too.

* * * *

Our sunrise at Kata Tjuta was stunning. Early light touching the domes, morning birdsong and a deep stillness. We were the first for the day. Later the talk was all about to climb or not to climb. Something had changed for most of the group. Perhaps it was watching a man die. Perhaps learning that the climb was on a sacred route, only meant for Anangu men undertaking a ritual journey. Or perhaps learning that Anangu didn’t want people to climb? Climbing was never for me, not then not now.

The next day, most of us followed the Mala Walk, guided by an Aboriginal ranger. We saw the Rock up close, her scaly, flaky surface, rich with red iron, and so hard: the thought of climbing vanishing. Two in our group – a couple – still climbed; they said the climb was hard and the view amazing. Later, at the Mutijulu waterhole, deep in the shade of the rock, we hear the snake story. Here gigantic ancestral beings battled: Kuniya the woma python woman and Liru the poisonous snake man. The signs of their battle are written into the Rock, spear wounds, snake-like grooves.

* * * *

Uluru called me back again this year. The lure of this place is strong. As I travelled there, I could see the curve of her form, imagine the shade of the waterhole, run my hand over her scaly surface, and absorb the colours and sounds of this place. Each time, it surprises me that there are other people here as well. In my mind, it is just me and Uluru.

At Mutijulu waterhole, I am sheltered from the sight of the Climb. I don’t want to see the disrespect, the conquering, the physical struggle nor the metal posts set deep into the flesh of Uluru. The Climb will be closed on October 26, 2019 the 34th anniversary of the Uluru handback to the Anangu.

A willie wagtail dances at the edge of the water, singing and tail-flicking. Perhaps Tjinderi-tjinderiba – the willy-wagtail woman – can sing a century of scars into healing.