Chris Johnston – 24 September 2018
‘They said don’t climb, but I’m an Aussie and we climb big things.’ His chest puffs out. ‘Lots of big things in Australia, even a Big Bogan – maybe modelled on me!’ He laughs. ‘Can’t climb him. Nor the Big Banana I guess. But this Ayers Rock … that’s why I’m here … to climb. My folks told me they climbed … yeah, that was when they honeymooned round Australia in their little caravan. Went up the centre, dirt track it was then, and then Darwin and then over to Queensland. Had a great time. I think in fact that’s where they might have made me – got me started anyway.’ He chortles at the thought. ‘My name’s Bill by the way.’
Bill is standing at the start of the Uluru Climb. It’s the last day. Tomorrow there will be no more climbing. There’s a reporter at his side, asking why he is climbing. A camera is focused on her and Bill, catching these moments to broadcast later. Unlike in the past, when climbing was still hotly debated, the car park is almost empty.
Bill shouts over to their car, ‘Come on Mary, come on kids. Let’s get a move on. Don’t want to be climbing down in the dark.’
Bill tells the reporter that they’ve travelled from East Bentleigh in suburban Melbourne to climb. All the way in Bill’s twin-cab ute, camping gear in the back replacing his tradies tool box. ‘It’s an adventure of a lifetime for us, something we’ve wanted to do for years.’ Bill says he’s a plumber, been in the trade for 30 years, but getting too old to crawl under sinks now; his knees are going and his waistline makes bending hard.
Bill starts pacing. Turning back to the reporter, he continues, garrulous with anticipation. ‘Looks really easy the first bit, don’t you reckon? It’s just a big rock. You can see the track the whole way up, so we won’t get lost.’ He laughs. ‘I hear blackfellas call us ants.’ The cameraman looks up, ‘Yeah we do. Ants, minga, following the trail, bit mindless I reckon.’ His head goes down again.
Bill laughs again, flushing: ‘Yeah people up there do look like ants when they are nearly up the top and you’re looking from down here. They look so little. It’s a big rock alright! It’s a bit odd, but when they get to what looks like the top, they disappear. You’d think you’d be able to see them waving from the top, but you can’t.’
‘Maybe the rock just swallows them up. Take care today old man. People have heard the snakes moving at night, some reckon they will swallow the rock to keep it safe from you minga.’ The cameraman’s eyes drop back to his task.
The reporter stands between them, uneasy. ‘No one’s gone up since you got here. No one’s up there now. You’ve got the Rock all to yourselves. You’re the last I reckon.’
Bill is silent. His eyes gaze upwards. He turns away, looking back to their twin-cab, muttering: ‘Bloody kids, all that stuff in their backpacks. No internet up there so they’ll have to wait to Facebook their friends.’ The car lights flash, locked now.
Tina, the youngest of the girls, blonde ponytail and pretty in pink, bounds over. ‘Hey dad, I’ve got mum’s Barbie. She’ll get to climb up too.’ She giggles. Barbie, clipped onto her backpack, frock already dishevelled, hair a mess, looks less enthused. Mary smiles. Her youngest still lives in imaginary worlds.
Sarah snorts at her stupid little sister. Drawing breath, her teenage pronouncement well-practiced, she declares: ‘This is all wrong. We shouldn’t climb. Can’t you read? The sign says “respect” and “please don’t climb”. This is wrong.’ Fearing failure, she tries on her irritating whine, ‘My friends will be horrified if I climb – they’ll cancel me if I do it.’
Mary rolls her eyes. Teenager know-it-all. Sarah might be right but … ‘Come on, let’s go. We’re here now. And anyway, looks like we’ll be the last climbers ever … we’ll make history.’
Kate, middle daughter joins the fray: ‘Stop getting all preachy Sarah. Gramps and Nana climbed it years and years ago and I reckon we should too.’
‘Let’s go,’ Bill declares ‘let’s climb this big red rock. It will be a grand view from the top. We’ll be able to see all the way back home I reckon. Let’s go, let’s see what we can see.’
The cameraman films as Bill and family walk away, the reporter adds her voice-over: ‘Climbing Uluru became popular from the 1960s when improvements to the roads and facilities saw hundreds of tourists coming here each year. Now more than quarter of a million people visit each year. But many people have died climbing Uluru – 50 now after a spate of deaths from falling just this year. After two fatalities back in 1966 the chain was installed to help climbers. Most deaths are from heart attacks. But some people fall too, and it’s a long way down.’
Turning to look up the Climb, she adds: ‘From the bottom of the Climb, where we are now, it looks easy, a steep slope but no obstacles. Not far from the start, the first outcrop of rock before the chain starts is called “Chicken Rock”. It’s said to be where some people quickly recognise their limitations and sensibly chicken out. Bill’s clearly no chicken. Up they go, Bill leading, his brood following behind. Let’s wish them a safe climb. Looks like they will be the lucky last climbers ever.’ Turning back to camera, she invites viewers to tune in again tomorrow to witness the celebrations that will mark the 34th anniversary of the hand-back of Uluru and the permanent closure of the Climb.
Uluru was made under the sea, a vast inland sea, there and gone long before humans walked the earth. Layers of sand weighed down to form rock. One hundred million years under the sea; then the sea disappeared, and Uluru was flipped 90 degrees. Another 300 million years passed, and Uluru rose as the softer land around was worn down. That rock – that Anangu named Uluru – goes deep, perhaps another six kilometres down. The red is iron, rising up to coat Uluru’s scaly surface.
Western science tells this as Uluru’s creation story. Anangu tell it differently. The land was featureless, waiting for Anangu creation ancestors to emerge and travel across the land, shaping everything, making Uluru. Mutujulu holds the story of Kuniya the python. She leaves her eggs nested, a short way off. She dances across the landscape, over the rock, covering her body in ochre, enraged that the poisonous Liru snakemen have killed her nephew. Kuniya and a Liru man fight. Deep holes into the stony flesh of Uluru are the cuts inflicted.
Not just one story, like in western science. Anangu have myriad of creation stories here, each important, each ever-present. The Climb is the most sacred path, the route taken by the mala – the hare-wallaby men, when they carry their ceremonial pole to the top of Uluru. Or as Bill Harney, first ranger at Ayers Rock tells it, this side of the rock is the crouching body and tail of the first Malawaddi (kangaroo man), the headman at the ritual.
The rock is moving. Bill feels it shift beneath his feet. ‘Let’s take a break here,’ he puffs. The threesome, already far ahead, protest ‘Do we have to come back down?’
‘Just stay there,’ says Mary, ‘don’t go any further up ‘til Dad and I get there.’
Bill’s down, on his back, belly up, and pale, shuddering.
‘You ok honey?’ Mary asks, looking around, wondering how she’ll get help if she needs it.
‘It’s moving. The Rock’s moving. Can’t you feel it?’ he says.
Mary looks up to where the girls are perched, taking selfies and chattering. ‘Ok, you can keep going, but don’t go out of sight of us. Dad just needs a bit more of a break.’ She’s kneeling beside him, stroking his face, knees pressing into the hard scaly surface. The Rock is still again.
The three girls keep climbing, palms on the Rock, scrambling up, sometimes holding out a hand to Tina, the youngest. They stop again, hearing their Mum’s voice calling out, but her words are lost to the breeze. They swing on the chain, sitting for a bit.
‘I thought I saw someone or something up ahead, didn’t you?’ Sarah the oldest, asks.
‘Nup’ says Kate, the middle one, ‘but why is there no-one else up here – no-one going up or down?’
‘Dunno’ says Sarah, ‘let’s keep going, Mum can still see us.’ She looks down the slope. ‘Dad’s sitting up again … they’ll catch us up soon. This whole thing is wrong, but now we’re doing it let’s get the grossest selfies at the top!’
Bill clambers to his feet, leaning on Mary. ‘I’m good. No problems. Just a bit faint, maybe it’s the heat.’
Mary’s still worried. ‘It’s not hot Bill,’ she says.
They walk on. Bill’s lost in thought. What just happened to me? Is my heart about to give out? Or did the rock really move? Fear rises up from his gut. I’ll be right – I don’t want to disappoint the girls. That Sarah is turning into such a smart-arse teenager – she’s a real pain. Mary copes better than me with all her lectures: she just has to be right all the damn time. I hope we are doing the right thing by climbing – I don’t want to die here.
Clouds are gathering. Rain wasn’t predicted, but anything can happen out here in the desert. Rain on the Rock is rare, a special treat.
They continue to climb. Two groups. The girls ahead, then Bill and Mary, slower and well behind. The clouds drop down, misting the summit. The girls disappear, their voices echoing down to their struggling parents.
The year is 1955, it’s October and every day is sunshine. Bob and Betty are on their honeymoon, newly married lovers. Behind their Holden is a tiny caravan, and they are on the journey of a lifetime, up the centre to Ayers Rock, then north to Darwin and then to Queensland before heading home to East Bentleigh. After six months of newly wedded bliss, Bob got time off work. And so here they are in the middle of Australia probably the first people from East Bentleigh to visit the Rock, that’s what Bob reckons anyway.
They are at the Rock courtesy of Len Tuitt – mailman turned entrepreneur – he’s taking people down to the Rock in VW Kombis. Heading out of Alice Springs it takes two days on a rough track for the 280 miles to the Rock. They thought their little ‘van would make it, but the track defeated them, so they left it at one of the pastoral stations and squeezed into the Kombi, with eight other passengers; more than a full load but extra hands are useful if they got sand-bogged.
They camp under the stars, close to the flank of the mighty Rock, and climb up the next day, marvelling at the view of flat vastness around them. And with Tuitt, they visit caves tucked under the edge of the Rock, peering in at paintings in reds, whites and yellows. And on the shady side of the Rock – at Maggie Springs – Betty feels a quickening, the flutter of her first and only pregnancy – her body deep and cool in the waters at Mutujulu.
Dusk is falling. Our family is still somewhere on the Rock, the last climbers of the day. The reporter and cameraman have left to file their story. The park gates will close at sunset. Tonight, there are no ‘champagne and sunset’ tours, no dinners under the stars. Park staff, fearing protests at the Climb on the last day, cancelled the after-dark activities. The Anangu ceremony will mark dawn, at 5.25am, with the official party, again led by the Governor-General, arriving a little later.
Wanampi is stirring, mythic ancestral snake, guardian of a waterhole high up in the Mutujulu gorge. The water is rising, pouring down the gorge, flooding the viewing area, swirling across the carefully laid paths, pushing at the interpretation signs, and caressing its way into the painted-up caves.
Mutujulu, on the dark side of the Rock, the place where Kuniya and Liru battled – woma python woman and poisonous snake man – is flooded. The Dreaming is not past, it is ever-present. Kuniya, the victor, is still here. She is rising too.
Dawn slips over the horizon, lightening the sky. This morning there is only silence. The water has gone, the Rock has gone. The family is nested in the red sand, deeply asleep, curled protectively around each other. What do they dream?
Anangu heard Wanampi in the night. Sitting in the deep sinuous groove left by the snake, they sing the Rock back into the world, out of the belly of the snake.
The Rock is like a new-born, its skin unmarked by a century of climbing, the chain is gone, the painted lines gone, the stains of tourists’ disrespect has vanished. For a moment it looks like a snake curled tight, with a big belly bulge. Then, it is Uluru again, glowing red, greeting the morning sun as it has for millennia.
Warmed by the sun, the last climbers stir. Awakening from dreams, raw and naked, they cling together. Bill struggles to find words, to comfort his family. But no words come. He is struck dumb. He shudders. The terror of the snake’s mouth is still within him. A homecoming meant for him alone.
Sarah, resilient and worldly-wise, stands stretching sunwards. She utters her contempt: ‘I told you climbing was a bad idea.’
Later, the official party arrives, media helicopters spin around Uluru, cameras click and flash, and the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara language fills the air. Important words are spoken, a sacred place celebrated. There will be no more climbers.