I read that the average stay for tourists at Yulara was two days; just enough time to land, have dinner, climb Uluru in the morning, wander off to Kata Tjuta in the afternoon, enjoy a champagne sunset view of Uluru in the evening, and leave the next day. I think that this is rather sad. It takes away the true magnificence and appreciation of the area. How easy it now is to get a picture and leave without ever getting an understanding or any sense of place.
Imagine, if you will, walking across central Australia for weeks, months even, and seeing this thing rising up on the horizon like a ship on the ocean. It would have been a vague shadow initially, before gradually looming larger. It would have taken days from first sighting it, to reach this landmark. How awesome it would have been, watching the silhouette slowly increase in size, all the time wondering how big the hill in front of you actually was, before finally seeing it towering over you in its full glory, an orange rock contrasting with a bright blue sky. People now spend four hours on a plane, take a photo or two, and then leave. I think they are missing a vital part of the experience of visiting remote places, and the easier access becomes, the less people will appreciate what they are seeing. Those who drive there on the long highways at least get an idea of distance and feel a sense of achievement on arrival, those who would have walked in the past would have had an altogether more exciting experience.
I am reminded of a recent controversy in Tasmania where the State Government wanted to construct a sealed road into the Tarkine Wilderness. The Tarkine is a rugged and remote part of Tasmania, a wild area. It contains a magnificent temperate rainforest, wild rivers and many animals; it draws many hikers and adventurous travellers. It is a special part of Australia and the State Government wanted to build a sealed road through it.
For those of us who like the idea of strapping on a pack and heading off into the wild, there are becoming fewer places we can go. The idea that a road will carry people to within a stone’s throw of special places and will take away the tranquillity that they provide is disturbing – at least to me. A pleasant three-day hike to a waterfall where people can drive to a car park thirty minutes walk away loses its attraction very quickly. The hiker is met by the crowds of people that he or she wants to avoid. Hiking is about discovering somewhere surprising, about cresting a ridge and coming across a magnificent view that you did not know existed, or coming round a bend in the forest track and hearing the sound of an unknown waterfall. It is easy for a place, through incremental improvements in access, to become a snapshot experience, losing its texture and some of its meaning.
I hope governments are strong enough to leave some places for those with an adventurous spirit, places that require time and physical effort to reach. Just because we can get instant gratification, doesn’t mean that we should, and it doesn’t necessarily do us any good. Ease of access does not leave any lasting impression and it devalues places. It turns them into a souvenir source, a place to pick up a memento before jumping back into the coach or plane. There are plenty of these places already; we don’t need any more.
In addition to this, improving access to the Tarkine will bring with it more problems. Increasing visitor numbers will cause to be modified those very attractions that draw them in. There will be access requirements, possibly interpretative centres, and the need to restrict access to prevent the erosion large number of people can cause. These areas will be degraded by such access, they will become less than what they were, and perhaps this is unavoidable in the long run, but leaving access as a challenge reduces the need for modification. It assists in maintaining the integrity of the site.
And just as the less adventurous might not see the remote waterfall or mountain view, the hiker may not see the cathedral or museum. Both might find the journey to these places too hard or just not enjoyable, and that is fine. We should not be afraid of leaving some places as hard to reach. There are numerous places I haven’t been and, as I get older, the likelihood of me getting to them is decreasing. That is part of life. We live in a big world and we don’t have to see everything. I hope that when I become reliant on using roads to get places, that there are still places for the dedicated hiker to go where peace and quiet can be found. There are enough formerly wild places where access has been made easy and the experience has been diluted. It is unnecessary to have roads everywhere. The world will be a better place if it retains the mystery of the remote adventure.
Having said all that, I still took the road and arrived and arrived at the base of Uluru aware that the local Anangu people preferred tourists not to climb. This caused me some hesitation, but I climbed. It wasn’t that I felt the need to offend, but the line of people slowly making their way up was too much of a temptation. Perhaps I should have been stronger.
It is a hard climb. Uluru is very steep at its base and for much of the way up. A chain provides assistance to those climbing for a good length of the way. This is not a high climb by world standards, only a few hundred metres, but it has cost the lives of 35 people so far. Most of the deaths are the result of heart attacks hitting those not prepared for such a strenuous climb. I was fit, however the climb still took me over an hour, including many stops to catch my breath and let my thumping heart regain some normality. At the summit there is a book in which to sign your name. It was a little disappointing to have such a tacky egotistical feature in such a special place, but I may even have signed it nonetheless; my memory is hazy on this.
Not content with the climb, I wandered off to find a quiet place to appreciate the views. It seemed a little bit disrespectful to make the decision to climb and then not appreciate the place for what it actually was. I selected a secluded spot out of sight of the visitors’ book that provided me with a view towards Kata Tjuta. A small column of smoke rose in the distance, blown slightly northwards by a gentle breeze. The orange-tinged dunes and sparse washed out khaki vegetation stretched out before me for kilometres in all directions. There was nothing around here. I lay back and closed my eyes to enjoy the solitude beneath the clear and voluminous blue sky.
And then the first helicopter flew over. It made me jump.
A plane followed, doing a circuit of the rock for those who could afford to see Uluru from the air.
“Climb it you lazy bastards!” I yelled up at them.
As you can probably gather, I was rather upset at having my pleasant meditation interrupted. They buzzed around for what seemed like an eternity before leaving me in peace once again. However, half-an-hour later they were back to disturb my peace yet again. After two hours of alternate tranquillity and reverberating engine noise, I retreated back down to the base.
The next day I returned to walk around the bottom of Uluru. This is, in many ways, a far more rewarding experience than the climb. An Anangu guide escorted us for the morning walk, which must have been nearly ten kilometres, pointing out important features of ‘the Rock’ that related to traditional stories. There are both men and women’s stories for different parts of the rocks, and our male guide was not able to tell some of the women’s stories.
It was a captivating experience, particularly the visit to the Mutitjulu waterhole. The story goes that when the water level drops beneath a certain level, all of the waterholes further away are poison. This probably means that they have dried up. Mutitjulu is very sheltered; it would undoubtedly be rare, if unheard of, for it to dry up completely. I’m sure that during drought times the Anangu would have stayed close to Uluru and this water supply.
The waterhole is nestled into the base of the rock beneath a chain of plunge pools that cascade down from the top of Uluru. There is, apparently, a permanent waterhole on top, very small in area, but deep, enabling it to retain water through summer. We reached Mutitjulu about halfway through our walk, and by then I was getting a little weary of the group. I don’t generally like doing group events, it removes a bit of freedom from a travelling experience, so I took the opportunity to let the group wander out through the jumble of rocks and boulders that hide this jewel of Uluru. As their receding chatter gradually faded I could feel my muscles relaxing.
After a few minutes of sitting quietly, the sounds of small birds filtered down to my seat on a convenient rock and, as I looked up, they darted in and out of little crevices and between rocks, circling above me. They probably wondered whether I was going to start talking and disturb their peace, just as the aircraft had disturbed mine the previous day. I did nothing – just watched them fly, joyously soaring up through the air to their hidden roosts within the rocks and trees, and chatter to each other. This was peace. It was over all too soon; the rising hum of the next group coming to visit chased them back into their sanctuaries. With some reluctance, I pulled myself away and spent the next fifteen minutes walking briskly to catch up with my similarly chattering colleagues.
That experience over, I returned to Yulara for a beer, and then took an afternoon trip to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). These are like mini versions of Uluru, albeit with coarser gravels and rocks which have been weathered and eroded along lines of weakness, producing valleys between separate rock domes. Kata Tjuta’s large coarse particles are from the alluvial fan of a river, as are the less coarse sandstones of Uluru, which have now been tilted to be almost vertical. This is all evidence of the sea that existed here 500 million years ago. It was interesting to have a look at all these features and visualise the ancient landscape.
The Anangu have stories about creatures in the Dreamtime that shaped this place. The story of creation is Tjukurpa. It includes Kuniya (the woma python), Mala (the rufous hare-wallaby people), Kalaya (the emu), Luunpa (the kingfisher), Tjintirtjintirpa (the willie wagtail), Liru (the poisonous snake) and Lungkata (the blue-tongue lizard). Forgive my imagination, but despite my academic training and western upbringing, I prefer these stories to the geology; they have more texture and life, and bring the landscape alive in a far more attractive way.
After a pleasant hour or so clambering through the accessible gorges of Kata Tjuta it was time to go back to Yulara, via a stop to see Uluru at sunset. This is a classic tourist view and it is well worth enjoying despite the crowds. The changes in colour that accompany the dimming light are magical, the stillness of the warm air is serene and, as night falls, the landscape wraps itself around you like a soothing blanket. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to finish the day.
Despite my annoyance at the number of tourists at Uluru and the throw-away nature of the experience that is too often on offer, ‘The Rock’s’ magnificence could not be dulled. It is just awesome. Unlike some places that can be absolutely ruined by an influx of hordes of camera-wielding photo junkies, Uluru maintains its wonder. You can’t change the fact that it is an enormous features dwarfing all around it as it sits silent and proud in the landscape. I loved visiting it.