Uluru and Me: Swags, Summits and Moral Dilemmas

26/08/2011 - Jane McLellan

I remember the first time I saw Uluru. I had seen pictures of it when I was a little girl and had always wanted to see it for real, and when I finally did, I couldn’t draw my eyes way.

Uluru, otherwise known as Ayers Rock, is the largest rock monolith in the world sitting in the desert 440 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs.
It is a powerful, arresting sight standing there alone in the wild landscape and I couldn’t believe I was finally there.  In the late afternoon we drove to a secluded viewing area where we drank champagne and ate crisps whilst watching the sunset over Uluru. The colours changed dramatically as the sun disappeared below the horizon, fading from a series of deep reds to an ashy, unusual grey. It was a poignant, beautiful moment that I will always treasure.

Back at the camp we enjoyed a delicious barbecue around the fire. I was also able to experience something I’d always wanted to do; sleeping in a swag under the stars. A swag, for those of you who don’t know, is a type of traditional Australian bedding for outdoor sleeping – a bit like a heavy-duty sleeping bag made of a foam mattress and canvas. Despite the cold night, all snuggled up in my swag, I was toasty warm. We all laid out in our swags around the fire, gazing up at the stars, telling jokes and sharing travel stories.

Waking up early the next day before sunrise, we rolled up our swags, showered, ate a hearty breakfast and made our way back to Uluru. There are a number of options for exploring Uluru – you can choose to walk around it, climb it or simply just look at it from a distance, but I ended up doing all three.

Climbing Uluru is a controversial thing to do. I had quite a long debate with my own head about it. Deep down I really wanted to climb it, however I was aware of the reasons why I shouldn’t.  The rock is sacred to Aboriginals and they prefer you (and ask you) not to climb it. In order to make an informed decision about climbing Uluru, I thought it would be a good idea to visit the aboriginal cultural centre. I wanted to learn more about why the rock is so sacred to the local people.  The site of Uluru is part of the Aboriginal creation mythology, or the ‘dreamtime’ stories associated with the land and is of great significance to the Anangu people who are the site’s custodians.  As well as these cultural considerations I was also concerned with safety and how strenuous the climb would be.  In the end I decided to attempt the climb but it was not an easy decision.

When I arrived at Uluru, the climb was closed due to strong winds so I walked all the way around it instead. The rock formation is quite strange and differs all the way around and as the sun rose, the colours of the rock changed. It was spectacular to watch.

When I finished the 9km base walk we were told that the rock had just re-opened to climb. Despite my aching legs, I really wanted to climb up it so I changed into some shorts and started the ascent. The first part was almost vertical, making a very dangerous and difficult climb, not least after a 9km trek. I gripped onto the safety chain but it was still unbelievably exhausting. I consider myself to be fit, but as I climbed, my pulse soared and I was gasping for breath. But believe me, it was worth it. Reaching the summit, the views were out of this world. Walking on the top was like walking on a different planet and the 360-degree panorama was unforgettable.

It was a personal decision whether or not to climb Uluru. Looking back now, knowing more about the cultural issues, would I climb it? I am not sure. I think it is one of those decisions you have to make for yourself at the time. I certainly don’t regret it, but the enjoyment I felt was still tinged with guilt. At that moment, it felt right because it was what I really wanted to do, but if you do decide to climb Uluru these are decisions you will have to make for yourself, but one thing is certain – an encounter with Uluru is truly unforgettable!

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