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Retrace 1996: Yulara (Ayers Rock)
Thursday 26th September 1996 2:30pm
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A very hot day. At the moment it is just too hot to do anything but sit in the shade in the Yulara camping ground. Bonnie is taking perpetual showers, Emily is beside the pool and Jack is ranging around.

The day began before dawn after a restless night. I walked off towards the hill near the Olgas not really knowing if it was near or far. It turned out to be of the same material as the Olgas and obviously part of their general formation. There were some interesting boulders made of the same 'plum pudding'. It was much higher than I thought. By the time I reached the summit the sun was just breaking through the Olgas - a fabulous sight with an equally wonderful view of the surrounding country which was flat all round for miles and miles, although some other ranges were visible in the distance. Just as I arrived on the top, a euro bounded away and stopped not too far off. I could hear my father's journal voice saying what an easy shot it would be.

Looking north it seemed unlikely that he had indeed be able to see the Olgas from Mount Peculiar. I felt that in some way I was looking at the Olgas with a view to climbing. What a pointless endeavour that would be - the son trying to match the father - for what? While thinking about the significance of all this I recalled a sonnet I had written to him in 1979 when Susan became pregnant with Emily. Interesting the way imagery enters the subconscious:

   				To My Father
			Like a host who is waiting for his uninvited guest,
			My seed now seems to have a purpose if its own.
			Some spirit being has come to rest
			In the sandless soil where I was sown.
			As the generations form a giant rock
			Which I through life am bound to climb
			And leave my heartbeat at the top.
			Buffeted by storms and calms that rage.
			Fear and self doubt come in gusts
			Perhaps these howl through every age
			To tear me from my grip; your trust.
			You are a ledge over which I strain to peek  
			As this child nudges at my feet.  

It seemed as though there was no need to prove anything in the physical world. With this realisation, the Olgas became simply a geological feature, best looked at from afar. I stood for a while, looking around at the sun hitting the various ranges and the long shadow of the Olgas inhaling itself. Very expansive.

By the time I found the camp again, everyone was up. So we packed up and went to Uluru to see if we could climb it before the Mala walk at 10 am. By the time we drove the 50 kms, there were coaches everywhere and the Minga (people like ants - us) were almost a solid line against the profile of the rock. We filled our water bottles and set off.

It was surprisingly steep and very hard on the calves. I was amazed that some people made it up and back at all. The Japanese all wore white gloves. All the way up, and down, there was an equally endless line of banter and good cheer. The chain was shiny with use and. I must say, I was very glad of it. About two thirds of the way up my hat blew off and over a cliff to the south. By the time I was at the end of the hard climb my head was starting to burn. Emily's knee continued to give her trouble but she was determined to make it, in spite of the pain. I think this was more to do with her experience of being one of the last people to climb the leaning tower of Pisa than with a need to prove she could do it. There seems to be so much anti climbing sentiment, that the climb will probably be stopped soon. Jack, of course, had shot up in front of us and was already on his way down when we reached the top of the chain.

I questioned as many people as I could about why they had come to central Australia and why they were climbing the rock. The most common answer was because it's there. One American woman said, very seriously, that the only reason she was climbing was so that she could get a T-shirt (I think there were T-shirts at the resort that bore the message I've climbed Ayers Rock). There was something refeshingly genuine about this statement. It came directly from her own culture, it was true and it implied self knowledge without sham.

There was also a significant number of quite elderly single people who said it was something they had always wanted to do. Some life event, husband, children, time, had prevented them from doing it, now they were free to realise such an ambition. There was definitely a hint of this liberation in their climb. Dreams fulfilled. But the question remains: Is there a significance which can be articulated? Most people seemed quite content with the statement that it was simply because the rock was there. Perhaps I'm expecting too much. They may be right and the most remarkable thing about the rock is that it is there.

The Mala walk was led by the ranger we had spoken to the day before. She was a very attractive anthropologist and gave the impression that she was privy to important secret information we could never know. The walk was around a fenced track to the east where there were some caves. It was interesting, in as far as it gave a glimpse of another layer of meaning or interpetation. The epic story which gave meaning to the various weathered features of the rock is an overlay or underlay to the meanings some people seem to be attributing to it. As an example, when I came down from the rock I was greeted by an old woman with rheumy eyes. She told me she had trained her dogs to talk to the lyre birds and that the lyre birds had told them (the dogs) that it was not a good thing to climb the rock. She went on to talk about world harmony etc. I would have listened to her more but I had no hat and she was probably mad.

The ranger said that the climb up the rock followed the old ceremonial/dreaming path. This was why the Aborigines did not want people to use it, as doing so did not show proper respect. This may be, but I saw no disrespect. However secular and crass the climb may be, it was an observance of something however hard to get at. The sadness was more that the areas of Anangu significance were effectively fenced off from their Aboriginal owners as much as from the tourist hourdes. If, after dark, ceremonies were performed, (there was no evidence of this) they must inevitably be debased.

We again visited the Aboriginal Cultural Centre a few miles back from the rock. It was really like a new age gift shop. A travesty of a place, representing a horrible debasement of kulture. Where, aboriginal culture was represented by women grinding seeds etc. which no one does any more except for the edification of tourists. Susan and I have been reflecting on how little aboriginal contact we have had on this trip. Apart from Craig at Wallace Rockhole we had barely made any contact. Of course, there is the opportunity to pay $100 a head for a cultural tour of some sort but we lack the will. The tours appear to concentrate on what might once have been, rather than what is going on now. I guess this is the price of being a tourist, effectively shut out from all contact with anything that is not a synthetic experience - from all that is real or even commonplace.

My hat, a speck on the face of Ayers Rock (Uluru)

Later, in the evening, I was pining for my hat. Susan and I drove back out to the rock to see if it had blown down. We drove past lines of buses at sunset viewing stations. Through the field glasses I could still see my hat up there as a speck on the cliff, in the company of other hats now. The sunset viewers were massing and for a moment we thought of joining them - more for the sight of the viewers than the sunset. But the thought and desire for a cold (expensive) beer quickly overcame us and we hardly looked back as the rock became just a backdrop - a visited feature.

We are again sleeping on a green swathe of lawn. Other campers are quietly talking and an Irish boy called Dave is rustling in his tent a few metres away. It is not a patch on last nights's camp west of the Olgas but at least we don't have to worry about being discovered by a ranger or the cultural police. The clouds are building up. The moon is full - a beautiful night.

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