Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The view from Mt Ayers

It is a shame, I think, that “Ayers Rock” took the running from “Mount Ayers” early on (1). As a mountain, Uluru – another double-edged name, as we shall see – sits and fits comfortably between nearby Mounts Olga and Conner. As a rock, however, Uluru is singular in both environs and size. One medium-sized (for the area) mountain thus is remade into an outsize (marsupial-) molehill, with, by implication, an anti-climactic summit. Which image is probably the only neat convergence ever of Indigenous and non-Indigenous understandings of Uluru. Apart from the fact of this re-scaling, and so mythologising, the divergence is swift – a place cluttered (if that is not too strong a word) with Indigenous meanings, but just one big, empty myth for we non-Indigenes: a Big Rock, Geddit?

There is still a lot to explore, despite the uniform emptiness, when it comes to white Australia’s Uluru fascination/myth. Let’s start with the obvious – Uluru’s shape is like a round-to-oval cake, albeit with a curved edge between top and side/s and side/s not quite vertical, right? The usual Uluru postcard view, looking from a few km north-west of the mountain, no doubt helps fuel this misapprehension, but I’ve been to Uluru (in December 1994), and was still none the wiser, until recently. An aerial view, and some other reading, then opened my eyes – Uluru ain’t no monolith, it you accept that this connotes a regularity, if not symmetry, in shape. It’s got a heavily scalloped “coastline” at its base, for starters, and the top and side/s divide is even more complicated, as we shall also see.

Charles Mountford likened the aerial outline of Uluru to a kite (2), and one can indeed see this diamond pattern – the bottom of the kite being the two long lines meeting at the eastern tip, and the top of the kite being the two shorter lines meeting at the western tip, aka “the climb”. A kite-shaped outline necessarily requires four corners, however, and I see even less chance of the “northern corner” (or right-hand tip of the kite) et al, entering the vernacular than “Mount Ayers”. From the ground (never mind, for now, from the summit), Uluru simply doesn’t have corners. Moreover, when approaching and at the rock it is hard to get a handle on the N-S, E-W orientation basics – I’m guessing that few visitors arriving by road even notice that the (only) road to the rock comes in from the north-west, almost the opposite direction to the lengthy easterly course that all Uluru-bound cars and buses (bar those arriving through Docker River, aka Kaltukatjara and Kikingkura) have taken from the Stuart Highway.

Personally, I prefer to see the aerial outline of Uluru as a map of Australia, with the four tips/corners being (clockwise from the north) Capes York, Howe, Leeuwin and Londonderry. This admittedly entails a host of geographical liberties, including the severe squishing of WA and a phantom peninsula where the Gulf of Carpentaria should be, but it is highly appropriate, of course, to my idea of the rock having a heavily scalloped “coastline”. In addition, Uluru’s pronounced vertical lines/grooves complement such an imaginary map, by running obediently north-south through it (in contrast to their northwest-southeast actual compass axis).

In any event, we need to shift now from rarefied overview to side- or usual-view – meaning, certainly, Uluru from the ground up, and perhaps also from the summit down (from a standing, not aerial perspective). It is probably no surprise that the Indigenous perspective of Uluru is particularly dense at and near ground level, and that conversely, non-Indigenous eyes seem to only pick up interest with increasing height above ground, as though the rock only becomes The Rock after unambiguously soaring above the plain.

The “climb” is one obvious example of non-Indigenous ground-o-phobia at Uluru, less well-known is the frequent importance, in Indigenous tellings of Uluru, of nearby freestanding boulders – mere rocks, says my reflex White scoff, not the rock. Which is precisely the Indigenous point, I suspect – The Rock is actually a rock among many, heavily tethered to its particular place on and among earth. The irony is that this is the only “coastline” in Australia not coveted, and probably not even seen, by non-Indigenous Australians. The supra-liminal, unambiguously Rock-y Rock above is all we come for – a whole lot of nothing, local Indigenous minds could safely say.

Which nicely brings us to the “climb” itself. On a conventional mountain, there is a “start” (or bottom) and a “summit”, with the bit in between usually not rating its own noun – “climb” is a verb, plus it’s generally a statement of the painfully obvious. At Uluru, these conventions are mostly reversed – and necessarily so, as anyone who has been to the “summit” of Uluru could attest (but for some reason very rarely do). For the record, the top of Uluru is not what you expect. There is no view, unless you were to make your way to one of the steep sides, and negotiating this would make the “climb” itself the equivalent of a walk in Melbourne’s Bourke St Mall. Picture crossing, from the “summit” cairn any which way you choose, a slightly concave, and so apparently endless, wilderness of skate-park half-pipes cobbled together, with occasional trees and shrubs growing within – I couldn’t conceive of a more perfect landscape for getting seriously freaked-out and/or lost in.

Perhaps I should have clarified before this point that I have done the “climb” (and then, it hardly needs to be added, got the hell back down). Author Barry Hill, after also confessing to the “climb”, suggests that there is a sort of Doing-everything-once plenary defence to the doing of the “climb” at Uluru specifically (3). If so, it’s not the excuse I’d prefer to plead, while recognising that some words in mitigation or apology seem obligatory. So here goes: it was summer, stinking hot (I had hardly slept a wink in my tent at Yulara the previous night) and an early morning hour or so of exercise, aka the “climb”, was a sort of compensatory treat for last night’s prostrate sweat-bath, and a whole day of too-hot-to-do-anything to come. Pathetic, yes – but I can honestly say I learnt something that morning, at least looking back 15 years later. Or maybe this is just me crawling back to the Barry Hill defence, the sneaky long way round.

Uluru’s summit has not quite been disposed of – we will return to it soon, only not via the “climb”. Before leaving the “climb”, it is worth noting that the start/bottom of is perhaps as vague as its summit. Not in the sense that you could possibly miss it, but in that few tourists notice (certainly not me at the time) just how singular a feature of the rock it actually is. Of the dozen or so peninsulas on the rock, it is the only one that, from aerial outline, breaks the trend-line. It juts north-west, in direct alignment with the grooves, far enough to be the rock’s western tip, yet little enough to be a barely discernable bump, much less one of the four corners, in the standard postcard view of Uluru (it’s about two-thirds of the way to the right).

The local Indigenous understanding of the “climb” is as an end-ramp for the mala (a small, now endangered wallaby, aka "marsupial rat") men, concluding their long journey from the West, by staging a big ceremony at what is now the rock. The non-Indigenous understanding is of a conveniently less-steep gradient than the rest of the rock, whose only significant orientation is “up”. Needless to say, this is not a journey. The first (and quite possibly also the last) non-Indigenous Australian to do what might be considered the appropriate approach to the “climb” – i.e. walk to Uluru from the far West (around the Gibson Desert) – was Ernest Giles, in April to June of 1874. Fittingly perhaps, Giles (who had rejoined his surviving party in the Rawlinson Range on 1 May) appears to have left well alone the very last leg of the mala men’s long journey (4). Giles’ nemesis William Gosse, definitely did the climb (in July 1873), however – in bare feet (5), for some reason.

Uluru – whole rock or rock-hole?

So far, I have largely (ahem) circled around Indigenous understandings of Uluru – deliberately so. As far as the “climb” specifically goes, I have drawn a long bow, or tail, as it were, by emphasising the mala men’s overall journey, not just its last stage at Uluru. The opposite end of this macro-geographic approach is to now focus on the rock and to ask whether there is an Indigenous “whole”, if not essence, of Uluru – something that can contain or cohere all the many Indigenous micro-understandings of places/features on and around Uluru. But rest assured, I have no intention of being encyclopaedic here – even if this were possible, it would be culturally inappropriate for me to attempt such an exercise. Instead, I want to highlight a single feature of Uluru, and to do so from an explicit “armchair” basis – comparing the treatment of this feature by three non-Indigenous authors. The reason why there is (perhaps) a connection between this single detail and Uluru as a whole is simple: the feature I will discuss is rock-hole, also called “Uluru”.

I am hopeful, but not certain, that the following discussion would not be considered culturally inappropriate by Indigenous owners or managers of Uluru (the rock, that is; to avoid confusion, I will henceforth call Uluru rock-hole exactly that). My reservations largely stem from two of the three authors – Bill Harney and Charles Mountford – being excoriated in recent decades for, among other things, revealing Indigenous secrets about Uluru. The third author – Barry Hill – is in fact one such critic, as well as a writer from a more enlightened time: his Uluru book was written in the early 1990s, while Harney’s was written in the early 1960s, and Mountford’s in the 1940s. Countering these reservations is the fact that Barry Hill’s Uluru book at least mentions, albeit briefly, Uluru rock-hole by name:

“[The ancestral serpent] is called Wanampi, and it guards the Uluru waterhole in the upper reaches of Mutitjulu gorge” (6).

In fact, neither Harney nor Mountford have much to add to this, as far as their glosses of Indigenous understandings of Uluru rock-hole go. Instead, the Uluru rock-hole story that I want to tell, while containing ample mystery, is a geographical one, at bottom (and top, and sides). Put simply: Where on the rock is Uluru rock-hole?

Barry Hill’s above-quoted location of it “in the upper reaches of Mutitjulu gorge” is a useful starting point for my armchair quest. There is no mistaking what is Mutitjulu gorge – the big indentation on the south side of the rock, as singular an indentation among lesser others as the “climb” peninsula is – apart from the fact that this gorge forks, one branch going north-west (exactly following the vertical grooves), while the other goes more or less straight north. More worrying about Hill’s approach, however, than which gorge-branch (after all, it has got to be one or the other) is his interpretation of Harney, who “put the serpent at the base of the rock . . . ‘in the valley of Uluru’” (7). Harney does not place Uluru rock-hole/valley at the base of the rock, as the caption to the picture facing p 81 (8) makes clear – it is about halfway up/down, as well as being definitely the “north” (right-hand, as you look from the south) fork of the gorge. Page 91 of Harney, which refers to the Wanampi serpent looking down on tourists, reinforces this. Barry Hill has for some reason assumed that a “valley” can only mean something at ground level, as opposed to a “gorge”, which can also have “upper reaches”.

This probably would be just pedantry on my part, were it not for Mountford also entering the fray, as it were. Whatever Harney’s faults in his dealings with Indigenous sacred knowledge were (and FWIW, Harney never climbed the rock (9)), Mountford was much, much worse. A handy barometer of Mountford’s attitudes is this:

“I decided to make the complete ascent, and get the matter of Uluru [rock-hole] over with, once and for all” (10).

Ah, so Uluru rock-hole is at or near the top of Uluru, or at least accessed by the top, you might think (as well as secretly hoping that Mountford didn’t get what he so badly wanted “over with” that day – in which case you’d be pleased that his Indigenous guide couldn’t find Uluru rock-hole on that day). Mountford appears adamant that Uluru rock-hole “is on the summit of Ayers Rock” (11), albeit somewhat paradoxically also being a “deep catchment” (ibid). Rather more paradoxically, he locates it on the “northern” (12) side of the summit (the opposite side to Hill’s and Harney’s Mutitjulu-gorge general area), yet his map (13) clearly locates it on the southern side, about 500m due east of Harney’s north-fork-of-the-gorge, about-halfway-up/down location. Several days later, Mountford does finally make it up and over the summit to what he is presumably told is the Uluru rock-hole (14). I will confidently speculate that it was no such thing – more so than because of the various contradictions in the rock-hole’s location is the fact that (as I can personally attest) there is no well-trodden path on the summit from top of the “climb” to what would surely be “the” rock-hole, were it on, or accessible from the summit.

And with that, we’ve gone full circle, I think.

Sidebar: Should the “climb” be banned?

One easy answer to this (provided that you have read the above exegesis) is that the rock ramp/peninsula that is also known as the “climb” be generally accepted as an extension of the summit, in which case going one metre up it from the ground will surely be sufficient summit for most (pedestrians journeying from the Gibson Desert possibly excepted). Sadly, while this makes perfect sense to me, because (i) the actual/“summit-iest” summit is comprehensively underwhelming, and (ii) up vs down on the rock is not as clear as you would assume without knowing the strange story of the Uluru rock-hole, I can’t really see it happening.

More drastic, but eminently justifiable IMO, is removing the posts and chains from the “climb”. These were apparently first installed in 1964 and extended in 1976. Charles Mountford (among many others, of course) climbed Uluru at least twice before/without the chains’ assistance. If others want to follow in Mountford’s footsteps and “get [it] over with, once and for all” – and I’m sure there always will be some, chains or not – then so be it; they will hopefully get what they expect, which is to say deserve. Certainly I did.

After climbing the rock in 1994, I was much taken, and chastened, by these words, on a display at Uluru ranger station, quoting a female Anangu (local Indigenous) elder on why tourists should not climb Uluru:

“Even if you don’t climb the rock, the chains will still be there”.


1. In his magnum opus, explorer Ernest Giles (who was narrowly beaten to the summit by fellow explorer William Gosse) concedes “[Gosse] named this Ayers’ Rock”, but then a few lines later deliberately slips this in: “Mount Olga is the more wonderful and grotesque, Mount Ayers the more ancient and sublime”. Australia Twice Traversed Vol 2 (1889) pp 61-62.

2. Charles Mountford, Brown Men and Red Sand (1967) Sun Books p 66.

3. Barry Hill, The Rock: Travelling to Uluru (1994) Allen & Unwin pp 96, 105.

4. Strictly speaking, Giles rode on horseback for more than half of this eastward journey from near present-day Patjarr, although he gets significant “walking” brownie points for staggering alone through the first 120 miles, aka the Gibson Desert, with no food and scant water (albeit this epic feat involved Giles doubling-back on his own outward (westward) tracks). On 9 June 1874, Giles and party camped at a “roomy cave” at the rock for three nights. His Australia Twice Traversed then ambiguously records of this time:

“Ayers’ Rock . . . stands with a perpendicular and totally inaccessible face at all points, except for one slope near the north-west end, and that at least is but a precarious climbing ground to a height of more than 1100 feet.” (Vol 2, p 61. Four nights after leaving the rock, Giles and party returned to camp there for a further nine nights, a length of stay whose reason was the butchering, smoking and boiling of a horse, for the onward journey back east: ibid pp 63-66.)

Ray Ericksen, Giles’ biographer, does not mention whether or not Giles climbed the rock (Ernest Giles: explorer and traveller (1978) William Heinemann p 178). Presumably, Giles’ original journals (of which Australia Twice Traversed is an edited summary) would definitively answer this question. Barry Hill notes that William Tietkins – Giles’ second-in-charge in 1874 – when leading his own exploring party in 1889: “was drawn to ‘improve the rock’, [but] did not climb it.” The Rock: Travelling to Uluru p 74. Incidentally (or perhaps not), Tietkins was also the also the first photographer of Uluru (ibid pp 72-75) – not that his 1889 Uluru photographs are what you probably would expect. In this unfamiliarity they have an important similarity to Gosse’s 1872 barely-recognisable, because of or despite its ample detailing, drawing of the southern tip of Uluru (ibid p 64).

5. I recall reading the bare-foot detail; but can’t find the reference.

6. Hill, The Rock: Travelling to Uluru p 132

7. Ibid.

8. Bill Harney, To Ayers Rock and Beyond (1969) Seal Books.

9. Although Harney once attempted the “climb”, getting about two-thirds of the way up: To Ayers Rock and Beyond pp102-3, c.f. 82.

10. Charles Mountford, Brown Men and Red Sand (1967) Sun Books p 72.

11. Ibid p 68; presumably “the enormous bowl-shaped depression high up on the rock” (ibid p 70) is something else.

12. Ibid p 73.

13. Ibid p 67.

14. Ibid pp 87-9. In Ayers Rock - Its people, their beliefs and their art (Pacific Books, 1971), Mountford writes:

"Previously [i.e. in Brown Men and Red Sand], my informants, not being Ayers Rock men . . . made a mistake in the identification of Uluru rockhole" (p 152, footnote 29). Editing note: this footnote amended 27/10/09).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

You know you’re getting old when . . .

- You put the wheelie bin out two days in advance, and collect it five minutes after the truck has been. Instead of vice versa.

- You no longer have the chronic disease of intermittent raging thirst, which compels you to the potentially life-saving step of carrying a full water bottle whenever you are more than 100m from a reliable water source. That’s the good news; the bad news is that, despite newly being able to go for whole hours without even a sip of water, you will have the frequent, intermittent but raging need to do a wee whenever you are out and about.

- You no longer casually cast five-cent pieces from your pocket into your proverbial or literal too-hard basket, but plot to spend them soon, like they are radioactive ticking bombs. Invariably, you will come up with the Noah’s Ark strategy – two by two they can be usefully expended, before their accumulation becomes a biblical flood.

However, I’m still yet to experience my episode of the seemingly compulsory middle-aged-man, silly-hat phase. I’m hoping that a mild, albeit grossly premature case of this phase in my twenties will be enough inoculation against it for a long while yet.

Happy 45th birthday to all us Winter of ’64 Xers.

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