Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Uluru and Kata Tjuta

Trying to say anything original about either Uluru (Ayers Rock) or Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) is beyond the scope of my impoverished imagination. Instead, I'll resort to that boring travelogue type blog post that has become all too common of late here at the Conspiracy Times. We arrived at Yulara, the purpose built resort town about 20 km from Uluru, mid morning and checked into the caravan park. We got the important stuff, food, coffee, a shower, out of the way and then drove over to Uluru. 
Apparently, back in the 1940's all the tourists camped right around near Uluru and there were also a few very primitive "hotels". At some point, visitor numbers grew quite large and there was considerable environmental damage near Uluru so the town was moved away from Uluru and built from the ground up in the new location. Which all seems very environmentally friendly until you realize that now thousands upon thousands of visitors are driving out and back from Yulara to Uluru and Kata Tjuta every day. Some visitors even make multiple trips to each site in one single day. That's a hell of a lot of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere and a hell of a lot of infrastructure (roads and car parks) is required. The really smart thing would be to shut the roads down to private cars and run a free shuttle bus that basically just circles about the town of Yulara and past all the major car-parks at Uluru and Kata Tjuta. In some USA National Parks (Zion and the Grand Canyon) the National Park runs a free shuttle bus service and it's awesome. 
Anyway, back to driving out to Uluru. Like all Australians, I've seen hundreds of pictures of Uluru and I can sing John Williamson's song (albeit off key) with the best Karioke singer, but, nothing quite prepares you for how big the thing is. I think it is something like 3.5 km long and 350 metres high, not massive by Canadian mountain standards, but, out in all that flat desert, Uluru doesn't just dominate the horizon, it is the horizon. It doesn't have to be sunrise or sunset to glow red either. Uluru glows red at all times of the day. 

When I got my first gander at the rock, I thought, "yeah, I gotta climb it." The traditional owners would really like people to stop climbing Uluru. They have a myriad of concerns not the least of which is the 35 deaths that have occurred while people have been climbing Uluru - although I suspect the true cause of most of those deaths is a surplus of pies and a dearth of exercise - not simply the experience of climbing the rock. Before arriving, I really thought I would respect the wishes of the traditional owners and be content to walk around the rock rather than climbing it, but, as soon as I saw Uluru, I was seized with a compulsion to walk to the summit. I'm not sure that isn't because, at heart, I'm a climber and I'm seized with a compulsion to climb anything tilted off horizontal. It could also be because of what avalanche professionals in Canada term "pent-up demand" which is when people go crazy skiing avalanche slopes when it first snows after a long dry period. Everyone has been waiting so long for new powder snow that their brains shut down. In the Red Centre, I feel like I have driven, walked and bicycled past so much incredible rock for climbing and only been able to climb a few pitches because climbing is banned almost everywhere. Yet, finally, at Uluru, climbing the rock, while definitely not encouraged, is not yet banned (I'm sure it will be sooner rather than later). Pent up demand overwhelmed any semblance of cultural sensitivity. 

There really is only one way to climb Uluru, and that is up a lower angle rib on the west side. A series of metal uprights strung together with heavy chain have been drilled into the rock as a handrail, but these start about 40 metres up the slab and end at the top of the rib. Beyond the rib, you are only about 2/3 of the way to the top and the remaining 1/3 includes some rather steep, albeit short, climbs. The rock in the vicinity of the chain hand-rail has been polished by thousands of feet, and is remarkably slippery in places. Doug went up in his sticky approach shoes (perfect choice), I, however, had only my crappy La Sportiva trail running shoes (which I have long lamented as having slippery soles) with me. My five tennies (super sticky approach shoes) were back in the caravan. Going up, however is pretty easy, as long as you don't have a fear of heights because the climb is rather exposed. 

 Kata Tjuta
We ambled up without using the handrail. A few folks were coming back down and many were really quite frightened. At the top of the rib, there is one last steep section with a handrail where the rock is shiny like a mirror from slipping feet. I hauled generously on the hand-rail here. The rest of the walk ambles up and down the ribs that lie vertically across the top of the rock. There are a few steep sections where hands are needed - I would rate some of the climb class 3/4 (YDS not Ewbank) - and, if you are not careful, your feet will slip but the exposure is very limited. On top, there is a view of Kata Tjuta further west, and to the south you can see South Australia's highest peak (Mt Woodroffe). Otherwise, it's all pretty flat. You don't really climb up Uluru for the view. 

We didn't hang around on the top. I had this awful discomfited feeling caused by the cognitive dissonance of believing myself a supporter of aboriginal rights and yet climbing one of their sacred sites. Coming back down, you can actually walk all the way down simply facing out with one hand near the rail in case of a slip, but, it does feel exposed and the greasy rock does not inspire that much confidence. Most people seem to descend hand over hand going backwards, but this looks super awkward. Part way down we encountered a young man wrapped about one of the railing posts. We encouraged him to descend as he was wearing only sandals was clearly discomfited by the exposure, was none too fit, and could easily get into trouble. He assured us that he was resting and would come down, so we left him behind. Truthfully, apart from talking him down the section with the railing, there is very little we could do to get him right to the bottom as the final fourty metres has no hand railing and there is no way one could offer any physical support without being belayed to something yourself.
A short distance below the gentleman wrapped about the support we encountered a large group of youth, most of whom had their eyes rolled back in their heads from fear. Again, we thought they should likely go down as again they were wrapped about the rails with white knuckles. Finally, at the bottom, an older out of shape looking couple quizzed us about the climb. We also encouraged them not to go. I'm not actually sure what compels people, who never walk anywhere, to set off up a rather steep intimating scramble (climbing up Uluru is really out of the realm of walking) when the last most strenuous thing they did was walking to the toilet block from their caravan. In any case, the human drama unfolding on the rib of Uluru was so compelling that it took a lot of mental energy to pull ourselves away and go down to the Cultural Centre. All night I kept wondering what had happened to the young man wrapped about the metal upright. Two days later when we returned to walk around the base he was no longer there so I can only assume he made it down. 
The next day we drove out to Kata Tjuta which is a 100 km return trip from Yulara - wouldn't that be great to do in a shuttle bus? This is another tightly regulated area. There are two main walks you are allowed to do (weather permitting), and, of course, we did them both. The Valley of the Winds walk is a 7.5 km circuit that travels over a couple of rock passes between the large conglomerate domes. This is a really nice walk, but, if you're a climber, you'll have soaked the front of your shirt with drool by the time you've finished as you look at the sheer number of quality climbs that could (in a parallel universe where climbing was socially accepted and bolts were allowed) be established on these domes. The rock is heavily featured with heucos, pockets, slopers, incuts, jugs, and pinches. Some of the domes rise over 500 metres above the surrounding plains and the rock is bomber solid. There are shady walls and sunny walls, walls sheltered from the prevailing wind, and walls exposed to cooling breezes. With smart development, you could climb here for a month and never do the same route twice. Won't happen though as you are not even allowed to walk off track. The other walk is a short 2.6 km jaunt up a narrow canyon between two massive domes (more climbing potential) and ends at a small lookout below the pass between the domes. 

Valley of the winds walk
Finally, on our last morning at Uluru, we walked around the base of the rock. This is another pleasant easy walk with a couple of side trips to waterholes. Most of the walk is close by the rock and there is lots to look at as there are interesting caves, mini-valleys in the rock, dry waterfalls, aboriginal art sites, and, of course, the big hulking red rock of Uluru itself. It was howling windy when we walked around and surprisingly cold. The summit climb was closed (and had been the previous day) due to wind which made me doubly glad we'd dashed up on our first day there. 
An hour later, we were in the car driving back to the Stuart Highway on our way south. As usual, we'd only been driving for about 40 minutes before we found the whole experience intolerable and were looking for an excuse to stop. We've got another 1,800 km or so until we arrive at our next major destination. At an hour a day, that shouldn't take too long, should it?

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