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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Uluru: at the heart of Australia

There are some places that just feel intrinsically special. For me - and very many others - Uluru is such a place. Sometimes when we finally visit a place that we've heard about for so long, the reality doesn't quite match the myth that we've imagined. I steeled myself for Uluru to be like that the first time I visited it, but when the moment came the opposite was true - it was, and is, beyond anything I could have conceived. The vast mass of sandstone looms from the desert, itself a remarkable experience, and something in my heart responds.
From the distance when we first see Uluru by climbing a dune near the Lasseter Highway the rock seems
fairly featureless, but this is an artefact of the distance - we are still tens of kilometres away.
From closer, as in this photo, though still many kilometres distant, the complexity of the monolith becomes obvious.
The red dune on the right is typical of the desert country of central Australia.
Mere numbers don't reflect the sheer vastness of the rock; soaring 385 metres above the desert, three kilometres long and two kilometres wide at its widest point, ten kilometres around. And, like a desert iceberg, most of it is hidden under the sands. Close up the apparently smooth monolith actually contains canyons with rockpools, caves and deeply incised erosion scars.

Uluru is not alone on the plains. Within sight to the west, 25km away, are the domes of Kata Tjuta (for a while known as the Olgas, as Uluru was known as Ayer's Rock); both are part of Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park. 
Kata Tjuta at sunrise, from Uluru.
Despite the different formation and base material (Kata Tjuta is comprised of coarse conglomerates, where the sandstones of Uluru are much finer), they formed at about the same time, some 500 million years ago, from material washing across the plains from mighty eroding mountain ranges to the west and south, though in different alluvial fans. Buried deeply, eventually they became compressed into solid rock, in time forced to the surface by movements in the earth's crust.

Ninety kilometres to the east is Atila (more usually known at Mount Conner); nearly everyone coming to Uluru comes by the Lasseter Highway which passes by Atila, and more than a few think they've found Uluru when they see it. 
Atila from the highway. Unlike the other two mighty rocks it is is on private land and can only be visited
with a contracted tour company; the quality of their guides is unfortunately very much a matter of pot luck.
The three rocks are in a straight line and it used to be supposed that they formed during the same geological event, from the eroding mountain ranges, but sadly for a good story it seems that Atila is much older than the other two, formed by erosion of the surrounding beds as the hard cap just visible in the hazy photo above protected the underlying layers.

The Anangu, as the Pitjantjatjara- and Yankunytjatjara-speaking people refer to themselves (don't panic, just take the names a syllable at a time!), have lived in the centre for tens of thousands of years. To them Uluru is an immensely significant place - 'sacred' would probably be the closest we have to it. It's not my place to tell the stories of a living culture that I can never really understand, but if you're interested there are many of the Anangu Uluru stories on the web, many of them approved by the traditional owners. Other stories cannot be told to outsiders; many of them are restricted to one gender and they will not risk their own men or women seeing stories forbidden to them.
Desert Oak Allocasuarina decaisneana in front of Uluru at sunset.
Europeans arrived to run stock (at rates of one beast to tens of square kilometres) in the late 19th century and the conflicts that characterised the arrival of Europeans in occupied lands throughout Australia ensued. 'Aboriginal Reserves' were set up in the early 1920s to protect the desert people - generally of course on lands not required for other purposes. Indeed in 1958 the 'Ayers Rock - Mount Olga National Park' was excised from the Petermann Aboriginal Reserve to meet growing tourist demands. 

This tourism is a remarkable story in itself; the first visitors arrived at the rock in 1936, twelve years before the first road was built! Tour bus services began soon afterwards; the facilities would be regarded as remarkably primitive today, but people came in numbers. By 1959, just a year after the park declaration, motels at the very foot of the rock, and an airstrip, were being constructed. Already by the early 1970s however, concerns of the Anangu were being heard and plans were in place to removed all accommodation from the immediate vicinity of the rock. The modern town of Yulara, 15km away, was planned to meet tourism needs and the rock-side motels and camp ground had closed by 1984. 
Hawkmoth caterpillar, Family Sphingidae, base of Uluru.

The following year the Australian Government handed back the whole area to the Anangu, but with the condition that they immediately leased it back to the government to be run, in close consultation with them, as a national park. Prime Minister Bob Hawke had promised to abide by a 10-point plan drawn up by the Anangu; these included a ban on climbing the rock, in line with traditional beliefs, but when the lease was signed, this promise was broken. I can't discuss Uluru without mentioning the ongoing controversy over climbing, but I'll come back to that later. In 1987 the park was listed as a World Heritage site.

Many of us first see the rock properly with the sun setting on it - there are extensive dedicated viewing areas for the purpose. One of the extraordinary aspects is how rapidly the colours change; the following series (and I could have imposed many more on you!) was taken over 33 minutes, some only a couple of minutes apart. The red incidentally is due to the iron-bearing minerals in the rock; at the surface they are oxidising (rusting in effect), while within, as seen in some newly-exposed cave surfaces, the rock is grey.
28 minutes before sunset; this is pretty much the colour it appears during the day.

14 minutes to sunset; the colour is intensifying.

Nine minutes to go.

Six minutes to sunset.

The shadow of the horizon is starting to climb up the rock, as the sun slips from sight.

Five minutes after sunset.
At the same time, don't forget to look over your shoulder as the sun sets behind Kata Tjuta too!
Kata Tjuta domes in silhouette (above), and seen
through flowering Spinifex grass Triodia sp. (below) from the Uluru viewing area.
(Both photos taken on the same evening, but a different one from the Uluru series above.)

Sunrise is equally spectacular, but you don't need to see a series for that too!

The sun appearing behind the Desert Oaks (above) and beginning
to warm the rock (below).

I am surprised how few photos I actually have of details of the rock, though I've walked and driven around it several times. Perhaps I've been too busy being enthralled to remember to take shots, though there is also the issue that we're asked not to take pictures in some sections of the walk - again because of the risk that Anangu men or women might inadvertently thereby see things they ought not see.
Tumbled rocks fallen from the slopes.

Crevice in the rock face.

In addition to the Desert Oaks, the major woodland tree is Mulga Acacia aneura - which in fact dominates some 20% of the Australian landscape.
Mulga flowers.
Eremophilas (the 'desert lovers') are among my favourite plant groups, not least because of their tough arid habitats; there's an entire posting on them coming up. And there are some at Uluru, as there are seemingly everywhere inland.
Berrigan, or Long-leaf Emubush E. longifolia, with Uluru as a backdrop.
('Emubush' because of an apparently erroneous belief that the seeds need to pass through an emu to germinate.)

Wills' Desert Fuchsia E. willsii. Fuchsia for a supposed resemblance to the unrelated South American
genus, and Wills for William Wills, who perished with nearly all his comrades on the infamously
badly-planned and led Burke and Wills expedition in 1861.
Again I have remarkably few animal photos from the rock; they are of course present, but are often kept at a distance by noisy tourist groups, and are often familiar species which tend not to draw too much attention from the rock itself. One of the most striking residents is the Black-breasted Buzzard Hamirostra melanosteron, a large raptor of the arid inland. It is the only member of the genus which, far from being related to the true buzzards, may well prove to be a member of an ancient southern sub-group of raptors. 
Black-breasted Buzzard pair at nest near Uluru.
Each year, inexplicably to many of us, thousands of visitors climb the rock, using chains attached to poles hammered into the rock face by a private operator in the early days of the park before there was control over such activities. Many more thousands do not. One very good reason not to do is in the conspicuous sign at the start of the walk. ‘Our traditional law teaches us the proper way to behave. We ask you to respect our law by not climbing Uluru. What visitors call the climb is the traditional route taken by our traditional Mala men on their arrival at Uluru in the creation time. It has great spiritual significance.’ Pretty clear you might say, but many don't see it that way. Anecdotally those who choose to disrespect the wishes of the traditional owners are likely to be Australians who see it as their 'right', though some tourist operators bringing overseas visitors also encourage their clients to do so. 
Part of the climb; the erosion in the rock face alongside the chain is evident.
The steepness of the climb is here evident. Over 30 people have died climbing the rock, most from heart attacks.
The traditional owners feel a responsibility for those deaths, despite asking people to desist.
You can read some people's reasons for ignoring the pleas here and here, but in reality any arguments seem to me irrelevant - it's a matter of the respect due to a host by a guest. Legally and ethically we are on Anangu land and should be bound by courtesy. If I am invited into a stranger's house and they say "this furniture is very old and of great significance to us; we would be grateful if your children didn't climb on it", I would not be interpreting this to mean we could choose to do so anyway, simply because the residents were too polite to ban it outright. And then there is the more specific question of religious respect - it is no secret that I don't share any religious beliefs, but if I choose to take myself to a place of religious significance to somebody else, be it a cathedral or mosque or Uluru, it behoves me to treat it with appropriate courtesy.  

So why don't the Anangu simply ban the climbing? At one level, it's simply not their way of doing things; they prefer to leave it to a guest's sense of decency and, again, respect. At another level it seems that, under the terms of the 1985 lease, they can't do so; only the Federal Government can do that, and successive governments have refused to do so, fearing an electoral backlash perhaps, or maybe for ideological reasons.

In 2010 the new management plan stated that "for visitor safety, cultural and environmental reasons the director and the board will work towards closure of the climb". The criteria that would provide a trigger for permanent closure (any one of them would be sufficient) are when:     
* the board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been successfully established, or
* the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent, or
* the cultural and natural experiences on offer are the critical factors when visitors make their decision to visit the park.
The first and third seem to imply that a significant number of people only go there to climb (and of course that this should be of over-riding significance), but surveys suggest that only 2% of visitors say they wouldn't go there if they couldn't climb. I would also suggest that the associated publicity would draw at least that number of extra, sympathetic, travellers.

As for the '20% of visitors who climb' criterion, it seems that the number had dropped to that some years ago, and remains at the threshold level, but actual numbers are suspiciously hard to obtain, though no-one is challenging the assertion. So it comes back to politics. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced, with no justification offered for yet again ignoring both the management plan and the wishes of the Anangu, that there are "no plans to change current arrangements".

All I can say is, when you visit wonderful Uluru, and please believe me that you must, please don't climb. (Though I realise that anyone who chooses to snub the pleas of the traditional owners are not going to be swayed by me!).

However I don't want to end this piece on one of the most wonderful places on the planet on such a sour note. I have an abiding mind-image of a Black-breasted Buzzard gliding along the mighty red rock face, which I suspect might be one of the last images to fade from my mind when the time comes. Please go as soon as you can; you'll be richer for it.
Black-breasted Buzzard over Uluru.


Sybil Free said...

Thanks for this article Ian. Your words and pictures brought to mind the memories and images I remember from this wonderful place first seen in 1971 and later in the 90's. Needless to say I did not climb.
Sybil Free

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for this Sybil; I'm glad to help bring back good memories. I'd have liked to see it 45 years ago, it must have been quite an adventure then.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post on "The Rock" Ian - agree with all said including climbing. I was first there in 1975 and then made a return visit in 2015 to show our daughter this amazing and iconic place. The changes over 40 years needless to say are enormous and the tourism is now huge. I accept these changes as inevitable and necessary if people in large numbers are going to see and enjoy Uluru however the change that really horrified me was the invasion of buffel grass around the foot of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. A shame that a heritage site of this significance has suffered environmental damage due to an invasive weed.

Any of your readers not familiar with this weed might like to check this link out: http://www.alicespringsdesertpark.com.au/kids/nature/plants/buffel.shtml

John Hutchison

Ian Fraser said...

Hello John and thanks for taking the time and trouble to comment - I always appreciate that. Again (as I said to Sybil above) I'd have liked to see it 40 years ago and to have been able to monitor the changes since. You're right - the Buffel is a horrifying part of the Centre (and the tropics these days) and I was probably remiss in not mentioning it. I have no idea what we can do about this one, especially as the pastoral industry doesn't see it as a problem. Thanks for offering my readers this link.

Kath Holtzapffel said...

I was at the Rock (not Uluru in those days) in 1960 when Bill Harney was still alive and we actually met him. We had no idea of indigenous sensibilities about climbing and, being a bushwalking group, scaled it before any chains were installed. The top was fascinating, not at all flat, with deep depressions and some water pooling. But I found the Olgas (as they were then) even more outstanding. We had a couple of slower people and were late getting back to the bus and the sun set on the rock as we walked turning it a glowing red. It would have been worth being out all night to experience that. We camped each night from Brisbane back to Brisbane, for 3 weeks, and I think my jeans stood up unaided by the time we got home. Walking around the rock was fascinating too with the waterhole and the sort of huge slab separating from the rock. And the conglomerate nature of the rock was marvellous.

Ian Fraser said...

Wow, I'm impressed Kath. It must have been SUCH an adventure then. My dad was a huge fan of Bill Harney (though unlike you he never actually met him) and I grew up with his books. I agree with you re Kata Tjuta/Olgas, and I'll be posting on them in the not too distant future. Thanks for taking the trouble to visit here, and for your very interesting comments.