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Sooner or later, the call of the wild is going to happen – even for this city slicker, accustomed to corner cafés and late-night shopping. The desire to escape the concrete jungle, don loose-fitting clothing and thongs and be sprinkled in red dust will eventually kick in with vigour.
And, for such a getaway, the Northern Territory’s Red Centre is the place to do it, brimming with cavernous gorges, boundless deserts and remote Aboriginal communities.
Here, there are also two things you absolutely can’t miss – Uluru and Alice Springs by night.
A trip to the Outback is not complete without seeing Uluru.
Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it’s also known, is a large sandstone rock formation in Northern Territory’s south, part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The World Heritage-listed site is sacred to the area’s Aboriginal people, the Anangu.
Mention you’re visiting the big rock and the inevitable question from family and friends will be: “Are you going to climb it?”
The Australian government has deferred a long-term decision to ban people from climbing the Aussie icon, but visitors can still climb it for several years to come. However, the Aboriginal community and environmentalists would prefer you didn’t. Hence, why when we pulled into the national park, we received an entry ticket reading: “Please don’t climb Uluru.”
Before arriving, relatives had egged us on to climb it, saying it would be the experience of a lifetime. But a friend also said she’d chosen not to when she’d visited, because it hadn’t felt right. For myself and my travelling companion, we were indifferent – it would be a case of wait-and-see.
Still, seeing the 346 metre-high rock up-close for the first time was definitely inspiring. Postcards really don’t do Uluru justice. I was quite unprepared for its majestic presence as the sunlight set it ablaze. The red-orange hue, the age-worn texture, the sheer size. It felt mystical; moving.
After getting snap-happy, we discovered the climb was actually closed due to strong winds at the summit, making up our minds momentarily about whether to climb it. So instead we decided to go for a walk around the base. And it was fascinating to see the rock’s unique features so close, including its caves, water holes and ancient paintings.
Along the way, we noticed a park sign, which further warned about the climb: “We have a responsibility to teach and safeguard visitors to our land. The climb is dangerous and too many people have died while attempting to climb Uluru. Many others have been injured while climbing. We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land.”
We also witnessed the memorial plaques at the base − a chilling reminder of the 36 deaths that have been recorded on the steep climb (including a man in April, 2010, who collapsed on the way down − the first climbing fatality since 2000).
When we returned from our meandering, we discovered the climb had been opened up again. And, for some reason, despite the earlier warnings – the climber deaths and the sacred significance − we still felt compelled to attempt heading uphill and christening our hiking boots.
Besides, there were plenty of other brightly-clad climbers, laden with backpacks, merrily making their way up the rock – and one young girl, who barely looked 10, making her way down on her bottom. It suddenly felt significant. Like we could be part of history.
So, we did it – we took a few tentative steps up the monolith. And then, soon found ourselves clinging to a few smaller rocks at the side, just looking up at the vast cliff-side stretching upwards before we’d even reached a handrail. The thought of having to get to the top and then come back down again frightened us no end. So, two minutes in, we gave up, forgoing the experience altogether. Also, admittedly, relieved – like it was the right thing to do.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management have devised a plan which outlines that the Uluru climb will eventually one day be replaced with new visitor experiences.
In the end, we weren’t among the 100,000+ people who climb the rock every year against the wishes of the traditional owners. But, as we found, visiting Uluru was still a moving experience – climb not included.