Ayers Rock (Australia)

Jan-97

By: Gary Craig


There are a few natural features in the world which are recognizable even to those who spend little time hiking or climbing: Half Dome, the Matterhorn, and the like. Ayers Rock in the Northern Territory of central Australia may fall into this category. In January 1997 I had the opportunity to climb "Uluru" (as it is known to the Aboriginal people) and to spend some time in the surrounding area.

Uluru is located in the remote south-west corner of the Northern Territory, roughly in the center of the Australian continent. The area surrounding the Rock and the nearby Olgas is all part of Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park, which is administered jointly by the Australian government and the Aboriginal community. The nearest town of any size is Alice Springs (pop. 10,000), which is about 275 miles away via a well paved, but two-lane, road. I spent three weeks working in "the Alice" courtesy of my employer and got to know the town pretty well. It's a "full-service" community with a variety of good restaurants and lodging, 24-hour grocery stores, fast food, video rentals, and even a casino. There are many possibilities for hiking, biking, and the like in the area; my "Lonely Planet" guidebook to Australia describes many options. A number of companies operate tour buses to both nearby and remote destinations. I visited Ayers Rock on a weekend tour with the AAT/Kings company, which is a first-class operation (with prices to match that I heartily recommend.

Uluru itself has been a tourist destination for several decades. A tacky collection of motels popped up around the base of the rock in the 60's and 70's: most of these have been removed or ceded to the Aboriginal community. Roughly 500,000 people visit Uluru every year now; they (we) are well serviced by the new village of Yulara, just outside the park boundary. Yulara has everything from a campground to a four-star hotel, its own airport (non-stop Jets to major cities), a small selection of restaurants (no fast food), souvenir shops, and a grocery store. Yulara is actually about 10 miles from the rock: it was designed to be unobtrusive. None of the buildings there exceed three stories and all have a low-key "natural" architecture. Everything you buy there is expensive.

Ayers Rock itself is a rusty-brown conglomerate mass rising 1141 feet from the pancake-flat desert. The summit elevation is 2844 feet. It is thought that two-thirds of the volume of the Rock lies underground. Most are familiar with the "light show" put on by the rock at sunrise and sunset, as it takes on various shades of red, pink, orange, and purple, to the delight of anyone nearby with a camera, which is just about everybody. Special parking lots are set up to handle the traffic at the prime viewing spots.

Many people come to climb the rock. It would be politically incorrect of me if I did not mention that the local Aboriginal community strongly discourages everyone from climbing. Ulura is of strong cultural significance to them, and the sole "legal" climbing route passes near some sacred sites. However. economics reigns supreme over culture; park officials know that many people would not visit the park if the climb was closed. I, along with several hundred other tourists from all parts, chose to climb. and chose January 19th as the day to do it.

The first half of the climb is reminiscent of hiking Half Dome. A cable attached to posts provides hand-holds to haul oneself up a steep rock face. I found the cable to be unnecessary; the angle is not quite as steep as the Half Dome cable route, and the rock surface provides excellent friction. However, extreme carelessness could easily be fatal here. A few people die while climbing every year: about half from falling, and half from heart attacks. The most recent I heard about was a man who had his hat blow off and he chased it over the edge. The cable ends after gaining 600 feet or so, the rest the climb eases onto the mostly flat top of the rock. The entire route is marked and about a mile long, and will take the average Joe about an hour, one way. The average DPS'er will go much faster, no doubt - I took under 40 minutes. The record is (unbelievably) about thirteen minutes, set by some marathon runner from New Zealand. A small stone monument with a plaque pointing out nearby landmarks marks the summit. The view from the top can reach 100 miles on a clear day.

The surrounding desert looks nothing like the Mojave. Instead, it is FLAT and RED. Here and there, such as the McDonnell Range near Alice Springs, there are a few mountains about, but mostly the Australian outback is dead flat. The soil is very sandy and generally a rusty orange color. There are no cacti to be found, but this stuff called Spinifex grass is just as nasty. There is little rain (the Alice gets about 8 inches per year) but the outback desert supports a variety of decent-sized trees, such as various eucalyptus and the desert oak. During the time of year I visited (January), this area can be *really* hot (southern hemisphere, remember!) - easily over 100 degrees. One evening after work I remember it was 90 at midnight. On days when the forecast high is over 100, the climbing route on Ayers Rock is closed from 10am to 4pm. Winter days (June, July) are quite comfortable with highs around 70 but occasionally below 40 at night.

This is not the cheapest hiking trip you will ever go on. Round-trip, bargain-basement airfare (for 1) from LA. via Sydney, to Ayers Rock or the Alice will run about $1500. This is mostly because it is about 8400 miles in a straight line from LA to either destination. If it weren't for this gross disregard of the 500 mile limit. Ayers Rock would make a fine addition to the DPS List.


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