Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Make climbing the Rock an initiation rite for every Australian
'Yeah, uh-uh, it's like, really ... hard ... work." The thin girl with stringy black hair is panting into the mobile that is her rod and staff in this heroic opposition to gravity. "But I ... gotta ... keep ... going." It's midday, too late for such exertion, even in winter. This is one hot rock.
Hot, and heated. Once it was, "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" Then "Did you inhale?" In the future, "Did you climb?" will be the question that deadens dinner parties and pulverises politicians. The PM neither confirms nor denies, leaving question open: did he climb Uluru?
Well, I climbed. May as well 'fess up now, though I see your face fall. Was it right? I'm not sure. Certainly, the signs say not to. But one thing I can affirm without fear of contradiction, obedience was never my strong point.
We make the Rock at sunset, just as that magical thing is starting to happen with the light. The road in, 200 kilometres of dead-end off the Stuart Highway, is long tamed by asphalt but the sense of adventure persists in the vast emptiness we've spent days traversing and the sudden, magnetic presence of the Rock.
(And to the country reader who, after my column on The Big Empty, took her prejudices for a run in calling me "one sad individual" with a "pathetic, myopic" view and a chardonnay-swilling habit, I offer two self-defensive points. I cannot have made it plain that terra vacua is, to me, a thing of perpetual and astonishing beauty. And I never sip chardonnay – or absinthe – past Glebe. Strictly a beer and scotch girl, me, when there's mud on my boots and dust under my bonnet.)
Uluru, as a true masterwork, evokes many things but is unlike any. It strikes me as strongly female, though not in the least feminine; scarred and cicatriced as the mythic mother.
It's not our geographic centre, that's 500 kilometres away. But it is implacably the centre of being, as though all Gondwana's is-ness had been rolled – over aeons, like a Rover Thomas painting – into this hyper-dense singularity, this great, protuberant outtie on the belly of the continent. I feel suddenly certain that, were I a pre-white Australian, I'd have organised existence around it. Were I a Victorian hymnist, this would have been my purple-headed mountain.
As to magnetism, I swear you can taste the iron in the air, like blood, as the compass needles dither. Even the landscape seems magnetised, a mass movement of desert she-oaks drawn hence like a mass of mop-headed disciples in some Dr Who time-warp. And the surface, like Cor-Ten steel, seems beetle-soft, velveted with rust, a vast, draped altar that collects the sunset in its folds then, in a few flame-bright moments as the sun drops in the slot, re-radiates it, before the slow indrawn purpling.
We line up, as you do, to watch it happen and to watch the watchers watch. The French girls snapping hundreds of squinting, solipsistic self-portraits. Moi avec Uluru. The fat American buried in a book while the tripod, set for 10-second time-lapse, does the seeing for her. The young couple with matching children and the old couple with matching chairs, backed onto the sunset like Henry Moore's King and Queen.
We see, perhaps choose to see, a touching deference in this touristic ritual, watching the light change. Also in the moonlit tranquillity of the campground, so hushed you hear the dingoes howl.
So it is with awe in our pockets that, post-dawn, we climb – much as you climb the Acropolis or the Harbour Bridge. It doesn't feel like disrespect. It feels like hard, working sacrament.
You'll see more lizards on the perimeter walk. But from the top you see anew. See how the spinifex, saltbush and she-oaks, even the vehicles arranged in reverent arcs around the base resolve themselves into the undulating rhythms of dot paintings.
You see deep drifts of rabbit poo (say what?) and St Christopher hung upon a branch. You see the plump pink family who cannot surmount the rock for a second without communicating it, loud and long, to their mobiles. Granny in Hobart, the bestie in Dunedoo. You see Mutitjulu, where John Howard's intervention began, and wonder what has happened since. (Quite a lot, actually.)
But it's not just elevating the viewpoint, though there's much to be said for that. It's also about engagement: white-black relations, like male-female, lose much to princess-and-prostitute syndrome. Every small-town museum recounts the local dreaming but outside black kids roam in gangs. We "respect" the Rock but still our army takes the children.
Both put-down and pedestal increase distance and its tyranny. Me, I'd make climbing the Rock an initiation rite for every Australian.
Keep the dotted white line, the absence of fuss. But ban the mobiles, the better to hear her speak.