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Enigmatic Uluru

Suvam Pal
Filed on November 22, 2019
The tantalising island mountain or the Ayers Rock

Climbing the Ayers Rock has been banned as a mark of respect to the Tjukurpa culture

On October 25, when the sun set beyond the horizon of the parched red earth and sunk through the silhouette of Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), the Ayers Rock or Uluru - the most iconic natural landmarks of Australia - was set for a new beginning. As the last rays of the sun gradually turned the majestic sandstone monolith crimson, the last batch of climbers descended, marking a new dawn for the magnificent mound. With the permanent ban on climbing the rock coming into effect from October 26, Uluru has witnessed a new chapter into its existence of over 500 million years.
My recent visit to the sandstone monolith - which got its distinct reddish colour due to the substantial presence of feldspar minerals in it - helped me understand the gravity of the landmark decision. Uluru is not a topographical splendour, it's an ethnographic enigma and it was enlightening to experience it up, close and personal.
Located in the heart of Australia, Uluru is isolated in the already sparsely populated continent. The nearest city is Alice Springs, situated around 450km away from the rock and is connected by a highway running through the arid outback.
Soon after our landing on the tiny airstrip at Ayers Rock Airport, situated about 15km from the rock, we were taken to the nearby Yulara town by a shuttle bus. This tiny town certainly does have resorts/retreats for its visitors, but unless you book a few months in advance, it would be almost impossible to find a place to stay within the rock's harsh surroundings.
My closest encounter with the grandiose rock, that stands lonely and tall in a dull and dreary desert landscape, began with an aboriginal guide taking our group closer to the massive monolith. Our bus meandered through the tar road towards the base of the rock as we were educated about the Anangu people - the original habitants of the land and the protectors of Uluru and its surroundings - and Tjukurpa, the unwritten and traditional law that has been the foundation of their culture and heritage. The entire Anangu ecosystem, where Uluru is the fulcrum, is governed by Tjukurpa, with its deep and complex meanings and interpretations.
The relationships among people, plants and animals, and physical features of the land are mostly showcased by Tjukurpa. And the ban on climbing the rock is, as per this aboriginal law of the land, religiously followed by the sons and daughters of the soil. The Anangu people believe that the fiercely-fought battle between Kuniya, a python woman, and Liru, the poisonous snake man, resulted in the creation of Uluru and its glorious ancestry.
Even though the sandstone monolith has been attracting climbers since 1950s, it's always been against the wishes of the Anangu people and their much-respected Tjukurpa. For Anangu people, the message has always been loud and clear, Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima, which means, "Please don't climb Uluru".
According to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta board of management, the governing body at the centre of the Northern Territory, there are primarily three reasons for not setting foot on the Uluru. As far as the Anangu people - the traditional owners of the place - are concerned, the rock and its surroundings are sacred and hence not meant for are climbing.
While being enlightened about the cultural aspects of the Uluru, we were taken to the base by our Anangu guide, MJ. According to MJ, over 35 people have lost their lives and many more have been injured while trying to make an ascent to the summit. "We, Anangu people, feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land," he said, explaining the physically demanding aspects of climbing. While appreciating the tantalising beauty of the inselberg or the "island mountain", known for changing colours at different times of the day and year, we were informed that people with any sort of illness should not attempt to climb the mound.
There are environmental issues, too. Uluru has been a victim of erosion and the footsteps of thousands of climbers over the past few decades have expedited the process at some parts. The metallic rims inserted on the surface of Uluru by early climbers to fix ropes along the trail to the summit are distinctly visible and are an eyesore to the pristine existence of the monolith. To add to the woes, the 'climbers' have been careless about dumping waste and this has resulted in an overall degeneration of the ecosystem of Uluru. Several water quality tests on the waterholes adjoining the monolith revealed high bacterial levels fed by runoff from the climb site.
While treading the Uluru base through the rugged terrain and the thorny bushes, showcasing an incredible range of flora and fauna, I learnt more about the unspoiled beauty of the aborigine culture and how their love for nature paved the way for the landmark decision to ban climbing.
wknd@khaleejtimes.com

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