I’ve picked up a few travel tips which, as you know, I share with you here from time to time.
Like – it gets pretty steamy in the summer in Washington DC, but if you strip down to shorts and vest you can cool off in the blessedly chilled waters of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
And – want to get a great picture in St Paul’s Cathedral in London? If you lie on the High Altar, you can pan your camera right across the amazing gilded ceiling.
And if these sound like great tips, then wait till you get to Australia, where it’s possible to climb one of the most extraordinary natural sightseeing viewpoints on the planet.
Anyone see where I’m going with this?
I’m lucky enough to have been to Uluru twice. And both times, I didn’t climb.
Growing up, I knew it as Ayers Rock, which was what the Europeans called it, but for the traditional Aboriginal owners – the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people – this red-rock monolith is Uluru and it’s a sacred site. It’s part of their creation story, a living landscape at the heart of their culture, where the songlines of their ancestors and spirits came to form the cracks, colours, blemishes, caves and outcrops of the very rock itself.
Not that my first backpacker bus tour guide was much concerned by any of this.
After a glowing description of just how cool it was to climb the rock – and by cool, I also mean awesome, obviously – he added, “Of course, you don’t have to climb it if you don’t want to”, in a tone of voice that suggested you were an enormous Big Wuss if you were planning on missing out on this cool, awesome and indeed epic adventure.
I don’t suppose I’d thought much about it until this point. I’d been up the Eiffel Tower for the view and probably would have climbed Uluru, were it not for the simple – and inconvenient-to-many – fact that the people whose land it is don’t want you to.
These days, they say it right there, on their website, under ‘Things to do’ – Please don’t climb.
Back then, there was a sign by the start of the climb saying the same thing, and some information on leaflets that said the same thing again, only in more words.
So I didn’t climb.
Splashes of colour from desert wildflowers betrayed the hidden water courses that sustained the first Aboriginal people who found their way here, while birds of prey circled above the sheer walls. I kept in the shadows as the sun rose ever higher and listened to the peace – and occasional surprising wild noise – of an encircling, encompassing, timeless desert.
Meanwhile, above me, busloads of backpackers, day-trippers and coach tourists sweated and stumbled up the slippery rock in the already searing heat of an early morning.
By the time I visited again, a few years later, I’d had time to consider why – really why – I hadn’t climbed.
After all, it’s not illegal, or even prohibited by the owners. And, as it happens, I’m not remotely religious or spiritual. The Aboriginal creation stories have no meaning for me and, generally speaking, I like climbing things for the view.
For me, what it comes down to is this – the people who traditionally own the land would prefer you not to climb, and they ask you nicely.
“Is it a place to conquer or connect with?” they say.
It seems only polite to listen to them. Especially as they list about 20 other things you are invited to do, including that magical base walk which makes it easily into my ‘Top 10 Travel Experiences of All Time’. I didn’t fall off or get injured or die, which understandably would have upset my hosts – and these things happen often at Uluru – and I still came back with memories and photographs that will last a lifetime.
They asked nicely. That’s why I didn’t climb.