Saturday, 12th, October, 2019 – Yulara, NT, Uluru and The Olgas

Distance travelled – 165 km.

Distance walked – 13,339 steps and 89 floors

We had originally planned our day in Yulara to be a day of rest. That is, of course, if you consider a hike of at least ten kilometres in up to 40 degree of heat to be a rest. As I have mentioned before, any plan we make tends to get twisted.

The information that we had arrived with was that it was no longer possible to climb the rock. The First Nations people had been agitating for years that it is “sacred” and the Australian government had finally caved in and stopped the ascents. For this reason, the scheme we had hatched back in Prague was to get up early, go and see Uluru at sunrise, then to hike around the base of the rock and be back in our room at around 10 a.m. to rest.

However, it seemed that they had not yet stopped people from climbing up. The word (as they say) in the Sails Hotel was that there were still a number of days left before the ban was finally put into place. Of course, in conditions of really extreme heat, any climbing was already prohibited by the park rangers. To add to the uncertainty, there was a notice in the hotel foyer warning that temperatures could exceed 40 degrees by noon the following day. We decided that, if climbs were permitted, we would do one, but that would not be assessed until 7 a.m. So it remained fifty/fifty.

We got up at 5 a.m. We donned our hiking boots (which we were riding in anyway to save luggage space) grabbed our water and headed out.

We did see and photograph the sunrise.

Naturally, I managed to turn even this simple exercise into something that is probably viewable on some Japanese YouTube channel. Before leaving home, in the expectation of being in scenic, but lonely, places, we had purchased a mini-tripod for our camera. We had never used it and, with the glorious 20:20 vision of hindsight, a bit of practice before we were in the outback might have been advisable. We found a good place and parked the Harley between the camera and the rock. Whilst trying to find the right angle for the picture, I first knocked Lucie’s helmet off of the Harley and into the rocks where the paint chipped. Then, when I decided the Harley could be in a slightly more photogenic position, the stand went up when I moved it and it fell over. That could have been a multiple disaster. Luckily, I managed to get my soft body between it and the ground and the only damage was to my self respect. Two Japanese tourists, on a similar photographic “mission” were parked nearby. They almost had a heart-attack (in Japan, Harleys are terribly expensive, as we knew from the Japanese we had already met) and, of course, they filmed everything. They did not come to help me get the Harley back upright, they just filmed me while I struggled to do it. It is not actually that hard, if you know the “trick”, but it took me several long seconds to free my boot from under the footboard before I could even start. The Japanese drove away while I was still dusting myself down. Possibly they were embarrassed or possibly they were terrified I was about to destroy their little car like some Godzilla of the Outback. Even then, the fiasco was not quite done. Neither of us had any idea how to use the timer, which was the whole point of carting the tripod for 20,000 kilometres. I am fortunate in having such a smart wife, as Lucie managed to work out what to do just as the full beam of the sunrise fell on the rock behind us. Sadly, for various aesthetic reasons, it is not a great photograph and although we appear on it, our role is very much a subsidiary one. Perhaps it was just nature (or some vengeful, First Nations’ deity) reminding us that, compared to the permanence of Uluru we are very much transient and insignificant. But, whatever it was, we will not forget taking that picture in a hurry.

We drove around to the gate where any ascent would start if it was permitted and there was nobody about at all. So, rather than hang aimlessly around, we went for a walk nearby in search of photo opportunities. Sadly, like the Grand Canyon, there is no way anyone without wings can hope to begin to capture the rock’s sheer majesty and grandeur.

Leaving the gate turned out to be a mistake. In the few short minutes we were away, dozens of people did line up and, at seven, when it was decided by the rangers that ascents could be made, we were near the back of the line.

I have to admit that, because, even the previous evening, the chances of climbing were fifty/fifty, we had underestimated the amount of preparation required. At least half of the people queueing had nets on their heads, to ward off flies. We have them in Prague but we had not even thought about (or looked for them) in Australia. The flies were swarming around us like those on a dung heap before we took our first step. Luckily, a more prepared tourist stood in front of us and emptied an entire can of fly repellent onto himself. Some of it splashed onto us. I just hope it worked better for him ! Also, our lack of research meant that we were unaware that it was not a one-hour climb, but a three-hour ascent and that we really should have had at least a litre of water per person. We had half a litre for both of us. We did have another litre in the saddle bag of the motorcycle, but it had seemed useless to lug it up. So we did not have it and could not go and get it. We also left our breakfast snack in the saddlebag to eat when we got down. It is almost a miracle that we were, at least, wearing boots.

The initial ascent is precipitous and walkers literally need to haul themselves up using a chain that is staked to the rock or try and crawl on all-fours. From below, we watched as a human snake coiled up along the chain railing. This was not going to be fun. At least half of the people were climbing on their hands and knees and some had already given it up and were descending again by sliding on their backsides.

Just before our turn came to begin, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the lady from the family I had talked to in the hole in Coober Pedy and she greeted me like a life-long acquaintance. She cheerfully reported that she was not climbing herself (her knee was heavily strapped) but that her husband was a short distance ahead of us. We had waited in line long enough to have made other new friendships in the queue and Lucie told me that, if the worst came to the worst, our friends might come in handy. The line was full of bravado and a bit of exaggerated exuberance, but it was equally obvious that half the people were more than a little nervous about the climb. The park ranger did not do much to allay this when she told us very sharply how to climb up along the left-hand side of the chain and what to do when we ran out of energy. It was a difficult manoeuvre involving climbing under the chain and rest on the other (downward) side.

Despite our lack of preparation, we hike regularly so we were not too perturbed. Nevertheless, we did feel a little short on confidence as we began the climb. After a short, steep, rocky slope, we came to the start of the railing with chains. From there it was straight up. Not vertically, of course, but not really that far from the vertical – certainly 60 degrees in places. Without the chain it would have been impossible. Here I would also like to point out that it is necessary to imagine that the rock is just that and a huge rock to boot. There are no real cracks for footholds, just undulations in the surface. It is almost as smooth as the proverbial “baby’s bottom”.

The biggest problem on the climb were those who rested, but did so without crossing the chain. There was, in most places, no safe way around them and we kept having to stop. It was this interruption to the pace and rhythm of the climb that was most exhausting thing of all. Along the way, we passed our various new friends from the queue and met other people, so it was really quite social and cheerful. Our most loyal companion was the Australian husband of the knee lady from Coober Pedy. He was climbing the rock for the second time, but on this occasion with his children. When the chain was over, he said, it was “only half a mile” (800 m) to the top. All three of us thought the worst was then over.

How wrong we were became apparent only a few short metres later. We arrived at a small plateau where everyone wanted to rest a little in the shade after the first stage. But there was, of course, very little shade. In addition, the rock was already getting hot and the air temperature was rising steadily. We realized then that the problem would not be that our legs were going to hurt, but that we were going to get seriously hot. It was not yet 8:30 a.m. and it was already baking. Our Australian friend then stated that when he been there previous time he had been much younger and that he obviously remembered it quite badly. He was definitely very wrong about the “half mile”.

The next part of the ascent was less uphill. Less only because it was up and down again, over numerous smooth weathered “ribs” of stone. There were places where chains would have fitted, but there were none. About half of the people, unsure how to go downwards, slid down on their behinds and, when they could not walk up, crawled on all fours, or on their bellies. We met individuals stuck on rocks in various stages of despair at every turn.

Even at the end of what was probably the second third of the ascent, the end was still not visible. The temperature still rising steadily and it ceased to matter who had prepared well for the ascent, either theoretically or practically. The insect nets had lost their significance, not least because the insects remained cleverly down below. The whole thing became more about mental strength than physical fitness. Aware that, only six weeks previously, I had been languishing in hospital with two embolisms in my lungs, Lucie was a bit worried for me. She stated quite unequivocally that, if I wanted to give it up, she was happy to go back. She even tried to weaken my will by reminding me that going down is often harder than going up. I expect she knew though, even as she said it, that there was not any way I would go back while there was a breath in my body. Our little group took a short breather, gathered its strength and pushed on over the seemingly endless ridges to the very top.

Eventually, all of our various friends finished the climb. The Australian from Coober Pedy, a guy from Melbourne, an elderly guy who was doing it again fifty years after his first time and many others. When we started down, we met a lady who could only be fairly described as very corpulent. She had been one of the first to start and we had passed her long before, on the first third, looking exhausted and unable to continue. In the end she made it. They breed them tough in Australia.

The view from the very top was worth a hundred times the effort it took to get ourselves there. The world, in which everything looked very small, stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction. The arid scenery was stark and dramatic. Far to the west, about 35 kilometres away, was a second clutch of dramatic rocks, known as Kata Tjutu or “The Olgas”, but apart from that, there was very little of note to be seen in the huge areas of scrubby desert. At the very apex of the rock is a brass dial that shows the distances to points of significance. The Olgas are actually listed there as being 30 kilometres away, but everything else of interest is at least double or treble that figure.

Part of the celebration ceremony at the top was, obviously, photography. People wandered around trying to somehow capture the sheer magnificence of what we could all see. I am not religious, but up there a belief that all this cannot be accidental is an easy thing to hold. It was essential to have some form of record that all the photographs we had all been taking were not “stock” shots, but taken personally. There was no real need for “selfies” as everyone up there was quite happy to swap cameras back and forth to record the moment. Everyone took pictures of each other in different positions, showing different gestures and some even in disguises. Lucie had, naturally, included our Christmas hats in the rucksack and we caused a little stir as it was unlikely that Santa Claus and an Elf had ever been up there before.

Possibly, the widest mirth, though, was caused by our Australian friend from the climb. He took Lucie to one side and asked if she would take a very special photograph for him. She told him that we were quite used to such things and agreed. He immediately stripped off most of his clothes, pulled a package out of his backpack – and put on a dress. This did surprise us as it seemed an odd place for a transvestite to suddenly “come out”. He quickly explained that it was for a bet and that he needed to send his friend a picture of “a cock in a frock on the Rock“. Job done ! It was a great success and we later regretted a little bit that, in the general hilarity, we had omitted to capture that moment ourselves. The rhyming nature of the reason, of course, would not translate accurately into Czech, so goodness knows what Lucie’s family made of her description of it back in Prague.

I keep stressing that Lucie and I are experienced hikers and we knew, as we prepared to make the descent, that this it was likely to be worse than the climb up. In the end, because of the topography of the rock, whilst it was by no means fun, it was not quite as bad as we feared. It was not good though ! The trip across the ridges was tough mainly because of the extreme heat. There was still trickle of people coming up and it was constantly necessary either to wait in the blazing sun or seek to find a “less travelled” way over the obstacles. Finally we came to the top of the final and steepest descent. The transit of the sun meant there was by then a tiny patch of shade there, but with the heat reflecting off of the rock it was still well over 40 ° C in that tiny dark area. People were taking turns to sit in it briefly before the final push down. A heavily perspiring mother, with her young son in tow who were also descending, arrived in the shade. The youngster was complaining stridently about how much he was not enjoying the experience. “Do not worry” she said “you will never have to do it again !”.

We drank the last drops of our water, which almost seemed to evaporate on our tongues. Far below us, we could see the tiny shape of our Harley, patiently awaiting our return. Then we started down the final part of the descent. As always, it looked steeper from above than it had from below. We kept the chain to our right as instructed, but ascents had now been stopped for the day so it was, at least, easier to cross the chain for a quick rest. In that scenario, there was no way even the tightest and well fitting boot would prevent our toes continuously rubbing and we both had very sore feet when we eventually arrived at the bottom. We had seen plenty of people with less substantial footwear, I do not even want to think about what the trip must have done to their toes.

We stumbled to the Harley, both feeling a little dizzy. We had a litre of water in the saddlebag which we drank in about 15 seconds despite the fact it was unpleasantly warm. We were so exhausted that we did not really want to eat, but we did manage our banana. It is amazing how a tiny bit of sugar can perk you back up and I felt better immediately. Then, we rode as quickly as we could, back to our air-conditioned hotel to cool down.

The climbing of Uluru was finally ended by the Australian government on October 26th, 2019.

I have very mixed feelings on that. I can appreciate religious “sensibilities” but have been in cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, sacred-groves, magic circles, countless temples to deities both extant and long forgotten and even a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence. If you tread with respect, I cannot see the harm.

I consider myself privileged to have been able to climb Uluru and feel sad for all those that now cannot do and see what I did and saw.

It is a strange thing that in really intense heat, you do not sweat. In truth, you do sweat, but it evaporates so quickly that you do not know. Of course, the downside to that is that the very second that you step into a cool place, your sweat condenses and your clothes become soaked with it. That happened as soon as we walked into our room. Lucie went to quickly wash through our clothes (they were also coated with and orangey-red dust) and then we rested in the cool until early evening.

Five hours previously, I had never heard of the Olgas. Now, I had seen them from afar and thought that, in the coolness of the early evening, we might like to drive out and take a look from close up. We were unlikely ever to be in Yulara again and might regret it if we missed the chance.

The turnoff to the Olgas was just inside the national park and, on the signpost it had said they were 50 kilometres away. When we climbed onto the Harley, in Yulara, the display said we had fuel for another 160 kilometres. No problem, I thought, as we pulled away and I ignored the fuel station in town. Thus, I ended up ignoring the number one rule of the outback, FILL UP WITH PETROL AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY.

It was a pleasant, sweeping road and there was hardly any traffic at all. Before long, the highest point, Mount Olga, came into view as did, little by little, the other, smaller peaks.

We drove and we drove and we drove. The fifty kilometre mark came up – and the peaks were still a long way off. Sixty arrived, followed by sixty-five and it was not until just after the seventy kilometre point had come and gone that we finally pulled up. We made it just before the sunset and were, at least, able to capture that moment in the two-and-a half seconds before we were engulfed by a swarm of flies. It was lovely, but compared with Uluru, really nothing to write home about. Still, it was another box ticked.

When I restarted the Harley, it still said we had fuel for 90 kilometres, but 5 metres later that dropped to 80 – and I knew we were still 71 kilometres from Yulara. A tiny feeling of disquiet appeared at the edge of my mind. Although I had, as it were, already showed Lady Fate my hand, I began to be obsessed by the fuel-gauge. I had communicated my disquiet to Lucie and she was quietly watching the gauge over my shoulder as we rode along. My one imperative became riding economically enough to travel more than 10 kilometres before the fuel indicator dropped another notch. Sometimes, I managed it. Sometimes, I did not.

I have mentioned before how quickly night falls and it was very soon a total, velvety darkness. In the outback, there is not really any ambient light whatsoever, which is hard for us city dwellers to come to grips with. This meant I was now gambling with Lucie’s well being by ignoring the second rule of the outback which is DO NOT DRIVE A MOTORCYCLE IN THE DARK. I am not unintelligent, but what I was then doing was incredibly stupid on any number of levels. I had to slow to a speed where I might have a tiny chance of avoiding an errant kangaroo, or at least surviving a collision with it. Although this was good for the fuel economy, it seemed that we were not getting any nearer home at all. Apart from ourselves, the road was totally deserted, in the inky blackness any light would have been visible for a long distance. Nothing was coming towards us and there was no trace of light in the rear view mirror. Finally, as we came to the junction that would take us left to Yulara, the gauge dropped below 10 and began to flash. Suffice it to say we made it and that the forecourt of a petrol station is not really the place to take a breath of that depth. It is of no consolation and it does nothing to mitigate the stupidity of what I did, that I feel able to report I was just unable to get 18 litres of petrol into the tank. That means I still had a litre left which might have been good for another 20 kilometres.

We had a strange dinner in an odd self-service style place in Yulara and went home to bed where we slept as if we were dead.