The Art of Not Doing: The Red Centre, Northern Territory, Australia

Sunrise on Uluru Ayers Rock

In the eager pool of morning light there rises The Rock. It is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the implacable indifferences of inhospitable landscapes, its dimensions timeless, unsummarized.

And I want to climb it.

There is something in the Western mindset that arouses a near irresistible urge to climb a peak. We look up, we admire, and if possible, we act. It may be related to a primal impulse to conquer a headland, to be king of the hill, surveying all below. And so we tread upwards, by sandal, sedan chair, boot, crampon, funicular, escalator, elevator, téléphérique, gondola, train, whatever — resistance is futile. The summit result is a near narcotic of validation, accomplishment, exhilaration, pride and joy, coupled with a grand view.

Uluru, née Ayers Rock to those of a Western bent, beckons, it cries to be climbed. It has dark water stains streaking down its sides, looking like tears. I first leaned towards its astonishing red face while watching a 1978 John Denver special, in which he performed on top of The Rock. Wow. What it must be like to up there, with all the world spread below.

I’ve ascended hills and mountains around the world. Yet now, I am at the base of the famous inselberg, watching dots of people making their way up the chained scar-like path to the mighty view.

But, I am not doing that.

The airline counter woman in Sydney, when she saw the ticket to Ayers Rock, said, “Oh, you have to climb The Rock. It is fabulous!”

But, I am not doing that.

When the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was handed back to the Anangu Aboriginal tribe in 1985 one of the conditions was that the climb remain open. It’s popular, and brings touro-dollars to the region. But that doesn’t prevent the Anangu from posting signs and making personal pleas urging visitors to stay at the bottom. Even the entry ticket to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park entreaties to not do the climb.

And so against instinct and aspiration, I vow to not do the climb. And that decision liberates a different level of awareness and adventure, it pricks the pleasure zones that come from restraint, reflection and respect. Yes, I can forgo the physical overthrow and instead climb a spiritual plateau. But I have the itch to move, and so discover a whole host of alternative things to do here in the Red Centre of Australia.

I begin with a sail on a ship of the desert. It turns out there are more wild camels in Australia than anyplace in the world. They were imported in the 19th century from the Afghanistan region to help lay the telegraph line that would connect the antipodean to the world. They helped lay the first rail ties. But they built the tracks to their own obsolescence, as with trains and roads they were no longer needed, and the government asked the Afghani cameleers to kill the beasts. They refused, and the camels went feral. Today estimates vary from 500,000 to a million camels on the loose in the Outback.

I arrive at Uluru…

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