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History of climbing Ayers Rock: Part 1 33000BC to 1873AD

History of climbing Ayers Rock: Part 1 33000BC to 1873AD

The proposed ban on climbing Ayers Rock will bring to an end a 35000 year old tradition of climbing that likely began when the first humans arrived at the foot of this grand rock outcrop.
The arrival of humans in the arid region of central Australia is dated at about 35-29,000 BP[1] from two cave shelters: Puritjarra and Kulpi Mara in the Western MacDonnell Ranges about 160 km north of Ayers Rock. No dating has been undertaken at Ayers Rock, but it is reasonable to assume that the area probably saw intermittent habitation by humans around the same time, give or take a millennia or two. Given the universality of human curiosity and the strategic importance of Ayers Rock as a water resource and vantage point, it is likely that the first climbers of the rock were among those first arrivals 35,000 years ago. From their lookout they would have seen the end of the megafauna, and seen off the ice age that ended the march of the sand dunes across the surrounding desert plains.  Over the ages these early visitors left little to show for their presence except for a few undated petroglyphs indecipherable to both archaeologists and the current traditional custodians.

Ayers Rock climbing timeline

The first real evidence for climbing can be found in the oral tradition of the current custodians, in dreamtime myths and legends of the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara clans. According to Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara creation myths the route of the current climb was that taken by the ancestral Mala men (Hare Wallaby men) on their arrival at Ayers Rock.[2] Related creation myths provide a means to constrain the timing of these early climbs. According to oral legends Kulpunya (the spirit dingo) destroyed most of the Mala men and their families during the creation of Ayers Rock[3]. The Dingo was introduced to Australia by Asian seafarers about 4,000 years ago. Based on this, the current custodians must have arrived at Ayers Rock and developed their mythology sometime after 4000yBP, give or take several hundred years (see also Griffin 2002[4]). Hence the Mala men may have made their ascent 500 years or so after the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed.
In the time after the arrival of the Mala men to European settlement in the late 19th century the current custodians and various other tribes regularly visited the summit for initiation rites and also took advantage of the view to provide a warning of the approach of rival clans.
The first written record of the climb was by English surveyor William Christie Gosse on 20th of July 1873. His journal entry for the day documents the excitement of his ascent:
Sunday, July 20 — Ayers Rock. Barometer 28.07 in., wind east. I rode round the foot of rock in search of a place to ascend; found a waterhole on south side, near which I made an attempt to reach the top, but found it hopeless. Continued along to the west, and discovered a strong spring coming from the centre of the rock, and pouring down some very steep gullies into a large deep hole at the foot of rock. This I have named Maggie's Spring. Seeing a spur less abrupt than the rest of the rock, I left the camels here, and after walking and scrambling two miles barefooted, over sharp rocks, succeeded in reaching the summit, and had a view that repaid me for my trouble—Kamran accompanied me. The top is covered with small holes in the rock, varying in size from two to twelve feet diameter, all partly filled with water. Mount Olga is about twenty miles west. Some low ranges and ridges west-north-west, one of which I think must be McNicol's Range; part of lake visible, bearing north Mount Conner 96°, and high ranges south-east, south, and south-west, with sandhills between. The one south-east. I have named after His Excellency Governor Musgrave; and a high point in same, bearing 141°, Mount Woodroffe, after the Surveyor-General. This is a high mass of granite, the surface of which has been honeycombed, and is decomposing, 1,100 feet above surrounding country, two miles in length (east and west), and one mile wide, rising abruptly from the plain. How I envied Kamran his hard feet; he seemed to enjoy the walking about with bare feet, while mine were all in blisters, and it was as much as I could do to stand: the soil around the rock is rich and black. This seems to be a favourite resort of the natives in the wet season, judging from the numerous camps in every cave. These caves are formed by large pieces breaking off the main rock and falling to the foot. The blacks make holes under them, and the heat of their fires causes the rock to shell off, forming large arches. They amuse themselves covering these with all sorts of devices—some of snakes, very cleverly done, others of two hearts joined together; and in one I noticed a drawing of a creek with an emu track going along the centre. I shall have more time to examine these when the main camp is here. This rock is certainly the most wonderful natural feature I have ever seen. What a grand sight this must present in the wet season; waterfalls in every direction. I shall start back, tomorrow, and trust to finding some water between here and King's Creek, which is now eighty-four miles distant.

The remarkable reaction to the climb experienced by William Christie Gosse has been felt by millions of visitors over the last 144 years and by those that climbed before him. The tradition of climbing the rock is not unique to Europeans but has been practised by all visitors since humans first arrived in the region 35000 years ago. Moves to ban the climb are an insult to this long established cultural practise. 

Part 2 of this series will look at the more recent history of climbing. 



[2] https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/4039eb6a-b3e7-49f0-b28d-200793b53057/files/uktnp-a4factsheet-pleasedontclimb-small.pdf
[3] Mountford CP. 1965. Ayers Rock: It’s people, their beliefs and their art. Angus and Robertson
[4] Griffin G., 2002. Welcome to Aboriginal Land in Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement and Sustainable Development. Dawn Chatty, Marcus Colchester (eds), Berghahn Books

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