When many of us reach the age of 60, all of a sudden our thoughts begin thrashing around inside our brain mercilessly. Life is like the layers of an onion; we are constantly peeling off layer after layer.
Childhood, adolescence, army, courtship, university, searching for a career; marriage, home, children, family, addiction to our job.
Successes and failures. Celebrations of happiness and experiences of failures. Joy and sorrow become intertwined like a symbiotic weaving.
I’ve always believed that when people enter a new decade of their lives, they should do something meaningful to celebrate this important milestone. When I turned 40 and then 50, I organized extraordinary social events to which I invited all my friends.
But as I got closer to 60, my mind began turning in a new direction.
It became clear to me that I wanted to take an unforgettable journey somewhere in the world. Of all the places I’d learned about, I chose Australia.
In my work at Hilton Hotels & Resorts over the years, I’ve met people from all over the world. And I’ve always been fascinated by the extraordinary natural phenomenon known as Ayers Rock in the deserts of Australia’s Northern Territory – or as the local Aboriginals call it, Uluru (with the stress on the last syllable). The name has no particular meaning, but is sometimes used as a name by local families.
I decided that I would go there to realize my long-standing fantasy of climbing this crazy rock. Although it is not as high as Mount Everest, the climb up Uluru is about as challenging as it gets.
Uluru is a monolith – a mountain formed from a single rock. And it’s the largest monolith in the world. The natural rock of Uluru sits 318 meters above sea level, and its perimeter is 9.4 km. long. It’s made from Arkose sandstone, and feldspar minerals can be found inside it 2.5 km. deep. In reality, it looks like an asteroid that fell from outer space.
At the beginning of September, I set out on my trip by flying Cathay Pacific, which recently began direct flights from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv. I’ve flown with this firstrate airline before and once again I enjoyed the experience of being pampered on the flight and receiving excellent service from the cabin crew.
The flight to Sydney via Hong Kong takes a full day. The long and exhausting flight (nine hours to Hong Kong and then another eight and a half hours to Sydney, with a few hours of waiting between the two) requires lots of patience.
I spent an unforgettable week in Sydney enjoying the impressive harbors, bridges, ferries and vibrant city life. When Captain James Cook, the first European to disembark on the shores of eastern Australia, arrived in 1770, he discovered what is today known as Botany Bay; he described its fruits and pleasant climate in great detail.
Sydney fit in perfectly with his vision of the ultimate refuge for human beings. The people who live there today, including the large, welcoming Jewish community, are indeed quite fortunate.
By then I was getting impatient to reach Uluru. We took a three-hour domestic flight on low-cost airline Jetstar (which wasn’t actually that cheap) and then landed smack in the middle of the arid, red desert that reminded me of landings in Sinai when I was serving in the IDF. The differences between Sinai and the vast, endless Australian outback are, however, manifold.
I decided to indulge myself, as is the custom of Australians who know what style is.
Surrounded by dozens of locals from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, I jumped onto the free air-conditioned shuttle bus that was waiting at the exit of the airport to take us to Uluru. Some 1,500 people live in this small town whose sole function is to provide visitors with the necessary services required for a trip in the desert to places like Uluru.
At the Desert Gardens Hotel in Ayers Rock I stayed in a luxurious room on the second floor. The hotel staff was made up of young people who were the third and fourth generation of the intermixing between white and Aboriginal Australians. I couldn’t help but make the comparison in my head how different this was from how the Beduin in Israel have integrated into Israeli society. Like the Australian Aboriginals, the Beduin have also had a hard time adjusting to western culture. And yet, what I saw in front of me in Uluru was so different from what we see in Israel.
The Australians have made great efforts to integrate Aboriginals into society, treating them with respect and calling them the original landowners. I felt that there was a lingering sense of guilt among Australians, tinged with a bit of hypocrisy, since the acceptance of Aboriginals into Australian society is relatively superficial in official circles. In practice, from discussions I had with locals during my visit, I learned that full integration is still quite far away.
Strolling through the “Field of Lights” exhibition was a stunning spiritual experience. It is a the creation of British artist Bruce Munro, who placed multicolored lanterns throughout the Uluru desert for over a kilometer. Walking past the brightly illuminated red, purple, pink, yellow and green lanterns at night in the middle of the desert was an unforgettable experience.
As I looked up into the sky at the Milky Way, I could clearly see the unique constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. Only by being out in the wilderness is it possible to experience for the first time the bright stars in the infinite darkness above and the connection with nature on the ground.
The staff at the visitors’ center makes every effort to motivate people to actually climb Uluru. On the one hand, they asked that we respect the sanctity of the place for the local population, while on the other hand they told us about the enormous risk of injury if we did attempt to climb the mountain. Dozens of climbers have died or been injured from falls on the rocks at the foot of the mountain.
For years, a political campaign has been waged to prevent visitors from climbing, but apparently the economic benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Making it illegal to climb Uluru would reduce the number of tourists visiting the region by a third, which would be tantamount to a death blow for Uluru residents and people who’ve invested in the development of the area.
Another constraint was the weather. When it’s hot there (over 35°) climbing the mountain is absolutely prohibited, since at such temperatures many people would suffer from dehydration and fainting. In addition, whenever it’s even slightly windy, climbing is also forbidden, since the wind could gain strength at any moment. That was my greatest fear, actually – that I would get all the way to Uluru, but not be allowed to climb that day. I would definitely have been bitterly disappointed if that had happened.
I was told that I could receive updates every two hours at the visitor center or at the hotel reception desk regarding climbing status. When I woke up at 6 a.m. to hear a voice at my door telling me that climbing would indeed be possible that day, I was ecstatic and immediately sprung from my bed.
I set out with my sunscreen, bandana, heavy bottles of mineral water, and bananas (in case I needed a burst of energy). In addition, I’d brought along with me a small Israeli flag to fly at the summit. The hop-on-hopoff shuttle arrived right on time at the entrance of my hotel, and after picking up a dozen or so additional visitors at other hotels, we began the 20-minute drive to the spectacular flat red-rock formation of Uluru. Mala was the fourth stop, and that’s where I began my climb.
I looked at the precipitous slope, at this monolithic rock that looks like it fell from outer space a billion years ago, and all of a sudden I became gripped by fear.
The first 50 meters where there is nothing to grab onto is a tremendous gamble. Afterwards, in the area where the real slope begins, there are iron posts stuck into the rock every three meters, with a knee-high chain connecting them. The ending point was not in view.
Friends of mine from Sydney had given me a sendoff with a copy of Tefilat Haderech, the prayer for a safe journey; although a non-believer, I’d still taken it along with me on the hike.
My first goal was to successfully climb the first section where there’s nothing to hold onto. When I reached the first iron post, I grabbed it and fell to the ground exhausted. I was completely out of breath; the pressure in my chest was tremendous, and made me a little worried. After I’d caught my breath, I stood up and continued climbing, but very quickly found that I had no air left in my lungs. I had thought I was in great shape, and that running long distances would have prepared my body for this climb – but apparently the steep ascent was a whole new ballgame.
At this point, I wasn’t sure I could go on any further.
But then the sense of failure that had begun to gnaw away at me quickly dissipated and thankfully I began to feel a sense of determination to reach my goal.
How was I going to go back home after such a journey without achieving the goal I’d set for myself? So, for the next 90 minutes, I climbed up about 500 meters, taking a few breaks along the way.
I stopped to rest and take a sip of water. I took some photos of the view and its breathtaking scenery. The desert was spotted with green shrubs, and the blue sky was dotted with white clouds. The higher I climbed, the stronger I felt the wind in my ears. Lots of young Australian and Asian climbers passed me by, some on their way up, others on their way down.
In the end my patience paid off, and I made it to the end of the chain at the ridge of the mountain. It had been an illusion – the path along the white path markers to the summit had been seven times as long.
I climbed up and down between the cracks in the solid red rock, and between the round pits that looked like craters on the moon. I jumped down into some of them, while others I slid down into on my backside. I was out of breath, and my lips were dry, but my determination was stronger than ever.
It took me two-and-a-quarter hours to reach the top.
I was exhausted and completely out of breath. A young Australian bloke in a brown cowboy hat agreed to photograph me with my Israeli flag at the small lookout point with the sign at the top of the mountain. I think I was the happiest person in the world.
I sat on a slab of cold stone for about 20 minutes, explaining to some curious Australian hikers how and why I’d decided to come here. It was absolutely surreal to be telling them all about the political situation in the Middle East as we sat on top of Uluru, looking out at the breathtaking view as the wind whistled in our ears. I felt an unfamiliar happiness. I had achieved my goal at the start of the seventh decade of my life – I had done it.
The trek back down was relatively easy. I just had to be extremely careful not to slip, so I held tightly onto the chain, tried to remain patient and to show restraint. Once I was down at the bottom, I hi-fived a plump 40-ish Australian man I’d come across several times on the mountain.
All of a sudden, an intense feeling of exhaustion set upon me. The shuttle bus arrived within 15 minutes and I returned to the hotel with a wonderful feeling of satisfaction.
I collapsed onto my bed and slept from the afternoon all the way until the next morning. Every second of my trip had been worthwhile and every shekel well spent.
I had used up all my energy in the best possible way.
I recommend spending at least three days in Uluru.
The light show and the tour around the mountain by foot, bicycle or Segway are incredible experiences that shouldn’t be missed. I chose the Segway tour, and was not disappointed.
I would also take the time to continue on to Kata Tjuta, where you’ll see incredible rock domes. This is undoubtedly one of the most unique places to travel, where you’ll see very few tourists – maybe just a few Asians. Much of the area can only be reached in an all-terrain vehicle or by helicopter.
If you’re interested in doing any rock climbing, you should prepare yourselves for intense physical effort, bring ample water, sunscreen, a hat and non-slip shoes.
And don’t forget – you need to request a visa at least 30 days before your flight! From the local airport, I flew 3 hours south back to Sydney; from there I took an international flight the next day north to Hong Kong, and then caught my connection back to Israel.
It was an experience of a lifetime. Motti Verses is head of public relations for Hilton hotels in Israel – Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem and Hilton Tel Aviv.