Sunday, March 13, 2011

Climbing Mount Woodroffe

Mount Woodroffe is one of the Australian Magic 8 , the highest peak in the state of South Australia. To an adopted Queenslander such as myself, ‘SA’ tends to mean Adelaide, but of course there’s rather more to the state than that. Woodroffe is actually 1000 km to the north in the desert, just over the border from the Northern Territory.

While not a hard ascent technically, Woodroffe is awkward to reach due to its location. About 150km southwest of Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Musgrave Ranges and 80km south of the nearest paved road, it also lies in an Aboriginal reservation for which one needs the permission of the traditional owners, the Anangu people, to enter.

Having done some research on the Internet, the likelihood of gaining permission to climb as an independent climber looked remote, so I decided to go on an organised climb. Aboriginal Tours ( is owned by the Anangu people and runs two climbs a year from Uluru, so I made a booking, blew the rest of my frequent flyer points, and informed my clients that I would be unavailable for four days (and I did mean unavailable: there is no mobile reception in the desert).

Some homework showed that the vertical ascent was about 750m over a distance of a few kilometres. This is not a hard climb by Scottish standards; it is an average Munro day-walk, and in normal conditions I would have expected to summit in 2-3 hours even without a path. What I wasn’t prepared for was the Central Australian terrain...

I’d trained for a few weeks beforehand with day walks near my home on the Sunshine Coast. A typical session would be a stroll through the Baxter Creek valley, with a total vertical ascent of about 400m over an hour. Typically this was on smooth graded paths, where I could wear trainers rather than heavy climbing boots, and leave the day pack back at the car. As I was to find, this was nothing like the conditions in central Australia.

21st May 2010
I started the five day trip before dawn with a limo pickup from my house on the Sunshine Coast. My usual car firm are used to taking me to Brisbane Airport for business trips to various parts of the world, so it made a pleasant change to be on a trip that was completely un-work related. I’d packed as lightly as possible, but my size 12 boots, my daughter Rachel’s SLR camera, and a few changes of clothing still filled up the best part of a small suitcase. To be on the safe side, I’d also packed wet weather gear (cagoule), a few books, and a recently acquired Kindle.

There are many more flights now to Uluru than there used to be, but it is still not a mainstream destination. About 500,000 people a year visit, so it would take more than 40 years just for the population of Australia to file past. For a direct flight (rather than a flight to Alice Springs, which is 400 km to the east) one has to travel via Cairns, Sydney or Perth. I therefore had an uneventful flight to Cairns, an hour in the Qantas lounge sending some emails, and then a ride on a commuter jet.

I must have flown across the Red Centre of Australia scores of times to destinations in Asia and Europe, but like most Australians had never actually stopped off on the way, so this trip was to an entirely new area of the world for me. Qantas usually puts me near the front of the plane, but this proved to be full of crying babies and loud Americans; so shortly after takeoff I moved back to an empty row of seats over the wing with more legroom, and enjoyed a pleasant flight reading Thomas Hardy, eating the supplied sandwich, and dozing.

Eventually the 717 descended through the clouds – and there was Uluru in the distance, just like the photos. The plane made a 180 degree turn at what felt like an alarmingly low altitude, close enough to the ground to see individual bushes and trees on the desert sands, and landed at Ayers Rock Airport, which proved to be a single runway in the bush with a low terminal building. A resort bus took me to a pre-booked room at Yulara Resort.

I could have relaxed for the rest of the day, but this was probably the only free afternoon I’d ever have within striking distance of Ayers Rock, and I wanted to see it! There are no taxis at Uluru, so a quick visit to the resort’s information desk amongst the shops selling Aboriginal-themed souvenirs showed that the only public transport to Ayers Rock were tour buses that left at regular intervals throughout the day. Fortunately one left in half an hour. I forked out my $50 and bought a ticket.

The minibus arrived on time and lurched off towards the Rock. It’s much further than it looks – I had initially thought of walking from the resort, but it’s at least 12 km each way. At the boundary of Uluru National Park the driver stopped and extracted another $25 entrance fee from each passenger. This was becoming an expensive day walk, but we did get the driver’s blood-curdling stories of the fate of other hikers who’d fallen off the Rock to entertain us on the way.

We were dropped off at the base of the Rock, and I had three hours to walk the 10km around the base to be picked up. At my usual strolling pace of around 5 km/hr this wouldn’t be a problem, but what would the desert be like? Missing the bus and walking back to the resort would have been distinctly tedious, even though I’d packed enough water.

As it turned out, the main source of delay was that I had to keep stopping to gape at the Rock. What can I say about Australia’s favourite icon, save that the hyperbole is justified and the endless images at the airport shops are justified? If I was an abstract sculptor, I’d have shut up shop after that afternoon and joined an Uluru tour agency.

Two views of Uluru

In the event, I got round the base of the Rock without difficulty (the path is completely flat) save for the throngs of visitors at the more accessible parts, and had time at the end to sit in the evening sunshine and work out the ascent routes to the summit. The signed track was closed due to supposed high winds - of which there were no sign - and I was still unsure whether to make the summit attempt when we returned from Woodroffe. There are numerous signs requesting one not to make the ascent, but on the other hand one of Australia’s advertised attractions in Japan is ‘come to Uluru, climb the Rock’ and if the Rock was closed, tourism revenues would plummet. Perhaps the Japanese feel the same way about Mount Fuji, but they still climb it.

At the appointed time we were picked up and taken to a car park whose sole purpose was to allow evening photos of the Rock. One is encouraged not to take pictures of certain areas at the base of Uluru due to its spiritual significance to the Anangu people, but the restriction doesn’t seem to be in force once one is a mile or so away. The car park had cars and cameras stretching away into the distance, even through the sun was setting in cloud and the famous colours were not in evidence. This didn’t stop the audience from snapping away. I was reminded of the scene in Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus Alone’ where an entrepreneur sells tickets for the sunset.

Then back to the hotel for a quiet evening and something from room service.

22nd May 2010
Departure was at 8 am the next morning. I was waiting outside the lobby, and at ten past a Range Rover turned up driven by Brett, our guide for the next three days. Brian and Graham were also ready to go (I had seen them walking round the rock the previous day), and we all introduced ourselves as Brett picked up Alan from the resort campsite and took us east along the highway.
(L-R) Andrew, Alan, Brian, Graham

We drove for about 100 km east along the bitumen highway, and after a tea-stop turned south onto a dirt road about 20 metres wide. Camels and donkeys were seen in the distance. Brett knew the route, and at the right point found an un-signposted turning that lead past a property and on to the access route to Woodroffe. Shortly after this we crossed the border between the NT and South Australia, indicated by a decaying wooden fence and a prominent sign warning us that we were about to enter Aboriginal lands.

Sign at the SA border

We arrived at the campsite (a container with an attached lean-to, a wind-powered bore, and a drop toilet away in the bush), got settled in with swags, and lit a fire for cups of tea and dinner, which was grilled steaks. Unfortunately the weather was closing in, and the peak of Woodroffe was shrouded in cloud as the sun set.
Our campsite

Dry riverbed next to the campsite

At dusk, Peter Nyaningu, the local Aboriginal custodian, and two of his friends turned up in a well-used Toyota Landcruiser. The three of them were working on clearing out a local waterhole up the road. We made them tea and Peter welcomed us to his land and gave us permission to climb the mountain. I shook hands, which unfortunately was the wrong thing to do; Peter later told us that his people do not shake hands except at funerals, but excused us as we were guests. He told us a couple of Dreamtime stories about the area, gave us his picks for the forthcoming weekend’s AFL matches, and borrowed a jerrycan of diesel and some teabags from Brett’s store. After more tea and biscuits Peter departed to a house up the road, and we turned in. I didn’t sleep all that well but it could have been the unusual location – we were covered by a corrugated iron roof but apart from that were open to the elements.

23rd May 2010
In the morning we were up with the sun, made ourselves packed lunches on a ledge in the container, and had muesli and tea for breakfast. The hill was clear up to about 3000 feet but the summit was still clouded in. Never mind; I’d climbed in far worse, and hadn’t come this far to let a little weather get in the way. Brett drove us out to the base of the mountain in the Range Rover, and we were off, with Brett along to see what the climb was like. (It was made clear to us that the climb was officially unguided; if Brett hadn't come along I expect he would have given us his radio, so that his office could check on our progress).

Setting off
Woodroffe involves some quite real navigational difficulties if you are climbing it for the first time. The topography is much more complex than it looks from photos, and the only maps I could find were 1:100,000 scale, which are cluttered and difficult to use with a compass. In addition it is extremely remote. The penalties for making a navigational error would be severe; one cannot simply come off the mountain and expect to be able to walk around the base back to one’s car. The nearest paved road is 100 km away, the nearest rescue services 600 km. It is not a place to make casual decisions.

However amongst the five of us on the walk we had at least four mobile phones, two GPS receivers, one UHF radio, one satellite phone, an EPIRB, and several sets of maps and compasses. The tour operators called in regularly by radio to make sure we were OK – which was welcome as there was no mobile signal anywhere for the three days of the trip. Fortunately, Graham had attempted the hill the previous year with his son Sam (they had turned back as Sam had felt unwell), and was familiar with the layout of the ridges approaching the peak. I was only to realise how useful this was as we approached the summit in thick mist without a path. Given the remoteness, the lack of detailed maps, and the possible consequences if one took a wrong turn and ended up lost, I would probably have turned back below the summit without his guidance. In Scotland the conditions are often similar, but the maps are detailed and accurate so compass navigation is much easier.

In fact, the summit route is fairly straightforward – one heads north up a ridge to about 1100m, then bears around a gradually ascending ridge to the east up the summit – but with the last 400m of the ascent in mist and over complex terrain, it didn’t seem so. What a difference it makes to be able to see where you’re going!

The climb showed the necessity of being prepared. I’d packed a warm jumper and one of my father’s cagoules, thinking at the time ‘I’ll never use these’ – but they all went on towards the summit.

It was also hard work. There are (naturally) no paths; one underestimates how much easier a path makes walking through almost any terrain. Big clumps of spinifex and bushes required one to continually detour and take roundabout routes to one’s target. Eventually, I gave up trying to avoid the spinifex clumps and just walked straight over them, with the result that I was still picking spikes out of my legs and Army-surplus walking trousers for a month afterwards.

By about half-way up I realised I was easily the slowest walker, but the rest of the group were very gracious about it.

Eventually the summit loomed out of the mist. Brett told us that only a hundred people or so had made it to the top, but the summit cairn looked remarkably well-built – perhaps someone had spent a month up here gathering rocks. Apart from the spinifex I could have been back in Scotland – the conditions felt familiar. We all shook hands and took photos in the wind and rain.
At the summit

We came down slightly to the left of the original route and had an awkward bush-bash through rough vegetation to get back to the ridge. By this point the cloud was dispersing, the views were opening up and the route down was becoming obvious. We stopped on a rocky hillside out of the wind and ate lunch out of tin-foil packets.

Then it was down to the saddle, and a descent of the steep hillside to the valleys and waterholes at the bottom (again I was the slowest) in increasing sunlight.

Typical terrain - note the clumps of spinifex

Descending into better weather

At the bottom we were crossing some quite lovely windswept grassy meadows, with that extra spring in your step that means the car is near. The walk had taken about eight and a half hours, and there was much scoffing at another walker who had claimed in a magazine article to have reached the summit in forty minutes.

Back at the campsite we unpeeled our wet weather gear; I experienced the usual pleasure of waggling one’s toes in the open air after a day of confinement. As host, Brett asked us if we would like hot showers, and we enthusiastically agreed – poor fellow, I think he was tireder than he looked, for he took a long time to light the fire under the boiler. I opted for the standard shower with one bucket of hot water, rather than the deluxe version with two; in the shower stall one stands in a child’s paddling pool while the contents of the bucket trickles down over you. No towels or soap were provided, but a spare tee-shirt and a bottle of shampoo I’d bought a few weeks ago in London’s Victoria Station did the job.
Mount Woodroffe in evening sunlight. The summit is on the right.

Feeling quite dapper in a freshly ironed shirt from my suitcase, I rejoined the group for stir-fried beef and veges, more hot drinks round the fire, and the sight of some dingoes across the creek. By now the clouds had cleared and we could see why this site had been shortlisted for the Anglo-Australian Telescope (it lost out to Siding Springs in NSW on the grounds of inaccessibility) – the sky was full of stars, and the odd satellite. I had a rather better night’s sleep.

25th May 2010
Up again with the sun, this time to wash up, leave the campsite in a tidy state, and pack the 4WD. With the sun came the flies – fortunately they disappear at night, On the way back we stopped at a bluff overlooking miles of desert, climbed up, and had a snack.

Lunch on the way back to Uluru
We got back to the Uluru resort in the early afternoon. Following thanks and handshakes with Brett, the four walkers agreed to meet for dinner that evening at one of the resort restaurants. I checked in again, shaved and showered (at last!), and feeling rather more presentable wandered stiffly round the resort where there was a bank, a cafe, and a well-stocked newsagency with a decent selection of paperbacks and magazines. All perfectly normal for the middle of an Australian city, but quite surreal for a site thousands of miles away in the desert.

Graham, Alan, Brian and I met at the bar at the appointed time where we traded notes on climbs, and went on to the restaurant for steaks and a decent bottle of red. Good food and good company with like-minded people meant a delightful evening. Allan was going on to climb Bartle Frere in Queensland a few days later, where he left a note at the summit for Graham and Brian, who were going on to Perth and Newman to ascend Mount Meharry, and planned to bag Bartle Frere in a few weeks; they duly found the note, wrapped in plastic and taped to the summit marker. We exchanged email addresses. I could not have asked for a better group of people with whom to climb.

On my last morning I had a few hours to spend between breakfast and my lunchtime flight. I woke at six and made some notes for a book proposal, had a hotel breakfast, and went for a walk beyond the fringes of the Uluru resort amongst the spinifex and the desert oak. It was virtually impossible to get lost with the red bulk of Uluru always in the background, and there was a light breeze that kept the flies at bay. By chance I came across the local war memorial. I don’t have a photo, but it was a beautiful, dignified, silent place, with a simple flagpole and a sunlit plaque on a boulder.

Uluru from my hotel room
Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas
Then it was back to the airport on the resort bus, where I met Graham and Brian again in the departure lounge. They had climbed Uluru early that morning. It had been a harder climb than they expected but the summit views sounded spectacular. They were on a Perth flight a few minutes before mine, so we made our farewells and promised to keep in touch.

The trip home was uneventful. I read the Cairns paper and did the crossword on the flight back to Sydney, and ate a bowl of noodles at the airport amongst the stewardesses while waiting for my transfer back to Brisbane and home.

Lessons learnt? Despite the flies, Central Australia is an extraordinarily beautiful place but elusively hard to describe. I look forward to going back.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Andrew Colin.

    Your the man I've been looking for. I've climbed 6 of the state 8 peaks. Only woodroffe and ossa remain. I dream of climbing woodroffe this year in May. My email is

    If you don't mind there are some questions I may wish to ask. Aboriginal Aust website seems to have a bug at the moment.

    Thanks for your account of your climb

  2. Just read your well written account of the climb. Congrats! ... brings back all the memories when I climbed it in May 2013. My version of the climb is in my blog

  3. Great story, well written. Mt.Woodroffe climb is on my bucket list. I recall that when I climbed Uluru there was no breeze at all at the base but around half way up the wind was quite strong and I was concerned for my children, one of whom was with me and the other had already scampered to the top. So the notice about strong winds could have been based on truth.