Outrage as visitors crowd Uluru in final weeks before long-awaited climb ban

A photo showing the path up Uluru clogged with climbers - just weeks before a ban to climb it comes into force - has outraged many Australians.

Although against the wishes of the traditional owners, tourists flock to Uluru (Ayres Rock) to climb to the top of the rock, Yulara, Oct. 28, 2006. (AAP Image/Terry Trewin) NO ARCHIVING

Numbers visiting the rock have swelled as time runs out before the climbing ban is introduced on 26 October. Source: AAP

A surge in tourists to Uluru wanting to climb the rock before it's no longer allowed has prompted outrage among Australians who believe the traditional owners' wishes should be respected.  

Parks Australia has not recorded the exact number of visitors during the school holidays, but Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park manager, Mike Misso, said it's the busiest they've been in more than a decade. 

"We know it's certainly in the hundreds and probably nearer 1000 [a day]." 

The countdown is on - with less than three weeks to go until a long-awaited ban on climbing Uluru.

Uluru is considered sacred by the traditional owners, the Anangu Aboriginal people, and a ban to climb it will come into effect on 26 October. 

"Traditional owners are looking forward to the climb closure and what is actually a new direction for the park so one based on the natural and cultural values of the park and new tourist experiences," Mr Misso said. 

The surge in visitors was captured in a photo on the front page of the weekend edition of The Australian newspaper showing the 340m path up the red sandstone monolith clogged with people. 

The photo prompted a backlash on social media with some describing the climbers as "disrespectful" and "entitled". 

"This was purely a symbolic act of white nationalism designed to convey a racist message of white superiority over Indigenous Australians," one person tweeted. 

The Australian's headline describing the tourists defying the wishes of the traditional owners as "pilgrims" also drew sharp criticism. 

The numbers are increasing despite the official advice that traditional owners would prefer people not to climb. 

"There's definitely a lot of people wanting to climb, but actually our same message that we've had for a number of years is Parks Australia and traditional owners requesting that people choose not to climb," Mr Misso said. 

Rather than criticise tourists for ignoring that request, Parks Australia urged people planning to climb Uluru in the next few weeks to be patient and prepared. 

A sign located at Uluru.
A sign located at Uluru. Source: Supplied

Mr Misso said three people had suffered heart attacks on the sacred site in the last 12 months. 

"The main message is just making sure people are safe. If you have any doubt don't do it, don't risk your life."

A 'mad rush'

It was a point echoed by CEO of Tourism Central Australia Stephen Schwer.

"The climb closes the 26th of October but I anticipate there won't be many days when the climb will be able to be open as we also have heat restrictions, because it is an unsafe experience," he said.

"If people are wanting to get involved in this mad rush to climb the rock, I would ask them to be circumspect and reconsider their motivations and maybe come next year ... You don't have to climb it to experience it."

Climbing closes later this month.
Climbing closes later this month. Source: AAP

And Mr Schwer said he there had been "a bit of confusion" and "misinformation" around the climb, as it's being framed as an "Uluru ban".

"A lot of misinformed customers are coming out thinking that they will never be able to see Uluru again ... To be very, very clear, this is only about closing the climb, not the park itself." 

Welcoming the changes he said current conditions were "unsafe, environmentally degrading and also degrading the cultural values of the landscape and the cultural beliefs of the Anangu".

Tourism operators confident of bright future

Looking ahead, park manager Mr Misso is confident tourists will continue to come after the ban is enforced, citing visitor surveys that show climbing the rock is low on the list of attractions. 

"The numbers of visitors have been steadily increasing over the last five to six years, so we don't think that the closure of the climb will significantly drop numbers," he said.

Lyndee Severin, from the Curtin Springs roadhouse about 100km from Uluru, said there had been an influx in inquiries about next year, thanks to the increased attention on the region. 

"That's partly about putting the region in front of people. We have some spectacular scenery, some spectacular images... and the message has been book now, plan ahead or you might miss out," Ms Severin said.

She expected visitor numbers to go down after such a busy period but she was not worried. 

"We're on a high that we probably won't see again.

"There's going to be that natural and regular drop off over the summer which is usually a quieter time."

5 min read
Published 7 October 2019 at 4:50pm
By Nick Baker, Rosemary Bolger