The closure of the Uluru climb signals a “new beginning” for a more culturally sensitive kind of tourism, says the national park’s manager.
For the traditional landowners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, October 26 is one of the most significant days in the calendar. It’s the anniversary of Handback – the day in 1985 when the Australian Government returned the park’s land title to the Indigenous people.
This year, October 26 will be especially meaningful for the Anangu people. It will be the first day of a permanent ban on climbing their sacred rock.
But for many people, including Sydney-based miner, Trent, closing access to the summit path is denying Australians enjoyment of a national icon.
Trent says he's well aware of how dangerous the climb is, but that capable climbers like himself should be permitted to take on the challenge. "I'm fit. I’ve got water. I’ve got food. I’ve got my rubbish bag. I’ve been to the toilet. I've got the right clothing. I’m gonna do it safely."
In the years since 1964 when an iron handrail was bolted into Uluru, millions of tourists’ footsteps have worn a white scar up its red face and along the plateau.
According to Tjukurpa lore, the climbing path intersects with the path Kuniya the sand python travelled.
When the announcement of the ban was made in November 2017, Chairman of the Park Board Sammy Wilson wrote, "Whitefellas see the land in economic terms where Anangu see it as Tjukurpa. If the Tjukurpa is gone so is everything. We want to hold on to our culture. If we don’t it could disappear completely in another 50 or 100 years. We have to be strong to avoid this.
"It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland. We want you to come, hear us and learn. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time."
For the Anangu people, banning tourists from climbing the rock is not only about honouring their Tjukurpa creation story; it’s about the safety of those visitors who they welcome to their land – climbing Uluru is extremely dangerous.
"If you get hurt or die, your mother, father and family will really cry and we will be really sad. So think about that and stay on the ground," says Anangu woman, Barbara Tjikatu.
Mike Misso, the Manager of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park has told The Feed that “over 30” people have died since record-keeping began. However, this figure only accounts for those people who died on the rock – not those who died later from cardiac arrest or other injuries sustained while climbing.
If an incident happens, it doesn’t only affect [climbers’] safety but the safety of people who have to rescue them, as well.
Mike says the closure is a “new beginning”: one that embraces more culturally sensitive ways of exploring the park. While he is tight-lipped about what new attractions the park is working on, he says visitors won’t be disappointed and he doesn’t anticipate banning the climb will see a downturn in visitor numbers.
The number of park visitors climbing Uluru has dropped from 74 per cent in the 1990s to 13 per cent this year. However, this month has seen a dramatic spike in numbers because it’s the final peak season before the climb is closed.
Most of those climbing the rock are older Australians.
“As a general comment,” says Mike, “younger people are in support of the closure of the climb and perhaps that relates back to things like Indigenous education in schools in more recent years.”
Frank traveled to Uluru with his partner Leonie to celebrate his retirement. On the issue of respecting Indigenous requests not to set foot on the rock, Frank says, "There are chains and polls and everything drilled into it. So, really, that respect has been gone for a while already [...]. It’s not going to make much difference because if I don’t climb it someone will until October." Interestingly, Frank is keen to see the climb closed so that people like himself are forced to "take it off their bucket list."
Angela, a retired school teacher from Melbourne who was visiting Uluru told The Feed, “I climbed it 50 years ago. I was with a school group but I must say there was never any question back then as to it being sacred. But now [climbing] isn’t something I want to do:
It’s a selfish thing. It’s a personal thing. It’s people being able to say, ‘I did it’.
Tom has been guiding tours around – not up – Uluru on and off for 11 years. Once he explains to his tour groups why the Anangu people request they don’t climb the rock, most of them don’t climb. But it’s harder getting through to older Australians, he says. “They know it’s wrong, but they want to do it anyway – what do you call that ‘[cognitive] dissonance’?”
Angela’s friend Anne, who’s also a teacher, was more than happy to appreciate the walk around the rock than venture up it, but says it wasn’t easy watching others walk past the sign imploring people not to climb.
“At one stage my husband said he felt he needed to restrain me from not getting angry with people [who climb]”, she told The Feed.
“But I think that’s part of it, too – you can’t get angry. You have to try and convey the way you feel in a respectful way to other people because otherwise it becomes a banter between people – us against them.
“It’s about us showing respect, even respect to people who are doing the wrong thing.”