This week marks the 32nd anniversary of Uluru being handed back to its Traditional Owners, the Anangu people of the Northern Territory. In 1985, under the Hawke Government, the then Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen “gave back” the Uluru title deed to its Traditional Owners – ironic, given Uluru had in fact, always been Aboriginal land. As a part of this *ahem* selfless agreement, the only requirement of the Anangu people from the Government was that the land be leased out to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services for 99 years.
Since the closure of this deal, the park has seen more than seven million visitors and of that number, many have completed ‘the climb’ up Uluru. Despite warnings and requests by the Anangu people against climbing the cultural monolith, tourists are still content to try out a “real” Australian experience.
If you are heading to the red centre and are thinking about taking on the Uluru climb, please – don’t.
1. It is not yours to climb
That is assuming you are not a Traditional Owner of the Anangu People (who, mind you, wouldn't break the traditional law anyhow.)
Whilst the presence of a lease may be slightly confusing as to who owns Uluru, rest assured that in no uncertain terms: Uluru is still owned by the Anangu people. It was theirs before invasion; it was theirs when the white man “discovered” it and renamed it Ayers Rock; it was theirs before they signed the lease and it will continue to be theirs long after that 99 years is up.
Now, I know that many white people have only a tenuous grasp on the concept of ownership, what with the brutal history of stolen land and everything, so let me break it down a bit: If someone owns something and they ask you not to touch/climb/break it then you do not get to touch/climb/break because it is not yours to touch/climb/break.
2. It is incredibly disrespectful
Aside from the fact that taking liberties upon something that’s not yours is just plain rude, climbing Uluru is actually incredibly disrespectful to the Anangu people and their rich and ancient culture. There is a deep-seeded traditional law that has been consistently practiced way, way beyond Ernest Giles rocking up in the 1800s; a sacred law, an intimate law, the kind of law that does not permit climbing the sandstone mass.
Additionally, the path that the climbers actually follow up to the top infiltrates a significant spiritual way walked only by senior initiated men, the Mala men.
Not only do climbers interrupt long-serving Anangu culture by gate-crashing sacred areas, but they are consistently leaving their shit behind - both figuratively and literally. As if climbing Uluru isn’t disrespectful enough, there have been reports of people defecating on it after having made it to the top (despite facilities available at the base). That, along with the abundance of litter dropped, is sending an insulting message to Aboriginal people that they're places of worship can be treated like a dumping ground.
For those of you thinking, why don’t they just block off the pathway? - How about instead of making the Anangu people disrupt the land more than it already has been, why don’t you just show a little bit of respect?
3. It is an incredibly dangerous climb
If the idea of being disrespectful is not enough to deter you, then perhaps the threat of actual physical harm might? That’s right folks, climbing up an 800m massive red rock is actually incredibly dangerous and has resulted in the deaths of over 30 people since its opening.
For obvious reasons, the climb is closed under certain circumstances such as excessive rain, wind or heat as well as during times of cultural mourning. The circumstances under which you are “allowed” to climb are tenuous at best so why not put that time and money into a more safer activity, which could be simply admiring the site from the ground?
4. It’s not like any other tourist attraction
Whilst Uluru is technically a tourist attraction (the entire reason for the 99 year lease), treating this destination as such is incredibly problematic. Unlike the Sydney Opera House, the Great Ocean Road and the Harbour Bridge, Uluru is a largely organic natural attraction and that is where its beauty lies.
The ongoing climbing of Uluru also creates a number of environmental issues, including polluting the waterholes with feces and rubbish and walker's steps trample and erode the unique red sandstone. While the steel of the Harbour Bridge can be repaired if necessary, the regularity of treating Uluru like a playground is destroying a World Heritage Site.
5. It’s not imperative in gaining an understanding of Aboriginal culture
Despite what all those 'Explore Australia' ads make out, climbing Uluru is not a way to engage with Aboriginal culture - in fact, as these points demonstrate, it does the complete opposite.
Unfortunately, justifying climbing Uluru as “connecting with the land” or “wanting to understand” is going off your own assumptions, rather than having a dialogue and listening to Aboriginal people. Understanding why climbing an ancient songline without permission from the Traditional Elders is problematic, is the first step in positive engagement with the Anangu culture.
For those headed to the red centre, know that the Anangu people encourage visitors to learn Tjukurpa stories which are told along the base walk. The community have also purposefully created Talinguru Nyakunytjaku for tourists. It's a viewing platform which gives spectacular views of the site. It was built to not only deter visitors from climbing Uluru, but to guide visitors on a special Men's (Watiku) and Women's (Minymaku) Walk, providing them with an opportunity to understand Anangu culture.
So if you are insistent on climbing Uluru despite having read this 5-step guide on how to avoid being culturally insensitive when you get there, then keep in mind one of two things: One, you are contributing to the ongoing disrespect of Indigenous culture which Aboriginal people have fought against since invasion. Two, you’re an asshole.
Serena Rae is a Mamu Waribarra woman based in Melbourne. She likes to write poetry, sassy opinion pieces and reviews of current Indigenous social issues.