• Dr Stephen Hagan supports the closure of climbing Uluru. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
OPINION: Former climber Dr Stephen Hagan explains his own change of heart on climbing Uluru.
Stephen Hagan

19 Dec 2019 - 12:32 PM  UPDATED 19 Dec 2019 - 12:32 PM

With the official Uluru-Kata National Park Board of Management ban on climbing Uluru coming into effect, I pause to reflect on recent controversy and of my climb of the resplendent World-Heritage listed sandstone monolith over 41 year’s ago.

Board chairman and Uluru traditional owner Sammy Wilson had one simple message ‘that it was time’ when he spoke on behalf of his committee on announcing the ban on 1 November 2017.

Sammy Wilson, in providing the pubic with 18 month’s notice of his board’s ban, said the closure was cause for celebration of both Anangu and non-Anangu because ‘it’s the right thing to close it’ and most importantly ‘the land has law and culture’.

Then the fire works of public disdain and ‘kick the Aborigine again’ opportunity presented itself as new controversial fodder for feverish social commentators to draw on for headlines on a slow news day.

Despite the palpable oversight in most mainstream commentary and the xenophobia-driven social media of the ‘the rock is my culture too’ and ‘I should be allowed to climb it anytime’ it’s important to highlight the fact that the board’s decision to ban climbers of the sacred rock wasn’t taken lightly.

Criteria for the climb to be banned

The Board, made up of a majority of traditional owners, on releasing its 2010-2020 Management Plan was unambiguous when articulating that any one of the specified three critical areas needed to be met before a ban would come into effect:

That the Board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been successfully established, or

The proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent, or 

The cultural and natural experiences on offer are the critical factors when visitors make their decisions to visit the park.

Shock horror, all three criteria were met, yet the nation’s conservative social commentators, spurred in to a feeding frenzy by their significant silent keyboard like minded fan base backing, failed to acknowledge this considerable fact. Then again why would they start now on letting the truth get in the way of the narrative they hastily invented as time ticked down to the day when traditional owner’s veto would usurp hedonism?

It will surely be a day of humiliation for celebrated media pundits around the nation on realisation of their predicted ‘impossible’ (no ban, not in their lifetime) turning out to be our ‘possible’ on Saturday 26 October 2019. I will view the milestone event as a day when feted bigotry of Australia’s unenlightened horde is crushed by cultural authority.

My journey, why I climbed

Back when I climbed the international landmark on 28 June 1978, then named Ayers Rock after the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers by explorer William Gosse in 1873 – I did so with approval from the Anangu and aided by one of their younger warriors.

On sighting the task ahead of me at the base I was instantly awe-struck not only by its beauty but also by the sheer cliff face that I had to initially conquer before I could begin to imagine making inroads into the hour-long trek to the summit. By the time I’d walked 100 metres, cognizant of firmly placing one step after another on smooth rock surface, I was relieved to see the sight of a thick chain that allayed my fear of the imminence of an unceremonious fall.

The thick handheld chain, embedded into the rock in 1964 and extended in 1976 to make the steep climb safer for visitors, assisted me immensely as I do have a genuine fear of heights. If the chain was not in place back then I probably would’ve bit my pride and crawled my way back down to the base.

After following marked yellow footprints on the rock to the summit for the next 40 minutes, across undulating challenging smooth surfaces, I finally arrived to a manmade rock stand where I signed my name in a book attached inside it. With that little senseless matter over I stood with the breeze in my face on a cool winter’s day and breathed in the purest of central desert air and took in the majesty of Anangu landscape.

The mosaic of earthly colours that changed little from the time original footprints stepped softly to preserved the fragility of its pristine soil, the provider for immeasurable generations that followed, was, if nothing else in hindsight, indelibly imprinted in my mind as pleasant historical snapshots stored for personal posterity.

Why I changed my mind about climbing

In anticipation of further public uproar from self-indulgent bogans, I respectfully ask fence sitters on the topic to consider the profound words of the respected leader Sammy Wilson who pronounced all those years ago that if he traveled to ‘another country and there is a sacred site, and area of restricted access, I don’t enter or climb it, I respect it’.

Now those respectful words from a humble leader sounds fair enough to me, so why has his committee’s sanctioned decision not gone over so well with sections of this nation’s population and many international visitors?

Perhaps a climb up the War Memorial in Canberra or the Opera House in Sydney might put some context into the current debate?


Dr Stephen Hagan, a Kullilli man from south-west Queensland, is an award winning author, film-maker, academic, former diplomat and businessman. 

Editors note: This article was originally published 26 Oct 2019 but for technical reasons, NITV has republished.