IT’S NOT AN EASY FEAT TO SEE ULURU.
1,852 kilometers from Darwin. 2,837 kilometers from Sydney. 2,880 kilometers from Cairns. 3,670 kilometers from Perth. Those who make the desolate drive on the never-ending stretch of steaming asphalt past dirt-caked landscapes, battered kangaroo bodies, and the skeletal remains of abandoned, rusted cars feel they’ve earned that climb up the iconic sandstone monolith.
They’ve earned the ability to stand proudly over Australia’s vast and remote Red Centre from 348 metres high and snap a Hefe-filtered Instagram photo. It’s their right of passage for their holiday down under — or, maybe if they’re an Australian, it’s their birthright. They’re not breaking any laws — there’s even a metal hand-chain to support their strained weight against brutal winds and sweltering temperatures. Despite signs urging them to reconsider their ascent, nothing is stopping them.
But that doesn’t mean they should make the climb.
Uluru is a sacred site for the Anangu people — the traditional owners of the land. Crack, crevice, or cave, each inch of the monolith is loaded with spiritual meaning dating back thousands of years before European explorers discovered the rock in the 1870s. For the Anangu people, it’s an organic cathedral. They believe Uluru was formed by ancestral beings during Dreamtime, which, according to Aboriginal culture, is the beginning of knowledge and the laws of existence. The climb, under Anangu law, is strictly for senior men initiated into the Anangu culture.
Climbing Uluru isn’t just against traditional cultural beliefs. It’s also an urgent environmental issue. Since the development of Uluru’s tourism in the 1950s, the path has since been eroded by millions of footsteps. Simply put, it’s changing the face of Uluru. The faint white line worn into the red ochre by rubber-soled sneakers winding up the eastern end of the rock is called “minga” by the Anangu, which is Pitjantjatjara — a dialect of the Western Desert language — for “ants,” an appropriate name given to the path of back specks clambering their way to the summit. Additionally, there are no toilets on the rock nor is there any soil to dig a hole. Waste and urine left behind by climbers washes down when it rains, poisoning the waterholes for native animals and people.
Safety is another reason to avoid the climb. “We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land,” the pamphlet at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre reads. “We worry about you and we worry about your family.” 35 people have died while attempting the three-kilometer round-trip endeavor. Countless others have been rescued from life threatening situations.
Uluru was returned to its original owners in 1985, under the condition that it would be leased to the federal government for the next 99 years.
A Brisbane man in his 50s cracked open a XXXX Gold. He jumped out of the passenger side of his renovated bus-turned-home and slurped the foam collecting on top of the can. “You can’t expect the rest of the world to have silly superstitions.” He kicked at the fire. “I climbed Ayers Rock back in the 70s, and I plan on climbing it again tomorrow. Hell, I’ll probably climb it when I’m 80.” Ayers Rock was the name given to the site by Australian explorer William Gosse in 1873.
A 31-year-old woman from Cairns drew a tribal sun in the dirt with a twig. “The view was pretty spectacular when I climbed it 10 years ago,” she said, breaking the twig with her thumbs. “Although, I’m not climbing it this time. It’s made pretty clear that you shouldn’t climb it.”
But not everyone who visits Uluru comes for the climb.
“I’m not planning on it,” a 24-year-old German on a working holiday explained. “I’m happy with doing the base walk instead.” He poked at the fire. “I also plan on respecting the no photography sections when I’m doing it.” The base walk is a 10.6 kilometer hike encouraged by the Anangu people for visitors to develop a deeper understanding of the place.
“5th visit here, and I still haven’t climbed Uluru. I certainly don’t plan on it,” a 36-year-old woman from Sydney said proudly. “I wouldn’t climb it just like I wouldn’t bare my bum at Angkor Wat or take a piss on the steps of Notre Dame. I’m not a religious or spiritual woman, but I am a respectful one.”
“If I had it my way, the chain would be cut down,” a 27-year-old man from Melbourne laughed.
In October, 2015 a man known only as “John” cut the climbing chains as an act of protest during the 30th anniversary of the site’s handback to the Anangu people. He explained he felt a close connection to the sacred site, and although he didn’t seek permission from the traditional owners before climbing the rock, he has since been deemed a “hero” by the Anangu elders.
Following the incident, many thought it would be an appropriate opportunity for the joint management committee of Anangu people and Parks Australia to remove the chain permanently. However, Parks Australia stated that the chain would be repaired.
“What are you to do?” one of the workers at the Cultural Centre sighed, tapping her pen on an organized stack of glossy pamphlets. “People will still climb it. And without the chain, they’ll kill themselves. We don’t have the chain up because we encourage the climb; we’re just trying to protect those who are going to do it anyway.”
Each year, more than 300,000 people visit Uluru. Of those 300,000 visitors, less than 20% choose to climb. This number is down from 75% of visitors in 1990, 52% in 1995, and 38% in 2006. Whether it’s from the climb eventually being banned or from an ever-growing awareness, hopefully this percentage will continue to dwindle. Still, hundreds choose to climb Uluru daily.
At the base, with a backdrop of blurred ant silhouettes struggling to the summit, there’s a sign that reads, “Is it right to continue, knowing what we know today? Is this a place to conquer — or a place to connect with?”
Listen to the Anangu people.
Connect. Don’t climb.