To Climb or Not to Climb Uluru in Australia

  • Marcela Torres
  • 16 March 2012

This article was originally published by our friends at Southern Cone Journeys, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their blog.

The Aboriginal sacred site of Uluru – also known as Ayers Rock – is one of Australia’s most recognizable natural icons. The time seems right to ponder over a question that has for decades been the subject of a much-heated debate: Should tourists be allowed to climb the rock or not? Respecting indigenous cultures and local traditions is at the core of the responsible tourism concept and it is the center of the controversy over Uluru.

Sunrise over Uluru, Australia

Sunrise is a spectacular time to photograph Uluru, the traditional Aboriginal name for what many people still know as Ayers Rock in Australia's red centre. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

Uluru, which is part of the UNESCO-listed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park World Heritage Site – located 450 kilometers (280 miles) west of Alice Springs, in the state of the Northern Territory – is climbed by more than 100,000 people every year. The sandstone formation rises to 348 metres (1,142 feet) above sea level and measures 9.4 kilometres (5.8 miles) in circumference. Those who have been fortunate enough to visit the site say Uluru appears to change color depending on how light strikes it at different times of the day and year.

But the popular climb of the monolith has long enraged local Aboriginals, the Anangu people. Under Aboriginal law, they are responsible for protecting Uluru and its visitors. They say the site is sacred and have called for the climb to be banned since Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was placed in their hands in 1985.

Circumnavigating Uluru, Australia

Although climbing is strongly discouraged, circumnavigating Uluru is possible by following a flat walk that hugs the vertical undulations of the rock. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

The Anangu people believe that during the time when the world was being formed, the Uluru climb was the traditional route taken by ancestral men when they arrived at Uluru. Because of this spiritual significance, they prefer that – out of education and understanding – visitors respect their law and culture by not climbing.

Safety is also an issue. The path is about 1.6 kilometres long and takes about two hours to complete. Since it can be treacherous, the first part has a chain to hold on to. It is reported that 36 people have died and many more have been injured attempting the climb, something that worries traditional owners.

There are environmental concerns as well. Park officials say the climbing path has been worn down by the constant tread of tourists and erosion is changing the face of Uluru. The lack of toilets and garbage cans on top also means tourists leave behind waste that is affecting nearby waterholes.

Money Is the Matter

The park estimates that around 38 percent of visitors climb each year, down from 74 percent in 1990. Even so, tour operators in the region continue to offer the climb as the main attraction of the visit to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and they often do not inform clients of the cultural and spiritual significance of the place. The first time many tourists hear “Please don’t climb Uluru” is when they read their entry ticket.

The market demands it, people want to climb, and since there is no law against climbing Uluru/Ayers Rock, many companies continue to feature the same popular offerings: sunrise viewing, climb, sunset viewing.

Until now, the national park’s management has employed a strategy of visitor education to face this issue, with interpretive signs expressing the distress that climbing causes the local owners and asking that visitors participate in alternative activities. However, changes in attitudes and behaviors of visitors usually take place over the long term and sometimes it is necessary to apply more direct management techniques such as banning an activity to ensure the conservation of the natural attraction and ensure that tourists will show the necessary respect.

In 2009, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management took the initiative in drafting a 10-year management plan recommending closure of the climb, highlighting that the activity is culturally insensitive. Although the measure did not have strong political support, climbing Uluru has its days counted anyway.

Under the terms of the lease the Anangu elders granted in 1985 to the National Parks Service, the right to climb expires in 2020, and the national park is currently recruiting a professional to oversee the closure of the climb. If the climb is permitted beyond this date, the lease would have to be renegotiated.

Some industry stakeholders argue that the prohibition could lead to reduced visitor numbers and that it would have serious financial implications for the Anangu, who receive 22.5 percent of all gate receipts and have sole rights to undertake commercial activity within the national park.

Caverns of Uluru, Australia

The surface of Uluru is marked by caverns, overhangs, rock piles, gullies, water holes and more, most of which are of such significance to Aboriginal teaching and lore that their meaning is left untold. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

There are, however, several attractive alternative tours within the park with activities that do not upset the traditional owners. These include walking expeditions to explore rock formations and Aboriginal art sites around the base, escorted by local guides and an interpreter. Visitors learn about creation myths, bush foods, traditional didgeridoo-playing, dot-painting and spear-throwing.

A brochure available at the Cultural Center in the park carries an important message from the Anangu elders:

“That is a really important sacred thing that you are climbing . . . You shouldn’t climb. It is not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. Listening and understanding everything. Why are we going to tell you to go away (and ask you not to climb)? So that you understand this . . . so that you understand, we are informing you: Don’t climb. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But any way, that is what we have to say. We are obliged to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say: ‘Oh, I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that is right.’ This is the proper way: No climbing.”

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Marcela Torres

Marcela Torres is a journalist born in Santiago, Chile. She has lived in the United States, Costa Rica and Australia, where she earned a master's degree in tourism. Following her passion for travel, she has visited most of Chile, Peru, Brazil and Argentina. She is co-author of a guide to Chile’s national parks (in Spanish), a blogger (click Read More Here) and founder of Southern Cone Journeys, a responsible tourism operator based in Chile.
Marcela Torres
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Australia, Australia & New Zealand, holy sites, indigenous culture, national parks, Oceania, opinion, outdoors, personal experience, world heritage,

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