The historic battle of Indigenous Australians in defence of the sacred rock comes to an end. After 32 years of fighting the Anangu community have managed to ban the climbing of Uluru.
In the red heart of Australia lies a place that has captivated thousands of tourists for almost 90 years— the sandstone monolith of Uluru. Considered a sacred place for the centre of the country’s first people, this rock formation which dates back 600 million years has closed its roads for future climbers wanting to trek 348 meters to the top. The closure of the rock, scheduled for two years time and announced a few weeks ago, is the result of a battle fought by the Anangu Indigenous community for over three decades to respect the spiritual nature of this natural space.
The Anangu Aborigines— of which there are now approximately 4,000— believe that the monolith was created by ancestors in ancient times. The caves located around Uluru contain ancient paintings which are tangible proof of the presence of their ancestors. Currently, rituals are still taking place inside these caves. Named “Ayers Rock” upon European colonisation, it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, two years after having its original name restored.
October 26 2019 will commemorate the return of Uluru National Park and Kata Tjuta, where the site is located, to the Anangu people after years of their culture and wishes being disregarded. The Administrative Board, composed mostly of traditional Aboriginal owners, made a unanimous decision to prohibit entry to the top of the landmark. The decision was announced a few weeks ago by National Park Director Sally Barnes, also a member of the Board.
“This is a significant moment for all Australians and marks a new chapter in our history,” Ms Barnes said.
The administrative plan established that three conditions had to be met in order to prohibit climbing of Uluru. One of them was that there should be a reduction of at least 20% in the number of people wanting to climb the peak, a condition that had already been fulfilled. In 2015, the number of the visitors who climbed was 16.5%, and in 2016, 91% of those questioned in a survey said that they would not scale the peak. The top of the mountain has been less frequented this year, being open just over 20% of the time, although sometimes due to the weather conditions.
Climbing as a tourist activity began in the 1930s. A wire fence was installed in 1966 after two people died, although this was done without consulting the traditional owners. Since 1950 at least 36 people have died at Uluru, and 74 people were rescued between 2002 and 2009.
Besides wanting to respect the sacredness of the site, the Anangu community wants to avoid possible injuries and fatal accidents of visitors. “Over the years, the Anangu have been intimidated, as if someone were pointing a gun at our heads to keep it open,” chairman of the Administrative Board Sammy Wilson said. “The white men see the land in economic terms, where the Anangu see a tjukupa, a cultural law.”
“If I travel to another country and there is a sacred place, I do not enter or scale it, I respect it. It’s the same here for the Anangu. We are not stopping tourism, only this activity,” he said.
“It’s an extremely important place, not a playground or an amusement park like Disneyland.”
Recently, The Guardian newspaper dug up complaints about tourists urinating on the summit, which could contaminate the water that reaches the base during heavy rainfall. Debate also raged when Australian football personality Sam Newman was photographed hitting a golf ball off the rock and another man was pictured naked on top.
The incidents outraged Aboriginals all over again, across the country. “It makes us feel pretty sad,” said Mick Mundine, the chief executive of the Sydney-based Aboriginal Housing Company. “We are the first people of Australia, but we still don’t get the recognition and respect of our culture.”
For Nicole Clarke, 37, a personal assistant from Sydney, the decision to climb in 2009 wasn’t one that she took lightly. She had been warned about the cultural issues, but in the end her curiosity won out.
“When I arrived there were a lot of people climbing the rock, they all looked like ants on a hill,” she said. “I spoke to my grandmother and she had climbed the rock 20 years before and thought it was an amazing thing to do. I didn’t want to be a sheep and follow the flock, but I thought one more person isn’t going to make much of a difference.”
She said there was “something spiritual” about being on top and looking out onto the sweeping desert. “There is a sense of calmness when you are up there,” she said.
Despite the controversy, Ms Clarke doesn’t regret her decision. “The climb was more challenging than I originally thought. Once on top of the rock, the view was breathtaking. I am pleased I did it … but to what cost to the Aborigines, I don’t know.”
The Central Council of the Earth that represents the Aboriginal nations in Central Australia celebrated the decision of the Board for having corrected “a historical error”. Meanwhile, the Anangu, who have so far organised some visits and services, will continue to promote more sustainable tourism, respecting the land and its culture.
Tourism Central Australia, which has stated that they support the decision made by the Board, has also pointed out that the public is still able to access much of the site respectfully. Activities that visitors can still participate in include hiking or biking around the rock, hovering above it in a helicopter, or riding through the park on camelback. Visitors can also learn about the local indigenous culture and view art at the Uluru-Kata National Park’s Cultural Centre.