Whether it has been called Uluru, Ayers Rock, or simply the Rock, Australias giant monolith has been the countrys spiritual heart for many thousands of years. But the death of a tourist on the site last month has reignited a heated controversy that just refuses to go away.
The traveller was a 54-year-old man from the Australian state of Victoria. He collapsed and died while on his way down from the top of Uluru a steep, one-hour climb which is permitted by Australian but not Aboriginal law.
Many myself included would argue that the death should not have happened at all. If Australian authorities had the courage to put aside their misguided beliefs about tourism revenues and instead show a level of respect for indigenous culture, then the climb would have been closed a long time ago.
World Heritage-listed Uluru is sacred to its Aboriginal owners, the Anangu. They ask visitors not to climb it because the walking route is believed to be a Dreamtime track of huge significance, a pathway used by their spiritual ancestors during the creation of the land. As a result, the Anangu, who are believed to have called the area home for 10,000 years, also feel responsible for all the people who have died while attempting the climb. That number stands at 36 since 1958, with the latest victim being the first since 2000.
Defying Thousands of Years of Tradition
Regardless of the spiritual beliefs of the site’s owners, many people still choose to do the treacherous 348m climb. Indeed, considerable numbers visit the site for that specific reason, with many older Australians in particular considering the experience to be some form of national rite of passage.
The climb is closed during times of high winds or Aboriginal ceremonies, but otherwise is open to anybody who fancies a go.
The issue is that, unlike other sacred Aboriginal sites which are more remote and so less valuable to tourism, Australian authorities have always resisted pleas to close the climb. Indeed, federal authorities have actually gone to great lengths to keep it open.
The Anangu own the land after it was formally handed back to them in 1985, but under the terms of the agreement, they were forced to lease Uluru back to the government for 99 years. Despite a promise to the contrary by then prime minister Bob Hawke, climbing the Rock was not banned.
But the last year or so has seen a concerted campaign to ban the climb, led by the governments environment minister (and former Midnight Oil rocker) Peter Garrett.
However the former singer has come up against tough opposition from the tourism industry and, more importantly, his boss prime minister Kevin Rudd. Almost as soon as Garretts plan to close the climb was announced, the supposedly forward-thinking PM was quoted as saying: I think it would be very sad if we got to a stage where Australians, and frankly our guests from abroad, werent able to enjoy that experience to climb it.
A new management plan has since been approved for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which includes several preconditions that must be met before a ban is implemented. One of those is that the number of visitors who do the climb must drop to below 20%; the figure currently stands around 38%. Garrett has stated he believes it will take four years to reach the 20% threshold.
Of course, in a perfect world, the legalities would be irrelevant. It is clear to anyone that has visited this incredibly spiritual site that to take on the climb is a cultural faux pas of massive proportions. Only a select number of the Rocks Aboriginal guardians climb Uluru, and then only for special indigenous ceremonies. It is for good reason that it is revered by not just the local Anangu people, but by the hundreds of Aboriginal tribes across Australia. It truly is the countrys spiritual heart.
Any visitor knows this, of course. It is repeatedly mentioned in the visitor centre and on a big sign at the foot of the climb. But the reality remains that while the climb is open and legal, the prospect of a good view proves simply too tempting for many people.