Uluru: The Controversial Climb
By: Mike Jerrard
From the beginning of time it seems as though humans have had a fascination with climbing. From Kilimanjaro to Everest, we seem to have this desire to reach the top of things. The reasons are quite clear as reaching the summit of anything whether it be a hill or a mountain brings a sense of achievement and the view never disappoints. Some of us climb to remain fit, some simply love the feeling of being outdoors, and some make treks upwards for spiritual reasons. Whatever the motivation, heading towards the clouds has and always will be a desire and Mother Nature has blessed us with majestic peaks which allow us to do so. To suppress that desire would be to take away part of us which makes us human. Unfortunately in the case of Australia’s Uluru, one of the most remarkable landmarks in the world, prohibition of our human nature may soon be a reality.
Uluru, or Ayers Rock as Europeans renamed it, is a stunning rock jutting out from the outback of Australia. Almost anyone who is shown a photo of the massive orange rock can tell you its importance as a symbol of Australia. It makes up part of the Uluru- Kata Tjuta National Park. Kata Tjuta is equally impressive with its 36 dome like rock formations and doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Today with consistent flights managed by Qantas, Jetstar, and Virgin all linking the outside world to Ayers Rock Airport, it has become a must see destination when visiting down under. Unfortunately whenever you bring differing cultures together there are bound to be quarrels and that has sadly turned a place that is so incredibly beautiful into a controversial war zone.
To climb or not to climb? That is the dilemma when one finds themselves face to face with this incredible monolith. My wife and I stood there reading the sign posted by the Anangu people asking that we not climb the rock as it crosses an important and sacred ceremonial path taken by the ancient Mala men. Under Australian law it is not illegal to climb Uluru and you face no fines for climbing it unless it is closed by the park service due to weather such as wind which could post a safety risk. It was a difficult internal decision to make weather to climb or not as the last thing you want to do as a world traveler is disrespect any culture you encounter. Ultimately we chose to climb however and I will tell you why I personally decided to do so. But first a little background on how the National Park came to be.
Tourism around Uluru really began to take off in the 1950’s and by 1958 it had been designated a National Park. There is no fighting the fact that the Anangu people and their lifestyle suffered from the new migrants who pretty much took over their land. It would take many decades later until Australia would finally hand back the land to the previous owners in 1985, well sort of. They may have made the symbolic gesture to aboriginal land rights but only under the forced condition that the land be leased back to the government for nearly 100 years. The Anangu truly owned their land, in the eyes of the law anyway, for all of 5 minutes before signing the lease which made management of the land a joint effort between the Anangu and the National Park Service. The agreement would give them much needed money to cope with the new life that had been imposed on them but it would come at the cost of their heritage and safeguarding their beliefs.
What happened to the Australian Aborigines when the Europeans found and took over Australia is devastating as is anytime a group gets forced off the land they are currently inhabiting. We are a species that loves a voyage and we have never stopped exploring. It is the nature of any living thing to compete for space on this planet and whether it is right or wrong, that fact will never change. The sad fact is that we are all both individually and collectively as ethnic groups just leasing land on this earth and territorial boundaries will continue to shift and sometimes change drastically until our species takes its last breath. True ownership of land is never really possible.
The Australian Aborigine also holds the belief that land cannot be owned but rather the land owns us. That somewhat contradicts the argument that the land is truly theirs and that we should therefore hold to their beliefs. Aborigine by very definition is defined as a person, plant, or animal that has been in a country or region from the earliest times. One could argue that the animals that came before us were the true landowners and we should have therefore left them to live as they had. Human nature however does not work that way. We all want a piece of this planet and as our population continues to grow, we will need to combine our beliefs and as treat each other with respect. I believe its possible to respect one another but that not necessarily does that mean you have to adhere to differing spiritual beliefs. This is why I chose to make the climb.
As I took my first steps I admit that a bit of guilt crept its way inside me but as I reached the top the guilt had vanished and a magical spiritual feeling overtook me. All the worries of the modern world vanished as I gazed out over the stunning landscape and I felt I had made the right decision. With all the controversy surrounding Uluru it is simply when you break it down just a rock. If we look thousands of years into the future, past spiritual traditions and beliefs that once took place here will most likely be forgotten. Look deep into the past and these beliefs hadn’t even developed yet. Take the human element out of the equation and it is just another natural landmark that will far outlive the human race. I think the rock itself deserves the most respect more so than any group of people or spirituality. My personal opinion is that as long as the rock and its surrounding landscape are shown respect, then it should be climbed and experienced by all those who make the voyage. We can only hope that the nudity, bathroom habits, and just pure utter disrespect shown by some doesn’t ruin it for the rest of us.
Currently Uluru is still legal to climb but that may not be the case for much longer. If any of three things happen, the park service may look into closing the climb for good.
- Less than 20% of those making the trip to Uluru make the climb.
- Enough alternative experiences are added to replace the climb such as the planned 5 day, 100 km hike from Amata to Uluru.
- The climb is not the principle reason tourists make the visit.
Many argue that at least one of these has been met and the climb should be closed immediately. I personally believe it should never be off limits for the reasons I have shared. The only thing that would sway me from encouraging others to climb is if the Anangu were granted full rights to the land and therefore could set their own rules. If they are deemed the landowners in the eyes of the law then it would become their property and to climb would be to trespass. This ownership idea however goes against everything that the Anangu stand for.
Planning your trip to Uluru:
- Jetstar and Virgin operate direct flights from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport and Qantas have flights from Sydney via stopover in Alice Springs (car hire is available at airport)
- 3 -Day park passes are available at $25/adult and $12.50/child. Family and annual pass discounts available
- Park opened year round and best time to visit is the cooler months of May to September ***NOTE: Climbing Uluru is prohibited by the park during the hot summer months of December thru February after 8am due to safety issues
- Accommodation options- Ayers Rock Resort & Longitude 131 are highly recommended