Uluru: To climb or not to climb

By Judy Skatssoon

Two-thirds of visitors to Uluru respect the landowners’ wishes not to scale the rock. Judy Skatssoon is among them.
Climbing Uluru is perfectly legal and thousands of tourists scale the rock each year. Photo / 123RF
Climbing Uluru is perfectly legal and thousands of tourists scale the rock each year. Photo / 123RF

It's 6pm and there's something of a party atmosphere at the Uluru sunset viewing area.

It's packed out with tourists from around the world who've staked out their spots to watch the nightly show.

A woman wearing khakis and an Akubra is perched on top of a Land Cruiser setting up a tripod while two French girls take selfies and a group of people have set up a card table with nibbles and champagne.

Smartphones and iPads are being positioned to capture the best shot of the massive monolith, which will spectacularly change colour from rusty red to chocolate, mulberry, pink, purple and glowing orange as the sun goes down.

A snippet of a conversation floats up from the crowd.

"It's not that big," says a child.

His mother answers loudly in a broad Australian accent. "You won't be sayin' that when we climb it tomorrow."

Climbing Uluru is perfectly legal and thousands of tourists scale the rock each year.

But the climbing route follows a sacred ceremonial path traditionally used by the Mala men, and it is against the wishes of the local indigenous people for tourists to undertake the climb.

"That's a really important, sacred thing that you are climbing, you shouldn't climb, it's not the proper thing," says traditional owner Kunmanara.

Yet one of the first things to confront visitors arriving at the main carpark at the base of Uluru is a climbing chain that scars the side of the rock and disappears over the top. The second is a sign.

"We, the traditional Anangu owners have this to say," the sign reads. "Uluru is sacred in our culture, a place of great knowledge. Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted.

"This is our home. Please don't climb."

Despite this, about 12 people, including a parent with young children, are at various stages up the rock face when we visit one morning. Another five are at the bottom of the climb, preparing to set off.

One of the rangers who takes tourists on tours around the base of Uluru says about 30 per cent of visitors opt to climb. During the guided tour he talks about the environmental damage caused by climbers, including the excrement and vomit they leave behind, the run-off of waste into sacred water holes and a worrying die-off of frogs.

After the tour he says overseas visitors often respect the requests not to climb, but it's not unusual for Australians to have a "my country my rock" attitude.

At the base of the climb, Kim and husband Graham, on holiday from the UK, are reading the sign. Kim says they won't be climbing.

"Just out of respect for the Aboriginal people who asked us not to," she says.

Later, some people return from the climb.

A teenage girl, who didn't want to be named, was here with a school group from NSW. She says the climb was difficult and scary. "We had a cultural talk and everything," she says. "Some of us decided to climb and some didn't.

"I think you should be able to make up your own mind."

Alex, 23, from Germany, was with a group of backpackers he'd met in Melbourne.

He says he was aware that climbing Uluru is culturally sensitive but it didn't deter him.

"I just wanted a good photo," he says. "I have never been in the desert before and the view is really good."

The following day Ann, on holiday with her family from the NSW Central Coast, is at a sunrise viewing of Uluru.

Ann says her husband has previously climbed the rock and she had planned to do the same.

"I was dead set going to do it. You just gotta do it, you know? But then I did the tour and I changed my mind after hearing about how it was disrespectful."

The days where you could buy T-shirts and mugs proclaiming "I climbed Ayers Rock" seem to be long gone.

Such souvenirs are nowhere to be found in the Ayers Rock resort and Yolanda Greening, who works at a tourist shop in Yulara, says "We just don't stock them".

Under a current management plan, the climb is set to close once climbers fall below 20 per cent.

Until then the lure of climbing the geological wonder is likely to remain. But for others the day when the chains come down won't come soon enough.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Qantas flies from Auckland to Uluru twice weekly via Sydney and Melbourne. Return Economy fares start from $1101, all inclusive.
qantas.co.nz

ONLINE
travelnt.com

- AAP

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