Heart Of Australia

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

The majesty of Uluru draws in over 250,000 visitors from all over the world each year and while they are still able to climb the landmark, whether they should is another question altogether. Out of respect for their culture and law or Tjukurpa, the traditional custodians of Uluru, the Anangu people, ask that visitors please refrain from climbing the rock. The one-hour journey to the top is also a steep and hazardous one. Over the years more than 35 people have died while climbing Uluru and many more have been injured. There is word of plans to stop local and international visitors from climbing Uluru completely – although local business owners are worried the move will lead to a decline in tourist numbers.

Geologists estimate that Uluru is around 550 million years old. The Anangu people have been the traditional custodians of Uluru for tens of thousands of years and were the ones who named it. Uluru was dubbed “Ayers Rock” in 1873 by William Gosse who named it in honour of his superior, the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayer. In 1950, the government took possession of Uluru and the nearby Kata Tjuta, turning the two sites and surrounding area comprising over 311,000 acres into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

Kata Tjuta is about 30 kilometres drive from Uluru. Like its famous neighbour, Kata Tjuta looks absolutely spectacular at sunrise and sunset. Kata Tjuta means “many heads” in the local Aboriginal language and the landmark is a group of 36 steep sided domes. In 1872, Ernest Giles named Kata Tjuta “The Olgas” in honour of Queen Olga of Wurttemberg. There are 12 walking paths winding through the valleys of Kata Tjuta and the Anangu people still hold traditional ceremonies at 10 of the private paths. Two of the paths, the Walpa Gorge Walk and the Valley of the Winds Walk, remain open to the public.

The tranquil silence surrounding Uluru and Kata Tjuta only adds to the experience but the sites, in particular Uluru, have been the subject of much controversy and deliberation in recent times. On 11 December 1983, the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised to hand back the land title of Uluru to the Anangu people. He agreed with the community’s 10-point plan that included granting the government a 50-year lease of the land and prohibiting people from climbing Uluru. The official ceremony of handing back the land title took place on 26 October 1985, but not before the lease was changed to 99 years and climbing was determined to still be permitted. Today, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Area. The Director of Parks Australia and a 12-member board that includes eight Indigenous members jointly manage Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Climbing Uluru is by far the most sensitive and controversial management issue.

In the 70s and 80s it was common for visitors to climb Uluru, more commonly known then as Ayers Rock. Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, climbed Uluru in 1983 during their tour of Central Australia – but times and attitudes have changed since then. During the most recent Royal visit, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, opted not to climb Uluru. Instead, the couple took a guided walking tour around the base with an Indigenous guide and two locals. Traditional landowner Daisy Walkabout welcomed Charles and Diana to Uluru and was pleased to do the same for William and Kate. The couple were treated to Indigenous dance performances from locals, handed out certificates to hospitality and catering graduates from the National Indigenous Training Academy and received several gifts.

Among the gifts, which included a handmade shield and spear for William, jewellery for Kate and a camel hair beanie for baby George, was a basket of dot paintings on paper made from Mala droppings! The Mala, or Rufous Hare-wallaby, is a highly endangered species, and the Anangu people believe that they descended from the Mala and that their ancestors journeyed over Uluru in the Dreamtime. Uluru is a sacred place and a vital part of the Anangu Dreaming; that is one of the reasons they discourage tourists from climbing the rock. Yet there is another reason behind asking tourists not to climb Uluru, that the Anangu say is private knowledge and prefer to keep to themselves.

While some believe that Uluru, being a natural and not man-made wonder, should be accessible to all local and international visitors, the Anangu have serious concerns for the safety of climbers. A chain handhold was added to the marked path in 1964 and extended in 1976 to make the climb more accessible, but accidents still happen. Every time a climber is killed or injured, the Anangu people feel a tremendous sense of sadness and shame because under Tjukurpa law they have a duty to educate and protect guests on their land.

Traditional owner Kunmanara is often quoted as stating, “That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing. You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing.’”

Visitors engaging in lewd and offensive behaviour at the summit of Uluru has also increased pressure to ban the climb altogether. In June 2010, 25-year-old exotic dancer Alizee Sery caused widespread outrage and condemnation when she fulfilled a lifelong dream of stripping on top of Uluru. French born Alizee had her impromptu performance, which she described as a “tribute” to the Aborigines, photographed and taped. She later told The Sunday Territorian, “I did not mean in any way for this video to offend the Aboriginal culture. I am aware that Uluru is sacred in their culture. My project is a tribute to the greatness of The Rock. What we need to remember is that traditionally, the Aboriginal people were living naked. So stripping down was a return to what it was like.”

Following the incident, the Central Land Council representing the traditional owners called for then Prime Minister Julia Gillard to have Alizee deported immediately. Council Director David Ross described the performance as “an arrogant show of disrespect”. Not long after, the NT News published a photo of football personality Sam Newman hitting a golf ball off the top of Uluru. Photos of another man dancing naked at the summit also made the headlines. And there is another good reason why – besides all of the above – that the Anangu want to close the climb. There are no restroom facilities on top of Uluru and over the years, there have been numerous instances of climbers urinating and defecating on the summit.

In 2010, then Environmental Minister Peter Garret approved a new 10-year management plan for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The plan stated that the Director and board would work toward the closure of the climb for visitor safety, cultural and environmental reasons. However, the climb will only be permanently closed when the board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been established; the proportion of visitors climbing Uluru falling below 20 per cent will be another key factor in the decision to close the climb. The number one priority for the board is to offer a wide variety of alternative activities for visitors to Uluru with a particular emphasis on providing cultural experiences. Prior to prohibiting the climb, the board has also committed to providing the tourism board with an 18-month notice period.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park boasts over 400 different species of plants, many of which provide a source of food, medicine and fuel to the traditional owners. There is also a diverse array of animals including 21 native mammal species, 73 reptile species, 178 species of birds and thousands of invertebrates. Uluru is also host to authentic Anangu rock art and there are walking tours led by local guides where visitors can hear Dreamtime stories that have been passed down from generation to generation for tens of thousands of years.

The Anangu say the best way to experience Uluru is simply by looking and listening. And while Uluru is a photographer’s dream, at the base of the rock is a sign urging visitors to put away the camera and just look.

Uluru and Kata Tjuta are far from tourist attractions or lifeless rocks in the eyes of the Anangu. They are sacred places with stories to tell and are interconnected with life past, present and future. There is plenty of scope to develop new visitor experiences at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park that are culturally respectful but commercially viable and it will be interesting to see what the future will bring. In the meantime though, it would mean a great deal if local and international visitors kindly respected the wishes of the Anangu when they say, “Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima” (please don’t climb Uluru).

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June 22, 2018, 5:13 PM AEST