Climbing Uluru: the debate has changed

For decades Australia’s most iconic landmark Uluru was plagued by conflict between Northern Territory tourism and the Anangu people about climbing their culturally significant rock, but that is changing with new talks about introducing culturally-sensitive conditions and regulations on Australian Tourism Industry.

Tour guides encourage their crew not to climb, signs around the park urge visitors not to, and many visitors choose to listen. Instead they enjoy the stories and history of the rock, walk around the base to view the ancient paintings, take photographs of the eerie formations that correlate with the Dreamtime tales, and sign then their names in a guest book located in the Cultural Centre in support of the Anangu people’s wishes not to climb.

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(Original photograph by Nikolina Gagic. Take note of the shadow of a face in the middle of the photograph.)

G Adventures’ CEO Guide Brett Grant has worked as a guide in Uluru for two years, and before that lived and worked in the area for three. He explains that there has been a miscommunication between parties: “The Anangu people’s opposition is  not always represented accurately at times.

“One; the Anangu people do not consider themselves the owners of Uluru, but the protectors of the rock, the land surrounding, and the creatures that inhibit it, which includes the people who visit and climb, and two; the rock carries spiritual importance to them and the climb, which has seen over 35 people plummet to their death, is too dangerous and they can’t stand aside and say nothing  because their responsibility is to protect.”

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(Original photograph by Nikolina Gagic.)

“At the moment all that the climb entails is metal posts jammed into the rock and a chain for people to hold onto. It takes three hours to get to the top and the only way to get down is the same way you got up.

“Weather conditions can make Uluru 40 degrees (celsius) hot, heavy winds, and heavy rainfall makes the climb slippery the climb is closed in summer and whenever the weather is forecast to be dangerous.

“Climbers let a lot of their rubbish, like water bottles and food wrappers drop to the bottom, and they relieve their bladders onto the rock and travels down into the water holes, which is in a lot of people’s opinion a rude thing to do for something spiritually significant,” Grant says.

It is no secret that for years the climb was met with plenty of controversy and offence over its spiritual importance to the Anangu people being brushed off and their concerns ignored by officials. The previous concern for the tourism industry were that the destination would dwindle as a tourist destination because that’s what attracted the most visitors.

However, the dropping numbers of climbers since the early 2000’s has not seen a decrease in the 400,000 annual visitors to Uluru. Katie Nolan, worker at the Cultural Centre, says the guest book averages around 2000 signatures a week during the months of June to August, the safest time to climb.

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In fact, there is expectations of increasing visitor numbers with the opening of Jetstar direct flights from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport, and the millions of dollars in the refurbishment and rejuvenation of Ayers Rock Resort. With increasing number of visitors, more people will be asked to make the decision of whether to climb or not.

Now the Northern Territory Tourism are aiming to close the gap between visitors and the Indigenous through a Reconciliation Plan for the next two years, which might see a new Uluru in the future.

The Reconciliation Plan for 2014-16 outlines that “Australia’s national identity is enhanced by Indigenous history, culture and heritage. We believe tourism is a powerful force in building and supporting new creative, cultural, economic and social opportunities for Indigenous communities across the country.

“We are committed to assisting  First Nations people to share their stories and experiences with the world and believe that we have a unique responsibility to promote Indigenous culture globally through our promotion and marketing of Australia as a destination.”

reconciliation plan for northern territory tourism

(Sreenshot from Reconciliation Plan document linked above.)

The plan aims to encourage the Indengnous to have a voice in the matter of Tourism Australia, and to support them to spread their message and concerns.

In an article by traveller.com,  another guide at Uluru explains there’s an alternative to closing the climb “some Anangu would like to develop the climbing route, increase the safety standards to something similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, and reopen it to those willing to pay for the experience” says John Sweeny.

This would mean safety concerns eliminated, environmental concerns of the impact footprint has on the rock reduced, and visitors enabled to get the views and the photographs.

What do you think is the best solution for both the Anangu people and Tourism Australia? Comment below.

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