Climbing Uluṟu was finally banned as of the 26th October 2019. Until then though it’s fair game, but at what cost? Explorer Adrian Mascenon has just returned from the Red Centre and he reckons we need to talk about Uluṟu.
Recently, Rachel Lewis questioned the very substance and ethos of what we do as Explorers. Do we swathe tracks through desolate wastelands, carving our name into every rock and scrub? Plant flags on every bit of slightly prominent landmass? Or are we merely visitors writing our own stories, graciously accepted to adventure by the people that so intimately know the land before us?
Images of suited men smoking cigars rear their head every now and again, as they supervise the local ‘savages’ working to unstick their caravans from their own sacred lands. The archetype of an “explorer” is something that most adventurers lust over… and Rach’s piece did great work both accepting that, and challenging it. It was a piece that was evocative and moving in every way – and so fitting considering I read it whilst on my way to the big rock that rests at the red heart of this historically conflicted country: Uluṟu.
Journey To The Rock
Five mates, heading up the guts of the country to lay eyes on something that has been on all of our bucket lists since day one – with hardly more prejudice than “it’s a big rock”. We’d all heard about the Aboriginal significance that Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa have to the local Indigenous community, however there wasn’t anything as eye-opening as seeing the rock. Not just the rock itself, but more specifically, the trail of people aiming for its summit – right beside a sign that says, in multiple languages:
“Please Don’t Climb”
We already knew that we weren’t going to climb Uluṟu. We knew it was culturally insensitive and disrespectful, but we didn’t know exactly why… plus, there was always that one question that lingered… “Why don’t they just ban it right now?”
It’s a fair point, but the need to legally ban the climb in order to stop people doing it highlights the fact that many people don’t yet have the cultural awareness and respect for our Aboriginal heritage that would render the ban unnecessary.
Today, Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park legally belongs to the Anangu people, who are the traditional owners of the land, but it hasn’t always been that way.
In 1872 Ernest Giles “discovered” Kata Tjuṯa and named it Mt Olga. The following year, William Gosse “discovered” Uluṟu and named it Ayers Rock. Pastoralism was proposed, and conflicts between the local Anangu and the colonialists arose. In 1920, Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park, at the time known as Petermann Reserve, was declared an Aboriginal reserve. Senior Anangu still talk about their memories of being herded into the reserve.
After a long and tumultuous ordeal, Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park was finally handed back to Anangu on the 26th of October 1985, where they signed an agreement to lease it back to the Federal Government on a 99-year lease (initially meant to be 50), with a 10 point plan to return the land to the people. One of the points on this plan was, specifically, banning the climb.
Continuing legal disputes meant the climb still couldn’t be banned so simply. Instead, day after day, Anangu were forced to sit patiently and wait for the climb to be stopped. Incredibly patiently. The numbers of people travelling specifically to climb Uluṟu had dropped well below the threshold needed for the climb to be banned, however year after year, delay after delay, Anangu sat patiently, waiting – watching – as tourists trod over not just the land, but their equivalent of the sacred texts that explain their entire culture, existence and way of life – every crack, crevice and streak through the beautiful stone tells stories of the very foundation of their culture – Tjukurpa.
On October 26th 2019, 33 years after Handback Day, the climb will be officially banned.
People argue that if the Anangu don’t want it, they should take down the chain that snakes its way up the rock guiding climbers up – but any injury, let alone death, that happens on their sacred land, incredibly upsets the Anangu who feel they have a responsibility for the safety of visitors.
Instead there is just a sign. A big sign right at the base of the climb saying “Please don’t climb”. Anangu still want visitors to come to Uluṟu, but to learn for themselves and come to their own realisations about the importance and meaning of the land.
It’s About Respect
Just like you remove your shoes before entering a Japanese home or temple, dress appropriately in a Middle Eastern country, or simply just act respectfully when entering a place that belongs to someone else – you shouldn’t tread all over a sacred place like Uluṟu.
Every sign and step along the way has beautifully thought out insights that encourage visitors to view the rock differently – not as something to be conquered, but something to be humbled by. To look, learn and enjoy. An encouragement to view the area as Anangu do – with reverence, with respect. To understand that your very bodies and existence come from the same earth as the rock itself.
Not yet a ban, no law stopping people, instead a simple and crushingly heartfelt plea:
“Please… please don’t”