Yesterday, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board unanimously voted to ban visitors climbing Uluru starting in 2019. This decision is one that has been a heavily debated topic since ownership of Uluru was returned to the local Anangu people in 1985, but with the number of visitors who still climb the sacred site dropping to around 15%, it’s clear that this ban is one that is supported by wider Australian society.
Uluru has held great spiritual and cultural significance to the Anangu people for over 10,000 years, serving as a site for traditional ceremonies and rites of passage. The cultural landscape of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is sacred to Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, the traditional owners of the land, who believe the landscape was created at the beginning of time by the travels of great ancestral beings, and sites such as Uluru are physical evidence of those events.
Despite archaeological evidence of the surrounding areas of Uluru being settled for over 10,000 years, ownership of the land was only handed back to the local indigenous people in 1985. White settlers mapped out the land in 1872, they named the landmark “Ayers Rock” after Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. This lead to European settlers travelling to Uluru, resulting in clashes with Anangu people over access to resources, which progressively became more violent.
Tourists have been visiting the area since 1936 and as the number of tourists grew, vehicle tracks and motels were established in the area to accommodate for those who wanted to visit the park and climb the rock. When the Australian Government returned ownership to the traditional owners of the land, they started asking visitors to refrain from climbing Uluru.
The decision to ban the climb has been one that has been in the works for some time. Not only is the climb itself dangerous, with more than 35 people losing their life while climbing Uluru, but more importantly it is something that the Anangu people find deeply disrespectful. Climbers will often litter the climb with rubbish, empty bottles and broken shoes. It’s not uncommon for those climbing to urinate on the sacred site which finds it’s way into streams that run to the surrounding indigenous communities.
The list of white Australians and tourists disrespecting the landmark is a long one, with controversial personality Sam Newman once claiming he hit a golf ball off the top of Uluru, before later claiming the comment was a joke after receiving huge backlash from indigenous leaders. In 2010 a French-born woman stripped on the top of the landmark in a “tribute to Indigenous culture” that at the time had calls for her to be deported. It is this complete disregard and misunderstanding of the beliefs and culture of Australia’s first people that continues to plague us as a society.
The numbers of tourists who partake in the climb have dropped sharply over the past 25 years, with around 72% of visitors climbing the Uluru in the 1990s now closer to 16% in 2015. These numbers reflect the progress made towards respecting the world’s oldest and most marginalized people, and although this is an important step, there are still huge steps that need to be taken to prove as a nation we respect the land’s first people.
The local council have said the decision is a cause for celebration. “Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open” stated Senior traditional owner Sammy Wilson. “This decision is for both Anangu and non-Anangu together to feel proud about; to realise, of course it’s the right thing to close the ‘playground’.”