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Uluru: The debate over climbing Australia's sacred monolith
Indigenous beliefs and safety concerns are making the famous climb less popular
Famed for its ever-changing red hues against the backdrop of Australia's central desert, the towering sandstone monolith, Uluru, is a popular draw card for tourists.
Otherwise known by its colonial name of Ayers Rock, the UNESCO World Heritage site -- located 450 kilometers west of Alice Springs -- is climbed by more than 100,000 people every year.
But the pastime is becoming less popular due to cultural and safety concerns.
It has long enraged local Aboriginals, the Anangu people. They say the site is sacred and have called for the climb to be banned since Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was placed in their hands in 1985.
An Anangu elder, Barbara Tijkadu, has a message for those who climb: “That's a really sacred thing that you are climbing… You shouldn't climb. It's not the real thing about this place.”
She hopes: “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'.”
A government source at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park cultural center said: “If you climb, you only respect your right to climb. People either climb Ayer's Rock (the colonial name for the monolith) or walk around Uluru."
There are also environmental and safety concerns. Park officials say the climbing path has been worn down by the constant tread of tourists, with erosion changing the face of Uluru. A lack of toilets and bins on top also means waste left behind by tourists is affecting nearby waterholes.
Meanwhile, the climb is steep, slippery and combined with soaring Australian temperatures can be extremely dangerous. According to the park's website, 36 people are now known to have died climbing Uluru since records began in 1958.
Because of these issues the park released a draft proposal in 2009 that recommended a blanket ban on climbing. But it failed to get government backing, with politicians arguing such a ban would hurt the local tourism industry.
Last year debate raged once more when Australian football personality Sam Newman was photographed hitting a golf ball off the rock and another man was pictured naked on top.
The incidents outraged Aboriginals all over again, across the country.
“It makes us feel pretty sad,” said Mick Mundine, the chief executive of the Sydney-based Aboriginal Housing Company. “We are the first people of Australia, but we still don't got the recognition and respect of our culture.”
Under the terms of the lease the Anangu elders granted to the national park was a 22.5 percent slice of all revenues passed on to the indigenous community. There are also concerns within the community of what would happen to those funds if the climb was banned.
Under that lease, the right to climb expires in 2020, and the national park is currently recruiting a professional to oversee the closure of the climb. If the climb is permitted beyond this date, the lease would have to be renegotiated.
A 'once-in-a-lifetime experience'
For now, tourists are still permitted to climb. Despite locals' protests and safety concerns, thousands make the trek to the top of the 348-meter high rock each year.
For Nicole Clarke, 37, a personal assistant from Sydney, the decision to climb in 2009 wasn't one that she took lightly. She had been warned about the cultural issues, but in the end her curiosity won out.
“When I arrived there were a lot of people climbing the rock, they all looked like ants on a hill,” she said. “I spoke to my grandmother and she had climbed the rock 20 years before and thought it was an amazing thing to do. I didn't want to be a sheep and follow the flock, but I thought one more person isn't going to make much of a difference.
She says there is “something spiritual” about being on top and looking out onto the sweeping desert: “There is a sense of calmness when you are up there.”
She doesn't regret her decision. “The climb was more challenging than I originally thought. Once on top of the rock, the view was breathtaking. I am pleased I did it ... but to what cost to the Aborigines, I don't know.”
University student Sabina Peck, 21, from Leeds, who is currently studying in Sydney, said she wouldn't be deterred either. She plans to visit the site in November, and climbing Uluru is on her “to-do” list.
“It's an experience and a cool thing to do,” she said. “We don't really have stuff like that in the United Kingdom. We've only got Stonehenge.”
Alternatives to climbing
Even so, it appears the proportion of visitors who climb has dropped over the years. The park estimates that around 38 percent of visitors climb each year, down from 74 per cent in 1990. Reasons for the drop included deference to local culture, as well as lack of interest in climbing and safety concerns.
For those who aren't ready to step on any cultural toes, or who are just scared of heights, there are other ways to experience the famed rock.
Anangu Tours, an indigenous-owned and operated tourist company, is one of several operators in the area that offer Aboriginal-guided tours without having to climb the rock.
Tours include walking expeditions to explore rock formations and Aboriginal art sites around the base, escorted by local guides and an interpreter.
Groups are also introduced to Dreamtime stories -- the framework of Aboriginal mythology -- as well as bush foods, traditional didgeridoo-playing, dot-painting and spear-throwing.
“100 percent of our customers end up learning enough about Anangu culture during the tour that they simply chose not to climb out of their new-found understanding and respect for local culture,” said Andrew Simpson, the Anangu tour manager.
Travel consultant Claire Howarth, 30, from Peterbourgh, England, is among those who recently visited the site and opted for an Aboriginal-guided tour around the base with another tour group, Adventure Tours.
“I just didn't want to be disrespectful,” she said. “There are plenty of other things that I could go climb. It probably would be fantastic to see the view from up there, but I can go and climb a mountain that isn't sacred to someone.”
It took her about two-and-a-half hours to walk the 9.4-kilometer, oblong-shaped rock, and she says she enjoyed the experience.
“I had just imagined this round rock, but there are loads of different parts to it,” she said. “There's a waterfall that comes off from one part. It's not necessarily flat, and there are lots of crevices to walk. At the time, I though it would have been quite cool to climb it."
"But I thought, no, climb something else.”
Uluru fact sheet
The climb is always closed: overnight, from 8 a.m. during December, January and February, or if the temperature exceeds 36 degrees celcius.
The climb may also be closed when rain is forecast or 20 percent of the rock is covered in water, or when clouds descend below Uluru's summit. It may also be closed due to rescue operations or for cultural mourning purposes.
For more information, go to www.environment.gov.au/parks/uluru/
Air services also go to Ayers Rock Airport, near the resort town, Yulara.
A list of places to stay nearby is listed here.