SBS VICELAND

A Strange, Sad History of People Climbing Uluru

How Australia's tourism industry invented a dangerous and disrespectful national pastime.
21 February 2018, 11:38pm

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Hundreds of thousands of people travel to Uluru each year from all over Australia and the world, and up until fairly recently a vast majority of them were choosing to climb the 863m high rock formation that offers literally nothing other than the possibility of a heart attack and an unspectacular view—given you’re standing on the only interesting landmark for miles.

Over time, increasingly large signs at the entrance have asked politely in multiple languages that tourists abstain from the climb, citing concerns from traditional owners that the track falls on a culturally-significant section of the rock traditionally reserved for Indigenous men only. The Anangu people also feel deeply responsible for the frequent injuries and deaths that occur there.

Gradually, the numbers of tourists choosing to climb have dropped, and it was announced last year that the precarious walk will close permanently from November 2019 onwards. But why did the practice of climbing a sacred and dangerous rock persist for so long?

The history of the Uluru climb is a bizarre and tragic lesson in how relentless tourism marketing was able to dispossess Indigenous people from land they’d occupied for tens of thousands of years.

The Invention of Ayers Rock

Indigenous people fought long and hard to have their custodianship over Uluru (once known as Ayers Rock) and nearby landmarks like Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) recognised by white Australia. Uluru became a tourist attraction from the late 1930s onwards, when the Australian National Travel Association formed with the aim of encouraging Australians to travel within their own country. Ayers Rock made for a perfect tourism campaign because of the rock’s strong visual and symbolic appeal; a huge red monolith set right in the desert centre, it was marketed as a place of patriotic pilgrimage for Australians on both coasts. In the peak Ayers Rock tourism area, you’d even get celebrities climbing up for a photo op. Peep this retro shot of Princess Diana visiting Uluru in 1983.

As a result of the re-branding, of course, the Anangu were dispossessed of their land both culturally and physically. Uluru’s spiritual significance was erased for decades, and it wasn’t until 1985 that the Hawke government returned ownership of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park to Indigenous people.

The deal struck was far from perfect. For one thing, it required that Indigenous owners lease back the land immediately to the National Parks and Wildlife Agency, for an initial period of 99 years. For another, Hawke withdrew from an initial promise that the Uluru climb would be permanently closed to tourists.

Since the 1986 handback, the Australian tourism industry has continued to profit from inventing and promoting the Uluru climb. While management of the park has been shared by the Anangu and Parks Australia and decisions made jointly, the climb remained open for decades against Anangu wishes. Up until very recently, tourist shops in Alice Springs sold t-shirts proudly declaring that the owner had climbed Ayers Rock.

Marketing Works

One of the main reasons the Uluru climb has been kept open for so long is that all that marketing proved effective: the climb definitely was successful in bringing tourism to Uluru. And it's true that the average backpacker who has planned an extremely expensive trip to the middle of nowhere by reading Tourism Australia brochures explicitly advertising the climb, only to arrive and realise the practice is frowned upon, might not feel particularly motivated to change their plans.

It was feared for a long time that people wouldn’t visit the national park if they didn’t have the climb to look forward to: after all, in 1990, more than 70 percent of visitors to Uluru were attempting the climb.

But then brochures and tour operators began to offer non-climbing based activities at Uluru—cultural learning experiences, and scenic walks around the rock's base. Funnily enough, this marketing worked too. By 2010 only 30 percent of visitors were climbing, and by 2017 this had fallen to 20 percent.

Climbers Aren't Ignorant of Cultural Concerns

So why close the climb if most visitors aren't doing it? Perhaps because controversies and protests will continue to plague the rock until it finally happens. The occasional high-profile stunt shows that people do actually understand how disrespectful it is to climb Uluru—but many of them simply don’t care. In 2010, former footy player Sam Newman boasted on live radio about the time he’d hit a golf ball off the top of the rock. He was showing solidarity with a French woman who, that same year, had decided to perform a strip tease in the same location.

In 2016, an unknown man chose to climb Uluru as a form of activism—covertly taking bolt cutters up the rock and destroying a section of the safety chains that were installed in the 1960s to guide visitors. At the time, the Saturday Paper interviewed Peter Severin, the man who installed the chains back in 1963. His attitude epitomised that of many Australians.

“I believe people should climb,” he told the paper. “It’s an exhilarating experience. Ayers Rock belongs to all Australians,” he says. “I don’t know why one would want to cut the chains after 50-plus years of it having been erected— and enjoyed by—tourists.”

But thanks to the slow transition in the way Uluru is marketed to visitors, that attitude is changing. When he announced the Uluru climb closure in November last year, Uluru traditional owner and park Board of Management chairman Sammy Wilson expressed how closing the climb will ultimately benefit everybody.

“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 it,” he said.

“The land has law and culture. We welcome tourists here. Closing the climb is not something to feel upset about but a cause for celebration. Let’s come together; let’s close it together.”

Climbing Uluru is Kind of Pointless

Something the brochures don’t tell you: climbing up Uluru just isn’t all that good. The rock face is steep, the safety chains were installed more than 50 years ago, and there’s no shade to protect climbers from high desert temperatures. It’s also incredibly windy up there.

There have been 35 recorded deaths on the Uluru climb, most of them due to heart attacks. It’s not uncommon for climbers to be injured or stranded—in 2016, three Australian tourists had to be rescued by helicopter after being trapped on the rock overnight after wandering off path and getting lost in a steep-walled crevice. The exact same thing had happened to a Taiwanese man a year earlier.

Decades and decades of footprints have permanently scarred Uluru, leaving behind a pale track that’s visible to the naked eye even from a distance. The environmental motivations for closing the climb are strong: there are no bathroom or bin facilities on top of Uluru, meaning that decades of tourists have left behind trash and other forms of excrement that have in turn washed down the rock with every shower of rain and disrupted a delicate ecosystem. The waterholes around Uluru, now polluted by bacterial run off, are sacred to the Anangu people. They’re also relied upon by native reptiles, animals, and birds.

Then there's the fact the climb doesn’t offer much in the way of a reward for those who make it to the top. It’s not like climbing one mountain within a spectacular mountain range: when you after sweating your way to the peak, you’re faced with a fairly boring vista. There’s a reason why all the famous photographs of Uluru are taken from a distance—it’s much more magnificent from the ground.