The end of the climb

By Sam Duncan 27 August 2019
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Indigenous tourism opportunities are growing around Uluru as the deadline approaches for the ban on climbing the huge Central Australian rock.

HEAD OUT on foot just north of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s Cultural Centre, along the Liru walk, and you’re soon in mulga forest – a typically stunted and harsh-looking stand of trees that, I’m told, is frequently softened by bursts of pretty wildflowers after rain.

(Image credit: Julian Peters Photography/Shutterstock)

Look west and there it is: Uluru.

To some it’s Ayers Rock, the name explorer William Gosse gave it in 1873. To many, it’s a place of beauty and spirituality that’s been the ancestral heartland of the Anangu people for more than 30,000 years.

For 400,000 visitors annually from around the world, it’s a bucket-list destination. This morning I can see about 80 people up on it. The large number indicates conditions are favourable but also reflects the surge in tourists visiting and scaling the site before the 26 October deadline when a legal ban on climbing Uluru will take effect.

There are 138 steel posts drilled into the rock that, along with the guide chain linking them, are set for removal then.

This is the first time I’ve come here to see this imposing inselberg (island mountain), which is composed geologically of arkose sandstone and rises 348m above the largely flat surrounding arid landscape, and it’s as remarkable as I’d always imagined.

Up on the climb some people are doubled over, clutching the knee-high safety chain. One person loses their wide-brimmed hat and it comes to rest halfway down Uluru’s western face.

The contours and features of this rust-hued icon are, for its traditional owners, physical evidence of Tjukurpa – the basis of Anangu knowledge, law, religion, social structure and moral values. The living landscape here is their Scripture.

An official sign at the base of the rock reads: “Please don’t climb. We, the Anangu traditional owners, have this to say: Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge. Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted… Too many people have died or been hurt causing great sadness… We invite you to walk around the base and discover a deeper understanding of this place.”

(Image credit: Anurat Imaree/Shutterstock

Under the intense sun, Mark and Jymie Totiel from Esperance, Western Australia, step down, back onto flat land. As Mark gently rubs her back, Jymie describes her recent health struggles.

“That’s from skin cancer,” she says of her skin, an angry red behind a black mesh fly veil. “The climb made me feel like ‘if you can do this, you can do anything’.” Mark shows me a selfie they took on the summit. “Look at that,” he says. “If it’s on your bucket list, you better do it. It’s well worth the effort.”

Charlotte Greenaway, 18, from Melbourne, tells me she won’t climb because of what she and younger sister Bridget learnt at school about Aboriginal culture and sacred sites.

“One [high school history] semester was all Aboriginal history, learning about giving back through native title and the Eddie Mabo case,” Charlotte says. “They started teaching us about it in primary school,” Bridget adds. With them is their father, Alan, who, like many people, says he was unsure how he felt about climbing the rock. He admits he thought maybe he would but his daughters told him he shouldn’t, and when he laid eyes on it he decided the same.

The 26 October 2019 deadline

IN 2010 the Uluru-Kata Tjuta NP board of management forecast in its 10-year management plan that it would “work towards closure of the climb”. Their prerequisite requirements included the creation of sufficient new alternative visitor experiences and that the proportion of visitors climbing had declined to below 20 per cent.

Spend time there now and you won’t run out of things to do. There are tours on segways, bicycles, dune buggies, helicopters and camels and they encompass astronomy, arts and crafts, ecology and garden walks. It’s also a foodie paradise, with traditional bush tucker the theme.

There’s coffee at the site’s Mala car park, where a joint venture between a traditional owner and two Victorian businesspeople serves a brew that would be highly rated in any Melbourne laneway cafe. Another new business is targeting the growing number of Chinese visitors, for whom the brightness of the arid night sky is a huge drawcard after the airborne pollution back home.

The milky way as seen from Uluru National park. (Image credit: Javier Hueso/Shutterstock)

In a demountable at the back of the park’s administration centre, a traditional Aboriginal dot painting hangs on the wall. It features a red circle ringed by white and brown seated figures – four Anangu women, four Anangu men and four non-Anangu: the 12-person board of management surrounding the park with a yuu (traditional windbreak), representing the protection their decisions and policies provide for the culture and environment of the park and its visitors.

It was here, on 1 November 2017 that, with all preconditions met, all 12 board members voted to end the climb. The decision allowed for almost two years preparation before the closure, which was scheduled for 26 October 2019. It’s an important date for the park’s traditional owners, being the 34th anniversary of the 1985 handing back of the rock.

“People were in tears,” Steve Baldwin, the park’s operations and visitor services manager, says of the decision to end the climb. “We were crammed in to the boardroom; the staff were all pulled in for the announcement. It was packed, and people were sitting on the floor. The buzz in the room was palpable. It was just incredible to be there.”

Steve says the response to the decision has shown the board is “not token”, and that joint management of Uluru-Kata Tjuta NP by the federal government’s Parks Australia and the traditional owners is “much more than just words”.

ON THE 30-MINUTE BUS TRIP from the resort at Yulara to Uluru, desert oaks, heath myrtles and the occasional honey grevillea give way to mulga trees and bloodwoods closer to the base of the rock.

The varying forms of the desert oaks are distinct: some are pencil thin, others bushy and mature, a transition that begins when their taproots hit water. The biggest ones have been growing slowly for more than 1000 years.

At the carpark, a group of about 30 tourists gathers for the 8am ranger-guided Mala walk. Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable Indigenous guide explains the rock art at the Kulpi Nyiinkaku (teaching cave). Generations of grandfathers painted the pictures in this cave, teaching young boys coming of age how to track and hunt kuka (food animals).

“It’s like a blackboard,” he says, then explains to the kids on our walk, “but back then there weren’t any jobs, so nobody could afford erasers. They just painted over the top.”

A young girl spots a small marsupial on the ground. “It’s a rat,” she screams.

“Maybe it’s come to learn,” the ranger responds.

Our guide continues, stopping at various sites to describe the making of seed cakes, explain how ancient tools were used, interpret rock art and provide descriptions of the desert environment and its animals. There are questions, of course. He pauses before answering, often for moments that stretch out longer than we’re used to. Yet his answers are so profound that we, too, pause at the gravity of them.

The walk culminates at Kantju Gorge, where our guide explains that the waterfall forms when heavy rain fills the rock pools at the top and then water gushes down the sheer face, filling the waterhole at the bottom where Anangu traditionally bathed and hunted. He relates the scene to sustainable hunting and water management practices, prompting us to question the habits of our modern world.

Anangu have passed on knowledge through story, song and dance for thousands of years. This time it’s coming from Leroy Lester, an Anangu area custodian.

“No way you’ll be eating red kangaroo meat during a 10-year drought,” he says, as he delivers a bush tucker lesson to a crowded room at the Ayers Rock Resort.

“You’ll be going from the delicatessen to the fruit and veg department. You’ll be eating a lot of underground food, a lot of roots. Our culture has lasted 60,000 years because of diet. All desert foods are superfoods. Nothing keeps out here, so you’re eating fresh superfoods every day of the year.”

Ending the climb

THE DECISION TO END the climb has met with a divided response. The views of the people I meet out here are split 50:50.

Marc Hendrickx, a former NT surveyor, is the most prominent voice opposing the ban. He says evidence shows traditional owners in the past have climbed and had no issues with others climbing and that is critical information Parks Australia has misrepresented.

Since the creation of Ayers Rock-Mount Olga National Park in 1958, more than 7 million visitors have “experienced the joy, wonder and exhilaration of the climb, and the remarkable views over the desert it provides”, Marc wrote in a letter to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre earlier this year.

He says the safety risks have been grossly exaggerated: “Rather than inform people about risk, Parks Australia and state authorities just shut things down to make it easier for themselves.” An outdoor enthusiast, Marc fears the closure of the climb represents a broader threat for people wanting to “get out of our mundane cities to seek awe, wonder and inspiration”.

The Uluru climbing ban is, however, in keeping with a trend occurring across many of Australia’s Aboriginal sites popular with tourists.

For example, at St Mary Peak in the Flinders Ranges, National Parks South Australia suggests visitors do not climb the summit out of respect for the Adnyamathanha people. Climbing the summit at Mt Warning, in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, is contentious too because it is a sacred men’s ground for the Arakwal people.

Some tourism operators there are concerned about the impact an official ban might have. And earlier this year, Parks Victoria banned climbing in eight areas of the Grampians National Park to protect ancient Aboriginal rock art.

Marc has lodged a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission, claiming the Uluru climbing ban breaches the Racial Discrimination Act because only Anangu will be permitted to practise their culture. He says it’s also in breach of the lease agreement with Parks Australia that requires it to preserve, manage and protect all cultural heritage: he has nominated the chain, summit monument and five memorial plaques for placement on the National Heritage List, to prevent removal.

“Nervous” is how Steve Baldwin says he feels when he sees people climbing Uluru. At least 35 have died while attempting the climb and many others have been injured, according to government figures.

“We have to go up there and do the rescues,” Steve says. “Having been the one who’s managed the last three major rescues, one fatal, I can tell you it’s not fun. It puts our lives at risk. There are cultural and environmental reasons for the closure, but Anangu get incredibly sad when anyone gets injured or dies on the climb. I saw their faces when a man died last year.”

Steve and his rangers will be responsible for enforcement of the ban. A breach could cost $630 for walking in a restricted area. He cites a legal case from 2016 in which Parks Australia prosecuted three men for taking a short cut, ending in a rescue mission. They were convicted and made to pay costs of more than $20,000.

Growth of tourism in the region

AN EARLY MORNING bacon-and-egg roll on a remote desert dune marks the last sunrise of my first visit to Uluru. But word has come of an opportunity to meet with two traditional owners.

I’ve learnt there are nuances in Anangu culture that are essential to grasp: consider things properly before speaking; avoid too much eye contact because it can be considered rude; look at things obliquely to properly understand; share knowledge only when the time is right; avoid direct questioning; live in the here and now.

Author Jen Cowley writes in her book I am Uluru, that the word closest to “feeling” in Anangu language is “kulini”, which encompasses “to listen, hear, think about/consider, decide, know about, understand, remember, have a premonition from a sensation in the body and, yes, to feel”.

With this in mind, I head into the park one last time before flying back east.

“Get a mat so we can sit on the ground and talk properly,” says Yuka Trigger, a traditional owner and outgoing board member.

She explains the Anangu way of becoming Ninti (learning through experience, becoming familiar). It’s an important part of the way tourists can experience Uluru.

“If they’re prepared to sit with me and join in then maybe I’ll show them my culture,” she says. Yuka wants more “young ones” in work. When they see others working, momentum is possible, and they need to be working for their children, she explains.

Yuka is with her niece, Gloria Moneymoon, who explains that she has a five-year-old grandson.

“First and foremost for him is learning the Anangu way, but he must also learn the Western world,” she says. “People come from all over to Uluru, but then they go home.”

The women speak in Pitjantjatjara, with some English, and I’m grateful for Alex Mercer from Parks Australia, who sits with us and translates. Their message is unmistakeable.

The future for Anangu is here in the park and with their community at Mutitjulu, just 5km from the base of the rock. They care deeply about what’s in store for their tjitji tjuta (children), and employment is crucial. “Nyangatja Ananguku ngura [This is an Anangu place],” Gloria says. It’s a phrase about the area’s character, people’s obligations, and what’s necessary for wellbeing.

Grant Hunt, chief executive of Voyages Indigenous Tourism, the company behind Ayers Rock Resort, served on the park’s board with Yuka, his tenure ending in August last year. Together, they voted to end the climb.

“My main focus is, how do I get more Anangu in jobs and therefore improve their livelihoods and living conditions?” Grant says. “And second, how do I advance Aboriginal kids who come in [to here] from all across Australia?”

Remote communities such as Mutitjulu have had an unemployment rate of 70 or 80 per cent for decades, he says, with literacy and numeracy their biggest challenges.

At Ayers Rock Resort, 334 out of 885 staff are Aboriginal, including 21 Anangu. The generosity of service and attention to detail is unmissable. Whether you’re ordering a box of takeaway noodles from Ayers Wok or having a chat with a room attendant, there’s a warmth and authenticity that’s rare the world over.

“I don’t want to park all these guys in gardening jobs,” Grant says. “That would be the easy thing to do. We want a sustainable future for them, and that means working across our guest experience area – hotel receptions, warehousing, administration, landscaping, retailing, and as room attendants. If they can stay on Country, close to family, with a foot in culture and a foot in a sustainable future, which comes from employment, that’s the ideal scenario.”

Of the closure of the climb, he says, “I just think it’s time.”

The Japanese market has many particularly keen climbers, and there’s uncertainty about how the grey nomads will respond. But, Grant says, “there’s an old saying in tourism, ‘nothing new equals no value’, and you’re very quickly yesterday’s destination unless you keep it vibrant, fresh and relevant”.

Michelle Whitford, associate professor and researcher in Indigenous tourism at Griffith University, Queensland, says the Uluru climbing ban is by far the most significant case to date of a shift towards greater respect for Indigenous culture in tourism practices.

More broadly, increasing numbers of domestic and international tourists are seeking out Indigenous experiences, she says, and there’s growing interest from Aboriginal Australians in establishing and running tourism ventures as a means of preserving and maintaining cultural heritage and traditions while achieving socio-economic independence.

Michelle cites the Quandamooka people on North Stradbroke Island, who are “doing excellent work protecting their culture”. Earlier this year, more than 20 of the island’s traditional owners opened a new nature walk they had designed and constructed.

It’s estimated that walking tourism could bring $16 million a year to the local economy. “If local people are empowered it helps them to be invested, and if they’re invested, tourists are going to get a great experience,” Michelle says.

I SIT BEHIND Gloria Moneymoon in a Parks vehicle as we head to Yulara to collect my luggage. I ask about a container of dried herbs she has with her.

“Men would rub it into their shoulders and neck after a big kangaroo hunt,” she explains. She lets me in on snippets of her life: how she worked at Ayers Rock Resort in 1991 and spent some time in Adelaide, too.

I scurry around for 10 minutes unable to find my luggage. Back at the vehicle, Gloria says she knew which case was mine when I first started looking.

“Palya [Goodbye],” she says, waving from the front of the airport. Then it hits me how much I still don’t know about this place and I know I’ll certainly be back.

This article was originally published in Issue 151 of Australian Geographic. Purchase your copy here