Uluru’s long-awaited climbing ban came into effect in October 2019, but there’s still so much of Australia’s sacred sandstone heart to explore at ground level, says Oliver Pelling.
Our bus is hurtling along the Northern Territory’s Red Centre Way. It’s a long, hot road and it’s shepherding us some 321 kilometers from Kings Canyon—where we camped the night and hiked the morning—back into Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, where we’ll begin our education on Uluru proper.
Up front sits Justin Burrill, our charismatic guide. One hand on the wheel, the other clasping a fly swatter, he slaps at flies while facilitating the hurtling, resembling a character from a Monty Python sketch. Aretha Franklin’s Respect is playing on the radio; a big red smudge paints itself across the bus windows. It is, predictably, hot as hell.
“None of my mates back in Melbourne would know diddly-squat about Aboriginals anywhere in Australia,” Justin yells back at me between swipes. “People need to get out there and learn more about it. We owe these people at least that, I think.”
This park and, more specifically, the hulking 3.6-kilometer-long, 1.9-kilometer-wide sandstone rock in the middle of it, have been in the news a fair bit lately.
See, for decades, scores of tourists have flocked to Uluru (the icon formerly known as Ayers Rock). And for decades, a good percentage of those tourists have opted to tackle the 348-meter climb to the top—despite protests from the traditional owners of Uluru, the local Anangu people, for whom the rock is sacred. Not to mention the 35 recorded deaths en route to the summit.
But on October 26, 2019, climbing Uluru was banned outright (it was already discouraged) in accordance with a unanimous 2017 vote by the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park management board. Somewhat predictably, the imminent ban has led to a massive influx of tourists visiting the area in hopes of ticking the climb off their to-do lists.
In Australia, the climb has been the subject of fierce debate. Those against the ban reckon it’s “just a rock”, and some believe closing the climb will deter tourists from visiting, while those for the ban say climbing Uluru is flat-out disrespectful to the local culture.
Keith Aitken is a local Anangu man who works with Remote Tours NT as a guide in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. He was taken from his mother at age two, put in a mission, and taught the bible. Later, he was able to track down his mother and reconnect with his Aboriginal culture. He’s part of Australia’s Stolen Generation. For Keith, the ban is a no-brainer.
“I wanted to climb when I first got here—it was only after my education that I decided not to. It’s the least I can do to respect a culture my ancestors took so much from.”
“We have to respect people’s cultures,” he says. “I know a lot of people think ‘it’s just a big rock’, but I grew up in a mission. In that mission, we had a church made from corrugated iron. It didn’t look like a cathedral. But we knew it was a special place, and people respected that place. Uluru is like a church in that way. For the Anangu people, every mark on that rock is associated to a [Dreamtime] story of some kind.”
Keith understands that learning a culture is a process, and that he too has made mistakes—like the time he walked into a Cambodian temple with his boots on. “I didn’t realize you needed to take your shoes off,” he says. “It was a sacred place, and you take your shoes off to get the blessing from the temple. So I removed my boots, because it’s their culture, and I wanted to learn all about it.”
Justin, who’s worked as a guide in the park since 2015 for different tour operators, can see where the problems stem from. “I don’t blame people for wanting to climb it,” he says. “For a lot of cultures, climbing to the summit of mountains or rocks is celebrated. But I think the average Uluru climber is uneducated about Uluru—even I wanted to climb when I first got here. It was only after my education that I decided not to. It’s the least I can do to respect a culture my ancestors took so much from.”
In global tourism terms, Australia is hardly considered a capital of history and culture—at least not compared to the likes of Europe, South America or Southeast Asia. But what it lacks in churches, ruins and temples, it makes up for in human history. Just go ahead and Google ‘oldest surviving culture’—latest estimates have the Aboriginal habitation of Australia somewhere up in the 65,000-year-old region. And Uluru is the beating heart of that culture; the best place for tourists to begin their education.
Although inhabited by the Anangu people for tens of thousands of years, Uluru and the land surrounding it was ‘discovered’, as these things tend to be, by English explorer William Gosse in 1873. In the years that followed, the area was declared an Aboriginal Reserve, and Uluru itself was ‘separated’ from it in 1950 and dubbed ‘Ayers Rock National Park’.
“You can teach one another. Without the stories—and the creation time of our ancestors, there wouldn’t be anything.”
The land title sat with the director of Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (and later, the Northern Territory Government) up until 1985, when the land was handed back to the traditional owners. In the hand back, the Anangu agreed to lease Uluru back to Australian Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years. This meant tourism would continue, but the Anangu would receive compensation in the form of a percentage of ticket sales into the park.
Our traveling party, with Justin at the helm, will not be climbing Uluru this time around. Nobody expected to climb it, and so nobody’s disappointed. But for those who come all this way with the climb in mind, what else is there for them to do? Quite a lot actually—just ask Justin. “The way Aboriginal Australians survived in this environment is eye-opening,” he says. “There is so much more to see and learn here than just world-class sunsets and sunrises.”
Although they’re pretty good too.
Our time at Uluru is spent getting to know the rock and Anangu culture from ground level. The following morning, we’re awoken at 4.30am to make it to Uluru in time for the 10.6-kilometer sunrise walk around the base. And while it’s easy to see the size of Uluru from afar, it’s only by walking in its shadow that you feel it’s true scale; as if a fat chunk of a big red moon crash-landed in the middle of the desert. And if you’re not into walking, you can also cycle around the base. And if you don’t mind dabbling in self-inflicted celibacy, you can hop on a Segway.
After our self-guided (getting lost would be quite the task…) sunrise walk, we meet up with a young Anangu man, Vance, for a slightly more scholastic stroll. Vance, who teaches tourists from all over the world about his land, tells me he rather likes his job. “You can teach one another,” he says. “Without the stories—and the creation time of our ancestors—there wouldn’t be anything. The places we see now, everything that’s here today, the whole land, nothing would be here if it wasn’t for our ancestors.”
What else? This is one of the best places in the country to get your teeth into some bush tucker, and the nearby Ayers Rock Resort hosts a range of outdoor feasting adventures. You can even ride a camel, if you feel so inclined (Australia has the world’s largest population of feral camels, FYI).
Speaking of wildlife encounters, if you’re camping (as I was) and time your midnight bush piss just right, you might even find yourself face-to-face with a dingo (as I did). Keep eyes peeled for thorny devils, too. They’re mad little bastards.
And if you’re still gagging to see the view from the top of the rock? Keith has a suggestion: “People get told the view is great so they want to climb,” he says. “Why can’t they just jump in a helicopter and do the same thing!?” He has a point, and there are a number of scenic flight options available in the park. Thanks Keith.
Justin admits he had little knowledge of Aboriginal culture before he came to the Red Centre. Now, he’s completely and unapologetically captivated by it. “In my opinion, the guys out here have been doing it right all along,” he tells me after our walk with Vance. “They lived sustainably, they have no impact on the environment, they live healthily, at peace with one another. There’s so much we can learn from them.”
The climbing ban came into effect on October 26, 2019. If you’re planning to visit Uluru, you can find both Keith and Justin guiding for Remote Tours NT.