On October 25, 2019 when the sun set beyond the horizon of the parched red earth and sunk through the silhouette of Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), the most iconic natural landmarks of Australia, Uluru (or the Ayers Rock), made a new beginning. When the last rays of the sun at dusk were gradually turning the majestic sandstone monolith crimson, the last batch of climbers was descending to mark a new dawn for the magnificent mound. Starting the next day, a permanent ban on climbing the sacred rock would be enforced.
My recent visit to the arkose sandstone made monolith, distinctly bright reddish in colour due to the substantial presence of feldspar minerals, helped me understand the gravity of the decision. Uluru is not a topographical splendour; it’s an ecological and ethnographic enigma.
Located in the heart of Australia, Uluru is mostly isolated from modern civilization. Although the nearest city from the sacred sandstone monolith is Alice Springs, situated around 450km away from the rock and is connected by a highway through the arid outback, I chose to fly from Sydney and was lucky enough to book a seat in one of the handful of daily flights to the Connellan Airport or the Ayers Rock Airport, situated around 15km away.
Soon after our landing on the tiny airstrip in the middle of the thorny bushes spreading over hundreds of miles around Uluru, we were taken from the middle-of-no-where airport to the nearby Yulara town by a free shuttle bus. The tiny town has a few resorts but unless you pre-book months in advance, it would be impossible to find a place to stay.
My closest encounter with the grandiose rock, standing lonely and tall in a dull and dreary desert landscape, began with an indigenous guide taking our group closer to the massive monolith. Our bus was meandering through the tar road heading towards the base of the rock as we were educated about the Anangu people, the original habitants of the land, who are also the protector of Uluru and its surroundings, and Tjukurpa, the unwritten and traditional law that has been the foundation of their culture and heritage. The entire Anangu ecosystem, where Uluru is the fulcrum, is governed by Tjukurpa, which has many deep and complex meanings and interpretations.
The relationships among people, plants, animals and physical features of the land are mostly showcased by Tjukurpa and the prohibition of climbing the sacred rock is as per this aboriginal law of the land religiously followed by the sons and daughters of the soil. The Anangu people believe that Kuniya, a woma python woman and Liru, the poisonous snake man, once took on each other and their fiercely-fought battle resulted in the creation of Uluru.
Even though the sandstone monolith has been attracting climbers since 1950s, but it’s always been against the wishes of the Anangu people and their much-respected Tjukurpa. Their message has always been loud and clear: Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima or in English which means ‘Please don’t climb Uluru’.
While being enlightened about the cultural aspects of not climbing the Uluru, I was brought to the base by our guide MJ, who was born in a local Anangu family. Standing in front of the starting point of the Uluru climbing trails, I was briefed about the safety reasons as over 35 people have lost their lives and many more were injured while trying to make an ascent to the summit. “We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land,” he said, explaining how physically demanding the climb was. All the while we admired the changing colours of the ‘island mountain’ in the middle of nowhere.
More importantly, we were educated about the environmental reasons behind the ban on climbing as Uluru has been a victim of erosion over the years due to weathering. The thousands of footsteps that have climbed the rock over so many decades have expedited the process at some parts. The metallic rims inserted on the Uluru surface by the early climbers to fix ropes along the trail to the summit were still distinctly visible. It was such an eyesore.
Climbing has also brought pollution—rubbish and waste products dropped by climbers—that have affected the overall ecosystem. MJ added that several water quality tests in the waterholes adjoining the monolith at the base have detected high bacterial levels fed by runoff from the climb site.
While treading around the Uluru base through the rugged terrain and the thorny bushes, showcasing an incredible range of flora and fauna, we continued to learn more about the unspoiled beauty of the culture and how the love for mother nature with the imposing existence of Uluru in its sanctum sanctorum paved the way for the landmark decision to ban climbing.
After the walk, it reaffirmed by belief that Uluru wasn’t just a bucket list tick off. It’s so much more. A visit to Anangu land is an incredible combination of emotion, education and enlightenment. Respect is paramount and the recent ban is a much-needed start.
The writer is a Beijing-based broadcast journalist and an avid traveller