‘The Rock’ – down under’s physical and spiritual heart – certainly is amongst the top ten ‘must-do’s’ in each and every Australian travel guide. The world’s largest monolith, situated in the red outback of Australia’s Northern Territory, attracts thousands of inquisitive visitors each year. Those, in turn, blatantly attract inconsistent positions on a very sensitive topic: ‘To climb or not to climb Uluru’ could be designated the quintessential question of the discussion presented in this paper. To add fuel to the hot debate, the authorities of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park published a draft management plan in June 2009 targeting to prohibit the climb for the near future due to cultural, safety and environmental reasons (Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – Draft Management Plan 2009-2019, p. 89).
Since 1985, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park has been back in the hands of its traditional owners – the Anangu people (western desert Aboriginal peoples who have traditional affiliations with the area around Uluru). Coupled with such fundamental change, awareness of the rock’s religious significance has risen (McKercher et all, 2008). According to the emerging and empowered Anangu ‘the climb’ is of great spiritual significance. For them, it is the traditional route taken by the Anangu ancestral Mala upon arrival at Uluru (‘dreaming tracks’). Tony Tjamiwa is quoted in the draft management plan: ‘That rock is really important and sacred. You shouldn’t climb it! Climbing is not a proper tradition for this place.’ Moreover, according to their cultural beliefs, the traditional owners have an allocated responsibility for the visitors of the park. This implies that Indigenous Australians of the Uluru region enter a grieving process every time a visitor is hurt or dies on ‘the climb’.
For these reasons, climbing sacred Uluru is increasingly seen as inappropriate, culturally insensitive and socially unacceptable (McKercher et all, 2008). However, it has remained open until today and still attracts more than 100.000 tourists annually, despite signs urging visitors to show respect and stay at the rock’s base (Batty, 2009).
Another reason arguing for the climb’s closure provided in the draft management plan are health and safety issues. According to Australia’s environment minister Peter Garrett there are ‘strong reasons’ for a ban, taking visitor safety into account (Garrett, 2009). The climb is physically demanding and can be dangerous as it is very steep and can be slippery. Unsafe weather conditions, such as strong winds or temperatures above 40°C, guarantee that the experience is not a ‘walk in the park’. According to the ‘Department of the environment, water, heritage and the arts’, at least 35 people have died attempting to climb Uluru. Others are frequently rescued with broken bones, heat exhaustion and extreme dehydration.
Finally, the environmental impacts on Uluru should be emphasised. It is argued that erosion caused by the eager tourist-millipede is gradually changing the face of down under’s tourism icon. Furthermore, lack of toilet facilities on the top of the rock steadily reduces the water quality of waterholes fed by drains from the climb site. This, in turn, has devastating effects on the fauna dependent on the respective waterholes (Department of the environment, water, heritage and the arts, 2009).
After a two-months period of public consultation and discussion, which has officially been closed on September 04, the draft management plan is soon to be presented to the Australian parliament for final approval. The very sensitive topic has stimulated a lively debate between various stakeholders involved. Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, for instance, states it would be sad if such an experience can no longer be enjoyed by Australians and guests from abroad. Rudd is against a closure of the climb and believes that public safety concerns could be addressed through appropriate management plans (Agence France Presse, 2009). Chris Burns, tourism minister for the Northern Territory, is quoted in the Guardian: ‘We have never supported the full closure of the climb at Uluru and that remains our position’. The tourism representatives particularly fear a downturn in visitor arrivals if the climb will be closed (Adlam, 2009), which is most certainly the reason for Burn’s position.
Indigenous voices, on the other hand, modestly ask for respect regarding their religious beliefs. Eventually, it will be in Peter Garrett’s hands to put an end to the public argument. He promised to carefully consider all submissions and to make a decision in due course (ABC Premium News, 2009). Let’s hope for the best… Let’s hope for the ‘cultural sensitivity’ of the policymakers.
- ABC Premium News (2009) Uluru climb ban gets 150 submissions, ABC Premium News (Australia), September 07
- Adlam, Nigel (2009) Uluru tourism hit by a tight rein on Rock, Northern Territory News (Australia), July 11, p. 20
- Agence France Presse (2009) Australia PM opposes Uluru climbing ban, Agence France Presse (France), July 10
- Batty, David (2009) International: Climbing Uluru, Aborigines spiritual rock, could be banned by 2011, The Guardian (London), July 09, p. 21
- Bolt, Andrew (2009) It’s our sacred right to climb Uluru, Northern Territory News (Australia), July 18, p. 22
- Department of the environment, water, heritage and the arts (2009), Nganana Tatintja Wiya – ‘We Never Climb’ [online] (cited on September 29, 2009) Available from URL:http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/uluru/visitor-activities/do-not-climb.html
- Digance, Justine (2003) Pilgrimage at contested sites, Annals of Tourism Research, 30:01, pp. 143–159
- Garrett, Peter (2009) Interview with Neil Mitchell, July 09 [online] (cited September 29, 2009) Available from URL:http://www.environment.gov.au/minister/garrett/2009/pubs/tr20090709.pdf
- McKercher, B, Weber, K, du Cros, H (2008) Rationalising inappropriate tourism behaviour at contested sites, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16:4, 369-385
- Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management, Director of National Parks & Australian Government (2009) Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – Draft Management Plan 2009-2019 [online] (cited on September 27, 2009) Available from URL:http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/publications/uluru/pubs/draftplan.pdf