In 1998 I started a job as a geologist for the Northern Territory Geological Survey. Work required travel to some of the remotest pasts of central Australia including parts of the Tanami desert only accessible by helicopter. Coming from the lush green forests of the east coast the desolated red centre makes for a stunning contrast, a visual feast that leaves a lasting impression that stays in your mind forever.
The impact of first glimpsing Ayers Rock/Uluru is similarly memorable. I first saw this great red rock driving down the Lasseter Highway from Alice Springs to meet Matt Golombek, Science Director of the Mars Pathfinder Mission, shortly after starting in Alice Springs. Matt was on a tour of central Australia as part of a series of educational lectures on the epic Pathfinder Mission. It seems Central Australia and Mars have a few things in common. My job along with a colleague, was to act as Matt’s guides on a whirlwind tour of Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Gosses Bluff (a spectacular meteor impact crater) and the eons old West MacDonnell Ranges.
After meeting Matt at the Ayers Rock airport, “fresh” off the plane from Los Angeles via Sydney (a mere 20 hours or so of flying time) we almost literally threw him in the back of a Toyota LandCruiser and headed out for a four-hour trek around Kata Tjuta. These conglomerate domes are arguably even more impressive than Uluru. The walk at the Valley of the Winds is a must do for any visitor. We stayed overnight at the Yulara Resort. The facilities were quite rustic in comparison with accommodation now available, though I think Longitude 131 would have been well beyond our budget.
Early the next day we drove down to the base of the climb and headed up. Matt’s endurance after the long flight and the long hike the previous day was amazing. The three of us enjoyed the camaraderie and physical exertion of the climb and soaked in the glorious scenery from the summit along with hundreds of other tourists ranging in age from under seven to over 70 who walked up with us. Despite its reputation the climb is achievable by most people of average fitness with a sense of adventure and determination. The views along the way and at the top are extraordinary and essential in understanding the regional geology, geomorphology and the “Rock’s” influence on human culture. For me it was the highlight of our tour and my experience here underlines why I feel the climb is integral to a visit to Uluru and why it should be kept open for future generations to enjoy.
The climb has been a mainstay of visiting Uluru since tourists first started coming to the “Rock” in 1950s, but sadly the utter pleasure of doing the climb, experienced by millions of visitors, may soon be taken away by Parks Australia, who have announced the climb will be banned from October 26, 2019.
When they were returned ownership of the Rock in 1983 the Traditional Owners promised “business as usual” when it came to tourism. Imposing restrictions on some sacred sites, but the climb would continue. Prior to the handover Paddy Uluru, a traditional owner is reported as saying the “physical act of climbing was of no cultural interest”. It seems Parks Australia have broken the promises of Traditional Owners. I am at a loss as to where the new found desire to stop visitors doing something that is of no cultural interest, is safe and brings so much pleasure has come from. Based on the comments and opinions of past Traditional Owners I don’t think it has come from the Owners themselves, but it’s something that has been imposed upon them by outsiders acting in their own interests.
Closing the climb has been an aim of the current management plan of the Park. If you are expecting to go there to climb, don’t be surprised to find a closed sign at the base. It’s no wonder, as the overly zealous, arbitrary administrative protocols included in the management plan have seen the climb closed for about 80% of the time since their introduction.
Parks Australia have used the reduction in the numbers climbing to argue the climb is no longer of interest to visitors. This is bogus for on the odd occasion it is actually open, many people still partake in this wonderful personal journey despite the alarmist and politically correct signage posted at the base. The numbers shouldn’t matter: if you want to climb it, you should be free to to do so. It is safe for responsible people who follow the marked path and does not hurt anyone.
Since the early 2000s annual visitor numbers to the Park have reduced by about 100,000. I believe that the administrator’s aggressive approach in discouraging the climb and making people feel guilty for doing it, is largely responsible. Given the absolute importance of tourism to the local economy (there is nothing else) one can’t help form the view that management is shooting itself in the foot, as the decision to ban the climb will only result in less people going resulting in further damage to a fragile economy.
The costs of going to Uluru are ridiculously high as it is, and if I were looking at a trip with the very real prospect of not being able to enjoy the same sense of wonder that so many others have enjoyed, I’d be looking elsewhere.
While the opportunities to climb are increasingly limited and the prospect of a ban is in force, spending more time in the West MacDonnell Ranges or in other parts of Australia where you won’t be made to feel guilty for enjoying nature would be a better option.
Marc Hendrickx has a blog, The Right to Climb Ayers Rock