The Immoral Ayers Rock Climbing Ban

ayers rockLate last year the board of the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park announced that the climb up Ayers Rock would be officially banned from October 26, 2019. Parks Australia and the board argue the climb needs to be closed for safety and cultural reasons.

The ban came as a surprise, as in April 2016 the Turnbull government had stated there were “no plans to change current arrangements”. The ban is especially surprising under a Coalition government given the very strong support for the climb voiced by Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader and other Coalition spokesmen in 2009. Greg Hunt then equated closing the climb with the arrival of Big Brother, and labelling then Environment Minister Peter Garrett as “the minister who closed the climb”. Obviously nothing to be proud of! One wonders how current Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg feels about the label.

Under scrutiny, the reasons for the closure cannot be substantiated. Additionally it seems there are substantial legal issues in enforcing the ban that the park’s board has not fully realised or disclosed.

The route of the climb crosses the path of the legendary Mala Hare Wallaby Men, who on first arriving at Uluru did the logical thing and climbed to the top—perhaps to get a better view of what the surrounding countryside held, and to provide a vantage point to look out for rival clans or spot game. Given the inclusion of the dingo in Anangu creation myths, arrival of the Anangu at the Rock likely occurred after about 3000 BC. Human habitation in the centre of Australia extends back to around 30,000 years BC. Given human nature, the cultural tradition of climbing probably goes back that far.

In 1973, as part of land rights discussions, the federal government recognised Paddy Uluru as the legitimate, principal owner of Uluru. Paddy Uluru was a fully initiated Anangu man familiar with all the local laws and customs. His views about tourists climbing the Rock were summed up in an interview with Erwin Chlanda of the Alice Springs News which quotes him saying, “if tourists are stupid enough to climb the Rock, they’re welcome to it” and “the physical act of climbing was of no cultural interest”.

Paddy Uluru’s feelings towards the climb were also documented by Derek Roff, the ranger of the park between 1968 and 1985 and close friend of Paddy. In interviews for a Northern Territory Oral History Project in 1997, Roff (now deceased) stated that the issue of tourists climbing never arose, and recounted that Paddy Uluru would tell of climbing the Rock himself.

Another elder, senior Anangu man and owner of the Rock, Tiger Tjalkalyirri, acted as an early tourist guide and climbing partner to early visitors to Ayers Rock. His name appears at least twice on the early climbing logbook at the summit cairn. He assisted Cliff Thomson in 1946 and Arthur Groom in 1947. There is footage of Tiger on top of the Rock splashing in depressions filled with water. Clearly he did not have an issue climbing or showing tourists around his Rock.

Formal requests for tourists not to climb first arose in the 1991 park management plan following the involvement and influence of university anthropologists and sociologists with the local community. Paddy Uluru had died in 1979 and custody of the Rock had passed to others.

Clearly current claims that “Anangu never climb” are false and the highly sacred nature of the climbing route is a very recent invention. The cultural-heritage significance of the climb to both Anangu and millions of non-Aboriginal visitors is something that deserves to be celebrated and maintained, not discouraged or banned.

Parks Australia unfairly describes the climb as dangerous. Arthur Groom described the climb in 1947 as “nothing else but a strenuous and spectacular uphill walk”. This was before the installation of the chain and the summit route markers. Only two people have died in the act of climbing on the Rock this century, both likely from heart failure probably triggered by lack of acclimatisation to the weather conditions. The death rate since 2000, given approximately 5,500,000 visitors and two deaths is 0.11 deaths per annum, or 0.36 deaths per million visitors. In contrast there are about twelve deaths per annum at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Given 4.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year this equates to about 2.6 deaths per million visitors, a rate seven times higher than that at Uluru. The reported deaths at Uluru fall into the lower range for adventure tourism activities, and should not be a reason to ban climbing.

The prospect of a ban, and the long-term management of the climb by the park board since 1991, raise significant legal issues not yet addressed by Parks Australia or the federal government. One issue involves the application of federal anti-discrimination laws. These laws protect Australians against unfair discrimination on the grounds of culture, race, gender and age. Given the traditional owners will not be banned from accessing the summit via the current climbing route, or other means, a ban on everyone but a few elderly Aboriginal men appears to breach the Age Discrimination Act 2004, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The first person prevented from climbing after the ban is introduced in 2019 would seem to have a legitimate discrimination case to take to the Human Rights Commission.

The other legal issue involves the current lease agreement between Parks Australia and the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Land Trust. Section 17 of the lease includes a covenant that requires Parks Australia to preserve, manage and maintain “the flora, fauna, cultural heritage, and natural environment of the Park … according to the best comparable management practices for National Parks anywhere in the world”. Clearly the climb is an important and long-standing cultural tradition of both traditional owners and non-Aboriginal visitors, and under the lease agreement must be “preserved, managed and maintained”. However, since the 1991 management plan Parks Australia and the board of management have actively discouraged climbing, making millions of visitors feel guilty for simply enjoying nature, and denying the right to climb to millions through overly restrictive access protocols.

Discouragement of climbing is encapsulated in Parks Australia’s claims that “Anangu never climb” which, based on the evidence above, is demonstrably false. Discouraging this important cultural-heritage activity is counter to requirements in the lease. Discouraging climbing has substantially reduced the viability of the park to the tune of about 70,000 visitors per annum over the last ten years, compared to the previous ten years. Given an average of about $1000 per person, this comes at a cost to the Northern Territory economy of at least $70 million per annum.

Based on the facts, the ban on climbing is morally wrong, likely illegal and probably breaches the current lease agreement. It prevents millions from practising their cultural heritage. It cannot be supported on the basis of Aboriginal law, or for safety reasons. The ban is absolutely, undeniably wrong!

Marc Hendrickx is a geologist. He also runs the ABC News Watch website 


16 thoughts on “The Immoral Ayers Rock Climbing Ban

  • johanna says:

    This initiative parallels the greenie claims that humans should not be allowed into national parks (except for special persons on the payroll who are doing research.) That these special persons tracked in bugs that killed frogs is conveniently forgotten.

    The parks business – and yes, it is a huge business – needs a review by the Productivity Commission.

    Rorts and crap science abound, but just ask neighbouring landholders about the real effects of this hippie shit.

  • Warty says:

    Sorel Kierkegaard found walking a particularly useful activity with regards to his penchant for reflection. One of his observations was that all creatures ultimately emerge from the Creator and as such are replete with intelligence, down to a cellular level, as are we. The difference is that we are self conscious, in other words aware of ourselves, and also able to consider things outside ourselves. A dog will have a relationship with its master, be loyal to its master (at an instinctive level) but will tend not to reflect on the nature of its relationship with its master. A bird might been aware of Kierkegaard walking beneath its tree, and might fly off as a result; but it will not consider him as a different species; the flying away, again, operating at an instinctive level. So the birds and dogs and antelope may be sentient, but ROCKS?
    Our Left leaning aborigines have pretty well embraced the bulk of conservationist ideology, and though they may or may not go round hugging trees (too much inner aggression for larks like that) they would no doubt believe that trees would in some immutable way respond to these acts of sentimentalism (the hugging bit, that is). I mean trees do at least have sap running through them and have intelligence at a cellular level. One might also agree that the atmosphere when walking through an old growth Kauri forest would be sublime, but to be sacred? A tree just is, it doesn’t worship the sun or the moon or the wind for that matter. The sacredness of the forest is quality bestowed by some of our weed-smoking affiliates, or flips if you like. But ROCKS?
    Fellow mates: I honestly feel this Ayres Rock worshipping stuff has more to do with ‘virtue seeking’ than anything else, and all those whites on the Left of the pendulum are guilty of both fostering and encouraging this twaddle.
    Personally, I don’t recommend it.

  • Jody says:

    And we had Richard Flanagan on the National Press Club Address today talking about Ayer’s Rock and how the ‘aboriginals have got it right’. It’s neither politik nor polite in genteel circles to mention 2y/o aboriginal children with syphilis, family dysfunction, alcoholism, rape and violence. Instead Flanagan railed against our government, its penchant for sending people off to war (to save his bony hide, I shouldn’t wonder) and everything else that’s wrong with Australia. He should save his speeches for Writers’ Festivals where his contemporaries, like himself, make things up for a living. The coup de grace was a ‘dorothy dixer’ from Katherine “Croaker” Murphy from “The Guardian”. Wait for this!! She complained about ‘confirmation bias’ in the media – without a shred of self-awareness or irony of any kids.

    These insufferable wankers – sorry, I had to use that word – can only do this country a great disservice.

  • en passant says:

    Without climbing this geological oddity, why go there? Let’s kill all employment in the area and return the natives to nature – and Centrelink.

    • Jody says:

      It’s as personally interesting to me – as is most of the dreary outback of Australia – as watching paint dry. I was in Broken Hill and Silverton and Mootwingee (spelling) in the early 70s. I went by car with an ABC crew and was so overcome by dust as fine as talcum powder that I swore I’d never return. It’s god-forsaken.

    • lloveday says:

      I’ve been to Ayers Rock 4 times and climbed it twice, once running down in what I reckon must have been a record. Walked around it on another visit; I wonder if people will be allowed to even do that in the future.

      I drove my daughter there (from Adelaide) when 8 and she had a ball – being regaled by me about “THE Saturday Night” in Spud Murphy’s Pimba Roadhouse years earlier, visiting St Peter & Pauls underground Catholic Church and opal mines at Coober Pedy, Camel Rides in the Todd River bed, Camel Burgers at Kings Creek Station, music by the Toe Sucking Cowgirls (she kept in touch with them for years) and the “obligatory” late night punch-up at Curtin Springs, then in Alice, an Aborigine woman bashing a man with a boomerang (nice to see it the other way around for once), drunks seemingly everywhere – she never moved 1″ from my side….. Oh, and seeing that Papa Bear worked every day, even when on holiday.
      But she pulled the pin at climbing the Rock; now it looks like she’ll never get the chance.

      Forty years ago, before the Stuart Highway was paved, I rode a motorbike (XL 500) from Adelaide to Alice in company with a friend (on a Yamaha 175!), with a loaded pump action 12g shotgun in a “scabbard” – a vinyl case – tied to the bike, like you see with cowboys and their horses. Parked outside bars and doss houses along the way with not a comment.
      Turned right cross-country about 70 miles south of Alice to go to Maryvale Station where we stayed with a friend who was the teacher at the school for the station and Aborigine camp kids, rode to Finke Hotel and back Sunday (we were going to drink and stay at the Hotel, but it was shut, so had to ride back at night, cross-country for the last 10 miles or so), shot a couple of ducks for Aborigine kids from the camp (Rupert Maxwell Stuart ran it as his personal fiefdom), who split them open with rocks to gut them, and cooked them unplucked on the embers of an open fire.
      Decided to put the bikes on the Ghan and fly back, and checked the shotgun (in its case) in as luggage. The check-in woman asked what was in the case, then whether it was loaded. Oops, took the gun out of the case, ejected the shells onto the floor (you could not just take them out like you see in a break-action gun), put the gun back in the case, picked the shells up and gave the gun to the check-in woman.

      Imagine what would happen today! I’m glad I lived my youthful life in the good old days, and I’m very glad I’m near the end, not at the start – I doubt I’d have enjoyed what is coming.

      • Warty says:

        Enjoyed reading your romp down memory lane. For me, whenever I delve into the past, the way you have just done, it’s as though I’m speaking fondly of relative, where fact and myth seem strangely intertwined. Memory would lead me to believe I travelled and worked all over Western Australia, but they are more snap shot impressions, with far less fidelity than the black and white photographs in the two or three albums in my study. Memory would have me believe I was once married to a Lismore girl, who no doubt regards her own memory of me as part of her ‘learning curve’ and she mine, though the ‘me’ part of that particular young idiot was really someone else I’d heard about, or perhaps read: he bears little resemblance to this old bloke typing away. No, he couldn’t even type back then.
        They say just before you die, life is replayed rather like series of impressions, but somehow I can’t see it’d be all that different to the slide show you’ve generously offered us. Perhaps they are a little more vivid, I don’t know; but then River Lethe washes them all away and one starts afresh, or perhaps not.

        • lloveday says:


          I went to Oz to clean up my empty house over Christmas/New Year, unpacked all my boxes, put my stored furniture inside, but could not find my photo albums; my intention was to bring them home with me, partly to similarly compare proof with memory. I am going back for Mothers Day and will go though every thing with the proverbial “fine tooth comb”, but fear they have been misappropriated, gone forever.

          Missus reckons dreaming of the dead forebodes imminent death. Recently I have been dreaming a lot of being with relatives/close friends who are dead, just “nothing” dreams such as having a beer with one. I put no particular store in the dreams; however I did get out my seldom looked at Freud’s book, but did not get past the index – reading that reminded me I’d found nothing remotely of interest in my previous readings. Does not matter why I’m newly having such dreams, and anyway there is no way the reason could be definitively determined, so I’ve stopped pondered it.

          Just tested the memories of 2 of the “3 Musketeers” from the Pimba affair (one is dead) with a lengthy phone call. We decided it was Friday, not Saturday, summer 1976. We left Elizabeth, SA, after the dead one knocked off work, in my Land Rover, got to Pimba and decided to spend the night there in accommodation that looked like a lot of galvanised iron garden sheds, paid $1 a head for the night, and adjourned to the bar, then the pool room.

          A railway maintenance gang comprised the other customers, and I presume they were also to stay in the iron sheds. The other 2 Musketeers started playing doubles pool against pairs of the gang, who were far inferior, for money. End of working week, no women, beer, testosterone, gambling. Shite! So I retired to the bar, just me and Spud there, chatting, and I asked what he did in case of trouble. He said he’d fire a shot and the Woomera police would come (They may have heard my .458 Magnum, but a .22?). I looked at the .22 behind the bar and said, “That’s why you’ve got a silencer”?

          The all-but inevitable happened and the other 2 came into the bar room, pursued by 6 or more of the gang. Conflict 99.99% certain, best I try one-out with the king-pin, got him pinned down and immobilised, aware of the .22, yelling to Spud that I’ll let the big guy up and we’ll go, out the door into the distance. Ok, let him go and he bounced up with a right uppercut, swung from low down so I could avoid it, all-in, partitions between bar and pool rooms knocked down, tables and chairs strewn. We three got out, into the Land Rover, one of the gang ran at me, the driver, and threw a punch ostensibly through the open window. OUCH, Series II Land Rovers had a sliding window, about 1/2″ thick and I’d slid it across just in time for it to intercept his punch. Bet he still remembers that. Then just for fun I put it in 4wd and did a tight lap of the parking lot, all wheels flinging gravel and dirt over them, and off we headed for Andamooka, no Roxby/Olympic Downs, no paved road back then.

          Saturday morning we went to the Andamooka Police Station and the cop told us how to get to the Dingo Fence and thence to the Maree-Pt Augusta road. Great day in the Andamooka pub, next day found our way to the Dingo Fence and back home.

    • ianl says:

      As Marc H and others of us know, it’s just another inselberg. It’s true value lies in demonstrating the length of deep time for wind erosion to level the plain around it. This particular rock patch has pore spaces filled with erosion-resistant iron minerals (not unusual) so it remains as more slowly
      eroded than the surrounds.

      Contemplating deep time with hard evidence is awesome in the true sense of that word.

  • Tricone says:

    All they need now is an Unwelcome to Country ceremony.

    • Ilajd says:

      Latest news I have from Parks Administrators is that the chain will be cut down to day after they close it. The Flies are more welcoming than the locals.

    • Jody says:

      I’m proud to say my eldest son absolutely refuses to stand for that Welcome to Country ‘ceremony’ at his children’s primary school. So, I guess it CAN work both ways.

  • Ilajd says:

    Thanks for comments. Be sure to check out for climbing legends, climbing tales and other bits and pieces.

  • Jody says:

    The south island of New Zealand is a far, far more interesting tourist destination than any place in Australia.

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