Climbing one of Australia’s most famous landmarks, Uluru (previously known as Ayers Rock), will end in two years after Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board voted unanimously to ban the practice from October 2019.
While climbing “the rock”, was long considered a rite of passage, with nearly three-quarters of all visitors to the World Heritage-listed area scaling it in the 1990s, the Aṉangu traditional owners requested people not climb Uluru due to its spiritual significance after the land was handed back to them in 1985.
The ban will begin on October 26, the 34th anniversary of the land being returned to the Anangu people by the then Hawke government, who made keeping the climb open one of the conditions of the handback.
In 2010, the board first announced its intention to close the climb when a range of preconditions were met, including less than 20% of visitors climb and that the cultural and natural experiences on offer are the main reasons why people visit the park.
The Board, which includes eight traditional owners and three National Parks representatives, said it is satisfied those criteria have been met.
By 2015, just 16.2% of the people visiting Uluru climbed on days when it was open — bad weather and other reasons saw the climb closed nearly 80% of the time.
A sign at the base of Uluru says:
We, the traditional Anangu owners have this to say.
The climb is not prohibited but we ask you to respect our law and culture by not climbing Uluru.
We have a responsibility to teach and safeguard visitors to our land.
The climb can be dangerous. Too many people have died while attempting to climb Uluru.
Uluru traditional owner and board chairman Sammy Wilson said Uluru was “not a playground or theme park like Disneyland”.
“After much discussion, we’ve decided it’s time,” he said, taking a swipe tourism and government officials who wanted to keep the climb open.
“It’s not their law that lies in this land,” he said.
“The Government needs to respect what we are saying about our culture in the same way it expects us to abide by its laws.”
At least 35 people have died while climbing Uluru. A chain link up the 348-metre (1,142 ft) high sandstone monolith was first attached in the 1960s and extended in 1976. The procession of thousands of people on Uluru over more than 60 years has now left a visible scar on the rock.
Wilson said the closure was not about preventing tourism.
“If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don’t enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu,” he said.
“We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity.”
National Parks director and board member Sally Barnes said the decision was “a significant moment for all Australians and marks a new chapter in our history”.
Barnes said visiting the area to learn from Anangu about their culture is one of the most memorable experiences for many of our visitors.
“We’re looking forward to a future where we can all work together to protect culture and country as we should do, while continuing to provide visitors with fulfilling experiences based on the parks unique cultural and natural attractions,” she said.
The remote central Australian landmark has provided a postcard backdrop for a range of celebrities over the years, from royalty to Oprah Winfrey.
While many come to watch it change colour at varying times throughout the day, glowing deep red at the start and end of the day, Uluru gained global attention in 1980 when a couple visiting the site, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, had their baby daughter Azaria stolen by a dingo. The couple were later wrongly convicted of murder and their story was turned into a Hollywood film staring Meryl Streep.
Uluru has a circumference of 9.4 kilometres (5.8 miles) and you can walk around its base.
Around 250,000 people visit the national park annually. The central desert weather can be extreme, with summer temperatures reaching 47°C (116°F) and winter nights dropping to as low as -7°C (-19°F). Just 307mm (12 inches) of rain falls there annually, with the sparse rain causing spectacular waterfalls down Uluru.
The national park is also home to unusual animals such as the thorny devil, a lizard.