You wouldn’t really think you could make the wrong choice.
Arrive at a cherished, protected site, held sacred by those considered to be its traditional owners. Read the notices explaining that it’s a cherished, protected site, held sacred by those considered to be its traditional owners. Talk to the national park ranger, who tells you of his traditional heritage and how, for him, this is a cherished, protected, sacred site.
Decide to clamber all over it anyway, because – hell, it’s on your bucket list, and everyone else is, and what’s the harm?
For decades, visitors – who wouldn’t dream of stripping off to cool down in the chilled waters of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, or lie on the High Altar of St Paul’s Cathedral for a better camera angle – thought little of desecrating an ancient site in the heart of the Australian desert. And they did it, day in, day out, until 26 October 2019, when the climb was permanently closed, finally respecting the wishes of the site’s traditional guardians.
I’m lucky enough to have been to Uluru twice. And both times, I didn’t climb.
Growing up, I knew it as Ayers Rock, which was what the Europeans called it, but for the traditional Aboriginal owners – the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people – this red-rock monolith is Uluru and it’s a sacred site. It’s part of their creation story, a living landscape at the heart of their culture, where the songlines of their ancestors and spirits came to form the cracks, colours, blemishes, caves and outcrops of the very rock itself.
Not that my backpacker bus tour guide was much concerned by any of this.
After a glowing description of just how cool it was to climb the rock, he added, “Of course, you don’t have to climb it if you don’t want to”, in a tone of voice that suggested you had completely wasted the journey here if you were planning on missing out on this cool, awesome and indeed epic adventure.
I don’t suppose I’d thought much about it until this point.
I’d been up the Eiffel Tower for the view and probably would have climbed Uluru, were it not for the simple – and inconvenient-to-many – fact that the people whose land it is don’t want you to. Despite the encouragement of the tour guide – “the start of the climb is over there guys!” – it was pretty clear, even back in the day, that the Aboriginal guardians preferred you not to climb. There was a simple polite sign saying as much, and some information on leaflets that said the same thing again, only in more words.
It seemed rude to ignore their wishes. So I didn’t climb.
Splashes of colour from desert wildflowers betrayed the hidden water courses that sustained the first Aboriginal people who found their way here, while birds of prey circled above the sheer walls. I kept in the shadows as the sun rose ever higher and listened to the peace – and occasional surprising wild noise – of an encircling, encompassing, timeless desert.
Meanwhile, above me, busloads of backpackers, day-trippers and coach tourists sweated and stumbled up the slippery rock in the already searing heat of an early morning.
By the time I visited again, a few years later, I’d had time to consider why – really why – I didn’t’ feel like climbing Uluru.
After all, it wasn’t illegal, and at the time wasn’t even prohibited by the owners. And, as it happens, I’m not remotely religious or spiritual. The Aboriginal creation stories have no meaning for me and, generally speaking, I like climbing things for the view.
For me, what it came down to was this – the people who traditionally own the land preferred you not to climb, and they asked nicely.
“Is it a place to conquer or connect with?”
“Is it a place to conquer or connect with?” they say, which seems like something to ponder for any traveller in a distant land.
At the time, it seemed only polite to listen to them. Especially as there are about twenty other things you can do, including that magical dawn walk around the base of Uluru which makes it easily into my ‘Top 10 Travel Experiences of All Time’. I didn’t offend anyone, use the rock as a toilet, or get injured or die of heatstroke – and these things have happened often at Uluru over the decades. I didn’t contribute to the swathe of discoloured and damaged rock on the climbing route that will scar the rock for generations. I didn’t say, to people I don’t know, that your beliefs don’t matter. And yet I still came back with memories and photographs that will last a lifetime.
They asked politely. That’s mainly why I didn’t climb.
And asking nicely, and being concerned about their responsibilities, eventually paid off for the traditional owners, who announced that the climb to the top of Uluru is now closed permanently – in part, because fewer than twenty percent of visitors still insisted on clambering all over a World-Heritage-listed sacred site (not to mention fainting on it, being sick on it, falling off it and dying on it).
That strikes me as one in the eye for those who think tourists are mostly an invasive, uncultured pestilence. Good for the eighty percent who came over time to respect the wishes of the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people.
And for those who regret the closure, who missed their chance, who think they should still be allowed to climb?
I’ve got an idea for you. See how long you get to enjoy your skinny-dip in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool before you’re tasered by DC’s finest, who will not be at all polite about it.