Climbing Uluru: it’s more complicated than you think

“There’s something else,” says John Sweeny, a guide at Uluru, “but we can’t talk about it.”

He’s referring to the vexed question of the gigantic rock we now stand beside: to climb it or not to climb. It’s been debated before and will be debated again, and right now we’re in the middle of another one.

I know you’re not supposed to climb it, and I’m happy to respect that. But what’s the local Anangu people’s opposition to tourists ascending Uluru?

“They’re concerned about safety,” John had said earlier, translating from Sammy Wilson, an Anangu man. More than 40 people have died attempting to climb Uluru, and the Anangu feel personally responsible when it happens. They don’t want innocent people dying on their land. Fair enough.

They also can’t understand why anyone would want to climb it, John says. There’s “Tjukurpa”, or Aboriginal knowledge expressed in stories, to be found right the way around the base of the rock, wisdom to be gleaned from the trees and the dirt and the rocks. That’s where people should be. At Uluru’s summit, however, there’s no Tjukurpa, and therefore no reason to go up there.

That’s why they don’t want people to climb. And, John says, “there’s something else”.

We can’t find out what that is because it’s private knowledge, something the Anangu want to keep to themselves. For a white person not brought up with the respect for tradition and storytelling that Aborigines have, that can be tough to get your head around, but that’s the way it is. That’s all we have to go on.

It’s what is missing from this explanation, however, that’s the most interesting thing for me. I’ve always been fine with the idea of not climbing Uluru out of respect for the Anangu’s wishes; however, I was under the impression that a key factor in those wishes was that Uluru is a sacred place, and that people treading on it is akin to desecrating a holy site.

But that’s apparently not the case, at least for some.

There are plans in place, John says, to close the climb completely. Then, he adds, some Anangu would like to develop the climbing route, increase the safety standards to something similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, and reopen it to those willing to pay for the experience.

That solves the Anangu’s first issue of safety. It also, of course, negates any opposition on the grounds of Uluru being a sacred site. It’s difficult to justify banning people for religious reasons one day and then welcoming them back for a fee the next.

It demonstrates what a complex issue this is. Some Anangu want the climb closed entirely. Others want it developed as a tourist attraction. And most of us will never be told one of the reasons behind all of this because it’s private knowledge.

Meanwhile, the tourists are coming. Jetstar has just opened up direct flights from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport, and millions of dollars have been poured into the refurbishment and rejuvenation of Ayers Rock Resort, the only accommodation in the area. There’s the expectation, clearly, that visitor numbers to Uluru are going to be increasing, meaning more and more people will be asked to make that decision.

To climb, or not to climb? At the moment, it’s up to you.

I still won’t do it. It’s enough for me to just walk around the base, to watch the rock appear out of the darkness at sunrise, to have that “Eiffel Tower” moment of seeing in the flesh something you’ve been shown so many times in photographs before.

And there’s nothing so enticing about standing on top of Uluru that I would go against the wishes of people who’ve lived beside it for tens of thousands of years in order to check out the view – regardless of the reasons behind those wishes.

But, having heard new sides to the debate, I have less opposition to those who have a different point of view.

Have you climbed Uluru? Would you like to? How do you interpret the wishes of the Anangu people?

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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