Climbing Uluru in Australia’s red centre will end, traditional owners and national park managers have announced.
The historic decision came on Wednesday after a management board meeting of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park voted unanimously to ban the contentious practice from October 2019.
They asked visitors to understand the new rule, a long-held request of traditional owners who said they had previously felt “intimidated” into allowing the culturally inappropriate practice to continue.
While Anangu (Indigenous people in central Australia) outnumber national parks board members, it’s understood they have always sought unanimity on closing the climb.
The chair of the board, traditional owner Sammy Wilson, made an impbadioned speech to the board before the vote, describing the pressure he and other Indigenous people felt over the issue.
“Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open. Please don’t hold us to ransom,” he said.
“This decision is for both Anangu and non-Anangu together to feel proud about; to realise, of course it’s the right thing to close the ‘playground’.”
Anangu have long requested that visitors do not climb the rock, both because it is a deeply sacred men’s site and because of the cultural responsibility they feel over the high number of injuries and deaths.
“Whitefellas see the land in economic terms, where Anangu see it as tjukurpa [cultural law]. If the tjukurpa is gone, so is everything. We want to hold on to our culture – if we don’t it could disappear completely in another 50 or 100 years,” Wilson said.
There have also been complaints of tourists urinating at the top, potentially contaminating water sources – both practical and cultural – at the base.
“Some people, in tourism and government for example, might have been saying we need to keep it open, but it’s not their law that lies in this land,” Wilson said.
“It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland … We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity.”
Climbing of the central Australian rock began in the 1930s but a chain link fence wasn’t installed until 1966, after two deaths. There was no consultation with traditional owners about the chain. There have been at least 36 known fatalities since the 1950s, and 74 rescues which required medical attention between 2002 and 2009 alone.
A 2010-20 management plan said the board would work towards closure if one of three conditions were met, including if the proportion of visitors climbing dropped below 20%.
In 2010 about 38% of visitors climbed, a drop from more than three quarters of visitors in the 1990s. By 2015 it had dropped to 16.5%, but successive board meetings failed to vote in favour of shutting the activity down.
A 2016 survey found 72% of visitors understood the “please don’t climb” message before their arrival, and 91% said they wouldn’t climb.
The park itself is open 365 days a year but the rock climb rarely is, due to weather conditions and other issues. It has only been open 22.7% of this year. The last time it closed was in August, out of respect for the pbading of the park’s first chairman, Yami Lester.
There are now more than 150 tours and activities, and visitor numbers have returned to pre-global financial crisis levels. Few tour operators and services are Indigenous-owned.
Parks management and tour operators have repeatedly indicated that any announcement to close the climb would come with a buffer of at least 18 months, to accommodate tourists who had already made plans.
The Central Land Council, which represents Indigenous nations in Central Australia congratulated the board on “righting a historic wrong”.
“This decision has been a very long time coming and our thoughts are with the elders who have longed for this day but are no longer with us to celebrate it,” said CLC director David Ross.
Australian visitors are consistently the most likely group to ignore the sign at the base requesting they respect Anangu wishes and not climb.
Reasons given, according to a national parks survey, have included: “it’s not different to any other mountain”, “this [sign] is actually not factually correct”, and “I respect Uluru like Mount Fuji. We have mountain worship.”
In October 2015, during the 30th anniversary celebrations of the official handback of Uluru, a protester cut the chain. Despite the heavy media presence, the incident was kept quiet by authorities for several days. A man who went by the name John claimed responsibility for the act on ABC radio.
Wilson, who also runs one of the few Indigenous-owned tour operations, said visitors didn’t need to worry that there would be nothing for them to do once the climb closed, and indicated he would seek badistance to take tours out onto nearby Anangu homelands.
“There are so many other smaller places that still have cultural significance that we can share publicly. So instead of tourists feeling disappointed in what they can do here, they can experience the homelands with Anangu and really enjoy the fact that they learnt so much more about culture.”