Huge crowds made last-minute bids for the summit of Uluru as the countdown to a long-awaited ban on climbing entered its final day - but the huge rock in central Australia is now closed to hikers.
The restrictions, imposed on Saturday, October 26 – 34 years to the day that the land on which the sacred rock sits was handed back to its traditional aboriginal owners, has led to a flood of visitors to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, many intent on summiting Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) before it becomes illegal to do so.
As the climb closed for the day on Friday, a new sign was unveiled at the entrance that read "Permanent closure".
With the ban nearing, the park has seen a 20 per cent rise in arrivals in the last year. While some cite the growth as an indicator that tourism will continue to flourish, others say it is a sign of “nauseating” disrespect. Aboriginal Australians regard the rock as sacred and for decades have called for tourists to stop setting foot on its slopes. It is estimated around 1,000 people a day are currently climbing the rock, up from roughly 135 in 2015.
Stuart Anderson, a musician who visited the park earlier this month, wrote of his trip on Twitter: “An amazing experience, not lessened in any way by not climbing. The entitlement of the ‘climbers’ to ‘get in before it closes’ was nauseating.”
Images posted on social media showed long lines of people waiting to climb Uluru on Friday ahead of the ban. One user commented on such a photo: "A mass of morally and ethically bankrupt people. One even hiking a toddler up, teaching the next generation how to be ignorant."
Officials have confirmed that the metal chain used as a climbing aid will be dismantled as soon as the ban comes into force.
There are, however, concerns that many will continue to climb Uluru illegally after October 26. “Humans are humans,” Lyndee Severin, who rents out accommodation 66 miles from the rock, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Every inch of the rock can’t be policed all the time. One of the really strong messages that we get from visitors is that the rock belongs to all Australians, not just a very small percentage.”
Marc Hendrickx, a geologist who made a failed attempt to the Human Rights Commission to have the climbing ban overruled as discriminatory, said he would return to summit the peak after the ban.
“I was last there last July and I told my daughters we will be back there in 20 years to climb it again,” he told the newspaper. “In the overall context of a trip out to Uluru, a $600 fine can just be added on to what is already a very expensive trip.”
Grant Hunt, chief executive at Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, says about 80 per cent of visitors are supportive of the climbing ban.
“There’s a minority who still don’t of course, [but] the travelling public have become much more culturally mature than they were 20 years ago,” he told news agency AAP.
Australia’s tourism minister Simon Birmingham is supportive of the ban, and the local tourist board does not encourage its climbing.
Tourism Central Australia CEO Stephen Schwer said the majority of tourist operators respected the ban.
“Particularly tourism operators down at the rock because because they work with Anangu on a daily basis and they can see the frustration that it causes them,” he told AAP .
“They’re our friends, these are people who are friends with our tourism operators who even in some cases work with them.”
Uluru was first settled around 30,000 years ago, but in the 20th century European colonialist took the rock from Australia’s first nations people. In 1985 it was handed back to aboriginal Australians, who leased it to the federal government for a period of 99 years.
An agreement to stop tourist access to the summit has been on the table since 1983, when then prime minister Bob Hawke promised formally to hand the land on which Uluru sits to the Aṉangu people. This transfer came into force on October 26 1985, and was accompanied by an agreement that climbing the rock would be forbidden if any one of certain set conditions were met.
One of them – that the number of visitors wanting to attempt the climb drops to 20 per cent or less of the total tourist head-count – came to pass in 2013, when footfall counters installed at the top of Uluru noted that the ratio of climbers to overall visitors to the site had fallen below the ratio of one-in-five.
This was already a sizeable reduction. While the current rush to the rock may suggest otherwise, the appetite for cresting Uluru has been declining for the last 30 years – while the awareness that to do so is to violate someone’s heritage has soared accordingly.
In 1990, 75 per cent of visitors clambered to the summit. Similar measurements in 1995 and 2006 produced statistics of 52 per cent and 38 per cent respectively. And yet still the hiking boots come, the threshold reached in 2013 being conveniently ignored.
Donald Fraser, senior Anangu senior tribal elder and former chair of the Uluru Kata-Tjuta board, said excitement was mounting ahead of Saturday. “It’s a big thing,” he said. “A lot of the people are becoming emotional with joy.
“The traditional owners were suffering and ended up in stress because they were treading on an important place, an important rock.”
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