It is November, springtime in the Australian desert, and I am standing at the base of the massive rust-colored monolith known as Uluru, or Ayers Rock, along with a group of National Geographic Expeditions travelers whom I am guiding on a two-week tour of Australia and New Zealand. Above us a path snakes up the smooth face of the sandstone rock.
Since the 1930s, when this formation started to become known to outsiders—and then became one of Australia’s top tourist attractions—hundreds of thousands of visitors have climbed this track to the top of the rock.
But not today. A sign at the start of the track says the climb is closed due to extreme heat and a risk of high winds.
And a short time from now, not ever. Two days before our arrival, the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park board announced that from October 26, 2019, Uluru will be permanently closed to climbing.
For the rock’s Aboriginal owners, whose tenure here goes back tens of thousands of years, this is a momentous decision, one they have dreamed of and worked toward for decades. To them, Uluru is an intensely sacred site and a potent link to spirit ancestors who shaped the land. For the best part of a century, they have felt sickened as people defecated on, stripped naked on, and drove golf balls off this spot where Aboriginals believe that the spirits of ancestral beings continue to reside.
Yet those feelings counted for little when weighed against the dollars being generated by the tourism economy. If visitors wanted to climb the rock, who were the Aboriginals, Australia’s maligned and marginalized indigenous people, to stop them?
Imagine the euphoria felt by the Aboriginal owners when the park board voted unanimously to end climbing. The director of the Central Land Council, which represents indigenous people in central Australia, said the decision was “righting a historic wrong.”
Today, at the start of the path up the rock, several large information panels express the local Anangu people’s feeling both for their most sacred place and for the visitors’ well-being. Under the headline “Please don’t climb,” the sign says: “This is our home. As custodians, we are responsible for your safety and behaviour. We worry about you and we worry about your family.”
This is not empty emoting. Since the 1950s at least 36 people have died while climbing Uluru. Between 2002 and 2009, 74 climbers needed medical rescues. The Anangu take their role as hosts seriously.
At nearby Kata Tjuta—36 domes of conglomerate rock scoured and smoothed by eons of wind and water—signs invite visitors to relate to the place as the indigenous people do. Signs say, in part: “Kata Tjuta is sacred. Our people have always shown respect when visiting this place. They would camp a short distance away and walk in quietly. It is the same now. It is the same for you. Hold in your heart the knowledge that this is a special place. Walk quietly, tread lightly.”
Other messages describe the possibility of a deeper encounter with the landscape than simply marveling at scenic splendor. In the cultural center at Yulara, the closest settlement, there is a statement from the late Anangu elder Tony Tjamiwa: “The tourist comes here with the camera taking pictures all over. What has he got? Another photo to take home, keep part of Uluru. He should get another lens—see straight inside. Wouldn’t see big rock then. He would see that Kuniya [sand-python creation being] living right inside there as from the beginning. He might throw his camera away then.”
Another step taken by Parks Australia was to insist that all tour guides complete an accreditation course developed by Charles Darwin University. In particular this requirement ensures that non-Aboriginal guides tell Aboriginal origin stories correctly.
In Aboriginal life, sacred stories are not just narrative accounts of something that happened once. They can be powerful invocations to ancestral presences that remain active in “country”—the English word used to express the deep Aboriginal relationship to land. Country is like a family member. If the story is wrong, country suffers. When country suffers, people suffer.
The park guides for our group were enthusiastically on board with this emphasis on accuracy and were eager to help us engage with Anangu stories and philosophy. Each time we arrived at the national park, they gave a greeting in the local Pitjantjatjara language, which serves not just to welcome visitors but also to announce to the land that outsiders are entering it.
Rather than simply encourage visitors not to climb, park management cleverly provided a way for them to feel they have contributed something by their decision. At one time climbers who summitted Ayers Rock could record their achievement in a visitors book at the top. So at the cultural center in Yulara, staff installed another book, the “I have not climbed” register, in which visitors can sign and comment on why they chose not to ascend. The book enables visitors to see their decision as an active endorsement of Aboriginal values, rather than a passive abstention. Signing becomes a record of a different kind of achievement.
One unexpected response to the gradually developing perception of Uluru as a sacred site has been the return of the rock itself—or, rather, bits of it. For years visitors have purloined pieces of Uluru as souvenirs. As awareness of Aboriginal beliefs began to become more widespread in Australian society, people started sending the rocks back. Almost daily, national park staff received packages of rocks from all over the world with messages of regret. (The heaviest piece returned so far weighs 70 pounds.) Some letter writers claimed to have been cursed with bad luck since taking rocks home, but most simply said that they recognized what they (or relatives from decades earlier) did was wrong. The story of these “sorry rocks,” as they are called, has been widely reported and reinforces the message of Uluru’s sacredness.
By 2013, climber numbers had plummeted. In the 1990s, 74 percent of visitors climbed the 1,142-foot sandstone monolith. By 2010 the percentage had dropped to less than 40. Five years later it was a mere 16 percent. A survey in 2016 found that more than three-quarters of visitors were aware of the “please don’t climb” message before they arrived, and more than 90 percent said they would not climb.
Instead visitors can go skydiving, camel riding, and cycle touring, or they can watch Aboriginal artists make their famous dot paintings in the Yulara cultural center. Sunrise and sunset viewing areas provide visitors with optimum vistas of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. And outside the park, more than 200,000 visitors have viewed Bruce Munro’s Uluru-inspired “Field of Light” art installation since it debuted in 2016.
The Anangu welcome tourism but not at culture’s expense. “Whitefellas see the land in economic terms,” Sammy Wilson, chairman of the park board, has said, “where Anangu see it as tjukurpa [the ancestral source of being]. If tjukurpa is gone, so is everything.”
There is a moment just before the sun sets when the west-facing flanks of Uluru blaze orange as if the rock has caught fire. The glow is fierce, intense, alive. A quarter of a million people come each year to watch this symphony of light and, increasingly, to learn something of the oldest living civilization on Earth.
By not climbing, they honor Aboriginal tjukurpa. By honoring tjukurpa, they honor the land.
Kennedy Warne is the founding editor of New Zealand Geographic and a contributing writer for National Geographic.
This story was published originally in the April/May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveler.