Heading to Uluru? Then leave those climbing poles at home. On October 26, the Uluru climb will close for good, and celebration is in the air.
"I'm excited. This has been a long time coming," says Steve Baldwin, the manager of park operations and visitor services at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. He and his team regularly rescue climbers who have gotten into difficulties, even though the climb is closed during hazardous conditions, which includes not just rain and wind but also extreme heat.
"There are a number of operational reasons to close the climb," Baldwin continues. "The Anangu people [the site's traditional owners] get extremely sad when anybody comes to harm, and more than 30 people have passed away while climbing Uluru, including one person last year."
Injuries and fatalities are not the only downsides to climbing Uluru. Over the years, the passage of thousands of feet following the trail up and down the rock has caused significant erosion. Climbers are also sometimes caught short; when their waste is washed off the rock it pollutes the area's waterholes, on which local birds and animals depend.
The most important reason to close the climb, however, is out of respect for the Anangu people, who have long requested that visitors not clamber over their sacred site. Increasingly, travellers have been paying attention: in 2015, only 16 per cent of visitors climbed the rock. That is a significant change from the 1990s, when 75 per cent of visitors took it on.
Given that shift, the board of management of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park decided in 2010 to close the climb when at least one of three conditions was met: that fewer than 20 per cent of visitors were climbing the rock; that an adequate number of new visitor experiences was established; and that cultural and natural experiences were the key reason why travellers were visiting the park. In 2017, the board announced that two of the conditions had already been met, and that the climb would close in October 2019.
Visitors to Uluru will find there are plenty of alternative activities. "Back in the 1950s, climbing the rock was the only thing for visitors to do," says Grant Hunt, the CEO of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, which operates the Ayers Rock Resort. "There is now a far greater appreciation not just of the landscape but also of indigenous culture." Today, visitors can take part in cultural activities, in desert dining experiences, and even take a ride on a camel or a Harley-Davidson. "Whether you want to tour the rock on a bicycle or a Segway, or stop in at the coffee cart that we are trialling, there is so much to do," Baldwin says.
As far back as 1942, author and art dealer Frank Clune had a vision for a very different future for Uluru. He said that, "As Fujiyama is to Japan, so should Ayers Rock be to Australia, a sacred mountain and place of pilgrimage in the heart of our continent".
It looks like that day is finally here. To celebrate, we asked some of the people whose work has brought them into contact with Uluru to tell us about their personal experiences of Australia's most famous rock.
THE TRADITIONAL OWNER
ULURU AND ME I grew up in this community. I see Uluru every day, from our community and when I go to work. I only go there on important occasions, when I go to female sites to learn sacred business from my grandmother. I am now taking my little nieces to teach them the right way to do things and how to respect the rock.
WHAT ULURU MEANS TO ME In Tjurkupa (traditional law) the rock is not important because of what is inside, but because of what is outside. Many stories finish in the rock; it is an important place. Every time I see it, I want to learn more about the sacred areas. I am still learning, and one day I will teach my nieces and nephews.
THE CLIMB AND ME There are a lot of different reasons not to climb the rock. For me, visitors should learn from the story of Wati Lungkata not to disrespect the rock. (Wati Lungkata the blue-tongue lizard man was greedy and dishonest. He camped in a cave on the rock and stole a wounded emu from hunters. The hunters set a fire that burned Wati Lungkata up.)
THE ONE THING YOU MUST DO WHEN YOU VISIT ULURU When people come here they should listen to Anangu talk about the rock so that they can respect it.
ULURU AND ME I have been working and living at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park as manager of park operations and visitor services for nearly five years. That involves everything from media, education, compliance and rescues to running the daily activities of the operations rangers, entry station and cultural centre.
WHAT ULURU MEANS TO ME To do this job, you have to immerse yourself in Anangu culture. We work so closely with the community, and it is our job to help visitors get some understanding of why this site is so critical to the culture. Many of the physical features and markings on the rock play a significant part in the history and law of the Anangu, and understanding the reverence that that brings is important. It is also a beautiful place, and I never get sick of looking at it. I have a young family and we regularly take the kids to the car sunset viewing area; they love it. I regularly head out on foot around the rock; you have to try to see it through the eyes of visitors. Every time I see something that can be improved, whether it is signage or maintenance or traffic flow.
THE CLIMB AND ME I actually do climb the rock occasionally, either on a climb patrol or for a rescue. Until the climb is closed, we need to be up there, updating the markings on the path, checking the safety of the climb chain and removing the rubbish that people leave behind.
THE ONE THING YOU MUST DO WHEN YOU VISIT ULURU Take in a sunset with a bottle of wine or your drink of choice. People don't realise that that classic glow only lasts for a few minutes, but while it does, it is amazing.
ULURU AND ME As a pilot with Professional Helicopter Services I fly around Uluru eight to 10 times a day on sightseeing flights, and I'm still not sick of it. Before I moved up here 15 months ago, I thought it was just a big red rock in the middle of nowhere. But I had a couple of days to explore the area and I was overcome by a certain feeling. It is hard to explain, but it has some sort of energy.
WHAT ULURU MEANS TO ME The significance of Uluru to Indigenous people is what really makes it special. When you go on a guided tour, you realise that every marking on the rock has a story, which is incredible. Because I have a science degree, I also find the geology really amazing. The rock actually tilted 90 degrees from its original position, so those lines that you see running across it are actually the earth's sedimentary layers. That's awesome. I also love how it changes with the weather. When it rains, which is really rare, all the locals drive out there: it turns a really dark colour and the sound of hundreds of trickling waterfalls is really beautiful.
THE CLIMB AND ME When I moved up here I wasn't sure whether I would climb it. I love climbing and hiking, but reading and listening to people, I realised that once you have climbed it you can't undo it. And why would you do something that you know impacts other peoples' spiritual beliefs?
THE ONE THING YOU MUST DO WHEN YOU VISIT ULURU Take a sunset helicopter flight or watch the sunrise from the Kata Tjuta viewing area. The sun rises behind Uluru and you get this magnificent silhouette.
ULURU AND ME In 1992 my wife Serena and I set off on a journey around Australia in our Toyota Corolla with a tent in the back seat. Seeing Uluru for the first time was an extraordinary experience. It goes right through your body. I just felt very, very alive. I started putting down ideas about creating an experience of light, which later became Field of Light [the light installation on show at Uluru until 2020].
WHAT ULURU MEANS TO ME It is a never-ending source of inspiration. I feel that it was a place and time that gave me a sense of direction, for which I am forever grateful. When I came back to Uluru for the opening, the sense that I had changed and the rock hadn't got me thinking about time, which has inspired a new series [of works] on time and place. I feel like we have lost touch with the natural world and we need to re-engage with it; it has things to tell us. Places like Uluru are like beacons calling out to us, telling us to get it together.
THE CLIMB AND ME I actually climbed it in 1992; there was no sense then that this was something you shouldn't do. There were queues of people every morning for the climb. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn't have done it. You don't need to conquer everything. You can walk around it and enjoy that.
THE ONE THING YOU MUST DO WHEN YOU VISIT ULURU Sit quietly away from people and drink in the experience of just being there. It will ground you.
THE TOUR GUIDE
ULIURU AND ME The first time I came to the Red Centre I found the colours quite overwhelming, and I loved the peace and serenity. I wasn't sure if I would ever get back there, but when I was looking for opportunities to work in tourism, I came across a training course for outback tourist services that led to my job with Intrepid Travel. Now I am based in Alice Springs and go to Uluru at least once a week. I take the passengers out on a sunrise base walk and also to a cultural talk. I also give them time and space to reflect.
WHAT ULURU MEANS TO ME The hugeness of the rock is something special; you can feel the energy that comes from it. I'm quite proud of our rock, and very proud of the Aboriginal fight for their rights as traditional owners. I'm proud that the traditional owners and the federal government are able to work as well as together as they do, and I like being able to teach our clients, who come here from right around the world, a little bit of Indigenous history and help them connect to another culture.
THE CLIMB AND ME I never felt the need to, and now that I understand the cultural side of things, I'm glad I never did. I'm really happy that the climb is closing.
THE ONE THING YOU MUST DO WHEN YOU VISIT ULURU There is so much you can do but the base walk is great. It is 10 kilometres long but pretty flat, or you can just do part of it. Sunrise is a great time of day to do it; you can be out there in the stillness, watching the desert wake up.
ULURU AND ME I first held the position of CEO at Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia [which operates Ayers Rock Resort] for 10 years between 1996 and 2006, and lived out there for the first four years. I also spent many years on the board of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. I left Voyages to start my own company, which I sold in 2015, but when they asked to me to come back as CEO, I said yes straight away.
WHAT ULURU MEANS TO ME You have to stand before Uluru to really experience it. It is a spiritually powerful place; it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It is one of the world's great landscapes, with the openness, the red dirt and the spinifex. The Aboriginal culture brings so much more to the experience, and so many other stories run through the place, including the early pioneers and the more recent tourism pioneers.
THE CLIMB AND ME I've never climbed the rock] out of respect. When I first came here in the 1990s, I was too busy. Then I quickly engaged with the Anangu culture and realised it was not something that they appreciated tourists doing.
THE ONE THING YOU MUST DO WHEN YOU VISIT ULURU Uluru has so many interesting nooks and crannies, from Kanji gorge to Mutitjulu waterhole, but the best thing that you can do is to head out at sunrise or sunset, find a spot where no-one else is around, and experience the silence. Take that time out with a massive glowing red wall in front of you and think about life for a moment.
ULURU AND ME In 2008, I was coming out of a toxic relationship and I needed to get away, so I left my full-time job and started travelling around Australia. Uluru was one of the first destinations on my go-to list, and I lived there for three months. It was the start of my career as a professional landscape photographer. I have a real connection with remote regions, especially arid landscapes, and Uluru was the start of that for me.
WHAT ULURU MEANS TO ME The rock is such a huge presence and Kata Tjuta is awesome as well. But for photographers, Uluru is just magic. I lead photography tours there and I never get bored of going back. I'm always looking for different light and different opportunities. To this day, seeing Uluru in the rain, photographing the waterfalls flowing off it, is the best thing that I have ever seen. The change of colour is quite dramatic. I have a shot of Uluru completely wet; it looks blue in the pre-dawn light and it won me a couple of awards.
THE CLIMB AND ME I actually did climb it a long time ago, but I wouldn't do it again.
THE ONE THING YOU MUST DO WHEN YOU VISIT ULURU Take a helicopter flight and see it from the air. It is amazing to see it from this different perspective: you see different patterns in the landscape, but the rock still holds its own. Whether you are in the air or on the ground, it remains a force to be reckoned with.
READY TO ROCK
There's more to see and do around Uluru than you may realise. Add these activities to your must-do list.
HIT THE ROAD
Grab a set of wheels to discover the many different sides of the rock. You can hire a bike, hop on the back of a Harley Davidson or even give a Segway a go. outbackcycling.com/uluru , ulurumotorcycles.com.au , ulurusegwaytours.com.au
DINE IN THE DESERT
Choose from two starlit desert dining experiences: the family-friendly Sounds of Silence, which features a bush tucker-inspired buffet, and the more exclusive Tali Wiru dinner, limited to 20 people. ayersrockresort.com.au
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN ART
Discover works by talented Indigenous artists at Maruku Arts inside the national park or at one of the galleries at Ayers Rock Resort, including Mulgara Gallery and Mingkiri Arts. Dot painting workshops are also available. maruku.com.au , ayersrockresort.com.au
EXPLORE THE HEAVENS
Join one of the evening astro tours to experience the brightness of stars in the desert sky, and to learn about indigenous constellations including the giant emu. ayersrockresort.com.au
DISCOVER HIDDEN WATERHOLES
During a big wet, the channels and ridges that run along the rock feed the rain into a series of tree-shaded waterholes that are some of Uluru's loveliest spots.
ULURU BY THE NUMBERS
Whichever way you measure it, Uluru is impressive
3.6 length in kilometres. It is also 1.9 kilometres wide and has a circumference of 9.4 kilometres.
33 percentage of the rock that is visible. The vast bulk of Uluru sits beneath the ground.
348 height in metres. That makes it smaller than Kata Tjuta, whose highest dome stands 548 metres.
600 million how many years ago Uluru was formed.
21 number of mammal species that live around Uluru. The area is also home to 178 bird species and 73 reptiles, including the eye-catching thorny devil.
1955 the year that regular tours to Uluru began, with guests camping in tents and drinking water carted in from Curtin Springs.
2 number of UNESCO World Heritage listings. It was listed as a natural site in 1987 and as a cultural site in 1994, making it only the second location in the world to receive dual World Heritage listings.
30,000 number of years that people have lived in Central Australia according to archaeological evidence.
1985 the year Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was returned to the traditional owners.
Ayers Rock Resort offers a range of accommodation, from the Outback Pioneer Hotel (starting from $220 a room a night) to the five star Sails in the Desert (from $340 per room a night). A number of campsites are also available. See ayersrockresort.com.au
Intrepid Travel's four-day Red Centre Adventure includes sunrise at Uluru and a visit to King's Canyon. From $792 per person. See intrepidtravel.com