Exclusive: No More Climbing At Australia's Uluru & Its Much-Respected Tjukurpa

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No More Climbing At Uluru & Its Much-Respected Tju
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By Suvam Pal

On October 25, when the sun set beyond the horizon of the parched red earth and sunk through the silhouette of Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), the most iconic natural landmarks of Australia, Uluru or the Ayers Rock, made a new beginning. When the last rays of the sun at dusk were gradually turning the majestic sandstone monolith crimson, the last batch of climbers was descending to mark a new dawn for the magnificent mound. With the permanent ban on climbing the sacred rock coming into effect from October 26, Uluru has witnessed a new chapter into its existence for more than 500 million years. 

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My recent visit to the arkose sandstone made monolith, which got its distinct bright reddish colour due to the substantial presence of feldspar minerals in it, helped me understand the gravity of the landmark decision. Uluru is not a topographical splendour, it’s an ecological and ethnographic enigma and I was enthralled, educated and enlightened about the wonder once I got a chance to experience it up, close and personal.

A bird’s eye view from the sky

Located in the heart of Australia, Uluru is mostly isolated from modern civilization habitats in the sparsely populated continent. Although the nearest city from the sacred sandstone monolith is Alice Springs, situated around 450 km away from the rock and is connected by a highway through the arid outback, I chose to fly from Sydney and was lucky enough to book a seat in one of the handful of daily flights to the Connellan Airport or the Ayers Rock Airport, situated around 15km from the magical menhir.

Soon after our landing on the tiny airstrip in the middle of the thorny bushes spreading over hundreds of miles around Uluru, we were taken from the middle-of-no-where airport to the nearby Yulara town by a free shuttle bus. The tiny town near Uluru got a few resorts/retreats for its visitors and unless you pre-book your stay a few months in advance, it would be almost impossible to find a place to sleepover within the rock’s harsh surroundings and with the absence of any city-like human habitats.

Understanding Tjukurpa

My closest encounter with the grandiose rock, which is standing lonely and tall in a dull and dreary desert landscape, began with an aboriginal guide taking our group closer to the massive monolith. Our bus was meandering through the tar road heading towards the base of the rock as we were educated about the Anangu people, the original habitants of the land, who are also the protector of Uluru and its surroundings, and Tjukurpa, the unwritten and traditional law that has been the foundation of their culture and heritage. The entire Anangu ecosystem, where Uluru is the fulcrum, is governed by Tjukurpa, which has many deep and complex meanings and interpretations. 

The relationships among people, plants, animals and physical features of the land are mostly showcased by Tjukurpa and the prohibition of climbing the sacred rock is as per this aboriginal law of the land religiously followed by the sons and daughters of the soil. The Anangu people believe that Kuniya, a python woman and Liru, the poisonous snake man, once took on each other and their fiercely-fought battle resulted in the creation of Uluru and their glorious ancestry.

Even though the sandstone monolith has been attracting climbers since 1950s, but it’s always been against the wishes of the Anangu people and their much-respected Tjukurpa. For Anangu people, the message has always been loud and clear, “Wanyu Ulurunya Tatintja Wiyangku Wantima”, which means in English, “Please don’t climb Uluru.”

Why one shouldn’t climb Uluru?

According to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management, the governing body of the vast area at the centre of the Northern Territory, there are primarily three reasons for not setting your foot on the Uluru. For the Anangu people, the traditional owners, “That’s a really important sacred thing you are climbing… you shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything.” 

Your safety, their priority

While being enlightened about the cultural aspects of not climbing the Uluru, I was brought to the base by our guide, MJ, who was born in a local Anangu family. Standing in front of the starting point of the Uluru climbing trails, I was briefed about the safety reasons as over 35 people have lost their lives and many more were injured while trying to make an ascent to the summit. “We, Anangu people, feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land,” was his remark as he was explaining to us about the physically demanding climbing aspects. While appreciating the tantalizing beauty of the inselberg or the “island mountain”, which is renowned for its changing colours at different times of the day and year, we were told that one shouldn’t attempt it with high or low blood pressure, heart ailments, breathing problems, a fear of heights as the conditions at a higher level on the rock may pose severe health and safety hazards.     

Protect their mother nature

More importantly, we were educated about the environmental reasons behind the ban on climbing as Uluru has been a victim of erosion over the years due to weathering and thousands of climbers’ footsteps over the past few decades have expedited the process at some parts. The metallic rims inserted on the Uluru surface by the early climbers to fix ropes along the trail to the summit are still distinctly visible and are an eyesore to the pristine existence of the monolith in the middle of nowhere.

Meanwhile, we were told that the climbing exercises also brought pollution to the sacred hill as rubbish and waste, dropped or left behind by the climbers, have brought impurities and pollutants to the unique vegetations and the overall ecosystem of Uluru. Our guide informed us that several water quality tests in the waterholes adjoining the monolith in its base have detected high bacterial levels fed by runoff from the climb site.

While treading around the Uluru base through the rugged terrain and the thorny bushes, showcasing an incredible range of flora and fauna, I continued to learn more about the unspoiled beauty of the aborigine culture and how the love for mother nature with the imposing existence of Uluru in its sanctum sanctorum paved the way for the landmark decision to ban climbing. 

Once I ended the immensely informative base walk and returned to my hotel, I was well-convinced that Uluru is not just a travelling experience, it’s an incredible combination of emotion, education and enlightenment for each of the visitors who would set their feet on the Anangu land. More importantly, one should respect the Tjukurpa, whatever it takes, and it’s paramount.  

Suvam Pal is a Broadcast Journalist, Author and Sojourner.