Uluru

To climb or not to climb . . . Uluru

I'm confident most people reading this will recognize the image above without the need for a caption. Formerly known as Ayers Rock (as christened by William Gosse in 1873 in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia), it is now preferably referred to by its Aboriginal name, Uluru, bestowed some few thousand years before Europeans chanced upon the 1,100-foot tall (from the base) sandstone inselberg.

We very nearly missed seeing it, fearing the commercialization of the site would spoil it for us. We're glad we decided to go, because the overwhelming grandeur of the place simply crushes any banality humans might tack on to it—besides which we found the visitors' center and associated community extremely well-run, and observantly respectful regarding the deeply held Aboriginal spiritual traditions attached to Uluru.

However. We also uncovered a disturbing controversy.

The local Pitjantjatjara Anangu never climb Uluru, partly because, as I read it, the route to the top crosses a sacred Dreamtime track. Around the site are numerous signs requesting that visitors also refrain from climbing it, both to respect this spiritual tradition and because the people feel responsible when someone is injured or needs rescuing—which apparently occurs with some frequency. 

Why not simply ban climbing? Because the 1985 agreement with the Australian government, which finally granted co-management of the rock to the local people, forcibly included a clause that precluded them from doing so. Numerous pleas from them to rewrite the agreement have fallen on deaf ears. As a result, each year several thousand tourists ignore the local beliefs and requests and climb the rock. Some do so simply to say they have; others apparently believe they gain their own special spiritual benefits from doing so. For some even this is not enough—one visitor apparently thought it would be oh so clever to hit a golf ball from the top; a young French woman decided it would be equally clever to have herself filmed running topless along the crest, to be posted on her Facebook page.

More? Sure: There are no facilities on the summit. Many of those climbers who feel their needs are more important than the beliefs of the local people also suddenly feel the need to urinate or worse after their triumphal ascent. When storms deluge the rock with rain, it forms stunning waterfalls, each carrying with it a little something from all those climbers.

Amelie, lovely young French woman at the excellent tribal arts center, informed us of much of this, expressing disgust at the solipsism of her topless compatriot. She also let us know there was a book we could sign, declaring that we had chosen not to climb Uluru in solidarity. We did so proudly.

The Anangu still hope to change the restrictions the government places on their management of their own sacred site. In the meantime, I'll state this: If you visit Uluru and ignore the requests of the local people because you have something to prove, or your shaman told you your spirit would be healed by the magical air on top, and you fall off—I won't shed a tear.