Climbing mount Uluru has been one of the top gap year bucket list items for any backpacker heading to Australia for decades, but as of October 2019 all travellers will be banned from climbing the famous landmark, and despite some protestations this is a good thing.
In an historic decision, the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park board has worked alongside the wider Anangu local community and has decided unanimously to ban climbing on Uluru from October 2019 next year.
Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, is one of Australia’s most iconic natural sites in the Northern Territory, and one that has drawn backpackers and tourists alike for decades. Given the fact that the impressive sandstone rock formation dominates the landscape at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and the sheer amount of cave paintings and sites of archaeological importance has been enough for it to be declared a UNESCO world heritage site, it really isn’t hard to understand why it is so popular.
This has made Uluru a massive draw for backpackers during the Australian leg of their gap year, with many attempting the climb to the top.
The local perspective.
However Uluru is also a sacred site to the Yankunytjatjara and the Pitjantjatjara people, the traditional Aboriginal landowners of the National Park.
“Uluru and Kata Tjuta were created by our creation ancestors. In their travels they left marks in the land and made laws for us to keep and live by.”
They believe that Uluru, and the nearby Kata Tjuta are the physical foundations of their entire culture and belief system. For the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people the mountains and rock formations are the sacred sites that represent the Tjukurpa, the creation period where their ancestors created the world and the foundation of their law for caring for one another and for the land.
For decades now, the Yankunytjatjara and the Pitjantjatjara people have asked, tried to educate and even beg people not to climb the mountain that is sacred to them in an attempt to get them to respect their traditional law. There is even a sign at the base of the trek that reminds everyone that they are climbing on sacred ground and that the local people ask them not to climb it.
“We, the Anangu traditional owners, have this to say: Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge. Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted. Please don’t climb.”
Is tourism more important than respect for culture?
The big problem with this request is that up until this decision, it has always been legal to climb Uluru. It brings in a huge amount of tourist revenue for the Australian tourism board and as usual many tourists put their own experiences above and beyond any ethical or responsible concerns about what they are doing.
With a backdrop in recent years of tourists stripping off at sacred sites, getting drunk, getting into trouble with the authorities and generally showing so much disrespect for the places and cultures they are visiting, the tourism and gap year industries are not coming off very well at all.
This ban, alongside other legal measures taken by authorities of various countries are the backlash to that. This ban is all about saying tourists are welcome, but only if they respect the culture and the laws of the land.
I’m all for adventure travel. I love trekking, mountain climbing and adventure sports. But there has to be a balance. There has to be respect.
Travel is a right but tourism is a privilege.
There are a lot of tourists, and even some backpackers, who are decrying this decision but they are completely missing the point. They are understandably disappointed that they have been denied a tick on one of their bucket list items, but are forgetting that there is so much more to travel than just that.
Travelling around the world, whether that is on a gap year, a snap year or an endless independent trip, is about so much more than just a cookie cutter experience. There is far, far more to visiting Uluru than just climbing to the top of another mountain and getting your little badge that says ‘I climbed Ayers Rock’ and that inevitable damn selfie for your social media profile.
But travel is better than that. It has to be better than that.
Travellers should see this ban as a good thing, not a negative. They should see it as an opportunity to understand the local culture in much more detail, to explore the wider Uluru national park and appreciate Uluru from a distance, to experience the area on a deeper and more meaningful level.
And despite previous warnings from Tourism Central Australia that visitors will stop coming to Uluru if climbing is banned, I personally believe that the majority of travellers are better than that. I believe that backpackers in general will still flock to the area, and instead of climbing another mountain like they can do in so many other places in Australia and beyond, they will revel in the chance to get a different and unique experience, to trek around the base of Uluru and learn from local guides why the rock is so important to them and exactly why they shouldn’t climb it. They will open their minds, learn about new cultures, have their own paradigms pushed and challenged and learn to think of Uluru the way the locals do.
Because that, at the end of the day, is what travel is really all about.
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