The Controversy of Uluru

To Climb or Not to Climb?

Rising majestically out of the barren lands of Central Australia stands the largest monolith in the world, Uluru.[i] This 300 million year-old, red sandstone rock symbolizes the hearts of two conflicting cultures.[ii] The native Aboriginals, who prefer to be called nyunga,[iii] have inhabited these lands for the past 40,000 years.[iv] This land is significant for some indigenous tribes, in particular the Anangu, who experience it as an extremely sacred place that embodies their culture and their heritage.[v] In the past 150 years, however, the Australians have come to value this site as well, and it has become a national identity for them.[vi] Unfortunately for both cultures, the perspectives held toward this land are at odds. Currently, the two parties are attempting to handle the situation through a joint management approach, which has proved to be a double-edged sword. At the center of these issues lies the crucial question: to climb or not to climb?

To understand the issue at hand it is important to understand the history of the site and how each culture perceives Uluru. In the 19th century, British colonizers forced the indigenous peoples into settlements in Central Australia where the land was less valuable.[vii] Again the indigenous were disrupted in the mid-20th century when Australians sought business opportunities there, such as at Uluru.[viii] In 1920 the South West Aboriginal Reserve was established, which included the Uluru area, however in 1958 the Uluru region was removed from the reserve for tourist reasons.[ix] By 1970 this site was a famous tourist destination and in 1977 this land became a National Park with Uluru as the “centerpiece.”[x] Seeing the increasing infrastructure and people camping atop their sacred rock, the Anangus decided to take action. In 1979, the Central Land Council (CNC) pursued Aboriginals’ rights to this land under the Aboriginal Law Rights Act of 1976.[xi] The Australian government gave in and by 1985 the Anangus reclaimed their rights to the land through the “Handback” of the rock, which also included an agreement to lease this land to the government for 99-years.[xii] A joint management agreement was initiated.[xiii] Even though the Anangus technically own the land, they still encounter many issues relating to tourism especially, and the government still holds significant power.

 Uluru has much sacred importance to the Anangu tribe. For the nyunga people, their spirituality is greatly intertwined with nature.[xiv] The Anangu’s spirituality and heritage is etched into this landscape. The rock’s surface breathes with fables of their past, “each dimple and crease in the terrain is the subject of a unique and renovated tale.”[xv] These stories construct the culture and beliefs of these people by providing each generation lessons passed down about “behavior, geography, survival, and history”[xvi]; this rock is the vehicle driving their existence. There are many paths that the Anangu’s ancestors used, which are still used today by contemporary Anangu people, which connect their sacred spaces around this site. These paths are called Iwara[xvii] or Dreamings[xviii] and are significant to their culture in that they serve as both social connections as well as spiritual links[xix] to their historic legends that tell the myths of their creation and conflict.[xx] Anangu people call the period of their creation Tjukurpa; this concept also represents their beliefs and their lifestyle.[xxi] “Essential to the law of Tjukurpa is Anangu’s responsibility as caretakers of the natural environment.”[xxii]  The Anangu people used these trails and never climbed on Uluru because they considered such an act to be extremely disrespectful.[xxiii] They also believe that snapping a photograph is essentially like taking a part of the rock’s soul.[xxiv] Both of these issues have been prevalent since tourism at this site has skyrocketed.

To the Australians, Uluru, which they also call Ayers Rock,[xxv] serves as a national icon.[xxvi] It is one of the most popular tourist sites, collecting over 400,000 visitors annually[xxvii] and is included on the World Heritage List for it natural and cultural significance.[xxviii] Australians have embraced The Rock (Uluru) since W.C. Gosse first climbed it in 1873 and named it after Sir Henry Ayers, governor of a colony in South Australia.[xxix] Since becoming a National Park, this site has been synonymous for outdoor activities, like hiking.[xxx] The motto for Central Australia is “The heart. The Soul. The Center…Central Australia lies not only in the heart of Australia, it lies in the hearts of Australians.”[xxxi]  Non-natives see this site as a celebrated location amongst Australia; it is in the heart of the country, Australians take pride in its natural beauty, it is financially prosperous, and it has a long history in that it “preserves some of the world’s oldest memories.”[xxxii]

Uluru is a contested site; to the natives it is sacred and to non-natives it is a national identity as well as an economically profitable place. Because these perspectives clash, the two cultures disagree on how the land should be used. Even though the Anagus own the land the Australian government seems to have a significant amount of influence. The primary issue is over permitting climbing. The fact that climbing continues despite the Anangu people requesting visitors not to goes to show that the divide between the settlers and the nyunga still exist today.

There is a clear disparity between perspectives. An Anangu who works as a ranger in the park surrounding Uluru asks, “If Anangu people came to your church and walked all over the seats and the alter and everything, how would you feel?”[xxxiii] One Australian visitor feel differently, and is quoted for saying: “I think it’s a crock of s*** that they ask you not to climb. It’s our country too.”[xxxiv] Another claims that going to Uluru without climbing to the top would be “like going to the Great Barrier Reef and not diving.”[xxxv] Not all visitors feel this strongly about climbing The Rock, however. Since 1991, the number of visitors who choose to climb has reduced from 70% to around 50%.[xxxvi]  In fact, many visitors express surprise when they find out how important it is to the Anangu that no one climbs the rock.[xxxvii]

This suggests a lack of communication between natives and non-natives. The Anangu culture is very different than many that visit here. Of the 200-some remaining Anangu who live in this region, very few speak English.[xxxviii] Published in a pamphlet are the pleading words of the Anangu:

This is Anangu land and we welcome you…We want our visitors to learn about out place and listen to us Anangu. Now a lot of visitors are only looking at sunset and climbing Uluru. That rock is really important and sacred. You shouldn’t climb it! Climbing is not a proper tradition for this place.[xxxix]

A misunderstanding over the significance of this rock to non-natives is understandable; in this example, the vernacular used is not entirely clear. It is doubtful that the Anangu know how to articulate their opinions in a convincing way because their culture is so different. Tour guides stress to their groups that they have the “choice” of going on the climb.[xl] By remaining neutral to the subject, these guides do little to assist the Anangu in their struggle for respect from the public. An experiment revealed the influence tour guides have over their groups in deciding whether to climb The Rock or not is significant.[xli]

Yet again, we are faced with the issue of how to handle an indigenous tradition. Whose perspective should take precedence? Can a balance between the two be found? How can we preserve an indigenous culture without inflicting our own? In my opinion, if we are to respect the Anangu people there should be a strict ban from climbing on the rock. The Anangu celebrate this specific rock, and have done so for the past tens of thousands of years. Climbers can find many other places to climb that are just as exciting.

Erin O’Neill

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[i] Polidor, Amberly. “Uluru-Kata Tjuta.” Sacred Land Film Project. 22 Jan. 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2011. <>.

[ii] Curl D. Uluru. Australian Geographic [serial online]. October 2005;(80):58-66. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 5, 2011.

[iii] Gaines P. ULURU: SACRED GROUND. Essence (Time Inc.) [serial online]. September 2002;33(5):208. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 5, 2011.

[iv] Donnan S. Summit of an Aborigine battle for respect. (Cover story). Christian Science Monitor [serial online]. February 18, 2000:1. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 5, 2011.

[v] Polidor, Amberly.

[vi] Donnan S.

[vii] Polidor, Amberly.

[viii] Polidor, Amberly.

[ix] Curl, D.

[x] Polidor, Amberly.

[xi] Polidor, Amberly.

[xii] Curl, D.

[xiii] Polidor, Amberly.

[xiv] Polidor, Amberly.

[xv] Harder B. The Monolith Called Uluru. (Cover story). U.S. News & World Report [serial online]. November 26, 2007;143(19):45. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 5, 2011.

[xvi] Curl, D.

[xvii] Polidor, Amberly.

[xviii] Harder, B.

[xix] Polidor, Amberly.

[xx] Harder, B.

[xxi] Polidor, Amberly.

[xxii] Polidor, Amberly, p. 3.

[xxiii] Polidor, Amberly.

[xxiv] Gaines P.

[xxv] Polidor, Amberly.

[xxvi] Curl, D.

[xxvii] James S. Constructing the Climb: Visitor Decision-making at Uluru. Geographical Research [serial online]. December 2007;45(4):398-407. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 5, 2011.

[xxviii] Curl, D.

[xxix] Donnan, S.

[xxx] James, S.

[xxxi] James, S. p. 402.

[xxxii] Curl, D.

[xxxiii] Donnan, S. p. 2.

[xxxiv] James, S. 401.

[xxxv] Donnan, S. p. 2.

[xxxvi] James, S.

[xxxvii] James, S.

[xxxviii] Curl, D.

[xxxix] James, S. 399.

[xl] James, S.

[xli] James, S. 402.

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