New Zealanders – understandably – don’t rate climbing Australia’s mountains alongside the thrills offered by their own alpine peaks.
Australia’s tallest, Mt Kosciuszko, in the Snowy Mountains, is around 1500m lower than Aoraki/Mt Cook. And until 1977 – when environmental concerns closed the road – it was possible to drive to within a few metres of Kosciuszko’s 2228m summit.
More confronting is Australia’s best-known natural landmark, Uluru, the captivating red sandstone rock that towers over the desert 335km southwest of Alice Springs.
Formerly Ayers Rock, it has claimed the lives of at least 37 people who sought to ascend its 348m – and that is only deaths recorded from the 1950s. Since Aboriginal people first settled around Uluru some 35,000 years ago, the toll is likely to be considerably higher.
From October, however, climbers will be banned from Uluru, and the rickety chain-link climbing fence – installed in 1966 – that people use to haul themselves up will be removed.
Few of the deaths on Uluru have been the result of falls. Heart attacks are the killer; most who die are tourists, ill prepared for the stress of climbing the rock’s steep path in central Australia’s heat.
Yet, it was not the health risks that led Uluru’s traditional Aboriginal owners to their contested decision to ban climbers.
Instead, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board chairman Sammy Wilson, grandson of the late Paddy Uluru – recognised as the rock’s principal traditional owner – said simply that Uluru was sacred ground and “not a theme park like Disneyland”.
The rock, Wilson said, was – to the surrounding desert’s Anangu people – an ancient sacred men’s area that should no longer be trodden by outsiders.
The decision – though widely telegraphed in advance – has generated pushback from opponents in the tourism industry and from some wilderness advocates who see in it the potential to lock away other landmarks cherished by Aboriginal people.
Sydney geologist Marc Hendrickx, who formed the Right to Climb Ayers Rock movement, has even lodged a complaint – yet to be resolved – with Australia’s Human Rights Commission, alleging racial discrimination.
The core of Hendrickx’s argument – and that of other opponents of the ban – is that Uluru’s Aboriginal people themselves have long climbed and guided visitors up the rock.
In one film from the 1940s, preserved by the Lutheran Church, two Aboriginal men, named as Tiger Tjalkalyirri, an Uluru traditional owner, and Mitjenkeri Mick, guided white explorers on an expedition from a station near Alice Springs all the way to the Uluru summit and back.
It is true that in more recent years, the Anangu, the rock’s traditional owners, have asked that visitors do not climb the rock – a request clearly set out on a sign at the base. A 2016 survey found 72 per cent of tourists understood the cultural reasoning behind the request and 91 per cent said they wouldn’t climb.
But since the impending ban was announced a year ago, climber numbers have soared from 50-140 a day to 300-500 as tourists from around the world – and Australia – stampede to achieve a bucket-list goal before climbing stops on October 26, 2019.
There’s been something else, less expected. Little pieces of the rock are flowing back to Uluru. These are the “Sorry Rocks”. Almost every day since the public learnt that climbing was to become a thing of the past, staff at the Parks Australia office at the base of Uluru have been receiving parcels containing pieces of rock taken from the landmark and mailed home by their now-ashamed former “owners”.
That, surely, tells of a new respect for the wishes of Aboriginal people – themselves climbed over for too long.