Rock may be out of bounds for good

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 12:00am

National park rangers and Aboriginal leaders are to consider a permanent ban on climbing Ayers Rock following a temporary closure to tourists earlier this month.

The rock - now known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru - was closed for 11 days out of respect for the death of an Aboriginal elder, Tony Tjamiwa, who played a pivotal role in developing the site as a cultural and tourist centre.

Members of the local Anangu tribe consider Uluru sacred and refuse to climb it, although over the years they have reluctantly permitted tourists to do so.

Brooke Watson, manager of Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park, said the question of whether Uluru should be permanently closed would be discussed by rangers, tour operators and Aborigines under a review of the park's plan of management starting in July.

'The temporary ban on climbing has certainly raised the issue. The traditional owners don't understand why tourists want to climb the rock when Aborigines themselves don't climb it. I think the tourist industry understands that a ban is on the cards,' Mr Watson said.

The Anangu believe the trail to the summit, which in places is marked by a chain strung between metal posts, follows the path of the ancestral spirit of the mala, a species of hare wallaby which features in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories.

Each year the site attracts about 500,000 visitors, and generates about A$150 million (HK$600 million) in tourism income. About half of all visitors climb the rock, but the steepness of the path and the fact that temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius during the summer mean there are often fatalities.

Thirty-four people have died during the climb, seven in the past five years. People regularly faint and have to be taken down on stretchers.

Commercial pressures - and the expectations of millions of tourists - have kept the rock open. But many local Aborigines say the temporary closure should now be extended as a sign of greater respect for traditional beliefs.

Adam Millar, secretary of the Office of Joint Management, which represents the traditional owners of Uluru, said: 'Over time Aboriginal people have been really tolerant of people climbing on the rock, but they would rather it wasn't done.

'The Anangu feel responsible for the safety and well-being of climbers. They get very upset whenever a tourist dies while making the ascent. It's devastating for them.

'One of the things that has come out of this is that it has highlighted the fact that tourism operators aren't doing enough in discouraging people from climbing.'

More responsible tour operators encourage visitors to forgo the scramble to the summit and instead take a walking tour around the 9km base of the rock, he said.

There is likely to be fierce opposition to any proposed ban, however, from tour operators and the Northern Territory Government.

This month's temporary closure was severely criticised by the Northern Territory's Chief Minister, Denis Burke, who called on the federal Government to cut short the mourning period - a request which was rejected by ministers in Canberra.

In the end, however, it may not be cultural sensitivities which put an end to climbing Ayers Rock, but a more practical reason: simple wear and tear.

'Erosion could be the determining factor,' Mr Watson said. 'The path is getting slippery and dangerous from the sheer number of people using it.'