Ancient cave paintings evoke spiritual world at the foot of Uluru

Sydney Letter: Pádraig Collins explains why decades of Aboriginal hurt will end when climbing on a sacred landmark is finally outlawed

In early December, 1992, I was very excited at the prospect of going to Uluru while backpacking around Australia, but then I badly sprained my foot in an accident in far north Queensland and it looked like my plans were ruined.

Going straight from the hospital, I made the flight to Alice Springs (463km from Uluru) and from there decided that as I'd got that far, I wasn't prepared to miss out. After a six-hour bus journey, I saw the sun set on Uluru, known also as Ayers Rock. It was magnificent.

The next morning I got up at 4.15 to see the sun rise on the rock and afterwards took a short walk (more of a hobble) in which I saw cave paintings thousands of years old. It was as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve ever had.

Being on crutches, I could not climb Uluru, but I had no intention of doing so anyway. I found it extraordinary that anyone would want to. I knew the local Aboriginal people, the Anangu, did not want people to climb it, but even if you did not know that before arriving, there were multiple signs in multiple languages asking people not to climb. But still people did, most of them Australian. Perhaps they thought 200 years of white settlement gave them the right to tramp more than 60,000 years of indigenous heritage.

But now, finally, climbing Uluru is being banned from October, 2019. The decision came after a board meeting of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park voted unanimously for a ban.

The board chairman, Anangu man Sammy Wilson, gave an impassioned speech before the vote, describing the pressure he and other locals felt.

“Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open. Please don’t hold us to ransom,” he said. “It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland . . . this decision is for both Anangu and non-Anangu together to feel proud about; to realise, of course it’s the right thing.”

The climbing ban has been under consideration for some time. The park management plan outlined three criteria to be met before closing the climb: that new visitor experiences were established; cultural reasons were why tourists came; and the number of visitors climbing Uluru had fallen below 20 per cent.

In 2015 the number climbing fell to 16.2 per cent, setting in motion the move to ban it. The only pity is there will be two more years of shameful disrespect before the final person goes up and down the sacred site.

Vince Forrester, who grew up in the shadow of the rock at Mutitjulu, explained why Uluru is so important. “You can’t go climb on top of the Vatican, you can’t go climb on top of the Buddhist temples . . . you have to respect our religious attachment to the land too, so we’re saying please do not climb Uluru. We’ve said it in all languages.”

Climbing the 346m monolith only began in the 1930s, and a chain link fence was installed in 1966, after two deaths. There have been at least 34 further fatalities since then, and several hundred rescues that required medical attention.

On the day the ban was announced, the case of three men who spent 16 hours stranded at the top of Uluru in 2016 while emergency services struggled in what was described as an “arduous” and “very difficult” rescue, had their case in the Alice Springs local court adjourned.

The men, all in their early 20s, are facing charges under the Environment Protection Conservation Act after they wandered off the marked path and became stuck in a steep-walled crevice.

Two years ago a man identified only as John cut the chain link fence on the monolith in order to temporarily stop people climbing it.

David Ross, an Anangu man who at the time was chairman of the Central Land Council, praised John's actions. "He has done something to . . . bring attention and in order to get people to listen properly. I imagine this is something that has got people's attention and we can start dealing with things . . . hopefully, much more seriously."

The chain was repaired and climbing started again a few weeks later, but Ross and John got their wish, and eight decades of hurt are finally coming to a close.

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