Aboriginal theories about the creation of the Uluru rock formation vary and are rarely shared with outsiders, but the Anangu people are clear about its hallowed place in their heritage. It’s where the spirits of their ancestors reside. Setting foot on the sandstone formation is forbidden. Pocketing rocks from Uluru could lead to a lifelong curse.
But for some Australian tourists, the orange-slice-resembling rock formation is something different: a neat place for a day hike.
Well, at least, it was.
Hiking the 1,100-foot sandstone monolith will be officially banned in two years, according to Australia’s Department of the Environment and Energy.
It’s the end of a conflict between an Australian government that welcomed tourist dollars at one of the continent’s most recognizable natural features and indigenous people who claim they’ve been intimidated into letting people traipse on one of their holiest places.
“It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland,” Sammy Wilson, chairman of the board of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and an Anangu man, told the BBC.
“If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don’t enter or climb it, I respect it,” Wilson said.
The first Aborigines may have moved into the area that includes Uluru’s rock as early as 20,000 years ago, according to a travel website that focuses on the formation. The indigenous people believe the world was unformed and featureless before ancestral beings emerged and shaped species and landscapes. For millennia, Uluru was a holy place, the land where Aborigines believed the shapers of the world walked.
Europeans exploring the center of Australia “discovered” the rock in the 1870s. They slapped their own names on Uluru and other features they found. Uluru was named Ayers rock, after Sir Henry Ayers, the chief secretary of South Australia.
It was named a national park in 1950. A motel and an airstrip followed. The area around Uluru was designated an Aboriginal reserve, but the Australian government maintained control of the rock.
The outcry over that never really subsided, and in 1985, the government handed over the title deeds to Uluru back to the Anangu traditional landowners, according to the park’s blog. The Anangu people signed an agreement that leased the land to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service.
The Anangu people and the government jointly manage the land as a national park.
But hikers never stopped making the Uluru climb. It’s a demanding but beautiful hike, full of natural springs, water holes, cave paintings and rock caves. Generations of royals took pictures in front of the landscape during tours of Australia, although they didn’t step foot on the sacred ground.
Climbing the rock is also dangerous. Some climbers use chains and ropes hammered into the rock to make their way up the steep, steady grade. According to the Telegraph last year, 36 people have died climbing Uluru. The climb is banned in the hottest months.
Through it all, indigenous people’s cries that people were trampling on holy ground went largely unheard — until recently.
Perhaps it parallels the indigenous rights movement, as native groups have convinced more people that their cultures deserve to be respected after centuries of taking a back seat to European colonialism.
In the United States, for example, cities have stopped celebrating Columbus Day on the second Monday in October and instead celebrate the cultures of indigenous people. And a national movement has sought to change the name of Washington’s football team.
That sentiment has spread even to the orange-colored rock in central Australia, where fewer than 20 percent of the annual visitors to the park actually set foot on Uluru.
That’s in part because of a sign at the base of the monolith and other advisories encouraging people not to make the climb.
“The climb is not prohibited, but Anangu ask as visitors to their land that you respect their wishes, culture and law by not climbing Uluru,” one travel website said. “We encourage you to think about the other great ways to experience Uluru.”
Not everyone has gotten the message.
In 2010, for example, a French tourist climbed to the top of the sacred rock and stripped down to her bikini.
Alizee Sery said her climb and subsequent actions were a tribute to Aboriginal culture.
“I am aware that Uluru is sacred in their culture. My project is a tribute to the greatness of the Rock,” she said, according to Australia’s ABC News. “What we need to remember is that traditionally, the Aboriginal people were living naked. So stripping down was a return to what it was like.”
The Anangu people were not amused.
They redoubled efforts to have the rock permanently closed.
And they petitioned the government to have the 25-year-old French woman deported.