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The last climb up Australia’s majestic Uluru

Hundreds of visitors lined up to climb Australia's Uluru Oct. 25, before a ban takes effect after a decades-long fight by indigenous people to close the trek. (Video: Reuters)

SYDNEY — The final climb of one of the world’s great natural wonders — a giant red rock — was almost canceled.

Early Friday, as the sun peeked over a flat horizon, hundreds of tourists from around the world emerged out of the dawn for what they had been told would be the last legal ascent of Uluru, an ancient monolith in the dry center of Australia that early British authorities named Ayers Rock.

But a strong breeze had picked up, and the rangers in charge declared the 1,100-foot ascent unsafe. The tourists, monitored by television crews, waited patiently to see whether conditions would improve.

An estimated 37 people have died on Uluru since Western tourists began climbing the site in the middle of last century via a track so steep in parts that some scared visitors descend backward or on all fours. Some slipped on wet rock and fell to their deaths. Others, often unfit or elderly, suffered heart attacks from the strenuous walk and high temperatures.

Despite the physical dangers — including the infamous 1980 killing of a baby by a dingo at a local campsite — Uluru became one of Australia’s most popular and recognized tourist destinations.

Two years ago, the indigenous custodians of the area said they intended to close Uluru to climbers on Oct. 26, exactly 34 years after the national government transferred the site to its traditional owners. Climbers who violate the ban will face steep fines.

The decision by the Anangu people, who regard the rock as a sacred site and who discourage people from climbing it, triggered an influx this week of visitors from Australia and overseas eager to make the ascent — and post the achievement on social media — while they could still do so legally.

Although Uluru appears to be shades of earthy red, depending on the time of day, it is a gray sedimentary rock called arkose. Iron ore in the rock that has rusted from contact with water creates red flakes that have turned Uluru into a geological Instagram star.

To reduce the dangers of climbing it, Uluru is closed whenever winds pick up, the temperature rises above 97 degrees or there is rain.

Aborigines say Uluru is sacred. Tourists rushing to beat a climbing ban are trashing it.

On Thursday, when it quickly hit 104 degrees, no one was allowed to climb after 8 a.m., an hour after opening.

A 32-year-old Japanese tourist, Tomoyasu Kato, was among those who reached the top. “It was scarier than fun,” he told an Australian newspaper, the Age. “I enjoyed being at the top but my heart was beating hard when I was coming down. My heart was saying, ‘danger, danger.’ ”

As dawn broke Friday, a line of would-be climbers snaked 600 yards from the entrance gate. The sky was clear and the forecast was 91 degrees, but a strong easterly wind whipped through the starkly beautiful landscape.

It looked like those who had held out until the last day, or who were too late Thursday, might miss out.

“The spirits have a sense of humour,” tweeted freelance writer Shaney Hudson.

Then, around 10 a.m., several rangers gathered at the locked gate, surrounded by television crews and tourists.

Uluru had been one of the most popular topics on Twitter all morning in Australia, and many of the posts were critical of people willing to defy Aboriginal requests to observe the rock only from the ground.

“I need you to clear away from the gate,” one ranger told a cameraman. “The climb will now be open.”

After brief, spontaneous applause, the crowd surged forward, led by a young man with a backpack who sprinted up the base.

Within half an hour, an antlike line of figures stretched from the ground to the summit, moving methodically up the red rock for the last time.

Aborigines say Uluru is sacred. Tourists rushing to beat a hiking ban are trashing it.

Some Aborigines say to disturb Uluru is a curse. Australia says climbing it will soon be a crime.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day to replace Columbus Day in the District, other jurisdictions

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