As a long-awaited ban on climbing Uluru looms, a visit to this most iconic landscape reveals that to fixate on ‘conquering’ the rock is to miss a far deeper opportunity.
A ubiquitous sight in Australian tourism campaigns, faded family photo albums and, more recently, morning television debates, the towering bed of arkose sandstone that forms Uluru becomes powerfully real as our bus rumbles into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Rising before dawn on a mid-winter morning, we pause to watch the colours of sunrise reflect off its surface before heading to the starting point of our tour.
Part of a transition to more conscientious forms of tourism in the park, tours like this one are a novel new addition. As we circumnavigate the base on Segways, our guide explains the reasons against climbing: its cultural importance for the Aṉangu traditional owners, the environmental impact of climbers and their waste on a vital water catchment, and the sense of responsibility the Aṉangu community feel for visitors who regularly hurt themselves on it.
It does feel odd zipping around the red dirt atop two electrically-powered wheels – Martian colonisers, perhaps, instead of the usual terrestrial variety. But, not nearly as strange as the tiny moving specks that come into focus near the north-west face. Aṉangu locals refer to tourists as ‘minga’, a word for ants, and it’s clear why. I stop to read the signage at the base, which reiterates the same points as our guide in a range of languages, along with a gentle but firm request: ‘please don’t climb’. Everyone that chooses to go up, first walks past this plea.
From the very same point, another walk traces out along the base, respectfully passing sacred sights and caves on the way to Kantju Gorge. Here, staring up at a towering face of sheer red rock, one feels utterly dwarfed. It drives home how ancient this land is, and how transformative the fleeting presence of western culture has been. Which, of course, throws into sharper relief the grey line that snakes up the side of Uluru, a scar in its red outer layer of oxidation carved out by millions of tourist footsteps. It will remain for years.
A short, mulga tree-lined walk from the rock itself is the Cultural Centre, an essential starting point for any visit that sits by two Aṉangu-owned and governed art centres, Walkatjara Art and Maruku Arts. Up to 25 artists at a time make their way in each morning from the Mutitjulu community within the park, to sit and work on a mix of their own private pieces and work for sale. Walkatjara is a valued income source for these women and men; while a percentage of the National Park entry fees go towards Uluru’s Aṉangu traditional owners and the community, residents still support themselves and their families.
The importance of Aṉangu culture is, for the tour guides we meet, paramount. Oral traditions hold great value and power in Aṉangu culture, and our guides take care to explain that these are only the stories they, as outsiders, have been granted permission to tell by the park’s majority-Aṉangu board. It occurs to me that for many tourists from far-flung corners of the globe, and perhaps even some Australians, this may be their first introduction to the breadth and diversity of First Nations that exists, thanks to years of pop culture and politics that often treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as one homogenous group.
There are wider changes too. As recently as 2011 the resort town of Yulara – a cluster of hotels and restaurants just outside the National Park – was privately-owned and employed only a handful of Indigenous staff. Today it is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation, with First Nations people comprising over 40% of its workforce. Walking around the town there is a clear effort to bring Aṉangu culture to the fore: ‘Palya!’ is the go-to greeting, and ‘Tjukurpa’ – the Aṉangu community’s uniting framework of history, law and culture – is also continually evoked. Daily bush food demonstrations, art workshops, star talks and eco tours form a core part of the town experience.
This flows into the more elaborate attractions, such as Tali Wirlu, a fine dining experience based around native ingredients and the night sky. Sitting around a fire before dinner, chef Samantha Fewings comes forward with a basket of bush food to explain what flavours will be used later in the evening – lemon myrtle, quandong, pigface and green ants to name a few. Often bold, concentrated and textured, they’re the result of a landscape where plants that require less water thrive. Between courses our guide for the evening, Joseph King, reappears to explain the night sky through the distinct yet occasionally overlapping constellations and traditions of First Nations peoples around Australia (as a brief concession to familiarity, he also points out some western ones).
Later, I bump into King as he wraps up a daytime presentation in the resort. King is a Bundjalung man who grew up in Sydney, one of many non-Aṉangu Indigenous staff who come from far and wide to work near the park. He explains that the opportunity to be immersed in First Nations cultures, with Aṉangu at the fore, is a chance to gain an understanding of country and heritage he missed growing up. Having previously worked in meatpacking or council tree management, he tells me that after a few days of either he would shut his eyes and see meat, or trees. “Now I see stars,” he says.
The act of climbing Uluru represents the literal peak of a settler society mindset: that pull to reach the centre of what, to European eyes, seemed a harsh, inhospitable landscape, and assert our dominion by standing astride the monolith at its heart. This of course, entirely ignore Uluru’s important place in the world’s oldest living culture, and its rich ongoing relationship with the traditional owners who continue to live by it.
For decades we, and the tourists who followed, insisted through our actions that we were at the centre of the universe. In 2019, Uluru is a fine place to realise how wrong we are.
The Adelaide Review travelled as a guest of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia