Uluru: The sandstone monolith called Uluru that dominates Australia’s arid center has long been celebrated as a prized peak to be conquered and a sacred site to be revered. But the pendulum is scheduled to take a major swing away from the throngs of international selfie-seekers toward the rock’s cultural significance to its traditional owners when climbing is banned from late Friday afternoon (6:30 GMT).
The end of visitors enjoying the panoramic views of the incongruously flat Outback surrounds from the rock’s 348-meter (1,140-foot) summit also marks indigenous Australians finding a new voice in national decision-making.
The ban was a unanimous decision made two years ago by 12 members of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management. But it’s an outcome that has divided both indigenous Australians as well as the wider world.
The polarity of opinions has been highlighted in recent months as thousands of visitors have converged on one of Australia’s most famous landmarks in unprecedented numbers to beat the ban and make a final trek to the top. Tourists have been illegally camping on roadsides for miles because the local camping ground and accommodation were booked.
Like many Australians who know the landmark simply as “the Rock,” Jeff Lis regards the climb as a birthright. The 52-year-old and his lifelong friend Stefan Gangur, 51, drove from Melbourne on the southeast coast to Australia’s so-called Red Center.
“I’ve got some pretty strong views on it personally. I was born in Australia, it is part of my culture and ancestry as much as anyone else’s,” Lis, who is not an indigenous Australian, said at Uluru. Sammy Wilson, who chaired the board that banned the climb, described the pending prohibition as a cause for celebration. Wilson is member of the Anangu tribe who are Uluru’s traditional owners.
“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. “It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity.”
There has long been tension within the indigenous population around the money that climbers bring and the rock’s significance as a sacred site. “I am happy and sad, two ways,” said Kevin Cooley, a resident of the Mutitjulu indigenous community in the rock’s shadow who collects the Uluru tourists’ garbage. He fears that tourist numbers and the local economy will decline.
The biggest drop in foreign visitors could be the Japanese who have proven to be the most committed climbers. Signs around the rock have long discouraged climbing, describing Uluru as a “place of great knowledge” and noting that Anangu traditional law prohibits climbing.