Safety chain to come off Uluru as rock climb closes in Australia

If you haven’t climbed Uluru by now, it’s unlikely you ever will.

The giant monolith in Australia’s Red Centre will be closed to climbers from October 26, a decision made out of respect for the land’s traditional owners, the Anangu people, who regard it as a sacred site.

Not everyone is happy that the decision to climb has been taken out of their hands, but the deadline will come as a relief to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park rangers, who receive a call at least once a week to rescue injured or stranded tourists.

From October 27, anyone who ignores the signs and wanders into a restricted area faces fines of $630 (US$430) and possible prosecution, according to existing legislation.

“The area will be zoned off as a no-access area and soon after that the climb chain will be slowly removed,” said park manager Mike Misso. “It would be taken very seriously if people ignored that.”

Standing 328 meters high, Uluru is taller than the Eiffel Tower and London’s Shard. It is hot, slippery and often windy. Not surprisingly, at least 35 people have died since climbing started in the 1950s.

“That doesn’t count all the people that have gone back to their hotel room and have not woken up,” said Grant Hunt, the CEO of Voyages, which operates all the hotels and campsites near Uluru.

“People will always do silly things. It is an environment that can creep up on you pretty fast, particularly without water and shade and appropriate clothing and footwear and so on,” he said.

“I’ve seen people go up in thongs (flip-flops) and stilettos. It’s just ridiculous. It is dangerous.”

Despite the dangers, the impending closure has caused a tourism boom over the last 18 months. Visitors have been coming to see the rock and the rare sight of water in Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest salt lake, 700 kilometers (435 miles) away in the state of South Australia.

Local operators say the next few weeks will be hectic as visitors rush to climb the rock, mostly Australian families, retirees and Japanese tourists (who have long been avid climbers of Uluru).

“The phones have run hot,” said Lyndee Severin, whose family runs Curtin Springs, a cattle station with accommodation and a camping ground about one hour’s drive from the rock.

“If you are looking for the experience of wide open spaces on your own, the next few weeks are not going to be the time to do it,” she said.

Australian tradition

“I climbed Uluru” used to be the proud boast sold on T-shirts at the local tourist shop back in the mid-1990s. In recent years, however, climbing Uluru has seemed less of a boast and more of a confession. Signs at the base of the rock implore people not to climb out of respect for its traditional owners.

Anungu elders say their sacred site is being trashed by visitors who traipse up and down the rock, eroding its surface, dropping rubbish and polluting nearby waterholes.

Most have been happy to comply — around 15% of visitors actually climb the rock, according to park manager Misso — but others say Uluru should remain open for all Australians and tourists to enjoy.

Jim Mullett is one of them. As a pilot and member of the Monduran Aero Club, he’s been flying back and forth across the country for 37 years from the club’s base near Bundaberg in northern Queensland.

Every few years, he and other aircraft owners fly to Uluru so members can climb the rock — they have another trip planned in the next few weeks.

“We’ve got an 8-seater twin, and a 6-seater twin and maybe another one going out before the cut-off date to climb the rock — that’s about 18 or 20 people,” he said.

Mullett is clear when asked how he feels about the end of the climb.

“Absolutely disgusted,” he said. “I believe that everything in this country is for all Australians. I believe it should be open to all to appreciate, if they wish.”

The massive rock

The first non-Indigenous person to see Uluru was British explorer William Gosse, who spotted it in 1873. He named it Ayer’s Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, a former carpenter from Portsmouth, England who rose to become the chief secretary of South Australia.

Early settlers concluded that the red center wasn’t good for farming so they didn’t venture near the site until the 1940s when miners moved in. Word spread about the mammoth rock jutting out of the red earth, and in the 1950s an enterprising resident, Len Tuit, set up base at the foot of the rock and began selling the first tours.

According to the first official records, more than 2,000 people visited Uluru in 1958. This year, around 460,000 flew or drove hundreds of kilometers to the remote World Heritage site, which is listed for its outstanding natural and cultural values.

The end of an era

Some tourism operators can’t help but feel nervous about the area’s future without the climb.

Business has been brisk in recent months, and the close of the climb coincides with the start of the slow season, when temperatures rise to a blistering 37 degrees Celsius (98 Fahrenheit). (The hottest temperature ever recorded was 45.5 Celsius (114 Fahrenheit) in February 1992.)

“Quiet seasons are always a challenge,” said Severin, from Curtin Springs Station. “But we are seeing quite a large increase in forward bookings for this time of the year.”

So too for Voyages, which has teamed up with Opera Australia to stage their first performance at Uluru near the Field of Light, an installation by artist Bruce Munro of 50,000 lights over 49,000 square meters.

The once-temporary installation was meant to end next year, but has just been extended again, indefinitely, after a $1 million refit.

There are other ways to view the rock too — follow the Uluru base walk, a 10-kilometer journey on a flat dirt path that can be completed in around 3.5 hours. If you’re looking for something faster, hire a bike, a Harley-Davidson or a Segway.

And for an insight how people live there today, Curtin Springs Station is a real-life example of a working cattle station. They also create their own paper from native grasses and are working on other ways to create interesting, sustainable attractions in an arid, sometimes inhospitable land.

“Australia is a long-haul destination to start with and central Australia is an expensive destination to get to. And we want people’s experience when they get here to be the best that they could possibly have imagined, well better than the best that they could possibly have imagined that to be,” Severin said.

The message for tourists is that the climb may be closing, but the rock is still open for business. Book early and pack sensible shoes.