By Brad Japhe
October 05, 2019
Field of Light, Uluru, Bruce Munro 2016 Photo by: Mark Pickthall Courtesy of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

A spellbinding red mound of rock towering 1,142 feet above the surrounding Outback, Uluru is a singular site to behold. To the Anangu people — who have inhabited the region for 30,000 years — it’s not just stunning scenery. It’s sacred. Ever since the establishment of a chain handhold route in 1964 visitors here have been scaling the formation, against the wishes of its traditional owners. And so, one of Australia’s biggest tourist destinations also became one of its most controversial. But that all changes on Oct. 26th of this year when the climbing route closes, permanently. While some are lamenting the ban, the National Park Board wants you to know that its actually a cause for celebration. 

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"We are excited about the closure because it will draw attention to the spiritual nature of the place and will rid Uluru of its reputation as just another monolith to conquer,” explains Clive Scollay, General Manager of Maruku Arts, an Aboriginal-owned artists’ collective based at the site. “Apart from the wonderful walks around the Rock and at nearby Kata Tjuta there are many activities to occupy people’s time including our own cultural tours and experiences. Our world famous Dot Painting Workshops area a must-do.”

Courtesy of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

It wasn’t always this way. The modern era of tourism at Uluru began in the 1950s with the construction of a small airstrip just north of the park. Separated from Alice Springs — the nearest population center — by some 270 miles of pavement, this desolate section of the Northern Territory was now equipped to receive a steady stream of guests. But simply staring at this geologic wonder apparently wasn’t enough. Indeed, the vast majority of them saw the site as some sort of climbers’ conquest.

When the Australian government returned the land to the Anangu in 1985, it included a 99-year lease to continue operations within the park in exchange for an eventual closure of the climbing route. “Anangu have always been concerned for the safety of climbers and have felt great grief when people have died during the climb,” says Scollay. “This grief is amplified because Anangu feel responsibility is forced upon them to look after the souls of the dead."

Still, the government balked at a specific date for the ban. As many as 80% of visitors to Uluru were coming expressly for the climb. It didn’t help in 1983, when Prince Charles and Princess Diana made the trek to the top with much fanfare. Australian officials worried that tourism would collapse if they announced an overnight prohibition. So a compromise was reached: plans would be made to shore up infrastructure and heritage sites around Uluru, with the aim of developing alternative recreation in and around the park. When the annual percentage of climbers dropped to less than 20% of total visitors, the closure would be triggered.

The ensuing decades saw the construction of bike paths, cultural centers, art installations and other unobtrusive ways to interact with the hallowed ground. At the Desert Gardens Hotel, inside nearby Ayers Rock Resort, a climbing tour was still offered — but with each passing year, fewer visitors were signing up.

Courtesy of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

Finally in 2015, the 20% benchmark was cleared. And even then the government dragged their feet, eventually landing on a date in late 2019 — 34 years to the day after officially reinstating the land to its Traditional Owners. “Our charter is to protect and promote local Aboriginal culture,” says Scollay. “In the short term [the closure] will offer us an opportunity to draw attention to that culture as we perform important ceremonial inma [song and dance] to celebrate on 26 October.”

Courtesy of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia
Courtesy of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

Today visitors can enjoy experiences to satisfy all the senses. Talu Wiru is a particularly tasty example. Part sightseeing tour, part fine-dining, the nightly experience ushers guests onto a remote outdoor patio, where Uluru hovers along the distant horizon. A four-course menu kicks off with a didjeridoo performance at sunset, before indigenous ingredients arrive at the table, paired alongside some of Australia’s most celebrated wines. Pressed wallaby with quandong, fermented muntries and assorted bush tucker is served under an awe-inspiring canopy of stars.

If you’re more of a morning person, Voyages kicks off its tour into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park with a sunrise breakfast. The 7-hour guided adventure picks you up and drops you off from your hotel, taking you to the base of the 600 million-year-old mound as it catches the dawn’s light in a brilliant auburn glow. You’ll visit the Mutitjulu waterhole, a tranquil oasis abutting sheer sandstone cliffs, before observing thousand-year-old petroglyphs preserved into the rock. The Dreamtime Stories of the Anangu are explained in greater detail during a pit stop at the Cultural Centre.

“Ayers Rock Resort, which supports visitors to the National Park, has worked tirelessly to develop and promote a wide range of experiences, events, and activities,” says Grant Hunt, CEO of Voyages Indigenous Tourism. “It’s all designed to make the place attractive, contemporary and revenant from a cultural point of view. While the closure of the climb removes one small adventure component for the destination, it does so much more to strengthen its cultural authenticity.”

Field of Light, Uluru, Bruce Munro 2016 Photo by: Mark Pickthall Courtesy of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

Hunt recommends visiting the Field of Light, a massive installation of shimmering orbs conceived by British artist Bruce Munro. Located just beyond the resort, the international attraction features 20,000 sculpted bulbs, which slowly shift in color as you walk through them. It runs through the end of 2020. During the first weekend of November, Opera Australia will perform here for the first time, in what could potentially become an annual gala.

Even without the physical climb, there’s still plenty of ways to elevate your heart rate at Uluru. Operating out of the parking lot of the Cultural Centre, Outback Cycling rents out bicycles for as little as $50 AUD per 3 hour ride. The 9-mile circuit around the rock can typically be completed in a leisurely 2.5 hours.

“My partner and I chose to bicycle around the base because it was too hot to walk,” says Michelle Loui, an outdoor adventurer based in Darwin, who advises visiting from April to October (From November through March, temperatures in this part of Australia’s ‘Red Centre’ average over 90-degrees Fahrenheit). “The idea of climbing/conquering Uluru is very much a Western ideology. You actually appreciate and admire the sheer immensity of it more when you’re riding below it.”

But the paved path is decidedly flat. If you desire more ups and downs, book a hike to Kata Tjuta with SEIT Outback Australia. Guided by locals, the 4-hour tour of that other rock formation of the park will get you up-close and personal with its 36 dome-like outcroppings. You’ll make your way through and back the Walpa Gorge with rock walls towering hundreds of feet above in either direction. On a 25-mile ride back to the park entrance, you’re treated to unfettered views of Uluru as it resumes its customary topographical dominance. Even without physically ascending the rock, your emotions here will carry you to untold heights

“No matter what your attitude may be to the closure of the climb, nothing can prepare you for the awe you will feel when you first lay your eyes on this majestic monolith rising from the surrounding plain,” Scollay points out. “Uluru truly is a ‘Puli Pulka’: A very grand rock, worthy of its place as a geographic wonder of the world.”

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