Crowds surge to Uluru on eve of climbing ban

Climbers will not longer be allowed

By Lilit Marcus, CNN
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia - If you ban it, they will come. That was the case at Uluru, the sacred red rock in Australia's Northern Territory, where tourists flocked to make a final ascent before a permanent ban on climbing came into force.

Images posted on social media showed long lines of visitors hoping to ascend the landmark, once known as Ayers Rock, despite longstanding requests not to climb by Uluru's traditional owners, the indigenous Anangu people.

On the eve of the October 26 ban, the walkway up the huge monolith was finally closed to the public a couple of hours before sunset, according to Australian broadcaster ABC. It reported that hundreds had made the trek up the landmark on the final day.

A representative for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park tells CNN Travel that visitor numbers were not tracked in the week leading up to the ban. According to the park's most recent data, 300,000 people visited Uluru in 2015, of whom 16.2% climbed the rock -- roughly 135 a day.

While the decision to end climbing at Uluru, which was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987, was made out of respect for the Anangu, an Aboriginal community, there have also been safety concerns.

The experience can be quite dangerous for inexperienced climbers, and people have been injured or worse. Standing 1,142 feet high, Uluru is taller than the Eiffel Tower and London's Shard. It is hot, slippery and often windy.

In early October 2019, a 12-year-old girl fell approximately 20 meters while climbing the rock with her family.

Royal Flying Doctor Service flight nurse Troy Dicks, who attended the incident, told CNN affiliate SBS news the girl was descending the summit when she fell, resulting in a fractured finger, multiple grazes and a possible fractured ankle.

A 76-year-old Japanese man died during the climb in 2018.

Zoe Blakeney of Sydney visited Uluru in August and did not climb, opting instead to take a Segway tour around the base of the rock and listen to Dreamtime stories from a native guide.

This week, she watched TV and online footage from the final climbing days at Uluru and was disappointed.

"It makes me angry and upset," she tells CNN Travel.

"There are marks from people's feet on the rock that will forever be scarred into it. I find it upsetting how the Aboriginal culture is so disregarded, especially by tourists."

For Blakeney, the end of climbing at Uluru is something to be celebrated, not mourned.

She hopes that foreigners will understand that there are many things to see and do in the region besides ascending Uluru. On her trip, she joined cultural tours, went on a camel ride and hiked in nearby Watarrka National Park.

"Uluru, Kata Tjuta and the land around them have always been very special places," reads a statement from Parks Australia, which jointly manages the site with Anangu leaders.

"We are happy and proud to share our land with visitors. While you are here, we would like you to learn about Tjukurpa (our traditional law, stories and spirituality), our ancestors and culture, and how important the park is.

"We ask you to listen carefully when visiting Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Let the knowledge you hear come through your ears, into your mind, and settle in your heart."

However, some visitors argue that the rock should remain open for Australians and tourists to enjoy.

Pilot Jim Mullett regularly flies to Uluru so members of his aviation club can climb the rock. He told CNN in September that he was "absolutely disgusted" by the impending ban.

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

Travelers who ignore the ban and attempt to climb Uluru or enter restricted areas of the site after October 26 will face fines of up to $630 (US$430) and possible prosecution.

CNN's Jack Guy and Hilary Whiteman contributed to this report.

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