It was the last day and still they climbed. Nose to tail. Conquering. Ticking off the bucket list. Disrespecting.
The climb has closed, the desecration of Uluru ended.
Closing the climb has been debated for years, desired by the traditional owners but contested by tourism operators. Two years ago, after the proportion of visitors climbing fell below the trigger level for closure, the fate of the Climb was sealed.
At the end, they came in their thousands. Not to celebrate its closure, but to climb.
Back in 2001 Hilary du Cros and I gave a paper on two sacred places – Pashuputinah and Uluru – at the Australia ICOMOS Making Tracks conference in Alice Springs. In the paper we reflected that travelling to ‘Ayers Rock’ was like a secular pilgrimage, a process of paying respect in photographs or through the Climb, but visiting Uluru was to experience another place entirely. As our paper revealed, back then many tourism operators still called it ‘Ayers Rock’ and few promoted the ‘don’t climb’ message.
Responding to a place – and how culture shapes what and how we see place – motivates my work. Uluru has entranced me since my first visit in 2001, and Uluru has called me back many times.
Climbing Uluru, once a sacred journey became one framed by challenge – conquering a ‘mountain’. Climbing was how to engage with this place. What might it feel like to climb?
In 2018, after visiting again, I wrote about Uluru and the Climb: first as non-fiction (‘The Climb’) and then a fiction fantasy (‘The last climb at Ayers Rock’). I’m sharing them here, as part of my first blog post to celebrate the closure of the Climb.
Shifting into fiction moved the focus from my own experience. The climbers are lightly sketched, in a way suggesting that they are insubstantial compared to Uluru itself, and yet one of them has history here. And I wanted my sense of the spirit of Uluru to somehow overwhelm the characters – Bill and his family – and perhaps transform them. On a deeper personal level, why did I want Bill and his family to climb? And to become lost, engulfed and maybe transformed? There is something about the transformative nature of imagining being able to see the world through another’s eyes and culture. It is not an authentic ‘seeing’ as we can never be other than who we are. But sometimes a window opens, and for a moment our world is different: there are creation ancestors shaping the land, trees can fly, giant snakes can rebirth Uluru.