a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
It is impossible, upon visiting Australia, to resist the allure of Uluru. The world’s largest monolith, also known as Ayers Rock, towers more than 1,000 feet above an arid desert plain in the so-called Red Centre of the island continent. For years, anyone determined to scale the massif could clamber up a mile-long route, assisted by a chain handrail bolted into the sandstone. Until the activity was banned in October 2019, “the climb” drew a steady stream of tourists, despite requests by the Anangu—the region’s Aboriginal traditional owners—to refrain.
When I visited Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park almost two decades ago, I encountered many an intrepid traveler who triumphed in their quest. The accomplishment conferred bragging rights with commemorative pins and T-shirts proclaiming: I climbed The Rock. Through their eyes, summiting was not simply a recreational adventure rewarded with unobstructed views. It was an entitlement.
To the Anangu, meaning “people” in the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages, climbing Uluru is taboo. The path holds spiritual power as the way of the Mala, ancestral beings they believe brought all forms into creation. Every step taken by tourists, whom they refer to as minga, or ants, was an act of desecration.
Revered as both scenic phenomenon and sacred ground, Uluru has been a site of contention since the first whitefella stepped foot on the rock in 1873. Although the chains have been removed and the route permanently closed, the monument remains a testament to enduring tensions around Australian land use policy and Indigenous rights.
In 2002, nearing the end of my three-month sojourn of 6,000 miles around Australia, starting in Sydney, I had traveled by rail across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth, then caravanned up the west coast to the Top End before dropping down to Alice Springs. Uluru loomed just another 280 miles away, near the southern border of the Northern Territory. Leaving the frontier-style pubs of Alice behind, I hopped on a Greyhound bus for the five-hour drive west.
During the ride, a thirteen-year-old girl on leave from her boarding school befriended me. She was going home to visit her mother in Mutitjulu, a settlement that housed around 250 Anangu about a mile from the monolith. Aside from several docent-led presentations and observing people in small Outback towns, this was my first time interacting with anyone of Indigenous (Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander) descent. Popping up from her seat, she asked me where I’d been and where I was headed.
“You must have a lot of money to travel all over the place,” she said, and pelted me with questions about California, including if I had ever met any movie stars.
When I asked her where in the world she’d like to go, she replied without hesitation: Hollywood! The far-flung destination must have fed her imaginings just as the monument that marked her ancestral home informed mine. In our minds, we simply swapped one exotic locale for the other.
Nearly half a million sightseers are welcomed annually to this World Heritage area, which includes a few dozen rock domes commonly referred to as the Olgas. Most people flock to designated viewing areas to capture Uluru’s fiery palette through a camera lens. The UNESCO-listed landmark blushes crimson at sunrise then softens its luminous hues before deepening to violet as it melts into dusk. Some people tour its base by bicycle, Segway, or camel while others sip sparkling wine and dine at white tablecloths set on red sand to savor the vista.
To understand how Uluru achieved its iconic status—transformed from an “unknown blank” on early maps to becoming one of the country’s top attractions—you have to trace the origins of its colonization. Construction of the Overland Telegraph Line marked the start of pastoral expansion in the Western Desert, when Uluru was renamed Ayers Rock and expedition leader Ernest Giles became the first European to climb it (aided by his Afghan camel driver, Khamran, the record notes). By 1920 the Anangu, whose ancestors had inhabited parts of central Australia for some 30,000 years, were herded like wildlife onto Aboriginal reserves intended as protective sanctuaries. Until the 1930s, many held to their nomadic way of life: hunting and gathering in small clans, collecting water, maintaining seasonal burns, and transmitting age-old knowledge to their young. These practices were threatened by drought and grazing as well as assimilation efforts by missionaries and Native Welfare Patrol Officers.
With the inception of Hardy Adventures—the first tourist outfit in 1936—followed by the first established road, tourism (along with gold prospectors) got its foothold in the area. The 1950s brought bus service, an airstrip, and tourist motels. A campground was established at the base of the monolith, which visitors began climbing. Fly-in tours were offered to accommodate upwards of 5,000 annual sightseers. Anangu clung to their food gathering and ceremonies in spite of pressures by park management that discouraged it.
Ultimately it was tourism that positioned Ayers Rock as a travel destination while simultaneously driving the Anangu from their homelands. In 1964, influenced by tour operators, the Native Welfare Branch resettled them to Kaltukatjara (Docker River), 150 miles away. Meanwhile, visitor numbers rose almost fivefold.
After setting up my tent in the campground at Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort) I hopped aboard a shuttle into the park. A dozen miles away, the imposing monolith materialized like a ship in a sea of flowering sedges and perennial grasses fed by an average of nine inches of annual rainfall. That year saw nearly 60 inches of rain, bringing more dense vegetation among the mulga trees and shrubs. The spinifex—spiky tussock grass—thrived in the sand dunes, eroded from ridges that rose as high as the Himalayas 250 million years ago. Although nearly two-thirds of the massif lay submerged like an iceberg, its solitary presence dominated the landscape.
The fragile terrain supported a surprising variety of fauna. In addition to a diverse array of birds and reptiles like the thorny devil, nearly two-dozen native mammals included several species of rodents, bats, and small marsupials, from hopping mice to tiny wallabies—many listed as vulnerable or endangered. Among these was the rufous hare-wallaby, or mala, the Anangu’s ancestral namesake. (Extinct in the wild, it was successfully reintroduced in 2005 in a predator-proof enclosure, protected from feral cats, camels, goats, rabbits, and red foxes that compete for water sources and ravage native plants.)
“All this country, there’s life out there,” said a ranger at the Cultural Centre, whose round earthen walls opened to the landmark. “But you have to be able to see it, hear it.”
I peered up at a queue of tourists scrambling to the summit. Comments in a visitor log compared the act to stomping upon a holy temple or cathedral. There were pages of confessions and apologies from guilty holiday-goers who had stolen grains of sand or chunks of the natural monument—what later became known as the Sorry Rocks phenomenon: Please return these children (stones) to their mother (Uluru). Returning these is a form of my reconciliation with the Aboriginal people and their land.
Display panels indicated that visitors were guests of the Anangu and asked us to please show respect to their culture. I wondered why, if they were so adamantly against the climb, they did not simply forbid it.
The 1970s ushered in a new era for Indigenous Australians. Better roads and transport systems opened access to traditional sites, which elders appealed to the federal government to protect. A plan was made to move all tourist accommodation and camping to Yulara, outside park boundaries, in an effort to preserve the delicate natural environment. The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976 paved the way for social reform via legal title to, and resource management of, traditional Indigenous lands. However, since the newly declared Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock–Mt Olga) National Park had been excised from the Petermann Aboriginal Reserve in 1958 to make way for tourism, its return to Indigenous hands remained out of reach. The NT Parks and Wildlife Service ran it with little input from the Anangu.
Nine years later the Act was finally amended to grant them ownership of parklands. There was one caveat, however. The land would be leased to the Commonwealth for 99 years and jointly managed with the parks service under the Department of Environment and Heritage. In return, the Anangu would receive 25 percent of gate fees.
October 26, 1985 marked the “Handback” when the title was handed over to the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Aboriginal Land Trust. Mutitjulu community elders triumphed. But not all were pleased by the historic and symbolic gesture of reconciliation.
According to an account in The New York Times: “A light plane from Alice Springs buzzed over the ceremony with a streamer that declared ‘Ayers Rock for All Australians!’—expressing the fear of some Australians that the aboriginal owners would attempt to restrict tourist access to certain sacred sites in Uluru and in the Olgas.”
The naysayers could rest assured. When Anangu elders petitioned for closure of the climb, the park service pushed back. It was not to be prohibited. Park officials decided the Anangu could entreat people to stay off the rock, but the choice would be left up to their guests.
By 1990 roughly three-quarters of the park’s annual 100,000 visitors marched up the steep spine of Uluru. Three years earlier UNESCO had granted the park World Heritage status as a Biosphere Reserve, recognized for its “spectacular geological formations, rare plants and animals, and exceptional natural beauty,” but it wasn’t enough to deter anyone from tromping along Uluru’s back.
In 1994 Uluru–Kata Tjuta became one of the few places in the world to be dual-listed for its cultural as well as natural properties. The designation honored the site for its direct association with Aboriginal religious and cultural traditions. Beginning that decade, signs were posted at the base of the path with polite messages appealing to visitor empathy: It makes Anangu sad to see people swarming over the tracks of our ancestors simply to get to the top… we would prefer it if you chose to respect the Tjukurpa instead.
Loosely translated as traditional law, Tjukurpa is the religious and cultural foundation for Anangu customs and beliefs. The intricate system provides guidelines for stewardship of the land; defines relationships between people, animals, and plants; and interprets rules of behavior that emerged since the Dreamtime. Audiovisual displays explained this was not dreaming in a conventional Western sense; it is not unreal or imaginary… Tjukurpa is existence itself, in the past, present and future.
The complexities of this ancient cosmology and its time-space continuum lie beyond the scope of most modern sensibilities. Cultural nuances—the right way, the proper way—get lost in translation, which perhaps further obscured, rather than clarified, Uluru’s significance for the common tourist seeking a postcard view. Nonetheless, the signage asked visitors to Challenge your perspective: Is this a place to conquer, or a place to connect with? We invite you to open your hearts and minds… Tjukurpa also obligated the Anangu to warn people about the perils of climbing, a danger that caused them distress as it positioned them as responsible for visitor welfare: We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land. We worry about you and we worry about your family.
The proportion of visitors climbing Uluru steadily declined, from 52 percent in 1995 to 38 percent in 2006. By 2009, it was estimated that roughly a third of some 350,000 annual park guests, climbed. Note that while the fractions decreased, the total number of tourists tripled so that the amount of people atop Uluru was nearly comparable to two decades prior.
Over time, the tread of human feet caused irreparable damage, visible as a permanent gray scar across the sandstone.
Eschewing the climb, and with a preference for solitude, I opted for a self-guided base walk on an established path of about six miles. Most people walked in the opposite direction so I was able to stroll at my own pace, passing acacia woodlands while listening to the wind whip their branches.
You will be following the footsteps of the ancestral beings that shaped the landscape, instructed an interpretive booklet produced by Parks Australia in association with the Mutitjulu community. To see Uluru through Anangu eyes is to see a complex religious and ceremonial stage, it suggested while ascribing meaning to each geological feature. Up close there were cracks and hollows in the textured walls comprised of cliff overhangs and rock slabs, a detailed contrast to Uluru’s cohesive appearance from afar.
For time immemorial, Australia’s Indigenous peoples distinguished one place from another through songlines—a musical mapping, oral storytelling, and narrative charting used to navigate. When I visited Karijini National Park, located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, I studied two maps drawn from an aerial perspective, one superimposed on the other to demonstrate divergent points of view. The first map revealed the route we had followed; it was written upon with markers identifiable to the modern eye: paved roads, power lines, mining operations, and road-posted signs. Its overlay was an Aboriginal painting in desert colors. This map was painted with dots, crosshatches, and squiggles—symbols for animals, people, tools, and waterholes. In a similar way, each physical aspect of Uluru signified origin stories, mapping places I could not properly “see.”
Without the informative pamphlet or a guide, I was illiterate to its text. Where I noticed dark stains from water once spilling in torrents, the Anangu saw tracks and spear wounds from spirit battles between Kuniya, a python, and Liru, a venomous snake. Dry waterholes, filled each rainy season, were to be left undisturbed lest the ancestral water serpent Wanampi be angered and halt its supply.
Continuing around the base, I learned that boulders were pieces of cooked emu meat, hoarded and dropped by Lungkata, the blue-tongued lizard. A wedged stone lying on its side at a cave entrance sheltered Itjaritjari, the marsupial mole, described as a playful old woman tunneling into the rock and poking her head out through its holes. Certain caves held rock art, some of them not to be entered or photographed in adherence to Tjukurpa. Mala Puta—the pouch of the hare-wallaby—was among them, so important to the Anangu that to isolate it in a picture was to spiritually disconnect it from its surroundings.
After my walk, I boarded a shuttle to the sunset lookout. The parking lot was full of cars and campervans and a line of people preparing to snap pictures with hand-held cameras and tripods. I was awestruck by the rock’s sheer magnitude and its changing hues, rather than desensitized by the dozens of images I had already seen. Although I had taken the time to learn about Tjukurpa and gain a deeper awareness of Uluru’s dimensions, in the end I was just another tourist who came to admire its radiant beauty. I, too, wanted to capture it. Taking my place amid the crowd, I focused my lens and clicked.
In 2010 the Director of National Parks drafted an updated 10-year park management plan. Among the prominent issues articulated in the 200-page document, water quality and contamination were of primary concern. Parks Australia cited significant negative impacts including runoff from human waste, affecting wildlife. Park placards highlighted these environmental impacts as additional incentives not to climb.
In light of cultural and environmental protections a ban was proposed once the rate of climbers dropped to 20 percent. The plan stipulated that a fair number of alternative activities be added while tour operators were encouraged to promote visitor safety and inform people that the climb was deemed culturally inappropriate. These benchmarks faced some political resistance. Chris Burns, Minister for Tourism in the NT, feared visitor numbers—and dollars—would plummet. Greg Hunt, the Liberal party’s environment spokesperson, said a ban would “slam the gate closed on an Australian icon, the climb,” implying the activity itself was Uluru’s only merit.
In November 2017, after criteria were met, the Board of Management voted unanimously to close the climb. Senator Pauline Hanson, founding leader of One Nation, a far-right political party, continued the rallying cry for the ban to be overturned. NT Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, called her stance ignorant. He retorted: “the tourist value from an industry point of view is in maintaining its cultural value.”
The number of park visitors skyrocketed in 2018 yet a visitor survey concluded that only 13 percent of them actually ascended the landmark. During the months before the ban took effect, however, throngs of tourists from all over the globe rushed to Uluru for their chance to climb. After dangerously strong winds caused a delay on the final day, hundreds snaked up the slippery path for the last time.
October 2020 commemorates the 35th anniversary of the Handback. Yet Uluru–Kata Tjuta’s traditional custodians continue to be marginalized. Some 100 tours and activities are now on offer within the national park and around Ayers Rock Resort—including Indigenous-led walks, storytelling, and art demos—but only two of the park’s 38 full-time employees are from Mutitjulu, which remains segregated from the affluence of the nearby tourist enclave. News reports depict the disenfranchised community as plagued by poverty, sanitation problems, municipal neglect, and misappropriation of funds. Widespread substance abuse and alleged child maltreatment prompted controversial government interventions in 2007, including alcohol prohibitions and stronger policing. Three years later, the portion of park revenue slated for the Anangu amounted to 1.6 million dollars, half of it earmarked for community development projects and the other half split among 600 individuals (about 1,333 dollars each).
Today, Mutitjulu contains a general store, health agencies, a church, an aged care facility, and a pool (finally built after sewage treatment ponds were children’s only option to cool off in the searing heat). Its infrastructure is a far cry from Ayers Rock Resort with its Wi-Fi equipped hotels decorated with Aboriginal artwork. There, guests have the option of budget to luxury accommodations with a range of amenities, from swimming pools and spa treatments to Indigenous-inspired cuisine and premium wines, for upwards of 3,000 dollars per night. All can enjoy ‘authentic’ Indigenous Australian experiences. This disparity between touristic depictions of Aboriginal culture and the Anangu’s modern-day realities highlights the danger of romanticizing a people’s past without regard for their current conditions.
The 2010 park management plan, now up for renewal, acknowledged barriers to Anangu representation and socioeconomic security. It outlined the need for more accessible educational facilities to enhance literacy and work readiness; recruitment and retention for a variety of jobs, including decision-making positions; and cross-cultural training for joint-management success, to name a few. At that time there was only one Aboriginal person employed at the resort, out of a staff of 670. The Indigenous Land Council (ILC), which purchased the resort in 2011, announced its goal of employing 340 people of Indigenous descent (roughly half of its workforce) by 2018. With the establishment of the National Indigenous Training Center, which offers certification in hospitality, tourism, retail, and horticulture as well as management training, that milestone was nearly reached with 272 employees and 81 trainees by the end of 2017. The resort’s current operator, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, aims to employ 100 Indigenous trainees each year. It recruits nationally and locally, but most participants are urban transplants and very few are Anangu.
Today, climbing Uluru is not only taboo. It is a breach of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. Penalties will be incurred by anyone who violates it. According to Parks Australia, “this significant decision demonstrates Tjukurpa and Australian law working together in joint management. Our vision is that the park is a place where Anangu law and culture is kept strong for future generations.”
For tens of thousands of years the Anangu looked after Uluru, including Mutitjulu waterhole, which provided drinking water, a game trap, and shelter in a sizable cave. They transmitted Tjukurpa, generational wisdom passed on through Inma—the language of dance, story, song, and ceremony. They survived the elements and adapted to their environment the way Uluru weathered eons of exposure. Then, starting a century ago, Australia manufactured an icon while dispossessing one of the world’s oldest civilizations of it. The Anangu withstood this disruption—a fissure in their songlines. Time will tell whether it can be restored.
Nicole R. Zimmerman holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. She is a 2019 recipient of the Discovered Awards for Emerging Literary Artists, produced by Creative Sonoma and funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work, including a Pushcart nomination from South Loop Review, appears or is forthcoming in Hypertext Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Cagibi, Toho, Ruminate, Birdland, Origins, and Creative Nonfiction. She lives with her wife in Northern California where she hosts writing sessions and facilitates workshops.