Do you climb the grand, glowing heart of Australia or respect the wishes of the indigenous tribe which has called it home for tens of thousands of years?
That is the question tourists from every part of the globe are forced to answer when they arrive at the foot of the nation’s greatest geological monument.
It’s an issue most visitors feel aggrieved to be confronted with. Many have travelled for days and thousands of kilometres to be at Uluru for the unique opportunity to ascend the desert-bound wonder and conquer its summit. Only on their arrival do they discover the spiritual significance of the climb to the local Anangu people.
Much of the blame for such ignorance has been laid on tour operators who fail to make this clear before collecting people’s money.
But if the market demands it and there is no law against it, promotional material will continue to highlight the climb as a major feature of a visit to the region.
Having paid a $25 entry fee at the entrance to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park visitors are handed a ticket which states at the bottom: “It is requested that you respect the wishes of Anangu by not climbing Uluru”.
A similar message is reinforced in a display at the cultural centre near the base of the rock. Here you are also handed a comprehensive visitor guide, with two pages dedicated to the reasons why Aboriginals request you to stay off their rock.
What visitors call the ‘climb’ is the traditional route taken by ancestral Mala men upon their arrival at Uluru.
Kunmanara, a traditional owner, states: “That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing…You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything.
“And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway, that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa (traditional law) to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing’.”
While talk of curses being placed on people who mount the rock appear to be nothing more than rumours, many would say that the 35 deaths on the climb are proof enough. Most of those deaths were caused by heart attacks on the treacherous 1.6km path that reaches 348 metres into the air – the equivalent of a 95-storey building.
What must also be remembered is that the National Park is Aboriginal land. The title deed was handed back to the Anangu people by the Governor General of Australia in 1985.
In turn, the local people leased the land back to the Federal Government for 99 years.
In my view, climbing Uluru is like lighting an old fireplace in a rented apartment your landlord has asked you not to touch – you can’t see what damage you’re causing or what spirits you’re churning up.
Since 1985 the local tribes have worked with the Director of National Parks in a process of joint management.
But unfortunately joint management (while obviously beneficial to the protection and upkeep of the park) has muddied the moral questions surrounding the climb.
At its starting point, on the western side of the rock, yet another sign from Anangu requests visitors to stay on the ground. But not half a metre away the climb’s opening and closing times are displayed.
Confusing? Very. You can imagine what it’s like for people who speak English as a second language?
After all the warnings and explanations it is strangely confronting to watch adventurers pulling themselves up the rock by a conveniently installed metal chain.
Famous landscape photographer Ken Duncan, arguably one of the greatest promoters of Australia’s unique landscape, is scathing in his criticism of the requests not to climb.
He tells London’s Guardian newspaper: “Of course people should be able to climb it. You know what we call it now? Ulu-rules. Aboriginal people have no more claim on it than any other groups. We as Australians and as tourists are being locked out of this beautiful icon.”
He continues: “Where’s the adventure left in this country? I’m embarrassed to take my daughter to a place that’s so sanitised, so controlled. It’s got to be spiritual to everyone, not just Aboriginal people. It’s the heart of our nation.”
Instead of conquering the summit, the traditional owners ask you to take the 10km walk around the base of the rock.
The stunning caves, rock art and waterholes kept me amused for hours and it felt special to wander freely on my own, discovering the magical secrets around every new corner.
But readers could also label my views contradictory considering I climbed about five metres of the rock to get a closer picture of a stunning curling cave on its eastern side.
As I raised the camera to my eye, its battery died abruptly. Karma? Only the spirits would know.
Pictures by Daniel Clarke