In the past few weeks, an estimated 1,000 hikers have arrived daily at Australia’s remote Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to ascend the park’s ruddy namesake monolith before the climb closes later this month.
Visitors have long been discouraged from hiking to the top of Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), which is both sacred to the indigenous Anangu and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But starting on October 26, 2019, climbing it will be officially prohibited.
According to the ban, which was first announced November 1, 2017, fewer than 20 percent of park visitors make the ascent. But with just three weeks left before the closure goes into effect, many are jumping on what is being framed as their last chance to climb the rock.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park manager Mike Misso told Australian news outlet SBS News that this is the busiest the park has been in more than a decade. He also said that while Parks Australia hasn’t recorded the exact numbers of park visitors during this recent surge, officials know that “it’s certainly in the hundreds and probably nearer 1,000 [a day].”
By comparison, the Telegraph reports that in 2015, 300,000 people visited the park and that only 16.2 percent—or an average of 135 people daily—climbed the rock.
An article published by the Australian even reports pushing and shoving along the crowded route and features a photo of a long line of people that calls to mind some recent stories of overcrowding on Everest.
But despite the surge in climbers, the end is in sight for the Anangu, who have been working tirelessly for the ban for years. The 55o-million-year-old monolith is an integral part of Tjukupra, the complex religious philosophy that links Anangu to the environment and to their ancestors: It marks the route that their ancestors took upon arriving in the area. But while the Anangu are the traditional owners of the lands, having inhabited them for at least 30,000 years, they only regained legal control of the area on October 26, 1985. The park is now jointly managed by the Anangu and the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.
“[The ban] is a significant moment for all Australians and marks a new chapter in our history,” says Sally Barnes, director of National Parks and also a member of the Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park Board. “It clearly says we put country and culture first when managing this place for all Australians and our visitors from around the world.”
There are others reasons, too, to close the route. At 1,142 feet, Uluru is taller than the Eiffel Tower and the three-hour climb to the top can be dangerous. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park website states that some 35 people have died trying to make the climb. The rock is often closed due to weather; high temperatures, high winds, and impending rain can all make the route more trecherous.
Additionally, the constant stream of people over the 70 years has worn a path up the rock, changing its face.
Supporters of the ban argue that visitors don’t need to climb the rock to appreciate it. In fact, while the top affords great views, it can be hard to appreciate the enormity of the monolith from that perspective. Most visitors perfer to visit the Cultural Centre or hike the rock’s 5.8-mile circumference, which is dotted with watering holes and caves.
How to visit without climbing
There have long been plenty of ways to experience Uluru that don’t require a trek to its top. Here are three of our favorites:
Local Australian operator SEIT offers small group tours, off-the-beaten-path experiences focused on heritage. Its seven-hour Uluru day trip involves a drive around the base, a visit to the Mutitjulu water hole, rock art viewing, and an introduction to the Anangu Creation stories. The day ends at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area to watch the famous geologic formation light up orange in the sunset.
Book now: $169, seitoutbackaustralia.com.au
Abercrombie & Kent’s Australia & New Zealand: The Lands Down Under 2020
Luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent brings guests from the Outback of Australia to the fjords of New Zealand on one comprehensive journey. At Uluru, travelers enjoy a relaxing stay at Longitude 131º with unparalleled views of the majestic monolith before continuing on the rest of their epic, 17-day adventure.
Book now: From $14,995 per person, abercrombiekent.com
G Adventures’ Melbourne Outback & Uluru Adventure
At the end of G Adventures’ 12-day jaunt from Melbourne to the country’s “Red Centre,” guests greet Uluru with a glass of bubbly and then the next day explore the Mala walk around the rock’s circumference and learn about its importance.
Book now: From $2,932, gadventures.com
>>Next: Indigenous Tourism Offers a Deeper Look at Australia