Words and photos by Francis Macindoe
When the announcement came that Uluru’s summit climb would be permanently closed from 26th October of last year, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was inundated by tourists scrambling for their last chance to set foot on the rock.
For many, it’s the quintessential Aussie icon. But to the Aṉangu, Uluru’s Traditional Owners, it is a place of inconceivable significance. One of the world’s oldest living cultural landscapes, bearing the physical scars of creation stories and teachings of Tjukurpa, the Aṉangu’s cultural lore.
Since the 1985 hand-back of Uluru by the Australian Federal Government to the Aṉangu, the National Park has been leased back to the state and once again promoted as an international tourist destination. But with upwards of 300,000 annual visitors, the park is showing signs of attrition as rangers and management teams fight to keep up with essential maintenance of the region.
With much of the funding budget over the years spent on assisting and rescuing tourists attempting the controversial summit climb, some of whom have faced serious injury and death, the local community have been acutely tested. The Aṉangu have a profound cultural obligation to care for visitors to their home, and when a person is killed or even injured on country, Uluru’s Traditional Owners must undergo a period of mourning which deeply affects the entire community.
Ecological impacts of the summit climb have become apparent too, with Uluru’s sacred and life-sustaining water holes now partly contaminated by human faecal matter and debris which, deposited by tourists at the summit, is then washed down the rock during rainfall. It was evident the climb needed to close for a long list of reasons, but it wasn’t to happen until the Aṉangu saw a significant decline in the number of visitors choosing to make the ascent.
A governing body agreed that when less than a third of park visitors were choosing to climb, it would be time to announce the permanent closure. The community leaders wanted to witness a clear shift in visitor attitude before simply shutting the gates and putting up red tape. So when the moment came around to close for good, it brought with it a refreshing sense of growing awareness and intercultural respect.
These pictures document the final days the Uluru summit climb was open to tourists and ultimately the last tourists ever to climb the rock. In a historic moment for all Australians, and a deeply symbolic statement echoing a triumph for Indigenous minorities worldwide, as of the 26th October 2019, the climb is now permanently closed. Construction teams have removed the infamous chain handrail built in the 1960s to assist climbers, and an uncanny calm has settled upon the central Australian desert.
In October 2020, one year on from the climb’s closure, in the midst of a sociopolitical discourse relatively unparalleled by history and perpetuated through a digital zeitgeist unbridled by truth or harmony, I find myself looking back on the significance of such an occasion and wondering what, if anything, we’ve learned. The Australian continent is home to the oldest surviving cultural legacies on the entire planet. That fact alone, perhaps in some other reality, might be enough to actively inspire a deep sense of pride and respect amongst all Australians.
But speaking to countless other whitefellas across the country and over the years, I can only attest that I’m branded with the impression too many people are trapped within a dangerous psychological paradigm of otherness, shame, and perhaps even jealousy. A nation whose tendency to conceptualise its invaluable Indigenous heritage as a potential hindrance to the exponential growth economy, is a nation whose priorities are precariously unstable.
In May this year, I awoke to read the news that Rio Tinto had just obliterated a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in the Pilbara known as Juukan Gorge, in an explosives operation intended to expand an iron ore mine. Surveys in 2014 led by Dr. Michael Slack, one of the country’s leading archaeological experts, declared the Juukan Gorge site was ‘Of the highest archaeological significance in Australia.’ With this knowledge coming to light six years before its destruction, we are left wondering how such events are still taking place as this century enters its third decade.
Although I’m wary of drawing too close a comparison between multinational corporations and the individual, it seems there is a greater collective mindset at play, a wilful complacency in undertaking the bare minimum, which ultimately inhibits critically overdue reforms. In the case of Juukan Gorge, it is not only Australia’s first people who have disproportionately lost out to this assault, but the entire story of our collective humanity has once again been directly compromised in the name of profit. This kind of abhorrent attack on our heritage as a species is something which should be mourned and condemned by all.
The silver lining, dim as it may be, is Rio Tinto’s actions have catalysed a reaction so severe, that along with signalling a decisive shift in attitude, may ultimately provoke similar companies to think twice before trying anything like this again on Australian soil.
But for now, our intercultural relationships need to be fundamentally reframed to encompass a proud and unifying notion that this continent is home to the world’s oldest living cultures, the world’s oldest stories and the human family’s most ancient surviving knowledge. So whether this means finding alternative means to enjoy a National Park or completely reforming the legal systems governing industrial expansion, for the sake of our species, we must protect our legacy at all costs.