No more climbing

Officially, the process of climbing Uluru in Australia is over. Today was the last day. Since it is evening in Australia as I write, the final group of tourists allowed to climb has gone up and down, the gates have been closed and the chain and poles used to assist climbers have been removed.

The giant monolith in the center of Australia is incredibly impressive. We visited in 2006. We spent several hours at sunset and a few more at sunrise looking at and photographing the red rock. We walked part of the way around the base of it. But we did not climb. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy climbing. I’ve climbed a lot of rocks. I like the view from high places. In a sense Uluru beckons those of us who love to scramble to the top of such places. But we were asked, very politely, not to climb. The brochure we received as we entered Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park explained that the rock is a very sacred place, akin to a church, and that the Anangu people who have lived in the area for millennia, believe that it it needs to be respected, which means that people ought not to climb.

Anangu culture, one of the oldest continual cultures on the planet, however, teaches people not to give direct orders to others. They tried for years to dissuade climbers with a simple request. They made interpretive sings that encouraged respect. They printed brochures. They organized tours with Anangu leaders who told some of the stories of their people. We took one of those tours and listened to the speaker, who told us that some of the stories of the place are too sacred to tell.

Visitors, however, continued to climb the rock. Sometimes they climbed at their own peril. Dozens of people have died on the climb. A few have died as the result of injuries sustained from falling. Most have died as a result of extreme conditions. The temperature on the rock can rise to 115 degrees. The winds can be fierce. The central desert of Australia is a harsh environment and the people who are indigenous to the place have learned ways to survive. Survival doesn’t involve climbing to the top of the rock.

Reluctantly the board of the National Park decided in 2017 to make a final and complete ban on climbing effective this spring. The seasons in Australia are the opposite of the northern hemisphere. They chose October 25 as the day. According to the BBC, there have been especially large crowds of climbers in the final days leading up to the ban. Photographs show lines of tourists waiting for their opportunity to climb.

Maybe I think differently from those who chose to climb. I have no regrets that we chose not to climb. We visited during the winter when temperatures were a bit more moderate, but approached 100 degrees in the center of the day. However, the requests of the people who lived there seemed sufficient reason for me to stay off of the climbing area. Instead we took a walk about the base and read the well-placed and informative signs that told about the culture of the people and the many different ways in which the rock has inspired sacred stories and ceremonies over the millennia.

You can see why the rock has become such a gathering place. It is clearly identifiable from a long distance away. It is the kind of landmark that would make a great meeting place for those who travel around the area in search of food. There is at least one permanent spring near the base of the rock, so the precious commodity of water is available to travelers. These days there is a National Park with a campground and cottages which can be rented for the night. There is a restaurant and most nights there is live entertainment. You can hear the sounds of the didgeridoo and hear stories of the ancient people. People have been playing the didgeridoo in that part of the world for 1500 years.

My memories of our visit, however, are mostly of the visual impact of the rock itself. I have a large framed photograph that I took during our visit. It is on the west wall of a room in our daylight basement where the sunrise provides an ever-changing view. It isn’t quite as dramatic as rising in the predawn to watch the sunrise creep up the actual rock, but it is enough to remind me of our visit. It is not hard to imagine why the place has sacred significance.

Of course all of creation is sacred. Every rock and every feature of the landscape is sacred. But there are some places that have risen to spiritual significance for more people over more years than other places. We are deeply aware of that because we have had the privilege of living in the Black Hills for the past quarter century. The place where we live has been deemed sacred by generations of people from many different tribes. Like Uluru, the hills were a gathering place for ceremonies and reunions. They were a place for prayer and contemplation and discernment. If you know where to look it is easy to find the tobacco ties and other reminders that sacred ceremonies are still a part of the place we call home.

Visitors are quick to understand the beauty of the place. It is obvious when you drive into the hills from the plains. But it takes more than a quick drive through the hills with stops at the big tourist sites such as Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave and Custer State Park to fully understand the sacred nature of the place. For that you have to slow down, get out of your car and walk quietly under the stars or through the trees. You have to breathe deeply the fresh clean air and listen to the sounds of the hills.

So now there will be no more climbers. The rules will be strictly enforced. And perhaps if instead of climbing a few tourists just sit and watch or walk and listen they will learn more about the sacredness of the place than they would have learned by climbing.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!