Uluru climbing ban: Tourists scale sacred rock for final time

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Media captionUluru tourist: “It is probably disrespectful but we climbed”

Huge crowds have scrambled up Australia’s Uluru on the final day before the climb is banned.

The giant monolith – once better known to visitors as Ayers Rock – will be permanently off limits from Saturday.

Uluru is sacred to its indigenous custodians, the Anangu people, who have long implored tourists not to climb.

Only 16% of visitors went up in 2017 – when the ban was announced – but the climb has been packed in recent weeks.

On Friday, climbers faced a delayed start to the climb due to dangerously strong winds. After parks officials deemed the climb safe to open, hundreds of people made the trek up.

Photos of people in lines snaking up Uluru in past months have even drawn comparisons to recent scenes on Mount Everest.

One social media user posted a timelapse showing the massive queue at Uluru on Thursday.

The entrance gate was due to be closed at 16:00 local time (06:30 GMT) on Friday. Once people come down, officials said a metal chain used as a climbing aid would be immediately dismantled.

Why is the climb being closed?

In 2017, the board of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park voted unanimously to end the climb because of the spiritual significance of the site, as well as for safety and environmental reasons.

One Anangu man told the BBC that Uluru was a “very sacred place, [it’s] like our church”.

“People right around the world… they just come and climb it. They’ve got no respect,” said Rameth Thomas.

There are several signs at the base of Uluru that urge tourists not to climb because of the site’s sacred value.

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Thousands of tourists have rushed to climb the rock before the activity is banned

“It’s difficult to see what that significance is,” one man who climbed this week told the BBC. “It’s a rock. It’s supposed to be climbed.”

‘The burden will be lifted’

Phil Mercer, BBC News at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Rising from the desert, Uluru is stunning. Indigenous Australians say it has a power and a spirituality like nowhere else.

“The burden will be lifted as of today. I can feel it,” says Donald Fraser, a local elder. “Now is the time for the climb to have a good rest and heal up.”

At the base of rock, crowds gathered on Friday before dawn for a chance to ascend one last time.

Treasured memories for some, but closing the climb will bring to an end years of distress for Aboriginal groups.

Nearby campgrounds and hotels were fully booked this week. This had led to tourists camping illegally and dumping waste, locals said.

The climb’s closure is not expected to significantly affect visitor rates to the national park, officials and tourism operators say.

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Tourists have been arriving at Uluru in large numbers

Since the 1950s, dozens of people have died on Uluru due to accidents, dehydration and other heat-related events. In 2018, a Japanese tourist died while attempting to ascend one of the steepest parts of the rock.

Uluru is 348m (1,142ft) high, and the climb is steep and can be slippery. Temperatures in the area can also reach 47C (116F) in the summer.

What are Uluru’s sacred stories?

The Anangu believe that in the beginning, the world was unformed and featureless. Ancestral beings emerged from this void and travelled across the land, creating all living species and forms.

Uluru is the physical evidence of the feats performed by ancestral beings during this creation time.

One such story is that of Lungkata, a greedy and dishonest blue-tongue lizard, who came to Uluru from the north and stole meat from Emu. When Emu followed him back to his cave, Lungkata ignored him.

“He went back to sleep, pretending he was asleep,” one of Uluru’s indigenous custodians, Pamela Taylor, told the BBC last year. “Emu got very angry and made a fire and it went right up into the cave and the smoke blocked him and he fell down.”

Ms Taylor pointed to a huge blue patch high on Uluru, saying it was where Lungkata’s burnt body rolled down and left a mark.

“He did bad things by going around stealing. That’s why we tell the children not to go around stealing things, because they will get punishment like Lungkata.”

She added some stories were too sacred to tell.

Read more: ‘This rock means everything to us’

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