Sun, Jul 12, 2009 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE : Australians divided on whether to close Uluru to climbers

DPA , SYDNEY

Uluru (Ayers Rock) is shown rising above the surrounding desert of central Australia on Feb. 16, 2007. Tourists will be banned from climbing Australia’s famouse Uluru, one of the country’s top international drawcards, under a plan released on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Climb it, get married on it, rappel down it, bathe it in different colors, seemingly set it alight with fireworks — there’s nothing that Australians don’t do to it in celebration of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It’s a different story with Uluru, the giant sandstone rock in the middle of the continent that Aborigines hold sacred and want people to stop climbing.

Since ownership was passed back to Aborigines in 1985, visitors have been asked to show reverence for indigenous culture by keeping their distance from what was once known as Ayers Rock.

Night-time visits are already banned, and it is closed for much of the year because of too much wind, rain or heat. There are even restrictions on photography.

The latest plan by the national parks authority “for visitor safety, cultural and environmental reasons” is to rope off Uluru permanently.

It’s a plan that divides Australians with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd leading the charge to keep it open and his environment minister, former rock star Peter Garrett, pushing for the will of local Aborigines to prevail and Uluru to become a look-but-don’t-touch attraction.

“I think it would be very sad if we got to the stage ... where Australians and, frankly our guests from abroad, weren’t able to enjoy that experience, ... to climb it,” Rudd said.

Each year, approximately 350,000 people visit Uluru, 440km south of Alice Springs, and a third of them chose to hike up the 347m high, 3.6km long rock in spite of the traditional owners urging them not to.

Garrett supports the plan to put Uluru off-limits by October 2011. Garrett, the lead singer for Midnight Oil before entering politics, said he had never climbed Uluru and urged others to follow his example.

“I think you can take in all the fantastic beauty and cultural significance of the site without climbing,” Garrett said.

National parks director Peter Cochrane, who wants the climb closed, urged visitors to be content with the 9.4km walk around Uluru’s base.

He marvelled at how many people fail to grasp “how inappropriate it is” to climb. Cochrane commissioned research that showed 98 percent of tourists would still visit even if climbing was prohibited.

Vince Forrester, a spokesman for the Mutitjulu community, said the traditional owners had always wanted Uluru roped off.

“You can’t go to the top of the Vatican, you can’t go climb on top of the Buddhist temples, and so on and so forth,” Forrester said. “Obviously, you have to respect our religious attachment to the land, too.”

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