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Nestled deeply in the Australian Outback, some 280 miles from the nearest town, a red sandstone behemoth rises higher even than the Eiffel Tower — and has stood at the center of a decadeslong disagreement between tourists and its traditional owners. That dispute may finally reach its resolution Saturday, when the imposing monolith known as Uluru will be closed permanently to climbers.
The approaching closure has been celebrated by the indigenous Anangu people, who consider the site sacred — and who have long looked on in anguish as tens of thousands of visitors each year try their hand at scaling it.
“It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland,” Sammy Wilson, then chairman of the board that manages Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, said before the board voted unanimously in 2017 to formally close Uluru to climbers. “We want you to come, hear us and learn. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time.”
At the time, the board — which comprises both national parks officials and traditional indigenous owners such as Wilson — elected to hold off on implementing the ban until Oct. 26, 2019, an auspicious date in the history of the park. It was precisely 34 years earlier, on Oct. 26, 1985, that Australian authorities handed the title deeds to the land back to the traditional owners.
This year, with the ban looming, park authorities say they’ve seen a substantial spike in visitors, a number of whom have sought out the dangerous climb while they can still undertake it — walking past the signs at its base warning, in several different languages, against doing so. In recent months, images of immensely crowded paths have circulated on social media.
“The feeling you get from standing at the top is just indescribable,” one recent climber, who asked not to be identified, explained to the BBC. “I felt a sense of reverence for the rock afterwards.”
Local Aboriginal leaders wish that instead, they would feel and express that reverence for the UNESCO World Heritage site without feeling the need to climb it.
“If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don’t enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu,” Wilson said. “We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity.”
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It’s not just the sanctity of the site that has persuaded officials to block climbing; it’s the deceptive danger of the activity, as well.
In a fact sheet pointedly titled “Please Don’t Climb,” Parks Australia said that since record keeping began in the 1950s, at least 35 people have died trying to scale the monolith, which is roughly 95 stories high, steep, slippery and subject to heavy gusts. Every year rescue teams find their hands full with climbers stricken with injuries, heat exhaustion or dehydration.
Just last week, in fact, a 12-year-old girl nearly died after falling more than 65 feet during a climb with her family. She survived with only minor injuries, but only after being airlifted out to a medical clinic the nearest town, Alice Springs.
After the closure on Saturday, parks authorities plan to remove a chain that had been installed to help climbers, and anyone found climbing the monolith will be hit with a hefty fine.