Uluru climbing ban: Tourists scale sacred rock for final time

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

Huge crowds have begun scrambling 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 about three hours, park officials deemed the climb safe to open.

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 climb is to be shut down at 16:00 local time (06:30 GMT) on Friday. A metal chain used as a climbing aid will then be immediately dismantled, officials say.

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.

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