Uluru is clearly no ordinary hike, so why do people want to do it?

Seeing the photos in recent days of the crowds of people climbing up Uluru, I can't help but wonder what is motivating them.

It's not the timing I find confusing. The reason such large numbers of people are going up at the moment is fairly obvious, with the official ban on climbing the rock coming into force next Saturday. People have a tendency to rush to do things when they realise it's their last chance.

The ban on climbing Uluru comes into effect next week. Picture: Peter Rae

The ban on climbing Uluru comes into effect next week. Picture: Peter Rae

And this is no John Farnham Farewell Tour. When the climbing ban comes into effect in a week, it will almost certainly be the end of the practice for generations. This decision has been a long time coming and is just one part of a maturing conversation about Australia's relationship with Indigenous heritage.

So what I am curious about is the decision to climb Uluru at all. I would have thought that by now, in 2019, there has been enough discussion about why walking on the rock is so offensive to the traditional custodians.

I do understand why the idea of going to the top may be so appealing at first glance. I do a lot of hiking around the world and it's exhilarating to trek up to a summit, look out at the views below, and know that you have conquered a climb.

But Uluru is clearly no ordinary hike.

Indigenous rock paintings at the base of Uluru. Picture: Michael Turtle

Indigenous rock paintings at the base of Uluru. Picture: Michael Turtle

I imagine it would also be quite fun to hold a rock concert in Westminster Abbey, or rollerblade through the White House, but there's a reason both those things are inappropriate - because they are not just buildings, they are also symbols. They represent something larger - a religion or a county, faith or patriotism - so any disrespect you show in those buildings also disrespects what they stand for and the people who believe in it.

For the Indigenous Anangu people, Uluru is a symbol of both faith and patriotism, although they're not the words that are used. The Anangu use the term 'Tjukurpa', a complex concept that describes the foundation of their society, and can be roughly thought of as cultural law or a belief system.

Visitors can feel explore the rock by walking around its base. Picture: Michael Turtle

Visitors can feel explore the rock by walking around its base. Picture: Michael Turtle

When the decision was made in late 2017 to close the Uluru climb, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board chairman Sammy Wilson spoke in his traditional language to explain Tjukurpa. "It exists, both historically and today," he said. "Tjukurpa includes everything: the trees, grasses, landforms, hills, rocks and all.

"You have to think in these terms, to understand that country has meaning that needs to be respected. If you walk around here, you will learn this and understand. If you climb ... what are you learning?"

I still have strong memories of my first visit to Uluru a few years ago, where I spent most of my time walking along the base (and, for the record, did not climb). I remember feeling an energy from the rock, being in awe of its power. I could almost imagine it beating, the heart of the country.

Thinking of this, the words of Sammy Wilson ring true. Walking along Uluru, discovering the textures in its formation and the shapes created on its slopes, exploring the crevices and waterholes, realising that it is much more than just a red monolith - that's when you start to understand why this is such a special place. For the traditional owners - and for every Australian.

And this is, perhaps, where we've almost arrived in this cultural discussion about the Red Centre. Most commentary talks about the Indigenous owners asking for Uluru to be protected. But shouldn't all Australians be asking for the same thing? Shouldn't we all want to respect the rock?

Every one of us has a connection to this land, even if we have different spiritual heritages. Look at examples like Mount Fuji in Japan or Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where the reverence of these natural sites transcends any single culture and becomes a source of national pride.

Maybe part of the issue in Australia is that Uluru is too remote and most people have never visited. It is harder to appreciate the site if you have never seen it - and felt it - yourself. But thankfully there are now more opportunities to learn about the region than ever before.

The traditional owners and tourism operators have been developing new activities to compensate for the closure of the climb, to show that there are more (and better) ways to visit. Just last week, Tourism Northern Territory released a list of '101 Ways to Experience Uluru', for example.

Many of the suggestions include tours and cultural events with national park rangers or Anangu people. Not only do they show you the natural landscape, but they tell you the stories of the local culture - and how the two are intrinsically intertwined. It's in these moments that you will understand the power of Uluru, feel the energy, appreciate the spirituality. You will find your own connection to the heart of Australia and that is, in so many ways, more exhilarating than reaching any summit.

  • Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. Follow his travel adventures at timetravelturtle.com
This story Uluru is clearly no ordinary hike, so why do people want to do it? first appeared on The Canberra Times.