03/11/2017 3:06 PM AEDT | Updated 03/11/2017 4:15 PM AEDT

You Don't Need To Climb Uluru. Its Most Uplifting View Is From The Ground.

It's time we used this natural wonder to unite, not divide.


Lara Pearce

As the first rays of morning light crept over the horizon, a hush fell over the waiting crowd.

Slowly -- oh so slowly -- the distinctive black silhouette on the horizon began to glow a deep, rich red and cascades of light and shade emerged. Crests of rock became lightning rods of colour and crevices and gaps fell into an even deeper darkness.

The familiar picture postcard had come to life.

I cast my mind's eye beneath the earth's surface and tried to imagine Uluru's submerged whole, extending a colossal six kilometres beneath the red dirt.

I tried to imagine what went through the minds of the first Anangu peoples who looked on the same scene more than 20,000 years ago. It wasn't hard to understand why, to them, this is a sacred place.

A day earlier we had been walking around the base of Uluru while listening to Anangu traditional custodian Sammy Wilson recount the songlines of the Anangu ancestors. According to the Tjukurpa (the traditional law of the Anangu people), these ancestors had helped shape and form the rock's many nooks, crevices and water holes, and their spirits still reside there today.

HuffPost Australia
"We are part of the land and the land is part of me," explained traditional custodian Sammy Wilson.

Approaching Mutitjulu Waterhole at the base of Uluru, Sammy told us of Kuniya the Python woman, who travelled to Uluru to lay her eggs and whose snakelike form could be traced through an indentation in the rock surrounding the watering hole. Since transformed into a rainbow snake, whenever the pool runs dry she will return to fill it again.

The Anangu people may no longer rely on hunting and foraging the kernels of native plants for food, and they may live in man-made houses of brick and wood, but they still have the same ties to their traditional lands.

"We are part of the land and the land is part of me," Sammy explained to us.

It's an experience far removed from the "debate" which was brewing earlier this week as it emerged that the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park's management would vote to close the national icon to climbers in two years' time.

While many supported the move out of respect to the site's first peoples, it was the voices of dissent that seemed to proclaim the loudest. Sentiments amounting to "it's just a big rock" and "we're all Australian, we should all be able to climb" were common repetitions on a theme.

The idea that the Anangu people "don't own" Uluru was also raised more than once by the armchair warriors. Well, the Anangu people would agree with the facts -- if not the sentiment -- of such words.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was handed back to the Anangu people in 1985 and is run by a indigenous-majority board of management, so they do in fact "own" the site, alongside Australian Parks and Wildlife, according to a Western understanding of the word.

But for Anangu, Uluru is a living entity, inseparable from the spirits which inhabit it. And in the same way as you don't own your aging grandmother, the Anangu don't believe they own Uluru. Rather, they are custodians -- and it's a responsibility they take very seriously.

HuffPost Australia
Mitijulu Waterhole is one of several pools around the base of Uluru.

Each time someone dies or is harmed climbing Uluru, instead of self-righteously proclaiming "serves you right", the locals express their grief. So you can only imagine their horror when they discover that the site's watering holes, many of them sacred, have been polluted by the excrement of visiting tourists who scale the rock.

The Anangu people themselves only climb Uluru as part of their cultural ceremonies and initiation processes. For them, the climb is not about any individual's rights or desires. It is about paying homage to their ancestors, obeying the law of the land and respecting the natural environment.

If we can learn from their example, then a visit to Australia's iconic red centre will truly prove an enriching adventure.

Having myself crossed continents in search of new peaks to climb, I sympathise with the irresistible urge to conquer every summit. But Uluru is much more than just a rock -- more, even, than a stunning and unique Australian icon.

If this landmark decision can help us surmount the wide divide that sadly still exists between Australia's first peoples and those of us who have come since, it will prove infinitely more enriching than any selfie at the summit.