Australia’s Uluru was permanently closed to climbers Friday evening to meet the wishes of Aboriginal people who hold the red monolith sacred, but hundreds of tourists scaled it in the final hours before the ban.
With the last-ever climbers due back by sunset, rangers shut the entry gates to the world-famous site also known as Ayers Rock.
The ban, first announced in 2017, had long been sought by the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land, the Anangu, whose connection to the site dates back tens of thousands of years.
There were already signs at the base of the rock imploring visitors not to climb it, but these were not often heeded, especially in recent months as a surge of tourists made last-minute ascents.
“I came here just to see it but it is the last day possible (to climb Uluru), so I have decided to try it,” Polish tourist Matt Oswiecimiki told AFP.
The 29-year-old said it was “fair to stop it” tomorrow out of respect for the Anangu, but said the one-time opportunity meant he would still climb it given he was allowed to on Friday.
Tourists are still being encouraged to visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park where they can take in the monolith from its base, walk around its perimeter and learn about its indigenous heritage at the cultural centre.
“It’s enough for me to walk around and see the rock,” Japanese tourist Masahira Suda said.
The 25-year-old said he did not judge fellow tourists for scaling Uluru but he was refraining at the request of the Aboriginal custodians.
“I really have respect for them,” he said.
More than 395,000 people visited the park in the 12 months to June 2019, according to Parks Australia — about 20 percent more than the previous year.
Around 13 percent of those who visited during that period made the climb, park authorities said.
Uluru has great spiritual and cultural significance to indigenous Australians, and the Anangu people will hold a ceremony Saturday to mark the climbing ban.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt likened the recent increase in tourists climbing Uluru to “a rush of people wanting to climb over the Australian War Memorial”.
“Our sacred objects, community by community, are absolutely important in the story and the history of that nation of people,” he told national broadcaster ABC.
Traditional owners have long encouraged people to refrain from climbing the site for its cultural significance, to protect it from further environmental damage and to ensure visitors’ safety.
Tackling Uluru’s sandstone slopes has not been an easy exercise, and at least 35 people have died attempting the climb.
It towers some 348 meters (1,148 feet) and summer temperatures often hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
Saturday marks 34 years since that the park’s title was handed back to the traditional owners.