Uluru and Treading Lightly: What does it mean to you?

Again and again, I meet travelers who subscribe to the same philosophy: Tread Lightly.

Each uses those same two words, yet while they all take that charge with an immense sense of responsibility, they do not all envision the same end result.

Uluru at sunset. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Truth be told, it is not always easy to be a responsible steward of our planet and her resources. It is even harder when the meaning of what it is to tread lightly is different from person to person.

For some, tread lightly means “leave no trace,” as in, pick up your garbage, clean up after yourself, don’t carve your name into the bark of trees or spray paint the rocks. The fact that you, at one point, were present in that space should be invisible to other visitors.

In nearby Alice Springs, Australia, a sign at a campground encourages one form of treading lightly.
Photo by Charish Badzinski. 

For others, it means we should use the planet’s resources wisely when we are in an area; waste neither water nor food, recycle when possible, eat organic, eliminate unnecessary consumerism and packaging.

A road sign on the way to Uluru. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

For still others, treading lightly is taking care not to disrupt or dishonor a culture, or influence an area’s indigenous people. It reminds me of being in the Australian Outback, hiking around Uluru, also known as Ayer’s Rock. It is the largest monolith in the world, a giant sandstone formation, and it is a huge draw for tourists who typically fly in to the otherwise desolate mid section of the nation, view the rock, maybe do some hiking and camping, and maybe climb its full 1,142 feet.

The Aboriginal people believe Uluru to be sacred. They believe the land is inhabited by ancestor spirits, the creators of the landscape. Historically, Uluru was the site of Anangu ceremonies, many of which took place within the nooks and crannies of the monolith.

Signs along the hiking path mark sites of significance to the Aboriginal people.
Some request no photos be taken, out of respect for Uluru’s spiritual significance.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

In the park museum, where the scientific findings related to Ayer’s Rock are presented, space is also allotted to the Aboriginal people to plead their case. In signs, in broken English, and on trail markers they beg again and again for visitors to tread lightly on their sacred history. Please don’t take photos of the sacred sites. Please respect this place of spiritual significance. Please don’t climb Uluru.

Yet the one hour climb up Uluru, draped with a chain, remains a popular line on the typical tourist bucket list. Now a World Heritage Site, Uluru draws more than 400,000 visitors per year, 38% of whom climb it.  The path is worn from years of footprints of visitors who have scaled it since the 1950s. The climb is strenuous; at least 35 people have died as a result. And as recently as 2010, incidents including graffiti, partying, nudity, striptease and golfing have all been witnessed on Uluru, this ground that many consider sacred.

Which raises an important question: who gets to decide what is sacred in the world and what isn’t? And then, who has the inherent right to regulate sacred sites? Human nature has shown us time and again, when not held accountable, people will not self regulate. That’s why there’s tagging and destruction of the rocks at Stonehenge. That’s why people take photos in the Sistine Chapel, even though they are told it will ruin the precious paint. That’s why Machu Picchu may soon be on the list of endangered World Heritage Sites.

Tourists pose for photos at Uluru. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Calls to ban the climbing of Uluru are pervasive, but perhaps, representative of a minority who believe that treading lightly should sometimes mean not treading at all.

My travel companions, most of the philosophy of treading lightly in its myriad forms, were at odds on this issue. One argued, “The Aborigines don’t own it!” He looked at it as conquering a goal. Another wanted to climb it for personal spiritual reasons, believing as some do that Uluru is a strong energy vortex, and for her, an ideal rock upon which to meditate.

Tourists gather at sunrise to watch the changing light on Australia’s Uluru.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

I believed I could not with a clear conscience climb Uluru, and to this day I am glad I didn’t. But I did take pictures. And I did sit upon a small part of the rock, in the sun, where I hoped Uluru would absorb a long-unresolved sense of loss within me.

I felt lighter when I left, as if somehow this sacred land has a limitless capacity to do so, absorbing the sadness left in the wake of loss, generation after generation.

Let’s hope.

Would you climb Uluru? If you have, why did you? 


What does treading lightly mean to you? 

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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
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Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.
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