It was late afternoon by the time we reached Uluru, the massive monolith of sandstone that rises high out of the flat Australian Outback. The drive had taken several hours and involved a number of false alarms as we gazed out of the minibus windows all competing to be the first to spy the iconic feature also known as Ayers Rock. One false sighting was so convincing that many photos were snapped before our guide confessed.

“Sorry guys,” he began with a laugh. “That’s not it. We call that ‘fooluru’ because it fools most first-timers. The real Uluru is much more spectacular.”

And so it was. Like the pyramids of Giza, Mount Kilimanjaro or the Eiffel Tower, you never forget your first glimpse of Uluru. We’ve all seen it in countless photographs, postcards, posters, brochures and screensavers. We’ve seen it in varying shades of red, orange and purple from every angle and in every light, yet nothing truly prepares us for that first breathtaking sight.

Until quite recently, any visit to Uluru was incomplete without climbing to the top.

The trek was arduous and even dangerous, with numerous visitors suffering serious injuries from falls, dehydration, heatstroke, sunstroke and even heart attacks. The park rangers had attached chains to ease the route up the gradual yet precipitous slope and forewarned anyone contemplating the climb, yet still every year countless visitors fell victim. However, climbing Uluru was never meant to be an adrenaline sport or an example of tick-off tourism. Since the beginning of time, the mountain has been sacred to the local Anangu people.

Not only did they not want people stomping all over their monolith, but anytime anyone hurt themselves climbing it, the Anangu took it personally.

They felt a responsibility for the visitors, and it grieved them. As Australia became more sensitive to the feelings of their Aboriginal people, the authorities began to dissuade visitors from climbing Uluru out of respect. “Was anyone on here hoping to climb Uluru?” our guide asked from the front of the van. “Although it is still permitted, it is frowned upon and we’d rather you didn’t do it,” he added. He went on to explain the significance of Uluru and the Anangu’s request that people not climb it. Then he asked if anyone still wanted to tackle it. After a brief pause, one visitor from a far corner of the planet still wanted to give it a go. English was not his first language and I silently hoped that he had not properly grasped the guide’s explanation and plea, rather than that he chose to ignore it. Ultimately, the winds were too high and no one was permitted on the mountain that day for safety reasons, but the experience left me wondering about the apathy that so many travellers have towards sites that are spiritually important to the local population.

It seems that all too often we’re more than happy to spend thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles to visit an ancient site, place of worship or sacred physical feature, yet we don’t always properly respect what made those sites significant in the first place, or the wishes, feelings and beliefs of the local population.

The Deputy Chief Minister of Sabah, Malaysia blamed a recent deadly earthquake in Borneo on a group of 10 foreign climbers who stripped naked at the summit of Mount Kinabalu, a peak sacred to the local people. While we may disregard such an assertion as absurd and scientifically unsound, that does nothing to exonerate the climbers for their cultural insensitivity.

Sacred Mount Kinabalu, Borneo (photo from Bernard DUPONT)

Many mountains are sacred including Mount Everest, Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai. It is one of the reasons that many peaks worldwide were first summitted by Europeans or other Westerners because the local people either feared or revered the mountain and had no desire to climb it.

While many of those cultures tolerate or even encourage the mountains to be climbed by visitors today, they still expect a degree of decorum when we do. Many of us are aware of the etiquette involved when entering temples, churches or mosques. We generally remove our shoes; we cover our arms, our heads, our shoulders or our legs when proscribed; we speak in hushed tones and usually act respectfully. But how many of us know that it is frowned upon t pose for a photograph in front of any statue or image of Buddha? Mayan temples may be thousands of years old and seem like little more than grand stone pyramids, but they are still worshipped by the Mayan people. Again, it’s not to say that we can’t explore, photograph and appreciate them, but we should still only do so with respect and proper behaviour.

The world is filled with wonder, whether manmade or natural, and exploring these treasures is one of the greatest rewards of travel. But our explorations can be even more rewarding when we take the time to learn the true significance behind these sites and treat them with the respect and reverence that is wished.

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