The sacred stories behind the Uluru climb ban

For decades the Anangu people in central Australia have asked tourists not to climb Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, because of its sacred value. From next year, scaling the giant monolith will be banned. The BBC’s Rebecca Henschke reports on why the rock is so significant, and discovers her own personal link along the way.

“When tourists come they just see this one big beautiful rock in the centre of Australia. But this rock means everything to us Anangu.”

Pamela Taylor stares up at the mighty rock. She is one of the traditional owners of Uluru and a holder of the ancient sacred stories that are enshrined within it.

“The rock has got a lot of stories,” she says as we sit down in the red sand.

“Some of them I can’t tell you. [They are] too sacred or we will be in trouble – I will be in trouble. Some I tell so people like you can understand.”

The stories are passed down orally as precious inheritance through families.

The Anangu believe that in the beginning, the world was unformed and featureless. Ancestral beings emerged from this void and travelled across the land, creating all living species and forms.

Uluru is the physical evidence of the feats performed by ancestral beings during this creation time.

Ms Taylor points to a deep cave high in the rock. “Blue tongue lizard lives right up the top there,” she says.

Her family holds the story of Lungkata, a greedy and dishonest blue-tongue lizard ancestral being, who came to Uluru from the north and stole meat from Emu.

When Emu followed him back to his cave, Lungkata ignored him.

“He went back to sleep, pretending he was asleep. Emu got very angry and made a fire and it went right up into the cave and the smoke blocked him and he fell down,” Ms Taylor says.

She points to a huge blue patch that runs down from the cave. That is where his burnt body rolled down and left a mark, she says.

“He did bad things by going around stealing. That’s why we tell the children not to go around stealing things, because they will get punishment like Lungkata.”

“I tell [the] story about that to my grandsons, so they learn.”

The tale of Kuniya

The caves, lines and marks on the rock all have deep meaning, and stories that tell how they were created.

The family of Sammy Wilson, another traditional owner, holds the story of Kuniya, a woman python at Uluru. She fought Liru, a poisonous snake, at Uluru, to protect her nephew.

Signs of that ferocious battle are all around a waterhole at the base of the rock, he says.

Mr Wilson points out Kuniya herself in the stone, the image of her python head turning to look back.

“When you go to a city, you find parks with statues of someone who has done something important,” he says. “Well this is equivalent of a statue like that. This is what we have in our country to show us our past.”

And elders say that when you climb Uluru, you are on the traditional route taken by ancestral Mala men – a path of deep spiritual significance.

Ignoring Anangu wishes

“Tourists are like ants up and down every day, climbing up and down,” says Ms Taylor.

“Their shoes they are scraping away at the rock, little by little bit. It’s now like a rope when you see it from far away. It wasn’t meant to be like that.”

Signs in six languages at the base of Uluru ask people not to climb the rock, explaining that it violates traditional law.

But despite that, every day that I have been here a steady stream of people have gone up. Many have come to climb it before it is closed next year.

One tourist from Queensland, Pamela, says she read the signs. But she says: “I am going to do it anyway because this will be the last chance, because next year they are closing it off and next year I will be too old.”

She admits she hasn’t thought too much about the sacred nature of the rock.

“It’s because of my ego I want to climb it,” she says. “I just turned 70 and I have two replacement knees and I want to see if I can do it.”

For Mr Wilson, it’s a painful thing to watch.

“Sometimes it feels like I could be talking and talking until I am exhausted and worn out and some people would still not understand,” he says.

“We have been talking for so long about wanting to have it closed, that some of our elders have passed away.”

Ending the climb

Mr Wilson is a member of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board, which jointly manages the national park. In a historic vote last year, its board of 12 people – including eight Anangu elders – decided to end the climb.

“I was there on that day, and there were tears in people’s eyes. Not just Anangu, but people who have been here for many, many years,” says Steve Baldwin, manager of the Uluru and Kata-Tjuta Park Operations and Visitor Service.

“Everyone felt so relieved that finally it’s being closed,” he adds.

So why has it taken so long?

“Anangu are very mindful that for tourism, there are many people who want to climb Uluru,” he says. “And that’s why you have the lead time of two years. They have done things the right way.”

But for the Anangu people, mass tourism on their land hasn’t been done the right way for decades.

It was not until 1979 that they were recognised as traditional owners of this land – despite living there for more than 40,000 years.

It took another six years to be presented with the freehold title deeds for the area – an event known as the “Handback”. And it was not until 2001 that there was an official Anangu ranger of the park.

The threat of losing tourism felt like a gun being held to their head, says Mr Wilson.

“That’s what it felt like – people trying to stop us from expressing ourselves,” he says. “[They were] stopping us from doing what we needed to do – what we felt was right – so we just asked, please put that gun aside so that we can talk properly.”

Mr Wilson has set up his own tourism company for visitors to see the land through the eyes of the Anangu people.

“This is our country here and we want people to come and learn from us and how sacred it is,” he says.

My family

I grew up on Anēwan land, in Armidale, in an area of European settlers called New England. But my family on my father’s side were among the first settlers to come from Europe to South Australia.

And while I was working on this story I realised I had a much closer connection to Uluru, or Ayers Rock, than I had realised.

In 1873, when European explorer William Gosse came across the giant rock in the middle of the desert, he named it after the chief secretary of South Australia at the time, Henry Ayers, who is my great great great great uncle. He married my ancestor Lady Anne Ayers.

I tell Mr Wilson that I am sorry for that ignorant act and my family’s role in disrespecting the indigenous people of this land.

His reaction surprises me. He is excited – because he says his great great grandfather met Mr Gosse.

“He wrote down my ancestor’s name down too! The blue tongue lizard ancestor,” he says. “I have no idea why they gave it that name (Ayers Rock). White fellows seem to give names randomly,” he laughs.

Later I tell another Anangu elder, Alison Hunt, and apologise again for my family’s role.

“Oh, that’s interesting!” she says. “But Aboriginal people don’t hold grudges, because that was done in the past,” she adds, kindly.

“Now today Aboriginal people want to walk together with non-indigenous people and develop that understanding, and that trust about what happened rather than living in the past,” she says, while giving me a cuddle.

“We all about coming together.”

Last year about 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people came together at Uluru, to demand real legal and political recognition and power as the first peoples of Australia.

The Australian government later rejected a proposal to form a body in parliament representing indigenous peoples. The response drew criticism from Aboriginal leaders.

More than 200 years since the British invasion, Australia remains the only Commonwealth country to have never signed a treaty with its first inhabitants.

“Government and people should respect and recognise that we are the first people of the land,” says Ms Hunt.

Next generation

To the rhythm of clapping sticks, Ms Hunt sways, slowly moving forward, sliding her feet through the rich red sand, her bare breasts painted with markings.

This is an inma, or welcome ceremony for tourists who are here for a cultural festival called Tjungu that showcases indigenous music and arts from across the country.

Also performing is a schoolgirl drumming group Drum Atweme.

Speaking to the girls after the show, it’s clear that despite enormous pressure the sacred stories are being passed on.

“When I go to the rock and see the paintings in the cave I felt like my great great great grandfather is right beside me,” says 11-year-old Tilley.

“We are not allowed to go on the rock or you will be sick because you are stepping on your culture and on your dreaming.”

With the closing of the climb, the elders hope visitors can spend more time talking with them to understand this.

“There will be more time to sit and talk like we are doing here – right now there is not enough of this kind of talking,” says Ms Taylor.

Reclaiming the Rock will air on the BBC News channel on Saturday 30 June at 0930 and 2130 (GMT), and Sunday 1 July at 0230 and 1530 (GMT), and at various times across the weekend on BBC World. You can also listen to Rebecca Henschke’s World Service documentary on the BBC World Service website.

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More than 140 whales die after stranding on New Zealand beach

More than 140 pilot whales have died after becoming stranded on a remote New Zealand beach.

A hiker discovered 145 pilot whales in two pods just over a mile apart late on Saturday on Stewart Island.

About 75 were already dead and conservation workers decided to euthanise the others due to their poor condition and remote location.

Only about 375 people live on Stewart Island, which is also called Rakiura. The whales were found at Mason’s Bay about 22 miles from the main township of Oban.

“You feel for the animals, it’s just a really sad event,” said Ren Leppens, the Rakiura operations manager for the Department of Conservation.

“It’s the kind of thing you don’t want to see. You wish you could understand the reasoning why the whales strand, so you could intervene.”

Mr Leppens said the whales were half buried in sand and not in good health, indicating that they had been there for perhaps a day before they were found.

He said staff shot the whales and the carcasses would be left where they were for nature to take its course.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, 10 pygmy killer whales were found stranded at Ninety Mile Beach on the North Island in an unrelated event. Two have since died, and staff plan to try and refloat the remaining eight.

Whale strandings are relatively common in New Zealand during the Southern Hemisphere spring and summer.

It is believed strandings can be caused by a number of factors, such as the whales trying to escape predators, falling ill, or navigating incorrectly.

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145 pilot whales die after stranding on New Zealand beach

Up to 145 pilot whales died in a mass stranding on a remote New Zealand island at the weekend, authorities said today.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) said two pods of pilot whales were stranded on a beach on Stewart Island, 30 km (20 miles) south of New Zealand’s South Island.

Half of the whales were already dead when they were found by DOC officers, who were notified on Saturday night by a hiker camping in the area.

A decision was made to put the rest of the whales down due to their poor condition and the remote location, DOC Rakiura Operations Manager Ren Leppens said.

“Sadly, the likelihood of being able to successfully refloat the remaining whales was extremely low,” said Leppens, who described it as the most humane thing to do.

“However, it’s always a heart-breaking decision to make,” he said.

New Zealand has one of the world’s highest rates of whale strandings, although the precise cause for it is not known.

The DOC said it responds to an average of 85 incidents a year, mostly for single animals.

Many factors could contribute to such whale and dolphin strandings, including sickness, navigational error, geographical features, a rapidly falling tide, being chased by a predator, or extreme weather, the DOC said.

Ten pygmy killer whales were also stranded on Sunday at 90 Mile Beach on the western coast of the North Island. Two have since died and attempts were being made to refloat the rest.

The DOC said the two events were unlikely to be related.

About 300 whales died on a beach at the northwest tip of South Island last year in one of New Zealand’s largest recorded mass whale strandings.

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Truck dangles off Australian road bridge

A truck transporting poultry products has been left hanging from a road bridge after crashing in the Australian state of Victoria.

The accident has resulted in lane closures and major delays on the Calder Freeway north of Melbourne after the vehicle shed its load onto the road below.

An operation to clear the debris is under way.

The driver is in hospital with non-life threatening injuries, media say.

Authorities do not know the cause of the crash yet, but said the truck had struck a side barrier and rolled over, sending its trailer over the edge.

JUST IN: All citybound lanes are closed on the Calder Freeway in Keilor after a truck rollover. The truck's trailer was hanging over Green Gully Road. #9News

End of Twitter post by @9NewsMelb

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Australia ‘trolley hero’ faces charges

A homeless man who used his shopping trolley to try to ram a knife-wielding attacker in Melbourne has been charged with offences including burglary and theft.

Michael Rogers, dubbed “Trolley Man” online, was filmed on 9 November trying to prevent Hassan Khalif Shire Ali from stabbing two police officers.

The suspect had already killed a cafe owner and injured two other people.

He was later shot by police and died in hospital.

Mr Rogers was called in by police for questioning on Friday.

Australian media reported that the five alleged offences – two counts of burglary, two counts of theft and committing an indictable offence while on bail – had taken place before the 9 November attack.

Mr Rogers has been hailed as a hero for his efforts to prevent Shire Ali from stabbing two police officers.

When tracked down by reporters, the 46-year-old told 7 News: “I threw the trolley straight at him, and I got him. I didn’t quite get him down, though.”

At the time he was only metres from a burning car full of gas cylinders, which the attacker had set alight near Bourke Street, a busy road in the city centre.

An online fundraising campaign for Mr Rogers has raised more than A$140,000 ($103,000; £80.000).

It was set up by Donna Stolzenberg, founder of the charity Melbourne Homeless Collective, to help get him back on his feet.

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Japan PM’s historic visit to bombed Darwin

In a historic moment, Shinzo Abe has become the first Japanese leader to visit Darwin, Australia, since it was bombed by Japan during World War Two.

The first raids in February 1942 left about 250 people dead, hundreds more injured, and destroyed numerous Allied ships as well as much of Darwin itself.

Mr Abe joined Australian PM Scott Morrison in laying wreaths in a solemn ceremony at the city’s war memorial.

Mr Morrison has described the visit as a “time of healing” and friendship.

The leaders observed a minute’s silence, remembering the worst wartime loss of life on Australian soil.

They also paid respects to 80 Japanese sailors who died when their submarine was sunk off Darwin in January 1942.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Morrison said: “Prime Minister Abe’s visit is deeply symbolic and significant and it will build on our two countries’ strong and enduring friendship, as well as our economic, security, community and historical ties.”

He acknowledged, however, that Australians “directly touched” by the events may find the moment difficult.

Mr Abe and Mr Morrison did not speak publicly at the ceremony on Friday, but were expected to release a joint statement.

The bombing of Darwin began 10 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and only days after the fall of Singapore.

There were 64 raids on Darwin until November 1943 but most did not cause casualties, according to the Australian War Memorial.

In 2016, Mr Abe joined then US President Barack Obama in visiting the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Japan and Australia have built their relationship with security and trade pacts in recent years, despite occasionally straining ties over whaling.

Mr Abe’s visit coincides with the official opening of a major LPG (liquid petroleum gas) processing facility in Darwin that is intended to boost Japan’s energy security.

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Kayaker 'lucky to be here' after shark attack

A man in Australia claimed he had a “lucky day” after escaping a 13ft shark that attacked his kayak and left him clinging on to the boat as the creature circled him.

Kyle Roberts (31) was paddling off his local beach in calm conditions on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland when the tiger shark suddenly knocked him off the kayak.

“It hit side-on with such force it ejected me and flipped the kayak,” he told the ‘Courier Mail’. “I landed in the water about [seven feet] away and looked to see it locked on to the middle part.

“It let go and disappeared. I swam over and inspected the damage. I could put my fingers in the holes left by its teeth.”

Mr Roberts, who regularly kayaks in the area, used his radio to contact surf rescue authorities and waited about 35 to 40 minutes for them to arrive.

David McLean, from Surf Life Saving Queensland, said Mr Roberts was “starting to panic, especially when the shark was starting to circle him”.

“There was no blood in the water – nothing else to attract any sharks – just came out of the blue, completely broadsided him, and as he stated, he’s very lucky to be here,” Mr McLean said.

“It had punctured the kayak – he managed to get back to the kayak and hung on and fortunately there was an air bubble at the front of the kayak which managed to keep it afloat until we could get to him.” Mr Roberts said he planned to return to the water on his kayak next week.

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Berry needle scare ‘motivated by spite’

An Australian woman accused of hiding sewing needles inside strawberries in a high-profile sabotage case was motivated by spite, a court has heard.

My Ut Trinh, 50, was arrested on Sunday following a nationwide police investigation that began in September.

Ms Trinh had worked as a supervisor at a strawberry farm north of Brisbane, according to Queensland Police.

The maximum prison term for contaminating goods in Australia was recently raised to 15 years.

Ms Trinh faces seven counts, and has not said whether she will fight the charges.

The “unprecedented” strawberry scare spread to every Australian state and later to New Zealand, raising public alarm.

Police said there had been 186 reports of needle-contaminated strawberries since September, though 15 turned out to have been hoaxes.

It is not yet clear how many of those Ms Trinh is alleged to have caused. On Monday, police described their investigation as “far from over”.

The court in Brisbane on Monday heard that Ms Trinh’s DNA had been found on strawberries in the state of Victoria.

“The case that is put is that it is motivated by some spite or revenge,” Magistrate Christine Roney said.

“She has embarked on a course over several months of putting a metal object into fruit.”

Fears of ‘retribution’

The first cases emerged in Queensland, where a man was taken to hospital with stomach pains after eating strawberries.

Farmers were forced to dump tonnes of berries, and supermarkets pulled the fruit off sale.

In response, Australia’s government raised the maximum prison term for fruit tampering from 10 to 15 years.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison vowed to “throw the book” at anyone responsible, saying: “It’s not funny, putting the livelihoods of hard-working Australians at risk, and you are scaring children. And you are a coward and a grub.”

On Monday Supt Jon Wacker, from Queensland Police, described it as a “unique investigation impacting virtually every state and jurisdiction in Australia”.

In Queensland, where the strawberry industry is worth A$130m (£72m; $93m) a year, the local government pledged A$1m to support the state’s stricken farmers. An A$100,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of perpetrators.

Prosecutors said they opposed giving bail to Ms Trinh because she may face “retribution” in the community.

However, Ms Roney said a bail application would not be considered until more information about the case was known.

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Isil claims stabbing attack in Melbourne

A man went on a stabbing spree in the centre of Melbourne yesterday after apparently setting a car alight, killing one person and bringing the city to a standstill.

Police believe the deadly attack by a Somali-born Australian was an act of terrorism, possibly designed to destroy a vehicle filled with gas cylinders in the city centre.

The man, who died after being shot by police, set a four-wheel drive car on fire before stabbing three men, including one who died in hospital.

Isil claimed the attack, its propaganda channel said.

“The perpetrator of the operation… in Melbourne… was an Islamic State fighter and carried out the operation… to target nationals of the coalition” fighting Isil, Amaq reported a jihadist security source as saying.

Graham Ashton, chief of Victoria State police, said the man was known to counterterrorism agencies through his “family associations”. “His family members are certainly known to us from a terrorism perspective,” he said.

Mr Ashton said the man moved from Somalia in the 1990s to Melbourne’s north-west suburbs. He had convictions for cannabis use, theft and driving offences but not for violent offences.

Some witnesses claimed he was yelling “Allahu akbar”, though police said this was not confirmed. They added they did not believe there was an ongoing threat.

According to ‘The Herald Sun’, the man had his passport cancelled several years ago.

Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, condemned the “act of evil” and pledged the city would “go about our business this weekend and every weekend”.

“This is an evil, terrifying thing that’s happened in our city and state,” he said. “We condemn it… We’ll not be defined by this act of evil.”

Police said the car was parked before being set alight.

“There were gas bottles – I understand at this stage they are barbecue-style gas bottles – within the vehicle,” Commissioner Ashton said.

Footage taken by witnesses showed police shooting the man after he threatened them with an object that appeared to be a knife. Witnesses said the car exploded before the man began stabbing people.

“He seemed to be waving something, people around me screamed that he had a knife, but I couldn’t see clearly from where I was,” a witness told ABC News. “And then I heard one loud bang. It sounded like a gunshot.”

Sarah Werkmeister, a witness, told ‘The Herald Sun’: “All I saw was the car on fire, and the police cuffing someone on the ground. People who’d seen it told me they heard shots being fired, and everyone heard an explosion that was like the petrol exploding.” (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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Melbourne 'in lockdown' as one dead, two injured in city stabbing

One person was stabbed to death and two others wounded after they were attacked by a man in the centre of the Australian city of Melbourne on Friday, police said.

Police shot the man who threatened officers with a knife and he is in a critical condition under guard at a hospital, Victoria Police Superintendent David Clayton told reporters.

“Three people have been stabbed, unfortunately one of them is deceased at the scene,” he said. “There is no known links to terrorism at this stage we will keep an open mind as to whether there is any link.”

Parts of the Australian city’s CBD were in lockdown on Friday afternoon and Victoria Police urged members of the public to avoid the area.

Witnesses said they heard explosions as a car burst into flames on Bourke Street and there were unconfirmed reports that a man was shot after attacking police with a knife.

Police said in a statement: “A man was arrested at the scene and has been taken to hospital under police guard in critical condition.  

“Police are not looking for anyone further at this stage. A small number of people are being treated for stab wounds..

“The exact circumstances are yet to be determined at this stage.”

More to follow…

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