History of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Uluru. Photo: Tourism Australia
Aboriginal people have lived in the area around Uluru and Kata Tjuta for at least 30,000 years.
For Anangu, their culture has always existed here. The Central Australian landscape (of which Uluru and Kata Tjuta are an important part) is believed to have been created at the beginning of time by ancestral beings.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta provide physical evidence of feats performed during the creation period, which are told in the Tjukurpa stories.
Anangu believe they are the direct descendants of these beings and are responsible for the protection and appropriate management of these ancestral lands.
Early European explorers
The first non-Aboriginal person to see Kata-Tjuta was the explorer Ernest Giles, who spotted the domes while leading a party near Kings Canyon in 1872. Giles named the largest dome Mount Olga, after Queen Olga of Württemberg.
In 1873 another explorer, William Gosse, became the first non-Aboriginal person to see Uluru, naming it Ayers Rock after the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
The next major expedition to the area was a scientific team in 1894. The party was sent to research the geology, mineral resources, plants, animals and Aboriginal culture of Central Australia. This expedition produced plenty of valuable information about the area and confirmed that the region was not suitable for farming.
Uluru campsite, 1952. Photo: Kevin Harris / State Library of South Australia (B 70782/69)
In 1920 Uluru and Kata-Tjuta were included in the South West Reserve, part of a larger system of reserves set aside as sanctuaries for Aboriginal people.
This meant that few non-Indigenous people visited the area until the 1940s, when Aboriginal reserves in Central Australia were reduced in size to allow mineral exploration. A dirt road to Uluru was constructed in 1948, and miners and tourists began to visit Uluru, Kata-Tjuta and beyond.
The Ayers Rock National Park was declared in 1950, the same year that Alice Springs resident Len Tuit accompanied a party of schoolboys from Sydney’s Knox Grammar on a trip to Uluru. Recognising the enormous tourism potential of the rock, Tuit began offering regular tours in 1955, with guests camping in tents and drinking water carted in from Curtin Springs.
Kata Tjuta was added to the national park to create the Ayers Rock-Mount Olga National Park in 1958. The first permanent accommodation was constructed the same year, while a new airstrip allowed the first fly-in, fly-out tour groups.
Anangu were discouraged from visiting the park during this period, but many continued travelling across their homelands to hunt, gather food, visit kin and participate in ceremonies.
In 1964, pastoral subsidies were revoked, which saw many Anangu coming to live at Uluru. After pressure from tour operators, the government established a settlement at Kaltukatjara (Docker River) to draw Anangu away from Uluru.
Land rights and handback
Handback ceremony, 1985. Photo: Peter Taylor / Parks Australia
In 1966, the Gurindji strike at Wave Hill inspired many Anangu to leave pastoral leases and return to Uluru.
Over the next decade, Uluru’s traditional owners lobbied the government for the right to their country, expressing concerns about mining, pastoralism, tourism and the desecration of sacred sites.
The historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act came into force in 1976. It recognised Indigenous land rights and set up processes for Indigenous people to win back their land and manage their own resources.
The Central Land Council lodged a successful land rights claim on behalf of traditional owners in 1979, but the national park was omitted from the claim as it was no longer crown land and so wasn’t eligible.
It was another six years before Anangu were able to reclaim ownership of the national park. On 26 October 1985, the Governor-General of Australia returned the title deeds to the park to Anangu in a handback ceremony on the oval in Mutitjulu community.
In return, Anangu leased the land to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (now Parks Australia) for 99 years. The board of management was set up in December 1985 with a majority of Anangu members, and the park continues to be jointly managed by Anangu and Parks Australia.
The video below was produced in 2015 for the 30th anniversary of handback. It features traditional owners sharing their memories of handback and talking about the benefits of joint park management.
World Heritage listing and beyond
The national park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987 for its natural values. In 1994 it was also added to the list for its extraordinary value as a living cultural landscape.
The park’s Cultural Centre opened in 1995 to mark the tenth anniversary of Uluru-Kata Tjuta being handed back to its traditional owners.
In 2000, the Sydney Olympic torch began its journey on Australian soil with a circuit around the base of Uluru.
Throughout the 21st century, Parks Australia has worked with Uluru-Kata Tjuta’s traditional owners to create better visitor experiences, improve opportunities for Anangu and protect the park’s natural and cultural values.
The Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) purchased Ayers Rock Resort in 2011 and established the National Indigenous Training Academy at Yulara, helping advance the training and employment of Indigenous people in the Australian tourism and hospitality industries.
You can find out more about the history of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park on the Department of the Environment and Energy website.