And the tourism of regret.
And the tourism of regret.
On an almost daily basis, rangers at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Central Australia receive parcels of sand and rocks from guilty tourists. Taken as mementos of Uluru and the nearby group of domed rock formations known as Kata Tjuta, these “pieces of place” find their way back to the site from all corners of the globe, often with personal letters of apology.
“To Uluru-Kata Tjuta—from France
Kata Tjuta, I didn’t even know you existed but you absolutely blew my mind. I sat at a lookout for almost an hour and watched a little bird sail on your thermals. It was a beautiful moment and I took a nearby stone so I could hold a piece of you forever.
Uluru, I took one from you too. I wanted to take away some of your magic with me for the rest of my travels, for the rest of my life even. I realise it was wrong to do so, therefore I am sending both pieces back to you. Forgive me for being foolish and thank you for letting me spend time with you and absorb your beauty.”
The frequent expression of regret in these letters has led park staff to name the returned pieces “Sorry Rocks”. Some send them back shortly after their trip, others do it years, even decades later. The letters reflect a human impulse to engage with the land on a deeper level—something we don’t do a lot in our busy, modern lives. People want to hold onto that connection. They take these objects with them because the experience of nature and culture felt so unique. Usually with some reflection they realise they shouldn’t have and develop this intense desire to send them back. Some even believe they experience bad luck as a result of removing the rocks.
When I started researching the Sorry Rocks in 2004, there was a storeroom full of boxes with over a thousand returned materials and letters. The first parcel arrived in the 1970s and the phenomenon grew exponentially the following decade when ownership of Uluru was handed back to the local Anangu people. The number of materials returned each year is now between 250 and 300. The largest was a 32kg rock from a couple in Adelaide.
While Anangu and park staff welcome the gesture of sending back pieces of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, it has become a complex managerial issue. For Anangu, seeing the rocks returned to country was not as simple as placing them at the base of Uluru. Some were from Kata Tjuta for a start, which has particular significance to Anangu men, and there was a concern that some rocks had been removed from sacred sites. Returning them to the wrong place would be disrespectful.
In the end it was decided that the rocks be placed in a neutral space, a creek bed not far from the Uluru Cultural Centre. Here, they are back in country but not in danger of upsetting Tjukurpa, traditional Anangu law. It’s also a place where the rocks and sediments could be washed by the rains and integrated back into the landscape.
Anangu and park management are working hard to promote the “please don’t take” message. Under Australian law, visitors can be fined up to $5000 for removing material from the national park, and while thousands of rocks have been returned, no fine has been issued. For the Anangu people, the issue is about respect for the land. They see no curse associated with the act but do believe the elements have an important place in the landscape and shouldn’t be disturbed.
For many of us, picking up a shell from the beach or a special stone near the lake feels natural. It’s a ritual that extends from our childhood. The souvenir brings an experience of place into our private lives and becomes a trigger for memory and storytelling. The question we need to ask is how we can make these connections to place respectfully. The Sorry Rocks remind us to look at the landscape through other points of view, and to think about the way we interact with the natural world as tourists.