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The importance of leaving Uluru alone

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Uluru has been closed to public hikers and climbers out of respect for the Anangu people (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Looking back on the history of Uluru, it's clear as to why the decision to ban climbing is an important one, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

KNOWN AS ULURU, or Ayers Rock to white settler-cum-conquerors in the 19th century, the fabled natural monolith in central Australia was trod upon with relish in the final months leading up to its “closure” some 34 years after the Anangu were handed back title. (That term suggests a more human structure which can be shuttered and limited to viewing.) A sign now occupies the base of the rock, making it clear that climbers are not welcome and are liable for penalties up to $10,000. 

Prior to that, NITV’s Ryan Liddle and John Paul Janke witnessed a clutch of individuals making the last climb. On Friday morning, a jolly group of eight made the ascent, only descending after 7 PM that evening.

In Janke’s words:

“It’s kind of selfish for those last climbers to make the event about them… it’s very self-centred.”

Not all visitors have been quite so crass. Visiting Uluru has become a subject of contrition for visitors racked by guilt. Rangers who keep an eye on the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park continue to receive samples of sand and rocks that were taken on previous visits. 

A fact sheet from the Australian Government’s Parks Australia section makes the point:  

‘Taken as a memory of their experience of Uluru, these little “pieces of place” are being returned to the park from as far away as Germany, the USA and the United Kingdom and from all over Australia.’

Accounts of apology are noted.

One hopeful note accompanying a returned sample was received from Woodford in Queensland in January 2014: 

‘After revisiting the park, I was told about not removing any rocks from Kata Tjuta… I didn’t know. So I do apologise for same.’

Another, received in December 2013 from Ourimbah, New South Wales, asked if a 200-gram piece:

‘Could...join all of the returned pieces of rock, souvenired from Uluru? My sister collected it in 1978, when it was called Ayers Rock and [everyone] was ignoring of its ancient history and link to aboriginal tribes and culture.’

Such sentiments have also furnished a broader attitude, even before the closure was enacted, that climbing the rock was something to avoid. The Anangu traditional owners had a message: do not climb. These were disseminated through signage, information leaflets and websites. Many heeded it; many did not.

Parks Australia was one of the outlets discouraging climbing:

‘We ask visitors not to climb Uluru because of its spiritual significance as the traditional route of the ancestral Mala men on their arrival at Uluru. We prefer that visitors explore Uluru through the wide range of guided walks and interpretive attractions on offer in the park.’ 

But other reasons have been cited. The environmental effects of erosion due to millions of footsteps making their mark have been noted. Thirty-seven climbers have perished, occasioned by falls and such debilitations as heat exhaustion and dehydration.

The rangers warn with some gravity:

‘At 348 metres, Uluru is higher than the Eiffel Tower, as high as a 95-storey building.’

It is precisely that scale that has made Uluru less a cultural artefact than a natural monument to conquer. Others, such as certain flat Earth theorists, simply go dotty thinking the entire formation is a tree stump.

Many climbers have preferred to ignore the niggling issue associated with custodianship, embracing, instead, the lure of a challenge. (Conquer thyself; ignore others.) In May 2001, for instance, David Wadge made the news as a person intent on climbing the rock. The challenge? His paraplegia. “I’m going to drag my chair up because it’s the reason it’ll be such an effort getting up the rock — just a personal thing.”

The reasons for trudging up the majestic creation have been somewhat standard.

In 2013, Louise Maher of the ABC was told by a middle-aged man from Cairns travelling with his son why he wished to make the climb: 

“Listen, I reckon that back in the Dreamtime an old blackfella climbed the Rock and found it really hard, so he came back down and told everyone else that the Rainbow Serpent wouldn’t allow it.” 

That was just the part of it. He further justified it on the basis that “we pay a lot of taxes in Australia”.

Uluru’s fate, like that of the Indigenous occupants, has seen a double life. The tourist dollar has flowed in, even as freehold title was restored by Sir Ninian Stephen on 26 October 1985. This was merely the logical process that started with the finding by Justice Toohey that Uluru, being located in a national park, was alienable and therefore beyond claim. 

Even after the handing over of title, Uluru was a subject of dispute by political figures unimpressed that the claim of local Indigenous communities.

A strident John Elliott, then Federal President of the Liberal Party, suggested in September 1988 that native ownership should cease: 

“I think it’s absolutely wrong for an Australian national monument like Ayers Rock to be owned by a particular group of people and when the subject comes up in the Liberal Party for debate… they will certainly hear my views.” 

It was a view shared by then leader of the Opposition, John Howard. Trust Elliot and Howard to turn such a matter into reverse elitism.

Other Liberal figures realised the shaky terrain they were traversing. In launching the Coalition environment policy that same year, Senator Chris Puplick advised that his party “would not rip up” the contract on Uluru should the Coalition win. 

Modern successors to Elliot can be found in Pauline Hanson, who made her own climbing effort to drum up publicity for the cause of keeping the Rock open. Her reasons have been those of others, more market-based than cultural, a case of tourists above feeling. (The imminent decline in tourism is contested by authorities who argue that eco-tourism managed by the Anangu is preferable.) That particular feeling is bound to remain, a background, ongoing simmer set to make a return, along with more demagogic instincts associated with Australia’s nature.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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