Creative Commons Photo by Philipp Roth
“You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything” Kunmanara, Traditional Owner.
Life might not be about choices but moments often are. I was at Uluru in 2002 and I had the choice to climb up or walk around. I made the decision to go up because I knew I could walk around any time. I did this despite knowing that Uluru is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara peoples. They do not want people to climb it as plenty of signs around the base advise. The rock has spiritual significance as the traditional route of the ancestral Mala men on their arrival at Uluru. But they left the ultimate decision to me, the tourist, and expected me to make an informed decision. They asked me - out of education and understanding – to choose to respect their law and culture by not climbing. But despite my education and understanding, I flouted the owners’ wishes and climbed the damn thing anyway. I did it because I could. What happens when the owner of anything says to you “I don’t want you to do this but I won’t stop you”? Maybe you think what are the consequences if you do it. And if the consequences don’t seem bad you’ll do it.
So I did it. The climb is dangerous. But you cannot say you haven’t been warned. It is a long and strenuous climb that requires much patience and care especially on the way down when gravity does not work in your favour. The hardest part is right at the end when the chains run out and there is still (or was at least in 2002) ten to twenty metres to get to the bottom. The distance is big enough that if you fell, you probably survive but you’d be a mess. 30 people have died over the years. You had to inch out your way down by picking out each carved out rock. You were watching out for wind gusts. But not for a minute, did I expect the owners to make it any safer. If I did die, it would be entirely my own fault. The worst thing was I’d be making things hard on the Anangu. They have a traditional duty to safeguard visitors to their land and feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt. The view of Centralia from the top was great but not sensational enough to have earned it.
Now I’ve done it I’ve no intention of ever doing it again. But it is not like the Haj, something you have to do once in your life. Let’s assume I didn’t have the choice in the first place. I might be pissed off a little I couldn’t climb but would not break the rules to do it. Others too might grumble, but I don’t think many people would break the law to climb it. The few that did would simply prove the efficacy of the law. It certainly wouldn’t have stopped many from coming out here to admire this astonishing monolith. There is also a good environmental case to be made that erosion from tourist damage is changing the face of the rock. Uluru is made from sedimentary rock called arkose sandstone which has been eroding for 300 million years. So that means it is bloody resistant. But yet again human impact, this time through weathering and urine, is starting to take its toll.
Given that the law to ban outright seems useful on a number of levels, the question is what would be lost if no-one could climb Uluru? Would people stop coming? More than 300,000 people visit Uluru national park each year. It is the prospect of collapse in these numbers that saw the Prime Minister fall short of supporting the move to ban climbing. The land formerly known as Ayers Rock has been owned by the Pitjantjatjara people since the Hawke Government gave it back in 1985. But the sneaky colonials put in a Hong Kong clause and insisted they give a 99 lease back to the National Parks and Wildlife agency.
The agency combines with the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Board of Management to run the national park that combines Uluru and Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas). Two thirds of the board are Anangu and the other third are government. The government has the last word. Last week, a draft management plan for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park issued in both the names of the National Parks and board issued its vision for Uluru and Kata Tjuta for the next ten years. They explained what cultural behaviour was driving the changes. “The Uluru–Kata Tjuta landscape is and will always be a significant place of knowledge and learning. All the plants, animals, rocks, and waterholes contain important information about life and living here now and for all time. Anangu grandparents and grandchildren will always gain their knowledge from this landscape. They will live in it in the proper way. This is Tjukurpa.”
The Anangu phrase Tjukurpa includes many complex but complementary concepts including those of time, religion, morality, the environment and knowledge. There is no single word in English that adequately conveys the complexity of that meaning. It has been distilled over thousands of years into an intimate relationship with the land and its features. It is not the 'Dreamtime' - there is no such word in Anangu language.
(Photo by Michael Pickard) It is Tjukurpa that drives the development and interpretation of Park policy. Tjukurpa prescribes the nature of the relationships between those responsible for the associated landscape, their obligations, and the obligations of those who visit that land. The Draft Plan for 2009-2019 tackled a swag of issues that currently or might affect the National Park. The issues would be informed by the Tjukurpa notions of integrity, respect, honesty, trust, sharing, learning, and working together as equals.
The most contentious item was the suggestion to shut down the climb before the plan expired. A survey of visitors showed that although one in three make the climb, the vast majority of visitors (98 per cent) would return even if it was banned. The Director of National Parks Peter Cochrane said the Uluru area was confronting the impacts of climate change and invasive species. But he was also interested in tourists. “We also need to think beyond the global economic crisis to longer term visitor travel patterns - who are our next generation of visitors? What experiences are they are seeking and what can we offer?” he asked. So the question for Cochrane was if they do close the climb for safety, environmental and cultural reasons what alternative experiences should we offer. He asked for feedback to the plan by 4 September.
The problem was that the proposal immediately became politicised. When Federal Minister Peter Garrett supported it, the Opposition rushed out to condemn it. On Wednesday Garrett’s shadow Greg Hunt issued a media release saying “Rudd must not close Uluru climb." Visitors from around Australia and the world would be stopped from "completing the majestic and exhilarating journey,” said Hunt. And why was that a problem, necessarily? Because it comes at a time, he said, when “Australia’s tourism industry is facing massive challenges from the global financial crisis”. Hunt made a ludicrous claim: “Big Brother was coming to Uluru to slam the gate closed on an Australian tourism icon, the climb.”
Hunt recovered enough dignity to call Uluru an Indigenous treasure but said the climb was a matter of enabling “informed consent”. The Shadow Minister got his own consent with a Government climbdown two days later. On Friday he was able to gleefully report this as “Rudd Over-Rules (sic) Garrett on Uluru Climb”. Hunt is wrong about Uluru as is Rudd in rising to the bait. Consent to climb relies precisely on being ill-informed.
The simplest solution is to ban it. Not only would culture, safety and environmental issues disappear in an instance, but the economic issue is also furphy - the recession has nothing to do with it. Given the survey results and creative talents of the Australian tourism industry, it should be possible to answer “will 300,000 still keep coming?” in the positive without the lure of the climb. Don’t make us wait till 2084 for Tjukurpa. The tourist industry has ten years to work out a plan. Get cracking.