To climb or not to climb? That is the question…
Actually, that’s not the question because the answer is obvious.
Anangu people, the local Aboriginal community, ask you to respect their culture and to refrain from traipsing your grubby little shoes across their sacred site.
They, however, manage to ask far more politely: ‘Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima’ – ‘Please don’t climb Uluru.’
Simple as that. At least, it should be.
So my question is why is there still a climb at all?
I’ve known about the debate surrounding the Uluru climb for a while, but it really got to me while I was there the other week, learning more about it and seeing for myself how a continuous trickle of people would ignore the numerous requests not to climb and plough on regardless. I wanted to stand there and ask each person how they had come to their decision, but I knew I’d probably end up depressed and questioning the supposed goodness of human nature.
Fortunately, some of these individuals managed to find me instead… I was walking back from Kata Tjuta and ended up next to a group of four who were headed to Uluru and were discussing the climb. One of the gentlemen chimed in as the conversation got going, clearly very pleased with his infallible logic: ‘Yeah, I’m all for respecting their culture, as long as they respect my wishes.’
And what, dear sir, make your ‘wishes’ so much more important than their culture? Why does your personal desire supersede a civilisation that is tens of thousands of years old, one of the oldest continuously surviving cultures on the planet, and consists of individuals who were living in Australia long before anyone had made it to Europe?
But of course, the white person came, the white person saw a pretty red rock, and the white person conquered.
Uluru was climbed for the first time by a European in 1873 and named Ayers Rock after the then Chief Secretary, Sir Henry Ayers. It has been climbed regularly by tourists since the 1950s. Between then and the present day, at least 35 people have died climbing it (officially. Anangu people claim that the number is much higher than that), and this is one of the main arguments for its closure. The last death was in 2010.
Another important argument supporting its closure is the environmental impact. Uluru is a delicate sandstone rock and its surface has this fascinating texture to it, where bits of it have eroded away naturally over time. The trail where the climb takes place has been permanently scarred white where the constant footfall has worn away the protective red outer layer to reveal the softer sandstone underneath.
In addition to wearing away the rock, those who climb often feel the call of nature as they reach the top. There is now a serious problem with people voiding their bowels and their bladders on top of Uluru where the waste then washes into the sacred and environmentally important water holes around the base of the monolith. In the middle of the desert, where water is scarce, native animal populations are being harmed by polluted waterholes.
While it is both revolting and disappointing that people think this is acceptable, also, just think of all the cute little animals you’re hurting… Pulling on the heartstrings yet? I have no shame.
But now now, I could never publish a completely one-sided piece of literature, although I am not on the fence at all about this issue. What I can do, however, is go through the main arguments against closing the climb and refute them wholeheartedly.
- ‘It’s all well and good respecting Aboriginal traditions, but what about my traditions? Many of my ancestors climbed Uluru and I remember doing it with my father as a child’.
- Choosing not to climb is about respect, and respect often means making sacrifices. Also, quite simply, Anangu people were here first.
- Tourism (basically, money) – ‘We don’t want to lose Uluru as an iconic Australian landmark and popular tourist destination.’
- Well, more than 80% of people who visit Uluru don’t climb (and that’s of, say, 279,794 people who visited the National Park in 2015) so the impact on tourism would be minimal.
- Interestingly, the above statistic meets one of the three criteria laid out by the government in 2010 which would lead to the permanent closure of the climb. Only one had to be met… and yet it’s still open.
- ‘I’ve paid all this money and flown or driven all this way. I’m going to climb.’
- Number 1: you sound like a petulant three year old. Why don’t you stamp your foot too while you’re at it?
- Number 2: paying an entry fee doesn’t entitle you to climb. Would you scrawl ‘I woz here’ across a Da Vinci painting because you’d paid entry to an art gallery?
- ‘Well, it’s just not worth the trip unless I climb. Why would I just look at it?’
- Approaching Uluru with that mindset turns it into a ‘been there, done that’ tick off the list, not the spiritual, historic and downright magnificent place that it is. Appreciate it from a distance, watch the colours change to that stunning red at sunrise and sunset, and take a moment to be briefly overwhelmed and humbled at how small you actually are in the grand scheme of things. And listen to my grandma: ‘You look with your eyes, not your hands’ (or in this case, your feet).
- After going to all that effort, some people actually argue that it’s not worth the climb because when you’re at the top, you’re kind of standing on the only thing in the surrounding desert that’s worth looking at (apart from the distant Kata Tjuta).
- Racism – ‘Who cares about what Aboriginal people want?’
- Yes, I did it, I mentioned the ‘R’ word. Because it’s true. Some people climb because they genuinely don’t give a damn about indigenous beliefs, rights, and history. In some ways, this argument doesn’t even deign a response because it’s so fundamentally ignorant that I don’t want to spend my time entertaining those people.
But most of the ‘for’ and ‘against’ cases I’ve just laid out are side arguments, excuses, distractions and complications in a very simple debate. On one side is an ancient culture and surviving people who witness the desecration of their historic home and spiritual site on a daily basis. On the other side is a minority of white people who continue to cling onto antiquated and racist imperialist attitudes of dominance and control, and who claim that their only reason for coming to Uluru is to climb it, as is their right and the tradition of their predecessors.
For Aboriginal people, Uluru is a place of rest, a place of teaching, and a place of intense spiritual importance. The climb takes place by the Mala carpark, so named after the Mala Dreaming story, which is one of the four main creation stories centred around The Rock. What I didn’t realise before coming myself and before going on the Mala indigenous tour (well worth going on if you’re ever at Uluru, and free so no excuse), was that the trail actually covers where Anangu people believe the creation spirits themselves ascended Uluru. Not only are tourists generally climbing a sacred site, but they are walking, graffitiing, littering, even defecating on the footsteps of some of the most important spiritual beings in Anangu culture.
Would you like it if someone walked into your holy place and urinated on your altar, or wrote their names across the pages of your holy book?
Would you like it if someone walked through your home with their muddy shoes even after you’d requested that they take them off?
Or just the basic disrespect of being completely brushed aside by someone, while you’re attempting to explain something that makes up an integral part of your identity.
Regardless of whether or not you believe, it boils down to one human being attempting to get a fellow human being to understand that this is something that is important to you.
Why is that so hard to understand?
Last year, two tourists were arrested for graffitiing on the Colosseum and the year before another was arrested and fined €20,000 for the same thing. The director of the Colosseum justified the fine as the defacement of a “magnificent and symbolic monument”. Why is Uluru different?
Food for thought.