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Jul 9, 2009

Climbing Uluru is like clambering up the War Memorial

I'd like to climb up the side of the Australian War Memorial because I suspect the view over Lake Burley Griffin is sensational.



Today’s news that Environment Minister Peter Garrett is considering banning the climbing of Uluru will be celebrated throughout black Australia. But if the views of many on Canberra talkback radio this morning is anything to go by, it won’t be celebrated in the suburbs of white Australia.

The proposal to close the climb is part of a new draft plan for the management of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. One of the arguments advanced against the idea on Canberra talkback was that the rock is in Australia, so it should be accessible to all Australians. Sure. And I should be able to spend a lazy afternoon downing a carton of beer on the lawns of Kirribilli House whenever I want. Only problem is, we have a little thing called “property law”.

Uluru is owned by a group of Aboriginal people and has been since the hand-back in 1985. The traditional owners ask people — via a sign at the base of the rock — not to climb it. Then they leave it open to visitors to do the right thing. The majority don’t.

If you go onto someone’s land and they ask not to do something, and you do it anyway, generally speaking you’re not welcome back. But in the case of Uluru, tens of thousands of tourists every year ignore a request from the landowners, but can come back whenever they like. It’s a situation not replicated anywhere else in the nation. No other property owner’s rights and wishes are treated with such disdain.

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt also hit the airwaves this morning, arguing that the proposed ban was unacceptable as people come from all over the world to enjoy the site.

“Give people education. This is not just a local treasure but it’s a national treasure and an international treasure,” Hunt said.

“Give them the cultural information, let them make up their own mind as to how best to honour Uluru and the surrounding area.”

People don’t climb the rock to honour it. They climb it because it’s there, because lots of other people are doing it, and because there’s the promise of a great view of… flat desert scrub as far as the eye can see.

Which brings me to the Australian War Memorial. It’s a tourist icon (a bigger one than Uluru, in fact). It’s also a place of great spiritual significance. And I’d like to climb up the side of it because I suspect the view over Lake Burley Griffin is sensational. It would be my way of “honouring” the ANZACS. Give me the cultural information, Greg. And a rope.

Chris Graham is editor of the National Indigenous Times.


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22 thoughts on “Climbing Uluru is like clambering up the War Memorial

  1. ACNP

    While I don’t disagree with the sentiments expressed in this article (I’m astounded climbing Uluru hasn’t been banned before now), I think Chris Graham will find the view from Mt Ainslie much more impressive than at the top of the War Memorial, taking in the building itself as well as the view over the lake. In fact, that gives me an idea. Excuse me while I move to the Northern Territory and start up a helicopter joyflight business.

  2. Chris Graham

    Appreciate the heads-up ACNP. I took my mum up there not all that long ago… the War Memorial does have a very nice roof.

  3. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Better still, ACNP, would be for the landowners at Uluru to do what France did for America. I haven’t been to Uluru but I’ve seen on TV that there is some sort of carpark/ viewing area a mile or two away from the rock (the resort is quite some distance further isn’t it?). Anyway, why not build some sort of statue of liberty (not a replica for christ’s sake!) and charge a motza, really top money, to go to the top. You’d need to be able to see OVER the rock, but from a fair way away. It would be a completely world-unique view and entirely for the singular benefit of the traditional and permanent owner/s. Since it is just viewing Australia, our own country, it would not attract GST….would it?
    It could be completely eco/psycho/cultural friendly, have solar-powered lifts and everything (not much point going up in the dark) so that every single person who went there would be able to travel up the thing. At say, two hundred or five hundred bucks a time, pensioners double, First Australians free. And a photo processing shop.

  4. Shane Maloney

    A few weeks ago I took a tour bus day trip from Alice Springs to Uluru. The driver asked the 40-odd tourists if any of us intended to climb the rock. About half put hands up. He then handed out a brochure detailing the dangers, health risks, past fatalities and medivac costs. The flyer also stated that the resident aborigines preferred that people not climb the rock as this was contrary to their religious beliefs but that people were free to climb the rock if they so desired. The driver also communicated this information verbally in a pleasant informative manner. He also pointed out that those making the climb would miss out on the escorted tour of the base of the rock which included geological, historical and indigenous information.

    After we had digested this information, we were again asked how many of us planned to make the climb. This time, only about eight people put their hands up.

    The eight who did climb included a family with three extremely tubby children. They wanted to climb they said ‘to say they had done it’. At least two of the others quite explicitly stated they were climbing to assert their right to do so. Their implication was quite clear that this was a way of asserting themselves against aboriginal claims of sacredness.

    Based on recent personal observation, my reading of much of the blog and talkback objection to a ban on climbing is based on a similar need to trample on something symbolic of aboriginal claims.

  5. Evan Beaver

    I feel strangely unsure about this whole issue. While I agree that the rights of the landowners should be observed from a property law point of view, I think that simplifies the issue a little too much.

    Uluru is hardly a normal piece of property. Sure, the land owners consider it a sacred site, and to some degree this should be acknowledged. But, this point of view, when applied to other places, could lead to some perverse outcomes. Note that I probably wouldn’t climb it if I went there, but I would definitely like to.

    I’m treading warily here, so I’ll just make up a story and let you make up your own mind. I’m a rock climber, and find my spirituality in all the rocks of the world. I love climbing, it attaches me to the place that I am and makes me feel at peace with the world. Uluru, the biggest rock in the world, in a spectacular location, is an obvious place for me on my personal spiritual pilgrimage. Who decides whose spirituality is more important?

    It becomes even more slippery when you disagree with the fundamentals of Nationalism and ‘we were here first’ ideologies. Why break the planet up into mine and yours?

  6. John Winter

    Interestingly, I went to Uluru a couple of years back. It was explained tome at the Cultural Centre that being on the Rock is not an affront – what is an affront to the culture of the local landowners is people dying there (hasn’t happened since 1990) and people urinating in the waterholes (seriously).

    It was explained to me that the movement to close the Rock came more from well meaning non-locals than anything else.

    If this is true – and it was from the horses mouth – why shut it down? Let’s just show and perhaps even, enforce better behaviour.

    On the advice I got from Cultural Centre, I climbed the Rock and it was a breathtaking experience. I also, as part of that, spent many hours in the Culture Centre and interacting with the local community. I leant an enormous amount about the local culture and it was a fabulous, positive experience.

    A footnote to consider: take away the climb and tourism will plummet. The cost for that will be directly on the local tribe who gain directly from Park entrance.

    I hope a more pragmatic, but still completely respectful approach can be found

  7. John Ryan

    I have a very different view to one in the article. Let me say from the outset I am not a red neck and I believe in Aboriginal land rights. But there is a very significant difference between Uluru and the Australian War Memorial. One is a part of the built environment the other is a natural formation. No one in Australia would tolerate another group laying claim to a natural wonder and enforcing access requirements on others for of all things, religious reasons. Uluru belongs to all Australians and it can be shared by all Australians. Wanting to climb a reasonably accessible, ageless natural wonder like Uluru is a legitimate human ambition. Provided those who climb Uluru leave nothing but foot prints and take only photographs it is hard to see the harm regulated access might cause. I am sure that access can be maintained while respecting Aboriginal beliefs. Climbing religious icons and memorials it not prohibited in western culture. People are allowed to climb to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral in London for example. I suspect no one would object to people climbing the war memorial if it were safe and didn’t cause wear and tear on the building. In fact people can climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris which is a war memorial.

  8. James Bennett

    Hey Chris,

    I don’t think the Canberra memorial was built for climbing however the Flame of Rememberance in Brisbane is also spiritual to some has stairs and would welcome your effort.
    You can try pissing on the flame if you like, i don’t think it will change the way people think about the memorial.

  9. Evan Beaver

    John Ryan, I tend to agree. However the ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints’ horse has already bolted in this case. The climb has a hand rail and some other ‘aid’ already installed. But that becomes a murky ethical argument best left to climbing forums. Does the hand rail cause less damage than unfettered access? Anyway, just playing devil’s advocate.

  10. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    I wonder what John Ryan (who seems to exactly fit the example given of Canberra talk-back callers – “the rock is in Australia, so it should be accessible to all Australians”) means by “I believe in Aboriginal land rights”. Is that a religious concept, a western “cultural” belief, some whitefella legal thing or a “legitimate human ambition” – a dreaming?
    If the Pope (the one person in the world allowed to climb up the big podium inside St Peters at the Vatican) was at Uluru do you think he’d be asked to bless the thing? To smoke it or give it a holy watering? Of course not. It would be an insult to Christians to waste the water. Climbing a “reasonably accessible, ageless natural wonder” is nothing more than a dog humping someone’s leg. Kick ’em off. It’s “hard to see the harm”.

  11. David1

    Of course Greg Hunt is against a ban on climbing Uluru. He is a politician and he is scoring cheap political points yet again. It wouldn’t matter if it was owned by a group of banjo players from Snake Gully, if it was a chance to try and show the Govt up as mean, not in the natural interest, to hell with the owners of said rock. This weak,disjointed, ineffectual Opposition so far over the past month have produced a non existent email to try to bring down the Govt, given up voting in the Senate and dragged out a ute with a bill board on it. Mr Hunt should get a grip of himself, come down from cloud whatever and join the real world. His transperancy, bleating about Uluru shows he and his party as about as useful as the proverbial t..s on a bull.
    I’m surprised he hasn’t rushed off to Sky News and given the ineffectual interviewers there a few questions to ask him, so he can give the impression of looking and sounding important,which he isn’t. There is no doubt, politics of opportunity and convenience is alive and well in the Coaltion.Listen to Turnbull having a crack at Rudd over the incident in Shanghai in his bossy arogant manner, its another great example.

  12. ian lynch

    Having climbed Uluru,I would strongly recommend that visitors to the rock make the attempt. Uluru is a geological formation and belongs to the nation,not to any particular group.
    My only proviso is that a climber is fit enough to make the climb safely.Of course, as with all wonderful unique natural wonders,Uluru must be protected which could require careful supervision and maybe a limit on the number of climbers.
    Predictably,Peter Garrett for “ideological reasons” chose not to make the climb.He is the poorer for this choice.

  13. Andrew Kensy

    I think that everyone who wants to climb should try to examine their desires against the wishes of the traditional owners. Really, why do you want to climb a large rock to get a view of sand and cactus, maybe a bus and a kangaroo? Because it’s a challgenge, because it’s there to be done, it’s on hundred to do things before you die list? Because… have I missed anything?

    And weigh that against the wishes of a group of people who are constantly offended by this incessant thoughtless practice. There’s a difference between Uluru and the War Memorial because one’s a built object? I don’t think that’s the case. It’s beside and precisely the point at the same time; the original inhabitants do not have a built environment. They live within the environment, as part of the environment. They do not try to impose upon it, or improve upon it. Yes, this will get allegations of all sorts of hippiedom levelled against me, but how well have the technological societies done in living in our own world? Two centuries of indutrialization and we’ve trashed the place.

    So, don’t think about what you want and what the other guy wants, and why, and who’s right. Look at two options, and decide which one’s right.

  14. Jonathan Rochford

    Having recently visited Uluru I was greatly disappointed at their lack of disclosure about their desire for people not to climb prior to arrival at the National Park. The traditional owners clearly want people to come to the National Park and love the money it brings them, but then they don’t want to deliver on the specific thing many people have come to the Park to do. Sounds like a bait and switch to me!

  15. Chris Graham

    Well said Andrew Kensy.

    So Jonathan… did you climb?

  16. AR

    Leaving aside Goebells’ revolver & Kultur for a moment, try an old but gold analogy about white & black fella property rights. They’ve found unlimited gold/oil/uranium under St Mary’s or the Melbourne Club or even that strange rat nest tumulus in Canberra, how eager would the redneck loudmouth to dig it up for export..?
    Jes askin’

  17. Dez Hoy

    Thank you, Mr Graham, for articulating so well the reservations I (a non-aboriginal australian) have about climbing the rock. I am yet to visit Uluru, but when I do I will not climb it, simply out of respect to the traditional owners, and a belief that the principle of land rights generally is undermined anytime someone ignores or refuses a request by the land owner. As you infer, this principle also applies to “property rights”, which is so keenly upheld in traditional European justice systems. Don’t hold your breath ‘though, waiting for a ban to be implemented by legislation. The minister is now more of a shadow than when he was shadow minister, and the Rudd government will be more comfortable leaving it in the “too hard/too tricky” basket, knowing there are more votes to lose than to win on this.

    I am curious, however, as to why legislation is needed to ban the climb? Do land rights not give the owners this power? Mt Chincogan, a celebrated land mark (and, I believe, a traditional sacred site) near Mullumbimby, Northern NSW is on privately owned land and one must get approval from the owners to climb it, otherwise it is straight out trespass. What’s the difference between this mountain and Uluru?

  18. James Bennett

    So why not make it all the fellas who don’t want to do something out of respect for the caveman like beliefs of some mob – don’t do that thing which will culturally offend them.

    And the rest of us who think it’s a all a pile of recently concocted bullshit do what we feel may be culturally appropriate to ourselves.

    Does anyone else find it reasonably amusing/amazing that at the same time we are having scientific arguments about Global Warming we are giving credence/credibility to the ‘cultural beliefs’ of a race whose greatest achievement to date has been the recently aquired ability to invent ‘cultural beliefs’.( check Secret Women’s Business )

    Isn’t it an insult to suggest the majority of aboriginals really believe this crap , I actually thought most of them were christians ( which is really not much better)?

    Aren’t we really inferring backwardness on the entire race by accepting they have these ridiculous beliefs. Has anyone actually asked them if they are happy to be portrayed as cavemen ?

  19. Andrew Kensy

    I usually don’t indulge in personal attackes, but here I’ll make an exception. James Bennett, you’re an idiot.

  20. Bob the builder

    One point on money – very little of the money from tourism goes to the owners of Uluru and surrounding areas, so I don’t see that losing tourists would have much effect. That’s a story we need – the lack of benefit to the owners of Uluru, living in poverty and powerlessness while strangers make squillions from their country.
    On the subject of country, the owners of this piece of country (and indeed the rest of Australia) never actually gave up their land tenure – the powerful (the English) just decided that they were the legal owners (arguably in contradiction of their own legal tradition). The many Indigenous people I know in the NT don’t accept the justice of white claims to land ownership, although they may accept the reality of the present situation and look for ways to accommodate everyone’s interests. Asking for some respect on the land they’ve lived on (according to non-Indigenous knowledge) for many multiples of the existence of western civilisation’s existence shouldn’t be too much to ask.

  21. Chris Graham

    Well said again Andrew Kensey…

  22. James Bennett

    Hey Chris ,

    Thanks for the effort but don’t forget people also go to the rock because it is a unique natural feature not just because some dopey black fellas say there are ghosts on it.

    People do lots of things because it’s fun Chris and i know you think we should all be serious about things you say are important but are you sure the Great Rock Spirits wouldn’t enjoy a few smiling faces clambering up her sides, pissing off her edges and maybe f**king in her sheltered bits. Who knows?

    If the abo religion is anything like the white ones then there can be plenty of interpretations of the word of god and as i said, are you really sure most aboriginals actually believe this rubbish ?


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