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Australia

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.

Chris Graham

Tracker managing editor

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”.