I sat and watched, troubled, as the line of tourists marched along the chain, up to the top, then back down the same way. There’s an inherent, generally harmless, futility in the human urge to climb things, but the fact that so many people, particularly Australians, have no compunction about climbing Uluru is, for me, a phenomenon infused with ennui.
From the widescreen vantage point behind the steering wheel of my bus parked at the base of Uluru, a similar tawdry scene would play out before me for many years to come. Shifting tides of cars and buses would ebb and flow around my quiet and fly-free little sanctuary. People would scuffle past looking for somewhere to empty their bladders, asking their tour guide if they’d need water (always); shoes (of course); a camera (dunno — do you want to take pictures?) or a jumper (shit — should we just ring your mum?) Eventually they’d either climb up Uluru or head off on the roughly three-hour walk around its base.
The climbers always had a bit of theatre to go through.
If Kevin Rudd’s apology was the low-hanging fruit of reconciliation politics, the closing of the Uluru climb is ripe for picking.
We all do things we know are bad — either bad for us, bad for some other poor sod or perhaps even bad for society in some way. We drive like reckless idiots, eat bad food, drink too much or too often and we buy shoes, cars and countless other goods that almost certainly required the exploitation of more than a few hapless individuals before coming into our possession.
We justify these behaviours to ourselves in one way or another. Generally, the degree to which we’re aware of the ramifications of our choices is in inverse proportion to the ease with which we can rationalise them. At the base of Uluru there is a single gate allowing access to the climbing route to the top. To get through that gate you have to walk past a wall of signage with the same information written out in sextuplicate, each time in a different language. On each panel the language is similarly polite. To paraphrase the precise wording: Anangu (the traditional owners) don’t climb Uluru. This is a very special sacred place for Anangu. Anangu request that you choose not to climb also.
No prohibitions. No fist-shaking. No threats of any consequences whatsoever. Just a polite request that you don’t climb — both for your safety and Anangu peace of mind. For many, it’s the big, red “Do not press” button they just can’t resist.
There can be few people who arrive at the base of the climb without already being aware of the Anangu wish for people to shun climbing. It’s prominently featured on the walls and signs in the information centre at Yulara where every tourist stays. It’s on the walls at the Cultural Centre inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (UKTNP) before you reach Uluru. It’s written on the ticket that you have to buy at the entry station and it is written on the detailed visitor guide that you receive when you buy that ticket. If they’re doing their job properly, it will also have been related to every visitor by their tour guide, long before they reach the car park.
It may not be on the tips of the tongues of the international travel agents selling people Red Centre holiday packages, but somewhere between boarding a plane and getting all the way out to Uluru the news will have reached most ears: the traditional owners would like people to stop climbing Uluru.
For some, perhaps it’s the politeness of the request that throws them. We’re used to signs telling us things in definite terms — stop, keep left, no smoking. The situation at Uluru hands the choice back to the reader: walk around Uluru if you’d like to respect the wishes of Aboriginal custodians or, alternatively, gratify your own desire to climb up and disregard this polite request from your hosts altogether. Please yourself.
Some would scurry back for furtive clarifying chats with their tour guide. Some would pace along perusing each panel of the sign intently as if they actually spoke Mandarin, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Italian. Searching for a loophole. Others had clearly made their choice well in advance and marched directly from the bus, past the huddled groups still wrestling with the dilemma to commence their scramble up the gentlest slope of the old inselberg.
But the glorious indifference of the sign at the base of the Uluru climb leaves no wiggle room for climbers to rationalise their choice. It’s a wonderfully binary proposition and any attempt to argue shades of grey into the picture can be easily refuted with any number of obvious analogies and thought experiments. At mosques, synagogues and chapels around the world, there are entreaties and expectations regarding decorous behaviour, respectful reverence and various clothing prohibitions or stipulations. At most of these places, such conditions are not optional and, if it came to it, would be enforced. But what if they weren’t?
Surely a reasonable person wouldn’t kick a football around in a church or wear dirty shoes in a mosque, would they?
My itinerary always brought me to the Mala car park (where the climb begins) straight after sunrise. I’d walk along the base of Uluru with my guests for the first hour, providing them with interpretive ditties on local flora and fauna, Anangu customs and, of course, the rock itself. After the first hour I’d leave them so they could follow the path around the rest of the base walk at their own pace and without me talking at them. More importantly, this meant I could go back to the bus, eat an orange in peace and maybe grab 40 winks. Bliss. This was how I came to have a front-row seat for all this climb nonsense a few times a week, for five years.
Of course, some of my guests would double back to climb up Uluru if it was open. UKTNP regulations require that tour guides inform guests of the desire of Anangu traditional owners that their wishes be respected and guests choose to not climb Uluru. This was something I took seriously and I always went out of my way to help people understand all the relevant issues, but I had a wildly varied success rate. Even so, averaged over five years I’d say fewer than 10% of my passengers chose to climb Uluru.
Notably though, my success rate with Australian passengers was lower. Ask a red centre tour guide: you can’t tell Australians anything. During school holidays we would always get a lot of school trips; of the ones I guided, 100% of students climbed up Uluru, along with most of their teachers. Many had decided even before they departed school grounds that it would be the crowning achievement of the trip, the main reason for going.
Many groups arrived with “Top of the Rock” team T-shirts all ready for the occasion. Even when I worked through the teachers to try and suggest that the base walk was a better and more culturally sensitive choice, I was just spinning my wheels. Apparently, the “teachable moment” was not yet a thing.
It preoccupied me at the time and I still think about it whenever the topic pops up in the media …
*Read the rest at The Northern Myth