Ayers Rock: Closing the Climb

The climbing of Uluru / Ayers Rock was be banned for "cultural reasons" on October 26, 2019. The traditional owners, the Anangu people, say that the climbing of the rock is offensive to them. It is a men’s sacred area. However, apart from it being part of the Tjukurpa, or Dreamtime folklore, they cannot elaborate further as to why climbing is considered so offensive. If asked "they can’t tell you, except to say it has been closed for cultural reasons" (Sammy Wilson, chairman of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board).

The motivation for banning climbers is thus the somewhat secret religious beliefs of the Anangu men. While there are many reasons why we may feel sympathy with the views of the local Aboriginal people of Uluru, is it really fair that their religious beliefs (Tjukurpa) should be imposed on everyone else? It does not appear that the climb, as a rule, prevents them from practicing their beliefs. So how far should their desire not to be offended go?

It is not hard to see why such an iconic geological feature would be considered to have traditional significance. The Rock is such a majestic edifice. What we do know, from the cultural information available, is that as part of the Aboriginal creation mythology, in the Dreamtime, the Anangu men descended from the Rock. Also that "according to Tjukurpa lore, the climbing path intersects with the path Kuniya the sand python travelled." Crossing this causes "sadness and distress" to the traditional owners.

On visiting the Cultural Centre at Uluru (there is no Visitor Centre), there is a wealth of information provided on the Aboriginal cultural and religious aspects of the Rock. It is said every cave and crevice in the Rock can provide moral guidance according to the Anangu religion. There is also some information available on the geological origins of the Rock, but these are qualified by the comment that "the Aboriginal people have an alternative explanation". The impression given is that the Aboriginal mythological explanations are equally valid or even superior to scientific ones.

The Dreamtime stories may seem like a harmless set of quaint creation stories and morality tales, using native animals instead of vengeful gods. But they are taken seriously and believed to be literally true by the Anangu. This is indicated in a statement made by the former chairman of the Park Management board, Sammy Wilson. Explaining the shape of a particular rock formation to the BBC Wilson said “our ancestors are literally set in stone”.  In the same documentary a little girl said that she could not go on the Rock because “ it will make us sick if we step on the dreaming".

So, in accepting that Uluru is sacred, we are endorsing a fundamentalist creationist ideology. We should also note that both the mythology and the practices are highly gender-specific. There is no gender equality in this culture. The adherence to the religion explains why, in the tourist information available, the geology of the Rock is downplayed in favour of the cultural creationist mythology.

To illustrate the imbalance, in the Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park Management Plan 2010 – 2020, the word "cultural" is used 335 times. By contrast, the word "geological" is used only 11 times, and the first of these is to explain that the Anangu do not refer to geological explanations. While religion and culture are different things, in this case is probably fair to say that most of the references to culture also have a religious significance to the Anangu.

The effect of the emphasis on culture and religion is to downplay the geological significance of the site. In fact, the Rock is the remnant of layers of eroded granite, 2.5 km thick, laid down about 500 million years ago. The layers which now form the Rock were tilted from horizontal to vertical about 300 million years ago, during the Alice Springs Orogeny. The Rock, the world’s biggest monolith, penetrates possibly six kilometres into the ground. There is surely nothing else in the world like that. The Rock has global geological significance.

There is a Fact Sheet on the geology at the Cultural Centre at Uluru (one of twenty one Fact Sheets). There is also some mention of geology in the video display. But there is no mention of the geological history in the context of continental drift, of the supercontinents of Gondwana or Pangea, of which the land would have been part at the time, and no mention of the known climatic phases which transpired and which may be relevant.

It is not stated whether the layers of the rock, that we now see as vertical, increase in age from east to west, or west to east, as we move across the Rock. Moreover there is no attempt to explain or graphically represent, how a rock 6 km long and 2.5 km high, came to be rotated by 90 degrees. The Aboriginal mythology is interesting, but surely not as relevant and interesting as this*.

Australia is the oldest continent on earth. Mountains have been eroded to dust and gravel, then re-formed into rock, which has then itself been eroded and exposed. The time scale is mind boggling. This is Ayers Rock. It is the science of the Rock that makes it truly awe-inspiring. Yet most visitors probably remain oblivious to this.

Why is it that the Aboriginal mythology is given such authority? No doubt an aspect of this is related to a sense of guilt over past mistreatment of Aborigines, including at Uluru. They were unfairly forced from the land. We do need to expunge all manifestations of racism. It is important that all aspects of Aboriginal culture be studied and preserved for posterity. But the climbing of the Rock does not threaten this. Nor does it prevent the practice of the Aboriginal religion. In past decades, climbing the Rock was not considered an issue. Climbing the Rock is not "racist".

Apart from the religious sensitivities, the other reasons given for the closure of the climb seem spurious. It is not plausible that human footprints pose a serious damage to the 500 million year old Rock. The rock is incredibly hard. Over the decades, seven million people have climbed the Rock, without any major impact. Any minor effects could be easily repaired. If safety issues are such a concern then measures could be taken to increase safety. If littering is such problem then it could be addressed, and cleaned up. If climbing is to be deterred, then a charge could be introduced to climb, the revenue from which could be used to address the other issues.

The claim that less than 20 percent of visitors climb the Rock seems doubtful. Many who want to climb are dissuaded or prevented because the climb is closed due to the weather conditions. Over decades, some people have died on the climb. If that is sufficient reason to ban it then countless other public places where people have died should have prohibited entry. We should just manage the risk. Why not build a chairlift? It could be done on the northeast side without affecting the sunrise or sunset views.

The Rock is in a National Park and should therefore belong to all the people of Australia. By enabling a small minority to have veto rights over the climb, the rights all Australians are infringed. Uluru is a World Heritage site. Visitors from all over the world are also denied their rights.

The Parks Australia Fact Sheet on World Heritage is instructive. It says that the listing "confirms the validity of Tjukurpa". Validity? This highlights a serious problem. We are apparently now officially no longer able to distinguish between myth and reality. All societies have their traditional creation myths. None have any scientific validity. They are not "valid". Other creation myths are not elevated to such official status.

By giving official sanction to Aboriginal religious and superstitious beliefs, we are violating basic tenets of reason, rationality and secularism. It is not a question of instead imposing "western values". Being able to distinguish fact from fiction is an essential aspiration, on which all we all depend, and on which all human progress relies. Despite what relativists may claim, scientific knowledge is universal, not culturally specific.

These issues of authenticity and truth have great relevance to the failure of government Aboriginal policy in Australia over many decades, including at Uluru. Aboriginal communities suffer significant economic and social disadvantages, such that we still seek to "close the gap". Why is the issue so intractable?

Aboriginal culture is superbly adapted to survival in a harsh and dry environment. Cultural knowledge, stored in songlines and verbally transmitted, enabled success in the constant daily quest to provide sufficient food and water to stay alive. What happens to this traditional culture when food and water are provided, without the traditional effort required? How should practice of the culture then be regarded? The result is a reassertion of traditional beliefs. The cultural factors that may contribute to the perpetuation of disadvantage in Aboriginal communities are almost never discussed.

The definitive exposé of the situation is given in The Dystopia in the Desert: The Silent Culture of Australia’s remotest Aboriginal Communities, by Tadhgh Purtill. There exists a dystopian tripartite standoff between three entities: the Aboriginal communities, the agencies that service them, and the government. Each has their own mutually contradictory agenda, self-interest, and worldview: their own separate "truth".

A typical illustration of how this plays out is in reference to the term "empowerment". All agree it is a good thing. The government assumes it means developing capacity within the communities for economic and social advancement. After this is achieved, the "gap" will be closed, and the need for a high level of welfare support perhaps reduced. The Aboriginal communities tend to see welfare as an entitlement, and assume that their "empowerment" means their increased ability to practice their traditional culture without the necessity to abide by whitefella requirements. The service regime is in the middle, mostly well-meaning, but forced into expedience by often irresolvable dilemmas and is subject to moral hazard.

It is a difficult and somewhat intractable situation, with no easy solutions. But one thing Purtill is clear about: the denial, the turning of blind eyes to real issues, and the acceptance of mutually contradictory "truths" are the major contributors to the continuation of the "dystopia". A key aspect is the traditional resort to superstitious explanations, which inhibit proper accountability* . A society thoroughly wedded to ancient superstition cannot readily adapt to the requirements of modernity.

This is likely the reason that welfare and educational outcomes under the missionaries were often much better. The missionaries attempted to replace one set of fictitious myths with another set of fictitious myths, but at least they probably tried to discourage the more counterproductive superstitions. Now we do not. We encourage them.

The problem exists in mainstream society as well. Children should be taught about religions in schools but not indoctrinated or coerced into a religion. It does happen, it is detrimental to the child, but such is the power of organised religion. In remote Aboriginal communities however, the effects of cultivated superstitions may have more profound deleterious effects.

The systemic failure of government Aboriginal policy is now epitomised by the decision to accede to the request to close the Rock to access. The ban will be seen as a legitimate "empowerment" of the local Anangu. But the dystopian issues are relevant. The Anangu at Uluru live in at Mutitjulu.

It was the alleged sexual abuse of children Mutitjulu that let to the Northern Territory Intervention by John Howard in 2007. The police and army were sent in. The operation cost $587 million. The ABC’s Four Corners at the time found significant societal dysfunction at Mutitjulu, but no one was ever charged. Ten years afterwards, the community said that the intervention had left the men feeling hurt and that nothing much had changed.

Mutitjulu is home to about 300 people and is situated a few kilometers east of the Rock. Most visitors to Uluru would not know is it there. It is sign-posted but not listed on tourist maps. A permit is required to visit. It is in the name of these people that the climbing of the Rock is being prohibited.

The area around the Rock has been improved since the creation of the National Park and the move of tourism to Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort). But it is a very controlled environment. Accommodation is insufficient and there are no free camping areas indicated. The Rock can be looked at from the ground and photographed but the climb is the only way the Rock can be actually accessed.

The climb should not be banned. The Tjukurpa is not actually true. To pretend that it is true, does not benefit the Anangu. It divorces them from reality. The veneration of such superstitions is counter-productive and actually serves to perpetuate their relative disadvantage. Their disadvantage is not caused by visitors climbing the Rock and will not be improved by banning it.

To climb the Rock is a natural human aspiration. All human progress is based on striving to achieve aims. As with Everest, "because it is there" is sufficient justification. People should be free to achieve their goals. The views from the summit are extraordinary. The climb is an exhilarating physical experience. It is a low risk activity for fit and healthy people. It is the best way to fully appreciate the surrounding landscape, geology and geomorphology. To the visitor informed of the geology, the Rock is truly a source of inspiration, awe and wonder.

There is also a question of equity. We are denying the wishes of about a hundred thousand  people per year who would climb the Rock, which really does no harm to the Rock or to anyone, in favour of the spiritual perceptions of the maybe 300 people who live at Mutitjulu, a closed community. From the Rock, Mutitjulu could be seen in the distance. Now it existence will be unseen. Its people hopefully will not suffer any loss of potential benefits from tourism as a result of the closure. However the site is now less attractive, and its full tourist potential  has been neglected. This is a loss to the community and to Australia.

Yes, Aboriginal people have suffered mistreatment. But the climbers just want to have the physical experience of one of the world's greatest natural geological phenomena. To ban the climb is betrayal of these natural human aspirations, for hope, for achievement, for knowledge, for betterment. The ban is a betrayal of the courage and spirit of adventure of the early explorers and pioneers.

What does the ban say about Australia? We are already known as a country that denies the science of climate change. The ban now apparently indicates that we value superstition over science, that we prefer religion to reason, and that we have given up on the "fair go". Dear Parks Australia: wrong way, go back.

John L Perkins
0411 143744
The author made the 6000 km round trip to Ayers Rock in the September 2019 school holidays. Unfortunately at that time the climb was closed due to the weather conditions.

The Environmemnt Department website does provide more relevant information here.

* Purtill spent two and a half years as a staff member in a remote Aboriginal community in the Ngaanyatjarra region of Western Australia. An anecdote he recounts is the response when things go missing or get broken in the night. Community members, in all sincerity, blame the occurrences on visitations of a “night spirit”.