An eruption of public sentiment followed the recent decision by the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Management Committee to ban climbing on the rock by 2019. Home to Anangu people, Uluru might be the symbolic heart of Australia, but symbols, even national ones, mean different things to different people. In 2014, my mother, brother and I piled into a camper and cut straight down the guts of the country, from Darwin, through Kakadu to Uluru. A reunion of sorts, it was the first time we’d travelled together in many years, and for us it represented something major: our little family getting back on track, after a few years of small hardships and emotional distances. When the rock comes into view it is an extraordinary sight. It rises out of flat land, big and red and ancient, and is never disappointing.
Uluru was handed back to the traditional owners of the land, the Anangu people, in 1985, but in exchange for the freehold title, the Anangu signed over a 99-year lease to Parks and Wildlife. A joint board of management was set up, with members representing both parties.
At the base of Uluru, there is a sign explaining the stance of the traditional owners regarding the climb. It reads:
Please don’t climb Uluru.
Our traditional Law teaches us the proper way to behave. We ask you to respect our Law by not climbing Uluru.
What visitors call ‘the climb’ is the traditional root taken by ancestral Mala men upon their arrival at Uluru in the creation time. It has great spiritual significance…
Still, there is a starting point, and a chain that scales a ridgeline, running to the summit of the rock. An entrepreneur, without the consent of the local people, erected the chain in the 1960s.
It has been suggested that Uluru, amongst other things, is a symbol of reconciliation in Australia. It is certainly a cherished and revered place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. When I was there, watching visitors time and again read the sign at the base of the rock and then continue across the threshold, it felt like a symbol of something else: of our historic and continuing disrespect for the first peoples of this country, of a shoddy version of reconciliation.
In coming years, the climbing at Uluru will cease. The climb has been an enduring source of hurt for the Anangu people, and they welcome the agreement towards closure. But other Australians were upset by the decision. According to a qualitative study by Hannah Hueneke, the climb is understood as a right of passage, and the rock itself – a natural feature of the landscape – as belonging to all Australians. For many, the decision to climb or not should remain with the individual.
Why are we so enthralled by the climb, I wonder? What’s this obsession with elevation? Why do we long to look down at the land from great heights?
Perhaps this is a very old hang up. An obsession we’ve been holding onto since the days of Sturt, Eyre and Grey. To understand the place of this particular obsession in the modern psyche, it might warrant looking back through history and tracing the impact of colonial language on the discourses that shape our worldview today.
In a seminal article published in the Southern Review back in 1994, scholar Simon Ryan argues that the pleasure gained from a good view is tied up in our desire for control over the perception of land. He looks at the journals of Australian exploration, and notes the way in which explorers consistently congratulate themselves on ‘commanding an extensive view’.
If we look closely at the language used, the strong militant connotations, say, of the word ‘command’, we might draw connections to something bigger. The view, Ryan suggests, ‘is brought under control by the explorative gaze. But the control of the view is also a kind of ownership.’
In a similar vain, when William Goss arrived at Uluru in 1873, he wrote: ‘I succeeded in reaching the summit, and had a view that repaid me for my trouble.’ Goss gained a view across the land he was mapping out, thereby bringing order to the sprawling desert-scape before him, and thus began the fraught history of climbing on the rock.
No doubt there is immense satisfaction and elation in making it to the summit of a high peak, to look over the land, to take in its immeasurable beauty, to take stock in the distance travelled. At Uluru, the experience is heightened by the surrounding landscape: here you are at the very heart of the outback. This Is Australia. You Are Australian. By climbing we wish to locate ourselves within this iconic space, to know our country and thus belong to it. But isn’t it also an act of colonial conquest? For when we climb Uluru, we trace the footsteps of the white fellas who came before us, who, with their ink and parchment and calculations, sought to control, ‘civilise’ and thereby possess Australia’s wild heartland?
This culture of control over land is deeply entrenched in the Australian psyche. It influences the way we understand ourselves in the world, on the way we see nature as separate to culture, and thus impacts on the decisions we make to put our own immediate needs before the health of the planet.
The battle over Uluru might be indicative of a much larger issue. Today, the same fears and emotions expressed thirty years ago during the handback have resurfaced: the fear that sacred sights everywhere might become off-limits, and the incongruity of the idea that Aussies should be guests in their own backyard. The real question here might not be, to climb or not to climb, but rather, as Kurt Brereton wrote then, ‘who owns the rock, and therefore who owns Australia?’ And herein lies the conflict at the heart of an unsettled nation.
My family trip to Uluru symbolised reconciliation on a tiny scale. On Mum’s fiftieth birthday we walked the perimeter of the rock and listened to an Anungu man tell the stories of his region. Later, we had a beer on the side of the road as the sun went down, the ochre dome of Uluru exploding from the line of horizon. We felt the tenuous connections between us grow stronger and healthier.
While I wouldn’t call myself a spiritual person, for me, the rock had a healing quality. When the chain on Uluru comes down in 2019, perhaps this will be a small step forward in a new era of reconciliation.
Image: Climbing Uluru / flickr