Tourism at Ayers Rock. Photo by Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images

The real tragedy of Ayers Rock

The ban on climbing Australia’s most famous landmark will do nothing to help the Aborigines it purports to protect

In early October, Australian newspapers and websites carried photographs of long queues of tourists slowly making their way up Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is now called. The photographs resembled those published around the world of the human traffic jam that brought climbers to a standstill near the summit of Mount Everest in May. In both cases, what was once a rare feat of human exertion had become a routine tourist adventure.

The Australian monolith, of course, has little else in common with Everest. Getting to its summit does not require any real climbing. It is more a hike up a very steep hill, now assisted by handrails on the difficult slopes. It is only 1,142 feet above its surrounding plain and, all up, its height is a mere 2,831 feet above sea level, one tenth of Everest.

The crowds went there because management of the national park that controls the site set a deadline of 26 October to impose its long-planned ban on climbing. Many Australians who had always imagined that “one day” they might do the climb saw it was now or never.

In a largely flat continent with few awe-inspiring geological features, the 500-million-year-old sandstone monolith has long been prized for its dramatic break with its surroundings. It is a spectacular sight, especially when it appears to change to a glowing red colour at dawn and sunset. Lying almost exactly in the centre of the continent, it has functioned as a symbolic heart of the nation. One former Governor-General, Ninian Stephen, put it well at a ceremony in 1985:

Today we stand not merely in the centre of our continent, at its very heart, but beside what has become one of our national symbols, what Aboriginal Australians know as Uluru and what the rest of us think of as Ayers Rock . . . [Its] great mass and stark contrast with the surrounding plain, and something far less tangible, the sense of awe and of wonder which they create, gives this area a very special significance to all Australians.

People of my ageing generation have also been fond of its name, a good example of the laconic understatement that once distinguished the local idiom. Calling something with a circumference of six miles a “rock” seemed very Australian to us. However, the name Ayers Rock (Ayer was a South Australian public servant who employed the surveyor who named it in 1873) is today officially in bad taste. Its Aboriginal name, Uluru, is now compulsory usage in media and government circles.

The ban on climbing derives from the now-dominant politics of identity and victimhood. The Uluru National Park managers claim the ban is an act of respect for the 296 members of the local Mutitjulu community, part of the Anangu people, for whom Uluru is supposedly a sacred site of great cultural and religious importance. The official guidebook tells tourists: “Due to cultural reasons Anangu do not climb Uluru.” Since 1990, signs posted around walking tracks have purported to give tourists the Aboriginal perspective:

The climb is not prohibited but we ask you to respect our law and culture by not climbing Uluru. We have a responsibility to teach and safeguard visitors to our land. The climb can be dangerous. Too many people have died while attempting to climb Uluru.

Since the announcement of the ban, several Anangu elders have said they are not only concerned about preserving their own culture but also the safety of their tourist visitors. They quote the national park’s claim that “at least 35 people have died while attempting to climb Uluru, and many others have been injured”. Tjimpuna Ruby, who calls herself Anangu Head of Nation, told The Australian one of her duties was:

to console the families of the tourists that were being stretchered down through rock rescue protocol and procedure, even talking with families and try to be strong myself in caring for their emotions.

However, as noted earlier, Ayers Rock is not Everest. The risks quoted for tourists are gross exaggerations. The 35 deaths is the total recorded since the 1940s when tourism began. In the 19 years of this century, the death toll has been just two, both heart attacks suffered by middle-aged men. Moreover, the cultural traditions the ban relies upon are a very recent invention. In fact, members of the Mutitjulu community have endorsed the climb as far back as living memory extends. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, they guided anthropologist Charles Mountford to the top of the rock and explained their beliefs about its creation by dreamtime spirits. Mountford recounted several of these myths in his 1965 book Ayers Rock, Its People, Their Beliefs and Their Art.

In 1946, the Lutheran layman Lou Borgelt climbed to the top with the help of two Aboriginal guides, Tiger Tjalkalyirri and Mitjenkeri Mick. A five-minute extract of Borgelt’s film of the venture can now be viewed on YouTube. As he stands on the little cairn of rocks on the summit, his guides congratulate him.

Derek Roff, a local park ranger from 1968 to 1985, says it was common for tourists to climb the rock, but Aboriginal elders never complained. As for the locals never climbing themselves, Roff said their culture obliged them to do so:

It was mainly the senior, traditional people who climbed, rather than everybody. But there was no doubt about it, that ceremonies were carried out in certain areas up there, that people did climb it.

In the 1970s, when an airstrip was made nearby and tourist accommodation upgraded, Roff consulted 35 elders about the increasing numbers climbing. They said they did not want climbing to stop, and only one site should be closed off, a cave once used for men’s initiation ceremonies. Roff made sure that the tourist path around the base of the rock steered walkers away from that cave.

Several other examples that disprove the current excuse for the climbing ban are recorded in a recent book by geologist Marc Hendrickx, A Guide to Climbing Ayers Rock. Hendrickx also records assurances given in 1983 by two Aboriginal regional bodies to the Hawke Labor government after it decided to give the Anangu people freehold title to the rock, in return for which they would give a perpetual lease to the Commonwealth government to create the national park. In response to objections that the ownership change would harm the tourist trade, the Hawke government said its own negotiations showed:

  • the Aboriginal people have always recognised the legitimate tourist interest in the national park;
  • they have consistently asserted that the park will always be available for the benefit of all Australians;
  • any rare and limited restrictions necessary for ceremonial purposes are likely to be confined to those sites already registered as sacred by the Northern Territory Government’s own Sacred Sites Authority (and already subject to restrictions);
  • basically for the visiting tourist it will be business as usual.

But that was then. In the decades since, the demands of Aboriginal politics have shifted dramatically. What began as an appeal to end racial discrimination and restore land rights lost in the expansion of the pastoral industry in the colonial era, has now morphed into a movement with increasingly radical demands. The British settlement of the continent is now labelled illegitimate on both moral and legal grounds. Aboriginal people don’t call themselves that any more. They prefer the adjective Indigenous, with a capital “I”, and describe their forbears not as members of clans or tribes but as the sovereign people of Indigenous nations, who were wrongfully dispossessed by the white invaders. They now constitute an identity group who demand special rights for themselves because their ancestors got here before everyone else.

In national politics, the principal demand is now for special recognition in the Australian Constitution of their status as the original owners of the continent. The many disparate groups that constitute the Aboriginal political class made this a collective aim at a conference in 2017, held for its symbolism at Uluru itself. Called the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”, it wants the constitution to guarantee self-government for the so-called indigenous nations — funded, of course, by the rest of us. Although this demand was rejected by the Turnbull government at the time because it involved the creation of a separate house of parliament exclusive to one race, it remains a live issue, with the full support of the Labor Party and the Greens. The ban on climbing Uluru is one more expression of this political demand. It might seem a small issue to outsiders but its symbolic clout will help sustain the wider movement by setting an example that others will want to emulate. In short, the ban on climbing is not about culture or religion: it is a little exercise in political power.

Beneath all this gamesmanship, however, lies a much darker story, which the Aboriginal political class rarely discuss: the ongoing disaster of Australia’s 1,100 remote Aboriginal communities. As the internationally-known economist Helen Hughes pointed out in her 2007 book Lands of Shame, Australia’s remote communities were created by the Homelands movement of the 1970s with the romantic goal of restoring Aboriginal culture and religion. The Homelands movement was not indigenous itself, but simply a copy of the same left-wing policies imposed upon indigenous people in Canada and the United States over much the same period and which are today being inflicted on the Amazonian tribes of Brazil.

In Australia, this agenda was nurtured by federal and state governments who built clusters of houses in remote locations, many of them former missions, and offered welfare payments to those who chose to live there. The result everywhere they were created, however, was poverty, degradation, substance abuse and ill-health. Today, the remote communities accommodate 20 per cent of the 700,000 people who identify as Aboriginal. The other 80 per cent progressively migrated to the capital cities, mainly Sydney and Brisbane, and the larger regional centres, where their lives today are much the same as those of other Australians.

Walkers rushed to climb Ayers Rock before the ban. Photo by Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images

The Mutitjulu community at Ayers Rock is a very typical remote community. The 1985 speech by Governor-General Ninian Stephen quoted earlier was given when he went there to hand over the title to the rock to the community’s elders. The gesture was designed to symbolise the authenticity of the transfer of ownership, but it was intended to have real economic consequences too. By then, Uluru had become one of Australia’s most popular tourist sites, with its resort-hotel-camping complex accommodating around half a million visitors a year. Its national park board offered the Mutitjulu community an annual share of all revenues, plus training and employment in the tourist industry. Everything seemed set for a good outcome.

By the turn of the century, however, the Mutitjulu community had become a symbol of a very different kind. Rather than solve all their problems, ownership of the site had compounded them. Instead of creating an Aboriginal economy, the revenue from the national park was treated as “sit-down money”, an effortless form of handout. The local tourist industry was not to their taste. Of the 800 people employed at the five hotels and camping ground at nearby Ayers Rock Resort, not one of them was Aboriginal, despite longstanding efforts by the resort’s managers to recruit them.

Some 70 per cent of adults at Mutitjulu lived on welfare and two-thirds of their income was passively derived. The few who had jobs were employed part-time as guides for the national park, telling stories to visitors. All housing maintenance and building was done by outside contractors. A report by a socialworker in 2005 observed that, even though the funding paid for two local schools, the children had no incentive to study or even attend. “There is no need to study hard to get a job,” the report said, “because people are guaranteed welfare payments or can exert demanding pressures on family members for money and other resources.”

Part of the Mutitjulu problem has always been that, like other remote places its size, it is an artificial community which accommodates people from three separate Anangu tribal groups — Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra — who each speak their own language and who are each loyal to their own group and its hierarchies rather than to the community as a whole. The result is that disputes are many and hostility abounds. When Tjimpuna Ruby told reporters she was Anangu Head of Nation, others at Mutitjulu laughed aloud and said that title existed only on a Facebook page.

The desire of the park board to respect and preserve the local culture and religion is equally artificial. The anthropologist and missionary Ted Strehlow, author of the classic study Songs of Central Australia, recorded in his field diaries in the 1930s that young Aboriginal men and women were no longer interested in preserving traditional Aboriginal ways. They moved to where the white cattle stations were being established, where they were employed as stockmen and domestic servants. The old initiated men lamented that none of them had sons or grandsons responsible enough to be trusted with the secrets of their sacred objects, chants and ceremonies.

The most distinguished of the Northern Territory anthropologists, Bill Stanner, agreed. By the 1930s, what he once called the traditional High Culture had become obsolete, even among the strongest of the clans. Stanner described the remnants as a “low culture” — some secular ceremonies, magical practices and mundane institutions — in contrast to the rigour and profundity of the traditional society’s high culture, which had been subject to a number of attempts at revival, all of which failed.

Liberal access to alcohol wreaked social havoc too. The Mutitjulu community has been progressively overwhelmed by alcoholism, coupled with violence of all kinds, especially domestic violence and child sexual abuse. In 2004, the chief minister for the Northern Territory said Mutitjulu suffered widespread “social dysfunction” including chemical addiction, malnutrition, sexual abuse, child prostitution and neglect. In 2005, a coroner’s court investigating the deaths of two Mutitjulu youths from petrol sniffing was told that young girls in the community regularly prostituted themselves for petrol.

A report commissioned in 2007 by the Northern Territory government, Little Children Are Sacred, by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, found child abuse occurred in every one of the 45 remote communities it visited. In response, the Howard federal government launched a series of dramatic interventions into remote communities in the Territory, banning alcohol, quarantining welfare payments, sacking failed administrators and jailing Aboriginal paedophiles. The first community the police and army targeted was Mutitjulu.

In response, the urban, university-educated Aboriginal political class and its white mentors denounced the Howard government as racist and offered instead their own programme of self-management and local sovereignty as the solution.

In other words, the underlying problem in this issue is not the frustration of visitors who have missed out on climbing the rock, nor the damage to the local tourist industry which the ban is very likely to do. It is the political strategy of urban intellectuals and bureaucrats of trying to impose on the site a culture that exists only in their own romantic political fantasies, while at the same time giving the finger to anyone who dares to object. The real victims of this failed 40-year social experiment are its Aboriginal subjects. They constitute the real tragedy beneath Ayers Rock.

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