Climb Uluru! Before its too late

Hidden in the Australian outback, a single monolithic formation rises from the sun-scorched lands. Uluru, as it has come to be known, is a natural Arkose structure that formed 500 to 600 million years ago. This marvel of the Australian outbackis a key selling point for the region, drawing in some 200,000 travellers a year from around the world.

From a distance, Uluru draws and holds your attention. As you creep ever closer, the distinguishing features of this marvel only continues to evoke awe. At its base, a variety of indigenous objects can be found. While unique and interesting most people are there for one reason – to climb Uluru.

An unimpeded, 360-degree view of the lands stretching off to the horizon can be found at the top of Uluru. Complemented by feelings of peacefulness and spirituality that flow organically out of this region’s minimalistic beauty.

The climb is definitely one for the bucket list. There’s just one issue.

They are closing the walk!

That’s right! As of the 26thOctober 2019, it will be illegal to scale the peak of Uluru or even set foot on the loosely defined boarders of the rock. This decision was approved after the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board, comprised of 12 members, voted unanimously to close the walk.

As can be imagined this has been met with a great amount of support from people praising it as a step in the right direction towards equality, but also criticised by others believing it to be irrational and discriminatory. I lean more on the side of the latter group.

So, why are they closing it?

Amidst several reasons given for the walks closure, two main ones stand out.

Firstly, there have been at least 35 fatalities, largely from heart attacks, on the walk. The apparent danger of this walk is one reason for its requested closure – this is the argument put forward by the ‘traditional owners’ of Uluru.

While occasionally sited as a reason to close the walk, many tend to avoid this argument, likely through acknowledgement of its blatant unperceptiveness; any death is tragic, but those who put themselves in positions that lead to an especially heightened chance of mortality do so in complete recognition of this risk.

You could argue that this decision is not entirely restricted to the individual because their death or injury may have an emotional effect on their family and a financial burden on the services, such as a paramedic, that are required to travel to their location to help them. But, again, this should not be used as the basis to close the walk.

If such reasoning is used for closing the walk, then the feeling of enjoyment, pleasure and/or satisfaction that is gained by the 10’s of millions of people whom have climbed the walk without any issue and the millions of dollars they have poured into the local economy must be acknowledged in conjunction. Personally, 35 does not seem all that terrible when you consider the vast amount of people who have completed the walk without issue.

All around the world certain acts, such as swimming in the ocean or hiking up mountains or exploring caves, present a heighted level of risk to those who choose to participate in them instead of other acts, such as relaxing at home or reading a book. Those who choose to participate in them are aware of these risks, but choose to participate in them anyway.

Some entity claiming power does not have the ethical right to nullify a decision made by someone who has the capacity to rationally analyse a situation and determine what course theywant to take, insofar as this decision does not cause pain or any discomforting feeling to another – I will address the emotional pain felt by the indigenous people in a later section. To remove this option from the individual on the basis of it presenting that which they have already determined to pursue is to remove the very basis of self-determination.


Uluru is situated in a scorching desert

Flickr: Cedric Quidet

The second, and far more rational, argument concerns the local Anangu people. To them, scaling the rock is an act of disrespect to their culture and contributes to the deterioration of the area. The ban is an attempt to solidify the Anangu’s cultural heritage and ensure the upkeep of Uluru for current and future generations. The basis of this argument is superficially solid and emotionally provocative. However, it is not entirely impermeable and, for this reason, some people have taken issue with the ban.

Despite the overwhelming majority of media sites praising this ban, you would be hard-pressed to find a group of people who unanimously agree on the decision. Simply by scrolling down to the comment sections of these news reports, a contrast of opinions and opposition is evident. The jury is clearly not out on this decision, despite 12 like-minded people coming to the verdict to close the walk. In one way or another, the following paragraphs are all related to the second argument.

Tourists are destroying the national icon!

Uluru has experienced steady and continuous deterioration at the hands of tourists for many years now. Somechoose to litter the peak with their trash and/or defecate in the area. The build-up of this waste has had a noticeable effect, to the point that you cannot complete the walk without coming across at least a few pieces of trash and even the odd turd.

It is hard not to side with the local people who are fed up with this kind of act occurring on a place of such high importance to them. I am sure anyone would agree that the avoidable deterioration of an area by immature behaviour is unacceptable. But, the bad actions of a few should not outweigh the good actions of the many. The walk does require stricter regulation and greater penalties for those that contribute to Uluru’s deterioration, but an outright ban over such an issue is a step too far – the common census appears to be that most people support stricter penalties for those that pollute in such a way.

Uluru White Trail

A visible white trail has been worn into the face of Uluru from climbers.

Flickr: Shikosabu

The decision was exclusive and did not engage the community!

 It is hard to imagine that the board who made this decision are impartial when all of its members are delegates of the Anangu. They are not going to support the continued climbing of Uluru when those who appoint them deem such an act disrespectful.

Do not get me wrong here. It is a large and welcome step forward that such a role can be filled by people of differing backgrounds despite the continuing issues around race relations in Australia. However, one can be an avid supporter of racial inclusion and equality, but question the practicality of appointing people to a position based on the degree of their relationship to Anangu people rather than their merit.

It is their views, not mine

In its simplest form, this is an issue of beliefs. The indigenous people of the area believe that they are forbidden from stepping foot on Uluru apart from special circumstance. This is a specific tenet of their spiritual beliefs. But, just as so many other religious and spiritual belief systems have their own values and tenets it is impossible for everyone to value said thing similarly or abide by the customs of one prescribed belief system. Not everyone will where a specific piece of clothing, not everyone will avoid pork, or gather in a specific place on certain days et cetera.

While there is some exception to this, few of these belief systems force others to abide by their beliefs. Non-believers are not forced to go to church every Sunday. Non-Hindus are not punished for eating beef, just as non-Muslims are not forbidden from eating pork. Are the beliefs surrounding Uluru not the same?

Regardless of whether it’s your view or not, it is now legally recognised as their property. As such they are well within their rights to forbid people from climbing it. Just as the ownership of a house gives you the legal right to forbid people from entering said area. Unfortunately, this means that the only way to protest this change, as of 2019, will be with posts such as this.

Land ownership is a claim, not an imperative!

 One of the many tenants unique to the indigenous people of Australia is there belief that you cannot own land. We are creatures of the planet; the earth is not some dead thing you can claim, as in the common Europocentric view. Despite this being one of their hardest tenants to maintain in an increasingly capitalist world, I would argue that it is one of the many that they should seek to maintain, despite doing a backflip on it in this case.

There is something beautiful in knowing that an area is not owned by anyone. No one has put a claim to it and there is no one attempting to develop it. A true wilderness. There are very few, arguably no places like this left in the world. This is a terrible thing in my eyes. I would strongly support the decision of Indigenous people to maintain an area exclusive of ownership, if such a claim were to be made, and oppose anyone who sought to impose their own claim on that area.

A common argument that has come out in opposition to the claim of land ownership is that Uluru is a natural icon formed millions of years before humans even came in to existence and, therefore, no one can claim it. While this is an argument that ultimately supports my end goal of the continuation of climbing on Uluru, I had to address this argument in opposition because this line of thought seems nonsensical and hypocritical.

Everything was natural before someone put a claim to it. The tiny rocks crushed to make way for roads and buildings may very well be remnants from the earths creation, but more likely 10’s and 100’s of millions of years old. The site of New York was natural, likely hosting a great menagerie of trees and animals that were cleared to make way for a mega city. Despite it being natural before someone claimed ownership, restrictions on access to the buildings exist and no one opposes this. (You could question the whole integrity and ethics of human fabricated claims to the Earth that allow one to have sole property rights over another and I would happily argue against such claims. But, that is a topic requiring more extensive work, so I will leave it with just an acknowledgement for now).


An aerial shot of Uluru protruding from a barren landscape

Flickr: Paul Johnson

It is about respect

As the traditional custodians of the land, there is a special connection to Uluru felt by the Anangu. Many people do not share this connection, but they should respect the views of the Anangu and honour their request not to climb Uluru.

As a society in which so many people are pushing for racial equality and inclusion, it is hard to see where such views of exclusion can remain. A dark shadow still looms over Australia, lingering from the times of European colonialism. But, opposition to this ban is not a remnant of European imperialism or appropriation. Instead it is a recognition of an inclusive society where certain groups are not given preference over others.

Unfortunately, there are still disparities between the lives of indigenous people and non-indigenous people in regard to wealth, education and health, and these issues need to be overcome. But, by allowing the beliefs of religious superstition to outweigh the beliefs or lack of beliefs of others in Australia, you only further contribute to the divide and draw controversy.

For an alternative option, the Anangu people should be given legal power and recognition of their cultural linkage to the site, while others are allowed to visit at their own discretion with increased regulation and greater penalties. A middle-ground would heed greater success than a complete ban.

Uluru does not need to be developed to reduce risk

 With continued talks of the danger of the walk, there are those who have proposed that the area be fitted-out with increased safety mechanisms to mitigate this risk. I would argue against this. Just like many potentially dangerous acts, people are aware of the risks and make the decision whether or not they are willing to take that risk. If people choose to scale a rocky face in the middle of a hail storm or hike up a peak on a blistering hot day, they alone own that decision – as mentioned above, I am all for self-determination.

By developing Uluru, you remove the thing about it that makes it special. Its naturalness. It is renowned as a naturalland mark. People come from far and wide to see a naturalwonder. A place untouched by man – sort of – that is purely developed of this earth. An area filled with signs, gates, handrails and guardrails seems to take this away from the areas beauty. There is only so many things that you can do to an area before the naturalness starts to fade and you are replaced with something more akin to human development.

As far as I am concerned, there is no difference between a piece of rubbish and a great human-built structure permanently protruding from the icon; visible year-round, can be seen from a great distance and is, overall, far more impacting on the aesthetics of the area than the waste of a few people. If keeping Uluru open means that is going to become the next recreational playground destroyed by developers and policy makers, even I will be siding with the Anangu ban.

Is there reason to take issue with this ban?

Yes. There are many reasons to take issues with this ban. The plan is not perfect. It needs to be critiqued so it can improve. You should not feel intimidated if you do not fully support the ban or feel that you are irrational or racist or insensitive if you decide to climb Uluru, despite what some people may say or call you.

No matter what side you take there will always be someone calling you wrong. A common thread with issues of such a nature is that our rational judgement of a controversy tends to be obscured by a strawman-like argument where anyone who opposes this ban is branded as a racist or insensitive or something of the like, rather than recognising them as someone who is sceptical about the rationality of the ban.

This has not been my regular kind of post, but it was a topic that I wanted to put my opinion on, despite knowing that it might be controversial and, unfortunately, result in the loss of some readers.

Now that you have read to the end of this article and have, at the least, a basic understanding of some of the different opinions on the topic, I leave you with one final question:

Will you be climbing Uluru?

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