Why I Climbed Uluru Yesterday

My Attempt at Resolving Mismatched Narratives

Key points

  • Respecting the sacredness of Uluru to the Anangu people is the main publicised reason for advocating against climbing.
  • The principle of protecting religious freedoms, on the other hand, should not require that we all treat everyone else’s sacred items as sacred to ourselves. We don’t all hold each other’s beliefs simultaneously. Rather, each should be free to worship what we each regard as sacred as we each choose individually, without infringing on anyone else’s rights while so doing.
  • There is an underlying issue of land rights and ownership, for which there are no simple answers. To boil it down to a simple question of whether tourists should be allowed to climb Uluru risks reducing a complex issue down to symbolic tokenism without actually meaningfully contributing to reconciliation for our first nations people.
  • There are real human safety risks that do actually mean that the climb as it is being conducted now is not ideally suited for the present or future. This is at the forefront of the justification for closing the climb according to the Park Rangers with whom I spoke.
Hundreds of tourists climbing Uluru

After three days staying at Yulara and exploring lots of enthralling walking tracks and activities in and around the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, the weather cleared and the climb opened. My wife and I took turns climbing Uluru while the other one looked after our young children. It almost didn’t work out for us to be able to do it, but just hours before our departing flight and a month before the scheduled permanent closure of the climb, we scratched this controversial item off our bucket lists.

Now, lots of my friends will think that climbing Uluru is the wrong thing to do. I hear you: I too can see plenty of good reasons to close the climb. Here I outline why I chose to climb it. Not so much to justify my decision – many would say that nothing could justify it – but to highlight and challenge some complex and conflicting narratives.

First, let’s examine the stated reason for the requests not to climb prominently displayed on signs around the site:

‘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 route taken by our traditional Mala men on their arrival at Uluru in the creation time. It has great spiritual significance.’

I get that. I too am a spiritual person and regard many things in life as sacred.

If one of the Anangu people was personally offended because they knew that I personally climbed Uluru, I would think harder about my decision to climb the rock, especially if I had an existing relationship with them, or may do so in the future. When I climbed, however, I saw no Anangu people in the area. Just car- and bus-loads of tourists. It is much more likely that my choice to climb will offend (those unfairly characterised as) urban elites than anyone else.

A couple of days before I climbed, an Anangu girl was selling her artwork in the carpark where we were watching sunset. I asked her if she minded people climbing Uluru and she said she didn’t mind with a casual shrug.

Now that I’m posting this blog, there’s a risk, of course, that I may be offending local cultural and spiritual values for any Anangu who happen to read this. If you are offended, my sincere apologies, but please keep reading!

Being a spiritual person, I value my freedom to worship as I choose. I strongly affirm the right of the Anangu people to treat Uluru as sacred. Similarly I would like everyone to respect my right to keep my Saturday Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. This means I refrain from working or engaging in any form of trade or business. But for me to require that everyone honour my Sabbath and refrain from working would be an overstep. I would be moving from protecting my freedom of worship to forcing others to treat something that is sacred to me (i.e., a portion of time) as sacred to themselves too.

Incidentally, I am expecting my rights of freedom to worship to be restricted in the future in a global push for Sunday sacredness, which I would reject.

A relevant analogy here is the way that Hindus treat cows as sacred. Even Gandhi himself did not want to restrict his entire nation from killing or eating cows as he recognised that not everyone views cows as sacred. (No issue for me – I’m happily vegetarian.)

I see the sacredness of Uluru to the Anangu people as similar to sacred cows and Sabbath / Sunday sacredness. If someone gets upset because I didn’t treat the Uluru climb as sacred in the way that the Anangu do, then they should be equally upset because most of the world eats beef, and because everyone dishonours a portion of time that is sacred to a significant number of the world’s population. Muslims regard Friday as holy; Jews and Sabbath-keeping Christians such as myself regard Saturday as holy; and much of Christianity regards Sunday as holy.

To treat the sacred customs and laws of the Anangu as normative for everyone may end up being condescending tokenism. It is as though repentant colonialists are now saying ‘we regret obliterating your culture, customs and laws, and now we will force us all to abide by it (though in an area where the impact on our daily lives will be minimal yet we can engage in virtue signalling to condemn others who disagree)’.

Uluru at sunset. Uluru is sacred to the local Anangu people.

Meanwhile protection for the rights of Christians to maintain their values within their own institutions in such areas as education around origins and sexuality is being progressively weakened. I’m not advocating for Christians to impose their values on others, just to be able to maintain their own values within their own lives and organisations.

There definitely is a clash of values between everyday Australian culture and the culture of the Anangu. I resonate with some of the values expressed by the chair of the Board of Management for the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, which made the decision to close the Uluru climb:

Whitefellas see the land in economic terms where Anangu see it as Tjukurpa. If the Tjukurpa is gone so is everything. We want to hold on to our culture. If we don’t it could disappear completely in another 50 or 100 years. We have to be strong to avoid this. The government needs to respect what we are saying about our culture in the same way it expects us to abide by its laws. It doesn’t work with money. Money is transient, it comes and goes like the wind. In Anangu culture Tjukurpa is ever lasting.

However, my own values come from different sacred writings: the Bible. I don’t expect the Board chair to honour all the laws in the Bible that are important to me. For true equality and reconciliation we should all be given freedom to choose which sacred laws to follow.

I’m a big fan of reconciliation. For me the most complete and sustainable form of reconciliation starts with each of us being reconciled to our Creator. Then we will naturally be reconciled with each other.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5:18-21

This reconciliation is all voluntary, based on love and freedom rather than imposition of sacred rules. There remains total freedom to reject the offer of reconciliation and choose selfishness instead. But that’s another topic.

Back to the climb, respect and reconciliation for the Anangu.

You wouldn’t climb a church, would you? This is the exact same, as Uluru is a sacred site for the Traditional owners of the land, the Anangu People.

https://ulurutoursaustralia.com.au/blog/why-you-shouldnt-climb-uluru/

OK, but this is their land, you may be thinking. Or, at least, Uluru is their land. Well, this is a complicated matter. Anyone who’s enjoyed the Australian classic The Castle probably has a good idea that native title versus terra nullius in Australia has a tortured and twisted history. I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave that matter to legal experts. However, right now (until 26 October 2019) the public has the legal right to climb Uluru.

I don’t condone the past forceful colonial dispossession of Aboriginals from their land. I’m not certain on the best solution for the future, but I’m guessing it probably doesn’t include handing back ownership of all Australian land to our first nations people. I honestly don’t know how much land or which land should be handed back. I do know that yesterday I simply exercised my right to be in that part of Australia, including to climb Uluru.

Back to my own spiritual values. Actually, I worship the God who created our earth. (That’s the reason I keep the seventh-day Sabbath holy, by the way; the Sabbath is a memorial of Creation.) To worship God is one of the reasons I climbed Uluru yesterday. For me, visiting and climbing Uluru was an intensely spiritual experience. I’m astounded by the beauty of God’s Creation. Uluru also happens to be a testament to the veracity of the biblical Genesis account of origins. The juxtaposed consistency of the upturned sedimentary strata that make up Uluru (and Kata Tjuta) does not match an evolutionary account of the rock’s geological origins nearly so well as the biblical flood narrative.

Me at the summit of Uluru, with Kata Tjuta in the background. I asked a stranger to take the photo then found out he knew my wife! Small world.

You may think that flood story is all a bit of far-fetched mythology; but here’s something to ponder. Local Aboriginal tribes also have a mythological Creation account for Uluru that includes a flood story with the specific detail of 40 days of rain that matches the biblical narrative. (This is only one of many similar such indigenous creation accounts around the world.)

This provides a challenge for the publicly sanctioned discourses of Aboriginal cultural sacredness and also the current scientific consensus regarding origins. Any biblical creation or flood story does not fit comfortably into socially acceptable narrative, yet provides remarkable overlaps with Aboriginal dreamtime stories and actual empirical geological evidence of the rock itself.

I do also care about our first nations people. There were many things that I saw while on holidays in the Northern Territory that warmed my heart. Aboriginal people have created sustainable tourism to grow their own economy while protecting the environment, sharing the experience and their culture with us. Anangu and other tribal leaders from Uluru to Kakadu gave us great insights into the land, plants, animals, people and culture of the regions we visited.

But there were also somewhat saddening observations. At Katherine, where my brother lives, I went into the bank where an elderly Aboriginal man was trying to withdraw money. He tried three times to provide a matching signature but each time was unable to. He was drunk. The bank teller caringly suggested that he go have some water to drink and come back after a couple of hours to try again.

At our lodge at Yulara a middle aged Aboriginal man from a neighbouring tribe (not Anangu) asked us to buy some alcohol for him. We said that we’ve never drunk alcohol in our lives and that he’d be healthier if he also didn’t drink any more. We had a friendly conversation for a few minutes but he was obviously disappointed that we didn’t support his desire for more alcohol. We were also sad for his plight brought on by the imposition of Western cultural excesses on a people ill equipped to handle such vices.

OK, so back to my climb. Yes, it was a once-in-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was too attractive to pass up. OK, I’ll admit there’s probably a bit of selfish motivation mixed in there. But if my selfishness was all about ‘conquering’ Uluru for myself, then I would have just done it without researching and posting this. True, my attempt at navigating the conflicting narratives in this post may also be tainted by selfish desire to prove my point – or gain notoriety?

But I would like to think that I’m actually making a valid point about the various conflicting narratives in our world where modern media (particularly of the ‘social’ variety) dumb-down discourse through virtue signalling and other devices that actually tend toward polarisation and away from reconciliation. (Why else would Israel Folau be vilified and ostracised as homophobic when there is scant substantive evidence for such a conclusion?)

Moving along, I regard a couple of other values as important and relevant here: safety and the environment.The safety of climbers provides perhaps the most striking of contrasts and mismatches. For the various Park Rangers I spoke to at Uluru, the real issue behind the climb closure is safety. For their own Work Health & Safety requirements rangers wear an attached harness to climb Uluru while the public goes up with no safety guidance or requirements other than one chain that goes the length of the steep climb.

The lone chain for climbers to hang onto is an anachronism. It was an appropriate response to climbing deaths in the 1960s, but in today’s litigious, risk averse and safety conscious age, one would expect to see a gondola lift or at least a harness system a la Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb. But even that would be distinctly out of place in the rugged natural environment that is Uluru. The chain itself is regarded as a scar on the naked beauty of the rock. Not to mention the buses lined up in the carpark spewing forth hundreds of tourists at once into what is ideally experienced and enjoyed as a serene and relatively solitary environment.

Then there is the mismatch of the bravado of the unfit and overweight thinking they are able to tackle the raw wilderness adventure that is an Uluru ascent. Rangers suggested that at the least there could be mandatory health screening before admission to attempt an ascent. The majority of deaths on Uluru have been from over-exertion: heart-attack. I would also suggest that a better way to ensure safety of climbers is to have a sign-on / sign-off register, and to only allow a limited number commence each minute rather than an en masse assault like an advancing army of Alexander the Great, only much less organised and more likely to wound each other than gloriously conquer Uluru.

The strain on the natural environment is another good reason to cease the climb in its current format. We saw several personal items falling uncontrollably down the rock – water bottles, camera parts, tissues, hats – all in the space of a few minutes. For those who take the better part of the day, there are the inevitable deposits of human waste (and toilet paper) in the crevasses and water courses on the rock.

There are numerous cultural clashes too. We saw angry Chinese would-be climbers shouting at the rangers because they closed the climb for safety reasons due to high winds. The tourists’ frustration was understandable when they could see other climbers beginning their ascent, lucky to have entered the gate just before the rangers assessed the risk as too great. Surely there is a better risk management approach than to simply stop more people entering the climb while those already on the rock are free to take all day with no information service to alert them of heightened wind risk.

Contrast that with the anger of virtue signalling city dwellers shaming climbers. Meanwhile the local Anangu people did not show any anger that I saw; rather indifference or sadness at the history of exploitation of their country and culture.

In my own climb I tried to resolve as many of the mismatches as I could. I took only my phone up to grab some quick pictures and climbed up and down without ever touching the chain. This made it easy to overtake the hundreds of tourists ill-prepared for such a climb. I only spent about 45 minutes on the rock in total: 20 minutes to the summit (about 10 min to top of chain) and 25 minutes down, stopping to admire the raw natural beauty of the rock and its surrounds.

As should be obvious by now, physical fitness is another value of mine. A few days earlier I also ran around the base walk in around 52 minutes (11 km). My whole family rode bikes around it on another day, taking our time (about 2 hours for 16 km). We also went to sunrise and sunset viewing places on multiple occasions each, and did the walks at Kata Tjuta.

Watching sunset at Uluru with my family

The Uluru climb actually reminds me of climbing straight up the face of The Pyramid at Girraween. The incline, risks and level of difficulty are quite similar. I have walked up the first Pyramid countless times (and the second Pyramid once) so my one and only climb of Uluru had a sense of déjà vu for muscle memory if not for the completely different surrounding terrain and type and size of rock.

So I’m happy to have immersed myself in some of the natural, cultural and historical world of Uluru. At least, enough to have formed my own perspective on the many clashes of culture, ideology and values that it highlights. Unsurprisingly, with such conflicting values and narratives, I leave with mixed feelings about the upcoming permanent closure of the climb, and invite you to form your own views.

My wife Renee at the summit with our boy’s little teddy.

4 thoughts on “Why I Climbed Uluru Yesterday

  1. Well said and well done Daniel. For myself I have three reasons not to climb Uluru
    1) Out of simple respect for those who see it as sacred. (If I had visitors in my home on Sabbath I would be very happy if they showed respect concerning how I wanted them to behave during their visit)
    2) I would be among those needing an ambulance.
    3) I couldn’t stand the “shame” of having to take and use toilet tissue in such an iconic location.
    P.S. I would be yanking that chain from start to finish!

    • Thanks Kev! Noble sentiment. I agree regarding “my home” but that’s what I’m saying is a contentious question. Someone’s home or church is not a public place; whereas at the moment, at least from a strictly legal perspective, Uluru is publicly accessible (though this is definitely contentious). I understand that many people are saying that morally it should not be regarded as a public place. But if so for Uluru, why not for Sydney, the home of the Eora / Cadigal people?

      • Hi Daniel, Let me put it another way. (rather than using my home to make the point) If others show respect to my religious/spiritual priorities, that makes me happy. If they don’t I am saddened that they don’t respect me enough to make that concession. (Whether or not they respect the actual priority.)

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