Late last year the board of the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park announced that the climb up Ayers Rock would be officially banned from October 26, 2019. Parks Australia and the board argue the climb needs to be closed for safety and cultural reasons.
The ban came as a surprise, as in April 2016 the Turnbull government had stated there were “no plans to change current arrangements”. The ban is especially surprising under a Coalition government given the very strong support for the climb voiced by Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader and other Coalition spokesmen in 2009. Greg Hunt then equated closing the climb with the arrival of Big Brother, and labelling then Environment Minister Peter Garrett as “the minister who closed the climb”. Obviously nothing to be proud of! One wonders how current Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg feels about the label.
Under scrutiny, the reasons for the closure cannot be substantiated. Additionally it seems there are substantial legal issues in enforcing the ban that the park’s board has not fully realised or disclosed.
The route of the climb crosses the path of the legendary Mala Hare Wallaby Men, who on first arriving at Uluru did the logical thing and climbed to the top—perhaps to get a better view of what the surrounding countryside held, and to provide a vantage point to look out for rival clans or spot game. Given the inclusion of the dingo in Anangu creation myths, arrival of the Anangu at the Rock likely occurred after about 3000 BC. Human habitation in the centre of Australia extends back to around 30,000 years BC. Given human nature, the cultural tradition of climbing probably goes back that far.
In 1973, as part of land rights discussions, the federal government recognised Paddy Uluru as the legitimate, principal owner of Uluru. Paddy Uluru was a fully initiated Anangu man familiar with all the local laws and customs. His views about tourists climbing the Rock were summed up in an interview with Erwin Chlanda of the Alice Springs News which quotes him saying, “if tourists are stupid enough to climb the Rock, they’re welcome to it” and “the physical act of climbing was of no cultural interest”.
Paddy Uluru’s feelings towards the climb were also documented by Derek Roff, the ranger of the park between 1968 and 1985 and close friend of Paddy. In interviews for a Northern Territory Oral History Project in 1997, Roff (now deceased) stated that the issue of tourists climbing never arose, and recounted that Paddy Uluru would tell of climbing the Rock himself.
Another elder, senior Anangu man and owner of the Rock, Tiger Tjalkalyirri, acted as an early tourist guide and climbing partner to early visitors to Ayers Rock. His name appears at least twice on the early climbing logbook at the summit cairn. He assisted Cliff Thomson in 1946 and Arthur Groom in 1947. There is footage of Tiger on top of the Rock splashing in depressions filled with water. Clearly he did not have an issue climbing or showing tourists around his Rock.
Formal requests for tourists not to climb first arose in the 1991 park management plan following the involvement and influence of university anthropologists and sociologists with the local community. Paddy Uluru had died in 1979 and custody of the Rock had passed to others.
Clearly current claims that “Anangu never climb” are false and the highly sacred nature of the climbing route is a very recent invention. The cultural-heritage significance of the climb to both Anangu and millions of non-Aboriginal visitors is something that deserves to be celebrated and maintained, not discouraged or banned.
Parks Australia unfairly describes the climb as dangerous. Arthur Groom described the climb in 1947 as “nothing else but a strenuous and spectacular uphill walk”. This was before the installation of the chain and the summit route markers. Only two people have died in the act of climbing on the Rock this century, both likely from heart failure probably triggered by lack of acclimatisation to the weather conditions. The death rate since 2000, given approximately 5,500,000 visitors and two deaths is 0.11 deaths per annum, or 0.36 deaths per million visitors. In contrast there are about twelve deaths per annum at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Given 4.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year this equates to about 2.6 deaths per million visitors, a rate seven times higher than that at Uluru. The reported deaths at Uluru fall into the lower range for adventure tourism activities, and should not be a reason to ban climbing.
The prospect of a ban, and the long-term management of the climb by the park board since 1991, raise significant legal issues not yet addressed by Parks Australia or the federal government. One issue involves the application of federal anti-discrimination laws. These laws protect Australians against unfair discrimination on the grounds of culture, race, gender and age. Given the traditional owners will not be banned from accessing the summit via the current climbing route, or other means, a ban on everyone but a few elderly Aboriginal men appears to breach the Age Discrimination Act 2004, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The first person prevented from climbing after the ban is introduced in 2019 would seem to have a legitimate discrimination case to take to the Human Rights Commission.
The other legal issue involves the current lease agreement between Parks Australia and the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Land Trust. Section 17 of the lease includes a covenant that requires Parks Australia to preserve, manage and maintain “the flora, fauna, cultural heritage, and natural environment of the Park … according to the best comparable management practices for National Parks anywhere in the world”. Clearly the climb is an important and long-standing cultural tradition of both traditional owners and non-Aboriginal visitors, and under the lease agreement must be “preserved, managed and maintained”. However, since the 1991 management plan Parks Australia and the board of management have actively discouraged climbing, making millions of visitors feel guilty for simply enjoying nature, and denying the right to climb to millions through overly restrictive access protocols.
Discouragement of climbing is encapsulated in Parks Australia’s claims that “Anangu never climb” which, based on the evidence above, is demonstrably false. Discouraging this important cultural-heritage activity is counter to requirements in the lease. Discouraging climbing has substantially reduced the viability of the park to the tune of about 70,000 visitors per annum over the last ten years, compared to the previous ten years. Given an average of about $1000 per person, this comes at a cost to the Northern Territory economy of at least $70 million per annum.
Based on the facts, the ban on climbing is morally wrong, likely illegal and probably breaches the current lease agreement. It prevents millions from practising their cultural heritage. It cannot be supported on the basis of Aboriginal law, or for safety reasons. The ban is absolutely, undeniably wrong!
Marc Hendrickx is a geologist. He also runs the ABC News Watch website