In a few months time one of the most exhilarating, awe-inspiring experiences of the natural world, the climb up Ayers Rock, will be banned. With the ban, Australia will become the only nation to outlaw awe and wonder. The park board ignores the actions and words of past traditional owners who climbed the Rock and supported visitors climbing. What sort of malicious organisation would ban access to a place that has generated so much joy?
In regard to its name, the Rock at the heart of our country has two: Uluru and Ayers Rock. The dual naming recognises a shared history, and officially either name may used, together or separately. The name Uluru recognises the 4000-year cultural attachment to the rock of its Anangu owners. The name Ayers Rock celebrates European discovery and scientific advancement.
This essay appears in the June edition of Quadrant.
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I strongly believe that visitors to our national parks should be free to use established public spaces and walking trails without being fettered by irrational religious beliefs or petty bureaucratic restrictions and regulations that serve no useful purpose other than to make life easier for underworked officials. Wouldn’t it be so much easier for Parks Australia and their state equivalents if the public simply stopped intruding and exploring these magnificent natural places that they pay for with their taxes!
There is still time to make a difference and ensure this life-affirming experience is available to future generations. About 60 per cent of visitors to the Rock have done the climb. We need to ensure future generations also have this wonderful opportunity to engage with the natural world and see those summit views that are protected by a United Nations World Heritage listing.
Since 1991 the Board of Management of the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park in concert with Parks Australia have been disseminating many falsehoods about the climb up Ayers Rock. My book A Guide to Climbing Ayers Rock, in exploring the history of the world’s most famous hill climb, explodes these myths and shows conclusively that past traditional owners climbed and supported visitors climbing, that the climb is a safe activity with little risk to responsible visitors, and that it is still an activity that many visitors want to undertake. Just about everything Parks Australia and the park board say about the climb is a myth—even what they say about the weather can’t be trusted.
Respecting the traditional owners
As you approach the base of the western climbing spur you will face a sign that purportedly expresses the views of the traditional peoples of Uluru, the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra people, who these days call themselves “Anangu”. The sign reads, “Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted”. If you read the official guide book you are told that “Due to cultural reasons Anangu do not climb Uluru”. In the 1990 management plan this was expressed in the form, “We never climb”.
It doesn’t take much research to work out that this “We never climb” message is false. There is a rich history of Aboriginal people climbing the rock, and it goes back to the very first humans to arrive in the Red Centre about 30,000 years ago. These pre-Anangu peoples, who did not share Anangu culture but like all humans shared a curiosity about the natural world, likely climbed during the last ice age and watched the end of the megafauna and the climate change with the surrounding dune fields stabilised by vegetation during the early Holocene. They left their mark in the form of rock carvings—marks the Anangu believe were done by dreamtime spirits. Anangu culture emerged around Uluru about 4000 years ago. We know this because their creation myths include the dingo, which was brought to Australia from Asia around that time. We know Anangu climbed for generations.
Elders climbed with the anthropologist Charles Mountford in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and shared stories about summit features that had been passed down for generations. In the 1940s tourists wanting to climb would be guided by local Anangu men. The most famous of these guides was Tiger Tjalkalyirri, who guided Lou Borgelt and Arthur Groom to the summit. Borgelt’s visit is preserved in some colour film footage recently restored by the Lutheran Archives. A highlight of Borgelt’s film is the camaraderie between tourist and guides. Such goodwill is missing from the confected, highly regulated and politically correct tours at our modern UluRules.
Many past visitors who climbed have recounted having no problems with local traditional owners. In 1969 David Hewitt, a long-term Northern Territory resident who worked with Aboriginal people in the Ayers Rock area for decades, climbed with the daughters of Anangu elders, which busts the myth put out by the board that the climb is for men only. In the 1970s it was made clear by the man recognised as the principal owner of the Rock, Paddy Uluru, that traditional people climbed it.
Derek Roff lived at the Rock with his family between 1968 and 1985. The longest-serving ranger at the park, in the 1990s he gave a comprehensive interview with the Northern Territory Oral History Unit about his experiences managing the park. He reveals all about Aboriginal attitudes to climbing. In his seventeen years managing the park he says that tourists’ climbing was never raised as an issue by traditional owners. In relation to traditional owners climbing he says:
Paddy Uluru used to tell me about climbing the Rock. It seemed to me that 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. I’m just trying to think of the name of the Aboriginal people who went up with Mountford … Lively Pakalinga, Nipper’s brother, older brother. He climbed it with Mountford, and explained some of the stories up there and what-have-you. So, I must say, certainly it was climbed—not maybe by everybody, but certainly by the traditional people.
The board of management owes the Australian people an explanation for the many decades they have spread their never-climb message.
People who climb these days are told they are disrespecting the views of traditional owners. While they are certainly disrespecting the views of the park board and the misguided bureaucrats of park management, in climbing they are in fact respecting the views of owners who were born at the Rock and had lived a traditional life—men more aware of their customs, their land and its laws about access to the summit than the current board made up of people who have come from elsewhere.
Tiger Tjalkalyirri, the first climbing guide, should have a statue erected in his honour at the base of the climb for helping to bring two cultures together. Tiger was able to walk with one foot in each world, his traditional world and the new world being imposed by the tide of history. Tiger’s voice, singing traditional songs and telling stories, is preserved in the National Library. At the Rock he was a great entertainer and encouraged visitors to climb. In an omission that shows great disrespect, his name and deeds are not mentioned in the current plan of management or in any official tourist information about the park.
In the 1970s Paddy Uluru was the man in charge of the park. Derek Roff was the ranger but on Aboriginal issues he was guided by Paddy. In an interview with Alice Springs journalist Edwin Chlanda, Paddy stated,“If tourists are stupid enough to climb the Rock, they’re welcome to it.” He also said “the physical act of climbing was of no cultural interest”.
In the early 1970s Derek Roff asked the traditional owners if there were any areas around Uluru they wanted closed to the public. Paddy consulted with thirty-five owners and came back to Roff with just one site: Warayuki, the men’s initiation cave. Roff promptly acted to close public access to this area by erecting a fence and signs. This work was recorded in 1975 by the ABC current affairs program This Day Tonight. The reporter, Grahame Wilson, interviewed Paddy’s brother Toby Naninga. He asked: “Aside from Warayuki, do you mind tourists going anywhere else?” Toby replied that anywhere else was all right. He later joined Derek Roff’s staff of rangers working for the Northern Territory Conservation Council.
So aside from Warayuki “anywhere else is all right”. I’d argue that guided access to Warayuki would be a wonderful opportunity to share Anangu beliefs with visitors in the same way visitors are permitted access to the inner sanctums and altars of other religions. These ideas and beliefs belong to all of humanity and deserve to be shared.
Climbing not only respects the views of traditional owners but also the views of land councils. There was considerable animosity between the Northern Territory government and the Hawke federal Labor government about the handover of the rock to traditional owners in the 1980s. The Territory government had argued the handover would effectively end tourism at the park. The federal minister at the time, Clyde Holding, sought assurances from the powerful Central Land Council and Pitjantjatjara Land Council and got this telex from them in November 1983:
Before the facts are further muddied in the NT election campaign it is essential that the position of the traditional Aboriginal owners is clearly stated.
# The Aboriginal people have always recognised the legitimate tourist interest in the national park.
# They have always supported the concepts of leasing back the park to the Commonwealth.
# They have consistently asserted that the park will always be available for the benefit of all Australians.
# They have always supported a joint management scheme in which Aboriginal, conservationist and tourist interests would be represented.
# They have no intention of unreasonably limiting access to Uluru National Park.
# Basically for the visiting tourist it will be business as usual.
# Any rare and limited restrictions necessary for ceremonial purposes are likely to be confined to those sites already registered as sacred by the NT Government’s own Sacred Sites Authority (and already subject to restrictions).
# Such ceremonies should be respected as a vital part of traditional Aboriginal life.
# The Aboriginal traditional owners believe that Aboriginal ownership and involvement in Uluru substantially enhances the commercial tourist potential of the park.
# The Yulara project will not be affected by Aboriginal ownership of Uluru. The Aboriginal people have expressed no interest in seeking to operate motels within the national park.
# Indeed, Aboriginal traditional owners welcome the Yulara project in that it locates tourists away from their local Mutitjulu community and thereby reduces the impact of thousands of tourists a year on their way of life.
# It follows that the granting of title to the Aboriginal traditional owners will not jeopardise investment in the Yulara operation.
The Hawke initiative is an excellent measure which recognises the long standing spiritual attachment of the Aboriginal people to this area whilst preserving the interests of tourists and conservationists in the park.
So not only were the words and actions of a few owners supportive of the climb, but climbing also had the support of the land councils—“for the visiting tourist it will be business as usual”. At the time, before Parks Australia’s nanny-state closure protocols came into being, about 75 per cent of visitors climbed.
The board tells us that Tjukurpa, the Anangu belief system, is unchanging. Based on the views of the old men who were born at the Rock and were well versed in the land and its laws and who supported the climb, either Tjukurpa is as open to change as any other system of belief, or the current board in its malicious act of banning the climb is effectively committing an act of blasphemy.
There are many more myths about the climb, and chief among them is the notion that climbing is not safe. If you can’t discourage them with political correctness then scare them with disinformation about safety. In its “Fact Sheet” about the climb, Parks Australia states:
The climb is physically demanding and can be dangerous. At least 35 people have died while attempting to climb Uluru and many others have been injured. At 348 metres, Uluru is higher than the Eiffel Tower, as high as a 95-storey building. The climb is very steep and can be very slippery. It can be very hot at any time of the year and strong wind gusts can hit the summit or slopes at any time. Every year people are rescued by park rangers, many suffering serious injuries such as broken bones, heat exhaustion and extreme dehydration.
The five memorial plaques at the base of the climb, hidden away just to the south of the start, commemorate the first five tourists to die climbing the rock. In an act of destruction on par with the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, Parks Australia and the park board, against anything written in the current management plan, are moving to destroy the plaques, along with the climbing chain and the summit monument, after the ban comes into force. These acts of destruction are proceeding with the approval of the current government. The summit monument has appeared in millions of summit photos and would celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2020. The directional plaques on the monument guide visitors to views listed as World Heritage. In these perverse actions Parks Australia and the park board have placed this heritage in danger.
Like the idea that traditional owners never climb, assertions about safety also don’t stand up to close scrutiny. There are a number of ways to tackle this misrepresentation. Arthur Groom described the climb before the chain was installed in 1947 as “nothing else but a strenuous and spectacular uphill walk” and that description still fits for experienced bush walkers. People of all ages have climbed, including eighty-year-old grandmother Sarah Esnouf, who climbed without the assistance of the chain in 1957 as part of the Petticoat Safari, a TAA tour of women of all ages that highlighted the wonder of a visit to the Red Centre. Children as young as four have climbed unassisted under the watchful eyes of their parents.
The real myth about safety is in the numbers. Parks Australia claims thirty-five people have died on the Rock since the first in 1962. I tried to obtain details of these deaths including the names, where people were from, how old they were and where on the Rock they died, but Parks Australia was unable to produce any data. In November 2017 in an interview the park manager Mike Misso provided an insight into those figures: “Yeah, look over 30 people are known to have died from climbing, and what I mean by that, people could, um, you know, potentially climb it, go to the resort and then you know, could have a heart attack later.” So Parks Australia bases its figures on people who potentially climbed the Rock and died sometime later in the resort. I can see why they decided against providing the data.
My own research has provided evidence for eighteen deaths on the Rock—six from falls and twelve related to heart failure. One woman and five men, all under the age of thirty-two, have fallen to their deaths. The twelve heart attacks were all suffered by men, one of whom was forty-four and the rest over fifty-two. There have only been two deaths on the Rock this century, in 2010 and in 2018, a few weeks before I climbed with my daughters. The same number of deaths have occurred to tourists at Kata Tjuta, but Parks Australia and the board are not proposing to close walks there.
The alarming description from Parks Australia doesn’t seem so scary and it falls to pieces when one looks in more detail at the actual risks. An analysis of the risks associated with climbing provides a stunning rebuke to Parks propaganda that the climb is dangerous. For responsible climbers under the age of fifty there has only been one death. Given 75 per cent of the 7 million people who have climbed fit into this category the risk in micromorts (the micromort is a unit of risk defined as a one-in-a-million chance of death from a given activity) is just 0.2 micromorts. For responsible climbers over fifty there are eleven deaths from 1.75 million climbers, providing a risk of 6.3 micromorts. The average risk for climbers is just 1.7 micromorts. The same risk can be provided by the following activities: driving a car 800 kilometres; riding a motorbike just two kilometres; flying 3000 kilometres; flying to Ayers Rock from Sydney provides the same risk as the climb. For comparison, the climb up Mount Fuji carries a risk of 15 micromorts. Typical daily exposure for all causes of death amounts to about 20 micromorts per day (one in 50,000). For people under fifty, undertaking the climb represents just 1 per cent of the average daily risk.
It is clear when you look at the facts that Parks Australia and the park board have grossly exaggerated the risks of the climb to serve their own warped agenda and the warped views of the current board of management.
The proportion climbing
Another myth about the climb is that less than 20 per cent of visitors want to do it. Again this myth can be busted by simply observing action on the climb on those rare occasions when park rangers decide the clear blue skies and mild morning temperatures make it obvious there is no excuse to keep the gate closed.
The 20 per cent figure is one of the great fallacies about the climb. It is simply due to the fact that Parks Australia nanny-state closure protocols, those UluRules, keep the climb closed 80 per cent of the time. Most of the time visitors simply do not have the choice unless they break the law. The ridiculous closure protocols, enforced by rangers who in the absence of working meteorological instruments at the summit are forced to guess the weather, mean the climb is fully open, from sunrise to sunset, only 10 per cent of the time. Only on those days can a reasonable gauge be made of visitor intentions. Despite the many years of propaganda about the climb and the cautious closure protocols, the overall proportion of visitors who have climbed is about 60 per cent.
To clarify the actual numbers, Parks Australia installed climbing counters between 2011 and 2015. There were many problems with these. Counters under-reported climbers by an astonishing 30 per cent and equipment failures meant many days went unrecorded, including most of 2014.
The actual data, sourced via a freedom-of-information request, paints a different picture from that put out by Parks Australia and the board. On those days when the climb is open from sunrise to sunset and visitors have a full choice of activities, on average, allowing for under-reporting, 44 per cent still choose to climb, and those numbers show no trend over the sampling period.
There is still time
The facts presented above do not make it into any official Parks Australia publications. The board does not celebrate past owners who climbed and had no issue with visitors climbing. This is in breach of the lease agreement for the park. Section 17 (2) states:
The lease covenants that the flora, fauna, cultural heritage, and natural environment of the Park shall be preserved, managed and maintained according to the best comparable management practices for National Parks anywhere in the world or where no comparable management practices exist, to the highest standards practicable.
The climb, chain, memorial plaques and the summit monument are items of universal cultural heritage significance that Parks Australia under law is required to preserve, manage and maintain. By their actions it is clear Parks Australia and the board inhabit a dark alternative Orwellian universe, one in which the “highest standards of management” somehow provide the means to ban the climb and destroy our collective cultural heritage. Where there should be a statue to honour legends like Tiger and Derek there will be more UluRules complete with a fence, and the prospect of severe punishment; a metaphor for ignorance and closed minds.
As I write there are only about 200 days left before Parks Australia and the board ban the climb and destroy the chain, the five memorial plaques (did they ask or even inform the relatives?) and destroy the summit monument. There is still time to force the government to overturn this ridiculous decision that in the long term will hurt the traditional owners.
What can you do? Get informed, share this article, buy my book, visit the Right to Climb blog (http://righttoclimb.blogspot.com) and spread the message that the many myths about the climb have been busted and it’s time for Parks Australia and the board to own up to their deceptions. Write your local member. Donate to our legal fund at Gofundme (www.gofundme.com/savetheclimb). We will be fighting a bureaucratic behemoth with infinitely deep pockets, and a legal challenge employing the best QCs and barristers will require significant funds in order to have a chance of success.
Seven million people from all over the world have climbed Ayers Rock, revelling in the beauty and majesty of the summit views and exhilarating in the physicality of the climb. We owe it to their descendants and the descendants and relatives of Tiger, Paddy and Toby to fight to ensure the climb remains open so millions more can experience the same wonder and joy.
Marc Hendrickx is a geologist and the author of A Guide to Climbing Ayers Rock, published last December by Connor Court. He wrote “The Ban on Climbing Ayers Rock is Immoral and Illegal” in the April 2018 issue.