I have been a member of the Geological Society of Australia (GSA) since the mid-1990s. While there has been no official statement from the society about the ban on climbing Ayers Rock, the society’s newsletter, The Australian Geologist (TAG), published my essay supporting the right to climb in its March 2018 issue. This generated some debate from a few who think the Rock should not be scaled. Fair enough.
In the December 2018 issue of TAG, there appeared an advertisement for my book, A Guide to Climbing Ayers Rock. That ad triggered a response from University of Adelaide lecturer Dr Kathryn Amos, who proclaimed herself “gobsmacked” by the ad’s appearance. Her letter in response (reproduced at right) appeared in TAG‘s March 2019 issue.
While I welcome such debate, it is clear Dr Amos is unaware of the rich history of Anangu and non-Anangu sharing the Climb. It’s no wonder such ignorance is so widespread, given the decades of propaganda from Parks Australia and the Park Board, none of which mentions all the facts about Anangu and non-Anangu climbing Ayers Rock. My research, published in my book, fills this gap and provides visitors with the information they need to make an informed decision about the Climb. The intention of the ad was to alert GSA members to the book and perhaps help spread this little-known history and background. More troubling than Amos’ ignorance of history were the aspersions she cast on the scientific integrity and ethics of those supportive of the Climb, plus what strikes me as her rejection of free intellectual inquiry.
Many who have climbed are aware of the stark contradictions of the Anangu religion that, but only since 1991, has denied the indigenous culture of climbing. There is ample and incontrovertible evidence past elders climbed and also supported visitors climbing. Additionally, as I have documented, Parks Australia’s very own data indicate the safety risks of the Climb are exaggerated. Meanwhile, on those days the gates are open from sunrise to sunset, 44 per cent of visitors elect to make the ascent. With this in mind, the looming ban that will rob visitors of the enjoyment of the natural world makes absolutely no sense.
Ms Amos’ call to censor opinions she sees as disrespecting Aboriginal peoples goes against the very fundamentals of scientific inquiry and intellectual freedom. How are Anangu to embrace a modern understanding when the chief concern seems to be that they might — emphasis on might — be offended if their world view is challenged? Are we to leave them permanently in a cultural prison, insulated from the rest of humanity as if their 10,000-year isolation, imposed by rising sea levels at the start of the Holocene, were still in effect? Western civilisation has myth and legend at its core, with illustrative fables forming part of the backbone of our morality and culture. At various points in our history shining the light of reason on those stories has resulted in persecution and even death for those brave enough to raise their voices and punch holes in flawed ideologies. Thanks to such bravery and the intellectual progress it engendered, most of us no longer take those myths and legends literally, yet they remain an important part of who we are. Anangu culture will progress similarly if exposed to new ideas.
See also: The Immoral Ayers Rock Climbing Ban
If Amos’ regressive prescription had been followed in the Western world, our wonderful civilisation would never have emerged and we would still be locked in the darkness of ignorance and superstition. Freedom of intellectual inquiry is, or should be, at the heart of the university and learned societies. With this in mind, I wrote to TAG in reply to Amos, attempting to highlight facts and evidence not previously published in the newsletter and, in addition, to challenge her disparaging remarks on my scientific integrity and ethics. By way of response I received the following correspondence from the editor:
Thank you for your Letter to the Editor contribution for The Australian Geologist (TAG).
As you know we have published a number of items from you recently (TAG189, advertisement for “A Guide To Climbing Ayers Rock”) and March #186 (two-page spread and advertisement for Climb for Science 2018).
At the time of publishing we included these items as we saw them as contributions from a member. However, since then we have seen a large amount of media coverage generated by you on this topic, including as a platform for the Australian Conservative Party. On this basis, we will not be publishing your Letter to the Editor in TAG, due to its political nature.
We trust that while our response may not be the favourable one you had hoped for, that you will appreciate that we have published your contributions previously.
I am not a member of the Australian Conservative Party and I made no mention of politics in my rejected letter, merely focusing on the facts about the climb so members could have an informed debate. Given the aspersions cast upon my scientific credibility, I was somewhat taken aback when informed that TAG had decided to deny me the opportunity to reply to Dr Amos, not to mention what I would have assumed was an automatic right to defend my integrity.
Debates have long been a feature of past TAG issues and make the newsletter much less dull. It seemed to me that the debate about the Climb has always been about politics and the good news that the Australian Conservative Party support the Climb has been offset by the Greens and the ALP backing the irrational ban, a political position supported by Dr Amos. As an aside, I would have thought the GSA and other scientific organisations would have welcomed the positive stand for geo-tourism and freedom to access public spaces taken by the Australian Conservative Party.
Rejection of my letter “due to its political nature” seemed most unfair, so I wrote to the GSA governing council to seek more information as to why my letter was rejected. The response included this comment:
Finally, your statement that your letter was rejected on “political grounds” is indeed part (but only part) of the reason we choose not to publish it. Whether you like it or not, your viewpoint has been taken up by a political party and is now touted as their policy. We owe it to our widely diverse membership not to become the voice piece of any party.
Council’s final word…
We, as a council, have discussed your correspondence previously and consider that we have provided a fair amount of coverage for your position and an alternative viewpoint. We believe further correspondence serves no purpose other than to lead to personal attacks – there is no value in continuing the discourse. I request that you do not contact the office on this matter again.
The letter by Amos that coincidentally supports the position of The Greens and the Australia Labor Party gets published and the one that coincidentally supports the policy of the Australian Conservative Party is spiked — yet, astonishingly, GSA says it does not want to become the voice piece of any political party. The letter attacking the integrity and ethics of those supporting the climb and would end free scientific inquiry gets published and the one providing the facts and making a case for free intellectual inquiry is left on the cutting room floor. Good grief, this is surreal!
My final word to the society president:
I have my own means of rebutting misinformation and ignorance about accessing one of our geological treasures, so will not trouble you further. It is sad GSA has not taken an official stand against Myth and Superstition that will likely see access to other geological wonders curtailed in Australia. Sort of makes a mockery of GSA’s commitment to promote geoscience.
In light of the current debate about freedom of speech and free intellectual inquiry in our universities that recently saw Peter Ridd hounded out of James Cook University for offending his colleagues with inconvenient facts, it is important that the public be made aware that other learned societies are similarly affected and apparently confused about their role. I make the information here available to the public on this basis with a view that we may see more openness and support for intellectual discussion on controversial issues in the future. The double standards raised above are startling and have wider implications for the way we develop and share our ideas. Without further ado, and with a few minor modifications, here’s that political letter GSA left on the cutting room floor.
Marc Hendrickx, a geologist, is the author of A Guide to Climbing Ayers Rock,which can be ordered here. The letter TAG rejected is reproduced in full below.
Kathryn Amos’ letter (Tag 190) regarding the ad for my book “A Guide to Climbing Ayers Rock” (p45 Tag189 – see above) exemplifies some of the nonsensical postmodernist influences at play in universities at present. Her reaction is based on emotion and ignorance of the rich Anangu and non-Anangu traditions of climbing outlined and celebrated in my book. This tradition has been hidden from the public since the first “We never Climb” signs were erected at the base of the Climb in 1991. Here are a few facts for others similarly “gobsmacked” or for those feeling guilty for daring to simply enjoy the natural world by climbing Ayers Rock. Many more facts that bust the myths about the climb promulgated by the Board and Parks Australia are outlined in the book.
1. The name. As outlined by the NT Place Names Committee the practice of dual naming features recognises their rich shared Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal history. According to the committee for Uluru-Ayers Rock “both names are equally as important and can be used either together or individually”
2. The first climbers of Ayers Rock were Pre-Anangu peoples who arrived in central Australia about 30000 years ago. No one knows what they called their Rock.
3. The Anangu culture includes the dingo in its creation mythology and hence it emerged in central Australia after about 4000 years ago; after the arrival and spread of the Dingo in Australia.
4. One of the first climbing guides was Anangu man TigerTjalkalyirri. Tiger played a pivotal role in the land rights claim that resulted in the hand back of Ayers Rock, he died just prior to the handover in early 1985. The National Library has recordings of Tiger singing in Pitjantjatjara; telling legends of Uluru and Kata Tjuta; bush tucker; tribal lifestyle and history. He was also a great entertainer, he danced for tourists in the campground and encouraged them to climb his Rock. There should be a statue in his honour erected at the base of the climb.
Scene from Lou Borgelt’s 1946 film of his visit to Ayers Rock and the Olga, restored by Lutheran Archives. Left to right on the summit: Mitjenkeri, Mick, Lou Borgelt, and Tiger Tjalkalyirri.
5. Paddy Uluru was recognised by locals and officials as the Principal Owner of Uluru until his death in 1979 when ownership passed to a wider group. He never expressed any concerns about visitors climbing his rock. In an interview with Alice Springs News, Paddy stated the physical act of climbing was of no cultural interest.
6. In a 1975 ABC TV interview Paddy’s brother Toby Naninga stated that aside from the Men’s Initiation cave (Warayuki) and adjacent Ngaltawata Pole tourists could go anywhere else. The daughters of senior Anangu men climbed the Rock with long term resident David Hewitt in1969, blowing apart the modern myth that the summit is for men only.
7. Derek Roff the longest serving Head Ranger indicated that during his tenure between 1968 and 1985 the issue of climbing never arose with Traditional Owners. It was also never suggested by them that the use of the climb by tourists was offensive or inappropriate.
8. Paddy Uluru and other senior Anangu men and women climbed the rock to pass on important stories about summit legends. These were recounted to anthropologist Charles Mountford and published in his book “Ayers Rock: its people, their beliefs and their art.” As Anangu relied on an oral tradition, knowledge of the summit legends indicate they have been climbing to the summit for thousands of years, thereby busting the myth that “Anangu never climb”. Sadly the “we never Climb” doctrine of the current Board suggests knowledge of summit stories may have been lost.
10. The first time visitors were informed that climbing was not appropriate was in the 1991 management plan where visitors were told Anangu never climb.
I appreciate that some academics now inhabit institutions where intellectual inquiry is hamstrung by pandering to some group or other. No wonder some are gobsmacked when informed opinions are voiced that challenge their own views. In the search for truth, it is an unfortunate consequence that some people may feel denigrated, offended, hurt or upset. Freedom of inquiry allows the human race to question conventional wisdom in the never-ending search for knowledge and truth. This is how we have advanced as a civilisation. Free intellectual inquiry remains integral to the sciences and integral to the proper functioning of our society. How some can forget this and lecture others about scientific integrity and ethics is beyond me.
It is long overdue that facts about the Climb were aired so a proper discussion can be held. In the meantime, we have seen moves to ban access to other summits with outstanding geological heritage including StMary’s Peak in the Flinders Ranges and Mt Warning in northern NSW. Sadly in all these cases as with the Ayers Rock climb, Australia’s august scientific bodies have not raised their official voices against these travesties lest they risk offending some group or other. Geoscientists and their professional societies have an obligation to educate the public about the geology of the world around them and look after our collective geological heritage so others may learn from it. Science and knowledge does not grow by being worried about causing offence, it grows by free and open inquiry, by challenging ingrained belief systems and testing new ideas against observations and facts. Causing offence is one of the hazards of being a good scientist, and if you are not offending someone you are probably not doing your job properly.