Visit Uluru and there are multiple signs explaining the the Rock is sacred to the Aboriginal people and asking you to respect their beliefs by not climbing it. And yet people walk right past these signs and climb the Rock. I must admit I felt like standing at the bottom and handing out pamphlets for ethics courses.
Watching this in action raised two headline questions: Why are people doing this and why don’t the authorities just ban people from climbing. The second is more easily answered than the first.
In 1983 the Australian Government handed title to the Rock back to the traditional owners – the Aṉangu people. The agreement provided for a lease of the area back to the Government and that the Rock climb could be continued. Since then the agreement has been updated with the Government, in the guise of Tourism Australia, agreeing that the climb can be banned when the proportion of visitors to the park who decide to climb the rock falls to near 20 per cent. Currently, just under 25 per cent of visitors choose the climb the Rock. That would suggest that within the next 3-5 years the climb would be banned, if it were not for a second condition providing that the park management also have to provide an alternate attraction for visitors. When your attraction involves a huge monolithic rock finding alternatives to climbing it aren’t easy (walking or cycling around it are already available and clearly only luring 75 per cent of visitors. So anyway the bottom line is that the walk cannot, yet, be banned for economic reasons.
So that takes us to the approach taken by the park management. They simply say “the climb is not prohibited, but we prefer that, as a guest on Aṉangu land, you will choose to respect our law and culture by not climbing”. And yet people don’t respect their law and culture. And really that seems to be the root of the problem – a lack of respect. A completely unscientific look at the people who were choosing to climb seemed to have most of them falling into three groups, the first two of which were overweight Australians and over-aged Americans (both groups should also not be climbing for safety reasons, but that has nothing to do with the ethics of the choice). It was noticeable that if you were a younger European you were walking around the base rather than climbing up the side.
If that is all true,(and see here for a synopsis of a research paper from 2007 that largely supports my unsceintific observations) then the next question is: Do these people just not respect Aboriginal culture or are they just going to disrespect any culture? Would they walk into a temple in Bali with their shoes on, refuse to don a yarmulke in visiting a synagogue, or run shouting through a Catholic cathedral? I don’t know the answer but I have a feeling that while some might do those things, most would not – and that the real problem here is a lack of respect for Aboriginal culture.
This is probably exacerbated by a feeling amongst some white Australians that the rock is theirs as much as it the Aboriginals’ and so the choice about climbing is simply an even-handed balancing of cultures. That thinking is right up there with climate change deniers thinking that their views stand on an even-footing with scientists’ findings.
There really should be no requirement to ban climbing the rock. This is almost a perfect example of ethics in action – of doing the right thing regardless of sanctions. There was a completely unrelated line on the local Aboriginal culture that I really liked when I read it: That they believe that you are responsible for what you do with the information you are given. You’re told of the cultural significance of the Rock and so you have a responsibility for how you act. Some people are just letting themselves down. But what makes it all more distressing is the third group of climbers: Children egged on by their parents.