Words by James WF Roberts Art by Paloma Cenzano
What if your place of worship is not made of gold, does not have four walls, and is not filled with portraits and tapestries, statues and pews? What if instead, your place of worship is a giant sandstone formation, almost 350 metres high, 863 metres above sea level, with most of its bulk lying underground like an iceberg, and has an overall circumference of nearly 10 kilometres?
According to the traditional beliefs of the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, Uluru is more than just a rock. It is a living cultural landscape that is considered sacred to the people of these groups. They are the traditional owners and guardians of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. This special place carries great spiritual and cultural significance for local indigenous tribes with over 40 sacred Aboriginal sites and 11 Tjurkurpa or Dreaming trails present in the area.
The Anangu people belong to the oldest culture known to man dating back 60,000 years. Their culture has always existed in Central Australia and they believe that this landscape was created at the beginning of time by the travels of great ancestral beings. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are said to provide physical evidence of these ancient events and have been used for traditional ceremonies and rites of passage for over 10,000 years.
Uluru has been a controversial subject for decades; the first known tourists started arriving in the area around 1936.
In October 1985, the then Hawke government returned ownership of Uluru to the local Pitjantjatjara cultural group. And according to the reports at the time, an agreement was made that the climb to the top by tourists would be stopped, however, this agreement was broken.
There are signs all over the Uluru national park that read: “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”.
35 people have died climbing the rock. The most recent death was in 2018 when a 76-year-old Japanese man fell to his death.
And of course, in a move that is bewildering and shows such a lack of understanding, hundreds if not thousands of people have flocked to Uluru to climb the rock before the ban takes place in October.
In an attempt to understand this ignorant boom in tourism, what is the mainstream Australia view? According to Outback Australia travel secrets; here are some of the online reviews expressed by some Australian tourists to the rock:
“They were happy to take my entry fee, so now they’ll just have to put up with me climbing their oh so sacred rock.”
“I am a conscientious person and normally respect such requests but I just couldn’t stay off it after driving 3000 dusty km to get to it. Besides that, everyone else was climbing it too.”
These kind of reviews (and trust me, there are plenty more) make for a startling and eye-opening read about the views of Australians in regard to Indigenous culture.
And of course, in late August we had the Pauline Hanson debacle of A Current Affair (allegedly) paying for Hanson to climb the rock.
Senator Hanson can be seen walking up the rock without an issue until she gets to a high point, where her boots appear to give her trouble.
“I’m not going up any further,” she said. “Seriously, I cannot get down here, my boots are that bloody old.”
Hanson then told ABC and Channel Nine that maybe it is actually dangerous to climb the rock.
We should look at the outpouring of grief and support of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral a few months ago, how is that any different than the Uluru issue?
Would you climb Saint Peter’s basilica, just because it’s on your bucket list, and take a selfie? Would you run naked through a Buddhist temple? Would you spit on the floor of a synagogue?
For non-Indigenous Australians, our most sacred site, according to tradition and our cultural upbringing, is Gallipoli in Turkey. Would there be an outcry if people were banned from going to the site of the ANZAC’s landing because of mountains of trash, empty beer cans and human waste everywhere? Oh, wait hang on. There already has been a ban on treating Gallipoli like a four-day Big Day Out event, because it was considered disrespectful to both the Turkey and Australian soldiers killed there. Oh, the irony.
So why do Australians continue to fight the Uluru ban? Is it a lack of cultural understanding? A lack of traditional respect for the Indigenous community and other religions? Or is it a sense of middle-class white privilege?