Banning the Rock climb a nice, futile gesture
THE best thing about the mooted ban on climbing Uluru is that it gives slightly overweight, middle-aged white people who enjoy the occasional cigarette the perfect vehicle to forgo taxing exercise on the pretence of respect for indigenous heritage.
The worst thing about it is that it seems to be a bit of pre-ordained, politically correct posturing that will add to the nation’s ever-expanding collection of hollow symbolic gestures that do nothing to increase white Australia’s respect for, or understanding of, our Aboriginal history, and may actually work against it.
I have never climbed the rock and probably wouldn’t _ not just because I’m kind of lazy and would rather do the bus tour, sit down in front of the rock for a while, and get back for beers at sunset at the Yulara resort _ but also because it clearly distresses some Aboriginal people. It just seems kind of rude.
As Tory Maguire wrote on The Punch this week, if it is good enough for people to jump through hoops at other religious venues, such as mosques or cathedrals, by removing their shoes or covering their heads, then it’s probably fair enough that we adjust our behaviour and afford a similar respect to the first Australians.
The idea of climbing the rock as some form of personal odyssey or white man’s conquest also strikes me as a bit of a clapped-out 1970s concept, as evidenced by the triumphant T-shirt, ``I Climbed Ayers Rock’‘, which came in the one size, tight, so that your beer gut could peek out jauntily above your tropical drill shorts as you tightened the sandals and pointed the caravan towards Kings Canyon.
Why did you climb it, Nige? Because it was there, you could tell your mates triumphantly at the ensuing slide night - or these days, as the above youtube tourist video shows, after you’ve uploaded it to the web.
Funnily enough, it was the first white man to lay eyes on the rock, the surveyor-general of South Australia, William Gosse, who set the miserably low standard for our relationship with Uluru.
Gosse is rightly slotted by Tim Flannery in his excellent anthology The Explorers for writing what may be the most passionless and underwhelming sentence in the history of exploration.
``I was compelled to turn south and on to a high hill east of Mt Olga, which I named Ayers Rock,’’ reads the ripping account of his discovery on July 19, 1873.
Flannery writes that any man who could be confronted by a place ``almost hallucinogenic in its grandeur’’ and come up with such a flat account of how he named this ``high hill’’ after, excitingly enough, the chief secretary of South Australia, Henry Ayers, would find no place in his anthology.
The best modern-day chronicler of the vexed relationship between Australia and the rock is the former Darwin-based journalist Paul Toohey, who dissected the tensions between tourism, commercialism and Aboriginal heritage in a terrific piece in The Weekend Australian Magazine last year.
In his similarly excellent feature in The Australian yesterday, Toohey revealed that on reaching the summit, the first thing many white climbers do is have a wee or, worse, leave toilet paper to wash into the waterholes during the wet season. This was enough to convince me that the walk should be banned.
However, the issue that will grate with many Australians, black and white, is that the discussion about the rights and wrongs of climbing the rock appears to have been taken out of their hands and given to some government department that, in calling for a public debate, seems to have concluded that the rock should be off-limits to climbers.
Not for the first time, Environment Minister Peter Garrett has found himself in a quandary where, on the proposed ban being revealed, he’s refused to indicate where he formally stands on the matter, despite saying his personal preference is that people do not climb. Garrett is pointing to the two-month discussion period during which the board of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park will make up its mind.
Whether or not the climb is banned, the issue will do nothing to resolve the bigger and more troubling questions surrounding the relationship between black and white Australia, or the more troubling aspects of so-called indigenous tourism.
As I said, I have never climbed or seen Uluru but the closest I have got is a depressing day in transit in Alice Springs, returning to Adelaide from Broome.
Aside from the fact it appeared to be about 60C _ which you should expect in the middle of the desert _ the real discomfort of the day came from witnessing two things.
One was a sickening all-in brawl in the main street where a drunk black guy pulled a branch off a tree and started laying into a woman, the backdrop for which was the string of airconditioned tourist shops selling dot paintings, woven baskets and skeleton art from the Tiwi Islands, where cashed-up tourists from the US and Europe chatted amiably with the predominantly white owners and staff, before shelling out for their own little slice of our indigenous heritage to brighten up the wall of their apartment on the Upper East Side, or in Cologne or Berlin.
Sure, some of these stores are owned by Aboriginal Australians, some of them work with co-ops, and the money is often channelled back to indigenous communities.
But a lot of it just seems to be the crassest form of commercialism, where affluent people can buy into an idealised fantasy.
The real story, sadly enough, was happening away from the airconditioning, the $19.95 clapping sticks and the compact disc of ethereal music inspired by Kakadu, lying smashed on the footpath to be tip-toed around as you headed back to the resort at the end of a hard day hitting the credit card.
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