BATTERED AND BRUISED ULURU
posted on Friday, May 18, 2007 12:28 PM
Famous internationally as the world's biggest monolith, Uluru is also a highly sacred site violated every year by 400,000 visitors that continue to defy and disrespect aboriginal wishes by climbing to the summit.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta reassumed their traditional names in 1993, eight years after the area finally returned to the hands of its traditional owners - the local Pitjantjatjara people. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1987, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is in Australia's Northern Territory approximately 450km South West of Alice Springs. Although owned by local Aborigines, a condition of the land transfer from the australian government in 1985 was that it be leased back to the National Parks and Wildlife Service for a period of 99 years.
Despite the prevalence of literature and even a sign erected at the foot of Uluru by the local Pitjantjatjara people, requesting tourists not to climb the rock, a steady stream of minga tjuta - 'ants' as they are referred to by the Pitjantjatjara people - navigate their route to the summit via the safety chain put in place by the Australian National Park Service. As I look towards the shoulder of the rock it's easy to understand the local terminology - a long line of tourists parade up the side of the mound towards the summit, silhouetted against the deep blue outback sky.
Climbing the rock has never been formally outlawed, and although promised by Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1983, it was made a condition of the transfer two years later that it be allowed. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre is located about 1km from Uluru and is packed with multilingual displays, videos, and exhibitions. There is excellent information and resources of the surrounding area's geology and history. It is a must before exploring the rock. When I visited Uluru back in 2000 it was as part of a small group tour that I picked up in Alice Springs. After spending several days exploring the MacDonnell ranges and the area around Alice Springs I became increasingly fascinated by Aboriginal culture and the struggles that exist in modern times, with two very different cultures living side by side. Nowhere more than here was it possible to empathise with the Aborigine's sense of invasion and subjugation by another culture, and to witness the frustration of an older generation watching their traditions fade. Following my experiences in Alice Springs the tour I took made stops at Watarrka and Kata Tjuta before arriving at Uluru, and it was this background experience and growing empathy that encouraged me to take a more spiritual and considerate approach to Uluru when I finally arrived. As a result I wonder whether another precious piece of cultural heritage has moved on too far in the tourist development lifecycle. The nearby development of Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara and the neighbouring airport has undoubtedly removed the necessity to make the educational journey to Uluru over land. In a lifecycle played out all over the world that pushes towards access for the mass market gradually destroys the very essence of an attraction. (Machu Picchu in Peru is another example that I will write more about my experiences of next). Do we push the development of these tourist attractions so far that they eventually lose their sanctity and appeal?
"Surveys conducted by geographer Richard Baker from the Australian National University showed that the number of people who climbed or intended to climb Uluru, had fallen from 43% of park visitors in 2003 to 35.5% in 2004. Four or five years ago, the proportion of climbers was estimated to be about half of all visitors. Interestingly, Baker found that Australians and the Japanese were the most keen to climb the ancient rock, while Europeans were the least likely."
Linda Popic, The Guardian. Saturday, December 17 2005
"Among the hundreds of historically distinctive indigenous societies within Australia, mass tourism has transformed the Pitjantjatjara into an antipodean equivalent of the Navajo—a culture that is celebrated and romanticized by the same public consciousness that threatens to dilute it."
Rolf Potts, Slate. Monday, March 5th 2007