The New York Times

A Chapter Is Closing at Uluru. But There's More to This Australian Story.

The New York Times - logo The New York Times 25/10/2019 22:27:00 Jamie Tarabay and Matthew Abbott
Sunset over Uluru. © GettySunset over Uluru.

ULURU, Australia - The creation stories of the Anangu people are sacred. Some can be shared only with men, some only with women. Some are revealed, layer by layer, as an Anangu grows and matures. Outsiders can be told only what a tjitji, or child, would hear.

Many of those stories reside in the geology of Uluru, the otherworldly red rock in the heart of Australia. For years, the Anangu have asked those who trek to the giant monolith to take them at their word that it is a holy place and should not be climbed. "This is our home," a sign at the base says. "Please don't climb."

On Saturday, that gentle plea will give way to an official ban on ascending Uluru, a national symbol whose auburn folds have graced countless postcards, tourism ads and selfies. It is a spiritual and psychological victory for an Aboriginal people who waged a decades-long campaign, anguished over the physical danger and cultural harm of the climb.

It is also a once-unimaginable act of deference to a marginalized population, one with potential effects for the vital tourism industry in one of the country's most famous national parks.

But, as with much of Indigenous life in Australia, there are two sides to the climb's closing.

Tourists marvel at Uluru a day before its official closure. © ReutersTourists marvel at Uluru a day before its official closure.

While most Australians support the Anangu's decision, climbers have flocked to Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, in recent months in numbers not seen for more than 15 years. On Friday, the last day of climbing, hundreds of people lined up to scale the rock. The flood of climbers is a reminder that a segment of the population remains resistant to some of the decisions Indigenous people make when ownership of land is returned to them.

"The question that hovers over all of this is why should the Anangu have to justify their rules?" said Tim Rowse, a historian and emeritus professor at Western Sydney University. "People who say they accept ownership without accepting control have not really considered what the word 'ownership' means."

And celebrated as the closing has been as a landmark for Aboriginal people, it also points to the limits to Australia's efforts to right its historical wrongs against them. It is a partly symbolic gesture that does nothing to address the myriad social problems endured by Indigenous Australians.

Many of the Anangu themselves live in a trash-strewn community near the rock that is closed to visitors, a jarring contrast to the exclusive resorts that surround the monolith, where tourists seated at white tablecloths drink sparkling wines and eat canapés as the setting sun turns Uluru a vivid red.

Uluru seen at sunset. © GettyUluru seen at sunset.

Those tourists point to other dualities, too. While Uluru is so sacred to the Anangu that there are certain parts that they do not want photographed or even touched, they welcome the visitors who tool around its base on camels or Segways, or take art lessons in its shadow.

Then there is the challenge that comes with making the case that the rock is sacred without being able to say why. Jennifer Cowley, the author of a book that traces the history of the Anangu people, said they were "stuck in a no-man's land."

Will and Kate visiting Uluru in 2014. © GettyWill and Kate visiting Uluru in 2014.

"They can't tell you the secrets it holds, because then they'd be breaking their traditional law, and if they break their traditional law, they're rubbishing their inheritance," Ms. Cowley said.

Sammy Wilson, an Anangu who recently stepped down as the chairman of the board that manages Uluru's national park, explained the situation with a modern analogy.

"It's like a big house," he said in a recent interview at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. "If you open the door, you come into the lounge, come and learn. We can talk about anything. But you can't come into my bedroom. That's sacred."

A notice for a permanent ban on climbing Uluru. © GettyA notice for a permanent ban on climbing Uluru.

Mr. Wilson said he did not want people to stop visiting Uluru, just to leave its sacred sites alone.

"Some people come only to climb," he said. "We want to teach them how we live, learn how our traditions work, see how it's about the wide-open country and how it's all connected."

During a recent visit to Uluru, it was clear that many people had come with a primary mission of climbing. People in jeans sweated profusely, clinging to the rock as they stumbled down the ridge. Many chose to descend its steep face backward, clinging to a low-set chain link. Some did it on all fours. One man in his 30s collapsed at the top, his children watching him as he slowly rehydrated and made his way down.

Jana Johnson, 32, had driven 1,700 miles from Rockhampton, near the coast in Queensland, with her family and two others. They, too, were there only to climb.

"We've been planning this for 12 months," she said.

They had no inclination to walk around the park or visit the cultural center. If they could not climb, they said, they would get back on the road. They had been waiting since morning for park officials to unlock the gate that opens intermittently to allow people to clamber up the steep ridge of the rock for the three-hour climb.

Aboriginal elders gather for a ceremony ahead of a permanent ban on climbing Uluru. © GettyAboriginal elders gather for a ceremony ahead of a permanent ban on climbing Uluru.

Some people who say the rock should remain open to climbing argue that it is part of a national park and therefore should belong to everyone. And there are those who discount the indigenous claims that climbing the rock offends their laws, pointing to photos from decades ago showing indigenous guides leading white people up Uluru.

Marc Hendrickx, a geologist who has campaigned against the closing, said that the sheer number of people coming to climb now was evidence enough that it should remain open.

"Every day, thousands of people are climbing; they're expressing their opinions by their actions," he said. "Everyone has a right to experience this place on their own terms without being bothered by petty bureaucracy and the religious views of others."

When the Australian government handed back the land that encompasses Uluru in 1985, it went on to lease it from the Anangu for 99 years.

Tourists at Uluru. © GettyTourists at Uluru.

The board that took over management of the park in 1985 had to attain benchmarks if it wanted to close the climb. It needed to develop enough other activities to push the share of visitors making the climb down to about 20 percent each year. Tourism officials believe those varied offerings will prevent any steep drop in visitors after the climb closes.

The Anangu, troubled not only by the cultural effects but also by the mounting number of deaths - at least 37 climbers have died since record-keeping began - also worked to change views of Uluru. Where climbers once logged their names at the summit, visitors now enter their name in a book at the cultural center attesting that they shunned the climb. And many who once climbed and took souvenirs are now returning them in the mail as "sorry rocks."

The Anangu get a percentage of the ticket sales for the park, and even if the numbers decline, said Mr. Wilson, they will not reopen the climb.

But while some of the money may flow to the Anangu, there are signs of neglect in the Indigenous community called Mutitjulu where many live.

Runners in Alice Springs at sunrise. © GettyRunners in Alice Springs at sunrise. Park officials say the community is closed to outsiders because visitors gawk at residents as though they are in a zoo. But few officials are prepared to answer for its unkempt condition; the council responsible for municipal services did not answer repeated emails and calls.

The community has a troubled history. Under an interventionist policy enacted in 2007, the government seized control of Aboriginal lands, banned alcohol and pornography, and increased the police presence. Twelve years later, trash clogs the wire fencing in Mutitjulu, and smashed cars are wedged against trees.

Some trash was collected before a visit by a federal politician, residents said. One tribal elder said he wanted money to go toward building a central hospital for the area, rather than the small clinics local communities now rely on.

While the victory on the climb may have little bearing on the material well-being of the Anangu, the last day that the gate is open to climbers will be an emotional one for all Indigenous people from central Australia, said Donald Fraser, who was raised by white missionaries in the late 1940s some 170 miles away from Uluru in a town once called Ernabella.

"We've done it very carefully; it took a long time," he said. "Most people respect it; only a bunch of people worried about money don't. We're not worried about the money."


26. lokakuuta 2019 1:27:00 Categories: Los Angeles Times The New York Times

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