By ERWIN CHLANDA
Back then, when it came to visitor experiences, it didn’t get much better than climbing The Rock.
Today, both Parks Australia and Charles Darwin University (CDU) are saying climbing offends Uluru’s traditional owners. Climbing has become a No-No.
Are Parks just taking the easy way out? Is CDU lending its name to claims that cannot be sustained? CDU says it is not. It’s a conundrum with a big dollar sign attached to it.
“I climbed the Rock” was the proud boast of hundreds of thousands of people who, over the years, bought T-shirts with this inscription, wore them, fondly remembered their adventure and – coincidentally – became part of a world-wide promotion of one of Australia’s greatest natural wonders.
Today climbing the Rock has not been banned, although Aboriginal activists have frequently threatened to do so.
But lest they are regarded as insensitive, a lot of visitors are giving the climb a miss. And while Parks claims that 80% of visitors are happy with what’s offered, there seems to be no answer to the question of how many are staying away from the Uluru Kata Tjuta national park because they are not meant to climb.
Parks Australia, a Federal instrumentality, beyond briefly quoting two identified traditional owners, will not give further detail on how they came to have made this decision, whom they consulted in the process of making it, where and when, and how the question was put to them.
For example, did Parks take into account that they would diminish the enjoyment of the park for a lot of people; that the earnings by the traditional owners from gate money would be reduced?
CDU says it simply passes on to its trainee guides what Parks tells them to.
Parks, which took over the management from Northern Territory authorities (without their consent) in 1986, makes no secret that allowing visitors to climb is placing a strain on its staff and management. They clearly would like to shut down the climb.
The current 10-year plan is long on protection of Aboriginal culture, and of flora and fauna and other environmental considerations. But it is very short on the significance of the park as a tourist attraction and as an important element of the Territory economy: These are clearly secondary considerations.
The plan requires “account to be taken of … the interests of the traditional owners of the park, any other Indigenous persons interested in the park, any person who has a usage right … that existed (or is derived from a usage right that existed) immediately before the park was declared.
“Joint management is the term used to describe the working partnership between Nguraritja [the traditional Aboriginal owners of the park] and relevant Aboriginal people and the Director of National Parks as lessee of the park.
“Joint management is based on Aboriginal title to the land.”
The plan says “our aim” is that “a range of activities are provided that optimise the park’s diversity and the quality of visitor experiences, in a manner that continues to protect and promote Anangu interests and the park’s cultural and natural values.
“Respect for Tjukurpa [Aboriginal dreaming] will underpin all park management tourism decisions. Nguraritja will guide the nature and pace of tourism developments in the park.”
Over the years the huffing and puffing about climbing has reached absurd heights: For example, the ascent by Bromley turned into a major scandal. Bromley is a bear in a children’s book.
Parks requires tour guides to complete a course before being allowed to work there. This “blended course” is provided by CDU, mostly online, “self paced” and typically takes from a couple of weeks to six months, according CDU.
Says Parks: “A key interpretive message taught in the course is that traditional owners and Parks Australia ask that visitors respect culture and not climb.
“Students are taught to see the country Anangu way to help explain to their visitors the relationship between the land and people.
“Anangu discourage climbing for cultural, safety and environmental reasons.”
The course is offered by Charles Darwin University and this brings up the crucial question: From where did CDU get the information that “Anangu” don’t want visitors to climb?
A university puts its good name on the line when it teaches facts: These need to be carefully researched, meticulously sourced and documented, peer reviewed and published in reputable journals.
There is no shortage of excellent precedent for this in CDU’s region, with people like TGH Strehlow, WEH Stanner, Olive Pink to name a few legendary researchers, not to mention current workers in the field, setting benchmarks for study of Aboriginal culture.
We asked CDU about how it put together the course material.
An exchange of some 20 emails ensued between the CDU, Parks and the News since last October. We soon hit a snag, being told by CDU that under the “contractual arrangement with Parks … CDU is not permitted to disclose any confidential information … without the Director’s prior written approval”.
The News replied: “We see no reason why publicly funded Parks Australia is not disclosing information provided by a publicly funded university concerning the management of a public place at public expense.”
Parks then cleared the path for CDU to answer our questions. Eureka!
Well, not quite. CDU’s reply was both brief and troubling:-
“The two separate courses are taught using a broad range of resources some of which are developed by Parks Australia with the assistance of CDU, such as the [Park] Knowledge Handbook.
“The content of this handbook is provided by Parks Australia, based on the park’s board-approved management plan.
“The question of whether to ‘climb or not’ … is an individual’s personal decision. We suggest the guides consider … the wishes of the traditional owners (as conveyed by Parks Australia through their website and printed materials),” says CDU.
So here we have it: The ‘anthropological’ evidence which CDU is teaching its students is what its paying customer, Parks Australia, is supplying to them, seemingly pushing their own agenda. It is not what the university’s own academic endeavours have unearthed.
CDU, it seems, is putting its imprimatur on findings suiting a paying customer while ignoring academic research principles.
However, it’s not that simple, says CDU: They are a “dual sector” university, offering higher education as well as VET (vocational and education training) courses.
Research principles applied to higher education are different to VET courses “whose contents are determined by industry. We’re also delivering hairdressing and beauty courses”.
The course for the guides is a VET course. The knowledge it contains comes from Parks, simply passed on by CDU to the course participants.
In its management plan 2010 to 2020, Parks quotes the names of just two traditional owners on the subject of climbing: Kunmanara Nguraritja (“This is the proper way: no climbing”) and Tony Tjamiwa (“Climbing is not a proper tradition for this place”).
If there is not a range of other views on this subject then this fact needs to be reliably documented – but don’t look to CDU for doing that.
I had the opportunity of speaking with Paddy Uluru early in my work in Central Australia (I arrived in December 1974).
Mr Uluru was the undisputed custodian of The Rock at that time.
We spoke face to face at the base of monolith, and he was happy to be photographed with the Rock in the background. (Restrictions on photography of The Rock has since developed into a nasty, bitter and divisive issue. Apart from anything else the rules are stifling millions of dollars worth of free publicity of this tourist attraction.)
Mr Uluru told me if tourists are stupid enough to climb the Rock, they’re welcome to it.
For him there was nothing of practical value up there such as water, game nor edible plants.
He made it clear that knowledge of certain elements of the Rock’s dreaming must remain secret, to be known only by a strictly defined circle of people.
That knowledge would be passed on to outsiders at the pain of serious punishment and perhaps death.
But the physical act of climbing was of no cultural interest, Mr Uluru told me.
Maybe then, this is what the “don’t climb” campaign is all about (also quoting from the management plan): “Considerable resources are dedicated to managing the climb and to related health and safety issues.
“Maintenance of the park’s vertical rescue capability requires that the numerous staff involved undertake intensive external training and regular in-house training.
“Each time an incident occurs several staff and emergency personnel are involved and helicopters are often utilised.
“Search and rescue operations in the park often require those involved to undertake some level of personal risk.”
Translation: It’s all too hard?
The park is Federally funded. It had an operating cost of $15,306,000 in 2013-14 and received external revenue of $6,778,000, largely made up of ticket sales.
PHOTOS: Visitors climbing The Rock in 2010 • The Petticoat Safari in 1957, (pic courtesy Edna Saunders) • Climbers ignoring the closed sign • What should get priority: Arguing about climbing or the doing something about the infestation of buffel grass around the world famous monolith?
By ERWIN CHLANDA