Whenever you mention that you're going for a trip to The Rock the conversation always seems to head in one direction – are you going to climb it? Have you climbed it before? It’s as though this meager act reflects upon your personality, yet alone moral self.
This past weekend I drove down to Uluru to fly from the airport that is controversial for industries dependent on tourism in Alice Springs, to Sydney.
On the way my friend and I managed to sight a running emu, two side by side dancing eagles, almost step on a whip snake and break down on the side of the road for several hours – all classic, camping in the bush stuff. Nearly every car that passed us as we tampered with the axles, knobs and bolts, was a deluxe, state of the art campervan, four-wheel drive, or tour bus. I marveled at their chic steel beauty and wondered, with an unintended absence of political correctness, where the beat-up camp cars from the Indigenous community were.
When we finally got the engine sorted and moving again it wasn’t long until the out-of-proportion inland island that is Uluru greeted our eyes.
We arrived at the campsite next to the resort and were shocked to find the grounds almost empty. I thought it was tourist season! However, as we headed into the park the long line of climbers – to quote Lindqvist, more like dots on an Aboriginal painting than conquerors – showed us where the action was.
Growing up in Alice, where land rights issues are at the forefront, I was aware even when I was in primary school that Uluru was holy ground for the Aboriginal people of that area, the Anangu. I’d only been there once until hitting adulthood and in all frankness the only image I remember is the Coca Cola icy-pole dangled before my nose, then clasped between teeth that couldn’t believe their luck. I wasn’t allowed sugar as a kid, so to have something so sweetly devilish in my clutch was far more impressive than what looked like a huge anthill. Still, I remember swearing loudly and quite ignorantly to a fellow playmate that I’d never ever climb it and very forcefully telling her that her dad was a "big meanie" for even attempting the trip.
Now that I’m an adult, however, I find many of my good friends and family have tackled Ayers Rock, trailing the track to the top. I also hear some around town proclaim
that many of the traditional owners don’t mind if white people hike up its surface. Information at the park's very own Culture Center claims that it was customary for the men to put a sacred stick at a certain place at the very top to instigate ceremonies. It could then be argued that no one knows the answer, that the information has perhaps crossed lines.
I remember reading once that Uluru was restored to its original owners in 1985 on the condition that they immediately leased back the whole area and made it accessible to tourists. The only Aboriginal people I saw in my two days there were a beautiful young woman walking around the art gallery with her baby. I felt too self-conscious of my tourist appearance to ask her how she felt about the expanse of resort and shopping center having no reflection of, what I presume is, her culture, merely tacky furniture and outdated carpets.
Walking around the base of ominous landmark on Saturday and looking in at the keyholes and cavities covered in ocher paintings, I painted my own image of the Anangu singing and dancing beneath the shadows of their sacred home. I had to wonder what benefit a title is when you can’t inhabit what you own. It was lucky I was wearing sunglasses because I actually cried.
In reality what you hear is a mishmash of languages and accents from around the world. All genuinely excited voices of warmth, but alien in feel to the landscape. I was trying to dampen the pompous ‘know it all’ in me and come to some kind of closure whilst still there, so I asked a rather puffed man at the trail’s edge how he felt about hitting the ground. “Are you going to ask me how long it took me?” he smiled. “45 years. I’m serious!” He went on to tell me how he had started when he was only five on a trip around Australia with his parents and had made it back with his girlfriend to complete the ascent now that he was old enough. The pride and joy in his face was lovely and I couldn’t help but smile back.
Now I’m confused. I don’t know what’s ‘right’. I still haven’t climbed it and won’t until I know where I stand in this ethical debate. Maybe I’ll never know. I guess this is what life asks of us all the time – to come to our subjective decisions and face the reactions to the choices we make. Photo by OLIVER ECLIPSE.