Chris Watson

Opinion

NBN Failure and the Ghost of Old Heavitree

OpinionChris Watson

“We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a terra incognita believed to be a desert” – Sir Charles Hedley (Heavitree) Todd, the first message passed along the completed Overland Telegraph Line, 22nd of August 1872

One of these men is an innovator, talented leader and telecommunications pioneer. Pic - @leftocentre

Anyone who knows anything about Charles Todd, knows that we could have a world-class National Broadband Network (NBN) and soon. Listening to most of our political leaders though, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’ll take the best part of 15 or 20 years to deliver a sub-standard one.

Colonial Australia in the 1860s was an unimaginably isolated place by today’s standards. Before the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), any message might have taken as long as three months to reach England with a corresponding three month wait for a response – half a year round trip for the merest of personal or business correspondence. In the simple act of connecting the lines at Frews Ponds, south of Daly Waters, and sending the telegraph message repeated above, Todd banished an age in which an inconceivable tyranny of distance held the emerging nation of Australia in check.

In that instant, the communication time with London went from 6 months… to 7 hours.

Absorb that for a few moments. 7 hours compared with 6 months. If you had your affairs in order at the start of the day, you might even get a reply by the close of business the same day!

Of course, there had been years of exploration, planning and construction leading up to that moment. The OTL still ranks beside the Snowy Mountains Scheme as one of the greatest achievements in engineering and infrastructure construction in Australian history. But once the project began it was completed in a dazzlingly short amount of time.

If you’re interested in learning more about the OTL project, and I can recommend it as a cracking yarn and a crucial bit of Australian history, there are plenty of resources available. One of the best is the book by Todd’s great-great-great-granddaughter Alice Thomson, The Singing Line.

The salient points are these: until 1862, a route south to north through the centre of Australia was unknown to the colonists. In that year, after six exploratory expeditions, Scotsman John McDouall Stuart finally succeeded in pioneering the route that the OTL would follow. The final contract for construction of the OTL was signed in 1870 and Todd was put in charge of the project. 30,000 poles and 3200km of line later, relying only on the Great Scot’s notebooks, maps and diaries and despite the vicissitudes of operating in the unknown and extreme environs of The Outback; despite striking work teams (at one point work ceased for a full five months) and still just seven months late, the job was done. Adelaide was connected with Darwin and from there to the rest of the world.

From the time they decided to build it, across the entire continent, through virtually unknown territory, it was finished in a shade over two years.

Two. Years.

From the time colonists first crossed the continent, to the time they'd spanned it with a line of communication, was less than ten years.

Now, 143 years later, our leaders are trying to tell us that it’s going to cost tens of billions of dollars and take 15 years or more to build a national network; with modern techniques and machinery; with a larger and more highly-trained workforce; in a landscape which is utterly well-known and accessible. Workers on the OTL faced death by disease, heat, cold, starvation, snake bite, crocodile attack or spearing. The greatest risk faced by an NBN worker will be a lingering bitterness on the tongue when the local barista burns the milk for their fifth latte of the day; perhaps a deep paper cut while filling out their daily Job Safety & Environment Assessment.

Furthermore, we’re now being sold an antediluvian Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) version of the network constructed, at least in part, of the same materials used by Todd – metal wire – when optic-fiber technology is readily available and preferable.

The numerous delays and budgetary blowouts involving the NBN fiasco are a matter of public record. If it weren’t for the constant changes of leadership and gamification of infrastructure projects, the thing could almost have been built by now.

Doesn’t it all smack of leaders behaving out of narrow self-interest despite a universal acknowledgement of the significance of this project to the national interest?

What would Old Heavitree make of all this? Sir Charles Todd passed away in 1910 at his home in Semaphore, Adelaide. I wish more people knew about him and the many things he achieved. Perhaps a better acquaintance with the extraordinary people from our history might make us less willing to accept the rampant ineptitude and chronic obfuscation that is currently on offer under the misnomer of leadership in our nation’s capital.

CBW

The Night Parrot: A bird in the hand but how many left in the bush?

Opinion, Citizen Science, ResearchChris Watson

Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis. by kind permission John Young

In 2005 the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology published its report of the rediscovery of the iconic Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis, rightful claimant to the title of Grail Bird in US ornithology, and presumed extinct since the 1940s. Exhaustive searches of the Cache and White River systems ultimately produced no further evidence and the "rediscovery" is now widely discredited. The similarly elusive Pink-headed Duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea, may have been sighted in 1988 on the banks of the Brahmaputra (north-eastern India), by Rory Nugent and Shankar Barua - but we can't be sure. The only known photographs of this species alive are from 1925, and the last specimen was shot in India, in 1935. That much of its habitat lies in remote and poorly surveyed parts of Myanmar is a cause for some optimism and its official classification is Critically Endangered, rather than Extinct. But despite a few reports in the last decade, no evidence of its continued existence has ever been produced. In Australia there still remains one living species that, despite being seen and identified by a few determined birders in its difficult north Queensland home in most years, no photographs of a live specimen have ever been produced* - the Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii.


The world of birds offers many tantalising mysteries to the intrepid adventurer, but pre-eminent among these has always been the Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis - a bird tailor-made for controversy and a species which eluded some of the best field ornithologists in the land for a century. A fair dinkum enigma.


The Night Parrot has laboured under many unfortunate monikers; The Loch Ness Monster of birds, The Tasmanian Tiger of birds, The Holy Grail of Birding, The Fat Budgie, or simply, The Ex-Parrot. If you have been following this story however, you will understand that none of these epithets is fitting, if indeed they ever were. While it will almost certainly remain the Holy Grail for some birdos, some of the mystery surrounding the species was banished forever on Big Wednesday. On the 3rd of July 2013, Australian naturalist John Young revealed at an exclusive, invitation only, private function at the Queensland Museum, irrefutable evidence of the species' continued existence at an undisclosed site in the southwest of the state. Marking the culmination of many years of fieldwork and study including 17000 hours at the one site, John Young, with his mate John Stewart holding the torch, managed to capture high quality digital photographs and 17 seconds of video footage of the species, very much alive, in its native habitat of thick spinifex. Only a few photographs were displayed at the strict no-cameras and no-recorders event, and only 6 seconds of the video footage, but the images have been studied around the world and there is no doubt that they're the real deal. John’s stunning images graced the cover of our national bird magazine, Australian Birdlife, and one of them now graces my wall.


A more demure and heavily-watermarked image appeared on the front page of The Weekend Australian accompanying an article by Tony Koch on June 29th 2013. The online edition of that story can be found here.


Since this first appearance in the media, John’s story has done the rounds and an online search will take you to any number of articles that have summarised the find with wildly varying degrees of accuracy. Among the coverage that has been less burdened by truth, rectitude, and research, I got a particular chuckle out of the following that claims the species can be "commonly found" while still being one of the "world's most mysterious birds" in the same sentence. It also credits the discovery to a "Mr John King", (there's been a second discovery?) and accompanies the news with a stolen picture of a Ground Parrot Pezoporus wallicus, here.


Suffice to say that the coverage in the media has been patchy at best, and is a nice reflection of a conversation that is gaining momentum across the country about the loss of good science journalists. Other reports unnecessarily perpetuated some old myths and even started up a few new ones. Chief among these is the fallacy that the species was presumed extinct. Very few, if any, people with any interest in the subject thought that the species had already gone extinct. This would be a difficult assumption to maintain in the face of much evidence to the contrary. Although the last specimen was actively acquired in 1912, two dead specimens were found more recently within 200 kilometres of each other in western Queensland; one in 1990 and the second in 2006. Dead birds have to come from living populations. 


Other news reports claimed this to be the first time the bird was seen alive in over 100 years. This is another clear exaggeration - the excitement in the ornithological community was over the first photographs of a live specimen, ever. It would be unusual for more than a few years to pass without one or two reports emanating from the outback of observations of the species. While many of these reports have common and questionable characteristics (they occur in poor light, observers had fleeting glimpses, observers were not bird experts or even practised bird-watchers) and are rightly treated with some skepticism, not all of them are likely to be apocryphal or mistaken. Some observations have been by highly respected, experienced field ornithologists, and some have been well-documented and ratified by peer review as recently as 2005 in Western Australia.  Add to this the fact that anyone seeking or claiming to have seen the Night Parrot has often been treated to raised eyebrows and some level of derision with labels like "Yowie Hunter" sometimes thrown around. In such an atmosphere it's easy to understand that there are probably other sightings that have gone unreported due to the fear of ridicule or the loss of professional credibility. Furthermore, if we look at other examples of species whose former range covered much of the continent inside the 280 millimetre isohyet, Greater Bilby Macrotis lagotis, say, it's possible that there remain remnant populations at widely separated locations - it's unlikely that John discovered the last of the Night Parrots. He just happened to be the only one with the talent and the grit, and let’s be fair perhaps a bit of good luck, to find them. At the time of writing he remains the only living person to have found a population of Night Parrots.

John’s photographs are spectacular, and provide satisfying evidence of the bird's continuing existence, but they don't really provide any advantage to other people looking for the species; we already know what the bird looks like and we have 24 museum specimens to study at close quarters.


Make no mistake - it is a recording of the Night Parrot's call that professional ecologists have been really excited about. This will provide an immeasurable advantage in any attempts to locate populations of this bird elsewhere. As, by John's own accounts, the bird is so difficult to observe, knowing what it sounds like will be the crucial tool for professional scientists hoping to identify remnant populations in other locations, and prevent the destruction or disturbance of their habitat. For professional ecologists working on the site of a development, the key to halting or modifying the extent of habitat disturbance or destruction comes down to proving the presence of listed species. So seen through the eyes of an ecologist conducting pre-clearance surveys in remote areas with undisturbed tracts of potential Night Parrot habitat about to be flattened, the importance of this recording is difficult to overstate. As it stands, field ecologists have Buckley's chance of actually observing a bird, and even less chance of being able to authenticate the sighting unless they also manage to photograph the bird. However, if they know what to listen for, or better yet, have an automated recording device allowing them to screen both audibly and visually for the bird's vocalisation after several weeks or months of constant recording, the chance of verifying the species' presence, and stopping land clearing, heads into the realms of practicality.


Withholding such a crucial tool for establishing the species’ presence hampers attempts to locate the birds in other locations. John kept his recordings of the bird’s call to himself in the weeks and months following his announcement and I was too hasty to be critical of him for this at the time. I’ve since got to know John quite well and have come to understand the immense pressure that he must have been under at the time. He had a lot of different interests competing for his attention and his response, and in hindsight perhaps the best thing he could have done, was to keep the welfare of the bird in the front of his mind and keep the recordings under wraps. Once the dust had settled he had the unenviable task of trying to work out what to do next and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history.

I know nothing of the supposed acrimony surrounding John’s parting of company with the current research team at Pullen Pullen Reserve so there is no point engaging in baseless speculation. But the availability of acoustic data remains a pertinent and pressing question three years on. Why can’t it be released? Bush Heritage, or people operating on their property, are in possession of an unprecedented library of calls. Just a few call recordings is all it would take for ecologists operating in potential Night Parrot habitat elsewhere to positively confirm the species’ presence. The species range once took in most of inland Australia so they might not necessarily occur in habitat identical to that at Pullen Pullen Reserve; we should be looking and listening far and wide. Just a few individuals and organisations have been in possession of this critical piece of knowledge for some years now, while potential Night Parrot habitat has been going under the dozer blade for developments of all types across the outback. Bush Heritage and the team they have researching the Night Parrot at Pullen Pullen deserve full credit for the work that they are doing. It will be a landmark publication when the findings of their study finally see the light of day but we have no way of knowing how far off that publication will be. Their lack of engagement has some in the conservation community pessimistic that the call will ever be released.

Courtesy: social media commentators


A common cry from supporters of the current status quo, in rebuttal to those requesting the release of call recordings has been, "go and record it yourself". Apart from being the sort of argument I'd expect from a petulant eight year old, this demonstrates a particular backwardness and a deep misapprehension of the process of scientific investigation. I'm not going to be so naive as to suggest that the scientific community is free from spats, rifts, and schisms - there are even a few famous examples of what might be termed long-running feuds. By and large though, these are intellectually driven and rarely internecine. Scientific competition and rivalries drive opposing teams to greater rigour in their experimentation and investigation to disprove the counter position - thereby driving the process of understanding. We all benefit from the hard graft of our predecessors, hence the much-quoted saying attributed to Sir Isaac Newton of those who achieve greatness doing so only by, "standing on the shoulders of giants".

The time has well and truly come, for those in possession of Night Parrot call recordings and findings about the species’ ecology to put their cards on the table, hoist any critics to their shoulders and let them see what else they can see. 


At the time of John Young’s initial rediscovery of the Pullen Pullen population, the one thing that there was little disagreement on, across the board, was that it would probably be best if the location of the population remained tightly controlled. There was sound reasoning for allowing a small team of researchers in to commence a detailed study. Beyond that though, even hardcore twitchers, rabid birders, and fanatical photographers were in rare, if slightly grudging agreement - the site should remain protected for as long as possible. This, despite the fact that it's arguable the site was adequately protected already. If it was anywhere within any sensible interpretation of John's description of "southwest Queensland" then it had the benefit of being remote, probably not accessible on sealed roads, and probably difficult to get to from any major centre with anything less than a fairly costly field expedition. In an area as remote as that, any such expedition could be fairly sure of attracting attention before they'd got within a stone's throw of the site. 


Once again though, the long-standing fallacy of the "twitching hordes" was wheeled out for another tired lap around the forums and social media sites. It’s a myth; albeit a persistent one. Of all the numerous threats facing Night Parrots, the occasional unethical happy-snapper is the least of them. The slightest acquaintance with other cases where the binocular-wielding bogeymen of the twitching hordes have been invoked, shows it to be pure fantasy.

Courtesy: social media commentators

The excitement of Princess Parrots Polytelis alexandrae, present west of Alice Springs in 2010, attracted fewer than 150 people to travel out to see them. Of these, more than half were the families and friends of locals connected to authorities charged with the protection of the site - mostly not birders, just curious locals going for a gawk because they could. Sure there were a few car-loads of interstate twitchers, and a few knobs who did the wrong thing by going out there without permission too, but what are we talking about? 5 people? Maybe 10? Remember there were hundreds of Princess Parrots, probably with the Night Parrot, the most sought-after species on the Australian List. Admittedly, there was one confirmed report of sinister activity from a prominent aviculturist during this event (let's just call him "Ladder Boy"), but twitching hordes? Hardly. 


Then Princess Parrots turned up again in 2012. This time they were on publicly accessible land, just a short drive from Alice Springs at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy's (AWC) Newhaven Sanctuary. You could leave Alice Springs after breakfast and be on-site by lunchtime. This has a well-serviced and beautifully set up campsite too - hot showers even. AWC had volunteer wardens guiding people to see the birds every morning and afternoon. Again, there were flocks of over a hundred birds, super reliable every day for close to a month! How many of the horde, twitching or otherwise, came to see them? Fewer than a hundred is my information from AWC's managers. Again, a good portion of these were locals. I went out there twice; the first time the only other visitors were a few members of the Alice Springs Field Naturalists Club, and four people from the nearby community of Nyirripi who didn't even have binoculars! On my second visit I shared the campground with only two other people.

Courtesy: social media commentators


What about a situation perfect for the terrorisation of a bird by unethical birders and photographers? A first for the Australian mainland list in a suburban garden. When a Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus, appeared in Alice Springs in April 2013, many prognosticated the end of the town as we knew it. The hordes were saddling up and galloping to the Red Centre to swamp us; supermarkets were emptied of baked beans and cockroach spray and locals hunkered down in their panic rooms. Sure enough though, a few birders came for a dekko, but again, the greatest visitation was by locals. The total number of people who have this bird on their list eventually, and in a very polite and convivial atmosphere, crept north of 100 during the bird’s almost three month occupancy of the Cormacks’ back lawn. In a garden. With chairs, and shady trees, and cups of tea, scones, toilets. Around the corner there are cafes, and shops, and fuel stations, and hotels. If this twitch was too arduous for the twitching hordes, what’s the likelihood of them going after a bird that foxed one of the greatest bushmen in the country for 5 years? In a fly-blown, spinifex-covered gravel-pit in western Queensland?


No, the whole myth of the twitching hordes, while it might be a concern in similar situations in the UK, is just a red herring in an Australian setting. More than alerting us to the dangers of over-zealous birdwatchers it raises the valid question of why those who perpetuate the myth, continue to do so.

Bulldozers: an actual threat to bird conservation

In contrast, I have stood in broad daylight with not a twitcher in sight, in very remote parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia and watched people, fully sanctioned by Australian law, driving 49 tonne bulldozers through hundreds of kilometres of pristine, potential Night Parrot habitat. I often feel like the reality of this land clearance is elusive to the majority of Australians with little experience of the outback, but land clearing has been identified by numerous bodies as one of the greatest threats to Australian ecosystems and the primary cause of species extinctions on the mainland. The outback can seem so big and indomitable that a few cuts of a dozer blade might seem inconsequential in the vast scale of things. If you’re at all uncertain of what a serious threat this is to our environment, just do a Google search for “reflection seismology” and have a read of what you find. This is a common practice in mineral exploration in Australia and it is cutting lines right across the outback every single day. At present, the only thing likely to stop this is professional ecologists confirming presence of Night Parrot (or other listed species) on exploration tenements. Again, this brings us back to the urgency for a survey methodology informed by acoustic data.


The protection of the location of Bush Heritage’s Pullen Pullen Reserve, while condoned by most in the Australian conservation community, is certainly less critical than the search for other populations in potential Night Parrot habitat under imminent threat of such clearing. Considering the number of journalists that Bush Heritage have been flying in and out of the site, how long can the site remain a secret anyway?  


In fact, it turns out, the site is now all but common knowledge. In The Weekend Australian published yesterday, Greg Roberts reveals that the cattle property John Young found the birds on is Brighton Downs Station, from whom Bush Heritage recently negotiated the purchase of the 56,000ha Pullen Pullen Reserve. With Google Earth and SatNav, even Blind Freddy can find Pullen Pullen Reserve now. Not that it really matters though. This still makes not a jot of difference to the likelihood of the site receiving any unwanted visitors, be they birdwatchers, egg-collectors, Jehovah’s Witnesses or otherwise. The site is under 24-hour surveillance, with intensive coverage of camera traps and listening devices and… it’s still a bloody long way from anywhere.

The Outback: if you think it's going to be an easy twitch.... you're wrong

In the mess that this story has now become, birdwatchers are still being touted as among the top threats to the well-being of the Night Parrot and Bush Heritage’s efforts to protect it. This is so far beyond ludicrous that I’m genuinely surprised at the readiness with which the birding community has been prepared to sit back and wear it. By far the biggest threats to the conservation of the species now are the mishandling of public interest and goodwill, the clearing of potential Night Parrot habitat elsewhere, feral cats and foxes, uncontrolled fires and the continued and inexplicable hoarding of acoustic data that should be informing pricked ears and automated recorders right across the outback rather than just taking up space on a hard drive somewhere.

Courtesy: social media commentators

In the three years since John Young’s historic find, the site, to the best of our knowledge, has received no unwanted visitors. Nil. It’s time to dispense with the twitching hordes bullshit. It just doesn’t add up and any further attempts to perpetuate it should be seen as a deliberate attempt to deflect attention and a pointless attack on a group who continue to make a valuable contribution to conservation and our understanding of birds in this country.

It’s also an interesting measure of the mishandling of both the media attention and the overwhelming goodwill of the birding community toward this project that, in the wake of Greg Roberts’ revelatory article, the internet was comparatively silent on the matter.

People have finally got Night Parrot fatigue, something I wouldn’t have thought possible. A bird that once set the birdwatching forums, blogs and chat rooms alight with spirited conversation and debate barely rated a few short threads on Facebook and a few fairly pedestrian posts on Birding-Aus. Bush Heritage may well be protecting the Night Parrot to the best of their ability but their media team seem to have killed the bulk of the public interest in it stone dead. The scientifically incompatible use of secrecy as a marketing tool and the drip-feed of same-old same-old titbits masquerading as news updates, clearly isn’t working.

As it stands, there are probably a few individuals out there who have become infinitely more knowledgeable about the ways of the Night Parrot than anyone else in history. This is some consolation. Publication is a slow process at the best of times and anyone can understand the need for researchers to guard their work until after publication. We can assume they’ll share this knowledge one day, but time is getting on. There are almost certainly populations of Night Parrot elsewhere in the outback that don’t enjoy the same level of habitat protection afforded to the birds at Pullen Pullen Reserve. As long as we don’t have a widely available acoustic survey methodology, every other population of Night Parrot is in imminent danger of being bulldozed into oblivion even before we know where they are.

Another source of great consolation is that John Young now has the full backing of AWC and is back out bush where he belongs. AWC, working with Queensland National Parks and Wildlife (QPWS), have committed to building one of the largest feral predator-proof enclosures in the country at the Diamantina and Astrebla Downs properties in western Queensland. This is in the middle of prime Night Parrot and Greater Bilby country and it’s not revealing any secret at all to state that these properties are right next door to Brighton Downs. So with the only man with a proven track record for finding Night Parrots spearheading their operation, you’d have to say that it’s a pretty safe bet that, in due course, AWC will be sitting on Night Parrots too and that can only be a good thing.

And besides, it’s fitting that John Young continues to be the Night Parrot man. That’s a title he never asked for and actively shuns. At every public occasion he has stated repeatedly that he wants the story to be about the bird and not about him. But you can’t always get what you want. The name of John Young is now irretrievably linked with the Night Parrot whether he likes it or not. If it weren’t for John Young I wouldn’t be writing this, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and the internet would be even more silent (on this topic anyway) than it has been in recent days.

For this, we all owe John our thanks.

Good times in The Alice with John Young (centre) and the committee of Birdlife Central Australia

 

Postscript

This is an instructive conversation to be having at any time but perhaps particularly so in the lead-up to another federal election. We’ve watched science and conservation funding whittled away by successive governments and officially sanctioned environmental vandalism and negligence on an unprecedented scale in recent years. With the fair dinkum work of conservation increasingly being left to private organisations like Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Birdlife Australia and Bush Heritage, such groups need all the support they can get.

If it seems like I’m unfairly or overly critical of any organisations or individuals it is only because I care about the iconic landscapes and animals in Australia’s outback which I often suspect of being consistently overlooked by those who make the decisions about what is worth preserving and what research is worth funding. I can only write with the information that I am privy to, but if there are any errors of any kind, feel free to get in touch and I’ll straighten them out.

 

 

NB: *There have been persistent rumours in recent weeks that we should expect some big news regarding this last holy grail in Australian ornithology. We can only wait for more information.

 

We Don't Climb

OpinionChris Watson

Nobody should be climbing Uluru*.

That’s what I thought when I first contemplated the dilemma – to climb or not to climb - in 2006 and nothing has changed.

DON'T PUSH THE RED BUTTON.

What did you just think of? There’s an interesting phenomenon in human psychology, closely linked with negative suggestion, called reactance. It’s that ugly, irksome little voice in your head that urges you to step on the lawn as soon as you see a sign that says, “KEEP OFF”.

We'll return to Uluru in a minute. I promise there is a point here. Stick with me.

In essence, reactance is a response to a perceived limitation or the threat of removal of choice, and it has the potential to make us act against our own best interests. In the clinical version of the experiment, a person, often a child but not necessarily, is sat in a room with a big, bright red button on the wall. The administrator of the test leaves the subject alone in the room with a single definite instruction – DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON. In almost every case, the subject will press the button. Sometimes there is an incentive involved as well; a bag of sweets or a quantity of cash if they simply DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON. They’ll still press it. Derren Brown upped the ante by leaving a subject alone in a room with a fluffy kitten in a metal cage that would be electrified, killing the cat, if she pressed the button. He even offered her a pile of cash, in addition to the fact that she’d be sparing the kitty’s life, if she would simply not press the button for 5 minutes once he left the room. I won’t spoil the ending. The point is that it can be a very strong response. It has been well-studied in relation to childhood development, parenting and teaching but it can even have relevance to international relations.

Blood & Guts: dispatches from the whale wars, is a fascinating account of the antagonisation of the Japanese whaling fleet by Sea Shepherd. In it, Sam Vincent concludes that Japan isn’t so much pro-whaling as it is anti-anti-whaling. The claim is that Sea Shepherd were pushing at an open door by going after the Japanese whalers. It was already an industry in steeper decline than the populations of the animals it pursued and the market for the meat was niche, at best, and dwindling. But when Sea Shepherd came onto the scene and started niggling at the last remaining vestiges of the dying industry, the whalers dug their heels in. Faced with overwhelming opprobrium from the West and the harassment by Sea Shepherd, they chose to keep on whaling. This was a move that was counterproductive, destructive and expensive, and it saw Japanese whaling persist long past the point at which it was no longer a profitable industry; pure reactance in action. The façade of whaling as research was always as thin as rice paper, and the continued whale harvest was really just a middle finger to those who were telling them to stop; specifically to Sea Shepherd. Sea Shepherd might have seen an end to Japanese whaling years earlier had they simply… not bothered. Sea Shepherd provided the big red button that invited pushing.

It’s an interesting example and I recommend the book. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty sure that this infantile response has a part to play in our bizarre reluctance to close Uluru to climbing, and certainly with some peoples’ fixation on climbing, especially once they’re told they shouldn’t.

Prohibition really does bring out the worst in us doesn't it?

Nobody should be climbing Uluru.

I sat and watched, troubled, as the line of tourists marched along the chain, up to the top, then back down the same way. There’s an inherent, generally harmless, futility in the human urge to climb things but the fact that so many people, particularly Australians, have no compunction about climbing Uluru is, for me, a phenomenon infused with ennui.

From the widescreen vantage point behind the steering wheel of my bus parked at the base of Uluru, a similar tawdry scene would play out before me for many years to come. Shifting tides of cars and buses would ebb and flow around my quiet and fly-free little sanctuary. People would scuffle past looking for somewhere to empty their bladder; asking their tour guide if they’ll need water (always); shoes (of course); a camera (dunno – do you want to take pictures?) or a jumper (shit – should we just ring your mum?) Eventually they’d either climb up Uluru or head off on the roughly three hour walk around its base.

The climbers always had a bit of theatre to go through.

We all do things we know are bad; either bad for us, bad for some other poor sod or perhaps even bad for society in some way. We drive like reckless idiots, eat bad food or drink too much or too often and we buy shoes, cars and countless other goods that almost certainly required the exploitation of more than a few hapless individuals before coming into our possession. We justify these behaviours to ourselves in one way or another. Generally, the degree to which we’re aware of the ramifications of our choices is in inverse proportion to the ease with which we can rationalise them. At the base of Uluru there is a single gate allowing access to the climbing route to the top. To get through that gate you have to walk past a wall of signage with the same information written out in sextuplicate, each time in a different language. On each panel the language is similarly polite. To paraphrase the precise wording: Anangu* don’t climb Uluru. This is a very special sacred place for Anangu. Anangu request that you choose not to climb also.

No prohibitions. No fist-shaking. No threats of any consequences whatsoever. Just a polite request that you don’t climb – both for your safety and Anangu peace of mind. For many, it’s the big red button they just can’t resist.

There can be few people who arrive at the base of the climb without already being aware of the Anangu wish for people to shun climbing. It’s prominently featured on the walls and signs in the information centre at Yulara where every tourist stays during their visit. It’s on the walls at the Cultural Centre inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta* National Park (UKTNP) before you reach Uluru. It’s written on the ticket that you have to buy at the entry station and it is written on the detailed visitor guide that you receive when you buy that ticket. If they’re doing their job properly, it will also have been related to every visitor by their tour guide, long before they reach the car park.

It may not be on the tips of the tongues of the international travel agents selling people Red Centre holiday packages, but somewhere between boarding a plane and getting all the way out to Uluru the news will have reached most ears: the Traditional Owners would like people to stop climbing Uluru.

For some, perhaps it’s the politeness of the request that throws them. We’re used to signs telling us things in definite terms – stop, keep left, no smoking. The situation at Uluru hands the choice back to the reader: walk around Uluru if you’d like to respect the wishes of Aboriginal custodians or, alternatively, gratify your own desire to climb up and disregard this polite request from your hosts altogether. Please yourself.

Some would scurry back for furtive chats of clarification with their tour guide. Some would pace along perusing each panel of the sign intently as if they actually spoke Mandarin, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Italian. Searching for a loophole. Others had clearly made their choice well in advance and marched directly from the bus, past the huddled groups still wrestling with the dilemma, to commence their scramble up the gentlest slope of the old inselberg.

But the glorious indifference of the sign at the base of the Uluru climb leaves no wiggle room for climbers to rationalise their choice. It’s a wonderfully binary proposition and any attempt to argue shades of grey into the picture can be easily refuted with any number of obvious analogies and thought experiments. At mosques, synagogues and chapels around the world there are entreaties and expectations regarding decorous behaviour, respectful reverence and various clothing prohibitions or stipulations. At most of these places, such conditions are not optional and, if it came to it, would be enforced. But what if they weren’t?

Surely a reasonable person wouldn’t kick a football around in a church or wear dirty shoes in a mosque would they? (Incidentally, I don’t have the slightest bit of respect for, or belief in, any of the vast array of closely held human superstitions that lurk under the misnomers of spirituality or religion. Whether they were concocted last century, last millennium or before the Holocene interglacial, none have any claims on truth and most are divisive, destructive and counter-productive to the aims of human prosperity and well-being. In 2016 you’d have to be wilfully ignorant of massive swathes of human history and scientific advancement to think otherwise. Not surprisingly then, given my opinion on religion and other spiritual hokum, it’d be hard to find a more strenuous critic of the Catholic Church than me. But I still know that it’s appropriate to sit quietly in a church. Mind you, my tour guiding career spanned the previous Papal visit to Australia and we were very busy running charter tours to Uluru for church groups from around the globe…. they all climbed. But I digress.)

My itinerary always brought me to the Mala car park (where the climb begins) straight after sunrise. I’d walk along the base of Uluru with my guests for the first hour, providing them with interpretive ditties on local flora and fauna, Anangu customs and of course the rock itself. After the first hour I’d leave them so they could follow the path around the rest of the base walk at their own pace and without me talking at them. More importantly, this meant I could go back to the bus, eat an orange in peace and maybe grab forty winks. Bliss. This was how I came to have a front row seat for all this climb nonsense a few times a week, for five years.  

Of course, some of my guests would double back to climb up Uluru if it was open. UKTNP regulations require that tour guides inform guests of the desire of Anangu Traditional Owners that their wishes be respected and guests choose to not climb Uluru. This was something I took seriously and I always went out of my way to help people understand all the relevant issues, but I had a wildly varied success rate. Even so, averaged over five years I’d say fewer than 10% of my passengers chose to climb Uluru.

Notably though, my success rate with Australian passengers was lower. Ask a Red Centre tour guide - you can’t tell Australians anything. During school holidays we would always get a lot of school trips; of the ones I guided 100% of students climbed up Uluru along with most of their teachers. Many had decided even before they departed school grounds that it would be the crowning achievement of the trip; the main reason for going. Many groups arrived with “Top-of-the-Rock” team t-shirts all ready for the occasion. Even when I worked through the teachers to try and suggest that the base walk was a better and more culturally sensitive choice, I was just spinning my wheels. Apparently, the “teachable moment” was not yet a thing.

It preoccupied me at the time and I still think about it whenever the topic pops up in the media.

How is this still a thing? A 50/50 result in a Fairfax poll with this many votes is arguably enough to say the country is still split on the question.

Recently, the question of climbing arguably Australia’s second most-famous icon (Sydney can have their opera house) and probably the world’s most recognisable rock, has been in the press again. A journalist friend, Jo Stewart, approached me for a few words about the topic after being approached herself by a shadowy young activist who had liberated ‘The Climb’ of a few lengths of its infamous chain. In her article for The Saturday Paper the man, speaking under the pseudonym John, stated that his main intention was to, “respect Uluru and bring it to the attention of Australians”. Sitting here barely two weeks after that story went to print, you’d have to say that he has achieved his goal.

Following Jo’s piece, the Fairfax papers ran a story following up on a statement from Australia’s own “Greatest Minister In The World”, Greg Hunt. Despite most of the conditions set out in the UKTNP Management Plan 2010-2020 for the permanent closure of the climb being met, Hunt’s office decreed there were, “no plans to change current arrangements.”

Then The Monthly online ran a pithy piece by Sean Kelly, which covered off on a few of the obvious points that make the climbing of Uluru such an important issue for Australia to deal with if it’s going to have any hope of claiming even a modicum of success in its pursuit of reconciliation.

If The Apology was the low-hanging fruit of reconciliation politics, the closing of the Uluru climb is ripe for picking.

And to torture the analogy further, fruit left too long goes rotten.

It would be a simple ban to put in place. Unless you’re Alex Honnold, Uluru is unclimbable without gear around most of its circumference. The few access points that might be climbable are well-known and monitored; once an illegal climber reaches a certain elevation they stand out like a sore thumb. On a bare rock, watched and photographed by thousands of people every day of the year, you’d have to be The Predator to avoid detection.

Sufficient policing measures are already in place to enforce the ban; the climb is closed for a variety of ceremonial and meteorological reasons for roughly a third of the days in most years already. It’s also closed between sunset and sunrise. There have been numerous examples of individuals or small groups flouting these closures over the years, even trying to land a plane on top, and they have each been ably dealt with by the existing roster of Parks Australia wardens and NT Police from the nearby towns of Mutitjulu and Yulara.

The chains and existing signage could be removed in a single busy afternoon. Done. Climb closed.

Let's make it permanent. Pic. RichiH Wikicommons.

Waleed Aly has written superbly recently about some of the reasons why Australia has such a troubled (and troubling) relationship with its original inhabitants. There’s not a lot I can add to his keenly-observed analysis, but nowhere in Australia is the uneasiness and casual disregard of that dysfunction on more brazen and daily display, and more openly ignored, than the procession of climbers up the side of Uluru.

The most perfunctory Google search throws up countless images and galleries and blogs about climbing Uluru. If Australian people want to be fair dinkum about reconciliation, then we need to come to a national recognition of this behaviour, not as any sort of achievement to be celebrated and publicised but as un-Australian and aberrant; embarrassing even. I think the closing of the climb is inevitable at some point, but given the conditions set out in the UKTNP Management Plan, not to mention the ongoing offence to Indigenous custodians, it’s already long overdue.

Stuff it, with a vote coming up, why not make it an election issue? We shouldn’t be settling for leaders who tinker with these matters as mere adornments to their careers and self-advancement. These matters affect whole communities and, in the end, shape our national thinking.

ANZAC Day will shortly come and go with huddled observances around the country uttering that eternal three word mantra in memoriam - Lest We Forget. There's another three word phrase which is deserving of inclusion in our national demotic, if not our national consciousness...

Nganana* tatintja wiya. With those words Anangu say “we don’t climb”.

Neither should we.

 

* - these Western Desert words contain a retroflex which is usually indicated by a line beneath the relevant letter(s) - my publishing software doesn't allow me to insert this.  Uluru should have a retroflex on the 'r', Anangu on the first 'n', Kata Tjuta on the third 't' and nganana on the third 'n'. You can learn more about Western Desert pronunciation at this link.