Chris Watson

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

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.


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.