Culture Clash

23:19, Jan 13 2013
ON FIRE: Uluru, the mighty rock at the heart of Australia, glows a vivid red at sunset.

Tourism has long had an uneasy relationship with the wondrous and deeply sacred land of Uluru, but as Naomi Arnold discovers, it is gradually finding a steadier footing:

There's a long, pale stripe up the flank of Uluru, a neat scar from millions of feet grinding away the red surface.

The Anangu, the rock's traditional owners, hate tourist traffic on what amounts to their church; but that the rock climb still exists at all is a perfect illustration of the powerful currents swirling around this ancient and most fascinating of lands. Come to Uluru to see just a big red rock and you miss the point entirely.

Even outside its homeland, Uluru is known as one of the chakras of the world, a seat of energy and powerful spirituality. Climbing it is not just frowned-upon but dangerous; 36 people have died trying since 1958. Yet tourists continue to walk the precipitous tightrope walk, helped along by a handrail cemented into the surface.

Known as Ayers Rock for most of its European history, Uluru was returned to the care and ownership of the Anangu in 1985, on the condition that the climb, a sacred path of spiritual significance only taken by few Aboriginal men on special occasions, remained open to tourists.

The trespass elicits occasional outrage; people who have made it to the top and boasted about it include French stripper Alizee Sery, who filmed a striptease on top of Uluru and then said it was meant as a tribute. The arduous climb, the view, and magic of the place made you want to "sing, dance and strip", she told reporters.

"What we need to remember is that traditionally, the Aboriginal people were living naked, " she said. "So stripping down was a return to what it was like."

Another infamous climber is Australian footballer Sam Newman, who took a one-iron up there and hit a golf ball off the rock toward the jumbled mass of neighbouring Kata Tjuta. "I wasn't demeaning it. I was enjoying its beauty and what it represents, " he explained to the media.

"And I can enjoy its beauty and what it represents any way I like without being told by people."

Online comments from tourists include: "They were happy to take my entry fee, so now they'll just have to put up with me climbing their oh so sacred rock"; "I am a conscientious person and normally respect such requests, but I just couldn't stay off it after driving 3000 dusty km to get to it. Besides that everyone else was climbing it too"; "Our tour guide said it's not really a sacrilege. The Aborigines are just worried that there might be accidents"; and "Why don't they just close it to climbers? Instead they really lay the guilt trip upon you. That sucks, so I climbed it."

On a recent trip to the area, I found traditional Aboriginal life intersecting untidily with the reality of modern tourism.

How to wrap up a culture and present it to guests, when much of the knowledge are prized stories told only to a few? How to impress on guests the reasons not to photograph sacred sites when they can't be told why?

How to tell 40,000-year-old stories to tourists when the direct descendants of those who first told them, the traditional owners and joint managers of the park with Parks Australia, are living metres away in Mutitjulu Community. Mostly in poverty by the visiting tourists' standards, they live in a town named after a now-polluted waterhole at the rock's base. It has long had a reputation of being one of Australia's most dysfunctional Aboriginal communities and was one of those targeted in a massive programme launched by the Howard government in 2007 to tackle the numerous problems afflicting the people.

There is still disagreement about whether the intervention was the right thing to do.

Now their art is sold at the Cultural Centre near Uluru, while their sacred sites are sealed off and traipsed by hundreds each day.

They have watched people walking, sweating, and literally defecating all over the rock. So many now, in fact, that the human waste, washing off with the infrequent rain together with camera batteries and goodness knows what else, has poisoned surrounding waterholes until there's no life left in them.

The question of whether we should be there or not is long gone, evaporated into the dusty red air when the first six tourists bumped over a rutted track from Alice Springs and set up tent beside Uluru. Gone is the time when people found the best way to appreciate cave paintings was to pick up a bucket of water from the treasured waterholes and throw it against the white, yellow, and red ochre paintings so they could see them more brightly; and when those washed away forever, discovering more underneath that they could see by throwing another bucket.

But the runaway train of tourism seems better managed these days. The staff we encountered were good: knowledgeable, diplomatic, respectful, experienced and well aware of the numerous political potholes, managing to tread carefully across the tricky subjects while acknowledging and paying respect to both sides.

The urge to climb the rock has taken a very long time to die out, but it's now on the verge of being banned, with numbers dropping in the past two years.

In 1990, almost three-quarters of visitors climbed Uluru; today it's closer to a fifth. Parks Australia plans to close the climb permanently once numbers fall below 20 per cent.

An A$21m viewing platform and 1600m of walking tracks can take up to 3000 visitors, and operators promote walking the 9.4 kilometre track around the bottom instead of climbing it.

A curious phenomenon is that hundreds of tourists have returned rocks, soil and sand taken as souvenirs, with a sizeable chunk of them convinced they have undergone some sort of curse. The "Sorry Book", on display at the Cultural Centre, has a collection of letters, apologising or blaming deaths, break-ups, financial hardship, strokes, surgeries, lost jobs and even traffic tickets and the death of their pets, on taking a piece of Uluru home or taking pictures of sacred sites.

One blames a string of "unusual and unfortunate happenings and events . . . which have not ceased to appear ever since" climbing the rock. He even sent back the pair of shoes he used to climb it. "I would have liked the shoes to remain as close as possible to Uluru, simply buried in the red sands that surround it, " he writes. "Feel free to use my story as a deterrent and warning."

The government-owned organisation that manages Ayers Rock Resort recently established a National Indigenous Training Academy, aiming to employ 100 indigenous trainees at the resort each year and working towards more than half indigenous employment by 2018.

Profits go back into the resort and supporting indigenous training and employment across Australia, and the resort matches guest donations to its Mutitjulu Foundation up to a maximum of $200,000 each year.

The geological and white history is easy to package and deliver to tourists; the Outback bush yarn is familiar to all. The indigenous stories are less easily delivered. Like the spindly desert oaks that manage to survive in this harsh environment, tourism operators here are putting down a taproot into the ground, hoping to have a maturing indigenous workforce in years to come.

The desert oak takes 400 years to mature; white men have only been in Australia for little over 200. Let's hope the fruits aren't too far away.

Naomi Arnold travelled to Uluru as a guest of Tourism Australia.