Summit of an Aborigine battle for respect

When Andrew, Cassidy, and Reggie Uluru touch a torch to the Olympic flame near Ayers Rock in June, the ceremony will mark the beginning of the relay leading up to this year's Sydney Games. But it will also be a symbol of Australia's relatively newfound recognition of the vital place Aborigines play in the history of a country they have occupied for 40,000 years.

The Uluru brothers are the senior traditional owners of the red monolith still known to many as Ayers Rock but increasingly referred to as Uluru. The government recognized the Anangu people as the rock's owners in 1985.

As a sacred site for not only the Anangu but other indigenous people across Australia, Uluru is the most visible symbol of an ongoing battle to get the outside world to grant greater respect to Aboriginal culture. And much of it centers on a simple question: to climb or not to climb?

Each year some 400,000 visitors come to the national park in which the rock sits, spending about $4.5 million Australian (2.9 million US) on park fees, a quarter of which is paid as royalties to the Aboriginal owners. But the great majority of those visitors violate the request of the indigenous owners not to clamber up the rock.

"If Anangu people came to your church and walked all over the seats and the altar and everything, how would you feel?" says Leslie Calma, an Anangu who works as a ranger in the national park surrounding the rock.

The issue is a sensitive one, echoing disputes over recreational use of Native American sacred sites in the US. White Australia has in recent years begun reconciliation with the Aboriginal community. But the current center-right ruling coalition is now at odds with much of the country's Aboriginal population over its refusal to apologize formally for past governments' mistreatment of Aborigines.

A 188-page management plan for Uluru -Kata Tjuta National Park released last year identified Aboriginal law as a guiding principle and called for more measures to discourage visitors from climbing.

But with the Olympics looming and the recent advent of direct flights to the rock from Sydney, the park is bracing for an increase in visitors that will likely exacerbate the issue of the climb.

The problem is that scaling the rock is a long-standing white Australian tradition, says park manager Fraser Vickery. "It's been marketed internationally. This, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Opera House, and the Great Barrier Reef are Australia's tourist icons. The climb has been a feature of the rock since year one [of tourism to the rock in the 1950s].... But it's not necessarily a good tradition."

Aboriginal people themselves will not climb the rock. Much of the path followed by the chain driven into it years ago to help climbers is related to a sacred legend and to climb it would be disrespectful to the ancestors involved in the story.

But for white Australians and visitors from overseas, climbing has been part of the draw, ever since explorer W.C. Gosse first reached it in 1873, named it after the governor of the then-British colony of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers, and went for a climb himself.

The tourism industry insists the climb is still a vital part of the draw for visitors. "For a lot of people [not climbing is] like going to the Great Barrier Reef and not diving. They go to Ayers Rock to climb it," says Jeff Sharp, marketing director for tour company AAT Kings. "As a tourism operator we definitely need the climb to stay open."

There are signs some things are changing. A 1992 survey showed 70 percent of visitors climbed the rock. But anecdotal evidence, tourism industry officials insist, indicates that number has dropped further, particularly since the opening of an Anangu cultural center in the park.

But according to Vickery, there are still parts of the tourism industry that want the climb not only to be left open but upgraded: a ski lift or something like it to facilitate the ride to the top, for example.

That is unlikely to ever happen as long as the park is owned by Aboriginal people, although one of the conditions of the 1985 handover was the government's 99-year lease to run the park. In the works now instead are a number of measures to discourage climbing.

The parking lot at the base of the climb is scheduled to be moved farther away. And proposed is a requirement for tour operators to tell visitors that if they climb the rock they do so against the wishes of the Aboriginal owners.

There is also talk of requiring safety and cultural briefings. According to Paul Josif, coordinator of the park's Office for Joint Management and liaison between the indigenous community and park management, at least one visitor dies each year from falling off the climb route. Each time someone dies or is hurt on the rock, it is taken personally by the Aboriginal community and they feel responsible.

Yet part of the blame for the fact that climbing goes on lies with the culture of the Anangu people, says Josif. The indigenous community has been trying to bring change gently, and the kind of forcefulness that might bring a quicker end to climbing is against their very character. "Anangu way is that you make up your mind for yourself. It's not a prescriptive culture. It's your decision whether to be polite or not to be polite," Josif says.

Even if they haven't convinced people to stay off the rock, the Anangu have secured some major changes to the way the park around it is run. Gone since the 1980s are the dirt airstrip and tacky motels that used to nudge up against the rock and Mutitjulu, the Anangu community. Today a small, modern airport is a 25-minute drive from the rock and a resort complex in between includes everything from a campground to a four-star hotel. The name Ayers Rock was replaced as the park's formal name in 1993.

But the climb still remains, and that fact, Josif says, is indicative of the way many Aboriginal people are forced to live in modern Australia. As around Uluru, their culture is respected to a large extent until money or the health of a white industry becomes an issue. "That's the paradox," he says. "There's always someone pushing for them to agree to a compromise, especially when money is involved."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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