Cutting the climbing chains at Uluru
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Each year thousands of people climb Uluru. Some take sweaty selfies at the top, proud at having “conquered” the landform. Some sit and stare at the colours of the country. Some kick a footy. Others prefer yoga. There are no toilets or bins at the top: some people defecate and urinate up there, leave garbage behind and lose water bottles that fall into the crevices. People die, too. More than 36 people have lost their lives climbing Uluru and this causes great sadness among the Anangu, the traditional owners of Uluru.
Late last year someone climbed Uluru with a different intention. Someone snuck in before midnight and cut the climbing chains on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the return of Uluru to traditional owners, with official government ceremonies planned at the base of the rock for the morning of October 26. This act was a big middle finger directed at the powers that be and it was a man named John who was flipping the bird.
John – which is not his real name – thought about cutting the chains for eight months. He mulled over the impact it could have on Indigenous people and thought about how the act required him to climb part of the rock, the very thing he was hoping to stop. He meditated on the personal and legal ramifications of getting caught. At the end of each thought he arrived back in the same place: this was the right thing to do.
Talking to John in a cafe in Melbourne, he comes across as a mindful, socially engaged twentysomething. Originally from Cairns, he’s calm, polite and possesses a strong idealistic streak. John believes he can change the world. “It shocked me to hear the climb was still open,” he said. “I was teaching meditation to an Indigenous elders group and I felt disgusted that nothing had been done to address their spiritual needs.”
John had a lot on his mind as he drove his campervan to Alice Springs. “I went through many emotions beforehand. Fear of being caught and fined and those sorts of things. But I felt that this was meant to be done.” On October 25, he parked his van 25 kilometres from Uluru. A mate then drove him to the rock with his pushbike and tools – boltcutters, pliers, a hammer and crowbar. At 11pm he pulled down the security cameras, scaled the rock and started cutting the chains. There was cloud cover but light travels far in the desert and under the glow of the near full moon John worked without a head torch. The moon glow also made him visible. It would only take one ranger to drive by and look up and he’d be caught. At 12.45am his boltcutters broke. The operation was over. He’d cut four of the climbing chains.
In news reports, John was labelled everything from vandal to hero, but his primary concern was what the elders thought. “My intention was to respect Uluru and bring it to the attention of Australians, but I was worried about whether elders would approve of what I’d done… When I arrived at Uluru, it evoked lots of emotions in me. Anger, determination, fear – lots of emotions, the list was endless. But my overwhelming feeling was that this was meant to be done. That’s what my heart said.”
The voice sings out of my phone. “Heyyyyyyyyy Jo, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” I’m being serenaded by Keith Aitken, a 61-year-old elder of the Mutitjulu community. After growing up in the Port Augusta area, he’s lived in Alice Springs since the 1980s, where he works as a guide with Remote Tours, although he hasn’t been well enough to work lately. He believes that climbing Uluru isn’t safe. “It annoys me because it annoys the traditional owners and everyone that’s a part of that country,” he says. “Seeing people up top scares me. I’m looking at people about to get hurt. With us mob, when people hurt themselves while climbing Uluru it makes us feel no good. It’s like if you woke up to find someone dead in your backyard. How would that make you feel?”
While most deaths on Uluru are due to cardiac arrest, some are also the result of falls and this distresses traditional owners. Keith believes Uluru deserves the same respect churches get. “When I was a kid, the missionaries prayed in a place made from corrugated iron. One man stood at the front and everyone listened to him. Whatever he said was something special, you know? It was a sacred place to those people. That place was made by man. Uluru hasn’t been made by man, but Uluru is the same as that church – it’s a sacred place. Uluru should be a place of learning. It’s like a book, there’s lots of stories there.” Some may think that what John did was a misguided act of vandalism, but not Keith. “To me, John is a hero. Good on him,” Keith says. “He did my people a favour. He was protecting something important to Aboriginal people. I say: ‘Good onya brother.’”
When Peter Severin installed the chains on Uluru in 1963-64, he couldn’t have foreseen what was to unfold in the decades to come. As owner of Curtin Springs Station, Severin is a local legend. Now in his late 80s, he answers my questions despite cracking a rib a few days earlier. He says the chains were installed to make climbing safer. Having participated in the rescues of injured climbers, Severin knew the dangers of climbing. He also needed a job. “We were in a drought and I was desperate for income, so being asked to do a job for the Northern Territory Reserves Board, I accepted.”
Having installed the chains, Severin believes the climb should remain open. “Yes, I believe people should climb… It’s an exhilarating experience. Ayers Rock belongs to all Australians,” he says. “I don’t know why one would want to cut the chains after 50-plus years of it having been erected – and enjoyed by – tourists.”
Severin’s views are reflected by many visitors to the area. International tourists commonly have climbing Uluru on their bucket list. Unaware of the cultural significance of Uluru, many are shocked to arrive and see signs asking them not to climb after seeing it in travel brochures and spending thousands of dollars travelling to do it.
Melbourne-based ecologist Chris Watson knows Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park well. He worked in the area for 10 years, first as a tour guide then an ecologist. “There are many reasons why climbing is inadvisable, but from an ecological point of view there are no toilet facilities or bins at the top. So there’s an accumulation of human excrement, toilet paper, sanitary items, nappies and god knows what else. Rubbish accumulates and when it rains it gets funnelled down into the waterholes below,” Watson says. “It also seems patently disrespectful to visit a sacred site and climb it. Many people think it’s fine to disregard the cultural and spiritual beliefs of the people who have custodianship of the area. I’m perplexed by it.”
Despite multi-language signage stating climbing is against the wishes of the traditional owners, tourists still climb mainly because they can. This is because when the federal government returned Uluru to traditional owners in 1985, it was returned on the condition that it be leased back to the government for 99 years. Closing the climb was meant to be revisited once suitable alternative activities had been developed and climbing numbers declined to less than 20 per cent of visitors. These conditions appear to have been met, yet still the climb remains open.
With tourism being one of the Northern Territory’s biggest industries and Tourism Research Australia recently reporting sluggish growth for tourism in the area, some believe that closing the climb will reduce visitor numbers and hurt the local economy. The Central Land Council has long been concerned that only a small proportion of Indigenous people are employed as guides and rangers, so keeping the climb open does not necessarily result in improved job prospects for Indigenous locals. Parks Australia confirms there are no immediate plans to close the climb and the tourism industry would need 18 months’ notice if the climb were to be shut down.
Luke Pearson, Aboriginal activist and founder of IndigenousX, believes the government has a chance to lead the way on this. “Here’s a good opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to demonstrate his commitment to what he spoke about in his Closing the Gap report speech. He said he understood Indigenous people wanted the government to ‘do things with us, not to us’. So, here’s a chance to follow through on that.”
Elder Keith puts it more bluntly. “When are people going to wake up and understand? How many more people have to die before they close the climb?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Unchained malady". Subscribe here.