The good, the bad and the ugly
Trip Start Jul 27, 2009
48Trip End Nov 07, 2009
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And so west on the Lasseter Highway, pausing for our picnic lunch in sight of Mt Conner. It is famous for fooling approaching tourists who assume it is the rock, until they notice its flat top. By mid-afternoon and to considerable excitement, Uluru itself finally started peeping through gaps in the landscape. (Simon for once had his way with the stereo, so this was to the haunting accompaniment of Mahler 2 ("Urlicht"); well, Simon was haunted anyway.)
Since mid-morning we had been passing landscapes of vivid red-orange sands with abundant grasses punctuated by she-oaks, mulga and witchetty bushes (the ones under which grubs are found). The land looks dry, but abundantrains.
The Yulara resort nestles in this same landscape, and soon after our arrival we declared it to be the most beautiful camp site we had seen on our trip so far. We were lucky to be assigned a site in a far corner where we backed onto the dunes and were surrounded by shady vegetation. Here we found all sorts of interesting animal tracks in the sand, a nest of huge ants, and the desiccated head of a long-dead snake. It is a testament to the local planning that a "resort" can allow any sense of connection with the local landscape while catering for up to 5,000 visitors per night.
I last visited Uluru (or Ayers Rock as I knew it of course) with my family in about 1972. In those days, motels, a camp ground, and the camps of the local Aboriginal community sprawled close to the base of the rock. Opened to commercial tourism in the 1950s, when the first dirt road went through, by 1970s visitor numbers were about 65,000 per year. Now they are about 500,000. Recognition that over-development was spoiling the environment led to the creation of Yulara, a new town specifically developed to cater for tourism, outside the boundaries of the National Park
In the 1970s I remember very little visitor control. We were completely unaware that climbing the rock was culturally inappropriate to the Anangu people, and I suspect that the concept of respecting the local cultural sensitivities might have been beyond us anyway because there was no sense of the local culture as alive and continuing. I don't remember the tour we were on making any reference to any Aboriginal culture, living or dead, at any time. I remember no formal tracks around the rock, and no restrictions on where visitors could and couldn't go.
The current management strategies involve strong efforts educate all visitors about the significance of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the Anangu. Visitors are permitted on a handful of designated walking paths and roads, and asked not to walk or drive elsewhere. Around the base of Uluru there are several clearly designated areas where entry and photography is forbidden for cultural reasons. At Kata Tjuta similarly there are only two designated walking tracks. The whole experience is quite unlike any other national park I have been to, where the visiting experience tends to be one of independent exploration through physical interaction
At the centre of this management strategy is the fact that Uluru-Kata Tjuta is home not just to fascinating natural phenomena, but also to a spiritual life of a living community. The status of Uluru-Kata Tjuta as a World Heritage Site is unusual in recognising both its natural and spiritual values. Just as one cannot stroll behind the altar of St Peter’s in Rome while the Pope is celebrating a mass, interaction with the “natural” phenomena of the park is also restricted.
And yet climbing Uluru is still permitted. A polite sign at the bottom informs us that the Anangu say it is inappropriate, and explains why. But that of course doesn’t stop a lot of people. What we see is a tension between two cultural viewpoints; the European-Australian perspective which sees natural landscapes as belonging to everyone, and part of a culture of freedom to enjoy them. And the Anangu perspective which sees culture, spirituality and landscape as completely intertwined and indivisible. In Rome the Pope gets to make the rules; in my view climbing should just be banned.