Written By: Tamara Hutson (nee: Mr Wolter)
Just over eleven years ago, Uluru was my backdoor neighbour. All it took was for me to take a few steps outside my sliding door, a few more steps past the washing line and there she was: mostly glowing her rich ochre red, daily stealing the show at sunrise then later again at sunset, and occasionally turning the deep purple of veins before the rain came.
She was a haunting neighbour, fascinating at every turn – especially the non-iconic side that looks very different to her north-western facing side that most of the world knows and sees on tourist-targeted images. Every credible shot of her is taken on this side as her people (Anangu) have asked for the public not to photograph sections of the south-east facing side as it contains culturally sensitive sites. To my knowledge, most people respect that request. There are signs all along this part of the walk that ask politely for visitors to respect this wish.
For some reason (or countless reasons as we’ve heard over the last few days of the media frenzy concerning the closure of the Uluru climb), many tourists who visit my old neighbour, do not seem to read or possibly disregard the words written by Anangu on the sign before the climb. It was more than eleven years ago that I last read this sign. I could google what it says right now but I’d like to think that my brain’s hippocampus is correct in recalling that the simple, yet courteous message of the sign is that the site is culturally significant and the climb is in fact dangerous (especially during hot desert conditions and windy days), Anangu (who know and have a deep affinity for their land) deem these hazards to be real and since they value all people, they ask that visitors respect their wishes to NOT climb Uluru as they simply do not want said visitors to get hurt or lose their life.
I lived in the township of Yulara (with Uluru as my backdoor neighbour) for several months and after doing the base walk (which, by the way, is breath-taking) and reading the sign at the base of the climb, I cannot recall one moment, one inkling or even one small desire at all to climb it. The sign worked on me: it stated a wish or a request, as it were, and I respected that wish. If I were not working with and teaching Anangu children in a school at the time, whose backdrop to their basketball court was this sacred site, perhaps my resolve would have been different. But that’s what relationship does, doesn’t it? It breeds respect. I knew the people. I wanted to respect their request.
I remember one day asking an elder about the climb. He said the name Anangu give to the people who do the climb, translates in Pitjatjanjara language to “white ants.” He regarded them as silly and unwise. And, knowing the collectivism of this culture, an injury or death as a result of the climb would burden the community heavily. A younger person, who I taught at the school, once didn’t have the words in English but she just said, “It’s not good Mr Wolter.” Yep, they called me Mr. Then, one of the employees at the cultural centre told me one day that the equivalent to me climbing Uluru would be him coming to my place, unannounced, taking my photo albums from my shelf and pissing all over them. It’s interesting to note that tourists urinating and defecating on this site has been grieving the custodians of Uluru for many years.
This afternoon, as the clock ticked over to 4:00pm local time and the climb closed for good, almost thirty-four years to the day, I listened to Triple J’s Hack program where people from all over Australia sent messages, made calls and commented on this historic event. My interest had been piqued last night when I fell into a clickbait hole and read an article that featured one too many perfectly staged photographs from an Instagram “influencer’s” page who claimed that “Uluru is an icon of Australia and an important part of our history. Since hearing that the climb was closing I decided to make it a priority to visit before the opportunity was gone.” Her quote had me pondering the definition of history all day. Then I googled it: “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.”
My question to this “influencer” is thus: What is the human affairs element to Uluru’s history that you deem important? And, are you aware of this dark history? For example, do you know that the “No Entry” sign pegged by a road that runs south-east of the Uluru ring road leads to a community called, Mutijulu which was built on the old resort site? The government doesn’t want tourists to go there and I’d hazard a guess that not lot of people have Mutijulu listed on their bucket list.
I don’t get the sense that this “influencer” is overly concerned with the affairs of the humans who count this place sacred. I think the humans she’s most concerned about are the 12,000 followers who will like her fitspo shots taken at the top of the climb in her #sponsored activewear. Her digital photo albums might be filtered and well-liked but someone, yet again, has pissed all over the Anangu’s.
Others phoning in to Triple J this afternoon justifying their choice to climb, mostly started with the throw-away line of, “I respect the custodians of the land BUT…”
Respect comes from relationship. Perhaps it’s time that we got to know the monolith in the room.