There was a lot of publicity in the lead up to the climbing ban on Uluru in late October. The traditional owners, the Anangu, had long argued for a ban, claiming the rock was culturally and spiritually sacred to them.
News stories in the final weeks centred on the thousands of tourists who were keen to scale the monolith’s mighty heights before the ban took effect. And many did line up in their thousands for one last chance to climb Uluru.
Most Australians were reportedly ‘comfortable’ with the decision to prohibit climbing but there were some dissenters. Maybe some, like me, had no qualms because we’d climbed the rock in decades past, so the outcome was, to some extent, inconsequential.
The looming ban was worldwide news. As one New York Times reader so eloquently put it, “Certainly, the prohibition against climbing should be respected by everyone. If a tourist came to New York City, and decided to scale St Patrick’s Cathedral, they would be busted for sure.”
He has a point. Climbing St Patrick’s Cathedral would be offensive for many Catholics who see churches and cathedrals as places of prayer and worship. So too, for Aboriginal people, whose religion is tied to the land on which they have lived for tens of thousands of years.
I climbed Uluru three times in the 1970s. At the time, I can’t remember being told of the traditional owners’ opposition to climbing the rock. However, I was much younger in those days and less judicious. If I had understood Uluru’s cultural significance back then, I’d like to think I would’ve taken the less strenuous scenic walk around the rock’s vast girth.
In 1985, the Australian Government handed back Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it was formerly known, to the local Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara peoples. Under the terms of the agreement, the Anangu people would lease Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years to ensure tourists could enjoy ongoing access. But it wasn’t until November 2017 that the traditional owners announced the official date for the climbing ban.
Land rights has been a complex and protracted issue. When, in 1967, Aboriginals were granted the right to vote for the first time after a referendum was carried by a large margin, they continued for years to lobby successive governments for a fair go.
In 1972, Vincent Lingiari, a Gurindji, was given back his land in the Northern Territory by Prime Minister Whitlam, following a nine-year dispute over pay and conditions on a cattle station owned by a British pastoral company. Legislation has been passed in the years since giving Indigenous Australians significant rights over their traditional lands, the Mabo court ruling in the early 1990s was another important step.
As we celebrate Advent and Christmas, let us be thankful for the people who populate this great land – the First Australians and the immigrants who came to our shores from the four corners of the globe: Britain, Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
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