Get Off My Rock

28 06 2008

After hopping out of the spare bed my parents gave me at 5:00 yesterday morning, and after waking up sundry other members of their household, we set off for Mollymook. It’s a 3.5-hour drive south of Sydney and it sports a curiously shaped mountain, named “Pigeon House” by Captain Cook (who had obviously never seen a naked woman). It’s a one-and-a-half hour climb to the summit and a breathtaking view of the Royal National Park from one of its highest points above sea level. The way down is a little tricky in places but we all made it back alive and smiling, and stopped off for lunch on the way home… where we had an interesting argument.

It seems (so say my brother and my father) that the Australian government has recently passed legislation to forbid the climbing of Ayers Rock (“Uluru” to the Aborigines). This is because the rock is sacred to the Aboriginal population of this country and they take offence at other people treating it like… well, like a rock. In the interests of maintaining a friendly relationship with those whose lands and children we stole, tourists are now forbidden from doing the sorts of things that tourists do best: finding an interesting piece of the landscape and standing on it.

Contrary to the snarky tone within the previous paragraph, I heartily disagree with this piece of legislation and believe that I, and anybody, has the right to continue climbing Uluru should we so wish. Indeed, I even expressed this opinion in a manner that, while it might sound arrogant, sums up my perspective entirely: why should I have to respect somebody else’s religion? Think about it. I do not need to automatically give credence to another person’s political views, or their views on historical linguistics, or their perspectives on education. If somebody tells me that they have discovered Atlantis, or Noah’s Ark, or perpetual motion, may I not point out the fallacy of their beliefs? Why must I kowtow to those who worship a rock?

All would be different had they built the rock. I might still dislike the atavistic nature of their belief system, but I’m not a particularly confrontational person and I keep those sorts of opinions, by and large, to myself. I would not climb it for the same reason as I do not enter a mosque. I have no interest in Islam and no belief in their edifices possessing “sanctity”, but I am forbidden from entering into it by the stringencies of their faith and I must respect that by not doing so. Were their faith to forbid me from bathing in a particular lake or surveying a particular valley, then they may not be so fortunate as to have my cooperation.

Australian Aborigines never built anything; indeed, this was one of the reasons why European colonialists considered them to be non-human. This is also a major theme to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he attempts to understand why it is that some nations develop “more swiftly” than others. Of course, the Aborigines of Australia had a highly developed culture, but it was not developed at all in the fields of science or engineering, agriculture or architecture, or any of a host of other disciplines in which the Europeans were already excelling themselves. If Aboriginal religion was therefore superstitious and pantheistic… well, isn’t all religion, fundamentally? I cannot bring myself to respect it simply by virtue of their suffering and, having climbed Uluru before (and found it to be a very beautiful and rewarding climb), it disappoints me greatly not to ever be able to do so again.

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7 responses

1 07 2008
jen

I was under the impression that it’s not so much the standing as the climbing and associated erosion. Well that and the religious cave paintings near the bottom.

But I would say that people should be allowed to climb as long as they stay away from said cave paintings

1 07 2008
Simon Holloway

I agree, but that just comes back to the issue of respecting things that people made. The Aborigines are not descended from anybody who made the rock itself, and so their squirmishness regarding its use by non-Aborigines must remain a personal issue for them and stay out of legislation.

3 07 2008
jen

Just out of curiosity, would you feel differently if the people coming and going were actively hacking pieces out of the rock to take home with them? Although then it’s not so much a case of religious observance as not destroying awesome things.

3 07 2008
Simon Holloway

Yes, that would be purely destructive I think. And if the government wished to make climbing the rock impermissable because of the threat of erosion, then that would be fine too. I suppose that what I object to is the fact that, while the activity of tourists may be corruptive, the reasoning behind the legislation is that that the Aborigines somehow “own” the rock and that having people climb it is disrespectful to them.

8 07 2008
jen

Yes, well, racial guilt for past atroctities causes all sorts of stupid decisions to be made. And I’m manfully (womanfully?) resisting the urge to bring up the Holocaust here, and I just blew it. Oh well.

10 09 2009
sandrar

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

13 10 2009
waltzingaustralia

I very much agree with your comment that we are not required to accept opinions or religions that we consider to be incorrect. People seem to have the idea that tolerance means thinking everyone might be right, when in reality, it’s according people the right to believe what they wish, even if it’s completely wrong. I do like your observations about the difference between the natural object and the man-made objects (cave paintings in this case). Intellectual arguments aside, I am surprised that the local Aborigines are willing to give up the considerable revenue stream provided by tourists visiting the Rock. Also, like you, I’m saddened by the thought that the very wonderful and rewarding climb, which I’ve managed to make on two occasions (though 20 years ago, when it was still okay) is not likely to ever be repeated. (And, as noted above in the comment from jen, it’s a good thing most of us have a greater ability to forgive and forget, as no one would be allowed to visit anyone anywhere, as everyone has been hideously wronged by someone at some point in history.)

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