BY Peta Doherty
As well as learning to read and write at school, Anangu children have to learn how to take care of the land, which for some includes taking care of the biggest rock in Australia.
Uluru is a huge 348-metre high red sandstone formation that is sometimes called Ayers Rock.
Anangu want to get the message through to the 300,000-odd tourists who visit each year that Uluru is sacred and not
“Anangu are obliged to try to make sure people behave properly and respect the land when they visit,” says Alex Mercer, an education officer at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Her job is to organise activities for visiting school groups where Anangu can come and share their culture with the visitors.
Please don’t climb
Anangu means “people” in Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara – two Aboriginal languages spoken in Central Australia.
It’s the word the traditional owners of Uluru use to describe themselves.
Before the area was formally handed back to its Aboriginal traditional owners in 1985, many people thought the main reason to visit the rock was to climb it.
Despite big signs asking tourists not to do so, about 20 per cent still decide to scale it anyway. This makes Anangu people uneasy and they don’t like it.
“The real reason to visit is not to climb, it’s to come and understand the stories and why it’s a special place for Anangu,” says Ms Mercer, whose job is to help school groups understand.
To Anangu the rock is like a giant storybook that holds important and sacred information, and the best way to learn about it is to walk around the base and look and listen.
“The stories talk about how to behave, how plants and animals are related, ceremony and history and lots of other important knowledge for Anangu,” says Ms Mercer.
Anangu also worry about safety because more than 35 people have died while climbing Uluru. This is very upsetting for traditional owners.
Tracks of tears
Ms Mercer says her Anangu friends feel really sad and torn when they see tourists climbing Uluru.
At other times they will sit and reflect on who is climbing.
“If they are a school group, the older Anangu women might say, ‘What school are they from? Why don’t they know? You should tell them!’ ”
Why it’s still open
The most common question Ms Mercer gets asked by young people about the climb is, “Why is the climb still open?”
“I say we are closing it slowly because some of us worry that if we closed it today a lot of people who don’t yet understand the reasons not to climb might get upset,” she says.
“They might get really angry with the park or with the traditional owners.
“In the meantime we try to make sure that everyone who comes here learns why Anangu ask people not to climb. Then those people can go away and tell their friends and families and so on.”
The park’s management board, which is made up of elders and
representatives from tourism and government, says it will close the climb when it’s satisfied people are visiting Uluru for reasons other than climbing or when more than 80 per cent of visitors choose not to climb.
‘It’s sacred land’
When Emi, six, from Sydney, went to Uluru recently she was surprised to see climbers on the rock.
“I didn’t think anybody would be allowed to climb something like that,” she says.
Emi and her brother, Oli, spent two-and- a-half hours riding around the base of Uluru and finding out how bumpy it was close-up.
“It’s sacred land, and if it was mine I wouldn’t want people to climb it either,” she says. “I think it’s also a good idea not to climb it because you could get hurt up there.”