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Rock of ages: our letter in Men's Journal

A tale of a missed opportunity!
I was approached back in December 2017 by Men's Journal for a comment on their piece featuring the Longitude 131 resort at Ayers Rock. The email from the assistant editor read as follows:


Hi Marc!
Hows it going? We came across a story of yours on The Australian regarding the ban on climbing Uluru. 
We recently ran a story about Uluru as a tourist spot, and were hoping to include a letter in our next issue about the importance of the area and the imminent ban.
What are your personal thoughts on banning visitors from climbing, and how do you think it will affect the area in terms of tourism?
Thanks so much.

After a little thought I replied with the following tale of personal discovery:

In 1998 I started a job as a geologist for the Northern Territory Geological Survey. Work required travel to some of the remotest pasts of central Australia including parts of the Tanami desert only accessible by helicopter. Coming from the lush green forests of the east coast the desolated red centre makes for a stunning contrast, a visual feast that leaves a lasting impression that stays in your mind forever. The impact of first glimpsing Ayers Rock/Uluru is similarly memorable. I first saw this great red rock driving down the Lasseter Highway from Alice Springs to meet Matt Golombek, Science Director of the Mars Pathfinder Mission shortly after starting in Alice Springs. Matt was on a tour of central Australia as part of a series of educational lectures on the epic Pathfinder Mission. It seems Central Australia and Mars have a few things in common. My job along with a colleague, was to act as Matt's tour guides on a whirlwind tour of Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Gosses Bluff (a spectacular meteor impact crater) and the eons old West MacDonnell Ranges.  After meeting Matt at the Ayers Rock airport, "fresh" off the plane from Los Angeles via Sydney (a mere 20 hours or so of flying time) we almost literally threw him in the back of a Toyota land cruiser and headed out for a 4 hour trek around Kata Tjuta These conglomerate domes are arguably even more impressive than Uluru. The Valley of the Winds walk here is a must do for any visitor. We stayed overnight at the Yulara Resort. The facilities quite rustic in comparison with accommodation now available, though I think Longitude 131 would have been well beyond our budget. Early the next day we drove down to the base of the climb and headed up. Matt's endurance after the long flight and the long hike the previous day was amazing. The three of us enjoyed the camaraderie and physical exertion of the climb and soaked in the glorious scenery from the summit along with hundreds of other tourists ranging in age from under 7 to over 70 who walked up with us. Despite its reputation the climb is achievable by most people of average fitness with a sense of adventure and determination. The views along the way and at the top are extraordinary and essential in understanding the regional geology, geomorphology and the "Rock's" influence on human culture. For me it was the highlight of our tour and my experience here underlines why I feel the climb is integral to a visit to Uluru and why it should be kept open for future generations to enjoy.

The climb has been a mainstay of visiting Uluru since tourists first started coming to the "Rock" in 1950s, but sadly the utter pleasure of doing the climb, experienced by millions of visitors, may soon be taken away by Parks Australia, who have announced the climb will be banned from October 26, 2019. When they were returned ownership of the Rock in 1983 the Traditional Owners promised "business as usual"(see ref 1) when it came to tourism.  Imposing restrictions on some sacred sites, but the climb would continue. Prior to the handover Paddy Uluru, a traditional owner is reported as saying the "physical act of climbing was of no cultural interest" (see ref 2). It seems Parks Australia have broken the promises of Traditional Owners. I am at a loss as to where the new found desire to stop visitors doing something that is of no cultural interest, is safe and brings so much pleasure has come from. Based on the comments and opinions of past Traditional Owners I don't think it has come from the Owners themselves, but it's something that has been imposed upon them by outsiders acting in their own interests. 

Closing the climb has been an aim of the current management plan of the Park (see ref 3.). If you are expecting to go there to climb, don't be surprised to find a closed sign at the base. It's no wonder, as the overly zealous, arbitrary administrative protocols included in the management plan have seen the climb closed for about 80% of the time since their introduction. Parks Australia have used the reduction in the numbers climbing to argue the climb is no longer of interest to visitors. This is bogus for on the odd occasion it is actually open, many people still partake in this wonderful personal journey despite the alarmist and politically correct signage posted at the base. The numbers shouldn't matter as if you want to climb it, you should be free to to do so. It is safe for responsible people of average fitness who follow the marked path and does not hurt anyone. Since the early 2000s annual visitor numbers to the Park have reduced by about 100000. I believe that the administrator's aggressive approach in discouraging the climb and making people feel guilty for doing it, is largely responsible. Given the absolute importance of tourism to the local economy (there is nothing else there) one can't help form the view that they are shooting themselves in the foot, as the decision to ban the climb will only result in less people going resulting in further damage to a fragile economy. The costs of going to Uluru are ridiculously high and if I were looking at a trip with the very real prospect of not being able to enjoy the same sense of wonder that so many others have enjoyed I'd be looking elsewhere. While the opportunities to climb are increasingly limited and the prospect of a ban is in force, spending more time in the West MacDonnell Ranges or in other parts of Australia where you won't be made to feel guilty for enjoying nature would be a better option. 
Matt and Andrew at the summit plaque, 1998

The reply from Men's Journal: Thank you so much Marc! This is exactly what we need. We may edit for length and clarity, so you’re aware!

We replied: Can you send me a copy of the edited text before running it? When are you looking at publishing it?

MJ's response:
Absolutely. We have a very tight amount of space so its currently limited to 100 words. Also let me know how you would like to be identified!
As a geologist, the impact of first seeing Ayers Rock and the surrounding area is memorable [“Outback Oasis” by Ryan Krogh, December 2017]. The views along the way and at the top are extraordinary and essential in understanding the its influence on human culture. With the potential ban on climbing Uluru, I feel it it should be kept open for future generations to enjoy. Given the importance of tourism to the local economy, one can’t help but think they are shooting themselves in the foot.

Our reply:
Your edited text and credits are fine. Any chance there might be space for a larger article in the future? Note I am organizing a "climb for science" in July 2018 to celebrate early exploration and research in central Australia. Please consider adding to the Mens Journal calender.

MJ's response:
Thanks Marc! Yes, if we end up running a larger story, will definitely keep you in the loop. And thanks again!


Here's our letter as printed in the February 2018 edition of Men's Journal ... Oh well, they do say any publicity is good publicity! Note to self: remember to ask for the word limit, and always write your own copy!

ROCK OF AGES As a geologist, I know that the impact of first seeing Uluru is memorable [“Outback Oasis,” by Ryan Krogh, December 2017]. The desolate red center makes for a stunning view, a true visual feast. It leaves an impression that will stay in your mind forever. The sights of the surrounding area are extraordinary, too—and are essential in understanding its influence on human culture. There’s a proposed ban on climbing the rock set for 2019. I believe it should be kept open for future generations to enjoy, especially given the importance of tourism to the area.

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Hoping to hit the internet book shelves in time for Christmas 2018.  In the meantime wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  I just want one thing in my Christmas stocking: a ban of the ban!



A pictorial response to arguments against climbing Ayers Rock

A pictorial response to arguments against climbing Ayers RockIt's too dangerous Group of women aged 19-70 climb Ayers Rock as part of the 1957 Petticoat Safari. This was prior to the chains being installed. Since the 1950s over 6,000,000 people of all ages have climbed the rock. In that time there have been a reported 36 deaths mainly heart attacks to older men, not acclimatised to the heat of central Australia. If you are fit and healthy and stick to the marked path climbing Ayers Rock is an exhilarating adventure but a decidedly low risk activity.

Here's Arthur Groom's take on the climbing options: extract from I saw a strange land
Various writers have described Ayers Rock as difficult of ascent, when in reality it is a trained mountaineer's job on the east-south-east corner, a rough and steep scramble up at least two places on its southern side, and nothing else but a strenuous and spectacular uphill walk on its western side It’s a Sacred Site, climbing is disrespect…

The Ban on Climbing Ayers Rock is Immoral and Illegal

The Ban on Climbing Ayers Rock is Immoral and IllegalQuadrant Magazine have placed my recent article online outlining reasons the ban on climbing Ayers Rock is immoral and illegal.

Claims that Aborigines never ascend the monolith are false and the highly sacred nature of the route a recent invention. The cultural-heritage significance of the climb to both Anangu and millions of non-Aboriginal visitors is something that should be celebrated and maintained, not discouraged and condemned.

Read the Article at Quadrant.
“In the realm of ideas there has been no better publication in Australia over the last fifty years than Quadrant magazine.”
— Former Prime Minister John Howard