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Tourist behaviour, local values, and interpretation at Uluru: ‘The sacred deed at Australia’s mighty heart’

Abstract

This paper explores issues relating to multiple and changing values and uses of desert landscapes in the context of tourism at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (UKTNP), co-managed by Aboriginal people and the Australian Government agency Parks Australia. More than 400,000 people visit the park each year, drawn mostly by the massive red monolith. To the local Aboriginal people, Anangu, this rock is Uluru, a complex of places with great spiritual importance. Since co-management, UKTNP has become a symbol of the reconciliation process between Aboriginal and settler Australians. Climbing the rock is a popular activity. Aboriginal co-managers ask visitors not to climb Uluru but rather to learn about their culture and home through their eyes. Park management aims to discourage climbing. This research investigated how visitors respond to the Anangu request not to climb, and why some climb while others do not. We argue that spatial and experiential aspects of the park support climbing at the expense of participation in other activities more attuned to Aboriginal understandings of landscape at Uluru.

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Notes

  1. Anangu is the term used by Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara—speaking peoples to refer to themselves. In this paper we use it to refer in particular to those Anangu who are or have been involved with the national park as joint managers.

  2. The park sold 344,357 entry tickets in 2006. This figure does not include visitors aged under 16 who represent a large proportion of total visitors (visitors aged under 18 comprised about 30% of those we surveyed in 2006) and are not required to purchase a ticket. Taking these visitors into account takes the total visitor numbers closer to 450,000 per annum.

  3. To Anangu, Mala men are important ancestor figures from the Tjukurpa (see Note 5), and “Mala Tjukurpa, the Mala Law, is central to their living culture and celebrated in story, song, dance and ceremony” (DEWHA 2008).

  4. Safety is a key Anangu concern and has significantly improved in recent years since park managers began to close the climb in dangerously windy or hot conditions. The latest climb safety measure was instituted in January 2008 with the support of tourism operators, and involves closing the climb for the very hot months of January and February except for a brief period early each morning.

  5. Tjukurpa is a Pitjantjatjara term that is increasingly used in English without translation. It means ‘story’ ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Law’ (as in Aboriginal customary law) and ‘message’ (Goddard 1996, p. 184). Tjukurpa encompasses Anangu religion, law and history and tells how “the relationships between people, plants, animals and the physical features of the land…came to be, what they mean, and how they must be carried on”. Tjukurpa also prescribes “the nature of the relationships between and the obligations of those responsible for the maintenance of Tjukurpa and the associated landscape and those who visit that land” (Parks Australia and Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management (2000, p. 18).

  6. In interviews many ‘Chicken Rock’ climbers said that they did not consider this to be ‘climbing the rock’. ‘Chicken Rock’ is widely understood to be named in reference to the perceived lack of courage of those who stop climbing there.

  7. Based on monthly ticket sales figures provided by the national park for June and July 2006 of 25,128 and 38,895, and estimating a further 25% of non-paying visitors (see Note 2).

  8. Visitors from the United Kingdom were, following their usual own nomination, further differentiated into those from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The behaviour of Scots and Irish in regard to climbing was quite different to the English with much smaller percentage of Scots and the Irish climbing. The Welsh sample was too small to be meaningful.

  9. Park management runs well-established training programs about Anangu culture for coach drivers and tourist guides, but evaluating the effectiveness of these educational programs was beyond the scope of this research.

  10. In mid-2007 the park installed new interpretation markers with a track map at points every 250 m along the base walk route.

  11. Overcrowding of the ranger walk appears to be a persistent problem. Brown cites a 1986 observation of enormous crowds attracted to it and himself observed “in excess of 50 participants”, some of whom progressively abandoned the activity “probably because of the overcrowding and difficulty to see and hear” (Brown 1993, p. 12).

  12. The term ANZAC referred originally to Australian and New Zealand Army Corps soldiers who fought at Gallipoli in Turkey during World War I. The sacrifices and unique character of these soldiers are increasingly invoked in Australian nationalism (see for example Burke 2006).

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank the customary owners of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and the Board of Management of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park for their support for this research, and in-kind assistance with accommodation during the 2006 field season. Hueneke’s (2006) honours research through the Australian National University was a key data source, together with research by Cathy Robinson and Baker in 2003 and 2004, assisted by a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies whose support is gratefully acknowledged. The work reported in this publication was supported in part by a fieldwork grant in 2006 from the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres programme through the Desert Knowledge CRC; the views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Desert Knowledge CRC or its Participants. Lynette Liddle in her then capacity of Manager, Cultural and Natural Resources of Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park greatly assisted the 2003 and 2004 fieldwork. Emily Kilham, Felicity Maher, Wendy Steele, Skye Hueneke and Eri Teranishi provided valuable assistance carrying out interviews in 2004 and 2006. Mark Stafford-Smith and two anonymous reviewers provided valuable comments on a draft of this paper.

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Hueneke, H., Baker, R. Tourist behaviour, local values, and interpretation at Uluru: ‘The sacred deed at Australia’s mighty heart’. GeoJournal 74, 477 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-008-9249-2

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Keywords

  • Aboriginal
  • Interpretation
  • National park
  • Outback
  • Tourism
  • Uluru