To climb, or not to climb: that is the question. At least that’s the question my tour group recently faced while standing before this giant red rock at the centre of my country: Uluru. We were in a bind. In 1985 the Australian Government handed this land back to the Anangu (‘arn-ang-oo’) Indigenous people. But there were conditions. Being such a drawcard for tourists, ‘joint management’ required that the precarious climb up and over the rock remain open for those with summit fever. Money talks. So each year, around 400,000 tourists trek to Ayers Rock, and about half celebrate their secular pilgrimage by capturing it on film and conquering the climb.
No big deal, right? It’s just a rock! Well, not quite. For this rock runs deeper than the clash of tectonic plates. Uluru is the site of conflicting cultures. And the more our tour guide talked, the wider our eyes became. “They really believe this?” Our Western skepticism has labelled the Aboriginal stories as ‘Dreamtime’. But for the Anangu, this is no fleeting fancy. Tjukurpa is real. Tjukurpa (‘chook-orr-pa’) is the foundation of their culture, a traditional system guiding life even today. Tjukurpa is an inseparable complex of law, land, people, and ceremony. It answers foundational questions of how to live in the land with harmony. The land breathes with spirit, and Uluru’s scarred surface offer a physical reminder of the activities of ancestral beings before them who shaped this land. Through stories, song and dance, the Anangu remind themselves of who they are, and how people, plants, animals, and this giant rock are related. Special rituals held at physical locations around the site offer a rite of passage where boys and girls become men and women. And no marker was more important than the ‘men’ making the spiritual trek to the top. To respect Tjukurpa is the mark of ninti—the knowledgeable.
Thus the clash, and our conundrum. Our mental landscape has long been swept clean of any spirit. For we are not ninti. Instead, we are minga. In Anangu understanding, we are ants. Always rushing, never settling. Like Jacob at Bethel, we are totally unaware that we stand on sacred ground; a different kind of ladder marks the ascent to the ‘top’. Cameras in hand, a long line of tourists dot the ridge—a shrinking silhouette of ants against a stark sky. Sure, we read the warnings: such a climb is risky, and every year a distraught family member hears how their loved one fell and died while trying to conquer a red rock. And while in this age of tolerance we don’t want to disrespect the traditional owners, clearly these beliefs are crap—progress is progress, so onward and upward. At least that’s how half the tourists reason.
Our group was divided. Which voice should we heed? In the words of one traditional elder, “That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing. … You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But that’s what we are obliged by Tjukurpa to say.”
In Philip Yancey’s book, Rumours of Another World, he explores our Western tendency toward reductionism. We take the world apart, breaking the solar system into constituent parts to understand how things work. Uluru is reduced to “just a rock”. Yet as science’s light illuminates the mechanics underlying the physical world, “its shadows further obscure the invisible world beyond.” We pulled the planet apart, but we haven’t yet learned to connect and put it back together, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Even so, “encounter trumps reduction.” Even an unsuspecting skeptic can be taken by surprise while watching the sun set on Uluru:
“Even with our bus tours and our fully automatic cameras and our cries of ‘Oh, wow!’, we still couldn’t belittle it. I had come expecting nothing much, but by the power of the thing itself I had, like some ancient tribesman wandering through the desert and confronting the phenomenon, been turned into a worshipper. Nobody was more surprised than I.”
Following Celtic spirituality, Yancey would call this a “‘thin place’ where the natural and supernatural worlds come together at their narrowest, with only a thin veil between them.” Have you ever experienced this? Where? Can you recall the sights, sounds, smell, and the feel of the place? In your mind’s eye, capture a 360 degree panorama at your personal ‘Uluru’. Whether on a mountain peak in the Andes, a gaping gorge like the Grand Canyon, or watching a fledgling eagle set out for its first flight, we’ve all experienced thin places of exquisite beauty. And whilst our framing of the facts may not fit with Aboriginal spirituality, no person can consistently live as minga. Amidst our frenetic activity, the spirit of a place reaches through our lens and past our pretensions to be ninti, and takes us by surprise. “There must be something more than this.” And in this something more, we live, we move, and we have our being.
I’m pleased to say that on this occasion, our group didn’t conquer the rock. Admittedly the climb was closed for excessive wind and heat! But I’d like to think we all felt the pull of something beyond mere deference for Dreamtime. At this thin place we sensed the physical and spiritual reunite in a Corroboree. And this dance, which Anangu believe once marked the land, served to shake the mindset of minga tourists otherwise oblivious to the Great Creator God in whose presence we all dwell. Tjukurpa had conquered the tourist.
 See http://www.aicomos.com/wp-content/uploads/Tourism-tracks-and-sacred-places-Pashupatinath-and-Uluru.-Case-studies-from-Nepal-and-Australia.pdf for an intriguing critique of clashing cultures at Uluru.
 Philip Yancey, Rumours of Another World: What on Earth are We Missing? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 15, 18, 45.