Friday, October 25, 2019

up your ayers

Interesting to see that the Australian authorities have now banned altogether the hitherto merely frowned-upon tourist practice of climbing to the top of Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock if you're as old as me).

I have mixed feelings about this, for a number of reasons, and perhaps this is one of those situations where it 's useful to examine what you think, to see if you can work out why you think it, or at least why you think you think it. Here's a few things which I simultaneously hold to be true, and which it may be possible to mash into a coherent worldview which gives due weight to all of them:
  • the local Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe own the land of which Uluru and the nearby Kata Tjuta formation form a part
  • the local Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe also believe various mystical tales involving the rock and its origins, and that the rock houses the spirits of their ancestors in some way
  • none of these beliefs is, in fact, true
  • climbing up bit bits of rock and standing on top of them is exhilarating and fun
In general I'm very wary about rules or conventions which would require people who don't adhere to a particular belief system to modify their behaviour to mollify those who do adhere to that belief system, as you can clearly see how that's problematic in a huge range of situations. It would allow Christian fundamentalists to deny women abortion access, Muslim fundamentalists to restrict women's clothing choices, Jews and Muslims to stop me eating delicious bacon, and I'm sure you can think of a few of your own. Beliefs are not immune from factual examination just because those who hold them are historic victims of oppression (which Australian Aboriginal people certainly are) or have held them for greater than some arbitrarily-chosen amount of time.

On the other hand, you do have to temper the hardline atheist view with some cultural sensitivity, or, to put it another way, consider not being an arsehole just to make a point. I think there's a more obvious anti-arseholery argument against those who decided to strip off at the top of Mount Kinabalu, for instance, and then spend quite a lot of time and effort baiting Malaysian officials about it afterwards. Climbing up on top of a big rock to have a look around seems relatively benign in comparison, and it was pretty much inevitable that there would be a massive spike in people wanting to do it before the ban came into force. It is also worth pointing out that quite a few people have died attempting the climb, some through falling off and some as a result of the heat. Clearly accidents can happen, as demonstrated by the unfortunate young lady in the current Google Maps summit picture.


Obviously an element of this is my own enthusiasm for standing on top of things, and I can say reasonably confidently that if I went to Uluru (which I never have) I would be awestruck and would want to admire it from the ground from as many angles as possible but would also be slightly frustrated at the knowledge that a perfectly feasible route existed by which I could climb to the top but for some people not wanting me to.

I think the best approach is just to see it as a property rights issue and not bring religious matters into it: it belongs to them, so they get to say how it is enjoyed by others. Somebody not wanting me to eat a bacon sandwich is one thing, someone objecting to me devouring one in their front room is something else.

So given that you can't go up it, you have to go round it. Wikipedia reckons the circuit walk is 5.8 miles; that sounds reasonably achievable in a few hours, but I presume that's hugging the perimeter fairly tightly. It  may well be that better views are afforded by going back a bit and walking round keeping a distance of, say, 200 metres. How much further would that make the walk, though?

Well, if you assume that Uluru is sort of elliptical then you come up against a quite interesting mathematical phenomenon that I was previously unaware of: unlike for a circle (and all the straight-sided polygons, obviously) there is no nice neat equation for the circumference of an ellipse, and so you have to rely on approximations. As it happens, while I'd assumed it was either elliptical or a sort of rounded-off rectangle, Google Maps reveals it to actually be more of a lumpy rounded-off triangle that reminds me slightly of one of those prehistoric flint arrowheads (the arrow, in this case, pointing almost due east).

What Google Maps also provides is a distance calculating facility, which I have used before to scope out and assess the feasibility (this is highly company-dependent, obviously) of possible walking routes. Two possible Uluru circuits are presented below, differing by about a mile and a half.



I think that difference is probably slightly less than I would have guessed it would be. Jesper Parnevik's caddy had a very similar experience back in 1999.

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