The story below was originally submitted to the Northern Territory News. It should have been used in the July 3, 2010 edition as a Saturday Extra column but seems to have disappeared into the ether.
Our mighty rock, Uluru, has been in the news again this week after a feisty French woman performed an impromptu dance atop the massive monolith.
Lithe and tanned, 25-year old Alizee Sery told Daniel Bourchier in the Sunday Territorian that her spontaneous show – stripping down to a white bikini – was a “tribute to the greatness of The Rock” and the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition. And then all hell broke loose.
Within 24 hours news websites around the world were reporting on the story and comments were flowing thick and fast on the Northern Territory News website. By Tuesday evening more than 370 reader comments had been recorded.
To me, Sery’s little Rock dance reeked heavily of a cheap publicity stunt. But others were quick to express their moral outrage.
David Ross, the director of the Central Land Council, said that Sery’s actions were stupid and called on Prime Minister Julia Gillard to immediately deport her.
“The traditional owners will be greatly saddened and many other Australians will be extremely upset at this arrogant show of disrespect,” he said.
And of course, some politically correct types were quite upset. A letter writer to The Australian on June 29th said that Sery’s ‘tribute’ was “offensive beyond words” and spouted forth that her “self-obsessed actions provide yet another reason why this sacred site should be closed to tourists”.
Others expressed a form of outrage that made me think some of the writers would be much better suited to living in the 19th Century Victorian era when ‘ladies’ just didn’t do this sort of thing.
“That’s just a grubby ho act – and she disguises it as a tribute,” said an indignant Liz at 10:26 am on Sunday. “Pity she didn’t twirl and shimmy right over the edge”.
Beth at 9:26 am on Sunday also chimed in with her two pennies worth, “you disrespectful tramp…get on the next plane home…you are not welcome here.”
And Desley Hodgkinson from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia (a country not known for its religious tolerance) slammed into Sery by suggesting that she was possibly brainless at best. “I’m appalled at the lack of thought and consideration behind this stunt,” he said.
Obviously none of these excitable commentators were aware of the commitments made at the time of Handback in October 1985. Back then it was stated that in return for a recognition of Aboriginal ownership of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the area would be leased to the Federal government to “ensure its continuing use as a National Park for the enjoyment of all Australians and overseas visitors.”
And it’s certainly clear – judging by both her video and the accompanying photographs – that Alizee Sery was enjoying herself while she was on top of The Rock.
Fortunately some people realised that Sery’s actions were not the equivalent of urinating on the Eternal Flame at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris – this had actually been done in 1998 by a drunken fan of the Mexican football team, who was subsequently arrested and charged with public intoxication.
One comment from ‘sowhatifshedid’ of Brisbane at 4:36 pm on Sunday was quite succinct.
“Lighten up you people, it’s only a stripper having some fun in the sun and NOT totally naked. If they can hang a guy on a cross half naked and pay tribute to him, then why not? Get over superstition – ALL of them – and move on!”
Meanwhile, way down south in Canberra, the bureaucrats within Parks Australia – the ultimate authorities for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – were probably breathing a collective sigh of relief.
After all, Sery’s actions, and the reporting on it, was providing a neat distraction from the real scandal at Uluru. And what is this scandal?
It’s to do with the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area, which at this time of the year is a great spot to watch shadows on The Rock as the sun lurches into the early morning sky.
Built at a staggering cost of $21 million and opened in October 2009, the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area was promised to be the replacement for the not-so-safe sunrise viewing area that had sufficed for fifty years prior on the gravel shoulders of the Uluru ring road.
On the morning it was opened, Environment Minister Peter Garrett told the assembled media and hangers-on that the viewing platforms “offer panoramic views over the desert oaks to both Uluru and Kata Tjuta – spectacular at sunrise but fantastic throughout the day”.
And Kerrie Bennison, the Natural Resources Manager for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, told the news agency AAP that “it will be where we direct people to see sunrises”.
But within weeks, prominent photographers had revealed that the sunrise views from Talinguru Nyakunytjaku were only ever going to be good in summer and would be woeful in the winter months when most Australian travellers make the trek to Uluru.
Australia’s best known panoramic landscape photographer, Ken Duncan, blasted the new site as being in the wrong spot saying that the sun would not rise behind visitors at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku.
“You won’t get all those lovely pinks as The Rock changes colour,” he said.
Alice Springs-based cameraman, Chris Tangey, echoed Duncan’s concerns. According to Tangey, the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku Viewing Area would be “pretty pathetic” for early morning filming during the middle of the year.
Now it seems that these critics were right.
I visited the park over a number of days in mid-June and it was clear that the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area was not even a third-rate site for watching the effects of the rising sun on The Rock. While there is an ‘illusion’ of light caused by the fact that the vast foreground between the viewing platforms and Uluru itself does get lit up as the sun rises, the rock surface remains in shadow.
There is none of the dramatic colour change that we all associate with Uluru.
Even by 9:00 am, which at Uluru in mid-winter is 1.5 hours after the chilly sunrise, less than a quarter of The Rock has been graced with direct sunlight and the remainder is in deep shadow.
By 1:00 pm The Rock is still a mixture of shadow and harsh light and by 4:00 pm the sun has crept to the north of Uluru and all of the side visible from Talinguru Nyakunytjaku is a horrid vista of bleached light and lens flare. So much for a claim by a Parks Australia spokesperson in October 2009 that the new viewing area would “provide stunning views at all times of the day”.
Meanwhile on the other side of The Rock – the north-east side of Uluru – a growing number of tourists are making their way to the old sunrise viewing area, which still offers the best morning viewing conditions in the national park.
It was here that I met Kiwi travellers, Bernd and Sally Naumann from Auckland. Bernd had been to the national park in 1976 and recalled that back then, “you had the complete run of everything in the park … you could go where you wanted”. It was memories from that time – of where the sunrise looked best – which brought him and his wife to the north-east side of Uluru.
Others, like keen amateur photographer Bert Plenkovich, from Alstonville in northern New South Wales, made their way to this old sunrise location after deciding that the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku site just wasn’t up to scratch.
“There was no colour and we kept waiting for something to happen light-wise but it didn’t,” he said. ”For me Talinguru was a complete anti-climax.”
Even The Rock’s tour guides are less impressed with the new site. One driver with a local company said that when he told his passengers that the new viewing area had cost $21 million and was put in the “wrong spot” for sunrise, their jaws dropped.
“Then we tell them that Parks Australia is stumping up another $21 million so that they can get the sun shifted around to light up the side of Uluru where the new viewing area is.
“That always gets a good laugh.”