Like many Australians, I’ve watched news of the unfolding tragedy on Mount Everest with a rising sense of horror; the record number of ascents having been accompanied by a predictable but commensurate increase in fatalities. Images of the colourful but deadly bottleneck are a salient reminder (according to Tim MacCartney Snape in The Age) that, ‘Everest’s summit has now become a purchasable commodity…for minimally experienced climbers whose main qualifier has been to have deep pockets.’ There’s no doubt that man’s desire to conquer its iconic peaks sits uneasily against the ancient and reverently named Chomolungma or Mother Goddess of the Universe.
Many years ago, I took a 21-day trek with a friend to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal. The expedition party flew out of the capital, Kathmandu, in a 12-seater plane bound for Lukla, commonly known as the gateway to Mount Everest. The trip is a short one, maybe an hour of air time but it demands courage and precision from the pilot, thanks to the tiny, treacherous runway perched on a steep cliff. For half a century pilots have needed to navigate snow-capped peaks and endure erratic weather to land on a runway just 500 metres long that has been carved into a mountain ridge and slides into a perilous three-kilometre drop. These conditions have rightly earned Lukla the nickname of the ‘world’s most dangerous airport’ because every year a plane makes a fatal misstep and hurtles over the edge into the three-kilometre abyss. Thankfully we survived the flight, but when we alighted from the plane, grabbed our backpacks from the hold and took a look around, I remember thinking to myself ‘I can’t see the mountains – where are the mountains?’ The fact is, I was looking for them at the same angle that one might use to search out Mt Buller, from straight ahead, when in actual fact what was needed was a 90-degree head tilt to search them out in the skies.
When the Himalayan range finally came into view – raw, majestic, ancient and enduring, I felt my eyes fill with tears for I was completely overcome at the sheer beauty and immensity of it. And what I didn’t know then but have come to understand now is that I was experiencing what the Romantics described as ‘the Sublime’. This is an experience that involves our taking pleasure in being overwhelmed by sights, sensations or experiences that are greater or more powerful than us, which in turn evoke a sense of fear and awe in equal measure. Seeing Uluru for the first time, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, evokes a similar response. Sadly, that ancient monolith has also experienced its share of fatalities from tourists desperate to conquer its steep inclines, despite pleas from the Anangu people to respect its status as a living cultural entity – sacred, majestic, ancient and enduring.
Cultivating reverence encourages us to acknowledge the aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of our natural world and is a sobering reminder of our place in the great scheme of things. Inviting the Captains of our Firsts sporting teams to read an Acknowledgement of Country at Bulleen during the annual Sir Douglas Nicholls Round is one small but important way of instilling this sense of place whilst honouring the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people. The name ‘Bulleen’, as we all learned, originates from the nearby Bolin Bolin Billabongs which were an important territory for the Wurundjeri people for approximately 5000 years.
Looking after the land, these ancient icons and each other is our sacred duty and it’s gratifying seeing our young people so fully engaged in this way.
Head of Senior School