November 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Suspended from the rock

By Jock Serong
Rock-climbers at Arapiles/Dyurrite say the parks department has misled traditional owners over climb closures

The small town of Natimuk straddles a wide strip of road three and a half hours north-west of Melbourne. It’s a speck on the Wimmera plains, made famous by its proximity to one of the world’s best rock-climbing venues, Mount Arapiles, or Dyurrite in Wotjobaluk language.

Simon Mentz, the author of a widely used climbing guidebook, describes Dyurrite as the epicentre of climbing in Australia. “Both the Grampians and the Blue Mountains are spread out over massive areas,” Mentz says, “but this is concentrated and the climate’s good. And it’s a unique place to learn because there are intermediate and hard routes, but it’s rare to find incredible easy climbing like here.”

“You can take kids who are terrified of heights,” says professional guide Louise Shepherd, “and by the end of the week you’re taking them up a 120-metre cliff and they’re overjoyed.”

Dyurrite is the land of the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia and Jupagulk peoples, collectively known as the Wotjobaluk nations, who quarried the stone, which records 400 million years of geological time.

The town of Natimuk was once dominated by farmers, many of them German Lutherans from Adelaide. When the climbers started coming in the ’50s, the locals dubbed them “the goat people”. Dyurrite has since drawn generations of climbers to settle in the area and start rock-climbing businesses, and it soon filled with entrepreneurs, professionals, artists and conservationists. In peak season the campground at the foot of the glowing orange cliffs is a Babel of languages. The town’s main street looks garrulous and welcoming, daubed in public art.

But lately things have changed.

The change began to the east, in the Grampians/Gariwerd National Park – itself a haven for climbers. In 2003, Parks Victoria established Special Protection Areas (SPAs) there, prohibiting obvious things such as tree felling. But after floods and fires in 2013 and 2016, surveys revealed remnants left behind by climbers such as chalk used for grip, leading traditional owners to raise concerns that cultural heritage wasn’t being protected. In what climbers say was an ill-considered overreach, Parks Victoria banned all climbing in the SPAs.

“They found bolt anchors or chalk marks,” says Kevin Lindorff, who’s been climbing for more than 50 years. “Sometimes on overhangs or against bright ochre, the chalk stands out. But rather than talk to climbers, they banned climbing across 550 square kilometres in the Gramps. And then they found the same things at Arapiles.”

So far, a small number of climbs at Dyurrite have been closed, but climbers worry that the bans will spread.

Australian rock climbing emerged as an organised recreational pursuit just over a century ago, in Queensland’s Glass House Mountains and the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. There are now thought to be more than 66,000 logged climbs on the continent. Shepherd says that, historically, climbers were accessing cliffs no one else wanted to use. “Maybe that leads to a culture of freedom, and a resentment of now being regulated.”

The Wotjobaluk nations have occupied this region of the Wimmera for around 40,000 years. They suffered under the rise of pastoralism and were driven into missions, but have maintained spiritual, linguistic and cultural continuity. They were among the first group of clans to acquire native title in Victoria, in 2005.

Climbing access is only one of dozens of social and environmental issues that Indigenous organisations have to navigate. And communications over the issue have not been simple, nor run smoothly. In the Greater Grampians/Gariwerd, Parks Victoria manages the land jointly with three groups of traditional owners, including the Barengi Gadjin Land Council (BGLC). At Dyurrite, the BGLC is the sole traditional owner body, and its 2016 “Country Plan” for Dyurrite covers joint management, cultural heritage surveys, rock art protection and cultural burning. While the plan refers to “steering people away from sensitive areas”, it doesn’t make mention of excluding climbers or anyone else.

There is a sense of bewilderment in the climbing community, and resentment at what’s seen as a lack of helpful engagement by Parks Victoria in addressing the cultural heritage concerns of traditional owners. It is understood that 90 per cent of Victoria’s rock art is located in the Greater Grampians/Gariwerd, for example, and that cultural heritage sites in this setting are often only visible to the expert eye. A chipped edge of rock can be evidence of a traditional quarry site. Faint dustings of pigment may indicate ancient artwork. As one climber put it, “This means that climbers can be inadvertently near sites because we don’t know they’re there.”

BGLC’s acting chief executive Tim McCartney would only offer that: “We are currently working through the determination process with Parks Victoria, and our position on the protection of Dyurrite remains as outlined on our website [in the Country Plan].” Climber Kevin Lindorff says he understands that traditional owners won’t engage with climbing groups “unless they feel comfortable to speak”, adding that online exchanges to date have been “unhelpful”.

So, the impasse goes on. Traditional owners maintain that they must protect cultural heritage. Parks Victoria is legislatively obliged to act upon the traditional owners’ concerns. The climbers insist they aren’t the problem, and they fear more closures at Dyurrite.

Climbers say Natimuk is suffering from the uncertainty, and that the economic decline predates the impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns. “Natimuk has no other tourism bases,” says Lindorff. “It’s a climbing town. Five hundred people, and 20 per cent of households are climbers. Some families are in the second or third generations of climbing. The guiding business in Natimuk employs 30 or 35 guides. There’s a climbing shop.”

“It’s very unsettling for the people in town,” says Mentz. “They move to live near something that’s important to them, only to be banned from it. I’m a guide, and if I lose that livelihood I’ll be sad, but my main concern is losing the opportunity to connect with that mountain.”

Parks Victoria continues to come in for criticism for its role in managing Dyurrite. “Given how badly PV has handled the climbing restrictions and how singularly it has accused climbers of causing harm to cultural and environmental values, it is easy to blame PV for our current situation,” said the Victorian Climbing Club, in an editorial in its December newsletter, “but it is useful to remember that PV is an underfunded bureaucracy with poor organisational memory, and it has been tasked (legislatively) with doing something unprecedented in its history: giving effect to the wishes of Traditional Owners.”

Lindorff admits that while some climbers were initially “incensed and belligerent” about climb closures, they’re generally supportive of the need to protect cultural heritage. The issue, he says, is with the way Parks Victoria went about it: closing climbs without talking to climbers to verify whether they’re the problem. He suggests that some of the bolt damage revealed by the recent surveys was done by the Forests Commission Victoria, a predecessor of Parks Victoria, when it installed cages and other protections for cultural heritage. “If traditional owners have believed PV’s false attributions of harm,” he says, “then I understand their anger.”

“Climbing isn’t perfect,” Mentz says of the environmental impacts. “But I’ve given this a lot of thought, and of all the environmental issues facing the world – chalk on cliffs? It’s a distraction from the bigger threats facing wild places. We don’t alter the rock … There’s far less impact than from skiing and mountain-biking.”

Louise Shepherd wonders if the sting is compounded because “us privileged whitefellas aren’t used to being shut out of public land”. She’s quick to disavow “equating a people subject to genocide, stolen generations and ongoing racism with our plight”, but sees an equivalence in being typecast and vilified as a group. “We’ve experienced a taste of being shut out from our place of adventure and solace and pleasure.”

It’s all quiet at the moment, and the climbers are, in Mentz’s words, “trying to be respectful, to understand the perspectives and respect the process”. Parks Victoria’s draft Greater Gariwerd Landscape Management Plan, which takes in Dyurrite and was written in conjunction with traditional owners, proposes restricted areas, permits, rehabilitation of sites, and bans on new climbing areas, fixed anchors, competitions and white chalk. A final version of the plan was scheduled for release in October.

Meanwhile, the restoration of good relations might depend on another group: the Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network, which was formed by non-Indigenous members of the Victorian climbing community who live and climb in the region. “We recognised that a reconciliation approach was missing between the climbing community and traditional owners,” says president Claire Evans. The organisation has been meeting with BGLC, climbers and Parks Victoria monthly for 18 months, and Evans believes they’re making progress. “For us it wasn’t about one issue: we were there to listen and learn, reflect. It’s not always comfortable or easy.”

According to Evans, climbing in the region is not in crisis. She says the BGLC is open to shared use of the land, but cautions that Australians will face this challenge “across the board, with every outdoor pursuit and recreation. It’s not a negative discussion at all. We need to better understand the country we recreate on.”

Early in our conversation, Shepherd admitted that each climb closure “felt like a stab in the heart”. But she’s come to appreciate the significance of Dyurrite to traditional owners and recognises that things will have to change for the climbers. Accesses that were taken for granted might be inimical to the wishes of Indigenous peoples. Acknowledging that requires facing up to longstanding prejudices and privileges.

As Shepherd puts it, “You can’t be angry for months and months. You’ve got to work with people. We all love the place in the end.”

Jock Serong

Jock Serong is the founding editor of Great Ocean Quarterly. He writes feature articles in the surfing media, and his novels include On the Java Ridge, Preservation and The Burning Island.

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