Today marks another chapter from the Slowest Release of Information Award nominee Parks Victoria. We finally have an idea as to why some of the 8 focus areas were closed to climbing earlier this year. Up to now we have been second guessing the reasons – environmental, cultural? Oddly this information has not been released in any official way, but comes in the form of photo captions on Parks Victoria’s website about Grampians climbing. This page has been somewhat controversial in recent times with a “bolt in art” photo being falsely blamed on rock climbers. Read about that debacle here. After that photo was removed, and an apology issued, the photo has been replaced and new captions added.
The photo on the left is at Millennium, an area that was established as a climbing area in the early 90s, and well used by bushwalkers for camping for many decades before then. Climbers have known about a single emu figure painted low on the rock in the middle of cave since the early days so it’s no surprise that it is a Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Listed Rock Art Site as captioned. The art is very hard to see with the naked eye but remains untouched by climbers. The chalk and safety bolts are not near it and climbers activities have co-existed for decades. There are no recent new routes in this cave – the area has not changed in decades and due to its location a long way up a 4WD track, is not that popular. We believe this area could remain open to climbers with subtle signage and education to protect the art and the closure of a couple of routes. Is there more hidden art in this cave? We don’t know – and the reasons will be explained later on.
The next two photos in the montage are the big news of the day – these are taken at The Gallery, an area that was once considered a jewel of Australian climbing and now is on the banned list. Talking to climbers who first found the area in the mid 80s they were perplexed about the ban as they had not seen or heard of any art in the cave, and furthermore this area had a specific climbers track built and signage installed by Parks Victoria in the late 1990s.
The Gallery has not been ignored by management but fully approved, as recently as 2016 according to this document. Last week the same photos on Parks Vic website were captioned “chalk graffiti”. So it was surprise to all that the photos of The Gallery were now captioned Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Registered Quarry.
What is an Aboriginal quarry site? Aboriginal quarries are places where Aboriginal people took stone from rocky outcrops to make chipped or ground stone tools for many different purposes. Pigments were made from quarried ochre, and grinding tools were made from sandstone. Some quarries are small, consisting of just a single protruding boulder. The largest and most well known in Victoria is at Mt William about 70km north of Melbourne (a different Mt William than the Grampians one). There are potentially thousands of these quarries across the Grampians and Victorian climbing areas with many climbers reporting seeing them at crags. Does climbing directly interfere with them? That is highly unlikely and no evidence has been shown yet by Parks Victoria. Certainly bushwalkers, bird watchers, photographers, trail runners and other users would have similar impact as they are usually on flat ground near rock – not up a cliff. The photo supplied by Parks seem to show a ranger standing on the very rock that may be the quarry site. In no previous correspondence from Parks Vic regarding these bans have quarry sites been mentioned as an access problem.
What is the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register? It is a government database of information about known Aboriginal cultural heritage places and objects within Victoria, with their location and a detailed description. The Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 requires Aboriginal places and objects to be recorded on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register (VAHR). Unfortunately for us it is not a publicly accessible register, as it contains culturally sensitive information. It is a Catch 22 for us climbers as we can’t see it, so we don’t know where these sites are. We are also not party to the process on how these sites are found or added to the register.
Because of this total lack of transparency the onus is very much on Parks Victoria to provide honest and unbiased information. Sadly in the last few weeks this has not been the case, with the “bolt in art” photo and the inflated climbs/climbers statistics being just two examples picked up among many others. Let’s not forget Parks Victoria’s Simon Talbot going on the radio and saying climbers were “actual rock bolting into some of the paintings” and climbing numbers are “growing by 30% year on year”. All false
What hope have we of counterclaiming something when we are not even told about the claim in the first place. If The Gallery is indeed a significant quarry site, when was this discovered? And why was this not revealed earlier? Climbing had been approved there as recently at 2016 – so is this a recent discovery? Are there other quarry sites at other climbing areas we need to worry about? We have heard stories about quarry sites at some of Australia’s most famous climbing areas (which you will understand we are not about to list). What in particular makes The Gallery quarry special enough to ban all climbing there? How does this site differ to the one at Bundaleer where a simple walkway was constructed over the site? Is Parks Victoria clutching at straws to vindicate this ban? Their own website mentions Aboriginal art more than five times on the climbing FAQ page but never Aboriginal quarries – apart from in these new photo captions that appeared yesterday. Can quarries and climbing areas exist at the same location? We imagine it has been happening for many decades already all over the country.
It’s important to remember that climbers do not want to damage Aboriginal heritage sites. When climbers are told about the exact location of sites at climbing areas they stay away from them and by their mere presence can stop casual vandalism from the general public. There have never been reports of vindictive or deliberate destruction of Aboriginal sites by rock-climbers anywhere in Australia despite there being hundreds of climbers out climbing every week. What can we do to protect them? Knowledge about their existence would be a good start and that comes from traditional owners and Parks Victoria.
Following on from this revelation, it has now been 9 weeks since the bans were announced (without warning) and we have yet to see any detailed maps of either the 8 key sites or the SPA regions despite Simon Talbot saying on February 18th “we will get all the geocodes out there ” in his radio interview a day after the bans were announced. What radius is actually closed at a crag such as The Gallery? Is it just the cave itself or the surrounding area?
On an interesting side note that may or may not be relevant, we found an article from the Stawell Times that talks about an extensive survey done of Grampians Aboriginal sites in 2012 . It was funded to the tune of $120,000 and was tasked to survey aboriginal sites in the Grampians for damage after flooding. This was their moment to flag climbing damage to sites and start the process of talking to climbers about broad SPA bans. But that didn’t seem to happen. Almost no new routes have appeared since 2012. More than 99% of the Grampians rock climbing areas had already been established when this survey was completed. Why didn’t we hear about quarry sites at a crag as famous as The Gallery 7 years ago when this survey was done?
In other news National broadcaster the ABC has been out in the Grampians filming a story about the climbing bans. They have interviewed Parks Vic’s CCO Simon Talbot, and indigenous art expert Jake Goodes. Local climbers also featured including Jackie Bernardi, Mike Tomkins and Mark Gould. Locations included Summerday Valley, Millenium Caves and Melbourne climbing gyms. Their angle was very focused on Aboriginal heritage apparently. The ABC is usually known for well balanced stories so it will be interesting to see what they make of it.
Lastly, over the Easter break there will be a town-hall meeting in Natimuk about these Grampians closures hosted by VCC/CliffCare and the Grampians Access Working Group (GAWG). This is your chance to hear their take on things, ask questions and get involved in the greatest access crisis Victorian climbers have ever faced. You can find out all the information on CliffCare’s website here. Please make the effort to attend and find out what else has been happening in the background.
Take care over Easter. Don’t be a dick and ruin climbing for others by doing something selfish. Find out what crags in the Grampians to avoid here. Don’t camp in the wrong place and don’t bring dogs or light fires where you shouldn’t. Have a great weekend!