A Short Poop in the Woods*

The following is a public submission to Save Grampians Climbing from a local Grampians climber who has spent the last 40+ years establishing many of the climbing areas we all love. They have seen immense change in the landscape during this time, some positive and some negative. It’s an interesting perspective on where Park Victorias’ priorities lie in the 21st century and how millions are being spent upgrading parts of the park to attract bulk tourism at the expense of the environment. For those attending the new management plan meetings in the next few weeks this is what the future is looking like for the rest of the Grampians if the current plans are continued. Big dollars spent on building showpiece infrastructure but no money being spent maintaining the people that come with this infrastructure. We have long argued on this blog that government money should be spent managing the current users (like climbers) rather than attracting new users with schemes like the Grampians Peaks Trail. Do you like our header image? That’s PV’s own Simon Talbot lording over his infrastructure empire…

Dave Kellerman posted these photos back in April from Wonderland tracks

Walking the Grampians Litter & Graffiti Trail

I was huffing and puffing just a little as we ascended. Below was the valley and the tourist mecca of Halls Gap. Some wonderfully sculpted rock architecture flanked us and a limpid clear sky hung above. We had been graced with goldilocks conditions (not too hot, not too cold but just right); a great day for a walk in the Grampians/Gariwerd National Park.

Friends had wanted to check out the state of a few walking tracks that had been given a ‘make-over’ (because the re-born tracks would be incorporated into what is scheduled to become the Grampians Peaks Trail). They invited me along. Some years ago, I had walked the sections of track that we would now be walking again. Though I was mildly curious about what might have changed, I had no real expectations one way or another.

The track from Halls Gap led us up and around the top left of Mackey’s Peak and on to the Pinnacle. We were amazed by the amount of metal and stonework that had been marshalled to create this realigned section of track. I had memories of the old, rudimentary track that we used to follow up here and couldn’t think of any compelling reason why huge amounts of money would have needed to be spent on ‘upgrading’ it. The numerous and sickeningly regular instances of graffiti (and the ugly and ham-fisted attempts to remove it) were a shock, to say the least. The litter was certainly apparent too, mainly toilet paper and tissues right beside the track. At first we were stopping to photograph most of the many examples of graffiti that confronted us but were stopping so often that we made a conscious decision to only photograph a representative sample. After all, there were only so many terabytes of memory in our cameras, and there weren’t enough hours in the day to stop for everything.

And so the pattern of the day was set. Tissues here, scratchings on rock or aerosol graffiti there, over and over and over. Up at the Pinnacle and down through the Wonderland the over-engineering of the track was even more in-your-face and the ubiquitous use of stainless steel to ‘make it safe’ was a shock. It was both awe-inspiring and appalling at the same time. Metal walkways, long sections of metal railings, metal ladders, huge blocks of stone that would have had to have been helicoptered in and moved meticulously block by block, step by step for hundreds of meters at a time.

And so we continued on down toward the Wonderland car-park. There were vast numbers of impressive stone steps, quarried, transported and manipulated into place, all the way along the trail, to ensure that no single step was too high or too onerous for the punters. The engineering was punctuated with great regularity by paper, plastic, more paper, occasional bits of glass or metal, and yet more paper. Admittedly, the scale of human intervention (if not the rubbish) diminished slightly as we proceeded onward along the creek down past Venus Baths to Halls Gap.

Back at the car, I reflected on the fact that the “comfort-and-safety-at-all-costs” approach to ‘upgrading’ walking tracks was no doubt attracting more people to do these walks and that such increases in user numbers would, inevitably, cause more impact. A simple equation. Yet I had a nagging and increasing doubt that there was more to it than just an increase in numbers. A disproportionate amount of the graffiti was new (as evidenced by the dates scratched or painted onto the rock). I couldn’t help but wonder whether the ‘convenience factor’ was attracting a significantly greater percentage of people to get ‘out-and-about’ in the great outdoors with no or minimal connection or appreciation of the natural environment and no sense of responsible stewardship for it. In past times when the tracks were more basic, and therefore the investment of time, effort and care required by individuals to walk them was commensurately greater, was the percentage of people willing to litter or create graffiti less?

The walk along the Wonderland section, in particular, is still pretty special because the landscape is unique. But what has been lost in recent years? Was my experience typical of what the Peaks Trail will be for others? Tracks so over-engineered that tourists are cocooned from the natural experience of clambering with care and in unison with the natural contours and nuances of the original landscape in which they find themselves? The ’great outdoor experience’ as something to be packaged and sold like any other commodity? The outdoors-as-theme-park? Individuals skipping or plodding along the boardwalks, focussing on the ladders and railings, stopping to take some pictures including the ubiquitous selfies, absent-mindedly dropping a tissue or some wrapping paper along the way, and waiting until they get back to the car or back home to check out their photos and briefly process where they have been and what they have passed through?

The wonderful surrounds are still there as they have been for aeons. And they will no doubt still be memorable for the myriad tourists who experience them. But perhaps, for many, the experience will be needlessly diluted. The issues of litter and graffiti will not go away and will probably increase unless education and signage are significantly ramped up, and there is an on-going commitment to lots more rangers-on-the-ground. And the over-engineering continues to jolt our sensibilities and remind us of the contrast to the gloriously unfettered wilderness that once was.

Of course there are a couple of delicious ironies in all this. One relates to the vision of some of the proponents of the Grampians Peak Trail as being a similar to the Overland Track that runs the length of the Cradle Mountain- Lake St Claire National Park in Tasmania. The sad reality is that, in a one kilometre section of the Grampians Peaks Trail in the Wonderland Range, there would be more stainless steel railings, safety fences, ladders and steps, jarringly uncompromising in all their shiny arrogance, than there would be in the whole of the Overland Track. At least on the Overland, there has been some attempts to blend the micro-infrastructure into the landscape. Along the Peaks Trail, if the sections close to Halls Gap are anything to go by, the concepts of subtlety, minimalism and sympathetic engineering aesthetics seem to have been completely jettisoned. The reality is that there is very little similarity in the look and feel of the Disney-land theme park GPT and the simple, rugged majesty of the Overland Track.

The other irony relates to the banning of climbing from significant areas to the Grampians National Park. Yes, the numbers of recreational users of the park who go climbing, bouldering and abseiling has increased significantly since the first groups climbed up some serious routes on Mackay’s Peak, replete with ropes and rudimentary belaying techniques, in the years preceding World War 1. But even given the steady increase in numbers since that time, the impact of climbers is minuscule compared to the impact of casual walkers (and Parks Victoria subcontractors) on the environmental and cultural heritage of the Park.

If Parks Victoria were serious about protecting the Park, they might well consider scrapping the “engineer at all costs and to hell with the environment” approach. At least that would probably be more palatable to walkers and to PV itself than the other alternative – scrapping the Peaks Trail before even more damage is done.

*With apologies to Bill Bryson