Bundaleer SPA (and 8 other reasons we should be worried)

• Bundaleer SPA announced & more to come
• PV’s assessments stall midway through the Grampians
• Guides face even harsher restrictions

Sorry for the negativity – but the news out of Victoria just gets worse and worse for climbers. And we aren’t referring to the short term National Park closures from Covid-19.

In entirely expected news for us of the pessimistic persuasion it appears the majority of Bundaleer is the next area now potentially off-limits to rock climbers in the Grampians. This crag is one of the absolute jewels of Grampians climbing – a huge piece of “gritstone” that has a long connection to Victorian climbing and many famous routes. It is one of those places that manages to achieve the remarkable – world class easy trad routes and world class hard sport routes. And in the middle is just tonnes of other world class climbs of every style – usually steep and commanding lines. A flip through the guidebook will see greats of every era have battled up first ascents at Bundaleer – from Lockwood, Barber, Dewhirst, Baxter, Matheson, Pollit, Tempest, Shepherd, Monks, Carrigan, Lebreton, Piesker, Moorhead, Child, Claw and Pauligk to name a few. If we were to draw a list of great Grampians crags Bundaleer is absolutely in the top 5.

According to the latest correspondence from the grim reaper of climbing, Parks Victoria, there is actually a Special Protection Area (SPA) slap bang in the middle of Bundaleer – at the base of the route Manic Depressive (a route that was first established in 1971).

Now this shouldn’t really be a surprise – most climbers would be aware of the unique wooden walkway and tripod used to access the first holds of Manic Depressive. This infrastructure was installed by PV and VCC CliffCare in 2008 to protect a known Aboriginal quarry scatter site. It was touted as a big win for climbing access at the time. Let’s take a look at some photos of this build and the finished product. A full gallery is available here:

2008 – Climber Steve Monks & PV’s Frank Van Der Peet taking measurements for boardwalk under Manic Depressive area
2008 – Workcrew constructing boardwalk beneath Manic Depressive
2008 – PV’s Sylvia Van Der Peet and the finished boardwalk, tripod and signage at the Bundaleer. It explains the cultural significance of the area and the joint effort between Parks Victoria and Victorian Climbing Club/Cliffcare
2008 – Suzy Scurrie (Cultural Heritage Ranger, Parks Victoria) with the signage for the Bundaleer
The simple rules clearly shown on the old sign about expected climbing behavior at this site.

At some point in the last five years this useful sign was removed from the site and, due to PV staff turnover, the history behind this positive collaboration seems to have been forgotten. According to a climber we talked to who was actually at Bundaleer when PV were doing their recent assessments they thought these structures were installed solely by climbers. What else seemed to have been forgotten by PV was the existence of this SPA at all! This is despite it being written up in 2003.

Since early last year Parks Victoria have been publishing an information PDFs about rock climbing in the Grampians. You can read their latest version here. Now this document has been a murky beast – constantly being updated and revised as PV attempts to wiggle itself out of self inflicted problems again and again. Lucky for us we have made sure to archive these PDFs at regular intervals so we can compare PV’s current ass covering actions with their previous statements. And guess what? Bundaleer makes an appearance in old versions – and not for the reasons you expect. Their PDF from February 2019 makes a startling admission.

Oh those PV guys are such jokers. It’s 2019 and Bundaleer is not a protected area and is ready for visitors to enjoy. Go free and frolic you climbers. Fast forward to 2020 and suddenly someone in PV notices that Bundaleer is actually listed in the infamous 2003 Grampians Plan of Management. And just like Summer Day Valley there is conflicting information about rock climbing there.

page 42 – Bundaleer is listed as one of the most popular climbing areas in the Grampians. No mention of bans.
page 55 – it is mentioned as having a significant Aboriginal site

But it appears PV have decided they have to appear consistent in their approach to these Special Protection Areas and to hell with protection measures put in place in the past. What takes the cake in this Bundaleer example is their admission that the SPA is not a region – but a single co-ordinate. A dot on a map. A pin prick of data. In their own words there is “no size” given for the Bundaleer SPA. But that has never stopped PV going out on a limb and making shit up to stop climbers. According to their recent statement:

Parks Victoria expects that the area from 30m to the north of “Manic Depressive” (and northwards of this point) are unlikely to be affected by additional cultural heritage protection measures. Climbing routes south of this point are likely to be affected by additional cultural heritage protection measures.

Additional cultural heritage protection measures” is code for climbing bans. Where did they pull 30m from? It doesn’t sound like much does it? Wrong. Those 30m include the premium sector of Bundaleer covering such mega-classics as Blimp (20), Touchstone Pictures (28) and Pathos (21). Blimp itself is one of the most famous crack routes in Victoria with a history dating back to the 1960s when it was considered the last great problem of Victorian climbing. According to thecrag.com it is not only the most popular route at Bundaleer, but is the most popular trad route in the entire of the Grampians outside of the now banned Summer Day Valley. This is a route of considerable heritage value to climbers. It is quite literally an icon of Victorian rock climbing.

Excerpt from the 1968 VCC Rock Climbing Guide to the Grampians Volume 1

But if that sounds bad, PV’s statement that everything south of this mythical point on a map is “likely to be affected by additional cultural heritage protection measures” is the big news. This section of cliff-line contains 48 of the 154 routes at Bundaleer [31%] and includes more ultra classics with significant value to the climbing community including Angular Perspective (Victoria's first real sport route and one of Malcolm Matheson's first routes), The Ogive (a world class roof crack first aided in 1964 and freed by Kim Carrigan in 1982) and the popular and classic trad line of Dagons Temple. This PV announcement is an annihilation of the best routes at Bundaleer - leaving only the easy and less popular sector on the right side remaining. Outside of a ban on Taipan Wall this is the most significant loss to what remained of Victorian climbing since the other SPA bans were announced in early 2019. That it was just slipped into a small Roundtable handout is bewildering. The fact they quickly removed references to Bundaleer being an open area from their own website and PDF information sheets is very telling and underhanded.

The popular Lunging Melons (22) is located right above the Bundaleer SPA

The beginning of the end

Many climbers have the mistaken belief that the worst is behind us and the massive SPA bans of 2019 are as bad as it will get. They are wrong. It is better to think about this as the beginning of the end. What we are dealing with at the moment are historical SPA's - ones put in place almost two decade ago when the 2003 Management Plan was created. Parks Victoria have been doing new environmental and cultural heritage surveys at climbing crags over the last six months. They are doing these so they can create further Special Protection Areas and thus by default further climbing bans.

Think about your favourite Grampians crag currently open - now consider a 30m exclusion radius was applied to your favorite climb. How many other routes will that swallow up? In some instances it would be the entire cliffline. Do you think this couldn't happen? Think again. Parks Victoria have revealed little on what these new surveys have unearthed but they did write this:

Eight climbing areas currently open to climbing are now potentially on the chopping block. You would be stupid to consider these eight areas will be obscure out of the way crags that no one cares about. Preliminary field research by climbers has found potential archeological quarrys at several prominent and very famous climbing areas. They have also found the same type of quarries and stone scatters along major walking trails including the tourist track to Hollow Mountain.

Let's delve into exactly what areas Parks Victoria has reviewed and if they are SPAs already or not. The figure of 125 climbing areas is not all the climbing areas in the Grampians. Not even close. This figure is the areas that Parks Victoria have managed to do archeological surveys for in the last six months. They originally told climbing groups they would be surveying all climbing areas - which we have always believed was a preposterous proposition considering the size of the park and their own self imposed deadline of mid 2020. This is the list of areas they managed to assess before presumably running out of time/money/patience for spiky bush/trousers.

Missing crags

Straight up we can see a glaring absence of major climbing crags on this list - even regions. The list is far bigger than we can write here - it is hundreds of climbing crags. The major ones would be the entire of the Northern Victoria Range inc. Weirs Creek, Clean Cuts, Eureka Wall, Lost World, Muline, Mt Fox, Red Rocks, The Tower, Red Cave, Flame Wall, Crystal Palace and The Fortress - well over 1200 individual routes! Also entirely missing is the Asses Ear area (280 routes), the South-Eastern Grampians inc. Barbican Wall, the Dials, Redmans Bluff, Mt William, Dreamtime, Green Gap Pinnacle and Mt Abrupt (900 routes). Even the majority of the Mt Difficult Range was ignored (200 routes) plus a smattering of super popular smaller areas such as Cave&Wave. But even more bizarre is the absence of the entire Black Range (290 routes) - where conflict between climbing and Aboriginal sites first came to light. It's plain to see this was far from a comprehensive survey of climbing sites in the Grampians. The fact these haven't been done mean these areas are total unknowns and could be shut at any time in the future - even after the new management plan is created. When is PV planning on doing these remaining assessments?

Some of these non-assessed crags are inside a huge single SPA in the Victoria Range. And it doesn't appear to be just a normal SPA either - according to the latest maps released by Parks Victoria (oddly dated 18th February 2019?!) this whole area is now a "Focus Area" - with a special dotted line around the edge which isn't marked around other SPAs on the maps.

The terminology of "focus area" was first seen when PV used it to refer to the original 8 sites that they announced as banned to climbing and signposted as such (Gallery, Millennium, Gondwanaland etc). These 8 areas were inside the large Northern Victoria Range SPA. Now it appears the everything in this aprox 70 square kilometer circle is being classed as non-negotiable in regards to climbing bans. Don't forget what this area contains - 1200 internationally significant routes. It appears this means they are entirely unwilling to even consider climbing in these areas in the future. But of course they haven't actually admitted that to the climbing community. They just fail to do any assessments of these areas and release cryptic map. This needs calling out or we have just rolled over and lost more icons of Australian climbing without a fight.

OK lets refocus on the 125 crags that PV have assessed and how that fits into their revelation that 28 areas were found to have previously unrecorded Aboriginal sites at them. Just so it's clear - when an Aboriginal site is discovered at an area outside of an already existing SPA that usually means PV creates a new SPA. If we use Bundaleer as an example, this new SPA will throw a minimum 30m radius around the site that would effectively eliminate climbing at that location. The existence of further CH in already established SPAs is not a great surprise and if PV stick to their guns and continue to say climbing is banned in SPAs then access has not changed there.

It's the 8 new areas outside of current SPAs we need to be most worried about. Every one of them will be a new SPA and the list of potential crags just isn't that long. Stapylton Amphitheater features heavily in their assessments and is within spitting distance of already problematic SPAs areas around Summer Day Valley and Hollow Mountain. We think we can pretty much guarantee that at least half of the 8 areas will be in the Stapylton area. The kind of terrain that Aboriginal cultural heritage is usually found is in caves and overhangs - usually in areas with good views of the surrounding plains. Do you see where we are going with this?

With the draft Landscape Plan of Management due to be released to the public next month we can be assured that the document has already been completed. All they will be doing now is fixing a few typos and polishing the graphic design. All decisions on how to manage Grampians climbing and cultural heritage have already been made. PV will know what crags they are banning and what scraps climbers are allowed to visit. Consultation with climbing groups via the Roundtable meetings on this plan has been entirely opaque. No proposals or revelations have been made - nothing has been worked on collaboratively. The climbing community will be told to accept whatever PV and the TOs dream up.

One look at the list of crags up in the air should put the fear of God into any self respecting climber. We suggest if you want to climb on the worlds best stone now is the time to do it. And don't forget Arapiles is scheduled to have the same process applied this year with surveys starting in June by none other than Ben Gunn - the same archeologist we criticized heavily for his bias against climbers in the Grampians. Read about that here.

Morepox (23) at the mighty Bundaleer - within 30m of the SPA

Guides now liable

In a further blow to the much maligned rock climbing guiding industry Parks Victoria have announced another new change - and in typical fashion left little time for proper consolation with the affected businesses. This is huge.

Each Licensed Tour Operator (LTO) is now required to obtain their own Cultural Heritage Permit (aka Permit to Harm) to be able to work in some Special Protection Areas. In their initial meeting with LTOs about this change PV said that both Summer Day Valley and Lookout Point Wall would require these permits to be obtained. Last year Parks Victoria actually obtained one permit and this was used by all the LTOs as a whole and thus did not cost the LTOs any fees nor did it put legal responsibility for "harm" directly on the LTOs. Forcing each LTO to get their own permit not only puts a huge liability question mark over their business activities (and thus insurance) it also gives the implied impression that these businesses are actually harming Aboriginal cultural heritage - which of course is not true. Let's look at the exact wording of this permit in the regulations:

The key requirement that Parks Victoria and Aboriginal Victoria are using as a reason for rock climbing guiding to need a CH permit is because climbing is an "activity that will, or is likely to, harm Aboriginal cultural heritage ". But is it really? Remember this is at Summer Day Valley and Lookout Point Wall where the Cultural Heritage is well known and has not been damaged by climbers despite 50 years of climbing activity. And would you - as a business trying to do the right thing by the Aboriginal community sign up to "harming" cultural heritage? That is a bitter pill to swallow for companies who pride themselves on decades of responsible use of the area.

What is not clear is if a permit is required because rock climbing is being conducted within a Special Protection Area - or are these two items separate issues. Our sources have told us that PV is now telling some LTOs that a Cultural Heritage Permit is not required for Lookout Point Wall despite it being inside an SPA. If PV allows commercial rock climbing there without a permit - then why can't a casual recreational climber also climb at Lookout Point Wall? And if they can climb at Lookout Point Wall why can't they also climb at Muline, Amnesty, Eureka and the many other crags inside SPA zones? PV are getting themselves more and more tangled with this bullshit.

And as a "favour" Parks Victoria has told the LTOs that if they agree to this new system by May 19th (i.e. this coming Tuesday!) Parks Victoria will pay the application fee for each permit ($681.26 per company per site) and fill in the paperwork. But why? Isn't the point of this exercise to divorce PV from any responsibility for climbing in areas of Cultural Heritage? Only giving these LTOs a few days to try and get legal advice on signing up to this new brain fart from PV is ridiculous. When these LTOs asked to see the specific details of the exact permit they are supposed to sign up to - they have been rebuffed by PV.

And if these permits come from Aboriginal Victoria - not Parks Victoria - why should climbers even bother to deal with Parks Victoria at all? As a middleman PV have done a terrible job of mediation and consultation between the Aboriginal community and rock climbers. "Trust us" just isn't believable after 15 months of these kind of surprise announcements from PV.

Conduct under review

To get an idea on where this is all going, of the 29 LTOs who were invited to attend this virtual announcement - only 6 attended. And of that six at least half are now seriously considering if they bother with guiding in the Grampians at all anymore. And to add insult to injury they are now obliged to follow a new "Code of Conduct" which was presented to them at the meeting. Of course this document was created without ANY input from the LTOs or climbers. Have a read of it here:

This is fairly bizarre document as it fails to mention anything specific about the activity of rock climbing or the sites of Summer Day Valley and Lookout Point Wall. No mention of chalk, bolts or protection of vegetation etc. It is more a generic copy/paste document that delves into the political realms of Aboriginal native title rights, religion and racism. Why rock climbing guides are being told to "conduct" themselves in a particular way regarding these beliefs shows just what they think of climbers.

All lowly tour operators need to be across all those complicated legal documents or face immediate cancellation of their license. Why does the document make specific references to the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act when it is supposed to be about rockclimbing? This is a political document of the highest order. Considering there are three Traditional Owner groups - and none of them attend any meetings with climbers - there is no way of knowing what their specific beliefs are regarding climbing in the Grampians. How would a climbing guide, who may only work in the Grampians for a few weeks a year, know all the ins and outs of the local TO groups beliefs? PV and the TO groups have failed to produce any sort of document that explains the details of these important sites and what specifically requires protecting. At the moment it is just more about the "vibe" than specifics. Again - why would an LTO bother to sign up for this with such little concrete information being presented by the land managers?

Are other businesses who also work in the Grampains region being told they have to agree to documents such as this? The answer is no. In the same meeting with LTOs where these announcements were made a PV staff member admitted this whole system was a "test case" - and if successful would flow on to the rest of Victoria. What is the measure of success? 2 out of 29 LTOs signing up for this "new deal"? Or is success the removal of climbers all together? Time will tell.

Please share and don' t forget to check out the other 50+ articles on this blog for further background reading.

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