Many people woke this morning to the dramatic news on the radio that Arapiles was now closed. Thanks ABC for giving us all a pre-coffee heart attack! Lucky it was just media hype. But what really happened is newsworthy all the same.
What they meant to say was an “interim protection declaration” had been issued for the Brain Death boulder at Declaration Crag (officially known as Dyurrite 1 Aboriginal Place). What does this mean?
“The declared area must not be entered by any person unless that person is accompanied by, or is, a representative of the Barengi Gadjin Land Council Aboriginal Corporation”
In short – it is not just a ban on climbing, but a ban on anyone entering the 183m2 area surrounding this boulder. This is very different to the SPA restrictions on climbing we have seen in the Grampians. Over there the general public is still allowed to bush-walk and picnic at areas apparently off limits to the activity of climbing. With a protection declaration applied to the Brain Death boulder just stepping over the boundary is an offense with a potential $297k fine. The cultural heritage paintings on this boulder are described as 50 rock art motifs across several art panels that are undetectable to the naked eye. Archeologists use special cameras and software to see them.
This fine-grained approach to managing cultural heritage and climbing areas is exactly what climbers have been asking for. We would rather this than a huge area being marked as off-limits and and the cultural heritage locations being kept secret in the hope that people will never find them. That is is what happened in the Grampians and it appeared to have backfired spectacularly – because the land managers didn’t go and regularly check these secret sites.
Apparently this is the first ever use of interim protection declarations in Victoria – this is new ground for climbers, the government, traditional owners and the Aboriginal Heritage Act. Victoria is well advanced on most other Australian states when it comes to cultural heritage protections- so this is a window into the future at other areas (WA & Rio Tinto are clearly on the other end of the spectrum!). It is an interim measure – only valid for 3 months but the expectation is it will be a permanent ban once they survey the area properly. The 3 month interim ban can be extended once for a further 3 months if required. We knew this ban was probably coming anyway – we wrote about it back in March here when we asked climbers to write submissions to Aboriginal Victoria who proposed this declaration. You can read the official press release from Victorian government department Aboriginal Victoria here.
The official documents from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gabrielle Williams with the exact legal definitions and maps can be viewed below.
It is reassuring to see in the cover letter that she acknowledges the significance of climbing in the area “I appreciate there is a strong climbing community in the town of Natimuk and that Mount Arapiles is widely regarded as Australia’s best rock-climbing area and regularly draws visitors from all over the world.” Maybe all those letters we wrote were not a total waste of time after all?
Have a read of this reasonably good longer article from the ABC here – Victorian Government issues first ever interim protection order over Aboriginal cultural sites at Mount Arapiles. It includes an interview with Keith Lockwood, legend local Nati climber and Michael Stewart, BGLC Chief Executive.
One worrying part of the ABC article is this section:
That people were ignoring or misinterpreting the sign and still walking into the area is of no great surprise. Their initial signage was incredibly poor, a lonely laminated bit of A4 paper attached to a star picket with text written in green (graphic design tip: green = go, red =stop). There was no boundary markers or map. Remember this area is right next to the road, and has been historically used by climbers and tourists many times a day. If they really wanted people to stay out they needed to do much better with the signage. A non English speaker would struggle to understand what was the intention behind the sign. Anyone with an inquisitive bent would go in for an explore – that is human nature.
When we heard the ABC news this morning about the proper protection declaration over the Brain Death boulder & potential fines of $297,396 we wondered what new signage and fencing had been put in place. They had spent so much time and money managing community consolation, writing press releases and briefing the media. Surely the area would be clearly marked as off-limits with large clear signs? When our roving reporter visited Dec Crag at 8:30am this morning it looked exactly the same as it has for the last six months. One tiny sign and dusty carpark.
By 2pm this afternoon someone came and whacked in a couple more starpickets with a some laminated bits of paper attached. The new signage is not much better than the original lackluster effort. Two complex maps that contradict each other, lots of fine print and no symbols. There is still no fencing or signs at the boundary of the Dyurrite 1 site (Brain Death Boulder). Walk across that invisible line at your peril!
According to a Facebook post from Barengi Gadjin Land Council earlier today, they will be protecting the area by “demarcating the protected site using low impact, natural log fencing, installing signage, and through ongoing monitoring.” So no fences or ugly metal cages. Hurray!
What about the rest of Dec Crag?
According to the map supplied by Parks Victoria today, and posted on a starpicket at the cliff, the whole of Dec Crag is still a “Temporary Exclusion Zone – No public access”. This is the same exclusion zone put in place in December 2019. It doesn’t appear to be legally enforceable but it certainly seems they want don’t want climbers anywhere on Dec Crag.
Why is this large area still off-limits? Barengi Gadjin Land Council had this to say on Facebook:
“While not incorporated in this Interim Protection Declaration, recently rediscovered Aboriginal cultural heritage values at the adjacent rocky outcrop known as Dyurrite 2 remain protected by the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006. To ensure visitors do not enter that area and potentially cause harm, a temporary exclusion zone that was established in December 2019 will remain in place until a longer-term management approach is determined with Traditional Owners.”
Is Dyurrite 2 the large main cliff of Declaration Crag where Little Thor and Steps Ahead is located? This would be a far greater loss to the climbing community than a single boulder. Not only is it one of the best beginner friendly areas at Arapiles, it is also heavily used as a commercial guiding venue – with it’s roadside location, easy to setup top-rope routes and kid friendly scramble to the summit. Why did this second site not also get an interim protection declaration applied to it? This will be an ever evolving story. Local Arapiles climbers tell us that there have been several sightings of heritage assessors on others cliffs at Arapiles over the last few months, including some familiar faces from the Grampians dramas such as Ben Gunn. We even heard from one group who witnessed these assessors exclaiming about seeing a streak of climbers “adhesive” visible on the cliff at Mitre Rock. Once they had left the area the climbers went over for a closer inspection and saw it was natural rock colouring. The fun continues.
Please share this article and don’ t forget to check out the other 50+ articles on this blog for further background reading. Stay tuned for big news in the coming weeks when the Grampians draft management plan is finally released.