- Parks Victoria announce “temporary protection zone” around Australia’s best climbing areas
- All access, including bush-walking is prohibited as of today
- Climbing access organizations VCC & ACAV were given no advance notice of these bans
- Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network has been consulting with PV & TOs about these site closures since at least June
- Bans cannot be adjusted until after new management plan is announced (next year at earliest)
In yet another surprise meeting (can they really be a surprise when this has happened again and again and again?) Parks Victoria has announced bombshell bans on Australia’s (and some say the world’s) greatest climbing area Taipan Wall. Not only is this highly significant crag now to be fenced off and patrolled – they have also included nearby Spurt Wall and the majority of the best climbing at Bundaleer – another internationally significant climbing area. Take a read of PV’s press release below.
Parks Victoria also did a brief presentation and the slides, with a little more info, can be downloaded below.
Why is Taipan so special to climbers?
As Australia’s most famous climbing area you would be hard pressed not to know about this iconic orange overhanging cliff. Fun fact: apparently Taipan snakes aren’t even native to the Grampians! With almost 100 routes spread along it’s gorgeous scooped wall it contains many of the best and hardest routes in the country – 12 graded 30 or above – including a couple of grade 34s – up there with the hardest routes in the country. To say this is a honey-trap destination for international climbers is an understatement. Many spend weeks, and sometimes years trying to climb some of the iconic lines such as Serpentine, Groove Train and Mr Joshua. It’s been the case for decades that you can’t call yourself a true climber unless you have climbed on Taipan Wall. Most never forget their first Taipan route – a mix of fear, amazement and friction frothing.
Why the new bans?
As has been the case for all other closures of Grampians and Arapiles climbing areas in recent years – the discovery of previously undocumented Aboriginal cultural heritage at these cliffs is the reason given for the announced restrictions.
“The recent rediscoveries include ancient cultural material, including multiple quarry sites – places where Aboriginal people took stone from rocky outcrops to make tools for different purposes. Concentrations of stone tools, archaeological deposits within rock shelters and, unusually, an ochre deposit are also present.”
It should be noted that the ochre deposit and stone tools were found on the left end of Bundaleer – not Taipan Wall.
Why didn’t we know about this earlier?
We did but most people didn’t listen. Climbers had noticed evidence of stone tool quarrying along the base of Taipan & Bundaleer for decades – ever since they first climbed there in the 60s. Similar quarries exit all over the Grampians – including on major tourist tracks such as the track leading to Hollow Mountain. In the middle of last year we wrote about the potential of Taipan suffering the same fate as other Grampians banned crags in our article Taipan Trouble Brewing (scroll to the end of the article for the relevant bit). In a meeting on the 4th June 2019 with Licensed Tour Operators the COO of Parks Victoria, Simon Talbot, mentioned their official re-discovery of Aboriginal stone quarries at Taipan Wall. The same type of quarry was the reason given for closures of The Gallery and Summerday Valley (to name a few). We did our own survey of the area in November last year and spotted several obvious quarried rock edges below the right side of Taipan and along the base of Spurt Wall.
Again we warned climbers that Taipan was clearly in trouble and they needed to start thinking about how to insure climbing could continue at Taipan (chalk cleanups, erosion stabilization, direct conversations about this site with PV & TOs etc). Nothing happened for over a year – from either climbers or land managers to address these glaring issues. Apparently PV hadn’t even told the TO’s of the existence of these quarries until early 2019. But now PV have made their move (in the middle of a pandemic with most of Victoria literally locked up and distracted) – and it’s in the very worst possible way, a full cliff-wide ban on all climbing. But that’s not all.
Next level restrictions
What makes these bans unique is they are bans on all access – bushwalkers are also prohibited from entering these areas. This is unlike any other banned climbing area in the Grampians. Bushwalkers can currently wander around The Gallery, Summerday Valley and Millennium Caves and not be in breach of any law – Special Protection Area restrictions only cover the activity of rock climbing. But for some unknown reason – Taipan, Bundaleer and Spurt are considered so in danger that no access whatsoever to anyone will be allowed. We have seen the same approach used at Arapiles this year – but at a smaller scale – with Dec Crag and Pharos boulders being fenced off to all. A tourist track going along the base of Bundaleer is now shut beyond Pathos. We can’t even look at the best climbing in the country anymore it seems.
A temporary ban?
The maps they supplied show areas labeled as “Temporary Protection Areas” but the word temporary is not mentioned in the rest of the document. As far as we can ascertain this isn’t a formal level of protection like what has been applied at Brain Death Boulder at Arapiles. These are quick and nasty informal bans whilst the details of a more formal ban can be put in place (this process to officialdom took several months at Arapiles and involved the government minister). Parks Victoria have also done the same thing at Arapiles in recent months with a “temporary protection area” being applied to several well known bouldering blocs below the Pharos at Arapiles.
So when can we expect any movement on this so called temporary ban? According to PV there is only one way that changes can be made (this is despite them constantly changing access on us).
“A longer-term management response for the protection of natural and cultural values at these locations will be worked through with Traditional Owners as part of a new Greater Gariwerd (Grampians) Landscape Management Plan. A draft plan is expected to be released for further public comment in late 2020.”
This is the same management plan that PV has now delayed from June until “late 2020” – the month September has been mentioned but that seems optimistic since they are still closing crags. We think it’s safe to say we won’t see this plan released to the public before next year – and then any changes will have to go through a long drawn out official process. We suspect Taipan is well and truly in “lockdown” for the next year, and certain areas with easy to identify quarry sites such as the Invisible Fist/Mr Joshua wall and left side of Spurt will be permanently closed. If you didn’t get a chance to climb there – it’s probably too late now.
Consultation with climbers? Nope.
In their press release Parks Victoria claims that they “hosted a meeting with rock climbing representatives to discuss the need for immediate protections at these locations.” Climber roundtable representatives (i.e. VCC, ACAV etc) only received an invite to this online Zoom meeting yesterday, with the meeting being held less than 24 hours after the invite. Representatives were left stunned at the news of the bans (apart from GRWN who apparently knew about it all along) and were certainly not consulted about the details of it before it was announced to the world.
And to make matters worse it appears The Age was given the scoop well in advance of climbers – they published a story about the whole thing within minutes of the meeting finishing (and before most climbers heard the news). Read it here: Ancient cultural discoveries spark more Grampians rock-climbing bans. It’s never good when you read about the death of a loved one in the newspaper – but that’s exactly what a lot of climbers experienced today when their favorite climbing area was pronounced DOA.
When the mainstream media got the scoop well before climbers do – it confirms again that climbing representative organizations will always be on the lowest rung in the “need to know” category of users. We are sure there are laws about this sort of thing?
But who did get the scoop was Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network – who apparently attended assessments of Taipan way back in June – and also had been briefed on the bans in advance of any other climbing group being told.
There has been a bit of a confusion in the wider climbing community about who and what the Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network is. We have been quite literally bombarded with messages this afternoon asking who they are as their name is all through PV & TOs press releases and the media. Looking at their Facebook page there is little reference to anything climbing related and they describe their aims as “pursuing reconciliation, listening, learning, and understanding in order to acknowledge and heal the harm our community’s actions have caused“. The group has no elected leaders, no public meetings and no obvious way of becoming a member. You can donate to them apparently. We can only surmise their membership is tiny – perhaps a dozen or so, compared to thousands of members of the VCC and ACAV. Members who have made public statements are mostly residents of Natimuk and are considered experienced climbers (many once belonged to the ill-fated VCC Grampians working group which was disbanded after a particular infamous town hall meeting last year.)
Parks Victoria seems to believe they are a rock climbing community representative group (and thus they can tick the community consultation box)- however GWRN’s own spokesman at today’s Zoom meeting with Parks Victoria told the assembled that GWRN was not a climbing organisation but was a reconciliation group. GWRN released a detailed statement this afternoon in which they clarified their position on where they see themselves in the climbing community. Make sure you scroll right down the whole document – there is a lot more below the white bit. It is well worth a read.
“GWRN is not a representative climbing body.” [snip] “It is important to note that GWRN is not making any decisions or negotiating on behalf of the climbing community, simply helping Gariwerd Traditional Owners with information and acting as a resource. It is not consultation with the climbing community.”
It is quite clear upon reading their statement that GWRN is all about working directly with Traditional Owner groups – not Parks Victoria. According to sources we spoke to today these TO groups specifically asked for GWRN to attend assessments at Taipan instead of asking Parks Victoria – as they wanted advice “from the horses mouth” about how climbing works and how climbers would be interacting with these re-discovered cultural heritage sites. That sounds like a positive thing to us. To eliminate the bias that certain PV staff members have towards climbers is to be encouraged. In particular TOs seem keen to work with GWRN to create a template on how climbing could be managed in areas of cultural heritage . What we have seen at Summerday Valley (guided only climbing) wouldn’t work at Taipan and has been broadly considered a failure for the recreational climbing community.
To be blunt, we shouldn’t think of GWRN as a climbing lobby group. Their aim is not to promote the interests of climbing first and foremost – but instead to act as advisors to Traditional Owners on what climbing is and how climbing could co-exit in a cultural heritage context. The climbing community cannot expect that GWRN is going to stand up publicly and “fight” for climbing like a traditional interest group would. They are but one small (and slightly mysterious) part of the puzzle.
Traditional Owner Statement
The three TO groups associated with Gariwerd have issued their own press release. It’s not all bad – there is a glimmer of hope with them mentioning GWRN multiple times. It is clear these TO groups have been working with that organization for quite some time and appreciate their advice.
The most positive statement in this press release is probably “this isn’t about trying to close down recreational activities such as climbing across the whole of the Gariwerd landscape“
Hard climbing – all but gone in the Grampians
So what is the damage? With the addition of Taipan Wall, Spurt Wall and Bundaleer to the (very) long list of already banned SPA areas – there is now almost zero hard climbing left in the Grampians. All the iconic routes we see in books, posters and films are now off limits. The very draw cards that attracted world class climbers are gone. If you want to climb grade 27 and above there is only a handful of routes left to do across an absolutely massive area of cliffs – what was once a lifetime of potential has been turned into scattered sub-par obscurity. Just for a laugh (really – it’s not funny) lets do a search on thecrag for two star+ sport routes grade 27 and above. Out of 81 routes we end up with less than 10 that are still available – with the “best” routes located at such mega crags as The Plaza Strip, Begegnung Wall, the Dungeon and the Watchtower. Never heard of those areas? There is a good reason – they are far from world class destinations. Most of these cliffs struggle to even get above the treeline!
If these new bans remain permanent any appeal the Grampians had as an international, or even interstate, climbing destination will be erased. We have been telling people in the last year to go to Taipan and Arapiles as soon as possible because we are witnessing the very twilight of Victoria’s golden age of climbing. Unfortunately because of Covid lockdowns and state border restrictions many climbers dreams have been quashed this season. We had it good in 2018 it seems.
We understand that to many of you this is a very special place and this is not good news no matter how some may spin it. Melbourne climbers are quite literally locked up at the moment and this news may be highly distressing. If you are feeling upset, helpless or depressed about this news please seek professional help – or have a chat with good friends and family. We need to band together as a climbing community during these tough times – trad, sport, boulderers, weekend warriors, sponsored Olympic athletes – all of us. Here’s hoping we can return to Taipan in some capacity in the future. Be kind to each other.
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 further updates…