Arapiles Protection Declaration Expires

  • Arapiles’ Brain Death Boulder (Dyurrite 1) Interim Protection Declaration expires without renewal
  • FOI docs reveal archeological work is never put out to tender
  • Castle Crag & Mitre Rock potentially on the chopping block

The following is a quick look at the timelines and discrepancies associated with the closure of the Dyurrite 1 site – known to climbers as the Brain Death Boulder at Arapiles.

Dyurrite 1

On the 3rd December 2019 Parks Victoria announced the rediscovery of Aboriginal cultural heritage at Declaration Crag including “dozens of motifs in charcoal and red ochre, including a decorated oval reminiscent of designs painted on Aboriginal shields“. On the day of this announcement the entire Dec Crag area was sign-posted as off-limits to climbing with PV “requesting people to respectfully avoid entering the area effectively immediately“. The specific wording – that PV are “requesting” people avoid the area will make sense later on.

Poor quality signage has been the trademark of Parks Victoria’s climbing restrictions. This was the first sign installed to “ban” climbers from the area back in late 2019.

However five months before this bombshell closure, according to FOI documents we have obtained, the archeologist Ben Gunn was submitting a quote to Parks Victoria for work on this exact site. He quoted 48 hours of work to “produce a detailed recording and description of the art at the DYR-01 site” and included “drawing up plans and sections of the rock shelters, the tracing and documenting of the motifs, and taking full photographic record of the site and it’s art“.

All costs were blanked out in the FOI documents we received. There is a whole article to be done on the dodgy archeologist procurement process here – but we digress.

Why did it take five months for PV to tell the general public that there was cultural heritage at Declaration Crag? Especially considering the location is one of Australia’s most popular climbing areas.

In late March 2020, subsequent to Mr Gunn’s archeological work being completed, we saw the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs propose a new level of protection for the site – an Interim Protection Declaration. This “declaration” had never previously been proposed or implemented in Victoria. Most climbers are unaware that the current “bans” seen in the Grampians are actually not legally binding and more of a bluff than law. There are solid laws (and fines) for physically damaging Aboriginal cultural heritage – but these laws don’t include exclusion zones or banning of activities such as climbing. For example, in the last year, Parks Victoria has been relying on the goodwill of climbers to stay away from climbing crags in Special Protection Areas despite there being no actual ability for them to fine you for climbing there. They can fine you for damaging art, a quarry or vegetation – but not simply for just going climbing. This all changes with a Protection Declaration though. This is a proper legally enforceable exclusion zone – if you enter the defined area you are breaking the law and can be fined.

Now this type of protection declaration does not come cheap or without fuss. The law requires both community consultation and the Minister to sign it off. The consultation apparently included “inviting submissions to the application through public notices, to members of the Parks Victoria, Climbing Groups Round Table, and even an extended consultation period to ensure interested parties had time to make submissions.

Two months after it was proposed we saw the first ever application of an Interim Protection Declaration (Dyurrite 1) which restricted all access (walkers and climbers) to the small area surrounding the Brain Death Boulder. The date was 10th of June 2020. In the official announcement of the protection declaration on Aboriginal Victoria’s website the items being protected were described as “More than 50 Aboriginal rock art motifs have been recorded across several art panels; most of these motifs cannot be observed without the aid of photogrammetry.

This was a significant announcement, not just for climbers, but it also made it into the mainstream media helped along by a press release being sent out from Barengi Gadjin Land Council Aboriginal Corporation. You can read the stories from that day from The Age, ABC and The Weekly Advertiser.

According to Barengi Gadjin’s press release this protection declaration was put in place because “there is evidence that activities such as rock climbing can and does impact on cultural values, and in fact the Dyurrite 1 rock art site itself has had direct impact from climbing, which is why the Declaration has been approved. We won’t be taking risks when it comes to protecting many thousands of years of our heritage.

For them this was clearly a serious problem that required a serious and legally binding solution. Take note of that statement from BGLC as later on we will refer to it.

No photographs of these artworks or Ben Gunn’s thousand $ report have been released by Parks Victoria, Aboriginal Victoria or other official agencies to the general public (they were not included in the application for the Interim Protection Declaration). What is odd is that this excusion zone only applies to the tiny Brain Death boulder, not all of Declaration Crag. This boulder is so small it couldn’t possibly contain “several art panels” and “50 Aboriginal rock art motifs” could it? Remember that “these motifs cannot be observed without the aid of photogrammetry” so we can’t cross check this fact by just by looking at the boulder with the naked eye. We are relying on reported findings from archeologist Ben Gunn.

Could they be blending discoveries made on the larger Declaration Crag area situated behind the Brain Death boulder, but not covered in the Dyurrite 1 Interim Protection Declaration? The whole larger area remains signposted as closed despite the legally binding exclusion zone only applying to a tiny part of it.

Signage at Dec Crag – showing both the legally enforceable Interim Protection Declaration Area – and PV’s made up and not enforceable Temporary Protection Zone

We have seen government ministers mislead in the past about climber’s damage and all sorts of facts so it wouldn’t surprise us that something has been muddled with this application. We will probably never know the true story however as archeological reports are kept away from public scrutiny, not peer reviewed and even the budgets are redacted when we have requested them through FOI. But this mystery takes a dramatic turn at this point when we looked at the dates on the application for this declaration. It only runs for 3 months – and guess what?

Dyurrite 1 Interim Protection expires

This sign about the “serious indictable offence” possibility of walking into the area has now been removed.

Arapiles’ Brain Death Boulder (Dyurrite 1) Interim Protection Declaration expired on the 18th September without being renewed. It took over a week to get an official reply from anyone about this (we tried the Minister and Parks Victoria who both fobbed us off). We confirmed this with Aboriginal Victoria today via email:

What does this mean? Why would something that took so much time and angst to put in place not be renewed? It could legally be renewed quite simply for a further 3 months without dramas. Surely the whole point of this exercise was to secure protection for the site wasn’t it? Didn’t BGLC say that “We won’t be taking risks when it comes to protecting many thousands of years of our heritage“? Surely letting this lapse is a risk?

This brings us to the point where we can only hypothesize about what is happening. Was the choice to enact this previously unused law just an excuse for a bit of publicity via a big announcement in the media whilst also furthering the reputational damage to those pesky climbers in the general public’s view? It sure worked if that was the plan.

Or is the government and land managers not happy with how this “test case” played out and decided against ever doing it again? Since the original announcement of the closure of Dec Crag in December last year we have seen additional closures at Taipan Wall, Bundaleer and the Pharos Boulders. None of these archeological rediscovery announcements came with a proposed Interim Protection Order. All we have seen are the PV non-legally binding Temporary Protection Zones that conventionally require no community consultation period or Minister sign-off. Protection for the Brain Death boulder at the moment consists of a ring of ankle height wooden logs encircling the boulder as well as the laminated A4 signs placed 20 metres away. Maybe this is all that is actually needed?

Oddly, it took this website to inform Aboriginal Victoria that signage dated from August was still in place at Dec Crag showing the now lapsed Protection Declaration. This is misleading signage and should be removed immediately.

Perhaps the larger area encompassing all of Declaration Crag (and the Brain Death Boulder) is about to have one of these Interim Protection Declarations applied to it – and thus the whole community consultation process needs to begin again? Or is there to be a permanent Protection Declaration applied? It does seem odd not to do either of these prior to the interim measure expiring – allowing some overlap to maintain the permanent protection. Or was it just incompetence and someone forgot to renew it and now they have left it too late to renew? Perhaps there is something else larger brewing?

Please note: This article is not proposing that people climb on the Brain Death boulder. If you do so there is an incredibly high chance you will damage the hard to see cultural heritage and thus be committing an offense that comes with serious fines. Don’t even think about it.

Castle Crag & Mitre Rock potentially on the chopping block?

The rumor mill in Natimuk has been buzzing in the past week with reports that several more areas at Arapiles could face closure due to cultural heritage very soon. We have received reports from one PV insider that climbers need to “be prepared for some disappointment this week“. Some Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network members have been seen in discussions with PV and BGLC staff at Castle Crag and Mitre Rock leading many to surmise that these could be the crags facing some level of restrictions. GRWN previously kept the closure of Taipan secret from the climbing community and was involved in drafting parallel published press releases with PV and the Traditional Owner groups. Are we about to read about the closure of more of our climbing areas in the newspaper before the VCC or ACAV are told about it?

One thing we can be sure of considering past experience – we won’t read about it until late Friday afternoon when everyone important is otherwise distracted.

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…

One thought on “Arapiles Protection Declaration Expires”

  1. I would disagree that the GWRN ‘kept the closure of Taipan secret from the climbing community’. 1. They are committed and intelligent members of the climbing community and 2. they have earned the right to dialogue with and be brought in to discussions with PV and Aboriginal community through respecting the nuanced and sensitive nature of their position that connects the different stakeholders – we need them and more groups like this to continue to create community connections between all the stakeholders.

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