Ashlee Hendy – A submission from the heart

We wanted to share this story (permission obtained) from Ashlee Hendy, of Natimuk, who is a long time climber, and is super passionate about climbing, Gariwerd (Grampians), and Djurite (Arapiles). This is her submission for the GGLMP, which is a bit different and tells a personal story that we can all identify with, even if sometimes it’s hard to put those feelings into words.

For the attention of Matthew Jackson, CEO, Parks Victoria
Response and feedback to the draft Greater Gariwerd Landscape Draft Management Plan (GGLDMP)

Dear Parks Victoria, Barengi Gadjin Land Council, Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, and Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation,

I am sure that you have received an abundance of community feedback regarding the draft GGLDMP. I would like to endorse several submissions made by organisations, including the Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network (GWRN), the Victorian Climbing Club (VCC), Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV) and Crag Stewards Victoria (CSV), as well as the feedback submitted by Mr Mike Rockell. These documents provide highly specific and detailed feedback and recommendations that align with my views on the future of park usage and the current draft GGLMP particularly in relation to recreational rock climbing. To add to these responses, I wish to provide a few more personal words that speak more broadly to the future of Gariwerd, and what it means to me.

An early climbing experience in Summerday Valley, 2001 (age 13)

When I started to complete the online survey to provide feedback, I did not get far. I was asked to select from several options about what ‘best describes me’: frequent user, business owner, local resident, etc. There was no correct response for me to select, and it made me realise that Park managers are likely unaware of the way in which Gariwerd has been treasured by a sub-section of the Victorian public, who self-identify as ‘climbers’. A ‘frequent user’ was defined as someone who visits the park at least once a year.

There is another kind of ‘frequent user’ that looks more like this:
Travelling from the east side of Melbourne, the 4 hour pilgrimage occurred every Friday night. It was the most anticipated part of my week. Ever since I tried rock climbing at a school camp in Summerday Valley when I was 13 years old, there was no place I would rather be. While I was still in school, I would go hungry so that I could pocket the lunch money that my Mum gave me, and use it to contribute to petrol funds on the weekend. I would beg the older kids for a spare seat, and somehow convince my Dad that these older friends from the climbing gym would look after me.

Once I could drive myself, I would work late on week nights to fund my weekend trips. Forget typical teenage night clubs or parties, I wanted to camp under the stars with my friends, breathe the fresh Wimmera air in my lungs, and feel the warm sun soak into my skin. These precious experiences got me through my Undergraduate years, with each weekend in Gariwerd providing relief from the stress of life as a young adult in the city. My time in Gariwerd is where I grew and flourished. It countered the negativity experienced in everyday life, and quite literally helped me survive into adulthood.

Enjoying another Wimmera sunset

The more time I spent in Gariwerd, the harder it became to leave. I spent the majority of my time in the park climbing the incredible and inspiring rock faces. Climbing allowed me to engage with the landscape physically, provided a mental challenge, and helped me gain a sense of strength and capability in my female body that many young women struggle with. I felt connected. I loved to learn about the flora and fauna in this magical place, and the indigenous people that inhabited Gariwerd long before it began to feel like home for me.

More recently, my fondness for Gariwerd and the Wimmera region led me to up-haul my life and make the permanent move to live in Natimuk. For the first time in my life, I feel a true sense of being at home. I have made many personal, professional and family sacrifices in order to do this, but with absolutely no regrets. I am gradually building another deep personal connection with the rock and land at Djurite. Here in Natimuk, I have been able to maintain my connection with Gariwerd, despite the conflict and turmoil felt within the community following each announcement of additional climbing access restrictions. I have had many sleepless nights wondering what my future holds, and asking myself why I didn’t spend even more time in these precious places when I could. I console myself by remembering that even if I cannot touch the rock, it is still there. No changes in policy can ever take away my memories.

Of course, the recent publicity around closure of many climbing areas has prompted much self-reflection. It prompted me to think carefully about the impact made by climbers, and to learn more about the Traditional Owners of the land. This has helped me to appreciate the years of meaningful experiences that I have been lucky enough to enjoy, but it also makes me mourn for those who might not get to experience this in the future. A successful management plan should be designed to protect this, for all Victorians, regardless of their ancestral heritage. I strongly believe that solutions can be found to successfully manage the park such that protection of cultural heritage sites, environmental sustainability, and recreational rock climbing can co-exist. I also believe that respectful and trusted consultation with the climbing community is imperative to achieve this.

Cleaning up after others in 2017

After much reflection, I was proud to realise that I have never left behind any safety gear or fixings, damaged or altered the rock in any way. I have often cleaned up rubbish left by others in more popular tourist sites, and I have always taken care to brush off any chalky residue after climbing. To the best of my knowledge, I have been a good custodian of the land, with minimal impact on this precious place that I love dearly. I have left only footprints, and taken only photographs. Gariwerd has given back to me in a way that is difficult to describe or express.

A moment of sheer joy on the rock, Taipan wall pre-closures (2018)

As a community, I believe that climbers can do better, and can in fact do a great deal of good if given the chance. Please remember that each submission of feedback that you have received from rock climbers in the preceding weeks, each detail about how climbing might be able to exist or remain open, has been written by someone like me. Someone who cares. Someone with memories. Someone who feels a great sense of pain, loss, and conflicting emotions. Someone who wants to learn, improve, and continue to grow within the magical landscape of Gariwerd. Someone who wants to make sure that more people like them can be fortunate enough share these experiences in the years to come.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Dr Ashlee Hendy

Low-impact trad climbing with removable safety gear (2020)