Right around the time that the ‘eight focus site’ bans were first declared by Parks Victoria I was driving into the Victoria Range. I had pulled over on the side of a dirt road, just off the Henty Highway in the shadow of Red Rocks. I was on the phone before I risked dropping out of reception when a dusty white ute rumbled to a stop. I was clearly on the phone but the driver looked at me waiting, clicking his tongue through his open window, not rude or demanding but patient and expectant. I wound down my window.
‘Are you going climbing in there?’ He asked.
‘You know it’s banned?’
‘Nope. There’s a ban in a few spots but there is no widespread ban in…’
‘Are you planning to camp somewhere?’
‘Yeah well, climbers have been ruining the place. Leaving rubbish everywhere, trashing the joint. Caught a couple of them walking up through private property few months back, told ‘em to piss off. Been camping wherever they want all over the joint, trashing the place and leaving fires unattended and those fires been getting out of control and done millions of dollars of damage to livestock and crops. Unbelievable, really. We go in and tell ‘em to piss off.’
‘I really don’t think there have been any out of control fires at all, I think…’
‘Yep, well. I was up there with Parks and the other farmers the other day. We’re banning all of it, everywhere over here. Shame, my two nephews are keen climbers, but that’s too bad. Right oh then. See-ya.’
And he drove off, pleased and unhurried.
Just this week a long-time Grampians guide was with a group in the Wonderland Range, they were up on a climb above a popular tourist walking track when he heard some commotion below. There was a small crew of young people, early 20s types – it being school holidays and all – who were talking loudly and moving slowly, the usual uni kids getting pissed in Halls Gap and walking up to the Pinnacle to have their Nature ExperienceTM before hitting the ice cream shop and trying to figure out what filter to put on their Instagram post. Someone from this gaggle shouted up at the guide and his group, ‘What are you doing? Climbing is illegal in Victoria!’. The guide shouted back down, ‘Who are you? And why are you saying that?’ The group of younglings bailed without another word, ambling down the path.
Neither of these were engaged conversations. The kids shouting out whatever dumb shit is in their head is not a cutting critique and farmers, well the ludicrous claim that climbers are abandoning fires that are causing millions in damage is so demonstrably wrong that it does not warrant serious countering. On face value neither of these are the fights that climbers need to have, but they are indicative of the perception that is in the public. That there is a big Them and a small Us. That climbers are bad and that climbing is banned.
Countering this is hard work. This week Parks Victoria put out an update on their climbing ban information that included a photo of a bolt hole in Indigenous artwork. The thing was, though, that the bolt was actually placed by Parks (or previous park managers) themselves when they erected a cage to protect the artwork. It was not placed by climbers. Rightly lots of climbers were incredibly pissed off about this, at the very best it was sloppy and at worst it was utterly disingenuous. Parks were rightly called out for it both on social media and through official communication channels.
The thing is though Parks Victoria is the land manger, any access to the Grampians that climbers do have is and will be managed by Parks Victoria.
PV clearly did the wrong thing but climbers are not going to ‘win’ arguments around access just by shaming them for their misinformation. There is no squashing Parks and going back to ‘the good old days’ of unfettered access. It takes only a cursory look around the country to see that the world has shifted on any number of fronts.
There are other documented instances of cultural heritage impacts in the Grampians, increasing concerns over – and in some cases outright bans due to – cultural heritage impacts in suburban Sydney, rumblings about cultural heritage at Nowra, bans on climbing at Margaret River crags due to environmental impact, private landowners in Tassie cracking the shits about visitor numbers and locking their gate, increasing concern over tracks and impact on vegetation, park managers turning their gaze to the legal position of fixed protection, chalk being referred to us as ‘graffiti’ and treated in the same way.
We might see chalk as a necessary part of our pursuit but there are those who see it as a visual stain and an environmental blight. For us, bolts are critical to keep us safe, for land managers they could be illegal damage to rock faces. We climbers need to be able to mount a strong case in favour of climbing and show that we are reliable partners in sustainable land management.
There is no doubt that climbing has an impact, also it is a fact that – though the vast majority of climbers are respectful and cautious – in the past some climbers have done the wrong thing. There is no doubt that there are legitimate cultural heritage and environmental impacts and that these will have to be managed.
It’s weird to think that all of this perception that climbers are bad is coming at a time when climbing is in the Olympics, when a climbing flick won an Oscar, when climbing achievements and Olympic dreams are being celebrated in the mainstream media, when the economic contribution made by climbing is increasing and when the general population is getting more and more obese and farther and farther removed from the natural world.
There is no singular Climbing Position in terms of responding to the issues of access in the same way there is no unified Traditional Owner position on land management and that there are pro- and anti- climbing factions within Parks Victoria itself. But climbers all agree that we want a collaborative process to decide upon and implement access and we want to be involved.
If we don’t engage with real issues, if we fail to get an official recognised seat at the table where access is being drawn up, taking with us practical and workable suggestions for managing access and impact, then the only vision I have of the future is of me sitting alone in an idling car staring up at the escarpment that we used to be able to climb on.