A recent visit to the Grampians/Gariwerd got Ross Taylor wondering about the effect the climbing bans are having on visitation and local businesses. And with Mt Arapiles set to go through the same process at the Grampians, it is natural to fear what impact this may have on the town of Natimuk.
A couple of weekends ago during the long weekend here in Victoria I pitched up to the Bleachers near Halls Gap. I arrived at 11am and was surprised to find the area deserted – not a single other person was there.
The Bleachers is one of the best bouldering areas in the Grampians/Gariwerd. It’s also one of the few remaining bouldering areas open. It was a long weekend and blue skies loomed overhead – where the hell was everyone?
I warmed up, then moved along the escarpment to the very far end of the field to try my project. Four or five hours later I returned back through the main field to find that finally a few other people had turned up. When I got back to the Sundial car park it was bonkers; there were tourist cars parked for nearly a kilometre back down the road from the car park. It was a strange contrast to the quiet out at the Bleachers.
As I returned to Halls Gap I drove back down past the car park for the Valley of the Giants, the other big bouldering area near Halls Gap. At 2.30pm on a long weekend with perfect conditions there were two cars parked there.
On Instagram, a friend was climbing at Taipan Wall that same day, again, another of the few remaining areas opened and arguably the best cliff in Australia. His comment? ‘Where are all the people?’
I spoke to a mate at Trackside, the boulders below Taipan, and he said that it was relatively quiet there.
Returning home, I emailed a few local accommodation businesses where climbers often stay to find out whether they have noticed a drop off in the number of climbers staying with them.
Mt Zero Log Cabins has been very popular with climbers for many years due to its closeness to Mt Stapylton and very reasonable rates. Its owner, Neil Heany, told me: ‘The climbing bans have affected occupancy rates by about a third. My mainstay in the previous year had been climbers/boulderers, some of who have canceled reservations in the belief that the climbing bans are more extensive than they actually are. One group in particular was coming from America for a month’s stay and cancelled on the day of the announced bans.’
Jen Vines from Grampians Edge Caravan Park in Dadswell Bridge, another place popular with climbers that’s located in the northern part of the park, said, ‘Thank you for getting in touch and yes numbers are certainly down and international bookings are non existent.’
Further south, Garry McLachlan from Happy Wanderer Log Cabins, said, ‘the climbing ban fiasco is now known to the international climbing community and my usual/regular climbers have indicated that they won’t be attending until the mess is sorted out. At this stage, I have no future bookings regarding climbers.’
Their responses seem to reflect my experience that climbers are not going to the Grampians/Gariwerd, despite some areas still being open.
I also contacted two Grampians’ locals who run guiding businesses to find out whether the bans had affected them. Tori Dunn from Grampians Mountain Adventure Company told me, ‘Luckily, we haven’t lost any of our school clients, yet – but I have noticed a distinct reduction in family groups/individuals etc wanting to book a session in the Grampians.’
I asked the same question of Earl from Hanging Out. His response? ‘Are we losing business? Hell yeah. Already I am experiencing a downturn in comparison to the last two years and, what’s more, the Grampians has had massive tourism growth. So the expectations of growth across all tourism sectors in the Grampians should be upward of approximately 25%, not less than last year.’
One of Tori’s main concerns was that most of her casual business is generated by Google searches and people finding her website: ‘The most common search term is: “grampians rock climbing”, which now results in a few links to the bans etc. Which isn’t good for business…’
I spoke to a friend whose business rents out bouldering pads to climbers. He sent me a spreadsheet of hire mat rentals from late 2017 up until now. It showed that since April the hire of bouldering mats has more than halved every month in comparison to the same period in 2018.
The Grampians Bouldering Festival, which I help organise, had to be cancelled due to closures. It alone was bringing in about $30,000 every year into the local community in property hire, catering, equipment hire and employment.
Anecdotally, it seems like the climbing bans in the Grampians have had a significant effect on visitation from climbers. More certainly it has had a profound effect on businesses that rely heavily on climbing patronage. While significant areas of the Grampians/Gariwerd have been closed, there is clearly a perception, particularly amongst international climbers, that the entire Park is closed to climbers.
Interestingly, when we posted some news about New Zealand on the VL Facebook page, one Kiwi climber noted that the bans had meant way more climbers were coming to Castle Hill this season, and making all their problems look easy. Indeed, we had an article that was recently submitted by a group of Blueys climbers about climbing in Castle Hill where they mention that they changed their plans to boulder in the Grampians in June and instead headed to New Zealand.
With Mt Arapiles about to go through the same process as the Grampians it will be deeply concerning for local residents in Natimuk and around as to whether similar bans will be put in place. The economy of Natimuk is even more deeply dependent on climbing than that of the Grampians, which is majority driven by general tourism. Climbing and climbers have essentially reinvigorated Natimuk, which otherwise would almost certainly have died like many other small rural towns if not for their influx since the 1980s.
Just to give some rough stats. There are currently around 100 climbers (who own at least 50 houses) living in Natimuk, which means they account for about a fifth of the population (according to the 2016 census there were 512 residents). One estimate suggests that in recent years 70 per cent of the houses bought in the town have been bought by climbers. Probably more than half of the town’s businesses are climbing related – the Arapiles Mountain Shop, Arapiles Climbing Guides, The Climbing Company, the Nati Cafe – while the remaining businesses like the Natimuk Pub, the Post Office and the Willows Milk Bar, the Nati Lake caravan park, AirBnBs, would all struggle to exist without climbers. Climbers work as guides, climbers work in many professional occupations in the community, from town planning to IT expertise, teachers, engineers, artists and medical professions (a much needed occupation in the bush). My own father, who is a climber, took over the Natimuk surgery in 1989, from the long-serving Dr Sutherland. If it hadn’t have been for Mt Arapiles nearby it’s unlikely that Natimuk would have kept its doctor for so long.
Natimuk Primary currently has only 33 students, eight (26%) of which are the children of climbers. Would there be enough kids to keep the school going if it wasn’t for climber’s kids? Even the Nati football club has been helped by climbers, with Simon Mentz being a stalwart of the club, one who has brought in money and energy through his creative efforts and enthusiasm. Then there are events like Nati Frinj and the Goatfest, that provide creative outlets that would otherwise would never have been imagined in the town otherwise. Not to mention all the other tangible and intangible benefits that are hard to measure or that I’ve forgotten to mention.
Then there are the benefits that climbers have brought to Arapiles itself. Climbers have been good stewards of the Mount. My father, who was on the first weekend of climbing at Araps in the ‘60s, has photos of the base of the Mount and it looks nothing like it does today. Sheep grazed up to the base, there were barely any trees and definitely no bushes. Today, in large part due to revegetation efforts by climbers, particularly Friends of Arapiles (led by Louise Shepherd) and the VCC’s CliffCare, the base of the Mount looks totally different. There have also been massive efforts to stabilise gullies, build proper tracks and place abseil anchors to protect delicate gully environments. We can see that one of the benefits of climbers becoming more organised is that efforts on these fronts could be significantly increased.
I know that the economic calculation is only one aspect of climbing impact and that equally there are environmental and cultural heritage impacts that also need to be considered, but I strongly believe that as a group climbers care deeply about the environment and are sensitive to cultural heritage. One of the most distressing elements of the entire banning affair is that climbers have been unfairly and strategically tarnished, in particular by Parks Victoria and as a result of that in the wider media. There are things on which we can improve – everybody can improve – and climbers are committed to managing their impacts responsibly. That said, climbers make a substantial contribution not only to the economics of the Wimmera, but also to the wider community. Aside from money, they provide life, love, kinship, art and add to the cultural richness of the Wimmera, which, having grown up there, was extremely traditional and conservative.