What Impact are the Grampians/Gariwerd Bans Having?

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?

The deserted Bleachers. Image Ross Taylor

The deserted Bleachers. Image Ross Taylor

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.

The Sundial car park the same day, lined with tourist's cars for nearly a kilometre down the road. Image Ross Taylor

The Sundial car park the same day, lined with tourist’s cars for nearly a kilometre down the road. Image Ross Taylor

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.

Tiger Wall as it looked in the late 1960s, the base barren. Image Rob Taylor

Tiger Wall as it looked in the late 1960s, the base barren. Image Rob Taylor

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.

Tree planting by Friends of Arapiles. Image Friends of Arapiles Facebook page

Tree planting by Friends of Arapiles. Image Friends of Arapiles Facebook page

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.

Just some of the extensive high-quality trackwork that has been done by climbers at Mt Arapiles. Image Friends of Arapiles Facebook page

Just some of the extensive high-quality trackwork that has been done by climbers at Mt Arapiles. Image Friends of Arapiles Facebook page

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.
Ross Taylor

11 thoughts on “What Impact are the Grampians/Gariwerd Bans Having?

  1. David Barnes

    Thanks Ross for this up to date and insightful article. points about the economic benifit of climbing in the Halls Gap and Natimuk Communities was clearly put. I hope people of influence understand how much we care firvthese places. You are right we are stewards of our climbing places. A well timed piece, again, thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Steve Bews

    What a well written and thoughtful piece of work Ross. You have made so many pertinent points and I hope along with many other climbers that there is a resolution to this. Thanks for your time in writing and publishing this. Regards Steve Bews

    Reply
  3. Louise

    Thanks Ross for this timely article.
    The annual VCC tree planting is scheduled for Saturday June 28 at Arapiles.
    It would be wonderful if there were a big show of support from the climbing community.
    Everyone is welcome.

    Reply
  4. Rob Lebreton

    Great post Ross.
    We were in Europe climbing as much of this was unfolding. To see the the difference in how climbers are regarded where we were compared to what we were reading about happening at home was a stark and sad contrast. In the places we visited in Europe, climbers are recognised as being a vital part of the tourism and recreation markets. Crags are signposted, locals are happy to have you there and, similar to Nati, small towns that would otherwise have died are thriving thanks to climbers. In an age where so much of the population is suffering from chronic, lifestyle-induced diseases and a general disconnect from the natural, real world, we need to open more opportunities for people to experience activities like climbing, not make it harder.

    Reply
  5. John Smart

    Ross, thank you for that lovely perspective on a situation with an absence of logic.
    What has motivated the bans needs to be revealed publicly as justification so far is hollow.

    Reply
  6. Tegan Cross

    Thank you Ross for your efforts in educating people about this delicate debate and showing the other side of how much local communities are supported by climbers.

    Reply
  7. Pete

    According to the guardian “the three traditional owner corporations which have ownership of the Grampians – the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owner Aboriginal Corporation, Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation and Barengi Gadjin Land Council – support the ban and have praised Parks Victoria for responding to their concerns.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jul/02/grampians-rock-climbing-ban-could-be-softened-if-cultural-heritage-respected

    Reply
  8. Eddy Mofardin

    Those climbing families who have bought into Natimuk (including myself) have invested in Natimuk solely due to climbing. Climbing access that has existed for decades. As much as we enjoy the region’s other values, obviously climbing is what draws us there. Should climbing at Arapiles and The Grampians be significantly curtailed the value of our homes will drop to basically zero. Some of us have invested all we have there. So we will be left with worthless homes in a region we no longer wish to be.
    All of these groups actively working to destroy decades of stability and consequently ruin many families financial state should be aware of the unintended consequences of what they’re doing. Same goes for all of the businesses affected. The words ‘class action law suit’ come to mind.

    Reply
  9. Annalisa Doedens

    Hi Ross, who was your father just out of curiosity? My father was the first to ever climb there, Peter Jackson. I also have lots of photos back then. He key in contact with lots in the past but now is not in a position to remember…

    Reply

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