The fallout from the climbing bans in the Grampians/Gariwerd feels like it has progressed much like the fabled five stages of grief following a trauma: denial, anger, bargaining and depression; we don’t yet think we’re at acceptance.

Mostly it feels like everything has spiralled out of control and broken apart into an ugly mess. Maybe it didn’t need to be this way; maybe it was always going to be this way.

Here at VL, it’s fair to say that we have traversed much of this emotional territory multiple times. But from amidst the rollercoaster of emotions a few thoughts have started to crystallise.

The first is that Parks Victoria (PV), and probably Aboriginal Victoria (AV), have failed Traditional Owners, and they have also failed climbers.

PV and AV have failed to protect registered Aboriginal Heritage sites. Climbers have climbed in areas of the park that we think contain cultural heritage sites, but here’s the rub: Aboriginal Heritage sites are kept secret, as a user group we don’t know where most of them are or what they constitute. It’s easy to transgress when you are operating in the dark.

PV’s job is to manage the park, to protect the assets under their management. One of AV’s main jobs is: ‘cultural heritage management and protection.’ While their laxity has allowed climbers to have the run of the park in a way that benefited us in the medium term – the last 30 years or so, since PV took over management of the park –  in the longer term this failure could well have jeopardised our access by inadvertently allowing climbers to climb where we shouldn’t.

There’s no excuse for PV and AV not to know. It is not hard to find out what climbers are up to: everything we do is published in guidebooks, it’s published online, accessible for free now via The Crag, and we know PV monitors the discussions of climbers on social media. But the failure is more profound than this, not only did PV know what climbers were up to, but they actively worked with climbers to ensure access to areas that are now banned. As just one of many, many examples of this, PV helped climbers reroute the track to the Gallery (home to a registered quarry) and installed a sign pointing the way.

In the way that PV put in place the bans earlier this year – instituting them without consultation, seemingly without even the most basic understanding how climbing is practiced or how many climbers there are and then being undermined by their own militant employees – PV has sought to set climbers up in opposition to Traditional Owners. But Traditional Owners and climbers should not be enemies, the main problem is PV and AV and their failure to manage the park properly. Traditional Owners and climbers should be natural allies, as all climbers want to protect the environmental and cultural heritage values of the park that they love so much.

We spoke to John Clarke, Keerraywurrung Person, and he told us the following about what Gariwerd means to him as a Traditional Owner:

The Grampians is so much more than a natural landscape that provides recreational opportunities for many in the broader community. It is Gariwerd. It is our place of worship, our Cathedral, our library, our historical centre, our theatre, our art gallery and so much more. Gariwerd is the Keepsake of our stories, traditions and identity in an ancient cultural landscape that has been altered beyond its recognisable bonds to stories of creation. It is an island in a landscape that for the worst part, now reflects our destruction.

Climbers should have made earlier efforts to understand the cultural and heritage values of the Grampians/Gariwerd and sought to better manage our impacts – that’s clear now. We should also have sought to understand the concerns of Traditional Owners, although perhaps if PV had managed this shambles better there would have been early efforts to connect the two groups so that we could work together in a productive fashion. Instead, PV chose a different path, one where they have tried to shift blame directly onto climbers.

We believe that the failure of climbers to connect with Traditional Owners in the past is not for a lack of goodwill, but mostly due to the climbing community never having been effectively organised.

It’s good to see that climbers are organising (though the way this is playing out is itself not without problems), indeed we feel that PV have been surprised by the strength of the response by climbers. But we believe – as do many others – that one of the first things we should do as a community is attempt a reconciliation with Traditional Owners. Within the broader national conversation about constitutional recognition, treaty and co-management of public lands, climbers have the opportunity to make amends for our part in the current mess, to establish a strong relationship with Traditional Owners and to understand the harm and hurt that we have caused, so that we can move forward with goodwill and trust.

Apart from the ethical reasons for trying to attain the blessing of Traditional Owners, there are strong pragmatic reasons why reconciliation makes sense. Traditional Owners will soon be co-managers of Gariwerd and because of this they will have a more powerful voice. If we cannot resolve issues with Traditional Owners, then it’s far easier for PV simply to ban us. We have seen that PV’s response to this mess has been to take what is for them the path of least resistance – blanket bans. As we’ve said previously in other articles, if we want continued access to the park, we will have to secure it ourselves, PV has neither the interest nor resources to look after climbers. If, however, we form respectful, genuine relationships with Traditional Owners then it may be possible that we can work towards a granular interpretation of which sites are critical to cultural heritage and which sites are not. Then PVs rationale for excluding climbers via blanket bans will be severely curtailed.

So the question is, what does reconciliation mean?

Reconciliation means we have to listen. We have to understand the way that Traditional Owners feel about Country, we have to understand tangible cultural heritage and also the concept of intangible heritage, and accept responsibility for any damage and hurt we’ve caused. It is difficult because it is likely this is going to take patience, but it is also difficult as it will require goodwill from Traditional Owners. Climbers are rightfully anxious to move forward on access and furthermore right now we don’t know how much goodwill exists within Traditional Owners. We do know there has been some contact between representatives of Traditional Owners and climbers and we are hopeful that we can have a place in the park if can ensure the protection of cultural heritage.

There are no guarantees in this process. We know there is a lot of anger on the part of Traditional Owners about what has happened in Gariwerd. We have also heard that Traditional Owners have been dismayed at some of the responses of climbers thus far. PV is also unlikely to help climbers reconcile with Traditional Owners. PV has confirmed there will be no Traditional Owners represented in the management plan stakeholder group that climbers are seeking to be a part of (sources tell us that the one year timeline for the creation of a new Park Management Plan is wildly ambitious, however), and that Traditional Owners are partners and will therefore be kept separate to park users. The two groups are being kept apart and it is up to climbers to navigate this process by ourselves.

We are not experts in reconciliation though there is much already written on the subject, a good starting place is Two things from here that stand out are;

Unity – An Australian society that values and recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage as a proud part of a shared national identity.
Goal: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and rights are a valued and recognised part of a shared national identity and, as a result, there is national unity.
Action: Achieve a process to recognise Australia’s First Peoples in our Constitution.

Race Relations – All Australians understand and value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous cultures, rights and experiences, which results in stronger relationships based on trust and respect and that are free of racism.
Goal: Positive two-way relationships built on trust and respect exist between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians throughout society.

John Clarke says of the process of reconciliation:

Reconciliation requires acknowledgements. Uncomfortable ones. It requires patience, respect and humility. Reconciliation is a Songline, not a destination. It is an initiation of sorts. And once you walk that with us, the Grampians as you know it, will never be the same again. You too will know it as Gariwerd.

In the future Victorian climbing will be different as there will be practical implications for climbers from the process of reconciliation and the formulation of Treaty in Victoria. We may not get access to all of the areas that we have historically had access to. How differently we may have to approach climbing will probably only become clear after we’ve had conversations with Traditional Owners. There are other places in the world provide examples of climbers and cultural heritage coexisting. Hueco Tanks in the USA, is one such place. While Hueco and the Grampians/Gariwerd are quite different – Hueco is much smaller and so to manage impacts they only allow a fixed number of people onto the mountain every day – one interesting facet of climbing there is that every climber has to do an induction before they can enter the park. The induction involves watching a ten to 15 minute video about why Hueco is a cultural site, along with a mixture of history and rules for when climbing in the park.

Our starting point as climbers must be that climbing and cultural heritage can co-exist. We believe reconciliation with Traditional Owners will enable us to move forward. Through reconciliation with Traditional Owners we can better understand both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the Grampians/Gariwerd and ensure that there is zero damage to cultural heritage. Climbing could prove to be a positive example of how non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities can work together in Victoria.

We are at the beginning of a long journey. We don’t know the route or the outcome, but we believe that if we try to negotiate with Traditional Owners in good faith and by listening carefully, it may be possible that in the future we can climb in the Grampians/Gariwerd knowing we do so with a better understanding of the values and concerns of Traditional Owners.

3 thoughts on “Reconciliation

  1. John McClintock

    Great article which reflects a sensible and measure appropriate response – I’m keen to understand further why the comment – “It is an island in a landscape that for the worst part, now reflects our destruction.”

    1. Stephen Gordon

      I understood it as drawing the parallel between the clearing of trees etc to make way for farmland, and the destruction of traditional ways of life to make way for colonial social structures.


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