In the wake of the closure of Taipan Wall – one of the best climbing cliffs in the world – and the much-loved Bundaleer, VL speaks to the Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network (GWRN) who have been working to build a dialogue with the Traditional Owners of Gariwerd.
GWRN has been in the news due the recent Taipan and Bundaleer closures because GWRN representatives were invited along to the Taipan Wall cultural heritage assessment. For many climbers it may be the first time they’ve heard of GWRN, can you explain the purpose of GWRN, the philosophy of the organisation and what the key challenges for GWRN are?
Following challenges around climbing access in the Grampians National Park in 2019, we came together informally as a group of interested climbers in June last year on the realisation that a crucial conversation with Traditional Owners was needed. We were aware that the frustration of Traditional Owners was growing and that it was time critical to start a process of listening, learning and acknowledging the harm that may have resulted from recreational impacts associated with rock climbing.
At that time, members of our group approached several groups such as the Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV), the Victorian Climbing Club (VCC), Outdoors Victoria and Sport Climbing Victoria (SCV) to discuss our plans to reach out to Traditional Owners, and seek their support. Being an independent non-aligned group was a key consideration in this approach. We also introduced ourselves to those involved in Founding Council discussions.
We approached the three Traditional Owner Corporations (Barengi Gadjin Land Council, Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation and the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owner Corporation) linked with the Gariwerd cultural landscape via formal letter in July 2019. We then commenced discussions with representatives from the three Traditional Owner Corporations individually and collectively, including consulting on our vision and purposes, and to look at how we could work together to begin to establish relationships. In approaching this task, we have sought to learn from other reconciliation groups and the many educational resources on reconciliation that are readily available to the Australian community.
These relationships are of paramount importance and take time to develop. We approached the conversation with the Gariwerd Traditional Owners with no agenda regarding outcomes for climbing, but with hope that there was a better future. For us, reconciliation is about creating a safe environment where you can openly discuss issues and work together. While reconciliation groups across Victoria take on a number of different issues in their communities, climbing access was the primary focus for us in our region. The Traditional Owners and GWRN have a shared desire to start more productive conversations about the coexistence of recreation and cultural values.
Can you tell us who invited GWRN to the Taipan cultural heritage assessment and what happened? Climbers are very keen to understand exactly what is happening, how it is happening and what the contribution of climbers has been, particularly given we believe this is the first time that climbers have been present.
It is important to note that GWRN was not invited to attend the cultural heritage assessments: these had already taken place to objectively establish the presence of values at Taipan Wall and Bundaleer.
There is a genuine willingness on behalf of the Traditional Owners to learn more about options for coexistence, and therefore minimise long-term closures. GWRN was invited to subsequent site visits at Taipan Wall and Bundaleer by the Gariwerd Traditional Owner groups to understand how climbing activities occur in these locations. In these visits, GWRN, including members who have climbed at the cliffs for decades, helped Traditional Owners develop their knowledge about the importance of these cliffs to climbers locally and internationally, to understand climbing practices, and how climbers interact with these particular cliffs, including the location of routes. This information was sought from GWRN by the Gariwerd Traditional Owners as a trusted resource to help determine how best to protect cultural heritage values.
The Traditional Owners will now begin determining whether coexistence can be achieved, and if it can, what it could look like. We are currently working directly with the Gariwerd Traditional Owners to design a process that will enable them to make informed decisions about what they would like to see happen at these sites.
This activity is part of GWRN’s vision to support Traditional Owners in self-determination. Self-determination is the right for Traditional Owners to make decisions about the things that directly affect them and are important to them, in this case the protection of their cultural heritage. In providing this site information directly and only to Traditional Owners it is important to note that GWRN is not making any decision or negotiating on behalf of the climbing community.
Few people actually climb on Taipan, more climb on Spurt but still not huge numbers, and yet its status as one of the best cliffs in the world has seen its closure be felt very strongly by climbers, how did GWRN convey what Taipan means for not just the local climbing community but also the global one and how did TOs respond to that?
The Gariwerd Traditional Owners were aware of the importance of these sites and were curious to understand this from a climbers’ perspective. There were conversations both prior to and during the site visits about the unique aspects of Taipan Wall and Bundaleer, including the uniqueness of the rock and how it encourages particularly nuanced and powerful movement, which make them special to climbers from many different backgrounds. For example, the significance of Taipan Wall on the world stage was likened to El Cap in Yosemite, with many of the world’s best climbers coming to Australia to climb the famous routes on the cliff.
Traditional Owners showed an appreciation of the climbers’ perspective and a desire to work toward outcomes that protect cultural heritage and where possible allow rock climbing to co-exist.
The term ‘temporary’ was used in the TO statement with respect to the closure of Taipan but many climbers have voiced their frustrations that the process they see is one of only ever-expanding bans, given that what does success look like for GWRN?
The term temporary closure (not ban) was used in the statements released by Parks Victoria, the Gariwerd Traditional Owners and GWRN. The closures of Taipan and Bundaleer are temporary because Traditional Owners advocated for finding an outcome that protects cultural heritage and where possible allows for recreation. We acknowledge the frustrations of the past eighteen months. The process thus far has been unsatisfactory for both the climbing community and Traditional Owners. The Gariwerd Traditional Owners want to develop a process that is transparent, informed and consistent, which will be able to be replicated at other sites within Gariwerd and potentially other cultural landscapes. This process is new, and likely to be time-consuming and involved. We encourage patience and good will in the climbing community as this is worked through.
Success for GWRN is the development of enduring relationships with the Gariwerd Traditional Owners and bringing people together to respectfully discuss what might be possible when facing challenges. In the climbing context, we hope that our work contributes to a climbing community that values and celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage and assists in its protection by climbing in a way that respects the decisions of Traditional Owners.
The TO statement refers to the bans as representing the “minimum expectation” of Traditional Owners when it comes to protecting Cultural Heritage, how are we to interpret the use of this term?
Firstly, consistent and accurate terminology should be used. Our responses discuss temporary closures (see question above) and not bans. Using the term ‘ban’ is inaccurate and therefore unhelpful, as it increases feelings of anxiety and mistrust for everyone. The term ‘ban’ perpetuates the idea that the Gariwerd Traditional Owners view climbers or climbing as negative, which is not the case, as was stated in the recent release from the Gariwerd Traditional Owners. Individuals are viewed by their actions and their words regardless of their choice of recreation pursuit.
We gather that ‘minimum expectation’ means that cultural values will be protected as the law requires, but we cannot speak for Traditional Owners.
Other climbing-related organisations have made overtures to Traditional Owner groups in the past but none have been successful, what has been different about the GWRN approach and what success has that approach had? Climbers are very interested to see how productive and respectful relationships with Traditional Owners are possible.
We can’t speak to the approach of other groups, but we can share the values that have informed our work and provide examples of those values in action.
GWRN members are motivated to learn more about reconciliation and put it into practice in our work and personal lives. Building respectful relationships is an important part of reconciliation and in our early stages we have focussed on developing our relationship with Traditional Owners. In concrete terms, this has looked like prioritsing the relationship before pushing forward our own interests as climbers; putting aside outcomes; and listening to and trying to understand the position of Traditional Owners, which can then shape the work we are doing together.
Being an independent non-aligned group has been a key consideration in the approach of GWRN. The ability to enter the conversation with no agenda and no expectations of the process, rather a willingness to support a more objective and reconciliation focussed conversation has been key in shifting the dynamic toward a more constructive dialogue. Learning about the history and impact of colonisation has been essential. In understanding our true history, we’ve found that it has been much easier to see and appreciate disadvantage, but it can be much harder to perceive our own advantage and the blind spots this can create.
Another aspect of trust-building in the context of reconciliation-led work has been developing our vision and purposes, and ensuring they are reflected in our activities. This allows Traditional Owners and others to see what we stand for and how this is reflected in our practices.
Some climbers have asked why GWRN didn’t inform the wider climbing community about the assessment and forewarn them of the very strong possibility a closure would be put in place, can you clarify this? What is the vision of the future of climbing that GWRN holds onto?
The matter of assessments of crags in Gariwerd and Dyurrite was presented at the Parks Victoria Climbing Roundtable some time ago, so the climbing community has had knowledge of these assessments for some time. The reveal of cultural heritage values rediscovered by these activities is not our story to tell, nor are the management decisions associated with protections of those values. In being respectful, we have a clear obligation to maintain the trust and confidentiality of Traditional Owners who invited us into these discussions.
In this issue, we will be successful if we can work together to build a trustworthy process for protecting cultural values and enabling the continuation of climbing activities that both Traditional Owners and the climbing community can get behind.
Rather than only holding onto what we know, we see this as an opportunity to create a future where we can all play a part in protecting the oldest living culture on earth. This will challenge and transform us on many levels.
Through dialogue and discussion, we are finding that we have much to learn about the significance of the places where we climb. Gariwerd is a distinct, significant place for all things related to climbing – delicate movement over the best sandstone on Earth, remote camping, the wildflowers and wildlife we experience, in places bushwalkers seldom go. As individuals, we each are excited to imagine how our experiences – climbing or otherwise – might expand as the sharing of significance and perspectives continues with Traditional Owners. We strongly believe this can benefit everyone and that our future climbing experiences across Gariwerd and the Wimmera, although different, will be enriched.
What relationship does GWRN have with Parks Victoria?
GWRN has no direct relationship with Parks Victoria, nor is GWRN considered a ‘stakeholder’. Therefore any engagement with us cannot be considered by Parks Victoria as consultation with the climbing community. This has been communicated directly to Parks Victoria.
In defining our role in the climbing access issue, we are best described as a trusted resource for the Gariwerd Traditional Owners. We may be involved in discussions that include Parks Victoria at the invitation of the Traditional Owners, but we do not seek to hold this relationship in our own right.
Parks Victoria has been made aware of our role as a resource to the Gariwerd Traditional Owners as distinct from a representative group for climbers.
Our involvement does not change the nature of the relationships between Parks Victoria and the representative climbing organisations. When Parks Victoria refers to ‘consultation with the climbing community’, that is the domain of the representative climbing organisations and it is their responsibility to advocate in that space.
What relationship does GWRN have with the climbing representative bodies?
One of our four purposes is to engage with recreational user groups and other relevant stakeholders to promote reconciliation. In achieving this purpose we hope to build trusting relationships with the climbing community primarily via organisations who recognise the value of reconciliation in achieving their objectives.
We recognise that there are a lot of different views and reactions to what is currently happening in relation to climbing access in this region, and that the climbing community has not settled on a single approach to resolving this issue. Part of our goal in forming GWRN was to explore whether reconciliation, as an idea, and process, could move the climbing community and Traditional Owners toward better understanding, and ultimately a sustainable future for these cultural landscapes and recreational activities.
We are in ongoing conversations with climbing organisations to talk about how they can incorporate reconciliation-led approaches into their work and how we may be able to support that journey. There continues to be an open invitation to any of the climbing organisations to meet with us to talk more about what we have been doing and how we can work together. We have also met with more localised interest groups to talk about our activities and the benefits of a reconciliation-led approach. We look forward to working more closely and effectively with these groups, and any groups that are interested in reconciliation. We provided the authors of the draft Victorian Climbing Management Guidelines with feedback based on a reconciliation-led approach, as well as providing similar feedback on the Crag Stewards program.
If you would like to learn more about GWRN and the actions you can take to support reconciliation, go to their new website gwrn.org.au. Here you can also sign up to the GWRN email list or support their work by making a donation.
If you want to learn more about the national reconciliation conversation, please visit reconciliation.org.au