VL’s Simon Madden reflects on the closure of Taipan and what the future may hold for climbing in Gariwerd/Grampians
Taipan is as much an idea as it is a place of climbing. A wall that dominates both the landscape and the mindscape. A towering, intimidating wall that burns orange in the afternoon, not just from the rays of the setting sun but also because millions of climbers project their dreams onto it. It is brilliantly illuminated by desire.
It is no wonder then that its closure has been towering over my mind, dominating my thoughts, as it has for many climbers. How do we react to its closure? It has taken some time to write something about it and I have deleted it all and started again more than once.
Knowing that something is inevitable doesn’t protect you when that thing comes to pass.
When the bans first came down upon Gariwerd and the world was filled with sadness and regret and hostility, I remember my co-editor Ross immediately reminding me that there was obvious quarrying at Taipan. And so, naturally, if you simply followed the logic that underpinned the initial bans it was inevitable that Taipan would be closed.
I ‘knew’ the closure of Taipan was coming, the thought periodically popped into my head, though clearly there was some latent denial as still I wasn’t prepared for my emotional response. I was despondent.
But hold to a sprig of hope.
There is, though, a positive reading, some light amidst the swirling pattern of dark clouds. This positive reading is that for the first time climbers were invited to a crag in Gariwerd to explain climbing to Traditional Owners. Furthermore, the language around these new bans suggests that they will be temporary with the potential for concessions to be made for climbing.
We do not want climbing banned. Equally, the vast majority of climbers want cultural heritage properly protected. We have been calling for access to be resolved through a collaborative process in which climbers are included. We want to have a voice, to be considered legitimate and not illicit, vigilant and not vandals. For the smears to stop.
We want to have a respectful relationship with Traditional Owners (TOs) and to climb with their blessing where we can. The vast majority of climbers believe climbing can co-exist with protecting cultural heritage – the hope is that those on the other side of the equation believe the same thing.
Climbers – members of Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network (GWRN) – went to Taipan with TOs and Parks Victoria (PV). Because of the work GWRN has done, a nascent, fragile dialogue between climbers and TOs now exists. That is a good thing, as until GWRN came on the scene there was no dialogue, only slanging matches on social media. The word is there is a willingness by TOs to find a way for climbing to coexist with cultural heritage protection, and that Taipan, so special to so many climbers, may provide the test case of this new approach. We want to figure out a mechanism whereby any climbing site bans are as targeted and granular as possible rather than being blanket and blunt. This could be that chance.
I don’t know what these would look like. I don’t know what the mechanisms for protecting cultural heritage might be and how climbing might fit with them, but in my more positive moments I think that this might be the first step upon the path that both climbers and TOs want.
I really hope so.
Ask what you can do.
Educate yourself on what reconciliation means and think about how it might intersect with rock climbing. This is a difficult thing for all Australians, not solely climbers, but we are in a particularly exposed position given where it is that we love to go climbing. Read our interview with GWRN, seek out information about reconciliation more broadly. We also wrote about our own thoughts on reconciliation last year.
Think clearly about who best represents your ideas in the access debate. There are differing philosophies and differing strategies, we should all take the time to think hard on what it is that we value, the type of climbers we want to be, the people we want to be.
It’s also worth asking what the climbing representative bodies that represent you are doing. What is the message they are sending, what efforts are they making to talk to Traditional Owners, what alliances are they forging and what are the values of the groups they are seeking alliances with?
Be respectful, be patient, be advocates for climbing.
Oddly, given the restrictions on our freedoms right now, it’s hard to be patient, but it’s important that we respect the wishes of Traditional Owners. We know that many people are bridling against the notion of patience as all they see is that one thing after another is being taken away from them, and they have no faith in PV. But if we are going to build a respectful relationship with TOs, that takes time and we need to demonstrate our goodwill. The wheels of bureaucracy move slowly, as do the wheels of building respectful relationships. That doesn’t mean we need to be silent, it just means we need to press our point in a respectful, constructive way.
Letter writing, to Parks Victoria, to your state and federal members, is still a great way to express your support for climbing, way too many people are happy to spray their displeasure on Facebook but don’t take the time to actually write to the people who make decisions.
Some of the despair resulting from the bans comes from feeling there is little that we can do. That is partly why there is so much anger, so many social media bin fires, so many tabloid headlines that would be at home in the Murdoch rags. We feel disempowered, we feel PV are against us, bans are only increasing, we have little understanding of how TOs operate, climbing representative bodies have been unstable and ineffective, promises of swift legal victories have proven hollow, we don’t know who GWRN are and the work they are doing is unfamiliar, it’s no wonder that some amongst us are angry and adrift.
Some feel great anger towards GWRN. GWRN exists because the bodies that represent climbers have failed to form constructive relationships with TOs. And despite the early thinking that underpinned the formation of the Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV), climbers are unlikely to get access without dealing directly with TOs. Into that breach, GWRN has stepped as a reconciliation organisation dedicated to forging a relationship with Traditional Owners and helping them to understand climbing. I do know many of the people who are involved and I think they are good representatives of the climbing community. Still GWRN’s hopes actually contain the seeds of its own redundancy – that its approach can help inform (or be adopted by) actual climbing representative bodies. Some climbers are angry in particular that GWRN didn’t inform the wider climbing community about their visit to Taipan Wall with TOs, but that was one of the terms of their invitation to the crag and if that was the case I would prefer that there are climbers there than not.
Try not to trip over the line in the sand.
Since the earliest days of the Gariwerd/Grampians access disaster there have been those who have called for some kind of mass protest, citing the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in Britain in 1932 as precedent. When the bans were initially brought down I heard more than one person refer to Taipan as the line in the sand that might provoke such action. I can understand that because of Taipan’s status as an ideal held up above all other crags, the canvas upon which dreams are projected.
In the mass protest argument people are at pains to say that our fight is with the scoundrels of PV and so any civil disobedience would be only between PV and climbers. I don’t think this is how it will be seen. There is no respectfully aiming climbing’s guns at PV and not blowing up TOs in the same way that there is no waving the constitution in the air without affecting relations with TOs – we have already seen how this ‘we are attacking PV not you’ mindset has been met by TOs, particularly in several exchanges on social media. Acts of mass civil disobedience will likely be seen as acts against TOs – by TOs and by the public at large, and it will be easily framed that way by PV, for whom having climbers look bad is the established MO.
There are indications that the way the closure of Taipan is being managed is the start of a new process, in which climbers are included, where climbers have a relationship with TOs, and we should allow that to play out before considering any drastic action.
We should give some time to see what happens with the relationship with TOs, with how cultural heritage and climbing co-exist at Taipan, to see what comes out of the new landscape management plan and hope that it is some good for climbers and not only bad upon bad. That said, we should be prepared to fight hard in the event the draft management plan comes back and it’s draconian, with little or no climbing returned. It would be prudent to prepare for the worst, even if only emotionally, but still hope for the best. Our expectation is that cultural heritage and climbing can co-exist and that the management plan should allow as much climbing in Gariwerd as is respectfully and practicably possible.
Things taken away are rarely given back lightly.
None of the sites banned under earlier PV declarations have had climbing allowed back in them, aside from the convoluted and bastard situation of pay-to-play-only at Summerday Valley, which is not a satisfactory model for many reasons.
That said, none of the earlier bans have resulted in climbers being invited to give input directly to TOs – the closure of Taipan then signals a change in the way things are being done. Change for the better.
The fruit of that change will be slow in ripening. Whilst many of the easy-get cultural heritage assessments have been completed, much more remains to be done before the updated landscape management plan will be released, optimistically scheduled for the end of 2020. Bureaucracy does move very slowly.
Not only is the process slow, but there may also be disagreement about what the process is. All of the parties involved believe the process is playing out, but ‘the process’ may actually be a different thing for each of them.
With only a small step back, you could easily conclude that climbers think the process is moving towards a targeted approach to climbing access and being able to once again climb in Gariwerd; for TOs the process is about protecting cultural heritage; for PV it is a bit more difficult to pin down succinctly, but normative reading would be that it is protecting cultural and environmental values whilst enabling public access to public lands. The problem is that how you understand the framework of ‘the process’ sets your expectations. Climbers expect to be getting access back and when that isn’t happening we are getting frustrated.
PV could go some way to resetting the relationship between themselves and climbers by demonstrating a willingness to review and amend bans where appropriate by giving back access to areas that are deemed not to be culturally sensitive. It would demonstrate a willingness to move beyond their slurs and smears of climbers.
Ask what is left?
I still can’t shake a darkness. Sitting in tightly locked down Melbourne, helicopters buzzing the streets at night, people not allowed to leave their houses for more than an hour a day, things are very dark, and in the darkness we are left with nothing to do but dream. One of the illuminating things about this second lockdown has been how stripped of all distractions (and here I count climbing as a distraction) life is, your thoughts expand to fill an infinite space. You think about all the decisions you’ve made that have brought you to this point and about what your life is going to look like on the other side. You dream of changes you will make, things you will do differently. But what are we dreaming about?
It is hard to drag your increasingly-bloated body away from necking another bottle of wine or scoffing another block of chocolate and retreating to whatever cluttered space you have a hangboard set up. This is because training is planning and planning must have a vision of the future. Training then is fuelled by dreams. But no one dreams of climbing at Van Diemen’s Land. No one channels Tribute Wall when they are straining for just one more set of hangs. There is nothing iconic and very few hard routes in Gariwerd that are not currently banned. There is precious little in Victoria that is worthy to stick up in a picture on your wall and dream, one day, one day. The obvious lesson – and the virus has made clear this applies to far more than climbing – is: do not wait. If you want something badly, get on it right away. Nothing lasts forever, and the end of forever is always closer than you think.
This realisation is even more acute when you factor in that travel will be heavily curtailed into the near future and possibly even into the far future – the restrictions that come with living with COVID are devastatingly exposing the weaknesses in our local areas. Living close to climbing is more important now than it ever was and there is a strong chance that this power of localism will only become more pronounced. If you are absolutely mad for climbing you must now more than ever be strongly considering where it is that you live.
There may be precious few routes worthy of dreaming about now, but we can and we must still strive for a future in which we can climb things of majesty and beauty, things that have visited us in our dreams. We must hold on to a vision of the future where we are able to climb, where we are able to protect cultural heritage, where climbing representative groups are involved with reconciliation and where PV no longer contemptuously positions climbers as enemies.
That is why I am still dragging myself to the hangboard, even if the level of intensity is tokenistic and my arse is bloated until it weighs me down like two saddlebags filled with lead; it might be out of habit, it might be wrapped in denial, but really I must still have hope.
So how should we feel? We should feel bad as the best cliff in the world is closed but hopeful that it might signal the blossoming of a respectful and understanding relationship with TOs, and it could be the start of negotiating access in a way that we want.
It’s okay to feel terrible, and feeling terrible doesn’t make you a bad person. You can be upset at the parlous state of climbing in Victoria and also still want to be supportive of Traditional Owners. You can also have hope. Navigating these feelings is part of what makes this issue particularly difficult. We humans are complex and we can hold many ideas in our heads at the same time. Often change comes slowly, then all in a rush.
One thing is unequivocal, this year can get directly in the bin.