How to react to the closure of Taipan Wall?

VL’s Simon Madden reflects on the closure of Taipan and what the future may hold for climbing in Gariwerd/Grampians

Feel terrible.
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.

Evidence of quarrying at Taipan Wall. Ross Taylor

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.

The mercurial JJO’Brien locks down at the end of the crux sequence on the first pitch of Mr Joshua – one of country’s best grade 25s. Simon Madden

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.

Stay circumspect.
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.

Sad-Ben Affleck pondering the deep importance of Jean-Paul Sartre on his life with the quote ‘With despair, true optimism begins: the optimism of the man who expects nothing, who knows he has no rights and nothing coming to him, who rejoices in counting on himself alone and in acting alone for the good of all.’

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.
Simon Madden

4 thoughts on “How to react to the closure of Taipan Wall?

  1. Kevin Lindorff

    Thanks Simon. There’s lots to think about in your article. These are some of my reflections on it:
    Part 1
    It seems to be a natural human trait to view how the future will play out, or the likely actions of others, through the lens of what we dearly hope that future or future actions will be. Perhaps we have to have that optimism to prevent us falling into despondency and despair. But it can also lead to grave errors of judgement – the Neville Chamberlain “peace in our time” responses to potential futures that were/are too horrible to contemplate.
    In the bigger scheme of things, climbing prohibitions aren’t up there with world wars or global pandemics. Yet to those for whom climbing is one touchstone for spiritual uplift and moments of lightness of being, its potential loss or diminution is horrible to even consider. We want to hang onto an alternative future where all will be well, even if somewhat different to how things are at present.
    So we must, as many have suggested, hope for the best but plan for the worst. In the current climbing ban context, I think most climbers ‘get it’ that we need to take care that our planning for the worst does not itself help precipitate the worst. So some circumspection and diplomacy is critical. But that is different to doing nothing just because we are afraid that whatever actions we take may cause offence to someone.
    Simon has argued that
    “There is no respectfully aiming climbing’s guns at PV and not blowing up 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.”
    I will respectfully disagree (though this may depend on what is meant by ‘attacking’ – we may be in furious agreement). There is a difference between being disrespectful to a person or organisation and being critical of what that person or organisation has done or is doing.
    As one of my indigenous friends said to me (and these are the sentiments only – I don’t pretend I can remember her words verbatim):
    “if you challenge any of the current climbing bans, some indigenous folk will automatically hate you for it; you have to remember that if the current bans on climbing in SPAs, for example, are stripped away, then they will feel naked – they feel they would be left with no protections for cultural heritage”.
    “Others in our mobs will be more sanguine. Some of them are not too happy themselves with how PV have gone about things. They understand that there might well be other, better alternatives that still provide the cultural heritage protection that is needed. If there are legal challenges and PV are asked to change things, then most indigenous folk will work with that and get on with it. So be it.”
    We need to be able to work toward developing and articulating win-win-win alternatives that address the key concerns of Traditional Owners, land managers and recreational users. And we need to do it respectfully and with a willingness to listen. But that is not to say that we should put our critical faculties on ice just because some might not like what we have to say.
    I would hate to think that we feel emasculated from articulating and working toward any alternative future that can provide strong protection of cultural heritage without requiring the current prohibitions that exist over vast swathes of Gariwerd. I would be particularly worried that we were reluctant to try to engage with land managers and Traditional Owners to provide considered input and help craft such possible futures just because we fear that some individuals might feel threatened by any challenge to the current climbing prohibitions status quo that we might advocate, or believe that advocating constructive alternatives is somehow an attack on their aspirations.

  2. Kevin Lindorff

    and …Part 2
    The references in the article to the draft Greater Grampians Landscape Management Plan (and what these references say about our hopes for a better future), are interesting:
    “We should give some time 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 …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.”
    “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”.
    A few thoughts on what past conversations suggest we can (and can’t) reasonably expect to come out of the GGLMP:
    Requests to PV to reopen sites to climbing where those sites have already been assessed and no cultural heritage identified, and where there are no significant risks from climbing to the environment, have been rebuffed.
    “To date, it has been our view that until the research is complete and a draft plan developed, consultation with all interested parties carried out, and any adjustments made, changes to SPAs would not be appropriate.” [Carol Nichols, Director of Government and Corporate Relations, PV, March 31st, 2020]”
    “Included in the draft plan will be proposed management directions for climbing areas subject to cultural and environmental surveys in 2019. These proposed directions will address those areas surveyed which revealed cultural and environmental values, and those areas where no values were recorded. It has been communicated consistently to the rock climbing community that Parks Victoria and Traditional Owners will be making no amendments to the existing Special Protection Areas in the Grampians National Park until we have completed this assessment process in a coordinated and consistent manner, and finalised the draft GGLMP.” [Jason Borg, Regional Director, Western region, ParKs Victoria, August 7th 2020]
    It is important to note that the GGLMP is supposed to be a ‘road-map’ of general management principles that forms a reference point or touchstone document to guide the more detailed decisions that PV will need to make in managing the Gariwerd day to day. The GGLMP will not be, was never intended to be, nor can it be, a detailed compendium of a huge range of management strategies individually tailored for each of the hundreds of climbing sites in the Grampians landscape. According to PV themselves, such detailed information will NOT be collated in the GGLMP.

    It is also noteworthy that, to assess each site, PV needs to organise representatives for each of the three indigenous ‘mobs’ to accompany PV staff and an accredited archaeologist to walk into the site and carry out the assessment. So far, in the last year and a half, they have carried out 125 site assessments (excluding the more recent assessments of Taipan and Bundaleer) – these have been sites that have been the “low hanging fruit” i.e. sites that have relatively easy to access, mostly along good PV walking tracks. About half (62) of these sites are in the Mount Stapylton area, and many of these sites are very close to each other, significantly expediting the assessment process. In contrast, many of the sites still to be assessed require significantly more difficult (physically more arduous) access. I would be astounded if these could all be done “in a coordinated and consistent manner” within 3 or 4 years.

    So, since we are not to be allowed to climb at any sites that have not yet been assessed (and won’t have been assessed by the time that the GGLMP sees light of day), and given the years that would seemingly be necessary to assess the myriad cliffs, buttresses and bouldering sites that haven’t been yet been assessed by P.V., it seems that we will be excluded from many such sites for years to come.
    So, what can we hope to see in the GGLMP? Hopefully, some changes to SPAs in light of surveys/assessments that have been undertaken. But even these will be constrained in scope by a number of issues that still haven’t been resolved.
    For example, one of our concerns relates to the need for articulating consistent and transparent processes for establishing appropriate buffer zones around cultural heritage. At Bundaleer, for example, the cultural heritage has led to exclusions from the left end of the cliff but access allowed at the right-hand end. At Gilhams Crag, on the other hand, the cultural heritage is at the far left (northern) end of the crags whilst other crags such as The Chilly Bin, multiple hundreds of metres away to the right/south, are off limits, presumably because they come under the Gilham’s Crag heading in climbing guidebooks. If these cliffs had been written up under separate cliffs, not shown as under a single Gilham’s crag heading, would access have been allowed or might it be in the future? These are the sorts of issues, at climbing sites right across the Gariwerd, which will no doubt take years to sort out. And meanwhile, it would appear, if we simply were to do nothing but rely on the GGLMP process to run its course as PV keep telling us, we will be prohibited from climbing at many sites (many still unsurveyed/unassessed and some surveyed but with no adequate delineation between where cultural heritage or environmental sensitivities exist and other cliff sectors in the area where they do not) well after the GGLMP is finalised.
    One strong recommendation that has been made to PV is for the incorporation into the GGLMP of a clause that commits PV to a process where, BEFORE it makes any changes such as new set-aside determinations, or changes in how it applies the Regulations, it consults with any recreational user group that any such changes could impact on and explore a range of options together.
    Arguably, if genuine consultation with climbing representatives had occurred before the current prohibitions were enacted and a range of possible options were examined (as distinct from PV informing climbers of decisions and actions already taken) then better solutions would have been possible and lots of angst and aggravation avoided.
    Feedback from PV about this suggestion has been ‘mixed’ and it seems that PV’s interpretation of what consultation means is part of the problem.
    Presumably, we will not have long to wait to see the draft GGLMP. Please consider the points made (forewarned is forearmed) and ready yourselves to craft appropriate responses to what will be in the GGLMP, but also to what will not be (but, arguably, should be).

  3. Brenden Goss

    I think also notifying Visit Victoria with receipt totals of climbing trips now made elsewhere to receptive parks both in Victoria, and elsewhere in Australia will give insight to the local economic effects of these closures in a measurable way. Remarkably this will also affect Traditional Owners that actually reside locally.

  4. Mike Tomkins

    “so many tabloid headlines that would be at home in the Murdoch rags”

    John Ferguson, writing in the Australian has written many articles on the climbing crisis, exposing much of the shady behaviour and tactics used to outlaw climbing in Victoria.

    Without John’s work, many people in our community would not know what has really been going on.
    Thanks John👍 – nasty political dig from Vertical Life ☹️


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