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Bushwalking Bans Looming in the Grampians/Gariwerd

Tourist hordes are swarming over ancient quarried edges beside a popular Parks Victoria walking track in the Grampians/Gariwerd.  Some are sitting beside quarried edges that are surrounded by graffiti. They are seemingly oblivious to the cultural heritage significance of the site.  Elsewhere in the National Park, graffiti (including false rock-art) spoils a rock shelter and threatens genuine indigenous rock art. Amazingly, this site is a Parks Victoria (PV) authorised campsite that is popular with walkers doing a multi-day hike. The Oasis campsite on the Fortress walking trail has tragically been trashed.

Graffiti on rock walls which run right up against the Grampians Peak Trail

Massive graffiti damage on a wall along the Grampians Peak Trail

At yet another tourist site in the Park, rock art is protected by a steel cage but tourists can easily scramble above and behind the cage location to find other less obvious but nonetheless easily discernible rock art and quarry sites that are marred by scratched and painted graffiti. The aforementioned tourist sites, and a number of others where damage to cultural heritage has occurred and continues to occur, remain open to all and sundry.  This is despite Parks Victoria having been alerted to the existence of cultural heritage at these sites and photographic evidence having been supplied.

New graffiti next to a quarry site at the Manja Shelter in the Victoria Range

Meanwhile, rockclimbers have found themselves excluded from vast tracts of the Grampians/Gariwerd and a growing number of key sites in nearby world climbing mecca, Mt Arapiles/Dyurrite.  Parks Victoria has consistently justified these exclusions on the basis of their “legislative obligations to protect cultural heritage”. Climbers have been perplexed by their exclusions from sites that have not been assessed for cultural heritage because of what PV management have called a “precautionary approach” (i.e. “we will keep you out just in case we might find something of significance there one day”). They are even more perplexed by their continuing exclusions from sites that have been assessed and where no tangible cultural heritage has been found. And they have been galled by what they see as double standards and the discriminatory application of regulations to some groups of recreational users of the Park but not to others.

Given that such blatant anomalies and discrepancies in the protection of cultural heritage sites have been pointed out to PV officials, and that Traditional Owners have stated that “protection of cultural heritage is non-negotiable”, it is understandable why some PV officials have privately admitted that it is inevitable that access to numerous tourist sites will soon be prohibited and multiple popular walking trails will be closed.

Graffiti damage inside Hollow Mountain

Along waterways and beside lakes in the Grampians that are popular with both walkers and fisher-folk, there are a number of cultural heritage sites that are listed in the Aboriginal Heritage Register.  It feels inevitable that access restrictions or prohibitions will soon be applied at these sites too. PV have no options since they are required to meet their legislative obligations. These actions of course spell disaster for many of us. Bans on walking trails and climbing areas may take years to resolve and in many cases these sites may never open again. Bushwalkers might hope for a far more granular approach to protection of cultural heritage than is embodied in Set-aside Determination. Unfortunately climbers have suddenly found themselves faced with bans which currently prohibits climbing in over 550 square kilometres of the Grampians/Gariwerd.  Bushwalkers should look no further than recent history and politics, which suggests that hope alone will not be enough. Check out this Save Grampians Climbing post HERE for further details

Quarry site and graffiti as you enter Hollow Mountain
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Parks Victoria Forces Closure of all Future Grampians and Arapiles Rock Climbing and Bushwalking Guidebooks

To all of our loyal wholesale and retail customers it is with a great deal of regret that Open Spaces Publishing has made the decision to halt work on all of our planned rock climbing and bushwalking titles for the Grampians National Park and at nearby Mt Arapiles.

Our business moved to Natimuk in the Wimmera almost 7 years ago to concentrate on climbing and bushwalking publications and I would like to think that our guides have been of some importance to the tourism industry. Over the years we are proud to have printed and sold well over 110,000 of our own Open Spaces titles, generating over 5 million dollars in retail sales and helping to support numerous authors and small businesses. We had a number of climbing guides to the Grampians in various stages of production and had started work on the fourth edition of our very popular Arapiles Selected Climbs guide which was scheduled for release in about 18 months.

There is no doubt that the massive Grampians climbing bans (on an unprecedented global scale and which have come into force over the last 18 months) combined with the recent Bundaleer and Taipan Wall climbing and bushwalking bans, have forced Open Spaces to re-evaluate our position. In these uncertain times and given the likelihood of further climbing and bushwalking bans in both the Grampians and at Mt Arapiles we have decided to cease all of our planned publications to these areas. A business like ours cannot be expected to operate where there is no certainty. We are especially disappointed that Parks Victoria and the Traditional Owners have decided not to engage with the climbing and bushwalking communities and instead continue to foster this uncertainty. Our own recent discussions with senior Parks Victoria staff regarding our forthcoming Grampians bushwalking guidebook have also given us further cause for concern.

Open Spaces would like to offer our full support to all of the various rock climbing, bushwalking and reconciliation groups working towards a mutually beneficial outcome. We understand and are upset that this decision will directly effect the flow of tourism dollars into our Wimmera and Grampians regions but we feel we have no choice. This decision does not affect our existing publications and we will continue to act as a wholesale and retail distributor to titles on our current stock list.

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Grampians National Park: Safety Ropes, Bushwalking and Special Protection Areas

Many of you are probably aware that Parks Victoria have initiated sweeping rock climbing bans across the Grampians National Park in what are called Special Protection Areas (SPAs). At Open Spaces we have received a number of phone calls and emails asking whether these bans will effect bushwalkers who use safety ropes within SPAs. At least two of our Grampians walks in our Daywalks Around Victoria guidebook are directly affected. These walks are Stapylton Ampitheatre and The Fortress Caves. So we decided to write to Parks Victoria to seek clarification. Here is our letter (dated 27 May 2019):

To whom it may concern,
Open Spaces are currently in the process of writing an online update to the four Grampians bushwalks we describe in our popular Daywalks Around Victoria guidebook. This book has sold over 3000 copies and we have a responsibility to the groups, clubs and numerous independent walkers to attempt to clarify the somewhat confusing situation regarding the current Parks Victoria Special Protection Areas (SPAs). Two of our described walks (the Stapylton Amphitheatre, p44 and The Fortress Caves, p50) appear to be affected by the SPAs.

As you are no doubt aware the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk (the rocky ridge linking Hollow Mountain with Mt Stapylton) has long been regarded as one of the most iconic walks in the Grampians, it has been called the most spectacular walk in Victoria and sees hundreds of walkers a year (both teenagers and adults). The Echoes Block section of the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk (at the point where you leave the main walking trail to Hollow Mountain) appears to be within an SPA. It is our understanding that there is now a ban on the use of safety ropes within SPAs. Unfortunately many groups, clubs and independent walkers commonly use a safety rope to gain the top of the Echoes Block. Although the scrambling is easy, it is the safest way to bring walkers up. Safety ropes have been used on the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk for at least 50 years.

We are writing to you to inform you that we will be advising our readers that if they resort to using a safety rope within an SPA they face possible fines of over $1600. We will also inform our readers that a safety rope is therefore not allowed to be used on the initial Echoes Block section of the walk but is allowed to be used on the final steep northern scramble up to the summit of Mt Stapylton (as this section is not within an SPA).

The final scramble up to the top of the Fortress is also regularly completed by groups, clubs and independent walkers. Some of these people rely on the use of a safety rope to gain what is widely regarded as the best summit in the Grampians.

Question one. Is the Fortress within an SPA? It is difficult to tell as the official maps are lacking in detail. If it is within an SPA we will inform our readers that the use of a safety rope to gain the summit is no longer allowed.

Question two. Has Parks Victoria considered that a no safety rope policy (within SPAs) will influence some walkers to forgo the use of a safety rope (due to the over $1600 fine) and which will almost certainly result in future accidents?

We understand that both of these walks are not officially recognised by Parks Victoria but considering that they are historically important, have a long history with walkers and are popular (particularly the Stapylton Amphitheatre walk) it would be hard for Parks Victoria to pretend that they didn’t exist, and therefore absolve themselves of any future responsibility.

Looking forward to your response, Glenn Tempest, Open Spaces Publishing

Here is Park Victoria’s response (dated 11 July 2019):

Dear Mr Tempest
Safety Ropes in Special Protection Areas

Thank you for your email of the 28th May, 2019 to the Hon Lily D’Ambrosio MP, Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, regarding Special Protection Areas and the use of safety ropes while bushwalking in Grampians National Park. As this issue falls within Parks Victoria’s responsibilities, your correspondence has been forwarded to me for my consideration and response. I apologise for taking so long to get back to you.

While Parks Victoria prohibits rock climbing within Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) there is no prohibition on the use of safety ropes to assist with the activity of bushwalking either inside or outside of SPA’s. Safety ropes are permitted if necessary for safety while bush walking and National Parks regulations are complied with (i.e. no damage to rock or use of bolts, no trampling or damaging of vegetation). Parks Victoria would be interested in working with you to provide clarity to bushwalkers on what defines the use of safety ropes while bushwalking and how it can easily be distinguished from climbing.

To clarify your question regarding Echoes block and the Fortress: Echoes block is within an SPA. The area is of significant natural and cultural value, and is not on an authorized walking track. Although bush walking is permitted in this SPA, the nature of this activity is “off track” therefore, bush walkers are reminded to adhere to minimal impact guidelines (tread lightly, keep group sizes small, don’t damage vegetation) and comply with National Park regulations. Safety ropes if necessary, should only be used as described above and not be the primary means of access.

The Fortress walking track is an authorized walking track that sits within a remote and natural area, where the activity of bushwalking on and off track is permitted. However, the walking track itself has an SPA layer over its entirety for the protection of important natural values. The summit of the Fortress is not within this SPA as the authorized walking track does not continue to this area. Bush walking in this summit area will need to adhere to minimal impact guidelines and comply with National Park regulations. Care should be taken when walking off track to consider remoteness and difficult terrain.

As you may be aware, a new management plan is being developed for the Grampians landscape, an area that covers the Grampians National Park and adjacent parks and reserves. This document will underpin strategic planning for the Grampians landscape over the next 15 years to ensure the precious environmental and cultural values of this iconic landscape are preserved for future generations to enjoy. This includes providing longer-term direction on matters such as access and usage of the park. The process to develop this plan will include opportunities for you to share your thoughts, attend public information sessions, and get feedback from Parks Victoria and key stakeholders on specific questions that you may have.

I will have local staff from the Grampians National Park contact you to meet you on site and discuss these matters further.

Yours sincerely
Sally Lewis, Regional Director Western Region Parks Victoria

So, just to be clear. Safety ropes are permitted if necessary for safety while bush walking and National Parks regulations are complied with (i.e. no damage to rock or use of bolts, no trampling or damaging of vegetation). I’d like to thank Sally Lewis (Regional Director Western Region) and to Simon Talbot (Chief Operating Officer) and Gavan Mathieson (South West District Manager) for contacting me with regards to this important issue.