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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The Grampians have been in the climbing news a lot lately after Parks Victoria initiated the world’s largest rock climbing bans (over 50% of the region’s best climbing) and with no consultation with the climbing community. To say these have been tough times for the climbing community is an understatement. Coincidentally I have just finished reading The Living Rock, the Invention of Climbing in Eastern Australiaby Michael Meadows (a Queensland based journalism professor). His 378 page book explores a colourful and exciting climbing history that has grown into the rich community we share today. If you haven’t read The Living Rock then I implore you to do so. It’s a great read.
The Living Rock, however, is primarily focused on the climbing pioneers of southeast Queensland and the Blue Mountains of NSW. As a Victorian I couldn’t help but wonder about my own state and its early climbing history. All I knew was that in 1947 the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club (MUMC) became the first (and still longest running) climbing club in Victoria. It was followed in 1952 by the Victorian Climbing Club (VCC). Sugarloaf Peak in the Cathedral Ranges were a popular destination in those early years. The formation of these climbing clubs came late when compared to European clubs. The Alpine Club was formed in London in 1857 (originally a gentleman’s club which mainly focused on mountaineering in the European Alps). Pure rock climbing saw its birth around the mid 1860s in places such as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Germany, the Dolomites in Italy and the north of England in the Lake District and the Peak District.
In the 1970s I met an older MUMC climber who told me that there had been ‘a fair bit of climbing activity’ in the Grampians in the early 1930s. That discussion stayed in the back of my mind and I have always felt it probable that important pieces of Victoria’s early climbing history had gone missing. Fast forward 40 years and we have the internet. With an ever increasing number of photographs and newspapers becoming digitised (and available as searchable documents) we may eventually be able to fill in those gaps. It turns out that George Rose, the well-known early Australian photographer, took a series of climbing images in the Grampians back around 1910. One photograph in particular caught my eye. The caption read A NERVE-TRYING FEAT. Scaling the Gorilla Head, an immense overhanging cliff, Mackay’s (sic) Peak, Grampians, Vic, Australia. Copyright 1909.
The year 1909 was initially hard to
comprehend. If the stereograph had been taken in 1909 then this would
certainly be one of Australia’s most historically significant
climbing photos. It would also establish the Grampians as one of the
earliest rock climbing destinations in Australia. I contacted Michael
Meadows for his opinion and this was his email reply:
I met up with Robert Thomson this morning and he agrees with me that it is a genuine photograph and bears some similarity to some of the Abraham Brothers images of climbing in the Lake District about that time (see images below). It seems highly likely that George Rose — the well-known Australian photographer who took the image — would have been aware of the Abrahams’ work and quite possibly followed that style — i.e. having a number of climbers strung out on a route. There’s a mixture of pulling up on the rope (as they most often did back then) and a half-hearted belay. Regardless, the first climber soloed the route. A bold and daring lead for the time. I’ve seen several other photographs of people pulling up the rope like this (and even a movie of Bert Samon’s crowd doing it on Mt Lindesay in the mid-1930s). But the images are not quite so spectacular (and as old) as this one. The earliest image I have found was an artist’s impression of a drama on Mt Lindesay in 1890 which shows someone hanging onto a rope on the very steep Mt Lindesay cliff. But it’s a drawing. There is a description of the Clark sisters climbing Crookneck in 1912 where they were actually using rope as a belaying device, tied around their waists. That’s the earliest example of belaying as we do it today that I have come across so far. One of the young women actually fell and was held swinging over a 50 metre drop. But no photographs except that doctored one on the summit we spoke about where the photographer, George Rowe, inserted himself in the image in a darkroom. I am confident in saying that it is the oldest known photograph of serious climbing activity in Australia involving the use of a rope.
Unfortunately there was a fly in the ointment. Apparently Mackeys Peak was not called Mackay’s (sic) Peak in 1909. According to the Parks Victoria signage in Halls Gap it wasn’t until 1920 that it was given its official name of Mackeys Peak. Halls Gap locals had originally named it Cherub Peak after the death of a baby girl (Agnes Folkes) in 1870. The grave still exists today at the start of the walking trail up to the cliff.
So what is going on with this 1909 caption by George Rose? It appears to be 11 years too early. With a bit of research it soon became obvious that the 1920 ‘official’ naming of Mackeys Peak didn’t quite add up. From what I could gather George Rose had finished producing stereograph photographs by 1920 as the fad of viewing stereographs was pretty much over. Around 1910 or so George Rose had moved away from the production of stereographs to what later became his immensely popular Rose Postcards. The following two newspaper cuttings are much more convincing.
So there you have it. The cliff is Mackeys Peak (once called Cherub Peak), a large cliff overlooking Halls Gap in the central Grampians. The climb is called Manolete, three pitches at grade 11 and which had its first recorded ascent by Phillip Stranger in 1967. In future I propose that Manolete be returned back to its original name of Gorilla Head (the reason why is obvious) and the first ascent should be recorded as 1909. It’s a shame we don’t have the name of the first ascentionists. There has to be records somewhere of who these people were and maybe one day we will find them. This image and a number of other stereographs (by George Rose and others) are providing proof that the Grampians have played a significant role in Australia’s rich rock climbing history for at least 110 years. In other words, rock climbing should be viewed along with bushwalking as the first recreational pursuits to be enjoyed in the Grampians. Hopefully Parks Victoria takes this into consideration in the coming months and years ahead.
Thanks to Michael Meadows and Robert Thomson. Thanks also to Steve Toal (editor of the new Central Grampians Comprehensive Guide) who scoured his many topo photographs and helped me to eventually identify the climb.
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
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.
At the end of the academic year 1968 at RMIT, I looked for a new outdoor activity, so I met Fred Langenhorst and Rein Kamar from the bushwalking club in the college café.
‘Hi Bruno, would you like to do a rock climbing course with us?’
‘Yeah, I would like that.’
The introductory course with the Victorian Climbing Club immediately fired up my passion. Being athletically built, ex-sprinter, skilled in gymnastics and a natural risk taker, I quickly progressed to the more difficult climbs. A determined newcomer usually attracts the attention of the establishment, so I was picked to climb with Chris Dewhirst. He was one of the elite ‘hardmen’. Chris was a tall, wiry Englishman, very intelligent and with a sharp wit. He sometimes beat me at chess, and on the rock face he was the master and I, aged twenty seven, was the apprentice. He laughed a lot and had a-nothing-is-impossible attitude. Thirty years later, he successfully flew two balloons over Mount Everest.
Having done several hard climbs with Chris in the following months, we attempted ‘Blimp’. It is a rock climb in the middle of a cliff named Bundaleer in the Central Grampians in Victoria.
The cliff is overpowering, steep and with massive overhangs. In 1968 Blimp was the great unsolved climbing problem in Victoria, having defeated several strong attempts. It was named and made famous by the legendary Peter Jackson, who was regarded as the father of Australian rock climbing. The climb followed a long, finger-thin crack in a steep corner, between two smooth and overhanging rock faces. The exit at the top was blocked by a two-metre flat ceiling.
Chris tried very hard all weekend, but he always got stuck at the crux point about a third of the way up. If Chris could not do it, I certainly gave it no further thought, so we packed up and went home.
In January of 1969, I had an invitation to have another go at it, this time with John Ewbank from Sydney. He was the leading climber in Australia, and I regarded him with great admiration. Jackson told him about Blimp, and Ewbank asked me to climb with him. I was so excited, that it did not even occur to me to ask Chris for permission to do the climb without him. John Ewbank arrived in Melbourne with his girlfriend Valerie, who taught clarinet at the Sydney Music Conservatorium. And so along with Fred Langenhorst and Rein Kamar (both RMIT climbers), we all packed the gear into my car and headed for the Grampians. That Friday night around the campfire, Valerie and John played on their guitars, and she sang sad songs. Then John turned to me.
‘So you’ve already had a go at Blimp?’
‘Actually, no I haven’t. I spent all weekend standing on the ground, holding the ropes for Chris, who had several goes at it.’
On Saturday morning we arrived at the bottom of the climb, and everyone got busy. Valerie took off her T-shirt and stretched out on a nearby rock to work on her suntan. Fred and Rein climbed up a line of bolts, previously banged into the smooth rock face to the right of Blimp, for the express purpose of filming its first ascent. They alternately used my battered Minolta camera to get a different viewpoint. John stood at the bottom of the climb and quietly studied it, while I busied myself with fixing the ropes to anchor myself to a nearby tree, just like I did for Chris. If the lead climber fell, I would hold the rope and arrest his fall. His health and possibly his life depended and how well I did that. The cliff was in the shade and the air smelled of rotten eucalyptus leaves. I loved it.
John had extremely blue eyes and long curly blond hair. He wore a red jumper and short golf-like climbing pants, with long red greasy wool Norwegian socks, which was the fashion of the day. A climbing helmet, equipment belt with lots of gear hanging of it, and climbing boots with smooth soles completed the outfit. We all dressed in a similar way. John oozed confidence and was eager to get going. I was quietly apprehensive that he may actually get up, and I would have to follow him. Rein and Fred were hanging from bolts high up on the face with my camera, ready for action. The scene was set. Eventually, all was ready and before John made the first move Valerie said, ‘You know a girl could get pregnant just being near you, with so much testosterone and adrenaline in the air.’ We all laughed and it eased the tension somewhat. I thought that John would show us how to do it and that we will have it on film. But aloud I said, ‘I like your red socks’.
John moved up the rock with the grace of a ballet dancer and a cat, in short deliberate moves punctuated by a concentrated study of the next move. He placed protecting gear, such as pitons and crackers into the climbing crack and moved up again. He easily passed the first three of the difficult spots. Then John moved up to the point where Chris and everyone else before him reached and said, ‘Wow! I can see what Jackson was talking about’.
He studied it for a while, then came down and rested. John had several attempts but didn’t commit to the hard bit. We went back to the campsite for the night.
‘So Fred did you get some good pictures?’, said Valerie once we settled in. John cut the answer short. ‘What good would they be if we don’t make it up?’
We slept little that night. I thought, surely John will solve Blimp’s riddle made up of all those
strenuous and risky chess moves. On Sunday, John climbed up and down, always reaching the same point, and by three o’clock in the afternoon he came down and said, ‘It’ll have to wait till another time’.
At this point I felt a huge energy rush, and a determination swelling in me. Without knowing what I would do, I started putting my climbing boots on.
‘I wanna have a go John’, I said. Fred and Rein looked at each other puzzled and stayed up on their bolt line.
‘Yeah, you may as well, since everyone else has’, said John.
So we swapped roles and I started off. I remembered all the moves by heart, that Chris and John had made, and climbed quickly, preserving energy. When I reached the high point John got up to, I instantly understood why it had all ended here for everyone else. Above me was an overhanging thin crack in crumbly rock with enough space to push fingertips just half way in. That was all. There were no other handholds, nor footholds, and no place to put protection of any sort. I went on and on. This required total commitment and sustained strength. The long crack led to an overhang where I could probably place protection. But it was a long way off.
Rein yelled out. ‘Hi Bruno give us a smile for the camera and go for it.’ So I turned around, smiled and committed myself. The adrenalin rush helped. Every two metres I had to stop and hang on one arm to rest the other. There was no support for the feet. I moved slowly, painfully, grunting a lot, and so focused on each next move that I was not even aware of the risk I was taking. If I fell off now I would hit the ground and be crippled for life. I was further above the last protection than it was from the ground level. My one thought was to reach the base of the roof above and secure myself. My weight training and gymnastics paid off here. I felt I could sustain the effort for a while. I heard no other noise except my own heart, heavy breathing and Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, the music thundering in my ears. The stress got unbearable, beyond fear, and beyond pain I could still register. My body numbed, but the fingers held on and that was all that mattered. Nothing mattered as long as I held on. Voices in my head started arguing with each other.
‘Go on fall off, you won’t have to struggle any more.’
‘Ta da, da dah’, thundered Beethoven.
‘Don’t listen to them, just rest up your hand and move up, again and again.’
Eventually, I could stop and get a small purchase on one foot to take most of my weight off my arms. It was enough. I breathed heavily and I knew I would be alright for a while. A few more minutes and I reached the roof and rested. It was uncomfortable there. If I stood up my head had to be bent to the side or I have to hang on my arms again. I bent my head and banged in a solid piton into a crack and secured a rope trough it. I was safe now. My confidence returned. I surveyed the overhang. That was the next problem. The exit was to the left along a mossy ledge extending for almost two metres. There were holds for the fingers and absolutely nothing for the feet. The ledge started off several centimeters wide, sloping down and gradually narrowed to nothing at the end of the overhang. Having rested I regained my humour and yelled down, ‘This is really tricky, so hang on tight on the ropes’. I cleaned the ledge with my fingers, throwing lots of rubbish in John’s face below, and on the third attempt I reached the exit point. Time was running out, my energy nearly spent, and if I didn’t commit to the overhang now I would simply fall off from exhaustion. So with a loud ‘Urgh!’, I put my left hand on the only hold available and pulled up. The rest happened very fast. The feeling of exposure gave me such a boost, that I swung over the overhang and I was up.
I could not believe it. I had just done the first ascent of Blimp. Following lots of jubilant screaming from below, I secured myself to a tree at the top and yelled down, ‘Climb when ready.’ John climbed up, grunting and muttering mild obscenities in admiration, but with the confidence of the top-rope from his waist to my hands. Eventually, he came up offered his hand and said, ‘Welcome to the world class mate’. Strangely I felt humbled by the experience. I came very close to my limit on this climb.
Back in Melbourne John Ewbank got on the phone and told Chris Baxter and Peter Jackson about the climb. My life had changed. I acquired a ‘persona’ which did not agree with the usual image I had of myself as a person who was withdrawn somewhat.