I’m writing in response to the increasing climbing bans in vast areas of the Grampians National Park. This is not a letter trying to scrutinise the reasons behind Parks Victoria decisions, I am not a professional climber, member of any climbing group or advocating on behalf of other climbers nor it is an attempt to undermine the significance of cultural heritage sites or the value of Parks Victoria work as an organisation.
Climbing groups such as Victorian Climbing Club, Save Grampians Climbing and others have been active in responding to specific PV claims regarding the impacts of rock climbing.
Despite the outrage I felt as I read some of the impacts statements quoted by PV in a ministerial briefing (MBR038732), I cannot truthfully argue that all climbers are necessarily “protectors of the environment” nor that they are not having more significant impact than the average hiker.
My personal experience of the climbing culture and practices have been overwhelmingly positive and illuminating. I’m writing to share this story in the hope it can serve as an example to interested parties wishing to learn more about outdoor climbing activity.
In short, climbing helped me to overcome trauma, fall in love with the country, make friends and learn important skills;
Trauma and exercise
In 2016 a close friend of mine, also a new immigrant to Australia committed suicide.
We were both in our 30s and arrived here around 2008.
This was a huge shock and a chance for me to look more closely at what I value in life and re-prioritise things. After the official grieving, a mutual friend of ours invited me to go to the bouldering gym with him – he said it helps him focus and its good exercise. Jumping on the wall at the Brunswick gym was an instant click – The challenge of mind and body, the problem-solving aspect and the company won me over. I became a member and visited the gym between 3-4 times per week, improving rapidly and adopting a style of flexibility and flow of movement over brute force and achievement. It is the only physical activity I ever attempted that gave me a total sense of mind-body union. I’ve written more about how this was developed here
Falling in love
I met my partner Dany in the bouldering gym. She was at the pointy end of her PhD in biology and visited the gym in between field work and writing about the intricate relationship of butterfly larvae and ants in regional Victoria. These days she teaches first year biology at Melbourne University, introducing students to the wonders of biological systems, the fragility of ecosystems and the complexity of cell mechanisms. We started going out after we discovered that other than climbing, we have more interests in common – we bumped into each other at an open-air concert of the MSO and spent the evening together under the full moon.
Dany grew up in the countryside, while I have always been a city person. Loving nature but seeing it mostly from afar and longing for it more as a luxury and through the screen rather than being in it.
With her busy schedule, Dany looked to leave the city every weekend to recharge in nature and I was humbled and grateful to be able to join her.
At the time, I was mostly interested in bouldering, as there was no equipment required and I could go to the gym by myself. Dany introduced me to climbing with a rope, sport as well as traditional climbing. At the gym first, I overcame my fear of heights and learned to trust. In the outdoors the experience was completely different and much more powerful. It was about the adventure and learning as much as it was about the climbing – how to camp with low impact, what to eat, how to keep warm, how to assess the quality and conditions of the rock and the complexities of the routes – the gym has colourful holds indicating where we should put our feet and hands – but with actual rock, there are many more variables I didn’t consider – the wild life, the wind, the cultural heritage, the added protection and safety required when we are on our own, how tired I was from hiking to the crags…
One of the most powerful things about being in nature for me is the soundscape. I am a sound engineer by trade and cherish the moments where my listening environment is rich of natural sounds that are not coming out of electric speakers.
The city is a noisy place. As distracted city dweller, climbing trips gave me the opportunity to listen and observe – I learned how to use minimal water and no chemicals when washing up, I learned that I should burry my poo to minimise its effect on the fragile ecosystem , I started to recognise bird calls and the function of various plants in the ecosystem, what’s endemic and what’s introduced. From the knowledge of a friend who regularly joined our climbing trips, an experienced geologist, I’ve learned about the unique rock formations and the history of ancient oceans. Hiking to the crags is almost as exciting as climbing and through the example of my friends I learned to pick up every piece of rubbish I found on the way and leave the site cleaner than it was when we got there.
Finally, my lesson from COVID-19, curfews and movement restrictions is that humans can adjust and adapt to change. While I am heart broken, feeling that something important and special is taken away from me – I acknowledge that what was taken from the first people of this land is far greater.
If that is what these bans are about, I would deal with the loss and fully support the restrictions.
But I am not convinced all bans are only about heritage protection. I am concerned that the process in which these decisions were made could have been more constructive, avoiding the sweeping bans while still respecting and protecting the wishes of the traditional custodians of the land.
As I climb, I learn. I wasn’t born in Australia, but I am a proud citizen despite the shame I’ve explored here
My journey in Australia started to touch on the significance of Gariwerd and Dyurrite to the indigenous people of this country but I feel like this journey has been restricted by recent climbing bans. I’m worried that next time I’d go outdoors the scarcity of the crags that are still permitted, together with the increasing popularity of climbing and the fact that Victoria has been under lockdown for so long – would cause those few remaining spots to be overwhelmed with climbers and feel more like a packed gym than the great outdoors.
As a better climber than me put it:
“…it is fantastic that after 50 years of intense climbing this cultural heritage is still there and should help demonstrate that climbing is not the threat that is being pushed. There are unique places that countless generations of people connected to in very significant ways. I acknowledge that these places are very important to traditional owners, but to deny future generations their own opportunity to connect with these places via the intimacy and intensity that climbing, and bouldering offers would be a great loss.”
I met some incredible people from all over the world who now call Australia home and want to learn about it, enjoy it and protect it. I hope this can be made possible with your help.
I would be delighted to be given the opportunity to contribute to future discussions and the process of reconciliation.
- The Hon Lily D’ambrosio MP – Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change
- The Hon Gabrielle Williams MP – Minister for Women and Aboriginal Affairs
- The Hon Ros Spence MP – Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Community Sport
- The Hon Martin Pakula MP – Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events
- The Hon Ellen Sandell MP – Member for Melbourne
- Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network
- Reconciliation Victoria, Parks Victoria