In reply to SBS NITV’s story about Thompson’s Point climbing

A story featuring Nowra’s Thompson’s Point cliffs aired during the week on SBS NITV’s The Point titled – Sacred Sites and Cultural Heritage (story starts at 28 minutes).  A follow up petition was launched asking for all climbing to be banned at this area. This statement aims to correct factual errors in the SBS NITV story and petition and inform the wider community about what work is being done to maintain respectful access to this climbing area.

We acknowledge that the land we climb on is Aboriginal country, and that areas of stark geological relief are often places of great spiritual importance, and there is the potential for misunderstanding or conflict if these aspects are not addressed proactively by climbers with respectful enquiry. ACANSW had been working with land managers and Aboriginal people in the Nowra region prior to this story airing.

Six weeks prior to this story being published we were informed by climbers at Thompson’s Point that SBS NITV had been filming a story there. These climbers were alarmed at the ambush style interviews and the questions being asked of them without context. We approached SBS NITV immediately as we felt it likely from the nature of questioning that climbers were being unwillingly co-opted into a trope of ignorant climbers damaging Aboriginal culture and the environment. We were concerned that SBS NITV would not provide fair and balanced reporting. We provided information to counteract this image. This information has been totally ignored. We shall be making a formal complaint to the SBS ombudsman, and to the media regulatory body, ACMA. 

Summary of events leading to recent route closures at Thompson’s Point

  • The first climbing routes were recorded at Thompson’s Point in 1989 and it quickly became one of the most popular climbing areas in Australia. The cliffline is crown land and managed by Shoalhaven City Council and is zoned “Public Recreation”. Several commercial tourism ventures utilize the site for abseiling and rock climbing and are promoted by Shoalhaven Council.
  • In early 2015 rangers informed a couple of climbers at Thompson’s Point that they may have found Aboriginal drawings on Mini Wall (underneath the route Cowboy Junkies). This was communicated by the climbers to the wider climbing community who took action by installing signage at the wall and placing notes on climbing forums about avoiding this area. A subsequent official archaeological survey was done of Thompson’s Point by the land manager, Shoalhaven City Council in late 2015. The report and location of findings were not released to the general public. Although no definitive notice was given about Mini Wall the climbing community continued to stay off this area despite no official signage being installed by Council.
  • The Nowra Climbing guidebook is published in 2016 and mentions that Mini Wall is “closed to climbing in respect of the aboriginal heritage in the area”. Climbers continue to stay away from this area.
  • In 2019 climbers at Thompson’s Point were told by Aboriginal people of a potential second art site at the Pocketed Wall. This site and Mini Wall were confirmed by Shoalhaven City Council on a walk around with ACANSW representatives soon after. Upon hearing this information the routes on Pocketed Wall were immediately signposted by the climbing community as closed. All climbing routes near the two art sites have since been removed. It should be noted that the art is quite faded at both sites, and is not what was shown in the SBS story (see below).
  • In 2020 a local Jerringa Elder Graham Cullen Senior and Jerringa Spokesman Graham Cullen Junior  walked through Thompsons’ Point with representatives of ACANSW to survey the routes that had been closed and to ensure that cultural heritage is being preserved. The current situation of limited route closures at Mini Wall and Pocketed Wall was approved by Graham Senior, who has since confirmed that Senior Elder of the Jerringa people Gordon Wellington has also approved climbers efforts to protect the cultural heritage that has been discovered on these two sections of the Thompson’s Point cliff. This approval by Elders is subject to interpretation by other individuals in the local Aboriginal community.
  • Shoalhaven City Council representatives have also walked through Thompson’s Point with ACANSW representatives in 2020 and have approved the current level of route closures and communication with the wider climbing community.
  • Shoalhaven City Council has agreed to install signage at the entrance of Thompson’s Point acknowledging its significance to Aboriginal people and it’s value to climbers. This signage will be a collaboration between Shoalhaven City Council, Nowra Aboriginal Land Council and the Australian Climbing Association.
  • Consultation with the local Aboriginal community is continuing towards a mutually beneficial future for the area.
  • Climbers demonstrate stewardship for the cliff environment: Thompson’s Point was for many years used by non climbers as a dumping ground for rubbish. Climbers have on several occasions removed tonnes of dumped waste, including car bodies. Throughout NSW, regional climbing coalitions have embarked on Crag Care activities over the past 2 years, building on the long-standing Blue Mountains Crag Care. Climbers have worked with land managers at The Grotto, on the northern side of the Shoalhaven River, and at Thompson’s Point to remove non climber waste, and conduct bush regeneration. See Thompson’s Point Crag Care on the Shoalhaven Council bushcare website or Nowra Crag Care on Facebook for details of future events. 
Crag Care helps to clean up Nowra bushland

Specific details of the story published by SBS NITV’s The Point – Sacred Sites and Cultural Heritage

  • ACANSW contacted SBS NITV six weeks before this story went to air to raise concerns about the divisive angle they were taking by “confronting” climbers at the crag. We informed them of the details listed above, and on work that the climbing community was doing to resolve access issues. This information was ignored by SBS NITV for a narrative of conflict without the hope of resolution.
  • Misleading close up imagery of rock-art hand prints as shown in the SBS NITV story was not filmed at Thompson’s Point. The art shown in the story is not near any climbing site at Nowra. The two recognized Aboriginal rock art sites at Thompson’s Point are difficult to see with the naked eye due to age and were not shown in the story.
  • Several misleading edits in the story make it appear that bolts are still in the immediate proximity of art areas and that climbers are disregarding protections in place – this is not the case. Climbers have avoided the two known art sites since they were first made aware of them in 2019.
  • Michael Robinson, who is filmed confronting climbers about climbing on sacred ground does not indicate which Aboriginal group he speaks on behalf of. Other local Aboriginal people were asked to be part of the SBS NITV story but declined. In our discussions with several local Aboriginal Elders we were told climbers are understood by their community to be people who are connected to nature and keen to protect cultural heritage.
  • The advice we obtained from two local Elders is that the remaining routes on the Pocketed Wall are not likely to damage the cultural value of that site.
  • George and Tom Walker Brown, the two Elders featured in the SBS NITV story will be contacted by ACANSW for discussion about further measures that can be taken to improve the protection of these areas.
  • With regard to climbing names, the historical route names from 30 years ago were taken out of context in this story, perhaps to make climbers seem like a disrespectful user group. None of the three named routes mentioned in the SBS story are located at Thompson’s Point and all three had been renamed prior to this story being shot. Yes, this issue should have been addressed more actively by climbers. Please read Rob LeBreton’s article on the issue for greater clarity on the history of the area.
  • Recording more Aboriginal cliff names as suggested in the story would be a positive change for the future of the area to acknowledge cultural values and shared appreciation of the natural beauty of these cliffs. This is being followed up by ACANSW. Climbers have historically been concerned they may be accused of cultural misappropriation, however discussions over the past 2 years with Aboriginal people have suggested that this would be well received.
  • The SBS NITV story also addressed climbing issues in Victoria and Queensland. We are disappointed to see that Park Victoria’s propaganda about climbers bolting in art has been repeated as fact. No climbing safety bolts have ever been placed in rock art.
  • In an interview with Jamie Lowe (ex Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation CEO and now head of the National Native Title Council),  he incorrectly asserts that climbers have put “steel rods through rock art” in Gariwerd/Grampians. This is factually incorrect. The only recorded bolt placed in rock art was placed by the land manager Parks Victoria whilst in the process of installing a protective metal cage. This claim of climbers damaging art has been refuted more than a year ago in this Save Grampians Climbing article.

In conclusion ACANSW believe the story aired on SBS NITV is biased, unbalanced and prejudiced. Climbers as a whole are well educated around environmental issues, climber impacts, and are an engaged and responsible user group of the outdoors. Climbers support further engagement with Aboriginal groups, and we recognise, that along with the rest of the country, there are areas for improvement in this regard. Climbers believe that SBS NITV have perpetuated a false narrative, which contradicts the reality: that climbers do respect Aboriginal rights and heritage, and care deeply about the environment, an integral part of our recreation. This incorrect reporting by SBS NITV is wilfully divisive.

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