Many climbers will be aware by now of recent media stories implying that rock climbers are disrespectful of Aboriginal cultural heritage, and the environment. Climbers are struggling to comprehend how this perception has come about.
Climbers have generally considered themselves good stewards of the environment, and supportive of Aboriginal rights and causes. The past few years have seen passionate debate, significant introspection and worsening media. It is clearly time to reflect on this disparity in perception and look at what climbers can do to move forward.
Whilst the recent SBS stories have been edited to create a narrative that is inflammatory, unbalanced, inaccurate and divisive, the issue remains that climbing has upset some Aboriginal people, and that climbers need to respond to this issue.
More balanced reporting would have represented that climbers already have started down the path to improve communication with Aboriginal groups; improve education to foster greater understanding of Aboriginal connection to country; and improve awareness and understanding regarding reconciliation. Climbers do recognise that there are areas where climbing is inappropriate.
Balanced reporting would also have represented the substantial stewardship efforts of climbers to preserve and improve the cliff environment through bush regeneration, track work and clearance of illegal dumping.
Balanced reporting would also have represented that climbers come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and acknowledged that there are Aboriginal people who also enjoy rock climbing. ‘Climbers’ are a cross section of society: teachers, nurses, doctors, mechanics, outdoor educators, rangers, landscapers, youth workers and so on, who participate in a recreation that requires focus, determination, calmness, self control, mastery, trust and resilience as much as agility, strength and coordination. Habitual participants don’t climb for an adrenaline rush, an ego boost, or to get “jacked up” as claimed in one story. Climbers clearly need to demystify climbing.
With regards to Thompson’s Point ( the main focus of these stories in NSW):
• Climbing is a lawful activity at Thompson’s Point.
• To protect Aboriginal Cultural Heritage climbing is closed at Mini Wall and the right side of Pocketed wall. This has been the case for several years. Avoiding other routes in proximity to these areas is recommended. The art at both these sites is difficult to see.
• If approached by someone identifying as an Aboriginal telling you to leave, remain calm and introduce yourself. Find out who the person is. Ask them who they represent and where they live. Engage in respectful dialogue. Take notes of what is said in the encounter so if allegations are raised about climbers (as in a circulating petition seeking to ban climbers from Thompson’s Point) they can be refuted. Let ACANSW know about this encounter. Appreciate that a couple of centuries of oppression and social dislocation has led to many aspects of culture and history being forgotten.
• ACANSW and the Illawarra Climbing Coalition have written to the Shoalhaven City Council, the land managers, and its Aboriginal Advisory Council requesting that we work collaboratively with the local community to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.
What can you do to help the situation?
• Do not be ashamed of being a rock climber. Take this as an opportunity to re-examine your belief system, what reconciliation means and how you can educate yourself about Aboriginal matters. Recognise that not every rock is appropriate for climbing.
• Do not get angry with people. Try and understand why people, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal, are so willing to believe falsehoods presented in media stories. Stop and think before you engage in social media. Let’s aim to build bridges not walls.
• Speak to your non-climbing friends about this disinformation. If they are so inclined, take them out climbing.
• Arrange an Aboriginal cultural heritage tour with a group of climbers and participate with an open mind. ACANSW and the Sydney Rockies have been doing this regularly. Other opportunities are being lined up in regional NSW.
• Volunteer to help youth mentoring schemes with climbing.
• Look at joining crag care events in your local region. They exist in Nowra, Sydney, Blue mountains, Newcastle and Central Coast.
• Encourage your climbing groups to forge links with Aboriginal groups. Be understanding if you find it difficult to engage at first. Aboriginal corporations will be busy prioritising education, health and housing.
• Examine a climber code of conduct and reflect about how well you meet these ideals.
Minimal impact basics
• Don’t leave quickdraws on routes overnight.
• Leave the music, noise and swearing at home
• Avoid or remove tick marks
• Minimise chalk use
• Consider toileting strategies and carry an emergency bag system
Dealing with the media
If approached by a journalist outside of a formally arranged scenario (i.e. you are ambushed at the crag):
Be polite, introduce yourself, find out who they are and the purpose of the interaction. Inform them about the existence of ACANSW and suggest they get in contact. Do not engage by providing comment, and make it clear you do not give permission to be interviewed. Whilst filming people in public spaces is not illegal, journalists should abide by a code of practice. Point out that ambush journalism in a rock climbing setting has serious safety implications to climbers and the film crew. Be prepared to record this encounter yourself with your phone. Do not be sucked in by the tactic of “if you don’t participate we will find someone else who will not represent climbers as well as you might”. Let ACANSW know if you are ambushed by a journalist so we have a heads up on any media attention.
The issues that rock climbers find themselves involved with are centuries in the making, and represent a microcosm of societal problems. All Australians need to work through these issues so a brighter future is shared by everyone.
The current situation may leave you feeling stressed, angry, depressed, confused and conflicted. Climbing, the medium by which many of us relax and find great pleasure in the outdoors seems under attack. Be thankful that we have the leisure time and means to participate in this wonderful recreation in Australia. If these emotions threaten to overwhelm you, seek help.