It’s likely that 2021 will see the last walkers freely ascend the summit of Mt Warning in northern New South Wales, one of the most spectacular places on the East Coast of Australia.
In October 2018 Parks Australia banned access to the summit of Ayers Rock for spurious safety and environmental reasons and contested cultural claims. The real reason had to do with Parks Australia’s Canberra-based bureaucracy being unable to cope with and adequately manage the risk of being sued by walkers injuring themselves or dying on the world-famous climb. I fought against the ban with facts, figures and logic but tragically for hundreds of thousands of Australians and international visitors myth and superstition won out against logic and reason and the ban went ahead. To add insult, Parks Australia destroyed the summit monument in breach of the 1987 World Heritage listing.
In the course of battling the bureaucrats of state and federal Parks Authorities it emerged that Ayers Rock was only one of a large number of exhilarating walks that face being banned in Australia over the next few years. Walks in the Glass House Mountains in Queensland, the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, Stirling Range in Western Australia and countless other walks in various places also face being banned for a host of reasons that do not make any sense. In the last 12 months we have seen the loss of world-class rock climbing areas in the Grampians in Victoria. In attempting to justify the ban Parks Victoria blamed rock climbers for installing bolts near Aboriginal paintings, but it turned out that the rusty anchors had been placed by previous park officials as part of a cage to protect the art work from damage. The walk to the summit of Mt Gillen, used mainly by Alice Springs locals, will be banned in March to please local Aboriginal groups despite a former traditional owner being one of the early climbing guides.
We now see similar nefarious tactics being employed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in its treatment of the Mt Warning summit trail and if reason does not win this bushwalk will probably become extinct in 2021. Mount Warning is one of the biggest ancient shield volcanoes in the southern hemisphere. It was active 23 million years ago and its eruptions covered much of northern NSW. The eroded volcanic landscape with its stunning scenery has attracted tourists since access became possible in the early 1900s. The summit is visited by over 100,000 bushwalkers annually. Many walk up to catch the sunrise – the peak is the first place to catch the sun’s rays each day in eastern Australia. The views over the caldera complex, subtropical forests and to the coast are outstanding. The walking track to the summit was established in 1909. It has not been well maintained by NSW NPWS over recent years and NPWS are now using exaggerated claims about safety, minor environmental issues and contested Aboriginal cultural claims as excuses to close the summit track. Similar to the unjustified reasons used to ban access at Ayers Rock and the Grampians, these excuses do not stack up and NPWS’s real agenda seems to be more about trying to protect its delicate bureaucrats and soft-bottomed rangers than any real concern for the public. I investigated the safety claims myself this January and found they are rubbish. NPWS claimed the summit chain is unsafe but I found that they have ripped it out in secret, pre-empting the outcome of a review scheduled for May this year. The chain could have been repaired or upgraded for a small cost funded by charging a fee for access. Experienced walkers don’t even use it as the rocks form a natural staircase. As an engineering geologist with 25 years experience in landslide risk assessment I found NPWS’s assessment of an ‘extreme risk of landslides and rock falls’ to walkers to be a gross exaggeration. The risk to individuals from rockfall is in the order of one in a billion – similar to other Grade 5 walks in the state that are currently open. The environmental problems to do with visitor’s rubbish and toileting are unfounded and manageable. Again cost recovery through a fee could be used to provide better facilities and better information. And the cultural claims are contested. In 2007 before she died Ngaraakwal elder and Mount Warning custodian Marlene Boyd stated ‘I do not oppose the public climbing of Mt Warning – how can the public experience the spiritual significance of this land if they do not climb the summit and witness creation!’ Why don’t we see her inspirational message on a sign at the base of the walk? In managing access the cultural wishes of those who oppose climbing need to be balanced against the cultural wishes of the majority who enjoy visiting mount-aintops for the awe and wonder provided by the journey and the view.
It’s increasingly clear that National Park authorities in Australia have broken their promise to look after these places and keep them open for the public. To add insult NSW NPWS have been actively ‘demarketing’ Mt Warning for a decade. The summit walk that it described in 1998 as a ‘fantastic walk’ with ‘dazzling views’ has become in 2021 ‘long, steep, difficult and dangerous’ and those stunning views aren’t even mentioned. Local tourist operators could point to NSW NPWS passively discouraging visitation by a lack of action on access, parking and commercial operations as a reason for a drop in business. Is Dennis Denuto (of The Castle) available to sue for reparations?
If these bans are allowed to progress the only access we will have to these incredible natural places will be from manicured paths within 100m of the nearest carpark or via a virtual experience on the internet. It’s time rangers got back to making these places available to enjoy rather than locking them up.
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