Storm Clouds and a Ray of Sunshine in Natimuk

Photo: Ed Dunens

In the February edition of the Argus, I reported that Barenji Gadjin and Parks Victoria would be running an information session at Natimuk on January 29 about the recent closure of Taylor’s Rock / Declaration Crag at Mt Arapiles, to discuss possible ways forward.

Since the scheduling of this meeting didn’t allow time for a report to be included in that edition of the Argus, I posted my impressions of the meeting on the VCC website.

Certainly, the organisation of that meeting left a lot to be desired. The hot, overcrowded rooms, where people struggled to hear or be heard (if they were lucky enough to get in), were not a good recipe for an amicable, productive sharing of ideas.

To be fair on the PV staff and the lone BGLC representative who were doing their best to placate the masses, there wasn’t much ‘new’ information to be shared, so many questions couldn’t be answered with anything much other than general platitudes. Consequently, people’s concerns and frustrations remained. Some felt that their concerns were not seriously being acknowledged. There was, at least, the opportunity to provide some written feedback.

In response to this unsatisfactory consultation process, Natimuk Hotel publican Bill Lovel called a town meeting, held on February 12 at the Soldier’s Memorial Hall. Again, around 100 people attended. Parks Victoria and Local and State government representatives were invited but did not attend.

By contrast, this meeting was far more positive. Initially, the anxiety of the community was still apparent, caused by the initial closure of Declaration Crag and what this might mean for future access to the Mount.

Bill noted that there were 47 houses in Natimuk owned by climbers. Again, as in the January meeting, it was reiterated that any exodus of climbers from Natimuk would have a significant effect on the local primary school, no doubt precipitating its closure. It would result in a loss of members from the local CFA brigade and SES, and the loss of climbing-related and nonclimbing related businesses. Their ranks included doctors and other medical professionals, teachers, I.T. professionals, tradespeople, administrators, artists, legal professionals, retailers, people with extensive experience in hospitality and tourism, scientists and researchers, and so on. It was obvious that the loss of such people and their skills would be economically disastrous for the town and for the region.

There was a sense expressed by some that Parks Victoria had been actively discouraging efforts by locals to establish direct lines of communication with Traditional Owners. Locals were keen to establish those connections. Wotjobaluk man and Natimuk resident Laurie Norman attended. He alluded to the critical place that connection to country played in Aboriginal people’s sense of identity. Cultural heritage was incredibly precious and had to be protected. He said Traditional Owners did not want to take away the rights of other users of the mountain. His presence and his willingness to stand up and share his thoughts and hopes was much appreciated and warmly

The opinion was voiced, and strongly endorsed by those attending the meeting, that locals also wanted to ensure protection and celebration of the cultural heritage of the Mount and its surroundings.

All in all, the tenor of the meeting was positive, despite some initial, residual consternation about the way in which the previous meeting on January 29 was run, the continued uncertainty of what future management of the Arapiles-Tooan State Park might look like, and what this could mean for the local community. There was definitely a sense of common purpose among the locals present, including the lone Wotjobaluk attendee. Mr Norman’s presence and willingness to stand up and speak was a symbol of hope for many.

Attendees agreed to form a group to advocate for appropriate approaches to the management of the Park, which would provide robust protection of both cultural heritage and the environment, and would continue to embrace low-impact recreational pursuits, including climbing, at the Mount and its surrounds.

Kevin Lindorff