Rock Climbing in Central Australia
I wrote this in 2002 and the article was eventually published in Rock Magazine in 2006. It’s a little out of date now, but I thought I’d post it for the archives (-:
Some years ago, I convinced my Warlpiri friends to do their first climb at Ngarliyikirlangu in the Tanami Desert, north-west of Alice Springs. Darby Jampijinpa told me the Jukurrpa story about the big fight between the Emu and the Bush Turkey. ‘Those two were fighting over yakajirri (Bush Raisins)’, he said. We climbed on those yakajirris, run-out on the big, orange boulders. I couldn’t help thinking about how little Australian climbers know of the history of the places in which they climb and the people who were there before them. I remembered my early days climbing at Cathedral Ranges, Mt Arapiles and the Grampians—how much richer those experiences would have been had I known the stories about those places and the people connected to them. Being in Arrernte country, Central Australia also provides the opportunity to explore some of Australia’s indigenous history. Several guides are available in Alice Springs.
Central Australia’s recorded climbing history began around 1968 close to Alice Springs, with Gordon and Pam Oates establishing some of the first climbs. Keith Lockwood explored the right wall of Standley Chasm before returning four years later in 1972 with Andrew Thomson to make their first infamous attempt to climb Ngaltawati (16), the ‘kangaroo tail’ on Uluru (see Mountain, February 1974). They climbed about halfway before rangers ordered them down. In 1973, Lockwood and Thomson returned to Uluru and secretly completed the (largely unprotected) 410 metre route in ten pitches early one morning. Lockwood is quick to point out that Aboriginal access issues were not known to climbers in those days.
John and Helen Griffiths moved to Alice Springs in 1972 and became the true pioneers of Central Australian climbing although most of their activity focused on the cliffs close to Alice. In 1973 they produced a surprisingly extensive 100-page guide to climbs in the Northern Territory. It is an interesting read, and a reminder that climbing standards have improved. The climbs in this guide are rarely repeated today.
After the production of the Griffiths’s guide, activity in the region went largely unrecorded and unchecked for the next 20 years. Old pitons, fixed gear and misplaced bolts on cliffs close to Alice Springs suggest that there was some climbing activity in this period and several legendary stories persist. One concerns two English climbers who left their rope behind after climbing the soft sandstone of Chambers Pillar in the 1970s. Apparently, a ranger attempted to retrieve the rope by shooting at the fixed anchor! When this didn’t work, the resourceful ranger attached the rope to his car and attempted to pull it off the cliff. As he glanced back over his shoulder the clouds were moving in a way that made it look as though the Pillar was falling over. As he accelerated, his thoughts turned to how he was going to explain this to his boss!
Simon Mentz made several visits to Central Australia in the early 1990s and met with a small group of climbers including Roark Muhlen-Schulte. Muhlen-Schulte established some of the better routes at the more accessible cliffs around Alice Springs, often dragging terrified beginners up behind him. In 1992, he and Mentz spent several days bolting 15 fixed hangers to a limestone cliff in the vicinity of Ormiston Gorge. After several days, they eventually redpointed Tjilka (26, 30 metres) which became the hardest climb in the NT at the time. However, it was later discovered that the climb is in the vicinity of a registered sacred site and is off limits to climbers. A year later, Muhlen-Schulte and Mentz explored the West Macdonnell Ranges further and onsighted Pre-nuptial Adventures (23, 72 metres) at Serpentine Gorge, a climb of which Mentz is most proud, even if it has one of the worst names of any of his climbs.
In 1993, the ‘Yerbas’ (from Yerba maté, a South American drink of the Guarani Indians, that is shared with friends while discussing the day’s activities), a small group of committed climbers developed several new areas and put up many new routes. The local cliffs were also frequented by some US climbers from Pine Gap and by members of the NT Emergency Service. In 1995–1996, the Yerba’s Damian Auton, Libby Evans and Kieran Culhane produced six editions of Crank It!, a local climbing magazine. These infamous mags, had stories such as ‘Jeff Kennett sells Arapiles to the Japanese’ and were loved by all who read them. Auton also designed and oversaw the installation of the indoor climbing wall at the YMCA.
It was during this time that the Central Australian climbing community played host to a delegation from the south in search of great things. Malcolm Matheson, Glenn Tempest, Simon Mentz, Michael Hampton, Chris Peisker and Ronnie Sammut were among the adventurers (see article in Rock no 44). According to Mentz, they didn’t climb anything of note—a few new routes here and there, a direct start or two. Mt Conner (east of Uluru) was a disappointment, yet several other areas showed potential. At the end of 1996, Crank It!’s editors left Alice Springs and climbing activity in the region slowed down for a few years, although Goshen Watts reportedly made an annual visit to work on Non Stop Action Groove (28, 45 metres), a sustained bolted line at Benstead Creek that he eventually climbed in 2001 and officially became the hardest climb in Central Australia.
In 1998, a new group of climbers emerged including Mark Rewi, Sam Latz, Jock Morse and Dan Ewald. Latz was the most active in the region but Rewi developed many of the harder routes on his regular visits to the NT. In 2000 the energetic Krish Seewraj arrived in Alice Springs and joined with local climbers to develop new routes. In 2002 Seewraj, Rewi, Pat Spiers and Jason Geres actively established many new routes with some fine lines up to grade 25. Garn Coopers was also active, introducing many beginners to climbing and developing some worthwhile routes in the more isolated areas.
As new areas were established, access issues became a real concern and local climbers discussed forming a club although this never eventuated. There was also some debate over the production of a guidebook: some climbers wanted to resolve the access issues first, while others felt that an official climbing guide might help to contribute positively to the access debate. Seewraj eventually produced the guide in 2003 on CD-ROM (available locally), before self-publishing the hard copy Rock Climbing in Central Australia in March 2005.
Most established climbs are on local heavitree quartzite and are within National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) administered land. If you are planning an extensive tour, you will need a full rack (including bolt plates) and some long slings (or a spare rope) for top-roping. Bouldering can be found almost anywhere in the region. Particular sensitivity and care needs to be taken with regard to access. Take plenty of water.
Access to these cliffs is not guaranteed and reference to them here is based upon the experiences of climbers. Consult local climbers and land managers before you climb. Treat all bolts with suspicion, and take care using slimline karabiners. Climbing in Central Australia is often remote and dangerous, and should not be undertaken lightly.
Stegar Road (GR LP8874)
A good selection of harder traditional and sport routes on short, steep walls of quality rock close to town on Crown land. There are 76 climbs here, ranging from grade 8 to 25 in difficulty. The only drawback is that the cliffs face north—leave early to avoid the heat.
First recorded climbs 1972. Climbing is prohibited in the vicinity of the gap, which is sacred to local Arrernte. Access to the main climbing area, on the southern cliffs west of the gap, is at present under negotiation.
The Unknown (GR MP1879)
Natural and bolt-protected climbing in a great location with a few worthwhile routes, though the rock is quite loose in places. To climb here, permission is required from the manager of Garden Station ( 8956 9764). There are 25 climbs from grade 15 to 24.
A beautiful gorge worth visiting, with camping available. Bolt placements aren’t allowed in the park. There are 44 climbs from grade 9 to 22; consult rangers before climbing.
Unusual limestone formation, worth visiting for Non Stop Action Groove (28, 45 metres) on the right-hand arch. Good bouldering can also be found in the area. Anyone seriously interested should contact Garden Station (making no reference to motor bikes) after consulting with local climbers.
Sphinx Rocks (Ross River)
This short limestone cliff has single-pitch routes with potential for more naturally protected or top-roped first ascents on clean rock. (The land manager has prohibited the placement of bolts or other fixed gear.) There are 17 climbs from grade 12 to 23. In the past, permission to climb was obtained from the Ross River Homestead manager. At the time of writing, the homestead was closed, but is expected to reopen in October 2005. When open, camping is available and it is a good base to explore other areas.
Short top-roping cliffs, overrated though close to town. Some good beginners’ routes and the scene of some strange bolting practices. This area has 15 climbs, from grade 11 to 26.
Only two climbs of interest here (the obvious cracks near the road facing west) but some bouldering nearby.
Only a few climbs of interest here although it is worth visiting for the poorly protected ‘Pre-nuptial Adventures’ (23, 72 metres), in the overhanging western wall of the gorge.
Possibly the best concentration of good climbing in Central Australia, with natural and bolted lines. The 20 metre cliff is well protected from the sun and overlooks the (usually dry) Ormiston River. There are 43 climbs from grade 8 to 24, with some good climbing in the 18–22 range. In other areas of the park climbing is not permitted.
Please contact the rangers before climbing to inform them of your intentions (08) 8956 7799. Camping is permitted (for a fee) at Ormiston Gorge. Bush camping is also available a few kilometres west of the Glen Helen turn-off; take a dirt track north and follow the (usually dry) riverbed.
Some quality traditional lines make this an area of interest. Other redeeming features are a great swimming-hole and its close location to the only pub for 100 kilometres! Most climbs are on the eastern cliffs, with the best routes on the south-eastern side of the waterhole. Climbing is discouraged on the north-facing cliffs and prohibited on the Organ Pipes. The area is managed by the rangers at Ormiston Gorge. There are 67 climbs from grade 8 to 24, with a good number of high-quality routes in the 15–23 range.
Accommodation, fuel and supplies can usually be obtained at Glen Helen. Glen Helen and the cliffs that surround it are potentially sacred sites, so it may be wise to consult climbers in Alice on their status.
Mt Conner (Aputala)
The ‘other’ cliff east of Uluru. Most who have visited have been disappointed. An 80 metre cliffline with potential for more seriously loose climbs from grade 15 to 20. Permission to climb and camp must be negotiated through Curtin Springs road-house on Lasseter Highway and a key obtained for the gate.
Red Rocks (Watarrka, Kings Canyon)
Red Rocks was explored by climbers in 1996 and has a few routes of interest, with some potential for new routes. Bolting is not permitted. There are six climbs from grade 15 to 23. While climbing is not permitted in the main gorge, it may be possible to climb in other areas away from tourists and sacred sites. Contact the ranger for further details.
These are just some of the areas where climbing activity has been recorded. Other areas include Ellery Creek, Serpentine Chalet, Boggy Hole, Davenport Ranges, Wallaby Creek, Hugh River and Running Waters.
Alice Springs 1:250 000 SF 53-14
Hermannsburg 1:250 000 SF 53-13
Rock Climbing in Central Australia, Krish Seewraj (2005).
Guide to Rock Climbs in the Northern Territory, John and Helen Griffiths (1973, out of print).
Best time to visit
If you’re from ‘down south’, winter might be the best time to avoid the heat. At other times, be aware of the threat of heat exhaustion.
A word of warning: do not plan your trip to Central Australia dreaming of putting up a new route on Uluru (Ayers Rock) or Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). Most climbers would love to climb these beautiful rocks (and some have in the past) but not only is climbing these sacred sites considered offensive to the local Pitjantjatjarra, there is a real risk of facing fines from park rangers and death from falling. Over the years, several climbers have died attempting solo routes on Uluru. If climbing is to survive and grow in Central Australia, climbers must show particular sensitivity to Aboriginal land ownership. If unsure, don’t climb there. In Central Australia, there are places to which you cannot go—your decision to respect Aboriginal law helps keep climbing areas open.
The recent climbing guide will provide more than enough information on climbing areas and their particular access issues for most visitors to Central Australia. However, there is potential for many new routes and climbing areas for those who are willing to take the necessary precautions. Please respect local climbing ethics by not placing bolts and taking a minimal-impact approach. The following information is a guide to access issues in this region: details may have changed by the time you read this so consult local climbers and/or land managers before visiting any cliff in Central Australia.
A visit to ‘Maps NT’ in Alice Springs will provide you with the necessary land tenure maps to determine if the cliff you are interested in is situated on private or public land. A visit to the local climbing shop ‘Lone Dingo’ should bring you up to date on local issues. Outside of Alice Springs, potential climbing areas generally fall into one of the following areas: Aboriginal, Pastoral, or NPWS administered land. Some local cliffs are located on Crown land.
Climbing on Aboriginal land
Aboriginal land in Central Australia is held collectively by Aboriginal Owners (AOs or Traditional Owners) as freehold title under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976. AOs have similar rights over this land as those of private landowners in other areas of Australia. Unfortunately, many of the cliffs climbers are attracted to, including overhanging shelters, are important sacred sites and strictly off-limits. Climbers need to be aware of cultural differences and respectful of Aboriginal attitudes towards land.
Access to Aboriginal land in Central Australia is administered by the Central Land Council (CLC) in consultation with AOs. Entry to Aboriginal land, including for climbing or bushwalking, requires a written permit issued by the CLC on behalf of AOs.
It is an offence under NT law to enter a sacred site without the approval of AOs or custodians of the site or, alternatively, the permission of the AAPA. It is also an offence under Aboriginal customary law for the uninitiated to enter certain sites. Those wanting more information about Aboriginal-owned land in Central Australia, permit applications, or checking the AAPA register can visit the CLC Web site at www.clc.org.au.
Climbing on pastoral land
Unlike Aboriginal land, pastoral land is generally not freehold but leasehold: while pastoralists do not have absolute ownership, they have the ability to exclude you from their land. Access can often be negotiated by contacting the pastoralist directly. Bolting is generally frowned upon and, as in other areas of Australia, some pastoralists are concerned about liability issues.
Climbing on NPWS land
At present there is no climbing policy in place. It has been suggested in the past that climbers contact the ranger in charge of the park before climbing any cliffs. Central Australia depends upon tourism and there is some concern about protecting the fragile environment. Note that climbing (other than the controversial pedestrian route on Uluru and that is now strongly discouraged) is not permitted in Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park and is considered offensive to the local Pitjantjatjarra.
Does it all sound too difficult? Is it worth it? Rather than detracting from the climbing experience, the particular issues raised by climbing in Central Australia force us to re-evaluate the reasons why we climb and may require us to take a different, more cautious approach. While Central Australia may not have the best climbing in Australia, it is one of the most interesting and beautiful places in which to climb. Don’t let the challenge of access issues deter you—the sheer amount of rock should be enough to get you interested.