A Parks Victoria project to remove climbing bolts from Millennium Cave in the Grampians has been halted at the eleventh hour.
Without getting too much into the whys and wherefores of the project, this article seeks to explore practical issues and provide background commentary for those interested in this story and who may have never visited these caves.
If you haven’t been to Millennium Caves, please take a look at the photos and scroll down to read more about this latest episode in the Grampians climbing access story. These caves have recently been placed off-limits to everyone. If you want to “see” this amazing place, details can be found below, along with some inspiring photographs.
Millennium Caves: The Crag Online Guide
Rock climbing at Millennium Caves became the subject of restrictions in 2019. It was one of 8 “focus sites” singled out to protect cultural heritage. A small faded emu foot, painted in ochre has been well known to climbers for 25 years. The painting has been recorded in climbing guidebooks and has been carefully protected by climbers. We are not sure who first found it. The painting is difficult to spot, among the multi coloured rock surfaces. Adventurous bushwalkers quietly travel these areas along with other curious types such as birdwatchers, botanists, photographers and archaeologists.
Other, more subtle artifacts are rumoured to exist but nothing has been revealed to the public regarding this chapter of human history. Cliffs elsewhere in the Grampians have been hit with climbing bans to protect faded art or pre-colonial rock scars. Some of this art is invisible without image enhancement. Visible or not, this art must be somehow protected. Centuries of bushfires have significantly affected the landscape and the rock surfaces. A major bushfire will destroy any artwork at the cliff base, with the lower rocks being smoke damaged, burned or even exfoliated.
Parks Victoria staff attempted to remove bolts from Millennium Cave in 2019, using a ladder and basic tools. This initiative was eventually aborted, leaving behind a few messy and dangerous bolts, still in the rock. These world class rock climbs are documented in tens of thousands of printed guide books.
There is no permanent signage to clarify the latest climbing status. Travelling climbers may not be aware of local restrictions. The park manager causing damage to safety infrastructure in this way could be considered reckless. Thankfully, no one has been hurt, to our knowledge.
In March 2023, Parks Victoria issued an Expression of Interest (EOI) document to Licensed Tour Operators (climbing guiding companies), seeking to employ climbers to remove climbing bolts from the lower Millennium Cave, paint over any chalk stains and fill unnatural holes with coloured silicone. This EOI was leaked to the climbing community via the company owners.
Save Grampians Climbing: PV Cuts Corners to Chop Bolts (Dodgy Tour Operator Proposal Revealed)
The EOI scope of work described bolt removal activity at only one of the four Millennium Caves that climbers have frequented in this immediate vicinity. We are unsure why only one of the four caves was singled out for these works. Access difficulty on foot is certainly a factor for 21st century city dwellers.
Community reaction to the EOI was mixed. The most mystifying issue was Parks Victoria’s apparent ignorance of the industrial high access industry. Qualified and highly paid rope access professionals are routinely employed to clean windows on tall buildings such as the Parks Victoria Bourke Street office, yet this complex, delicate and dangerous cave project was deemed to be within the remit of tourism companies and climbing instructors.
Of course, any head contractor would have the option to appoint suitably qualified subcontractors, deemed to be capable of the works. We have no confirmation of any high access subcontractor involvement or supervision to reassure the community over safety and environmental concerns.
Indeed many climbers are aware that Parks Victoria previously employed an Archaeologist and an Art Conservator in 2019 to supervise the repair of bolt holes that the parks service had made, years ago in a sensitive location.
We are unaware of the details of the tender process, however it recently became apparent that one of these tour operators had actually taken on this industrial high access project and was preparing to begin the bolt removal works on 22 May 2023, as originally planned in the EOI.
News of the impending workplace commencement became known to the wider climbing community and discussions ensued in person and on social media. No hard information was made available at this point.
The contractor then issued a statement on his blog, going some way to explaining his contract and his intent to proceed, but not his methodology.
Community debate continued, but for some reason, the project was abruptly cancelled, postponed or mothballed, four days before it was due to start on site.
Parks Victoria has issued no new information since their original EOI request in March and we have no idea why the bolt removal scheme was halted.
In response to a fact checking request for this article, the contractor declined to comment. We have received no response to our technical or safety queries. No information was offered to reassure concerned climbers over safety or environmental damage. Experienced climbers and high access professionals still cannot perceive how these bolts can be safely removed using industrial workplace methods, without significant damage to the cave, including further drilling into the rock.
Parks Victoria responded to our written correspondence with their customary brevity.
It is possible that the project plan may have failed to achieve a Safe Work Method Statement during the planning stage. In hindsight, it may be fortunate that the climbing community stepped in to ask questions. The work method statement may be a problem or there could be other obstacles such as budget constraints, insurance difficulties or a gathering perception of a lack of community engagement
We would also expect further compliance challenges ahead for Parks Victoria, should they wish to proceed. Where is the Environmental Impact Statement? Will environmental offsets be used as a management tool, as was attempted for the construction of the 160km Grampians Peaks Trail through the same remote country?
Industry insiders have raised a likely need for greater focus on traditional worksite access methods such as scaffolding and even the use of helicopters to fly in materials. Although new rock drilling to stabilise the work platforms would be essential for any safe access method. The budget could escalate into hundreds of thousands of dollars for the contractor’s works alone. The program in this case would extend far beyond the estimated 2 weeks. Environmental damage would scale up accordingly.
Cost for land council attendance would, in all likelihood, surpass the dollar total for the engineering side of the works. Representatives from each of the three surrounding land councils would expect to attend at Parks Victoria expense.
Qualified experts in the high access field have raised concerns that any attempt to remove the cave bolts in any workplace-compliant manner, may cause significant damage to the cave walls, the cave ceiling, the cave floor and the wider local environment.
Our fact check inquiry was also sent to a handful of climbers who, from their public statements, appeared to have inside knowledge of the project. None of these individuals was willing to go on the record or confirm any involvement.
The proposed work methodology remains a mystery and a cause for concern among those who know and love this place. It would be interesting to review an approved safe work document if and when it becomes public knowledge. A project of this nature has never been done before, to our knowledge.
It is worth noting that very few climbers have the requisite skills to carry out bolting works at these steep angles. Climbers have a range of recreational climbing techniques available to them that would not be compliant with the more stringent requirements of workplace safety standards.
The future of the Parks Victoria bolt removal concept remains unknown as the first cave tier has not, as yet, become a work site. It is possible that this proposal will be revisited in the new financial year, before the Parks Victoria budget is fully committed to more traditional activities. Although spending up to half a million dollars on just one of four caves, may not present acceptable value to the Parks Victoria CEO.
After four years of closure, there are rumours around the archaeological significance of the cave. The botanists, birdwatchers and everyone else must give up their curiosity and care, for the sake of secretive archaeology.
New temporary signs were installed at the cave yesterday, including this one:
The meaning of this sign will be lost on most visitors. Certainly without the context of the other 184 pages. Thankfully there is a QR code link on another sign but sadly there is no mobile coverage in the region.
The absurdity of this “exclude everyone from a national park” legal framework has been highlighted previously by ACAV in this article: ACAV Calls For Withdrawal of “All of Park” Access Bans
Nobody knows the origin of the individual who mixed up an ochre paste and painted an image of an emu foot in a remote cave all those years ago. The actions of this man, woman or child have certainly echoed down the ages, causing us to reflect on the lessons of history.
Rock climbing is successfully managed internationally, using collaborative management methods, as described within the Victorian Climbing Management Guidelines.
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