Editors' Introduction: Back when I inherited the responsibility for producing the club's anniversary magazine, Andy Clarke was straight out of the gates with his submission, giving me plenty of time to cut my editorial teeth. This was only good news, as alongside pictures, the story ran quite considerably over the four page limit I had for print. I promised Andy that after hacksawing off chunks for print, that I would release the unabridged version on the club website sometime thereafter. So for all members, new and old, please enjoy the story of Andy's trip to the Arapiles and the Grampians (Mar-Apr 2019) as it was meant to be told!
Like all the best ideas, it started in the pub.
It's a little known fact that Einstein first scribbled down E=mc2 on the back of a beermat, to make sure he could remember it the morning after.
One evening in Spring 2017, a group of us were drinking in the Bar Fatolitis on Massouri's main street after a day hot rocking in Kalymnos. I was waxing lyrical about how a visit to the
Australian trad climbing paradise of Arapiles was still number one on my climbing bucket list.
Johnny and Sandra were keen. Chris and Sharon were interested. Knowing better than to leave it till everyone was sober, I started talking dates.
Two years and a twenty-three hour flight later, Johnny, Sandra and I emerged blinking
into the fierce sunlight of a Melbourne autumn heatwave. Back home in the Peak it was
snowing. We were staying for a night in the trendy district of St Kilda. I knew it was popular with backpackers so I'd been taken aback by how expensive all the hotels were for a Friday night. But the reason announced itself loudly and clearly from within deafening earshot of our hotel. The howl of powerful engines filled the air. It was Melbourne Grand Prix weekend, the start of the F1 season, and we had a free view of Friday practice from our hotel balcony.
That night we met up with Phil, who'd been visiting in Perth, and Chris and Sharon
who'd been staying in Melbourne with an old friend, Matt. He'd be joining us for the weekends and had generously loaned us a fantastic amount of cooking kit, so Sharon could work her campsite cordon bleu magic. We had done a fair bit of expedition planning back in the UK, wrestling with some complex logistical issues - such as how we would keep our beer, wine and barbie burgers cold. Matt's large Eski camping icebox meant we would be eating and drinking in style.
Next day we all made the four hour drive across southern Victoria to Arapiles. The
Mount, as the locals refer to it, is a spectacular island of quartzite that suddenly rears up in the middle of the flat Wimmera Plain, after mile upon mile of farmland. At its centre are the imposing Bard Buttress and Tiger Wall, which give many magnificent three, four and five pitch outings. From this huge citadel long and complex wings stretch out on each side. If you've seen Uluru (Ayers Rock) you'll have some idea of how it bursts from the landscape. But unlike Uluru, where even trekking up to the summit is now banned, Arapiles has trad climbing routes all over its beautiful orange rock. The selected guide contains around 1200 climbs, out of a total of over 2,000 – and pretty much all of them are easily accessible from the main campsites.
We were prepared to be disappointed, turning up on a Saturday morning. We thought
we'd have to take whatever scrappy pitches were left, then move our tents together once the
weekend crowds had gone. We needn't have worried. The main site in the Centenary
Campground – known by generations of climbers as The Pines - is naturally spacious, with no
set pitches. It's carpeted with sunworn grass but you can always find some shade in the clusters of large pines from which it gets its name. We soon had our base camp set up in a prime spot. The campsite is fairly basic (toilets but no showers) but it's got a fine laid-back climber vibe, with the usual slacklining, juggling and guitar strumming. The full size pool table that one group of enterprising long-stayers had set up was a bit of a novelty though. The site was generally pretty quiet. Over the next few days we did discover that there was one group who played their music loud and partied late into the night, but we couldn't easily move away from them – it was us.
It can often be a little disorientating when you wake on your first morning camping in a new
country – but in Arapiles I wasn't so much disorientated as deafened. There was something
primeval in the racketing dawn chorus of the parrots' and cockatoos' high-pitched squawking, mixed with the kookaburras' raucous wind-up laughter, the standard “jungle” sound-effect for movie directors since time immemorial.
Anyone who's been on a trip with me will know I get extremely hyper on the first day
climbing in a new area. I was soon hopping from foot to foot and itching to get on the rock – but by 10 o'clock the sun was turned up to 11 and the heat was oppressive. It might seem rather ungrateful to complain about the heat at Arapiles. After all, it was heat rising from molten magma underground that baked its soft sandstone and metamorphosed it into the marvellous hard quartzite that climbs – and takes trad gear – so well. But there were mutinous mutterings of “acclimatisation,” “reconnaissance” and “leisurely start.” I couldn't really hear over the fizzing of my adrenaline. Sparks were coming out of my blue touch paper and I had to be off.
Phil joined me and we headed to one of Arapiles' classic crags, The Organ Pipes, a
few minutes' walk from camp through the characteristic surrounding bushland of yellow gum
trees. The Organ Pipes is a 200 foot tall cliff of elegant fluted columns offering a wide range of classy routes, many of them in the easier grades. I'd already chosen my first route: Horn Piece, a three star grade 13 regularly touted as one of the best at its grade in Araps. (Australian 13 translates to around hard HS/easy VS in British terms.) It lived up to its reputation: lovely flowing moves on well-featured rock with a steep and exposed finish, hauling over a bulge on satisfying jugs. This is one of the characteristics of Arapiles climbing: there are good holds galore, but man can it be steep. You do get some gorgeous slabs – but the trade-off is, you don't get the gear. If it's delicate, it's bold.
Next we moved onto another Araps classic, D Minor at 15 (top end VS) with a
similarly overhanging finish. This felt pretty butch to me. As we would discover, Arapiles grading doesn't take any prisoners, and stuff we did in the Grampians felt a good grade easier. I never climbed near the supposed equivalent to the top end of my British onsight range, but there's so much fantastic stuff at every grade, it never mattered.
Over the course of the morning the others had all joined us and got on more of the
many classics on offer, but by mid-afternoon we were in danger of metamorphosing ourselves. I was hopping from foot to foot again, but that was because when I took my shoes off the rock was too hot to stand on! Time for a nice cold early beer/wine.
That first day was possibly the hottest we experienced. The Australian Autumn (our
Spring) is the ideal season to visit Arapiles, and over a three week period you can expect a
range of temperatures, but very little rain. Also, Arapiles is an extremely complex network of
bluffs and gullies, and as we got to know it better we soon found plenty of opportunities for
shade when required.
An area we all made return visits to was the Watchtower Face. This boasts one of Araps'
greatest easy routes, the marvellous Arachnus, a four pitch grade 9 (HVD), on the Watchtower itself, up which we all frolicked and rollicked. It's such joyful climbing that it plasters a big grin all over your face. I got so carried away I strung getting on for three pitches together, romping up the jugs. Either side of this classic are walls and slabs criss-crossed by a web of routes with lots of potential for mash-ups. I couldn't resist a route name like Fly Lichen Eagle, not just for its smart aleck wit, but also for the promise of a road less travelled. The first pitch went at 17 (HVS) and had quite a bold start, which I didn't find too bad. The second pitch went at 20 and had an extremely bold-looking start. I decided that could wait till a third visit! Johnny and Sandra and Phil all chose more wisely, doing the lizard-themed Gecko and Monitor, each giving over 150 feet of quality slabbing in the sun. But Chris and Sharon were the only ones to actually make it to the top that day, via Panzer, a fine three pitch expedition.
I love to travel to climb, partly because I love sampling different cultures. Well, I say cultures, but what I really mean is local boutique beers. This is particularly the preserve of the dedicated trad climber. The hot rock sport climbing honeypots of Spain and Greece are sadly backward when it comes to decent beer. France is better, but outside of the UK the boutique beer-loving climber really needs to head to the US or Oz. I have to say, the variety and quality of Australian Pale Ale gave me almost as much pleasure as that other icon of Oz culture, Nick Cave. Our main source for this was the bar and bottle shop (off-licence) in the nearest pub, the National Hotel in the small sleepy town of Natimuk.
Natimuk only has a population of around 500, but it would be a lot lower if it weren't for
the number of resident climbers, who rocked up one day at Arapiles and simply found it
impossible to leave. One morning in the Natimuk Cafe I got chatting to Zoe Monks, the Chief Ranger of the State Park in which Arapiles is situated. She turned out to be from Derbyshire: came on a climbing visit twenty years ago and never left. The fact that someone could give up the grit still shocks me – but it shows the lure of climbing at Arapiles! Natimuk may be small, but it's a fine place to hang out on rest days and it's only around 10 minutes drive from the campground. Besides serving good beer the pub also does good food. It's a friendly place and the locals don't mind a bit of banter: I never met an Aussie who wasn't convinced that any visiting Brit must be pathetically grateful to be in a decent country at last, so I enjoyed doing a bit of winding up. And if you eventually get tired of wet wiping your pungent private parts, you can get a shower at the hotel for a few dollars. The Cafe does excellent breakfasts, coffee and cakes – although you need to keep an eye on the limited opening hours, since the owners spend a fair bit of their time up at 'The Mount' climbing. There's even a climbing shop. There's also a small general store, but for provisions it's better to head to the supermarkets at Horsham, a much bigger town, only about 30 minutes further.
Alongside our haute cuisine we enjoyed a lot of “lollies” - which is Australian for
chocolate bars. This was thanks to “Splash,” one of the Pines' long-stayers, a genuine free spirit who distributed free treats and good vibes around the campsite. At first we were a bit puzzled as to how she afforded it – until we discovered she made regular dumpster diving expeditions to Horsham, rescuing the supermarkets' thrown out food. The knowledge certainly didn't put us off. Chocolate never goes out of fashion, so it can never be out of date.
Our rest day activities weren't confined to eating and drinking. A fair bit of group yoga took place – until the batteries on Sandra's DVD player ran out and we no longer had our motivational virtual guru to spur us all on. My Downward Dog went rapidly Downhill.
We also indulged in a bit of wild swimming – or more accurately synchronised wild
paddling. Many creeks and lakes in the area have dried up over years of drought and there's a constant awareness of the threat of bush fires. Almost the first thing you see on driving into Nati is a “Fire Danger Rating Today” board, running from Low to a scary Code Red. It never dropped below High during our stay.
But we did find open water at Toolondo Reservoir. It must have been made by flooding
the bushland, as hundreds of stark drowned trees still rise eerily from the water, with the
occasional cormorant perched on a dead bleached branch, as motionless as if it was itself
carved from the wood. It was another baking hot day, pressing down with an immense stillness. The only moving thing was a raptor circling overhead – apart from us noisily sploshing around. Some strokes were swum for appearance's sake, but this was about the only time it crossed my mind that Australia is home to most of the world's most poisonous snakes. I couldn't remember whether any of them were reservoir residents – but all of a sudden those underwater tree limbs were looking a touch ominous!
Anyway, what we mostly did was a lot of shouting, splashing and jumping up and down
in unison, orchestrated by Sharon in gym mistress mode. Any deadly snakes in the vicinity
probably ran a mile. (Ed: not easy without legs.) For the record, I don't think any of us saw a
snake, deadly or otherwise, throughout the trip.
Our first week flew past and Matt returned at the weekend, bringing a friend, James. This was the weekend of the Natimuk Show, so we all spent an enjoyable Saturday checking out the sheep-shearing competition, the classic car display and the formation horse-riding. Sunday morning we were sitting round at breakfast with the guidebooks, planning the day's climbing, when it emerged that James had “done a bit” at Araps “back in the day.” Translated, this meant he'd climbed very hard. In fact, he knew one of the iconic figures of British climbing in the 80s and 90s, Andy Pollit.
Andy was famous not only for his phenomenal climbing ability but also his rock star
good looks and hedonistic lifestyle. He is a part of Arapiles folklore, having spent a great deal of time living there, devoting himself to working what was then the world's hardest route, one of the very few bolted routes at Arapiles, Punks in the Gym (32/8b+). The day after he finally sent it he got rid of his gear and never climbed again. He stayed on in Melbourne though, and set up his own rope access business. Sadly, he died in November 2019.
Chris and Sharon went off climbing with Matt and James. I breathed a sigh of relief that
I wouldn't be forced to pull hard on a Sunday – against my deeply held religious convictions and doctor's advice.
I love to laze around in camp, and at The Pines there was always plenty of entertaining wildlife to watch. The fabulously colourful parrots known as eastern rosellas would regularly promenade around the site, showing off their brilliant hues of crimson, yellow, blue and green, like climbers posing in the Grande Grotta. Just walking to the toilet block we would often come upon kangaroos grazing and enjoy a moment or two watching them before they bounded away through the bush. Once night fell, out would come the possums, always managing to look surprised with their comic cartoon eyes caught in a headtorch's beam. And above us out would come the southern cross, the milky way and a panoply of stars in all their cold glory, undimmed by any urban light pollution, accompanied by music from our assortment of speakers. I can never tire of drifting through a glittering night sky to the strains of Sandy Denny's beautiful voice, happily watching the time go.
You could easily spend an entire season climbing only at Arapiles, let alone the three weeks we had, but there's another world-class climbing area just over an hour's drive away, and we were determined to visit. The Grampians are a true mountain range, dotted with climbing venues: there's more of a rugged back-country feel, rather than the 'supercrag' atmosphere of Arapiles.
Our chosen venue was the cliff of Bad Moon Rising on Hollow Mountain. (I'd
introduced the idea at Toolondo Reservoir, with a stylish dropping of my trunks.) It turned out to be a memorable day of adventure, the kind of day that is the reason I love climbing.
The guidebook suggests a walk-in of around half an hour. Maybe – but only if you are
intimate with every twist and turn of the path and on first name terms with all the individual
boulders. We weren't, but it was all fun enough not to matter. A good deal of time was spent
negotiating the slot canyon mentioned as a key landmark in the guide. Who'd have thought
there'd be two near-identical slot canyons right next to each other? Not me. One abseil and one climb back up the rope later we moved about six feet to the right, walked through the correct canyon and there was the cliff. It's a commanding sweep of orange wall, streaked with moody greys and blacks, rearing up from a large rocky platform perched high above the bush.
Phil and John led the big curving corner of Bad Moon Rising itself and Chris and I did
Headless Chickens, fun face climbing on chickenheads, but without the heads. I guess they
could have just called it “stumps,” but it wouldn't have quite the same ring to it.
From the top of the crag you could see forever. Sat there looking out across the
undulating landscape of rock and eucalyptus trees I had a real feeling of the wildness of the
country we were in. There was no evidence of humanity's presence out there, just the vast
remoteness of the bushland stretching unbroken to the horizon. I know it's a myth that you can see the curvature of the earth in such places – but I felt like I'd had a glimpse.
Little known fact number two: when Shakespeare was at home in Stratford, if he ever got
writer's block, he would clear his mind with a day's soloing on the Staffordshire grit. (He had to solo, since gear hadn't been invented yet.) As he wrote in Henry VI Part II, “Yea, man and birds are fain of climbing high.” I mention this only because one of the best routes at Arapiles – and what must be one of the best routes of its grade anywhere in the world - is named in his honour.
The Bard goes at a very amenable 12 and weaves an intricate way up Bard Buttress,
traversing back and forth before roaring to the top in a typically steep fiesta of jugs. Apparently it got its name because the first ascensionists quoted Shakespeare to each other on the way up. Mind you, I couldn't help noticing that viewed side-on, the buttress has an undoubted resemblance to Will's famous profile.
Phil and I were lucky enough to get it done just before we left. The others had already
moved on: Chris and Sharon to tour Western Australia and John and Sandra to visit “rellies”
near Canberra. Like so many of the Arapiles routes with a big reputation, it didn't disappoint.
Each one of its five pitches proved to be memorable: a bold slabby start; a bunched up traverse to a superbly airy belay ledge right on the arete; a contrastingly balancy traverse back to an equally airy eyrie on the opposite arete; two rearing jug-strewn walls to land us on a fine summit with an expansive panorama of the Wimmera plain stretching away to the edge of the visible world.
We sat back, took in the view, raved about the route and agreed (1) it had been well
worth travelling half-way round the world for; (2) we had to come back.
I gazed out quietly at the horizon, admiring its shapely curve.
Fellow members of the trip:
with Matt Friend