Mt Arapiles, a climber’s paradise
Geoff Durham visits one of Victoria's rock-climbing meccas but keeps his feet firmly on the ground.
To the Djurite Balug Aboriginal people Mt Arapiles is 'Djurite', and a site of significance. It was climbed and named by Major Mitchell on 23 July 1836, the anniversary of the battle at Salamanca near the Spanish village of Arapiles (1812) where his brother died.
From a distance Arapiles is 'less a mountain and more a scab', rising as it does out of the flat cleared Wimmera farmland. But on approach from Natimuk, its formidable bulk looms 230m above the plain.
Backed by tableland, the rock escarpment faces generally north, and the sun moving across its indented face creates ever-changing lightscapes.
Mt Arapiles and Mitre Rock are outliers of the Grampians quartzose sandstone and conglomerate sedimentary rocks deposited in fresh water about 420 million
About 20 million years later, heat from below Arapiles metamorphosed the rock into hard quartzite. When the sea encroached about 20 million years ago Arapiles became an island.
The Mt Arapiles block has 14% of Victoria's flora with more than 500 species. The plateau has Yellow Gum, Long-leaf Box and some White Cypress-pine with a dense shrubby understory. The outwash slopes have stands of mallee including Peppermint Box, and woodlands of Grey Box, Yellow Gum and River Red Gum.
Peregrine Falcons nest on the cliff faces.
Climbing, camping and walking
Mt Arapiles is 'one of the best crags in the world for traditional climbing'. It has about 3000 recognised climbs.
There are so many places to climb that the bush below is riddled with informal paths, and below the cliffs there is trampling of the vegetation. Volunteers have done some commendable work to limit this damage.
The latest climbing guide is the 2016 edition of Arapiles Selected Climbs by Simon Mentz and Glenn Tempest.
This 400 page book describing 1300 climbs is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of striking colour photographs.
It says that "few other places can compete against Arapiles for sheer quality, quantity and diversity of climbing at all grades ... and its unique setting, ease of access and ideal weather".
Arapiles attracts many interstate and overseas climbers, and with the weekend influx from Melbourne and Adelaide, a veteran told us, "tents come up over Friday nights like mushrooms".
Campers are supposed to pre-book and pre-pay $5.10 a person per night through the internet or the Parks Victoria hotline - 13 1963. But sites are not marked and it's something of a free-for-all. Over 17,000 camper nights were booked last financial year.
The campground has a public telephone box, rubbish bins, toilets and some fire places, but you need to bring your own wood, and no fires are allowed between 1 November and 30 April. Domestic animals are not permitted.
There's a solid log shelter in the picnic area. Pinus radiata planted in 1936 as part of the centenary celebrations of Mitchell's expedition are removed as they die or become unsafe.
The Management Plan says they will not be replaced, but because of their historic significance and shade many people would like to see them retained.
Two walking tracks lead from the base of the cliffs to the plateau, one (more a rock scramble) up the main gully near the campground, and the other, up Pharos Gully, steep with steps. Combine them into a 4 km circuit walk taking in the summit.
Vehicle access is restricted. You can drive or cycle around the base of the mountain, but part of the track is seasonally closed. There's a bitumen road to the fire lookout and communication towers on the summit, and off that the wheelchair-friendly Bluff Lookout, a short track to Melville Cave and a 30 minute Nature Walk.
Tooan, an Aboriginal word for 'small squirrel' now used (spelt 'Tuan') for the Brush-tailed Phascogale, is the forgotten park. Known locally as the 'Tooan Scrub', it is little visited.
Parks Victoria's Park Note for the State Park has no information on Tooan, and no map. The only map I can find is in the out-of-date 1998 Management Plan.
The Tooan Block was then 3550 ha. With the addition of adjacent public land in 2004 it now covers 5960 ha, including a 420 ha Reference Area.
Tooan is a botanist's delight with its variety of vegetation communities, including areas of Buloke regeneration. There are endangered Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos and Malleefowl.
Local naturalist Dr Rod Sutherland says of Tooan: "It's a wonderful area - beautiful in spring with wildflowers, particularly orchids, but it has been hit badly by the drought". He warns that it's easy to get bogged on the sandy 4WD tracks.
Tooan is a bonus for those who appreciate the bush without people.
Many small towns in the Wimmera and Mallee are declining, but since the 1960s Natimuk (25 km west of Horsham and about 8 km from Mt Arapiles) has been revived by the growth of rock climbing.
Climbers and artists have purchased houses and started small businesses.
It has an interesting, well-looked-after Main Street, about five shops (there were 70 in the 1880s), climbing instructors, a cafe, post office, police station, school and hospital, but no fuel outlet - the nearest is at Horsham.
The hotel has good meals, old-style accommodation and five modern cabins. There are also two cabins at the caravan park at Natimuk Lake (now dry). Stay at Natimuk or the 'convivial no-frills' Arapiles cosmopolitan campsite for a few days. Take a folding chair, camera and binoculars, choose a suitable spot and combine bird-watching with climberwatching; observe the athleticism, skill and patience of the climbers.
This story first appeared in the June 2016 edition of our magazine Park Watch. You can read more stories in our online version, and if you become a member of the Victorian National Parks Association you will receive your own copy in the mail.