We wander in and wonder at the beauty of our "Land Down Under".

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Autumn: The Wimmera, Natimuk and Mount Arapiles

It’s much drier here in the Wimmera than it has been for a couple of years as the heavy rains and flooding that filled Lake Natimuk in early 2011 haven't been followed up. However, there’s still quite a lot of wildlife around, especially birds. 

After we’d been cragging today we stopped in town for an ice cream. In the native pepper trees across the road from the pub a big mob of Long-billed Corellas was hanging out keeping cool. (For our northern hemisphere readers, they are a type of COCKATOO). Their range is limited to a fairly confined area, centred on the Wimmera. Our comprehensive bird App (Morecombe) tells us that it is "now uncommon due to loss of habitat". Here’s a companionable couple Di singled out of the bunch (click on the photo for a bigger view):

In contrast, the more common Little Corella can be seen in mobs in their thousands.

And the KANGAROOS never entirely disappear. Here’s one that was bounding through the scrub below the crag the other day:

Okay.  With the cockatoos and kangaroos covered, I can tell you about other things Wimmerian. Now that Autumn has arrived the farmers have begun burning off the stubble in the wheat fields. Thankfully, the fuel burns off quickly so there isn’t a lot of smoke left when they are done each day. Yesterday we had occasion to watch one of the locals setting fire to one of his paddocks. Di shot this photo out the car window. If you look closely (click on the photo to expand it) you can see the implement he is using as he rides along on his dirt bike. A diesel canister with a “wick” drips lighted bits of fuel behind:

Here’s a longer shot of the paddock he’s burning:

Characteristically in this area there are large gum trees sparsely scattered throughout the wheat fields. Maybe leaving that little bit of habitat is one reason why there is so much bird life in the area. The photo below, taken from near the top of the climb we did today looks east. Through the smoke you should be able to make out Natimuk Lake, where we are camped:

 Towards the southwest a much hotter fire is burning:

My guess is that it’s logging slash, as this is the sort of smoke plume we get in Tasmania in the autumn when Forestry Tasmania is doing what they like to call “controlled” burns. Unfortunately, they’re not always “controlled”. Infamously, a number of years ago they burnt a big stockpile of Huon Pine logs, an invaluable an irreplaceable resource. Not happy, Jan.

Anyway. The Wimmera. Many of you will have never heard of it. It’s the southwestern area of Victoria. Here’s an image from Google Maps of the district:

Horsham, the main town and service centre for the area is about 300 kilometres west of Melbourne on the Wimmera Highway.

It’s an area with a number of towns with great names. Nhill (pronounced “nil”) is one of them. Such a random name that someone decided to use it in a film title. Road to Nhill actually won a prize at The International Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece. Go figure.

Stawell isn't an odd-sounding name, but it’s a very historic little place. Once booming during the Victorian gold rush, this now-sleepy town comes alive each Easter when it hosts the Stawell Gift, sometimes referred to as the World’s Richest Footrace. (It may or may not be. We Australians have a wonderful capacity for hyperbole.)

Warracknabeal and Goroke (pronounced Guroak) do qualify as odd-sounding places though. As does Dimboola, which I leave for last as it is the birthplace of Tim Watson, once the captain of the Essendon Bombers in the Australian Football League, and an absolute legend. His son is the current Bombers captain and won the Brownlow Medal last year. Go the Bombers! (You know, just in case you might have glossed over the hyperlink to Australian Football, I'm going to embed it so you won't miss the opportunity to see what this mighty game is all about. Here it is:

But back to places in the Wimmera. Natimuk is where it’s at as far as we’re concerned. This is the cultural home of Australian climbing. The local pub - the National Hotel - even has a number of large climbing photos hanging from the walls. Here’s what it looks like from across the road:

Just next door is the Arapiles Mountain Shop:

Phil Wilkins, the proprietor, reckons he opened his doors sometime around 1987/1988, so he’s been supplying climbers with gear and resoling shoes for them - and other climbers all over the country - for about a quarter of a century. Here he is with my newly resoled Miuras, discussing with Di the pros and cons of different sorts of rubber:

Wombat - Phil's Border Collie - has been keeping Phil company for about the past fifteen years. Once a regular feature of the shop, she’s getting a little tired. She likes to be close to Phil, but tends to hang out in the car these days rather than in the shop:

 Before climbing put the little town of Natimuk on the world map, there was wheat farming. For a long time. They discovered way back when that the soils hereabouts are very good for growing wheat. But they needed water. This plaque is testament to the efforts one man in particular made to distribute water to the local farmers:

Natimuk was the local service town, hence the size of the pub, and also the location here of a courthouse:

Nowadays it’s pretty sleepy. In fact a few of the locals have come to a complete standstill:

A few days ago the daytime temperatures dropped from the low thirties to the low twenties. Much nicer for climbing, especially in the sun and especially for us delicate types from the lower latitudes. The last couple of nights the mercury has actually dropped to six degrees. This is brilliant because insects have literally disappeared - overnight!

It’s Wednesday today and we’ve been here in the Wimmera for ten days. We’ve climbed at Mount Arapiles on eight of those days, walked the fifteen kilometres around “The Mount” (as the locals call it) on another day, and had one day of total sloth.

All in all, we’d have to say it’s great to be back! Here’s a photo I took of Mount Arapiles on the way to the crag yesterday morning:

This closer shot shows the famous Watchtower front and center. We were on our way to do a route called Skink, which starts up the right side of the Watchtower (the obvious corner in deep shade) then traverses out and into the beautiful feature that sweeps up and right:

Speaking of Skink, Di took this photo of one of the cliff locals a couple of day ago 
up at The Atridae:

On our way back to the car via an obscure pathway, we passed a little boulder with this chair sitting in front of it:

The local boulderers like to relax in comfort between having a go!

Back to the Watchtower Faces, this next photo shows Di rappelling the Right Watchtower Face, with the line of Skink up and left of her:

Along with climbing some old favourites, we’re also trying to do a few routes that we haven’t been on before. Here’s a photo of Di starting up a very pleasant moderate called Chameleon Connection further along on the Right Watchtower Face:

After three or four pleasant pitches we took the walking descent and I snapped this side view of the Right Watchtower Face. The obvious feature is Watchtower Crack, with Skink wending its way away to the right:

North-facing as they are, the Watchtower Faces are too hot to comfortably climb on a lot of the time. But, as temperatures have dropped, we’ve been doing more in this area the last few days. Today we got back on a wonderful route with the great Hemingway-esque name of “Wall of the Afternoon Sun”. Di snapped this shot of me leading through one of the crux sections on the first pitch:

She also took this photo of a guy following his girlfriend up the last pitch on a route called Watchtower Chimney that Di led way back in the Middle Ages, well 1968 actually. If you look closely you might be able to make out a pack hanging from a daisy chain attached to his harness. Not the way this route is usually climbed:

I mentioned earlier that the overnight temperatures have dropped right away. However, we are very cosy in our Ultimate camper trailer. Check out this photo I just snapped of Di playing Sudoku:

It’s 8:30 and she started talking about getting into bed to read her book but decided to stay up and play her whistle instead while I finish posting this blog. Very nice indeed. I’ll leave you with this lovely photo she took of this morning’s sunrise:

See you later!


It's now Thursday. After a late start we spent the middle of the day in Horsham dealing with some necessary correspondence. Returning to camp, we found ourselves crying twice within fifteen minutes, experiencing at one moment the heights of joy and in the next 
the depths of sadness.

As we were nearing Natimuk, news came on the radio of the passing of the Marriage Equalisation Bill in the New Zealand Parliament, effectively redefining marriage in New Zealand, thus bringing into law - by a sizeable majority - legalisation of gay marriage. The most moving aspect of this event was the fact that, prompted initially by a lone singer in the gallery, the parliament burst into singing a well-known Maori love song. It was wonderfully moving to hear on the radio. If you have yet to experience it, here it is for your appreciation:

If that doesn't leave you with tingles all over your spine and tears in your eyes you're tougher than me, but then that wouldn't be saying much would it?

Literally within minutes of that inspiring moment we arrived at camp and immediately received a call to let us know that Bob McMahon, a very dear friend, had passed away overnight. He and Di were born within a few days of each other in the Queen Victoria Hospital in Launceston. While Bob grew up in Stanley and Di in Launceston, they got to know each other when they went to Uni and had been friends through rock climbing since. When they weren't much more than kids themselves they enjoyed a climbing trip to Flinders Island together with spouses and one year old sons.

In his early years Bob was a driven climber. He pioneered much of the climbing in Northern Tasmania, and was involved in lots of new route activity in Freycinet National Park. From the tiny cliffs in The Gorge on the fringe of Launceston's CBD, to obscure crags scattered along the two Esk Rivers, to the mighty escarpment of Ben Lomond, Bob was the main man. Anyone who was anyone coming to climb in Northern Tasmania would link up with Bob to explore new routes and push the boundaries. Anyone who is a climber and knew Bob over any length of time will have myriad fond memories and stories to tell of his escapades, enormous sense of humour and quick wit.

Bob was also a talented artist. He worked for a time as a senior secondary art teacher but couldn't bear the grind of the bureaucracy that is the Tasmanian Education Department. He did not suffer fools lightly, especially if they were promoted fools. Recognised by his peers for his talents, he acted as State Moderator for Pre-Tertiary Art. Bob always threw himself into whatever he was doing with full gusto. One hundred percent commitment, that was Bob. After resigning he did some amazing painting. His massive landscapes of parts of Ben Lomond were jaw-dropping in scale. He followed this up with a period of potting, creating some massive earthenware urns with Celtic motifs. I have always regretting not purchasing one when I had the chance. Fifteen years or so ago Bob's artistic passion and inspiration was transferred fully to photography. His eye for light was breathtaking. Amongst the best work I saw were landscapes he took along the northwest coast of Tasmania while undertaking another of his passions: bushwalking. Bob had set himself to circumnavigate Tasmania by foot. The last time I talked to him about his journey he reckoned he'd got a bit over half way, taking family members and friends along various sections with him. And for every bit he had a good story.

In recent years Bob reluctantly became a leading light in the fight against the building of a pulp mill in the beautiful Tamar Valley in northern Launceston. Gunns Timber, in league with the Labor State Government thought they could do as they pleased with this little corner of paradise, but they hadn't reckoned with Bob. Through his inspiration many Tasmanians stood up to the vested interests that have pushed the little people around for too long in our wonderful but sometimes parochial part of the world. 

Bob was a Tasmania legend. His death leaves a huge hole in many lives, but his enormous contribution to climbing, the arts and the conservation movement leaves Tasmania a better place. He is survived by his wonderful wife Susie, his son Andy and daughter Selty
and a bunch of wonderful, wild grandchildren.

Vale, vale, vale Robert McMahon. 

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