Parks for the Poor

It’s April 1994. The 18-year-old’s knobbly knees are poking out of rips in his jeans as he idles, wide-eyed, in an unsealed carpark at the edge of a sandstone escarpment – rising abruptly out of the Wimmera plains – known as Mt Arapiles.

The lean, scraggly-haired teenager dangles a hiking pack on one shoulder, stuffed with bare-bones essentials – mostly a meagre assortment of climbing equipment. Over the other shoulder a borrowed rope is slung. He had just dropped out of school for a second time.

For the unemployed, getting to Arapiles without a car necessitates a four-hour train journey 300km to Horsham. From there, the teenager befriended a local, who drove him the remaining 35km along the Wimmera Highway to reach ‘The Mount’.

In the 1990s, the teenager slept under pines and dined out of rubbish bins while climbing at what renowned international climbing magazine, Mountain, touted “quite simply, the finest cliff in the world.”

Twenty-five years of climbing took him to Arapiles, the Grampians, Mt Buffalo, even Wilsons Prom, where beach boulders lured him away from the surf.

The road to this life was long and troubled. In 1985 his grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 65. In 1990 the teenager ran away from home, escaping a violent boarder in his family home. At Christmas that year, his father succumbed to bowel cancer, in his 40s. From 1991–1995, every day he smoked as many cigarettes as he could afford. In 1993 he dropped out of school. He worked casual shit-kicker jobs, including a role as shelf stacker at Clint’s Crazy Bargains, for five years before the emptiness of the crusade put him off. Intelligent, but struck with a series of unfortunate events that spiralled him into a trend of paths leading nowhere, a tormenting, listless depression consumed him. His resolve was anchored by one thing, and that was climbing.

“I first went to Arapiles in 1991. People are right when they say it has a presence, and I really connected with the place. Even though I was having a really hard time through the next few years, I was drawn back to Arapiles. And that’s why I went there in 1994. I had a harness and a figure-8 and a karabiner, but not much else. Some guy lent me his shoes.”

“It wasn’t the turning point of my problems, but that’s where my life started, kind of. At least, it had some purpose. I had something to work towards, which was going climbing more. Because nothing else in my life was really that interesting.”

“The people I met in 1994 on that trip, I forged friendships with. Even though I don’t see these people a lot now, we’re still kind of friends. Whereas I think about the people I knew from school and I’ve lost contact with most of them. For the average person, their school is the big thing in their life. They know people and stay friends with them. But that wasn’t really it for me, it was that stuff I found by myself, for myself, that actually meant something.”

For $2 a night the teenager could sleep under twinkling stars that shower the Wimmera skies. For nothing he could enter a national park and connect with nature in a way passing tourists could barely comprehend. Climbing is – like surfing – not merely a sport, but a way of life. It is not a quest for peaks, recognition or, even, difficulty. As someone once put it, climbing is a search for peace and validation.

Asked about the proposed fee structure that would see single users paying nearly $50 to camp at Stapylton, in the Grampians, for one night, he says, “It’s taking away the accessibility of national parks from the average person. It’s geared as a money-making kind of scheme when national parks should be something for the whole community. It’s not just for rich people. And that’s what it’s turning into. Without access to these places I think there’s a huge loss for Australia.”

Freewheeling: James Kassay

Freewheeling: James Kassay

Why History Matters

Why History Matters