The Australian edition of the Daily Mail reported yesterday that three backpackers climbed Mt Warning to witness a typically spectacular sunrise only to find every window of their car smashed upon returning to carpark at the mountain’s base. The Mail did not dig all that deeply into the story, satisfying readers’ curiosity as to the motive for the vandalism with some quotes from one of the young travellers, an unnamed Scotsman who related finding an explanation on the internet.
“After some research online we leant that there is an ongoing dispute between land owners, indigenous people and local councils about whether it should be permanently closed or not,” he said.
Well there is a bit more than that to what is the ongoing seizure of a peak that should belong to all Australians. And the irony of it is that the noisiest claimants have the least right to assert their control of the site. Let me explain.
The official story is that the Bundjalung prefer you not climb, portraying the mountain as a ‘sacred men’s area’. However, (and it’s a big however!) these claims have no basis in history.
Prior to the start of this century the mountain was seen by officials as being in the custody of the Ngarakwaal/Nganduwal Aboriginal moiety, respected as the keepers of Mt Warning. This group, whose claims were laid out by elders Millie and Marlene Boyd had dwindling numbers and little political influence. In the late 1990s the Bundjalung Nation, an amalgam of other Aboriginal groups in the area, claimed that as the Ngarakwaal had been “wiped out” it was their right to take custody of the mountain. This was challenged by senior Aboriginal men at the time such as Wijabul elder Fletcher Roberts, who pointed out that claims of the mountain not being for climbing were “a modern day invention”. As he put it:
The white community needs to make sure it identifies the true elders of an area. They should realise that elders’ responsibilities apply to their own tribal areas and they have no jurisdiction over another area.
But the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), contrary to its governing Act, didn’t identify and consult with the true owners of Mt Warning, instead dealing with the politically savvy Bundjalung Nation. For the last 20 years NPWS has sadly ignored the true custodians, signalling the effective extinction of the Ngarakwaal people, officially killed off through a combination of willful ignorance and bureaucratic expedience.
But of course, the Ngarakwaal had not been wiped out. Their claims to the mountain, along with their complex and wonderful mythology about it, are well documented in NPWS’ own interviews with Ngarakwaal elders that were recorded in the 1970s. These recordings still exist. If you listen to elder Millie Boyd (watch the Youtube clip below) you will learn Mt Warning’s Aboriginal name is Wulambiny Momoli, that it is “an increase site” for brush turkeys, not a men’s place honouring a mythical warrior, as the Bundjalung claim.
In 2007, not long before her death, Ngarakwaal Marlene Boyd, Millie’s daughter, recorded a newspaper interview in which she called out the Bundjalung claims. She stated: “We are the Wollumbin tribe who are traditionally the Ngarakwal/Nganduwal Aboriginal moiety — we are the original custodians of Mt Warning. We are not Bundjalung.” She had no problem with people climbing the mountain, saying
I do not oppose the public climbing of Mt Warning – how can the public experience the spiritual significance of this land if they do not climb the summit and witness creation! … Much of my ancestral lore and history have been stolen and abused. The current Tweed Heads Master Plan states that the Ngarakwal/Nganduwal are the spiritual owners of the mountain yet we have never been asked to participate or be part of the plans.
The bigger story is that for 20 years NPWS has provided an official stamp to Marlene’s claims of stolen culture and abuse. And, with the current plans by NPWS to ban access not only to the summit but also the entire National Park, NPWS bureaucrats will put the final nail in the coffin of Ngarakwaal culture.
In regard to locals vandalising visitors’ cars, this has been going on for many years. In 2016 and 2017 many cars left at the base had their tyres slashed. I am unaware of police chasing down and prosecuting the perpetrators. Rather than increase security at the site, NPWS also has ignored criminal damage as it fits with their agenda to close down the park.
The real vandals here are NPWS and its bureaucrats for elevating to official writ a claim their own archives establish is untrue.
Marc Hendrickx is geologist. He blogs at Right to Climb, where an earlier version of this article appeared