A white dirt road cuts through the oily green euycalyptus forest. Above it a great massif of orange rock stretches away, a series of faces and pinnacles in shattered quartzite that is a rock climber’s dream come true.
I have been to Mt Arapiles three times now and each time get closer to the (Australian) claim in the guidebook that this may well be the best rock climbing destination in the world. The sheer number and variety of routes to choose from is mind-boggling.
It’s certainly a must visit for any rock climber travelling in Australia. The quality of the rock is impressive and I love the whole culture of the place with its ‘dirtbag’ climbers and relaxed vibe.
We joined a village of shock-headed, brown-legged climbers in The Pines campground at the foot of Mt Arapiles, many with a penchant for howling at the big yellow moon, wobbling along slacklines set over death-defying drops, or doing yoga exercises atop bouldering rocks.
That night it’s almost a painted moon – made of cardboard through a silhouetted gum tree. When a wisp of cloud obscures it the full glory of the Milky Way can be seen spread across the sky. Above the iconic Bard Buttress of Mt Arapiles, Orion waves his sword at the mountain.
The dawn chorus of Kookaburras and parrots make an unusual alarm clock. Gallahs forage in the dust of the camp, heads bobbing forward and back. Once we’re out on the crags a Peregrine Falcon soars high on the thermals. Tiny colourful birds hop about on the rock and lizards circle for scraps of tomato at lunchtime. It’s not a great feeling when you put your hand in a crack in the rock while climbing and surprise one of these little guys.
There are rumours of an echidna and we sight a number of kangaroos grazing peacefully on the walk back to camp. Driving to Mitre Rock a metre-and-a-half-long Sand Monitor briefly plays chicken with us on the track before waddling to the nearest tree.
From the crags the vast plains of the Wimmera stretch out endlessly flat. This is Victoria’s principal wheat growing area and vast fields stretch out below the crags. A series of salt lakes dot the landscape between Mt Arapiles and the Little Desert National Park. Their shores are white-encrusted with the salt that is airborne from the distant coast.
Mt Arapiles is only 370m high but is definitely one of Australia’s premier climbing spots. Major Thomas Mitchell was the first European to climb it, back in 1836. He had been involved in the Battle of Salamanca in Spain and named this outcrop after the Arapiles hills near Salamanca.
The aboriginal name for Mt Arapiles is Djurite and there is archaeological evidence of native people climbing high up the mountain to obtain rock for tool making. Rock climbers started to open up routes back in the 70s. Around the back at Bushranger Bluff an indentation high up on the cliff face is Captain Melville’s Cave, so-called for a notorious bushranger who supposedly used the cave as a hideout in the 1850s during the early days of the Victorian gold rush.
There is a kind of hierarchy of climbers – from weekenders through to longtermers; and those like us who are now returning with children in tow. People sit around drinking cups of tea, enjoying a rest day. Lazy pfaffing is often an integral part of the climber’s psyche. Or maybe, if you stay here long enough, you get tired of climbing. I’d like to find out.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you tried rock climbing? Where is your favourite place to climb?