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To the Bundjalung people, Wollumbin-Mount Warning is a sacred site. It is also a major Tweed Valley tourist attraction and the centre of a debate over who should be allowed to visit its summit. By Susan Chenery.

The dispute over climbing Wollumbin-Mount Warning

Early morning climbers atop Wollumbin-Mount Warning.
Credit: NOTEVENATHING / FLICKR

There is a single-lane road that passes into the rainforest, the canopy closing in, the great bent, bulbous peak of Mount Warning hovering spectrally above. Often shrouded in cloud, on a clear morning its rock face turns red and gold as it catches the first rays of sunrise to hit the Australian mainland.

Named Warning by Captain Cook after he encountered reefs along the coast in 1770, and known as Wollumbin, meaning “cloud catcher”, to the local Bundjalung people, it is a powerful brooding presence that dominates the landscape. A jagged 1156-metre exclamation mark. A sacred mountain.

Auntie Millie Boyd used to call to it when she was alive, singing the songlines.

“I know at least half a dozen old Aboriginal women who do that today,” says Rob Appo, Tweed Shire Council Indigenous heritage officer and a Bundjalung man. “Everyone has a story from their own connection to it.”

Near the border of Queensland and New South Wales, in the centre of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests, it is the remnant of a shield volcano that erupted about 23 million years ago.

“It wasn’t a cataclysmic eruption,” says Michael Simmons, who runs Mount Warning Tours. “It was waves of lava radiating out over time. It has shaped the topography of the entire region. All the headlands on the Gold Coast are lava flows from Wollumbin-Mount Warning. Byron Bay is a basalt flow from the mountain. There is more biodiversity here than anywhere else in the country.”

In 2006 the mountain was dual assigned by the Geographical Names Register to be known as Wollumbin-Mount Warning. Wollumbin, it noted, was from the Bundjalung-Yugambeh dialect, also meaning “patriarch of mountains”.

It is a mountain that is steeped in Aboriginal lore, creation stories, spirituality and culture over hundreds of generations. A mountain mired in controversy and passionate opinion.

It rises above the towns and villages of the Tweed Valley, near the town of Murwillumbah, where local farmers such as James McKenzie, whose family has been here for six generations, says “it is one of the world’s greatest totemic sites”.

At the base of the mountain, in the car park, is a sign from the Bundjalung people, who are the custodians of the site, asking politely for people to reconsider climbing it, out of respect for the culture and significance of the place.

But well over 100,000 people a year ignore the sign and stomp up the track.

They ignore, too, the request from the National Parks and Wildlife Service not to leave after 1pm. Coming down in the dark is dangerous, as the local emergency services officers well know, having frequently rescued people here. There are four helicopter pads on the mountain for bringing the injured or infirm down at taxpayers’ expense.

Last December, 24-year-old American tourist Sam Beattie was killed by a lightning strike as he and his girlfriend camped on the summit, waiting to see the sunrise. Camping is illegal but often there is barely standing room at the top as the sun comes up. “You have to understand,” Rob Appo said at the time, “that Aboriginal people get very emotional about people that get into trouble at these cultural sites because we know the significance of these sites. This is a very sensitive site, a site that needs a lot of protection.”

You will not see a Bundjalung woman on Wollumbin-Mount Warning. To them it is a men’s place. “It is a place of lore where men of high degree gathered,” says Auntie Jackie McDonald. “Not even all Aboriginal men were allowed on the summit. Only men of high degree.”

Being a custodian is as much about conservation as it is about culture, McDonald says. “We have a deep responsibility to nurture country and care for it. That is our cultural responsibility. It is for the protection of the mountain – not only its cultural values but its ecological values.”

There are reports, however, of walkers leaving rubbish across the mountain: toilet paper and other garbage. To the Bundjalung people, this is desecration.

“Anything above 600 metres is considered sacred,” says local artist Andy Reimanis. “Officially you can go halfway up to a certain point but after that the elders say unless you are initiated you shouldn’t go any further.”

Says McDonald: “It upsets everybody. It is the sheer numbers. They are going to the toilet on the mountain.”

Botanist John Hunter is retired now from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, where he worked for many years. For a long time he lived in the foothills of Wollumbin-Mount Warning.

“It is one of those places that is very, very special spiritually, but people tend to abuse it by overusing it.”

He knows its flora intimately, such as the Antarctic beech trees that go back to when Australia was still part of Antarctica. “A lot of the fauna that occurs in high-altitude rainforest, which is also the Nightcap and Border ranges, are of ancient lineages and many of them have had a long period of occupation within Australia. The rainforest birds were among the first songbirds on the planet. We have got a very incredible lineage of birds. The songbirds – a lot of those ancient lineages have existed in the rainforest area. And a lot of those ancient lineages exist on Mount Warning. It has more species than the rest of the Gondwana rainforest. It is the jewel in the crown.”

Hunter says a number of the species on Wollumbin-Mount Warning are threatened with extinction. “The lower area subtropical rainforest is an endangered community.” Its biggest threat, he says, is climate change.

Says Rob Appo: “We are in danger of losing some of those rare species of plants that grow only on the summit because people want to get to the top to see what is on the other side.”

Even among the clans that exist within the Bundjalung nation there are disputes and contradictions. Native title claims, caveats, politics.

“It has been falsely reported that Aboriginal people don’t want people climbing on the mountain,” Appo says. “Yes, they would like to see less people climbing it. Yes, it will be here long after we go. But at the same time the degradation of the site from human traffic is not ideal. ”

But, he claims, they know they can’t stop the primal human urge to climb a mountain. They just ask that it be done with respect and understanding.

“I don’t see that you would manage a mountain any differently to the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge,” Appo continues. “You can’t just go and climb over the Opera House because it is there. There is a process and protocol. Why should a national park or a mountain be any different?”

The custodians, he says, “are quite prepared to do what needs to be done to look after the place. This landscape has changed drastically since colonisation and it hasn’t been the Aboriginal people who have changed it. People have this negative view that there is always a sacred site somewhere. Well, yes, there is, because this landscape was fully utilised by Aboriginal people for 50,000 years. Look at what has occurred in the last 200 years of colonisation and times that by 25,000 and you will see why there are sites everywhere through the landscape. The Aboriginal people haven’t always said that every site is off limits but we try to protect what we can because that is what we have inherited from those who have gone before us. And those really special ones are always going to be on the high end of the priorities.”

Meanwhile, the track to the summit of Wollumbin-Mount Warning remains conspicuously absent from the National Parks website.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 1, 2017 as "Climbing tensions". Subscribe here.

Susan Chenery
is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.

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