The escalating tensions between rock climbers and park authorities over bans in the Grampians have reached a new intensity during the busiest time of year.
A previously reported in The Courier in February, climbers have been banned from some parts of the Grampians amid an increasingly vocal battle over disputed claims that they're damaging ancient rock art.
The busy Easter period saw new accusations and counter-claims made about the controversial bans in the Victoria Range and who is responsible for the damage.
Park rangers say a huge influx of climbers is destroying the fragile and unique environment, smashing new trails through protected areas and peppering the wilderness with human waste.
Traditional owners say rock art is being destroyed. Climbers are stepping on the art, covering it in chalk, and drilling holes and bolts into the rock.
But the climbers - who consider themselves environmentalists - say they are being framed.
They've been climbing the Grampians for 40 years, often at the invitation of Parks Victoria, they say. No rock art has been damaged. Now, legal action is being threatened.
It all came to a head on the Easter long weekend, the busiest time of year in the Grampians as thousands head west for a break.
Climbing has been banned in the Grampians' "special protection areas" since 2003 - but for years Parks Victoria turned a blind eye.
No longer. Rangers are now out in force at eight key rock climbing sites across the park to enforce the new climbing bans. Anyone spotted faces a fine. Three climbers were fined on March 9.
Rock climbers are drawn to the Grampians by the park's unique environment: hard but weathered sandstone walls with lots of potential handholds.
In the past decade, Parks Victoria claim, its popularity has exploded as it has become recognised as one of the world's top-five climbing locations. "It's a mecca for climbers," said Simon Talbot, Parks Victoria's chief operating officer.
In 2003, about 8000 climbers came to the park. In 2018, some 80,000 came, he said (climbers deny this). "It's really caught us by surprise, to be honest," Mr Talbot said.
Some of the best climbing is in the special protected areas of the park, around the Northern Victoria Range.
Climbers have been bashing hundreds of kilometres of paths through this virgin bush, Mr Talbot said. The mats boulderers use - laid at the bottom of large rocks to catch a falling person - have destroyed the undergrowth, he said. Human faeces dumped in the bush is encouraging weeds to grow, he said.
"Sometimes they don't know. Sometimes they don't care," he said. "There is a real entitlement mentality that's unhealthy."
The older generation of climbers were true conservationists, Mr Talbot said. The new ones carry portable drills to make holes in the rock face, some trying to ascend as fast as possible and beat each other's records, he said. They damage the sandstone, which is home to many endangered animals - and climbers crumble it on the bush below, killing it, he said.
Then there is the rock art; the Grampians is the richest site in Victoria, with some red-ochre paintings 20,000 years old.
"There are many areas where there are significant sites and rock art is being damaged. I've seen it," said Dylan Clarke, chairman of the Barengi Gadjin Land Council which represents the traditional owners.
"Fixed bolts that are drilled into the rocks. It's stuff that's really hard to see.
"There are things like graffiti and racist drawings on sacred colours. That just makes a mockery of our culture and heritage. When you see that stuff in our sacred areas, it really impacts you - that's heartbreaking."
That is simply not true, said Mike Tomkins, who represents the newly-formed Australian Climbing Association Victoria.
"The climbers are not damaging the environment. I very firmly believe there has been no damage to any Aboriginal artwork anywhere in the region."
Some rock art is almost impossible to see, he said. Climbers had been using one route for 30 years, but only a week ago were told they were climbing near rock art, he said.
Climbers were told a week ago a key climb used for 30 years, The Gallery, was an Aboriginal quarry by Parks Victoria.
Protecting rock art poses a real challenge for Parks Victoria, because many sacred sites are sensitive and legally cannot be revealed.
Mr Tomkins said climbers were "mortified" they had offended traditional owners, and wanted the chance to "walk the country" with them to identify art sites to avoid.
But the biggest stoush is over a single picture, released by Parks Victoria when they announced the bans. It shows what looks like a climbing bolt in rock art.
But Parks got it wrong. The bolt was part of an old safety cage installed to protect the rock art. Parks apologised and pulled the image, but it soured the relationship.
Parks Vic Frame Climbers - Get Caught Out, one website posted, while another climbing site termed it a "dirty war".
World renowned climbing photographer Simon Carter of Onsight Photography believes it is only certain elements in Parks Victoria who are targeting climbers in this way while in the past Parks and other climbing groups have worked together well to solve problems of overcrowding.
He argues the fictitious bolt into aboriginal art has been use to impose bans without consultation or justification.
"Parks justifications for the bans are either fabrications, massive exaggerations, wrong, insults, petty and insignificant. A lot of it is extraordinarily hypercritical. Any "problems" are easily "managed" - especially when we work together as was done in the past." Mr Carter wrote in his post.
A petition to stop the bans has already reached almost 23,000 signatures since being opened a month ago.
The Victorian Climbing Club is meant to work with Parks Victoria on climbing access - and has, for many years. But they feel shocked and frozen out by the sudden bans, and say they have begun the legal process.
"It's a surprise they want to go to the press to make climbers look bad again, when we are trying to work with them. It's frustrating," said Mark Gould, the club's spokesman.
This article first appeared in The Age
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