For over two years, one of Australia’s most popular walking tracks has been missing a pivotal element – walkers.
Every year more than 100,000 people would venture to the world heritage-listed Wollumbin national park near the northern New South Wales town of Murwillumbah, many of them drawn to the 4.4km track that leads to the 1,157 meter summit of the mountain that shares its name.
Wollumbin, formerly known as Mount Warning, is the remnant central vent of an ancient volcano. Since the track to the summit was completed in 1909, countless locals, school groups, and tourists have relished the chance to stand atop its peak.
However, many Indigenous elders have watched them do so with a sense of disappointment, frustration, and, in more recent times, anger.
Ngarakbal and Githabal elder Elliot Knight. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi
“It’s a sacred place,” Ngarakbal Githabal elder Elliot Knight says, explaining that his great-great-great-grandfather, King Johnny Brown of Wollumbin, was laid beside the mountain.
Today, Wollumbin is a no-go zone. The climbing chains near the summit have been removed. The track is said to be in a state of disrepair. Nobody yet knows if it will reopen, leaving people on both sides of the debate on edge.
The track was originally closed in March 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown before the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) announced an assessment of the park’s future on safety and cultural grounds. It was initially to remain shut until May 2021, but that deadline has since been extended four times, most recently until the end of June 2022.
A picture of King Johnny Brown of Wollumba, a Ngarakbal and Githabal man and great great great grandfather to Elliot Knight. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi
For now, a mountain that has long been a jewel in the Tweed tourism crown remains a case of look but don’t touch.
“We would have had a 30% drop in business,” says Mark Bourchier, who has owned the Mt Warning Rainforest Park campground at the foot of the mountain since 2010.
“Mount Warning was a major ticket item for backpackers and travelers who would drop in for a night or two, but that’s dried up.
“We’ve also lost the locals within a two-hour radius who would climb it a few times a year or every couple of years. We never see them anymore.”
A sacred place
Knight says that under local Indigenous culture, the mountain was only to be climbed by a select few.
“When there was a dispute in the tribes, all the elders would sit on the summit and sort out their issues,” he says. “I couldn’t go up there when I was young because I wasn’t an elder – you were not allowed until you were a certain age.
“We don’t want people climbing it and destroying sacred things they don’t even realize exist. It’d be like climbing on top of the Sydney Opera House. You can look at the Opera House and take photos and selfies but don’t climb it. It’s the same with Wollumbin.”
The suggestion Wollumbin might close for good has attracted the attention of self-described “right to climb” advocates such as geologist Marc Hendrickx, who previously railed against Uluru’s closure.
“Mount Warning is a national treasure, and the treatment of it by the people who are supposed to be looking after it is reprehensible,” he says.
Mt Warning Campground manager Mark Bourchier at the campground. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi
Hendrickx claims there are differing Indigenous opinions about the mountain’s significance, pointing to Marlene Boyd, a local elder who told the Tweed Daily News in 2007, towards the end of her life, she had no qualms with walkers scaling the mountain.
“I do not oppose the public climbing of Mount Warning,” she said, explaining that her family’s tribe was the original custodian of the mountain and her mother Millie was it’s Gulgan (keeper). “How can the public experience the spiritual significance of this land if they do not climb the summit and witness creation?”
When told of this testimony, Knight highlights the sensitivities of the debate by revealing “Nanny Millie” was his grandfather’s sister and that his grandfather was against non-elders climbing Wollumbin.
“Nanny Millie was a keeper, and that’s different from being a law person,” he says. “My pop was a lawman who spread the law about culture. As a lawman, his voice carried weight.”
An NSW NPWS spokesperson told Guardian Australia that an Aboriginal place management plan had been completed and was prepared in consultation with the Indigenous community, including the Wollumbin Consultative Group, which represents a range of Aboriginal groups and families with connections to the mountain and has provided advice to national parks service since 2000.
“The Aboriginal community has expressed a clear view that public access to the summit of Wollumbin is not culturally appropriate or culturally safe,” they said.
A delicate balancing act
The NSW national parks service is not alone in facing the challenge of balancing popular walking trails with traditional beliefs.
While the 2019 ban on climbing Uluru received extensive coverage, local Indigenous groups have made similar calls regarding St Mary Peak in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, Bluff Knoll in Western Australia’s Stirling Range, and Mount Tibrogargan and Mount Beerwah in Queensland’s Glass House Mountains. None of those has yet resulted in an official ban, but Mount Gillen in Alice Springs was immediately closed to walkers when it was registered as a sacred site in late 2020.
Back at Mt Warning Rainforest Park, Bourchier believes NSW NPWS has already decided about the future of Wollumbin.
A sign showing the track closure to Mt Warning with Mt Warning in the background. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi
“I’m not holding my breath for it to reopen,” he says. “I feel National Parks has an attitude of ‘shut the gate, lock the gate’.”
Bourchier says there has been “a lack of transparency” from the national parks service.
“I would like to know who they are consulting with,” he says. “I’ve never been invited to talk to them. It’s almost as if they have no interest in local tourism operators. No one has ever asked about the impact on our business.
“I almost feel like the deferrals have been deliberate, and at the end of the day, they’ll say, ‘Well, [the public] haven’t missed it that much’.”
The idea of managing demand has been raised before. Researchers from Southern Cross University 2018 used Wollumbin as the focus of a study on whether actively “demarketing an iconic national park experience” could help reduce numbers on the summit.
The NSW government says it invests in a range of visitor infrastructure across the state’s northern region as part of “the largest capital investment program ever undertaken in our national parks”.
While Hendrickx says such projects are “worthwhile”, he believes national parks authorities are motivated by risk management in steering walkers towards new “visitor infrastructure”.
Mount Warning, NSW, Australia. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi
“This is part of a strategy to create manufactured experiences where things are ‘safe’ by corralling people into the ‘natural world’ – where they are only 200 meters from the car park and not going to trip on something,” he says.
“NSW National Parks sees Mount Warning as a high-maintenance, high-cost area.”
But seeing Wollumbin closed for good to climbers would be priceless for Knight.
“It would make me feel so happy and proud to know Wollumbin will be looked after for my grandkids and their grandkids and generations to come,” Knight says. “Just to know people are no longer tramping on and destroying sacred items that have been there for thousands of years.
“To walk where our ancestors did is a powerful thing. On the summit, I felt like my ancestors were standing beside me.”