The current situation is a disgrace and an insult to Park users and all Australians. The Minister must instigate an independent audit and review of NSW NPWS management of the Park and develop a brighter vision of the Park's future.
The walk to the summit of Mt Warning in northern NSW is an iconic experience of the natural world. Views from the summit on a clear day provide an unrivaled vista over the Tweed River Valley, lush rainforests, eroded volcanic landscape and beaches on the coast. They fill visitors with a sense of awe and wonder. From a geological perspective, it is arguably the best-preserved erosion caldera in the world.
The 4.4km (8.8km return) track was completed in 1909 but the hike was firmly established as a popular tourist attraction in 1929 with the declaration of the area around the mountain as a National Park. The opening ceremony was attended at the summit by 200 people, some rode horses up the trail. The standard of the early track construction is extremely high and it is surprising this work has not been registered as state heritage and kept in a better state. The drystone walls and steps among the best we have seen for a walk of this nature. The scramble up the steep 45-50degree slope to the summit plateau and its 360 degree lookouts is another of the highlights.
In its 2002 online description of the park, New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) described the walk as "fantastic" with a "challenging final rock scramble". The same walk is now described by NPWS as "long, steep, difficult and dangerous" The "challenging final rock scramble" now described as a "very strenuous 100m vertical rock scramble". Vertical! As you will find as you read below there is no end to the exaggerations and outright lies being promulgated about this splendid bushwalk.
NSW NPWS description from its official webpage in 2002.
NPWS have closed the walk "temporarily" due to safety concerns over the chain installed on the last 100m or so of the 4.4km walk. The chain, supported by steel posts, provides assistance for less experienced, less confident walkers to reach the summit - not everyone uses it. The chain is not actually required as the rock ledges on the slope form a natural staircase with numerous handholds and the chain could easily be removed permanently, though not as many would get to experience the views. The final ascent was wonderfully described in 1938 before the chain was installed:
"From below this last stage looks appallingly steep, but the roots of the mallee and the twisted stems of the grass-trees make the climbing as easy as a spiral staircase, and the two or three hundred yards are passed almost before one realises it."
I have been aware of irrational plans to ban this outstanding walk permanently for some time but my interest was peaked more recently by an article by Jeremy Pierce in the courier mail flagging a potential imminent ban on the walk, possibly as soon as May 2021. There has been virtually no public consultation on this in NSW. This prompted me to make some fresh inquires with New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) who directed me to their information brochure (HERE) about the current situation.
The brochure has much in common with the misinformation that was used by Parks Australia to ban the Ayers Rock climb. There are vague references to safety, environmental and cultural concerns. An engineering report had been done that suggested there were issues with the chain. A survey had been referenced that suggested that despite a recent history of over 100000 summit visitors a year - according to NPWS no one wants to walk up there anymore.
Claims about visitor accidents in the brochure are completely without context - how many relate to the function of the chain, how many on the steep section? How do these figures compare with other walks? The two deaths referred to in the brochure are completely unrelated to the steep section of the walk or the chain. One is due to a lightning strike at the summit that killed a US backpacker and injured his girlfriend in 2016 . The other was an 80 year old woman who died on the lower part of walk about 1.5km up the carpark in 2019. Both of these deaths have nothing to do with the chain section. As an RFS volunteer, I have participated in numerous rescues of people on the Great North Walk around northern Sydney - this has some challenging sections with steel steps and similar rock scrambles but there appear no plans to close this walk, despite the more numerous accidents compared to Mt Warning.
Clearly, further independent investigations are warranted to sort fact from fiction.
We requested a copy of the engineering report used to justify the "temporary" closure. The report identifies inspection of the post footings as an issue but noted the chain and its connections, which are the critical elements in the system, are in satisfactory working condition. No testing was conducted so the extent and impact of any surficial corrosion on the posts could not be properly determined. There were also issues with some of the basic assumptions in this report about how the chain is used, the loads applied and the degree of corrosion. The risk assessment should be considered as preliminary and further investigations and testing are warranted. I provided some initial expert commentary and recommendations for further action including preparation of a comprehensive quantitative risk assessment that would normally be completed to help guide policy in matters such as this where there is significant public interest. There was no response from NPWS, and no indication from them that the chain and posts had already been removed! The engineer acknowledged the issues raised and was unaware the chain and posts had been removed. I am preparing a more detailed report on my observations to be sent directly to the Minister.
The NPWS brochure refers to a visitor survey:
"There is a high level of community acceptance of the significance of Wollumbin Summit and the message not to climb. Of the 858 domestic participants in a recent visitor research survey (DPIE 2019), 49 per cent stated they would not climb Wollumbin summit upon receiving the request not to climb, most of the remaining participants were unsure or needed more information, and only nine percent still wanted to climb Wollumbin."
We requested a copy of this survey from NPWS but our request was denied and we have since lodged an FOI request. I wonder what they are hiding? In our experience surveys such as this are poorly developed, of limited extent, biased - they interview the like-minded, packed with loaded questions and misinformation and do not provide enough fair background and context for responders to provide a meaningful fully informed response. They are as reliable a gauge of public opinion as a twitter survey. We wait our copy to be released from the FOI guardians. The 100000 or so people who visit the summit each year provide a better indication of the public's opinion on this outstanding natural asset.
(Update: We have since found that the Indigenous claims about climbing are contested. In 2007 Ngaraakwal Elder Marlene Boyd RIP stated: "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!" Read more about her statement HERE. What would the survey outcome be if responders were provided with her views?)
The brochure mentions other concerns about the track:
"a Visitor Safety Risk Assessment of the Wollumbin Summit track undertaken in September 2019 identified other catastrophic or extreme risks including:
• an extreme risk of rock fall, landslide or slope instability causing serious injury or fatality
• delays in emergency response to lost or injured walkers endangering patient survival
• built asset (such as platforms, handrails, pathway) failure causing serious injury or fatality, slips, trips or falls ascending and descending the chain section causing serious injury or fatality."
I have requested a copy of this report.
In my professional opinion having undertaken the walk (I am an engineering geologist specializing in Landslide Risk Assessment) the claims about geotechnical hazards and risks to walkers associated with slope instability are grossly exaggerated. The risks of walkers being killed or injured due to natural rock falls, landslides or slope instability appear VERY LOW and can be reduced further by restricting access during trigger events such as major storms. Similar hazards exist on other NPWS trails that are currently open.
Delays in emergency response to walkers in trouble in remote areas are very common and are part of the risk of bushwalking and generally well understood by the bushwalking community, especially on longer walks in remote places. I have been involved in rescues of walkers in the Sydney region (RFS volunteer) where the same delays occur within 30km of the CBD. It is difficult to rapidly organise rescue personal to extract injured or trapped walkers even in the Sydney metro area. Is NPWS proposing to close every walk more than 300m from a carpark on the same basis? This is not a good reason to ban access at Mt Warning.
The platforms at the summit are currently sound but are looking quite tired and in need of minor repairs and maintenance. Their current condition reflects long-term neglect of public assets by NPWS. The last paint job perhaps 20 years ago? This is a disgrace and an abandonment of NPWS' responsibility to provide and maintain public infrastructure. They should hang their heads in shame for having left public assets in this condition. Compare the state of Mt Warning with similar attractions overseas and you quickly realise how poor our management is in comparison and what the potential might be if NPWS had a grander vision of what was possible (lookup Angels Landing for instance).
Based on the above I have grave concerns about due process being followed in relation to decisions being made about the Mt Warning Summit Walk by NPWS. The NSW ICAC act provides some protection for people blowing the whistle in NSW and with this in mind I decided an independent check on the current state of the track in the public interest was well and truly justified. The notes below provide some detail as to what I discovered.
Visual notes on inspection of Mt Warning Summit Trail 4 January 2021.
Above - NPWS have established a road block about 3km from the Breakfast Creek car park. We arrived about 5:30am. The sign indicated the "chain to the summit may fail" yet the engineering report confirmed the chain was in good working condition. Perhaps they are inferring the posts may fail, and what does this sign mean now that the chain is no longer in place?
- Has NPWS deliberately neglected essential and routine maintenance at this wonderful National Park to run them down and provide an excuse to close it to placate activists who seek to ban the summit walk?
- Has NPWS policy and management of the park been unduly influenced by the political views of its employees?