Arapiles, Australiaby Steve Bell Jan/2009
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"God created Arapiles first, then threw what was left to the rest of the world... "
Arapiles is without doubt one of the best cliffs in the world and while areas such as the Blue Mountains may offer more climbs, Arapiles will always be Australia's premier crag. Its strength lies in the breadth of its appeal, from friendly beginners' crags bristling with holds, to hair-raising multi-pitch classics that force their way through improbable terrain and from superb bouldering in an idyllic setting to world famous sport climbs with no queues. There are a huge variety of climbs spanning the full spectrum of grades, from the delightful Tiptoe Ridge (6 /Diff) to the inspiring Punks in the Gym (32 /8b+) which was once labeled “the hardest route in the known universe”. There can't be many cliffs with such a density of high quality routes, the majority of which occupy the mass market of mid-grade (15 – 25/ VS – E5) trad routes. After spending a few weeks here, you may well be convinced that on that first Sunday God didn't rest at all; he/she made Arapiles.
Mount Arapiles (referred to simply as 'the mount' by the locals) is an isolated tree covered dome rising from an otherwise completely flat landscape. The cliffs are on the east facing side, ranging from 10m to 120m high. The highest cliffs – Bard Buttress, Tiger Wall and The Watchtower Faces, are impressive walls seen from afar, but they hide much of the climbing. A succession of gullies and clefts slice into the mount at varying angles, which are flanked by quartzite precipices of varying height. It is this topography that gives the mount its numerous aspects, allowing the climber to choose sun or shade, warm or cool. It also soaks up huge numbers of climbers and even during the busiest weekends it's not uncommon to climb all day without seeing another team.
It's not just the climbing that makes Arapiles such a wonderful place either. The serene setting of the mount with its orange buttresses rising from the gentle tree-covered slopes attracts animals as well as climbers. There is something quite special about working out on one of the numerous boulders that scatter the hillside, with the sun beating down from a cloudless sky and a kangaroo or two grazing nearby. Other inhabitants include wallabies and stumpy tailed lizards and at night, cheeky possums prowl the campsite for food. There are snakes too, although you're unlikely to see any. Above, huge wedge-tailed eagles glide effortlessly on the gentle breeze to provide a spectacle for all those belayers patiently belaying all those climbers.
The best thing about Arapiles is its rock. The "Uber baked sandstone / quartzite" is heavenly to climb on and unique to the area. The rock was made for climbing, incorporating all the qualities that make the sport pleasurable. You will delight at its feel, its habit of giving up superb holds when they are most unexpected and the excellent friction which you will put to good use as you bridge, smear and pad up its searing lines. The frequency of cracks and fissures usually ensures good protection, although it is sometimes tricky to place. Some climbs do have a reputation for a big scare factor, on which you may find yourself high above gear pumping out on small holds in a sea of 'babies bums' (a typically eloquent Australian description for the numerous orange and pink bulges that often ripple across otherwise featureless rock.) But these are described as such so you should only find yourself in such a situation if you are consciously seeking it. Some of the most popular routes have become a little polished, but the orange quartzite is generally less prone to wear than limestone or even gritstone. As such, even oft-climbed routes feel pristine. Arapiles offers the full gamut of types of line, from jaw-dropping corners to searing cracks; from rambling ridges to blank looking walls and from gruesome chimneys to holdless slabs. In between are less obvious features which can provide equally unforgettable climbing experiences.
Get a copy of the new Arapiles Selected Climbs (Mentz, Tempest, 2008) start off at a comfortable grade and select the two and three star routes in the graded index. Each one of them will be brilliant. The climbs are too numerous and the cliffs too complex to describe here so I will just mention a few of my favourite mid-grade climbs:
For each of these climbs, there are a hundred others which may well be someone else's favourite. There are many others at lower and higher grades, I just haven't done enough of them – yet.
The climbs mentioned above are all trad routes, but if you prefer clip-ups, head for Spasm in the Chasm (25/7b), Have a Good Flight (25/7b) or the cluster of harder sport routes on the Henry Bolte Wall or Uncle Charlie's Left Nostril. If you prefer bouldering, check out the campsite boulders first, then be prepared to walk a while to get to the best gems – you will be well rewarded.
When do I go?
Climbing is possible any time of the year although you will seek the shade in the height of summer (Dec-Feb) and the sun in the depths of winter (Jun – Aug). Thanks to the complexity of the crag layout there are both sunny and shady options at any time of the year. However, the best times to visit Arapiles is either during spring (September to November) with generally fine weather although heavy downpours occasionally occur, or autumn (March to May) which is generally settled with cool nights and fine sunny days. Whenever you go you can usually count on dry weather. After all, this is Australia!
How do I get there?
From Melbourne the easiest option is to drive. It's about 4 hours to Arapiles. Keep to the speed limit as the police are very sharp. Public transport is a reasonable option but rather convoluted. From Southern Cross (Spencer Street Station) trains leave approximately 3 times per day for Ararat. From here a connecting bus will take you to Horsham (300 kilometers north-west of Melbourne.) From Horsham, do your shopping and head onto the roadside next to the Royal Hotel (Natimuk Road, opposite Wimmera Sports). Stick out your thumb and some friendly soul will give you a ride the rest of the way.
The Chockstone Forum can be useful for both beta and trying to arrange trips/lifts from Melbourne.
Accommodation and Supplies?
Camping is located at "The Pines" (very social, most will have no problems meeting partners here) or the nearby “Gums", which is quieter and more popular among families. The sites are only a one-minute walk apart and they share basic facilities such as toilets, dishwashing sink and bore or rain water. The water is usually drinkable, but some choose to bring their own bottle water. The site is run by Parks Victoria and camping costs a mere $2 per person per night. It is literally minutes from the popular Organ Pipes climbing area but if you want to hang out on the likes of Kachoong or anything on the northern crags you'll have to stretch your legs on a twenty minute walk to get there. A day shelter and toilet block exist although showers can be found in Horsham, 30 minutes drive away.
Natimuk is the nearest town (8km away) where there is backpackers and self-catering accommodation. The central attraction is the pub (the Natimuk Hotel) which has received rather mixed reviews for its service and attitude. It has a restaurant but it isn't cheap. There's a shop with basic groceries, a climbing shop and a few other retail outlets which are not really relevant to the climber. A public BBQ grill and shelter is available for those wanting a change of scene from the campsite. Natimuk is the home of many of Arapiles' pioneering climbers, some of whom have their own instructing and guiding businesses.
Which guide do I buy?
Arapiles Selected Climbs - Simon Mentz and Glenn Tempest (2008)
Arapiles / Djurite - A Rock Climbers Guide - Louise Shepherd (1994)
What else is there apart from the climbing?
Natimuk hosts several annual events, such as the Natimuk Fringe Festival (November), the Natimuk Mountain Festival (whenever a climber of note is passing through the town with his/her slides) and a major sporting event called the Goat-Athlon (organised at a week's notice once guidebook guru Simon Mentz thinks he's fit enough to win it!) Other than that, 'Nati' is a very sociable place where climbers are made to feel very welcome, and where nothing much happens.
About a km or so from the campsite is a billabong/watering hole and rope swing for those really hot days, or you could drive to the Natimuk River which is more likely to have water in it. Failing that, keep going all the way to Horsham (28km) and its excellent swimming pool (grab a shower while you're there.) Horsham is the main regional centre and the best place for restocking your depleted supplies.