To the Ugarapul people south-west of Brisbane, the grass trees, or whinpullin, are protectors of mountains.
“To us, whinpullin are the silent sentinels,” Kruze Summers says. “They’re bodyguards of our mountains.”
Bounded to the west by the Great Dividing Range and extending south towards the Border Ranges, Ugarapul country is a land formed from ancient volcanic turmoil, pockmarked by rock edifices that leap from rich pasture and tilled soil in strange and gnarled contortions.
Among these is Minto Crag, an arc of rocky ridge and forest that looms over the cattle country of the Coochin Coochin valley.
“That whole valley there is the heart of the Ugarapul people, of our little family clan,” Summers says. “We’ve got a lot of stories that are connected to that place.”
According to the Ugarapul lore passed on to him by his elders, the volcanic ring dyke that European settlers called Minto Crag is a giant eel, central to the valley’s water creation story.
So revered is the crag that it has taken on the Ugarapul name for the grass trees that dot its steep basalt cliffs and is known to them as Whinpullin.
But in early 2020, when whispers of new happenings at a secluded spot on the crag reached the ears of the people who live in Whinpullin’s shadow, they quickly discovered the crag would need greater protection than that offered by its grass trees.
Maryrose Gillett runs cattle on 375 hectares that encompasses part of Minto Crag, and describes heading into the forest, to a place where the cliff sweeps up in a spectacular wave of smooth rock, to find bolts drilled up the basalt wall and once-lush vegetation at its base trampled.
Over the months that followed, orchids were pulled from the cliff. Smooth rock was chipped, artificial holds epoxied on to the basalt. A grass tree, protector of mountains, was cut down.
“Long story short, a lot of destruction took place over a very short period of time,” Gillett says.
‘A very sacred creation ancestor’
Gillett’s son-in law is Aboriginal teacher and writer David Spillman, who lives on a property that takes in part of Minto Crag. He says the rock harbours the stories of several ancestor spirits – including Warrayum – and is linked to rainbow serpent and other origin stories around the country.
“For me and for our mob this is a big old being, a very sacred creation ancestor,” he says.
Gillett says Whinpullin, which forms something of a curtain at her back door, is “very significant, culturally and ecologically” to the district.
“It almost gives you an impression of a crouching animal,” she says. “Or it’s almost serpent-like, a sleeping reptile, from a particular point.”
The discovery that rock climbers were scaling its rocky faces made it feel like the world had turned upside down.
The Australian Climbing Association’s Queensland president, Peter Martland, says indoor climbing has exploded in popularity over the last decade. The sunshine state had four in 2014, he says. Now it has 22. When those gyms were shut down during the pandemic, this fresh wave of climbers went exploring for new venues.
And in Minto, Martland says, they found something special.
“It really was, in terms of rock climbing potential, world class,” he says. “It would have been one of the world’s hardest climbs. It would have been internationally famous.”
At that time the 26 hectares of land that encompass Wave Rock were, officially, a no man’s land. To the Queensland resources department it was classed as unallocated state land.
There is no official answer as to why.
It was too steep and rocky for farming, that’s for sure. But Spillman has another theory – and it has to do with the reverence with which his mother-in-law, whose family settled the district in 1883, holds the escarpment.
Some of the intergenerational pastoral families, he says, must have had their “deep connection to the Earth” reawakened at that special place.
“They just feel that place, when they go up there, and they know it needs to be left alone,” he says.
Jon Hodges is a career outdoor educator, a climber and paddler who says he’s spent “a lot of time in the outdoors” and has lived in the Boonah district for more than 30 years.
Hodges and other climbers have known about Minto Crag for decades, he says.
“You’d look at it and go: ‘well we could place some bolts in this amazing place and climb here regularly’,” he says.
“But you wouldn’t do it. It’s just too special a place.”
So Hodges and others like him kept the crag quiet – until their secret “got out of the bag”.
Once it did, word spread quickly through a new school of rock climbers who breathlessly posted their exploits at their new “secret crag” on social media.
Hodges says he understood the adrenaline that coursed through them.
“It’s something that hits you in the guts, for sure,” he says of standing at the base of that sacred cliff. “Your head leaves and your guts take over. It’s this big wave of rock, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years, of basalt. It’s quite inspiring.”
But that is where the shared mentality between the different schools of climbing ends.
Hodges is what’s known as a traditional climber, where a lead climber places chocks and wedges into the rock as they ascend, and their partner removes them as they follow. It’s a style that is both cleaner and riskier than sports climbing, in which bolts are drilled into the cliff.
Hodges and Martland agree traditional climbing would be almost impossible on the smooth wave rock at Minto – meaning sports climbing was the only way up.
“But to go into these special places and alter them so that you can climb them is certainly an ethic that, in previous years, you wouldn’t have even contemplated,” Hodges says.
When a new generation not only contemplated it but took to it with gusto, they united “an eclectic bunch of locals”, Hodges says.
He lists them off: “nature lovers, climbers, Indigenous fellas, people who never would have gotten together before but who all had one thing in common”.
They formed a Friends of Whinpullin group and started hanging around the crag on weekends, explaining the significance of the site and their concerns about its desecration. Many climbers listened, they say, and packed up and left on the back of those conversations.
Some climbers claim they were physically intimidated and that warning shots were fired into the bush.
Whatever the case, only a small, hardcore group of sports climbers remained committed to developing the crag and, over the course of the next 18 months, the atmosphere became increasingly febrile.
The intensity was ratcheted up when a local, family-owned newspaper, the Fassifern Guardian, sat in on online meetings held by the climbers and revealed the contemptuous regard some held towards the likes of Hodges, Gillett and Spillman.
That attitude was reflected in some of the names they christened their climbs online: Ignorant People, IQ of 48 and Hypocrisy Circus among them.
“It certainly got to the point where it was personal,” Hodges says.
The traditional climber says the online debate raged as “one of those internet conversations” where people “are at absolutely opposing ends and no amount of discussion is going to bridge the gap”.
“Then you have these people turning up in the bush,” he says. “And, if they run into each other, there’s certainly potential for conflict there. Absolutely.”
In December 2021, after months of pressure, that turmoil was instantly de-escalated when the Queensland government announced the formerly unallocated state land will be a “reserve for Aboriginal and cultural purposes”.
The newly formed Dhagun Yumba Aboriginal Corporation was made custodian of the land, and put a stop to climbing at Wave Rock.
On Saturday the resources minister, Scott Stewart, will visit the site to officially hand it over to the Ugarapal as inalienable freehold – meaning the land can’t be bought, sold or mortgaged but “is held in perpetuity for the benefit of the Aboriginal people connected to that land”.
“We are blessed in this country to be home to the longest continuing cultures in history,” Stewart says. “That’s why it is important to work with traditional owners to help keep sacred sites protected.”
Spillman says it will be a celebration too of a healing process that brought disparate people together. And Martland says the rock climbing community has also grown from the experience.
“We learned a lot of lessons from the Minto saga,” he says. “You can’t just go charging in, you need to do consultation.”
After the events at Minto, Martland says his group is trying to turn its “pariah” status around, recently teaming up with park rangers to spend hot days cleaning graffiti off the cliffs of the Glasshouse Mountains.
Kruze Summers, now a DYAC director, says he hopes the next chapter of Whinpullin’s unfolding story will bring about “something beautiful” for future generations of Ugarapul.
“We can heal our next generation with this place,” Summers says. “And generations to come.”
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