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Memories From Down Under

Inspired by a blast from the past

Layer MasksThis Article Features Photo Zoom

Photo Adventure: Burnout
Travels to Mount Arapiles, Natimuk, Australia, with Melanie Bell, Kim Cousins and Nick Biggins.

A long, long time ago, back in April 1985, a talented German rock climber by the name of Wolfgang Gllich succeeded in making the first ascent of the climb Punks in the Gym. Gllich rated the difficulty of the route the staggering grade of 32, or 5.14. The ascent occurred in the small and at the time little-known climbing area of Mount Arapiles, located in the most unlikely of locations‚ the flat, wheat-farming region of southeastern Australia. The local climbing guide reads: For awhile, Punks was the hardest route in the known universe.

For that reason, word of the ascent spread rapidly through climbing circles, and for the remainder of the ’80s and into the early ’90s, the world’s best climbers made a pilgrimage to Arapiles to test themselves on Punks in the Gym. Not only is Punks the only world-class climb in Arapiles, but within the environs of the area’s beautiful orange cliffs that rise above the Wimmera Plains exist more than 3,000 rock climbs. The quality and quantity of Arapiles climbing has firmly established it as one of the best climbing areas in the world.

I never made it to Arapiles in its popular heyday. What eventually found me making my way to this climbing mecca a few months ago wasn’t an exotic photo assignment, but a simple 10-day climbing trip with friends. After a busy summer and fall on several international photo assignments, I was psyched about traveling without having to account for piles of gear. The gear for my Arapiles trip consisted of nothing more than a pack with camping and climbing gear and a camera with a couple of lenses. My goals in Arapiles were simple: I wanted to climb some of the area’s best climbs and to take away some equally classic images during my week in the world-renowned climbing area.

When I make a short, fast trip to an area where I’ll need to pack bulky gear like a tent, pad, sleeping bag, etc., I just rely on my Patagonia Stellar Black Hole duffel bag. I like this bag for international travel because it has adjustable shoulder straps so I can carry the duffel like a pack. It makes it convenient to carry the 45-pound duffel from the airport curb to check-in or for longer treks up escalators or from the domestic to international terminal, all without the hassle of dealing with an airport cart. The duffel isn’t intended to carry loads too far, but it has saved me from real misery on many occasions.

My carry-on bag is my climbing pack, the same pack I’ll use to pack my climbing rack and rope around Arapiles. I always pack my carry-on with things I may need if my checked baggage doesn’t arrive at my destination, such as extra clothes, a rain jacket, a toothbrush, etc. I also carry my fragile and expensive camera extras in my carry-on bag. For this trip, I packed my extras in the tough, waterproof, dust proof Pelican 1200 case. It can hold an SB-800 flash, a 10.2mm fisheye, a 12-24mm DX ƒ/4 wide-angle zoom and a few camera batteries. My camera on this trip was a Nikon D-200, with my current favorite do-everything lens, the 24-120mm DX VR. The camera fits snugly in my cool, non-photo-bag-looking Crumpler 4 Million Dollar bag. In the bag, I also carry a CF card wallet with a handful of 4 and 8 GB CF cards with a total memory of 36 gigs. I carry many flash cards because I decided not to bring my laptop on this short, non-assignment trip to save me from packing more fragile, heavy carry-on gear. Also in the Crumpler are a spare camera battery, my passport, a pen and my iPod. I’m ready for just about anything.

Photo Adventure: Burnout
Travels to Mount Arapiles, Natimuk, Australia, with Melanie Bell, Kim Cousins and Nick Biggins.

Given its reputation, Arapiles has everything a world-class crag should possess, including exceptional and plentiful climbing of every difficulty in a beautiful setting with easy access to the crags. But when we first sighted Arapiles after a four-hour drive from Melbourne, we were under-impressed. Longtime Arapiles climbers and guidebook authors Simon Mentz and Glenn Tempest prepared us for this when they wrote the following comment in their introduction to Arapiles: Described by one pundit as less a mountain and more a scab. Arapiles, like many great treasures, reveals little of its true self when viewed from afar. Upon closer inspection, however, the mount takes on an entirely new focus. It’s two-dimensional appearance gives way to a complex three-dimensional world of narrow gullies, multifaceted faces and isolated pinnacles.

The cliffs are only 200 yards from the primitive Pines campground, and the highest of them is a little more than 300 feet high. Because much of Arapiles faces east, the morning light begins with warm alpenglow lighting the cliff faces above camp. If Arapiles at first seemed familiar to me, that image was quickly erased on the first morning with the raucous calls of the kookaburra, which sounds more like an old-world monkey than a bird, or the sight of several kangaroos bounding through our camp.

Once away from the camp and in the cool shade of the cliffs, our serious climbing commenced. The Aborigines were the first climbers in Arapiles; they knew the place as Djurite, and found the hard silicified sandstone was perfect for making stone tools. Evidence of their search for good stone still can be found even in the most difficult-to-reach places on the cliffs. My favorite climb while I was in Arapiles wasn’t the most difficult climb I led, but the climb Lamplighter did earn a three-star classic rating in the guide. For three pitches, Lamplighter, located just around the corner from Punks in the Gym, follows an arte through some very overhanging rock. The climb places you on the summit of the Pharos Pinnacle for an excellent view north to Mitre Rock.

My agenda for making images was to shoot a selection that would inspire me to come back later for a more extensive photo shoot. I was looking for the unique qualities that make Arapiles special, which would include the landscape, the rock and the many secret places among the mountain gullies and clefts. I’ve included a few shots here of some of my efforts. The silhouette is of climber Melanie Bell standing under an overhanging wall, as close as we’d get to Punks in the Gym on the Pharos Pinnacle. The next photo is taken on lead, featuring the unique gear placements on the climb Agamemnon on the Atridae Cliff; the third photo is a scenic from the summit of Mount Arapiles looking north toward Mitre Rock, with clouds reflected on the surface of one of the dozens of salt lakes scattered around the mountain.

I carried a camera nearly everywhere I went, and many of my photos were little more than snapshots‚ quick impression of something unique that caught my eye. As the sharp memories of my climbing days in Arapiles fade, these photos certainly will inspire me to return again.

Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. A regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside, his images have appeared on the cover of 40 magazines. Visit his website at

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.