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HomeIssue 48'Custodians wanted Mount Gillen closed for many years'

‘Custodians wanted Mount Gillen closed for many years’


All of the iconic Mount Gillen (Alhekulyele), against which Alice Springs nestles to the south-west, will be in its entirety subject to “restrictions, entry and use”.

It began as the closure of an eroded walking track from Flynn’s Grave to near the “nose of stone,” the peak of the mountain which has great significance for Arrernte Traditional Owners.

The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority has now released an image of the sacred site occupying all of the mountain, as we reported yesterday, stretching from Heavitree Gap (Ntaripe) to Honeymoon Gap.

Details are still unclear but it is believed Arrernte Custodians Benedict Stevens and Peter Renehan were the key people involved in a process lasting several years.

Mr Stevens told the Alice Springs News he and Mr Renehan follow strict traditional protocol in their decision making.

It is also understood that the sacred site (main photo) may provide rights for certain land owners (see notes below).

Is that so, we asked the authority.

“Who are they and what are their rights?

“What public consultation has taken place with local people, tourism representatives, governments and others” prior to the decision?

The restrictions are due to start in March next year.

Meanwhile police have asked recreational climbers of Mount Gillen to consider alternative walking tracks with the announcement this week of the closure of the walk.

Northern Territory Emergency Service are undertaking a risk assessment of the Mount Gillen track “as conditions are considered hazardous given the extreme heat at this time of year and the eroded path” and there is the possibility of an increase in rescues.

Local historian David Hewitt found this photo (top right) taken in 1926 when working with Adelaide House volunteers a couple of weeks ago.

The caption says: “Black Tracker, Colin Kramer,  Mrs Herbert, Sister Nell Small, Mr Herbert, Mavis Stott” (Colin’s father was Swiss missionary Ernie Kramer and Mrs Stott is wife of Sgt Stott).”

We don’t know who Mr and Mrs Herbert were, but Sister Small was one of the first two nurses at Adelaide House. Sister Pope probably took the photo.

“The interesting part is that the ‘Black Tracker’ was Charlie Cooper who worked with Sgt Stott,” says Mr Hewitt.

“He was the senior Traditional Owner of Mt Gillen and he guided the party to the top.”

The authority provided the following background notes:-

Sacred sites are recognised and protected under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act.

The Mparntwe custodians and the Tjoritja West McDonnell National Park joint management group have asked for many years for the [Mt Gillen] climb to be closed, and for restricted entry to the site.

Discussions have been ongoing since 2013 and have involved many meetings between custodians, Parks, and the Land Trust.

The Sacred Sites Act also takes into account the proprietary rights of the owners of land. This means that a landowner may enter a sacred site on their land, and remain on it.

Under the Sacred Sites Act, should a developer wish to undertake work near a sacred site they can seek an authority certificate from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.

Certificates are based on consultations with custodians and provide clear instructions on what can and cannot be done in and around sacred sites.


UPDATED December 8, 2020

Past Elders allowed climbing Mt Gillen
The ban on climbing Mt Gillen reruns many of the arguments of the contentious ban on climbing Uluru-Ayers Rock.
Past custodians of the Rock including men like Paddy Uluru, Toby Naninga, Tiger Tjalkalyrri and Mitjenkeri Mick were either indifferent to visitors climbing it, or in the case of Tiger and Mick actually acted as guides and encouraged people to climb.
The safety and environmental concerns at Uluru were exaggerated to fit a predetermined agenda to close the climb driven from the mid 1980s by Parks Australia’s Canberra based bureaucracy.
This week we discover thanks to local historian David Hewitt, that Charlie Cooper, the senior traditional owner of Mt Gillen, guided visitors to the top of his mountain in the 1920s.
Surely if Charlie Cooper thought it was OK for visitors to enjoy those wonderful views then that opinion should be respected by the current group of custodians.
What is the use of tradition if it is constantly being rewritten? The new restrictions at Mt Gillen apparently represent a case of old traditions being ignored and re-written and the views and actions of old men being disrespected in the name of postmodernist politics and power.
The timing of the ban at Mt Gillen appears to breach the NT Sacred Sites Act (1989) that requires the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority to provide landowners with suitable notice and provide for written representations and consultation prior to decisions being made.
Based on what has been printed it is not clear that this due process has been followed.
Perhaps a local lawyer could look into it? More so, it appears the rightful owners of the mountain, the innocent people of Alice Springs be they black, white or brindle, have been completely ignored and their mountain stolen from them by the actions of a few who claim authority where none may exist.
The other reasons for banning the walk including minor erosion and safety concerns do not stand up to any scrutiny.
The picture of Charlie Cooper at the summit with his guests in 1926 speaks loudly of reconciliation, of bridges being built, culture being shared and new stories being written.
It is sad that almost 100 years later those stories and shared experiences are being erased by the mysterious motives of a few.
Marc Hendrickx
Berowra Hts NSW
former Alice Springs resident


  1. “Traditional Owner” is a non-Aboriginal concept, Senior, Junior or any other level. It is a whitefella legal concept. In 1926 whitefellas understood and acted on the basis that the Crown had taken possession and sovereignty of an empty land. Thank God there is a bit more understanding today.

  2. Some of the sceptics and the disappointed might like to have a look at/ listen to this recording (note that some people in this footage have since passed away), & go on to ask IAD books about whether they still have any of their primers about local dreaming lines, stories and sites in stock; or enquire at the Red Kangaroo Bookshop on Todd Mall, or at the AS Town Library.

  3. ‘Custodians wanted Mount Gillen closed for many years’ … it is believed Arrernte Custodians Benedict Stevens and Peter Renehan were the key people involved in a process lasting several years.
    Benedict Stevens is one of the custodians opposed to the location of the Art Gallery on Anzac precinct. Hopefully he will be a listened to by NTG. If not the closing of Mt Gillen has nor rhyme or reason.

  4. Charlie Cooper must be spinning in his grave at the thought that the views of his country he shared with others will now be held in secret by a few.

  5. The police say it’s hazardous due to erosion and the heat, which makes perfect sense. What doesn’t make sense is why they don’t close it now at the start of summer rather than at the end of summer?
    Is someone hoping for something to happen between now and then? Perhaps some financial gain(again)?
    Call me a skeptic but too many have perished in the heat, so why not close it now?

  6. Evelyne, maybe there is a trade-off? Secret meetings, backdoor deals and divide the Aboriginal groups is the way this government operates!

  7. What’s going to happen about the towers and access road? Will rent have to be paid to the TOs? Will King of the Mountain be able to run next year?

  8. @ Curious Local: I believe the land where the towers are is controlled by Air Services, hence the Commonwealth. So the “rent” has probably paid already by the huge amounts of monies paid to support the Aboriginal population.
    Perhaps prepare though for an entry fee similar to the one you had to pay to climb the “Rock” 🙂

  9. In the 50s, 60s and 70s there was a breakdown (lack of interest) by the young and not so young Aboriginals in their so called culture and due to that a lot of “story” telling ceased.
    I witnessed a bit of this in the 60s when I witnessed a corroboree in the north east of the Territory where I lived and worked doing surveying and exploration work.
    When I asked the young guys participating in the corroboree what they were doing they said: “We don’t know we just make it up.” They were more interested in the white culture than their own.
    I also lived and worked deep in Arnhem Land where we lived in tents and had contact with a number of Aborigines who were fascinated with our machinery and our being there.
    They had never seen a town, least a city.
    Footnote: The Indigenous people and their culture have been highjacked by the radical left for political and social reasons, much to the detriment of our Indigenous Australians and the widening of the gap of tolerance is heartbreaking.
    Closing climbing The Rock and Mt Gillen, I ask: Who is really behind these and similar decisions? Ask the same question!

  10. @ Allen: Interesting to hear firsthand something I have long suspected.
    Today, young Aboriginal people seem more interested in the music and street culture of African American gangs than they do of their forebears.
    Perhaps it is because the former — being edgy, violent, high stakes and somewhat exotic — offers more to restless teenage boys than an old story about a mountain that looks like an extinct dog.

  11. The Traditional Owner in the 1926 photo is Charlie Cooper, who was from Owen Springs.
    He accompanied the wife of Sargent Bob Stott up Mt. Gillen.
    Bob employed Charlie as a tracker to catch Indigenous people who killed cattle owned by white people. Bob was colloquially and widely referred to, and regarded as, “the King of Stuart (Alice Springs)”.
    Bob “ruled with a riding crop and the force of his remarkable character. In other words, he was persuasive and he used the privilege he had.
    Bob’s son Gordon was also a police officer.
    Gordon was suspended from duty in 1933 after an enquiry into his handling of a cattle theft case, as well as the mistreatment and intimidation of prisoners and witnesses.
    Most seriously, the enquiry looked at the extent of his involvement in the death of an Indigenous female.
    The enquiry recommended that an inquest be held into the death of Dolly, whom he had been escorting to Borroloola for medical treatment along with a number of prisoners and witnesses.
    Following the enquiry, Gordon was charged with causing grievous bodily harm to Tommy Dodd and causing the death of Dolly through deplorable cruelty.
    Considering all of the above, the fact that Charlie took his boss’s wife up the sacred site does not indicate that Charlie approved of just anyone climbing the sacred site.
    To use the 1926 photo to argue otherwise is self-serving and disingenuous.


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