It has been a long time since rural Australia has been at the centre of the national conversation.
Even when the bush was central to identity and myth making, more than a century ago, most Australians lived in the cities. The gap between the city and the bush has never been greater, but the bush is fighting back, challenging preconceptions and demanding attention.
Over the past decade, the income generated from mining has powered the national economy, with good and bad consequences for the communities and towns close to the new industrial mining sites. The predominant fly-in fly-out method of staffing these mines has undermined many existing communities and meant that others have not developed. When this boom finally peters out there will be vast holes in the ground, but not even deteriorating ghost towns left behind.
Further to this are concerns over large open cut mines consuming vast tracts of arable land – a scarce resource on an increasingly populated planet. Mining has long had precedence over farming or conservation in the bush – thanks to a legal hierarchy of use and land value – but this is now coming under attack.
Farmers and other rural residents are joining with conservationists and Indigenous groups to challenge coal seam gas and open cut mine operators. Unusual alliances are forming and gaining momentum across the nation and, in the process, reshaping political and social geography.
For those who live in the cities this is a perplexing development, one which demands that we better understand what is happening in the bush, what it looks and feels like up close – how it is changing day to day life and the land that sustains it.
From her base in central Brisbane, artist Pat Hoffie knew that if it was to make sense to her she would have to go and see and feel it herself. So she loaded her ute, packed her sketch books and camera and headed north west. After fourteen hours of solid driving on the road northwest she arrived at Bimblebox, an upland nature conservancy that is now threatened by open cut and underground coal mining.
Her journey through the land of ancient myth, modern legend and contemporary settlement provides a unique perspective on what this realignment of people, resources and land use looks and sounds like up close.
The outcome is a contemporary road trip, immeasurably enriched by the images, sights and sounds and the strong and unique characters who inhabit this land and who are passionate about it. Listen, watch and read an artist’s journey to the heart of Queensland and it will earn a place in your imagination, and heart.
It is clear that ecological assessments that rely on satellite-derived information are prone to giving a totally false impression of conditions on the ground.
– Paola Cassoni and Sonya Duus, Bimblebox Nature Refuge, 2011
This great country, which we have been presumptuous enough to call ours, and with which I shall be content to grow… For part of me has now gone into it. Do you know that a country does not develop through the prosperity of a few landowners and merchants, but out of the suffering of the humble?
– Laura Trevelyan in Voss (Eyre & Spottiswood, 1957), by Patrick White
I’M NOT SURE why I decided to go to Bimblebox. Maybe it was the appeal of how the word sounded as it bubbled off the tongue. Maybe it was the prospect of a road trip. Maybe it was curiosity about the Galilee Basin. The region had been written about so much in terms of coal and fracking and drilling that I could have forgiven myself for thinking that I should know something about it. But I didn’t. I knew nothing.
I felt that I should – as an artist – be on the side of anti-mining, and I could argue to myself that, in theory, this more-or-less irrational emotional hunch must be rational because of the effect of coal production on carbon emissions, and in turn on climate change and the planet’s uncertain future. Everyone – almost everyone I mixed with – agreed that it was a problem. But it existed as a more-or-less theoretical problem – a concept that drifted in the ethical aether as something that didn’t yet noticeably impinge on our own everyday lives.
When I made a last-minute decision to make the drive, it occurred to me that the motivation for taking the fourteen-hour trip up there may have partly been driven by the same scepticism that drove Thomas to touch the edges of the wounds of Christ. I knew that the coal industry was wounding the country, but I wanted to see for myself how the scars might look. Another possibility floated in and out of my consciousness during the long drive: I wondered at the extent to which my curiosity shared similarities with Hannah Arendt’s drive to observe Adolf Eichmann on trial, up close and personal. It occurred to me that there might be a ghoulish fascination in wanting to see what something that was said to be so evil actually looked like.
My reasons might have flirted with a range of incarnations of the epic, but the preparations demanded a drier, more decisive pragmatism; on the day I left, I threw a home-made swag, change of clothes and a box of edibles into the back of the ute and took off after work, in the middle of the day. I picked up a mate, turned up Ipswich Road, passed the magic mile of motors, headed for the hills in the west and for the Warrego Highway that stretched on to Toowoomba.
Between the flatlands of Ipswich and the highlands of Toowoomba, the Great Dividing Range rises like a belligerent barrier. In world terms, the range might amount to little more than a meandering speed bump running up the east coast of Australia. But to the motorist whose habitat is Australia, the climb is more than just steep and sharp: it stands as the boundary that separates the coastal plains, where most Australians live, from the ‘out there’, where things get a little different. This makes it significant in a more important way; it’s the great divide between what is known and what could be.
On a purely personal level, the range road filled me with dread: there were too many occasions of burst radiator tanks (two too many) during the several decades I’d faithfully (and stupidly) continued to nurture a ’69 Citroen. The pale pink and grey vehicle had been an extravagance – an impossible aesthetic folly I’d committed to almost without reservation. Certainly I’d not been concerned with fossil fuel consumption, given its leaded petrol demands. Even when unleaded petrol became mandatory, I was happy to top up the standard fuel with little phials of lead – pimping for the fix that the car craved like an addict. I’d managed that commitment with a dogged determination until eventually I was able to boast that it was the longest relationship in my life. And at that point the vehicle had decided, more-or-less, to self-immolate – I managed to bring it to a smoke-belching final halt on the other side of a white-knuckled drive over the Story Bridge. It was one bridge too far for the relationship.
The diesel ute I was driving up to Bimblebox was of a different temperament, and once we’d crested the range it felt like we really were heading west.
Toowoomba to Dalby. Dalby to Chinchilla. Chinchilla to Miles. Miles to Roma. On the map the tiny towns were marked as incidents of little note across the vast expanses of sandy brown. The speed signs that slowed us down to 80, then 60 as we crawled through the settlements, made any driver committed to a long haul tetchy enough to not care about the details and differences, which is a shame. Because they’re there. They’re there in all kinds of nuanced ways. It’s just that, like with so many aspects of Australia, we forget to pay attention to the details. We focus on the big picture stuff – the distances, the wide skies, the avoirdupois of experience that fails to weigh, measure or itemise the elusive incidental details that make up the differences.
So the towns became blips on the progression of the road trip –markers for points at which we needed to top up on fossil fuels. The irony of this trip became, kilometre by kilometre, too high pitched even for me. Driving all that way just to check for myself whether we were doing our best to dig the crap out of the country. Kidding myself that I cared enough to want to make a difference. To so many of the coastal-dwellers who made up the majority of the population the idea of Australia being vast and ‘out there’ somewhere seemed enough. We’d all succumbed to a torpor that convinced us we didn’t really have to know much more than that. And if we did venture ‘out there’, we could mark so much of it off as pit stops punctuating a journey that was otherwise nebulous. ‘Why are you going there? There’s nothing out there,’ was a common response. The great nothingness that marked the country on maps even before it was circumnavigated: terra nullius. The concept had stuck.
THE WARREGO HIGHWAY took us all the way to the junction of the Moonie and Bunya Highways, the meeting place where long roads through what seemed like limitlessness intersected at Dalby. That town’s function as a crossing point had provided the very reason for its establishment. Once simply called ‘The Crossing’, it marked a point on Myall Creek that was right in the centre of the country’s richest flats of grain and cotton fields. Reputation describes it as a turn-around point where things get done efficiently, on time and with no fuss. Get it in and get it out. Its capacity to host the largest one-day livestock market in the country stands as proof of this boast. I imagined how all that might work and dreamed up a fast-forward scenario of animals being moved rapidly in and out of pens, while auctioneers worked triple-time in a timeless landscape saturated in golden light, suspended in dust.
Further out, enormous fat bellied silos declared their monumental verticality against the flat land. In the afternoon light their elegant architectural forms appeared to have been designed for a de Chirico dream.
So much of the country beyond the range eschews showy extravagance, as if its age and experience had taught it the folly of ostentation. Monumentality had been eroded aeons ago – volcanic cores were all that survived as ‘features’, after the fuss and futility of eruptive geological emotions had subsided. In place of the tumble of mountains and deep valleys, the land had graciously accepted its maturing beauty. But it was a deceptive loveliness – what looked from great distances like an infinity of endless gentle sameness became a welter of detail and complexity up close. There was a clever trickery to this – the refined minimalism of the land’s forms had permitted an attention to detail in subtle colours, time-etched surfaces, the play of light. In a land like this, the silos took on an immensity they would not otherwise possess. The roads were so flat and straight that I was able to snap them on my iPhone while driving.
The railway that runs west from Toowoomba to Dalby continues west. For reasons left to legend, the point at which it crosses Charley’s Creek seemed the obvious place to develop a small country town. However, anything that Chinchilla’s beginnings may have lacked in terms of imagination has been more than compensated for by a kind of inspiring ingenuity that characterises the place.
Chinchilla has tried its hand and had successes in the wool, grain, forestry and horticultural industries. But the town’s sheer inventiveness in its reputation as the biggest melon-growing town in the country that surpasses any other qualities it might have. Chinchilla’s status as ‘The Melon Capital of Australia’ has been carried forward with a biennial festival that celebrates its success in producing a quarter the total melon crop of the country. Any questions I might have had about what it might take to get a crowd interested enough to drive all the way out there to see a melon festival were quickly dispelled when I read the list of events for the festival: ‘Melon Skiing, Melon Bungee, Melon Bullseye, Melon Ironman, Melon Chariot, a pip spitting competition, melon eating races’ and the famous ‘Melon Head Smashing’ competition, the record for which stood at an impressive forty-seven melons in a minute.
I silently cursed myself for having missed out on the festivals that had already taken place since the first one was launched in the early ’90s to raise the town’s spirits after years of drought. And I wasn’t alone in terms of the appeal this kind of organised insanity generated – apparently, on the main day of the 2011 festival, the town’s population of five and a half thousand had swelled with the enthusiasm of a whopping ten thousand visitors. Driving through the sparsely habited town, my mind slid into overdrive trying to imagine where they’d all stayed. This was the kind of inspired craziness that made this country worth living in: when the stakes get too much to bear, invent an insane, three-day themed party and people will come!
My road-trip mate confirmed my view. She’d been raised in a town called Vineland in New Jersey. Her grandfather was among a cohort of Eastern European Jews who had been lured out from New York with a promise to get back to the land. She described how her own mother would repeatedly rehearse the personal trauma of the relocation from a Yiddish-speaking community in the Bronx to a planned community of approximately forty thousand people in what was called ‘the Garden State’. The square mile of the inner town centre was surrounded by suburbs; these in turn surrounded by an outer ring devoted to the farmlets, which was the area the family had settled in. My friend recalled how much her mother hated chickens and geese to this day. As we drove through the burgeoning country town of Chinchilla, thinking about what it would be like to come back during the Melon Festival, my friend recalled the time Vineland had tried to launch its own future on the back of an Eggplant Festival. She told me that there had been a lot of talk about crowning an annual ‘Miss Eggplant’ as the centrepiece of the festival, and how the organisers were confused about why no-one nominated. The festival had failed.
‘It wouldn’t have failed in Chinchilla,’ we agreed. But it seemed that even Chinchilla wasn’t going to need a festival to move it into the next stage of its future; nowadays, the town stands at the epicentre of the country’s coal-seam-gas boom. Real estate was booming, as were shopping centres and fast-food stores. The fourbys in town sported number plates from a range of states. There was change in the air.
THE DRIVE FROM Chinchilla to Miles is a distance of forty-six kilometres – exactly one kilometre longer than the flight. So you can guess how the road runs: flat as a tack and straight as a die. A fantastic road to let the mind wander a little. Miles is yet another town out there founded on its role as a crossing; it used to be called Dogwood Crossing.
Nice name, I thought, better than ‘Miles’. Plus, an interesting bonus was the fascinating etymology of the term itself; I’d read somewhere once that ‘dogwood’ was the common name for a species the berries of which were sometimes referred to as ‘dogberries’ or ‘houndberries’, otherwise known as the poisonous ‘black nightshade’. The link with the ‘dog’, apparently, came in reference to mythological links to the hounds of the Greek goddess, who was also associated with crossroads.
My mind meandered as I drove and I recalled that she was also associated with the moon, magic and witchcraft, as well as with poisonous plants. This all struck me as rather out of context, but the mind does strange things on long drives. I remembered how legend had it that she’d roam the earth on moonless nights followed by her pack of loping hounds, who’d stop every so often to snaffle up of muzzlefuls of poisonous houndberries while following their dark mistress on her nocturnal prowl in search of necromancy. They must have been made of much sterner stuff than the local livestock, I thought; for them, such berries more often than not proved to be deadly.
I imagined Hecate and her hounds all the way out here in western Queensland, out of place and out of time, misplaced spectres wandering through moonless nights across the vast flat planes through which I was travelling. No wonder so many painters had invented Art Nouveau-style spectres and spooks in an attempt to come to terms with the ineffable spirit of the landscape. Sydney Long’s 1914 painting The Spirit of the Plains, could easily have provided forensic evidence in a place like this. Dogwood Crossing, I thought, why would you change the name?
Miles is a much smaller town than Chinchilla, but its population of approximately two thousand also promises to swell with the industries developing around the extraction of coal and coal seam gas. It was already apparent that the timber, cattle and sheep grazing industries that had supported the economy till now were going to have to make way for the demand for the fuel that was steadily building. So long, sleepiness.
As the day died the light became long and golden, running parallel to the flat endlessness on either side of the road. It spun across the paddocks and through the windshield of the moving vehicle, making it apparent that thousands of insects had already given their tiny lives to our quest. Scattered across the glass like a cloudy network of punctuation marks, they provided a good-luck caul to the afternoon. And when I applied water and windscreen-wipers, the commas of their corpses stretched to exclamation marks – a punctuation lesson that screened the impassivity of the country from the mock earnestness of purpose that lurched and swilled inside the moving cabin of the ute.
The talk in the cabin sloshed on around mining issues. It floated on the detritus of random statistics and emotive predictions. But as the travel talk unwound, it occurred to me that there seemed to be something strangely un-Australian in these kind of ‘big-threat’ issues. The land slid by. We jabbered on with heroic images of towering black cliffs and huge machines that did their vicious business and left the land ravaged. And yet, driving on these long straight roads where morning peeled off on one side to make way for the afternoon sun to set on the other, it seemed like all that bustle and kerfuffle was nothing more that a blip on the radar of this immense and immensely dignified land. It seemed like we were passing through the oldest place on earth.
IN A LANDSCAPE like this, threats of any kind – cattle, mining, monocropping, terrorism – seemed wraith-thin and intangible. I found the great, silent knowingness of the country completely absorbing. I looked out the car and realised I knew nothing. And worse still, although I somehow felt in my own bones that there was something rotten in the way we were buggering up what’s best about this country, I couldn’t find a target to direct any passion at. I was beginning to realise that the things I was defending as ‘that which were best’ in this place – the things that were so different to those experienced in other places I’d spent time wandering through – were composed from an articulate emptiness of space and of silence. And while I was conscious of the language being whispered, I could not properly recognise its cadence.
From time to time, traffic would be stopped and forced into impatient queues by safety uniformed lollypop people. They waited with infuriating serenity for orders through the walkie-talkies, which they peered at intently between giving and receiving orders. These stops were along sections of road lined by a muscular shoulder of coal: my first real view at what I was in search of. But it had been heaped up to form a barrier that prevented any glimpses of the action that must have been going on beyond. Nevertheless, the deep runnels in the roads were tell-tale evidence of the heavy machines that had been travelling the route for some time now; the stops were for the road repair gangs who were trying in vain to set the record straight again.
The mining that was decimating the land was the most recent in an ongoing cycle of attempts to bring the country to heel in a range of ways – the thirsty flatlands of cotton farming had produced its own form of devastation, as had the farming of cloven hoofed animals. Cattle farming on a large scale had decimated the bores and creeks and billabongs and waterholes. The land that had been cleared to make way for their pastures had become criss-crossed by scars of their trails that grew deeper with each wet season. The short history of cattle farming had come to identify the country in more ways than one. The hundred and forty kilometres of the Warrego’s amiable straight roads between Miles and Roma continued through the rich pastoral lands and wheat fields to intersect with the Carnarvon Highway at Roma, home to Australia’s largest cattle yards and proud host to no less than ten hotels.
With the exception of its wonderful pubs, Roma was much like the other towns we’d passed through: it had petrol pumps and fast food stores, schools, an arts centre, a municipal swimming pool and generic grocery stores. We were driving straight through and on, so we didn’t have any time to feel out its differences. Nevertheless, for me at least, Roma stood out as the place where the love so many Australians once had for sheer audacity was enshrined in one moment of history. The details of this story are shocking and spellbinding, and incredibly funny. It might be worth starting at the end, which is a fact: ‘No successful conviction for cattle rustling has ever been made in Roma.’ (Editor’s note: this reference is not specific, but is a widely accepted maxim that seems to have found its way into all references to Roma’s history of cattle driving.)
Captain Starlight was a cattle rustler in Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1888). The novel had been mandatory for my first year of high school. I’d thought the character was fictional until I later learned it had been based on Harry Readford, a stockman who discovered that the property near Longreach he was working on had a pocket of land that ran two hundred or so kilometres along the Thomson River. This seemed a waste to Harry, who slowly but carefully made sure that cattle found their way into the stockyard he built there in secret with two mates. When the mob reached a thousand, Harry and his mates moved them on out before anyone else caught on to what was happening.
BUT WHERE TO go? It was, after all, a very big country. So Harry and his mates headed south. The country they covered for three months was the same country that had claimed the lives of Burke and Wills ten years earlier – harsh, unforgiving country. Harry and his mates took that mob of cattle all the way through the Channel Country and all the way down the Strzelecki Desert past the South Australian border.
Those areas of Australia are as shrouded in myth and legend now as they were then. The desert had been named by Charles Sturt in recognition of the geologist and explorer Pawel Edmund Strzelecki, a man who had been born to a Polish nobleman and who was referred to in Australia as ‘Count Strzelecki’. But the persistent descriptions of the inhospitable and unpredictable nature of that desert made me wonder what the relationship between Sturt and Strzelecki might have actually been like. The Channel Country that Harry, his mates and a thousand head of stolen cattle travelled through is described as ‘a land where there are no averages’ – an alternately bone-dry arid country or a flood plain that is otherwise criss-crossed by the dry tributaries of hundreds of thousands of rivulets that, during floods, carry the water to the remnants of the inland sea at Lake Eyre.
It was also a country that had been inhabited for forty thousand years by not less than twenty-five different Indigenous language groups. These people knew the seasons, the waterholes, and how to ‘read’ this country, to the north and south of which ran a vast trade network for goods. This trade had included items exchanged along the northern shorelines with Macassar seamen. But such knowledge was not sought out by the white settlers; writer Mary Durack’s description in Kings and Grass Castles (Constable, 1959) of the sentiment in Western Queensland by 1874–75, shortly after Harry and the mob were moving through, leaves no room for gentle hope about how race relations might have been in Queensland at a time when many settlers now openly declared Western Queensland could only be habitable for whites when the last of the blacks had been killed ‘by bullet or by bait’.
So Harry and his mates, Doudney and Brooke, had to be reliant on their own bushcraft in order to negotiate the ancient flood plains that were arid, undulating deserts at the time of their crossing. The Channel Country had drawn squatters since 1868, among them the Duracks (before they sold up and move to the Kimberley), and the borderlands of the vast spaces were hotly contested by feisty pastoralists. Harry was making his way slowly through an environmental and legal minefield, and he just kept moving that herd south, quietly ducking and weaving to avoid his whereabouts being discovered.
Over twelve hundred kilometres later, hungry for rations, he traded in two cows and a bull near Wallelderdine Station on Strzelecki Creek. A good slice of Harry’s guile must have worn thin by then, because the bull he agreed to sell was clearly an import, pure white and, just in case there may have been any doubts about its origins, conspicuously marked with the brand ‘A’ on both flanks. Out there it was a stand-out example of prime stock, one that was instantly recognised by cattlemen as a ‘remarkable animal’. It was also all-too-obviously a remarkable stolen animal. Harry might as well have decided to brand ‘cattle rustler’ on his own forehead when he settled for a change of clothes and some goods at the general store in June 1870.
The word got out and the police got onto him. After he’d sold the rest of the mob at Blanchewater Station, east of Maree, for the princely sum of five thousand pounds, Harry was arrested and taken to Roma to be tried. During the trial – a messy business with dubious witnesses and more national interest than the final episode of Big Brother – the conspicuous white bull had been brought all the way back to be tethered outside the courtyard as evidence.
Now, here comes the punchline: after Harry told his slow tale, piece by piece, episode by episode, the jury ended up being so impressed by Harry’s audacity, his luck, his skill as a drover and the fact he’d managed the impossible in a country that chose who survived and who didn’t, they refused to convict him. The judge threw his hands up in helplessness and did a Pontius Pilate. As a response, the federal government closed down the Roma Courthouse in 1873. But this didn’t last long: the order was turned around in 1874, when the Courthouse went back to business as usual. So that was that. Harry’s name lives on in the annual Harry Readford Cattle Drive, a three-day droving expedition that attracts riders from all round to celebrate the spirit of a man who was larger than the law itself.
THE FACT THAT in 2014, Roma still boasted the largest cattleyards in the country was gradually being overshadowed by its growing role in the Coal Seam Gas Development project, the Roma–Brisbane gas pipeline and the proposed $870 million, one thousand megawatt power station earmarked to provide electricity to South East Queensland. This stuff sounded big, but I wasn’t seeing a skerrick of it – this kind of drive through excursion was revealing nothing.
But the myths of audacity, derring-do and lawlessness from the past had seemed to find their way into future enterprises too. I yearned to spend time asking more about local stories that might have revealed similar characters. I wondered about the extent to which all that was dying out in an era over-ridden by international companies in full control of the way the country was being described, divided and despoiled.
We stopped for diesel just outside the gas-lit streets of Roma, where I asked some uniformed men in the vehicle at the next pump whether they knew what the hotels were like in the village that lay about eighty kilometres ahead. I noticed they were part of a squadron of about ten fourbys – all white, all marked with the same logos. They held their arms up in gestures that showed they weren’t from the area; they were part of a convoy that I later realised were part of a mining company fleet. But when I was waiting in line to pay, the local behind me leaned in to advise me it wouldn’t be a good idea to drive past Injune tonight: ‘The roos’ll be all over the road after that.’ I thanked him and wondered if I hadn’t seemed tough enough to deal with the situation. Nevertheless, when I got back in the ute we called ahead to Injune and booked in to what we were told was the last room in the town.
When we arrived we could see it was indeed true: every room had a white fourby parked in front of it, except ours. We were welcomed at check in by a toothy expatriate from Wales who informed us that meals weren’t on in the low-slung car-o-tel for the night; the only eat-show in town was the local pub, an old wooden structure across the highway. So that was it. You could either walk through the bar or through the poolroom. Outside the poolroom a bottle tree with an impressive girth made it difficult to not stop and stare. Its swollen trunk had cracked the surrounding concrete; its bare branches reached up to scratch across a velvet sky. It looked like a beer-drinker stretching after a good binge.
Inside the bar, the atmosphere was congenial and light hearted and chill. The TV was on and the men seemed pretty engrossed in their food and company. The bar girls were a collection of backpackers from a range of different countries. The uniforms of the men perched on the stools in the front bar were that bit more crisp than those sitting near us – I guessed that they were the engineers, or from some place higher up the food chain than the workers assembled to eat together at the long tables in front of the TV and near the poolroom. We took a table and waited for our salads, and watched. It was a pleasant night without any disruptions, and when we returned to the motor inn most of the vehicles were back in their bays. Quiet as a mouse. Everyone was on their best behaviour.
The ute was the last vehicle in the bays the following morning. The workers had up and left hours ago. I felt like a shirker. We had a cup of hotel tea and stuffed around in the room, before throwing our stuff in the back again and pulling out. The drive was through high country, although the steady climb was too gradual to notice. It was 243 kilometres from Injune and Springsure. But between them lay Rolleston.
ROLLESTON WAS ONLY seventy-two kilometres down the road. It is a town that plays its secrets close to its chest. As the guidebooks say, the history of the Rolleston Township is hard to find. It’s best known today as a gateway town to the brooding Carnarvon National Park. Nearby lake Nuga Nuga is a bit of a tourist attraction, but to the local Karingbal people it’s much more important than this – it’s recognised by them as the home of the Mundagarri – the male and female rainbow serpents. This is big stuff: rainbow serpents are the ‘biggies’ in Australian Aboriginal cosmology, and the fact that not one but two had selected this lake as their home made it pretty impressive territory.
Outwardly, however, the town appeared humble and unprepossessing. The only other note the guidebooks mention is that it was once the home for the Kenniff brothers – the boys recognised as Queensland’s last bushrangers. And in this tale nestled a biggie of another kind. Patrick (1863–1903) and James (1869?–1940) moved to Queensland in 1891 with their father, a selector who was also reputed to be a cattle duffer. The family lived tough, but it did nothing to diminish the spirit of the boys, who joined with other renegade locals in ongoing cattle duffing rampages and horse thefts that were interrupted by brief terms in prison. When they weren’t up to tricks they were horse racing and book making at the various local races.
Descriptions of their wayward shenanigans paint them as outlaws with highly developed skills for high-energy exploits. They were recognised as superb riders, adept horsemen and bushmen, and their capacity for toughing it out was legendary, as was their commitment to challenging any and all forms of specious authority. When they weren’t making money around the little country racetracks running the horses they’d stolen, they were making pin-money shooting vermin and handing in their scalps for a paltry sum. They lived simply and they lived hard. As their fame and success grew so did their brazenness; they took to riding armed and moved further out past the ranges to Lethbridge’s Pocket, a place twenty miles from the nearest dwelling, where they holed up in a camp that was as tough as they come. The Pocket was a natural crater on the northern slopes of Carnarvon Range. The steep, high sides of the Pocket tumbled into small, sullen, rocky Meteor Creek. The place still has a kind of primeval stillness. Under their thin tents, the boys managed to subdue the numbing chill of the bitter winter nights by packing branches of gum leaves flattened under blankets.
The Pocket was remote, but not remote enough. The Kenniff’s wayward ways grated on the moral and ethical pieties of their neighbour, a ‘young clean cut German’ named Albert Christian Dahlke, who was the manager of Carnarvon Station. Disapproval festered and simmered into hatred, and a thirst for retribution in that remote corner of Queensland bushland. Dahlke was as committed to seeing that his own version of justice was done as the boys were committed to using their scant resources to live life to the full.
When I first learned of the Kenniff brothers, I’d been completely taken in by the descriptions of how they lived. In spite of the fact that they were ultimately brought to trial for murder, something of their spirit seemed to resonate beyond this crime to inspire through the years. I was not alone in such absorption. Historical accounts tell of how public sympathy for the brothers had swelled to a fever pitch at their trial. This can be partly explained by the growing restlessness of the times: frustration about steadily rising unemployment exacerbated by a seemingly endless drought and ongoing antipathies between squatters and ‘cockatoo farmers’. Newspapers detail how the trial caused unparalleled sensation right across the country, ballads were penned and sung by those lauding what the brothers stood for, and differences in public sentiment factionalised the community.
The details of the crime centred on remnants of the bodies of Dahlke and a police officer. The ‘remnants’ had been so reduced that all that was left on the stony banks of the Pocket’s Meteor Creek were three small piles of grounded charcoal scattered with a few shards of heat-twisted metal and a human tooth. The metal bits were identified as having belonged to the persons of Dahlke and Constable George Doyle of the Upper Warrego Police Station. Those, together with the testimony of Sam Johnson, Doyle's Aboriginal tracker, who did not actually witness the murders, provided the evidence by which the Kenniff brothers were sentenced.
The tale fired up public imagination to the level where protests and petitions for reprieve were taken as demands to the Privy Council of London to reconsider details of the law in relation to the case. Protesters and supporters put their (scant) money where their (hungry) mouths were and raised funds for an appeal. Reasons why the crime may have been committed were hazy to say the least; apparently Dahlke had convinced Constable Doyle to ride out with him to the Pocket to make an arrest following a fistfight during which Dahlke had given James Kenniff a hiding. Many suspected that the self-righteous station manager wanted to underscore his point with the law, but his mission to establish order in the primeval crater proved unsuccessful.
MY OWN FIRST journey to the region had been in a summer uni break. I can recall camping in a silent, almost empty campsite at Carnarvon Gorge, wondering why we’d driven all that way to be surrounded by nothing. But I also remembered the way in which that ‘nothing’ had slowly punctured through the perimeter of my physical being, as though that boundary was of no significance. The shrill mid-summer scrape of cicada calls invaded my hearing like a tinnitus, insects traded blood with me, possums raided our food stores at night. My feet erupted in blisters and I sweated profusely in the heat and shivered at night. My skin’s role as an organ of transfer was called upon in ways more demanding than I’d ever experienced; the landscape made its demands on me and through me, seeming to gradually render me more porous. During that week of camping and climbing and sitting and listening to the silences, it seemed as though the landscape had leached into me and that I was leaching into it. I can’t remember too many details of that time spent there, but I can remember that those non-memories haunted me forever after. There had since been many landscapes in many different countries that I’d found awe-inspiring or picturesque or challenging or humbling, but none that had quite moved into me and infected my imagination in the way my experience at Carnarvon Gorge had. It was a patch of country that might well have been the author of those two well-quoted rules for life attributed to Robert Eliot: Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.
It has been said that, in part, it was the wild setting of the Carnarvon Gorge that had also captured the imagination of those in support of the Kenniff brothers. One of the witnesses, a hardened bushman, described the country as ‘the most rugged he had ever seen’. And it was also said that by that time, the boys represented a kind of character that had almost become ‘extinct’. The exploits of the Kelly Gang were already part of legend – Ned had been hanged in 1880. Yet here was a family who’d continued to struggle against all the odds as well as the authorities.
It was a powerful legend with a popular and vociferous following, but it didn’t stop Chief Justice Sir Samuel Griffith from sentencing the brothers to death. Patrick went to the gallows in Boggo Road Prison in Brisbane on 12 January 1903, still protesting his innocence.
There is a sense that not all was lost in this tall-tales-and-true epic from a small pocket of wild Queensland bush. The public’s empathy for the men was highly instrumental in the movement to abolish capital punishment in Queensland, which became the first Australian state to do so in 1922. The previous century had witnessed approximately eighty Australians hanged every year for crimes that ranged from murder to sheep stealing to simply ‘being at large’.
James Kenniff was released only twelve years after his sentence of life imprisonment. Legend has it that after his release he wandered off to fossick around the ranges west of Charters Towers, where he eventually died in 1940.
I made a mental note to try to find Paddy Kenniff’s grave in South Brisbane when I got back home, as the ute headed onwards to Springsure.
AS WE APPROACHED the little town, a long escarpment ran along the western side of the highway. Strange red and ochre outcrops soared above the softer green forest. The land was beautiful. Perhaps in recognition of this, the local petrol station had raised the price of fuel to an exorbitant level. As I filled up, I surveyed the cliff face for the famous mother-and-child visage in Virgin Rock, but failed to espy any ecclesiastical forms in the glowing cliffs.
Whenever I’m travelling on trips of any kind, my natural tendency towards superstition tends to heighten, and in this place I was on hypersensitive lookout for any signs of the number nineteen: this was the number of settlers who’d been killed here during the famous and wondrously titled Cullin-La-Ringo massacre on 17 October 1861, when local Kairi people had taken retribution for encroachment on their lands. In his novel, Landscape of Farewell (Allen & Unwin, 2007), Alex Miller focuses on the details of the massacre as proof of the organisational capacity of the Aboriginal people when engaging in resistance – the description is of a horrifying event that was nevertheless undertaken with great stealth, skill and precision. The attack was made on a group of settlers who had attracted a great deal of attention in the area, moving slowly up from Brisbane over a period of eight months with an enormous train of bullock wagons and over ten thousand sheep to set up a farm of sixty-four thousand acres at Cullin-La-Ringo. Tentatively reconstructed records of what happened vary, but between fifty and two hundred Kairi people brutally murdering nineteen of the twenty-five settlers with nulla nullas is a scene better imagined than described.
They were quickly pursued by a heavily armed vigilante party. During the following month, the Kairi people managed to evade the mounted posse by a range of tactics, such as leading them across stony ground that was difficult for the horses to cross and alternately disappearing into dense terrain. But on 27 November, the troopers took an Aboriginal encampment by surprise and didn’t cease firing ‘until their ammunition was expended’. The number of Aboriginal people killed in the retribution raid that followed was estimated at approximately ‘sixty or seventy’, and the raids continued well beyond that as the hysteria for revenge continued.
Although it is recognised as being the largest massacre of white settlers in the history of Australia, the current owners of the land where the mass grave stands are, according to the guidebooks, reluctant to accept visitors to the site. It struck me that, while no-one could deny the ghastly nature of the event, the silence that has blanketed the history of the Aboriginal fight to maintain what was – and is – rightfully theirs has prevented a sense of Australia as contested space. In turn, it has reduced our sense of place to a thin veneer of understanding – so few places have been left in which to mourn, and to think and to understand, and to perhaps learn from.
If it’s at all possible to learn from history, then Springsure seemed to me an ideal town for reflection on both the rational and the irrational events that surround a place and grant it a timbre all its own. In the same area in 1943, nineteen people had been killed when a violent storm destroyed an airplane mid-air.
The victims included fourteen Australian and five US servicemen, who were on leave and returning to Brisbane from Darwin when the military aircraft disintegrated in the fury of a storm. In the midst of winds so loud and hail so thick and fast, no-one in the area even heard the crash.
The next morning, however, the owner of the local Rewan homestead was bemused to ‘come across a blanket, towels and pieces of clothing hanging on the fence, just as though they had been put there’. As his eyes travelled beyond the fence-line, a scene unfolded with a sort of magical realism: fluttering in the early morning light, across the surface of the scrub and grasslands that stretched out beneath the glowering rock face of Carnarvon Gorge, were thousands of editions of an American magazine, Yank Down Under, that had been in the aircraft’s cargo hold.
Only later investigations revealed the bodies and the destroyed fuselage amidst detritus that had been scattered for miles. When the remains were eventually gathered together, the Australians among those killed were taken to Rockhampton to be buried, and the US servicemen returned home.
The number nineteen kept recurring in this beautiful and haunting little town. In 1919, the Springsure State School Memorial Fountain had been dedicated to those lives lost by former students of the school in World War I. What was it about Springsure and the number nineteen, I wondered? For a town of under one thousand people, Springsure sure had its share of spookiness.
Nevertheless, outwardly the town was glossily painted and had all the trappings of being ‘well networked’. The prosperity of the farming community had been boosted by the nearby Minerva and Rolleston mines. No traces of the ill fortune you could be forgiven for suspecting might be flitting there among the shadows. The short drive through was largely made memorable by the particularly soft shades of green, with the range skulking just beyond. The landscape silent, playing doggo.
NEXT STOP, EMERALD. The ‘big one’. The one with the supermarkets we’d been sent texted instructions to visit to pick up supplies for the artist’s camp at Bimblebox, that was our ultimate destination. It was late afternoon when I pulled into a parking bay against the slab concrete siding of the market plaza. The wall slogged back the maturing rays of the afternoon sun like a star baseball pitcher. When I stepped out of the car’s aircon I was sandwiched by heat and glare from behind and in front at the same time. I hadn’t eaten since the expensive coffee at the servo vending machine in Springsure, and I felt a bit wobbly. I’d driven through a lot of country and history, after all. At first the thought of the aircon of the great indoor mausoleum gave me fortitude and drew me forward. Once I’d made it as far as the trollies, however, my resolve withered. After so many roads and far horizons, the interior of Woolies was that bit more difficult to bear.
Emerald, like so many of the other towns, had come together at a crossroads – one around which petrol stations and the vast local shopping market had assembled like the spokes of a wheel. We picked up bulk cheese, bacon, yoghurt, bananas and sundry items. I bought a freezer bag to pack them in because I was worried they might spoil in the rising heat of the ute’s cabin. The temperature was a lot hotter than when we’d started, east of the range.
At this point the journey became a little more complicated. Neither of us had a map – we’d relied so far on signposts and asking for directions at servos. But from here on in we were depending on the email instructions we’d been sent by members from the small community of Bimblebox devotees. The problem with this was that there had been two sets of instructions, either of which was relevant depending on the road you were taking, and these had gotten a little messed up in our minds. The last time we’d looked at the online map was in the room in Injune, and we’d fooled ourselves into thinking that everything was perfectly straightforward. In fact it was, it was just that if you decided to go one way instead of another you could potentially add several hundred kilometres to a journey. We headed off down the road to Alpha, but then made a U-turn and headed back to Emerald, to take Clermont-Alpha Road. This was a significant mistake, because for the next 179 kilometres we drove down an unsealed road cut through by deep, red, regular corrugations that tested every detail of the vehicle’s suspension and tore at every thread of calm and resolve that remained in my being. The end-of-the-day heat was intense, and as I drove into the setting sun my resolve was crumbling slowly into a personal pit of suspicion about what the hell we were doing. There was no phone connection. All we had left was a slightly stupid faith in something turning up that matched our directions, which were coming to seem increasingly tenuous.
I cursed my own lack of preparation and concentrated on getting the vehicle through the worst of the shudders on the dusty road. If I dropped my emotions down as low as the car’s gears, I could pretend I was burrowing through a three dimensional minimalist painting – a subtle grey-green slice that cut through between two slabs, one a sensational cobalt and the other a shamelessly vibrant ochre red. With cattle.
The cattle were mixed breeds and hybrids – Droughtmasters, Brahman, Santa Gertrudis, Murray Grey – and they all expressed a degree of theatrical surprise as we bored through their unfenced ecosystem. I wondered how many vehicles came through this way, and became convinced we’d taken the wrong route. The sun was dropping and I was getting dark and tetchy, so I ramped up the music and focused on the road.
The sun was setting much quicker than I wanted it to. I was getting sick of this trip. I didn’t know where I was and I hated being there. The food was going off in the back and I was going off behind the wheel. I was angry at my travelling companion, and at my own decision to come out here. I was shitty and thin lipped when a feedbag of familiarity announced itself as a marker on one of the gateways. ‘You turn here,’ said the map. So we did.
The next part of the journey was over very thin tracks through pastures of soft, grey-green grasslands. I pulled the car to a halt at a slight rise and got out. It was as if we were on the top of the world. It wasn’t high, but the country spread out forever on either side. There was a gentle wind, and the afternoon had an eloquent resignation. With the engine noise gone I could breathe in a different way; I stood for a bit and just did nothing. I thought about all those miles I’d driven, and I thought about how I’d seen almost nothing of the mining devastation I’d wanted to get a grip on. I thought about how the country had rolled out into vistas of very subtle differences even without our noticing. It had been branded as being ‘all the same’ and as ‘nothing but horizon and the strip of the road’, and yet there had been passages of change that marked shifts and alterations in each of the particular ecosystems we’d passed through. It had been a drive across grasslands and bushland reshaped by the score-lines of fencing. And there’d been the towns – most of which had developed into country versions of the metropolitan outer-suburbs, but which clutched secret histories and pockets of idiosyncrasies closely behind their staid little outer-garments.
SO MANY KILOMETRES, so many hints at the strange relationship Queenslanders have had with country. It occurred to me that it was the hidden nature of what was really going on that was such a big part of life here. It was a place where more information could be gleaned from looking slightly askance at things rather than tackling things head-on. It was a ‘don’t frighten the horses’ way of approaching understanding: keep on going but keep it slow, and keep it as though you’re heading somewhere just to the right or left of the main target. Keep your focus on your objective, but not on your quarry.
I reminded myself of this to salve my concern that I might have been tilting at windmills; there seemed to be a whole lot of unthreatened land out here. What harm were a few little plots of coal mining going to do? I was nearly at this tiny little enclave of ‘nature refuge’ and yet I had seen nary a sign of hulking machinery or devastated country. Maybe there was steam coming off me, maybe not. But when I eventually got back in the ute I felt different. Even jovial.
I needed that, because there were more trials to come. Little ones, but little insistent ones. The track was riddled with ant nests that came out of the ground erect and offered no possibility of rolling over them like stones and rocks do. Those ant mounds were as vicious as the tyre slashing grids I’d seen once seen used to deter parking in inner city LA. The grasslands were heavy with seed, the heads lilted and swayed together with a somnambulistic slowness. But to be lulled by the light and slowness and the sense that we were getting closer was to allow the merciless ant mounds to bash into the tyres, like aggressive little emotion monitors.
My travelling companion rallied to the twin causes of bolstering my ever-diminishing patience and attempting to ward off the worst of the impacts by announcements that detailed the location of the ant mounds. It was like sailing through a sea littered with mines: ‘One coming up at 11 o’clock on the left…whoa…look out now – there’s a big one up ahead at three o’clock. Watch out for the shoulder up there. Whoa! (slam) That was a biggie!’
While all the attention was focused on the mounds, herds of kangaroo erupted from the grass, bounding across our pathway or keeping up with us along the fence-line. Their massive thighs looked so soft and meaty as they propelled their bodies above the sea of grass – I couldn’t work out why they hadn’t been bred into beef animals. That would have to work out a whole lot better than farming cattle, I thought – drought resistant, hornless softies wearing moccasins, good for the land, good on the plate, easily herded. It all seemed too obvious. But as I drove on I thought more about the kind of animals they might become once selective breeding and growth hormones took hold. I thought of livestock images like those of James Walsham Baldock’s mid-nineteenth century painting Prize cow Britannia, standing in a north Meath landscape: her tiny head, her enormous, rectangular body supported on spindly legs – a disproportionate, slow meat-pack ready for carving up. I wondered whether the kangaroos might take on similar proportions. If they did, I reflected, then their legs would have no chance of getting all that meat-bulk off the ground.; they would just lie and rot. Or they would have to be put in big cages, just like chickens, and force-fed. Or, on the other hand, they could try developing a line of breeding with especially big strong thighs to handle all that bulk. But then I imagined how their capacity for leaping would be so completely adept that no fence-lines or trenches would ever be able to keep them in. They’d just take over completely – soft and huge bullies of the grasslands, a new kind of megalomaniac megafauna.
That kind of thinking got me over the last kilometres of the drive. That, and wondering about what was really inside those ant nests. Those ants – it struck me – were the only animal that tunnelled out. So many creatures tunnel into, but these guys were involved in actually harnessing the chthonic energies and bringing them into and beyond the surface of the earth. ‘Why do you think they do it?’ I asked in between teeth-shattering impacts. ‘Because they’re scared of what’s going on under there?’ my companion suggested.
The underworld. More mysterious than outer space. The realm of the devil, of spirits of unfathomable rage, of dark forces better left undisturbed. I thought about how long the Chinese had resisted having train lines laid down across the vast spaces of their massive country, of how their fear at awaking the spirits of the dead was more to contend with than their fear of being left behind by progress. And I remembered that nocturnal vision of Hecate and her hounds restlessly wandering the plains around Miles, the goddess of the underworld cranky and cantankerous over the extent to which her dark world was being interfered with since the drilling and mining in the region had begun. And there were enough local Aboriginal stories warning about disturbing the earth to make you think twice about mucking around with subterranean regions. More recently in the history of man, the deep dark sleeping core beneath the earth’s surface had fallen out of currency as a hot topic for mythological connectedness. Instead, it was seen as a realm rich in ‘commodities’ – a featureless black nothingness that secreted veins of minerals and coal and resources.
AFTER ENTERING THE gate, the refuge track followed along the fence line for a bit. On one side, the country we were driving through was bushland that had not been significantly disturbed. On the other side were treeless arid grasslands – the result of extensive land clearing – unfolding as far as the horizon. The thin barbed wire fence was all that kept the two alien environments apart, but the regions might have belonged to different planets. They certainly belonged to different time zones. Despite the fact that the trees we were driving between were not impressively tall, they were hundreds of years old. So much for my idea that the fence lines had been completely ineffectual – this one marked out the difference between cultivated grazing lands and a patch of country that had mysteriously managed to avoid any cultivation whatsoever since the arrival of non-indigenous settlers. Nevertheless, the kangaroos cleared the fence without so much as a bag check.
The directions steered us away from the fence to follow a barely discernible track under a row of powerlines. The poles stood in a long clearing with their legs stretched apart and their arms akimbo, like a metallic calisthenics line-up. The powerlines sagged between them as they disappeared into the distance.
We kept our eyes peeled for another feedbag tied to a tree and when we spotted it had to double-back along a track that partly followed the way we’d come. By now we were entering a low, sparse scrub. The path was two tyre tracks through waist high swathes of wheaten coloured grasses. Before leaving we’d been advised to tie a piece of shade cloth to the front to the car to stop grass seeds getting into the engine area. But I couldn’t think of a way to secure it before I left, so hadn’t bothered. I was puzzled about how the grass seeds could do any harm, but driving though these golden swathes also made me a little uneasy about the extent to which I might be buggering up the car.
I was on the point of building up another layer of fear and concern when, as if by magic, a tall, spare figure popped up from the grass. She was carrying a camera and a tripod, completely calm and poised and unexpected. I was shocked; she wasn’t. When I pulled the ute to a halt she greeted us on a first name basis, as though she’d been waiting for us. She’d heard we were coming, but rather had been using the best of the late afternoon light to capture images in the middle of this little piece of nowhere. She accepted my offer of a ride in the back of the ute for the short distance to the campsite. It felt good to have someone with explicit directions even for the last minutes of the ride; she thumped enthusiastically on the cab-roof of the ute whenever I wandered off course, and jumped in and out of the tray to open and close gates.
Finally, there it was – what we’d come all this way for. And it was so simple, so scant, so almost-not-there that it seemed perfect: a few tents and cars in a semi-clearing poised to set itself alight in the glow of the late afternoon sun. As if in preparation for this golden hour, the Rusty Jacket gums appeared to have slithered into gold-lamé outer garments for the event. The lower regions of their trunks are a deep, rich gold at the best of times, but the light made them look especially regal and festive.
The landholder, the hostess of the artist retreat, emerged from a big green tent. Compact and tanned, she had the forearms and hands of a worker but moved with the grace of Neapolitan aristocracy. She came away from work in her provisional kitchen to greet us, then lead us to a clearing and presented us with a couple of wire-frame beds and mattresses. I’d been prepared to simply sleep on the ground but she advised against it, warning of ticks. Her own bed was there in the clearing too, the little wrought-iron frame looking incongruous with its spilling white sheets and pillows beneath a swag. Those hints of crisp whiteness amidst all that long golden grass and little bits of scrub looked like a Conde Nast invention – as if it had been art directed and photo-shopped for some sleek travel glossy. But it hadn’t. It was, as I grew to realise over a brief few days, just how the property owner did things.
The stuff in the back of the ute was covered in golden dust; the top surface of the road between Alpha to Clermont had decided to hitch a ride for a change of scenery. Before leaving we’d wrapped everything in plastic bags in anticipation of such a thing, and while the bags had done a great job at keeping the worst of the dust out, within the context of the artists’ nature camp they immediately marked us as insensitive polluters. I silently cursed myself for not having planned a better arrival presentation – the rig looked like an incarnation of the perfect enemy to anyone committed to conservation. I may as well have worn a Parkway Drive T-shirt to a performance by a string quartet at a polite afternoon tea. My status as the owner of a fourby carrying a cargo of plastic was bound to severely impinge on my status at the camp, but I resigned myself to emotional extradition and settled into the business of getting ready for the night before the light failed. My hostess raised not so much as an eyebrow, and after she made sure that we had beds, mattresses and a good spot for the night she returned to the kitchen tent to continue preparing a meal for thirteen people.
This kind of hospitality was a surprise: who would have expected that the meals would be provided, so carefully prepared, and that even bedding would be offered? And when I made the short wander up to the mess tent I could see that it didn’t stop there. Outside the kitchen tent stood a big, solid wood-burner stove. It’s no-frills efficiency marked it as the powerhouse of the site. At that stage of the evening, it was choc-a-bloc with sizzling pans and bubbling dixies. And it was also an efficient multitasker: copper pipes lead to a washing up sink on one side and all the way across the top of the tent, suspended from the branches of a tree, to what I later realised was the best shower system in the world: the water was hot; the pressure was strong; it was roomy; the wooden brick crate flooring kept your feet dry; the walls were hessian stretched between star pickets and the ceiling was the tree canopy. It made me want to sing.
Like an animal checking its new habitat, I was on the prowl for the things that would satisfy the lower rungs of my personal interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I took a sweeping survey of the site and spotted, at the end of a narrow track marked by bleached steer bones, an ingeniously designed toilet. Once inside you felt like an idea in the head of Ned Kelly while you attended the call of nature. Looking out its slot, the landscape beyond was perfectly framed – a narrow horizontal slice of grassland, bushland and sky surrounded by the rich darkness of the interior in which you sat. Perfect.
Later on, I found out that the entire design and construction of the toilet – its pit, seat, welded frame, cladding and roof – had all been undertaken by the owner’s resourceful fourteen-year-old son and the caretaker of the wildlife refuge. The son had set up a workbench between a copse of False Sandlewood bushes, and to-d and fro-d from it as he attended to the range of fixt-it jobs required around the site. He’d appear from under kitchen benches after working on a battery for a fridge or light, only to disappear in a ute armed with wire-cutters to fix some distant fence a beast had bust through.
The site was simple, but had everything that was required to stay in touch with – or drop out of – the world beyond. Scattered in uneven lines among the grass tussocks outside the back of the kitchen was an assortment of solar panels, which generated the power that ran the owner’s computer – the workstation to which she seemed attached whenever she wasn’t preparing three meals every day. She was enmeshed in a long and exhausting legal wrangle that had ensued when Waratah Coal had entered the property in 2007 to commence exploration drilling.
THE MEAL THAT first evening drew together the snippets and details of experience shared by those who’d come from a range of different aspects of the arts –filmmakers, photographers, printmakers and writers among them – and most of them had been to Bimblebox before. The last person to sit down at the table was the caretaker. He’d arrived after the meal had been set out; I was aware of someone unsaddling a horse outside the table’s circle of light, and when he sat down to eat he did so with a quiet focus.
After the washing-up that night, the caretaker had a wobbly projection screen erected amidst the tussock grass. He assembled a battery of slides on the cleared mess table and began a show-and-tell about how Bimblebox had evolved.
His words were spoken softly and slowly into the other sounds of the night. The fading images detailed scraps from lives lived on the land – home-schooled children in makeshift dwellings, communities and families drawn together and tugged apart by difficulties, hardships and moments of sheer joy. There were images detailing the stages of homesteads that had been built from scratch, and images showing what little had been left after bushfires. It was heartbreaking stuff. The presentation was elegant and spare – the imaginations of those watching were left to fossick for clues in the spaces and silences of what was not said. I noticed that the station owner had quietly taken herself away from the circle of light and off to her swag in the clearing. Questions about loss – of property, of relationships, of lives – hung in the darkness. But they didn't really need specific assertions or answers.
There was also a series of photographs of the ground, which were so specific as to be almost abstract – close-up, focused details of how the cloven hoof prints of cattle disturbed the natural vegetation and the thin crust of the soil. There were images of these in dust and in flood times, when the tracks contributed to the massive wash-away of topsoils. There were images of hoof prints taken after the worst of the water had subsided, showing how they maintained their shape as tiny, fetid swimming pools of toxicity. This observation was part of the caretaker’s job, and his other role as a cattleman was one that had been maintained in his family for generations. One of the images was of his father sitting proudly on a mare alongside a fence line. It had been taken the day before the old man died. Riding till the finish line. The weight of the personal compromise of the cattleman-cum-wildlife-refuge-caretaker’s responsibilities hung between each of the slides like a series of shackles.
I’d driven a long way, and I was tired that night. Perhaps it was partly this, but as I listened it struck me that there was a fair touch of Patrick White’s Voss hanging around the caretaker. This, I reasoned to myself, may not be entirely too incongruous, given that the character had been modelled on the nineteenth-century Prussian explorer and naturalist Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt, claimed to be the first European to walk through this area. The glowing terms of Leichhardt’s description of the rich, black, clay soils had lured the settlement that followed; in 1860, one of the first properties in the area gave itself the name Emerald Downs to describe the district’s lush greenness following rain, and the town Emerald had retained part of the name.
Leichhardt had eventually disappeared into the landscape during an expedition. The mystery surrounding the Prussian’s disappearance survives in history as a stronger, more hypnotically mesmerising fact than if he’d returned a hero. White’s eponymous novel, Voss, epitomises this kind of fascination that runs at the heart of so much Australian experience with ‘the land’. The great author regretted ever having written it, despairing that it would never be understood, and yet the novel persists in its literary influence as a flawed perfection that dares to address the unbroken relationship between the vast empty ‘blankness’ of the land and a man’s yearning to discover its essence.
I’d read the novel in my last years of high school. I never really ‘understood’ it, but it continued to haunt so much of my experience of Australia. The link between insight and doom forms a deep strand of the character’s passion for and recognition of the ineffable nature of the land. As a result, the characters in the novel seem haunted by the weight of their insight. As I listened to the caretaker’s descriptions of the land – its ruination by cattle, its fragile retrieval as a result of carefully managed farming, its ultimate threat by the juggernaut of mining – another kind of haunted insight hovered in the spaces between his telling, in the words that punctured the night just above the glow of the projector and beneath the canopy of the stars.
WHAT IS NOW known as Bimblebox Nature Refuge was formerly called Glen Innes Station. For forty thousand years, the land’s Indigenous custodians had managed it with agricultural practices that produced a rich biodiversity. In 1800, the land had been wrested from its Aboriginal owners to be used for sheep grazing, and by the 1900s it was mostly given over to cattle farming. Yet the station was at no time intensively grazed and, remarkably, an estimated 96 per cent of its woodland was never cleared. The grey-green, thinly foliaged Bimblebox trees that gave the property its name had none of the majesty their age might suggest. For these were, reputedly, trees of grand old age – I knew from reading that the ones that sported holes and hollows, so important as nesting places for birds and marsupials, were upwards of one hundred and fifty years old. All things considered, it seemed a minor miracle that this tract of bushland had survived intact into the twentieth century. The Environment Protection Agency in Queensland recognised this, and claimed it as being the richest, most biologically diverse region in the Desert Uplands.
In 2000, when the all-but-pristine land was earmarked for clearing during the blood-rush of zeal for ‘development’, the Queensland Government’s broad scale land clearing projects were in full throttle. Recognising the pillage that would follow, a group of concerned families pooled their scant resources to save the little enclave from inevitable deforestation by declaring it be used as ‘a private protected area to protect the significant values of the site’. This sounded good enough to the Federal National Reserve System; it put its money where its mouth was and contributed $314,600 to the purchase price. The proviso that went with the cash was that the land would be managed with a conservation covenant that had to be countersigned by the State Government. As a result, in 2003 the Bimblebox Nature Refuge Agreement determined that the flora and fauna would be sustained ‘in perpetuity’. That included some basic essentials that included making sure none of the native species were interfered with or removed, that nothing other than locally seeded indigenous species were planted, and that the supply, quantity and quality of water was assured. The owners were more than happy to comply.
Every so often, if you’re lucky, you get the feeling that miracles can still occur. Sometimes you hear things that make you slowly shake the incredulity from your sceptical head so that it can make way for hope again. When I first heard the story of how Bimblebox began, I had one of those moments. I can remember it well – the land-grab of the Bjelke Petersen years had tumbled over and out, promulgating the assumption ‘that was just how things got done’ – buy the land, clear it of everything that was there before, build, forget. It was presented at face value as being a process built on efficiency. But it ran under the assumption that progress was best done without so much as a thought for the fact that rolling over context, history and memory might bear heavy consequences in the near future. It did, and it still does.
Back then, Queensland had notched up yet another statistic that was there with the world’s ‘best practice’: at the time it was ranked among the highest regions of broad-scale land clearing in the world. When Premier Peter Beattie visited the site in 2003, he was impressed at Bimblebox’s demonstration of how it was possible to manage biodiversity while still maintaining low impact cattle management.
The eight thousand-hectare patch of remnant woodland in the Desert Uplands must have seemed like a piece of nirvana to the premier; his visit had immediately followed his inspection of two thousand hectares of ecological graveyard – a smouldering wasteland that had just been bulldozed and chained.
There’s something eerily beautiful about destruction. The sense of deep regret has its own kind of fatalistic poignancy. Those vistas of endless, senseless brutality – all those images of trenches and bodies at the Somme and Gallipoli – play a special role in shaping our capacity to imagine the full horror of what we’re capable of. There’s an argument that those expanses of cleared Australian land fall somewhere along that spectrum. There’s something unutterably, horribly beautiful in the ravaged, smoking bones of a land that’s been carefully managed for forty thousand years. ‘See that?’ the evidence seems to ask, ‘We did that.’
The caretaker and the owner were among those who had initially pooled their funds to make the dream work. The initial vision for the dream had been ignited by the passion for the Bridled Nail-tail wallaby held by researcher Carl Rudd, who had been working near Emerald when the wallaby had been earmarked as endangered. Carl had sent out a call among the locals to buy up a piece of land that could be turned into an example of ecologically sensitive land management; at the time, the caretaker and the owner were already living on a self-sufficient cattle property they’d been managing with ecologically sensitive objectives. His lifetime of experience living on the land made the caretaker the obvious choice to manage Bimblebox.
Even so, during the first decade – a time plagued by a drought that showed no signs of abating – the caretaker’s extensive skills and patience were sorely tried. The land cracked open, the age-old Bimblebox trees hung in the heat of the day like the resigned survivors they were and the strongest of the tolerant cattle barely persevered, until eventually – after every fibre of commitment to the ongoing management of the property had been trialled – the drought broke.
The rains were a relief – they brought life and hope and prospects. But they also brought another kind of hard work. The charter to maintain the property in an ecologically sensitive way demanded a great deal more than soft goodwill. In the new wet, weeds celebrated by running rampant – mimosa, coffee senna, rubber vine and other species had to be chipped and killed. That kind of work is hard and long and repetitive.
The buffel grass that had been introduced by so many of the district’s graziers, and which failed to heed fence lines, was another constant battle to control. The days and months of solitary work were broken intermittently by visits from city experts. One of the primary aims of the property was to host researchers to monitor the integration of cattle grazing and nature conservation. The Queensland Herbarium maintained ongoing research on the use of fire as an integral aspect of land management. Other groups committed to the importance of biodiversity in the Desert Uplands moved in and out of the refuge – Bimblebox is critical to such studies. Some came as volunteers to help with the unending tasks the property demanded, but the bulk of the work was left to the caretaker. Later on, I had a chance to read some of his poetry and prose. It struck me that he’d spent a lot of time alone.
During the few days I had at Bimblebox, I browsed through publications left on the communal table. Bits of conversation tie in to what I’d been reading, stories that told of what had been seen before – or that day – or what someone else had seen. The stories all described things that were tiny and fragile or numinous and fleeting. There were sightings of a small bird – or a call someone had heard. There were descriptions of how cattle moved as a herd when crossing new territory. There were discussions about Aboriginal farming methods as people pored over tiny piles of collected wild grass seeds. Next to the images of huge machines moving fields of glossy black coal, these details seemed so insubstantial, so lacking in impact, so needing of context and connection.
I may not have seen too much evidence of the effects of coal mining on the drive up to Bimblebox, but the images that others had taken, and the articles they’d harvested and the stories they told, were evidence that it had well and truly arrived. The photos were on iPhones and in catalogues and publications and one of the visitors had taken video images by attaching a gopro camera to a drone. The images had a stark, romantic magnificence to them: endless walls of blackness framing compact, efficient machinery; images of natural landforms sculpted into forms with gorgeous, looping, machine-made curves. But the beauty of such imagery was of the clean-cut organisation of advertising and management. They stood in sharp contradistinction from the muted greens and greys and golds, and flitting shadows of Bimblebox. Like so much Australian landscape, Bimblebox is about the fugitive, the sense of silence and space. It is about leaf-flicker and stages of light saturation and bleaching. It is about the shock of a form appearing, then disappearing into the landscape again, so that the divisions between the land and the things that lived on it and with it are often difficult to determine. Like a flickering mirage – a kind of miasma where the energy of place flowed freely through things more porous.
I’d been under the misapprehension that the worst fear for Bimblebox was that it was territory that could be crudely compared to that of Jerusalem – intact, but completely surrounded by states that wanted the land. A green refuge surrounded by land marked for mining. But I soon came to realise that the truth was far more dire, and that was the point at which my hope that miracles might still be possible crumbled in the teeth of ironic injustice: the Nature Refuge Agreements that had been so inspiring, so hard-won, so representative of the fact that local, state and federal levels could collaborate when there was something worth fighting for, have no clause that prevents mining on the site. I was aghast. This was a kind of red tape, fine-print insanity. How could the government have overlooked this kind of detail? This was another kind of Dracula that refused to die – a greed that resisted every stake aimed at its rotten little heart.
IN 2007, A little-known coal company announced to the landholders its intention to commence exploration drilling on the site. It only took twenty holes and a few months; after that, Waratah Coal was acquired by Clive Palmer. Soon after it made its second pronouncement: plans to clear more than half of the Refuge for coal; the rest would be used for underground, ‘longwall’ mining. I thought of that big muscular shoulder of coal we’d driven past on the road up, looked around at the lacery of my surroundings, and imagined it all being crushed flat. This was just nuts, I thought. All those tiny little bits of wildlife, all that fragility and whispering-ness and subtle colour, and all those webs of barely-there interactions about which we still know so little and through which we could potentially learn so much – all this was going to be simply rolled over, bulldozed and made ‘gone’. So much for biodiversity. So much for the lingering suspicion that there might be so much more to be learned from an ecosystem that’s been intact for a long, long, long time.
I was well armed with a lifetime of scepticism for glazed-eyed pinko rhetoric, but this situation made a mockery of decisions that had been made on a number of levels and with keenly reasoned, clear objectives. Here was a situation where the Federal Government had put its money behind establishing the former station as a refuge; the conservation covenant had also been countersigned by the state government, which had reinforced the environmental importance of the site through the endorsement of the Environmental Protection Agency; where locals had worked hand-in-hand with professional agencies and institutional research teams to make a demonstrable success of the site in terms of working towards its shared objectives; and yet, in the face of private purchasing power, not a thing could be done.
Where was the same kind of public support that had thrown its weight behind Harry Readford’s audacious commitment to taking on the impossible? The small group of private citizens that had taken on Bimblebox might have shared none of Harry’s lawless ways, but they sure as hell had a good share of his pluck and courage and understanding of country. And where was the public support that demanded, all things considered, you had to take context into consideration when you decided someone’s fate? When the government put the Kenniff brothers on trial, there were enough members of the public left who still knew exactly how tough that country was and exactly what kind of spirit it took to make a go of it, and on the basis of that recognition, to demand redress. And they put their shoulders into challenging the law’s capacity to take that into account. Sure, their protests weren’t successful in saving Patrick Kenniff from the gallows, but they had been successful in contributing to the eventual banning of capital punishment in the state.
This was another chapter in the rowdy, crazy, sometimes sad and often infuriating history of Queensland. It was possible to see it in a couple of ways: you could tell it as a story where the dreams and commitment of ordinary people were being completely rolled over by the juggernaut of commercial enterprise; or you could interpret it as an almost incomprehensible oversight within government legislation that lead to its own failure to protect the land it had deemed worthy of conserving. You could tell the story from an emotional point of view or from a cooler legal perspective, but either way it was a cock-up. You could also tell the story, it occurred to me, in terms of the massive misuse and abuse of taxpayer dollars that had gone into buying the property in the first place, and then simply letting the entire enterprise go down the shute, as it were. Part of that was my money that they’d spent, and now, because of some legal oversight, my investment was being trashed with a ‘too bad, so sad’ dismissiveness. And furthermore, I argued with myself, if this is a test case about how the state government goes about protecting values and objectives agreed to at all level of government, what will be the next domino to fall?
The plight of Bimblebox wasn’t simply some soft sentiment, touchy-feely platitude about protecting the weak and vulnerable (all those furry and feathered little endangered species), it was about protecting the law. And secondly, it was about protecting the economy of the future.
By this time in history the necessity for maintaining ecologically sustainable futures was a no-brainer. It was no longer some cute hippy ideal – it was a tried and tested alternative, enshrined as an objective in the country’s 1992 paper, National Strategy for Environmentally Sustainable Development, and one with international implications. The whole world recognises that sustainability comes at a price, but that that price is an investment; it’s what you pay for long-term gains – financially, ecologically, socially, culturally.
For Australia to reach its internationally agreed targets established by the Convention for Biological Diversity, there was going to have to be collaborative agreements between government and private land owners, just like the pact made to protect Bimblebox. Given that around two-thirds of land in Australia is held within private tenure, the legal loophole evident in the fact that Bimblebox was privately owned and managed land rather than a publically owned reserve, made it highly unlikely that any national strategies for biodiversity were ever likely to be met.
What a downer!
Over the remaining days I pored through details of any report or paper I could get my hands on. I did it in between taking stabs at art. I was there as an artist, I told myself, and as a responsible art citizen I’d better acquit my art responsibility. But the reading kept getting in the way – as I read on, I was aware that in the shade of the kitchen tent, in front of the flotilla of solar panels, the landowner kept beavering away at more aspects of the reports. I became aware of the scale of the ongoing battle, and of the sense of urgency that had taken over the lives of those individuals who had tied their lives so closely to this piece of land. It was clear that we were all there on borrowed time. The hospitality and the support from these people were stretching their meagre resources to the limit. While they were hosting the visitors, there were cattle and fences and gardens that were untended to at home.
They didn’t ask for money – those who’d come for the week made a contribution, but the most cursory estimation made it apparent that it wouldn’t have covered costs. I put this to the landholder but she’d have none of it. The mien for hospitality ran deep in her Neapolitan veins. She’d supplied the vegetables from her own land, and the meat. I knew after a space of a few days that she was completely tied to the purpose of saving her land – every second spent outside of hospitality duties was devoted to that computer, and the business of working on reports and missives and newsletters. And just as deeply as that passion for her adopted land ran another commitment that she’d been genetically preconditioned to respond to. When I asked her what she thought she might remember most vividly about these camps when she was old and grey, I thought she might have had something really insightful to say about the camaraderie and the battle. But she simply replied, ‘Whether I’d fed everyone well enough.’
THE DAYS WERE broken into sections by three meals. The landowner would ring a cowbell attached to the sink and the artists would return like domesticated animals from various directions. Some mucked around attaching cameras to drones; others filmed; one was harvesting grass-seeds and casting them in tiny resin axe-heads fabricated from silicone moulds; another was engrossed for hours on end, bent over the tiniest miniature of the landscape; and my travel mate had slung up a hammock out of sight under some tree. I didn’t have a clue where she was or what she was working on for the entire duration of the camp.
But I did find out on the way home, when the little guys started evacuating from all the various crevices and clothing, that she’d managed to sling that hammock right in the middle of a tick colony.
I dabbed at this and that and felt completely extraneous. The facts of the matter were starting to hook into me with the same kind of efficiency as the local ticks. When they decided to bury their head in, they really got under the skin. And they started an itch that wasn’t going to let up. But I kept persevering; making art seemed to be a distraction from all those facts. I made watercolours and I made drawings. Then I started marking up the tree-trunks. And then I started a body of work that made no rational sense at all, but made me feel better. Cooped up in that little enclave knowing that very big things were about to mow it down was a bit like being a trapped creature. I wanted to bite back. So this is what I did:
Bimblebox work: Bones
When I got up there I realised that, as it was officially an artists’ camp, I should really be producing some work. So on the first morning, like a dutiful daughter, I perched under a tree on the edge of my chain-wire camp bed and made daubs at a watercolour. It seemed stupid and futile. So when resourceful fourteen-year-old Carl worked out how to cook the local sticks into perfect charcoal, I tried a bit of that. But any kind of picture making seemed silly as well.
The fourteen-hour drive had left my head buzzing with images of the trucks and shoulders of coal and the spectre of what was happening out there, all around the borders of the tiny fragile enclave. Not that I could see much of it; it was just that I knew about it. There was a kind of tension to the place that ran taut as a violin string.
Anyway, for some reason I just started drilling. Drilling seemed to make some inverse, perverse sense. I harvested some bleached bones that someone had used to line the grass track to the dunny and I started to drill them. Tiny holes like lacework. Again and again and again. Just like they were doing outside the camp on those big sites where they were plunging that core into the aquifers all around the borders. Digging and drilling into the tributaries and seams and rivulets of the big, underground, wet heart of the country that had sustained it for millennia.
All I had were the bones. The bones that were left on the surface of the dry land. So I drilled them until they were like lacy funereal residues, like froth on a beach, like embroidery on the elbows of what was left. When I’d finished that I still couldn't leave them alone. So I started sanding them with scraps of sandpaper until a bloom came to the surface. Smooth and shiny. And strangely pink.
But I still couldn't leave them alone. I started to stroke them with charcoal marks – stroking, stroking, rubbing the carbon in, stroking again into the smooth sheen of the bones’ contours.
But I still couldn't let them be. I mixed up some ochre with the tallow from a beast we'd boiled and eaten. I pounded it and mixed it till I could apply it to the inner contours of the bones. When it dried it was like a golden patina, like the earth had graced those bones with a golden light.
The bones seemed done. I played with them for a while in the dying light of the day, rearranging them on bits of country so that they lay together and each caught the contours of the other and reflected the light. I toyed with them and posed them for the camera until I was done with them and they were done with me.
And then I pointed them.
In the face of all the threat and imminent doom to the place, art seemed such small stuff. I guess you could say I’d decided that under the circumstances that magic might be worth trying. It may have never worked before, I reasoned, but there was always a first time.
The data on the reports was pretty alarming stuff. But some of it, I have to say, also struck me as funny. It was hard not to see the humour in it, and it was a good way to forestall the sense of doom.
Sitting in the middle of the fragile enclave, the reasons to not mow it all down in a single black act of greed could be argued through aesthetics alone. But that clearly was never going to be enough. However, the tiny fragile creatures that were members of the endangered species list were a kind of weapon. Once it could be argued that their habitat’s destruction was going to lead to their demise, they could be used as a strong case against the mining. So the reports were littered with references to these tiny little obscure animals: the ‘regionally significant’ Great Brown Broodfrog, the desert mouse, and the (very famous and important) black-throated finch were some of them. These little creatures each had an entire posse dedicated to their survival – I read of the ‘Desert Mouse Management Team’ and wondered what kind of uniforms they’d selected.
I could imagine all these little guys lined up like a miniature army facing off the huge draglines, tiny brows furrowed and sweaty with concentration, staring down the faceless enemy in a last-ditch effort to save their turf. It seemed like a tough pitch to win. I mean, people will fall in behind threats to spectacular animals like elephants and tigers and rhinos, but these little animals lacked something in the line of marketability.
But it’s sometimes a mistake to underestimate the power of the tiny – the black-throated finch had already proved to be an absolute doozy in terms of keeping the enemy at bay. The species had been regularly monitored since 1955, and is registered as endangered. The fact that the sighting of black-throated finches on Bimblebox is also the first known report of the species on existing conservation reports made their presence absolute gold in terms of the fight against the argument for coal mining there. The bird’s success was enough to raise the ire of the owner of Waratah Coal, Clive Palmer. He spent quite a lot of press on it, even messing around with its name in typical street fighting bad boy style. First, he called its endangered species status into question. He said, ‘The black-throated finch has wings and can fly. It’s found right throughout Queensland.’ But the environmentalists fought back: ‘No it’s not!’. And then Big Clive had a go at them too: ‘[The environment protestors are] not really concerned about their fellow citizens. They’re not concerned about the people that are unemployed. They’re not concerned about the children that want Christmas presents their parents can’t afford. They’re not concerned about any of those things. They’re more concerned about the black-rooted [sic] finch.’ Now those were fighting words: that evil black-rooted finch, sucking up all that oxygen and publicity! Those evil environmentalists, turning their backs on all those poor present-less children. That most evil of birds – a curse on the unemployed. But Clive was in full sail, ‘I’m more concerned about the people who want jobs, the community that needs investment and the future that we can offer for people in central Queensland, rather than the Black-throated Finch. And fortunately, if I was the finch I’d be more concerned about them, but I’m not.’
After a good ten minutes of laughing, that last statement got me thinking. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I wanted to know. It seemed that if he were the finch, he’d be concerned about…who? It was too much for me to think about. I liked the image of Clive morphing into the black-rooted finch, though. You had to laugh. It stopped you from slitting your own wrists.
But the details of Warratah Coal’s Environmental Impact Study ran from the ridiculous to the sublime. Some of the passages dived into descriptions that hinted at the deep unknown of what was being tampered with. Some of the terminology describing what lay beneath the surface of the earth, and the coloured maps of an entire subterranean realm, suggested a whole new dimension to what was at stake. Terms like ‘Lower Triassic Dunda Beds’ and the ‘Lower to middle Triassic Clematis Sandstone’ were evidence of the age and eminence of the country we were standing on.
The bedrock for this area wasn’t so far beneath the surface and even to those as ignorant in matters of hydrogeological research as myself, those terms suggested that this enormously old land was fed by waterways suspended in the rock deposits that ran beneath its surface. ‘Triassic’ suggested dinosaurs; ‘Dunda Beds’ suggested something even more primitive.
The stratigraphy of the Galilee Basin provided in another section of the Environmental Impact Study made me realise that the moniker ‘Basin’ did not describe the outer country at all, but rather was another name for the Great Artesian Basin – the complex system of interrelated underground water deposits that had permitted the biodiversity of the outwardly dry country to flourish. It was informally referred to as the ‘GAB’ in other areas of the report, something that struck me as a little lacking in respect for something that is recognised as the most important and iconic of Australia’s groundwater resources. For millennia it had provided the deep secret store to life in the country, and despite all the data and descriptions of the report, the GAB still managed to retain its mystery – as dark and large and hidden as a magic kingdom. The fact that so little was known about how mining and coal seam gas extraction might affect the GAB made it seem like a pretty substantial risk. I’d heard plenty of arguments about how small the coal sites seemed in comparison to the size of the country out here, but the point here was that any interference in an underground tributary of the GAB would automatically be linked right across the entire system.
I imagined that any toxins leaking in unbeknown would spread like an infection right through the network of capillaries. I also imagined even greater calamities, if holes or cracks or ruptures in the GAB resulted in irreparable seepage: bye-bye water; bye-bye biodiversity, farms, futures.
GROUNDWATER RESOURCES ARE crucial to the sustenance of the entire region. They are crucial to the entire country. They are mysterious underwater pools that had pulled at the imagination long before the arrival of non-indigenous settlers. Their crucial importance is woven into any number of Aboriginal tales; my mind jumped back to what I’d heard about Nuga Nuga Lake – that passage of water behind Rolleston that was the purported home of two Rainbow serpents. The lake is the largest natural water body in the entire Central Queensland Sandstone Belt, and there are strange stories about the time the vast body of water – about eight kilometres long and four kilometres wide – suddenly vanished overnight.
Legend tells that on Christmas Eve 1944, a series of muffled explosions shook the ground and the waters angrily swirled and surged. Crockery in the farmstead kitchens trembled and shook, the tents and boats of the holiday-makers camped on the lake’s edges juddered and tossed. No one could tell where the explosions were coming from. They seemed to growl deep from the earth itself, or to echo from the hills beyond, and yet it was a perfectly clear, star-studded night. The next morning, locals and holiday-makers gathered together on the lake’s edges to witness a scene of apocalyptic dimensions. The water had completely disappeared, and thousands of bodies of fish, eels and turtles lay gasping in the mud as the new day dawned.
No-one could say exactly where or how the explosion had occurred. Some reasoned that American bombers travelling between Brisbane and Darwin might have dumped part of their bomb load into the lake, and that the explosion had ruptured the lake floor. However when the lake dried again on three occasions between the 1970s and 1980s, careful investigations of the lake’s dry bed revealed no evidence of this having ever occurred. The event remains a mystery, and the wildlife has returned to the lake again and again. Locals speak of an underground layer of shale that runs all the way through to Springsure. They say that this layer must have subsided, opening the way for the four thousand acres of water to travel back through the network of connections that criss-cross the underbelly of the country.
To the local Karingbal people, the two fearsome Moondagarri that reside in the lake need the water to keep their scaly bodies moist. If the lake were to dry up completely, it would be a sign that the Rainbow Serpents had finally chosen to resign their custodianship of this country. This, of course, provided another completely different way of reading the stratigraphy of the Great Artesian Basin – one that wasn’t recorded in the neat coloured maps of the subterranean region. Fanciful? Maybe. But as rich and dark as Dante, and as potent with imaginative potential to affect future generations.
So much knowledge of this region had already been lost. The place was once the site of a rich, complex system of ledge burial sites for the Karingbal people. Installed in niches looking down on the lake, burial cylinders had been placed in rock ledges along with a range of burial artefacts. But all these had been plundered during the 1950s. The massive potential for deeper understanding of the land and the peoples who have known it intimately for millennia was withdrawn when that material data of pre-contact Aboriginal culture was stolen. Yet in the lake bed, clay and stone ground ovens suggest that the lake itself, and the waters that feed it, still remain important sites for learning about aspects of the country that we have only just begun to become aware of. I thought about the story about how the lake will dry up once the Moondagarri decide to leave. I wondered about seasonal transitions that might be linked to the coming and goings of the Moondagarri in the past, and I wondered about what it might take to shift the decisions of the Moondagarri to not come back at all.
Of course, one of the things this little refuge enclave gave me was a little more time to think, particularly about what the potential disturbance to the GAB might mean to the underground waterways that connected to the lake. Of course, hydrogeological research wasn’t going to bother itself with such details and ponderings; it didn’t have the luxury of time. The research was a weights and measures kind of thinking anyway, not the time-taking meanderings that could picture the relationships between place and memory and myth that had lasted with a strangely timeless persistence right up to the present.
The official papers I ended up rifling through – Bimblebox’s report entitled Submission on the Galilee Coal Project EIS – presented another kind of abundance altogether – an abundance of data that was impressive in terms of what the coal mines planned for Queensland were likely to achieve. I have to confess that the data was staggering in another way entirely:
…it is likely that in the order of 190 million tonnes of thermal coal will be exported from Queensland, primarily to be used for electricity generation overseas. When burnt, this amount of coal would contribute around 455 million tonnes of CO2 every year to the global climate. In relative terms, this would amount to nearly 85% of Australia’s total emissions in 2011.
That passage described Queensland’s effort in the world’s global crisis. But the specific contribution of the mine ear-marked to take over Bimblebox was impressive in itself:
Over the life of the mine, with an estimated resource of 1.4 billion tonnes of raw coal, the total emissions from the coal produced at this mine would be around 2.4 billion tonnes of CO2. This is equivalent to: around 420% of Australia’s annual national emissions; around 5% of the world’s annual emissions; around 0.37% of the global budget of 643,000 mt of carbon dioxide emissions; if we are to have a reasonable chance of keeping global warming below the internationally agreed threshold of 2 degrees C warming above preindustrial levels.
Sheesh! While I’d been musing about the potential local calamities, the report was describing figures that were cataclysmic on global terms. And all this at a time when right across the world the move away from dependency on fossil fuels was gradually gaining a groundswell of support. The National Strategy for Environmentally Sustainable Development had been penned, as mentioned, in 1992, and emphasised the enhancement of:
…individual and community wellbeing and welfare by following a path of economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations; to provide for equity within and between generations; to protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life support systems.
The idea of safeguarding ‘the welfare of future generations’ was an interesting way of thinking about how to approach living your life on the planet. But the idea of Australia as a kind cut-and-come-again magic pudding drawn from the cranky little character in Blinky Bill had proved thus far to be a convincing one for those dedicated to exploiting resources above all else. The fact that the continent was just so magnificently huge in terms of all the little countries in Europe, together with its age and apparent impassivity generated the impression that there was nothing much humans could do that might affect it. But by the time the twenty-first century had dawned, the misguidedness of this approach was dropping into place.
Bimblebox had prepared a lengthy response to the Environmental Impact Statement produced by the mines. It detailed of the plan’s failure to consider the longer term consequences – the risks from the affects of drawdown and subsidence to the hydrology of the area, the risks of fire outbreaks, the fracturing and rupturing of the fragile ecosystem’s invisible inter-related networks of interactions and the negative effects on the species of flora and fauna that would inevitably result. Finally, the response mentioned the mine’s impact on climate change; that elephant in the room that even the smoothest talk of coal development just could not manage to hurdle over.
THE BIMBLEBOX REPORT ended up by asking for more time. Cornered and tiny, the request faced the juggernaut of development and fastbucks and argued with dignity and measure about the need for a greater commitment to the necessity of ‘ground truthing’. It pointed out that the information and understanding that could be gained from satellite representations of the land were very different from the understanding that developed from living on and with that ground. It made a plea to listen to the landholders and the station-managers – those who had lived their lives on the land. It made a plea that something might count for that experience – that simply through taking the time to listen to the opinions gleaned from that experience might offer a better way of moving towards providing ‘equity within and between generations.’
Within the measured, formal terms of the Response, captured as it was in between analysis and data, the words echoed with a humanity that made another kind of sense. I couldn’t help thinking about all those other failures to listen that had provided the bedrock for dealing with land in this country. I recalled all that material data that had been lost around the shoreline of Lake Nuga Nuga – of all that time that had been spent by people living on and with the land; where generations of understanding had amassed all kinds of knowledge. They’d never been asked either – no consultation, no formalities, just a straight and simple ‘here we are, and now everything’s going to be different’.
The number of days I spent there in the refuge were almost equal to the time I’d spent on the road between Bimblebox and Brisbane. Even so, the simple fragility of the place was infectious.
For the last meal of the residency the landholder announced that she would be making gnocchi. She cleaned up the big, thick-slabbed table that doubled as a work-bench-cum-mess-table-cum-reading-desk and spread out handfuls of flour. The massive potatoes were already bubbling away in the dixie on the wood-fired stove. The sun was setting and the yellow jacket gums around the mess tent were looking particularly glamorous. The landholder, however, was conscious of a job to be done and her concentration on the task at hand was mesmerising. Her movements preparing the food seemed to come from another country, another time. And they had. I sat slouched at the bench at eye-level; the process of the making was done on a horizon line that ran across the table level with the tops of the golden-stalked grasslands. Beyond was only sunset. The meal ingredients lit up in golden light. The station owner shucked the potatoes of their jackets and pressed each of them through a big Italian potato piller into the bed of flour. She added some sections of golden pumpkin to the mix. Then she cracked two golden eggs. She began kneading and the mix turned as golden as the dying day. Her hands worked and turned and squeezed the dough again and again until the soft mixture could be divided into balls. She divided up the balls and gave one to each of the remaining artists to roll out and cut up into small squares. The squares had to be even and then each had to be tossed into the flour again. The instructions were strict and easy to follow. Everyone got given a job.
By the time the meal was served night was setting in. The gnocchi tasted pretty special – soft and silky and dressed with secret sauces that the landholder had prepared when no-one was looking. The recipes had been remembered. They were part of a rich and long culture but they’d been retranslated by the land owner through her incorporation of vegetables and herbs grown in her own farmyard garden a hundred and ten kilometres from Bimblebox. That garden was part of a long-term commitment of the landholder to a tract of land that she’d spend years working on and working with.
I knew that the landholder had been offered other pieces of land in lieu of the loss of Bimblebox to mining. To a drop-in like me on face value it seemed like it might make a pretty reasonable offer – it seemed feasible that other tracts of country might just as easily be transformed into other kinds of wildlife refuges. Mining companies described those kinds of offers as ‘offsets’. But when I asked the landholder about whether this kind of offer had any appeal, she’d simply shaken her head and kept concentrating on her cooking. And when I persevered by asking her why not, she’d simply replied, ‘because it’s not my land’.
The statement could have seemed ironic in terms of the greater claims of the Indigenous ownership of the land; and while it was also true the land owner’s Neapolitan heritage hovered around her with a rich exoticness, her commitment to her particular tract of country was also deep and real – it had claimed her time, her money and significant personal costs. Her cooking for the visitors she hosted at Bimblebox was driven by her decision that the place would need a community’s force of will behind it. She’d dedicated her life to that fight.
WE ROSE IN the dark on the morning we left. The kettle was already on the big wood stove. The landholder had packed up a good deal of the kitchen and had a saucepan of porridge simmering. We ate as the black gave way to greys, then an infinite diversity of grey-greens. The sun appeared above the tops of the bimblebox trees to a chorus of birds.
A couple of hours down the highway, it seemed as though the little refuge may not even have existed. I’d seen pictures taken from a plane showing that from the air, the little patch of refuge looked like it had been dropped in from another time, surrounded as it was by cleared farming. Except that it was the other way round – it had miraculously managed to avoid the outrageous slings and arrows since the country’s non-indigenous invasion as a tract retained from a former, very deep time.
Driving back, I remembered reading stories about how scientists had decided to train the Hubble telescope on a patch of nothingness in the sky, and that, to their amazement, within that little patch of nothingness unknown galaxies had come into ken. There was a sense that Bimblebox was like another little piece of nothingness all its own. The experience of time spent there seemed at face value as though there might not really be too much there at all – a lot of quietness, where centuries-old forest growth appeared elusively modest, where it took time for the eyes to grow accustomed to recognising the infinite range of grey-greens and golds or to discern the particular notes of bird calls, and a sense that there might be more there than could be measured in avoirdupois.
I’d started off with no clear idea of what I was looking for on that trip, and I was driving back with no idea of what I’d found. Either side of the highway, ancient bottle trees looked down with bare upraised arms. Jury out. They stood like sentinels bearing witness to our departure. I knew that the fight to save Bimblebox was going to be well-nigh impossible, but I also had a sense that there was something so special about the place that it would be perverse not to at least have a go. The short sojourn had been its own kind of ground truthing – an attempt to make some kind of personal contact with issues I’d only ever understood as a vast galaxy of ideas and ideals and colliding comets of ambition versus something a bit less sure of itself, but which remained solidly committed to the long-term value of fragile resources.
All the way on the road back ticks made their way out from the range of hidey-holes they’d secreted themselves in on my travelling companion’s clothes and body. I noticed she kept opening the window to flick their small, beheaded bodies out into the landscape on the fourteen-hour drive home. As she talked about her own Bimblebox experiences, she kept retrieving these little persistent creatures as if they were part of the thoughts in her conversation.
Two weeks later, survivors continued to emerge from the seat upholstery. And soon after, to my absolute horror, I discovered two ticks that had stuck their heads into my flesh between my tenth and eleventh rib. By that time, the summer was well and truly shaping up to be another record-breaker in terms of heat. I was in the car one stinking hot morning when I discovered them. The car was stuck in an early morning gridlock and I was engaged in an impatient scratching when I came across the two plump alien little forms.
The aircon was blasting and the radio was blaring: the US and China had just declared joint initiatives to transition to low-carbon economies. Following that, someone from the Climate Council was announcing that thirty-nine countries had put a price on carbon emissions and that most countries around the world had accelerated their action on climate change, as the consequences have become progressively clearer in terms of rising sea levels, more extreme weather conditions and changing climates. By the time the news had stopped and the traffic had started, I’d managed to extract the two little interlopers from their concentrated efforts on a free ride on my ribs.
Meanwhile, somewhere south of where I was stuck, the Australian Government, like the ticks, still had their heads completely buried while feasting.
Cover image: 'Title' by Pat Hoffie.
Photography: Emma Harm and Greg Harm
Greg and Emma formed Tangible Media in 2012, a small digital media start-up serving the needs of artists and engaging in arts projects in and around south-east Queensland. From photography and videography to concept development, printing and publishing, they have the ability to realise any outcome for engaging, publishing, printing or projecting projects from start to finish
Bimblebox dawn chorus: BOYD
BOYD is a graduate of the Jazz Studies course Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He has had over 30 years experience composing and performing music for the theatre, film, radio, sound installation and bands including The Original Otto Orchestra and the Monday Club with Tony Gorman. His sound installations with sculptor Alison Clouston have been exhibited in galleries around Australia and overseas. www.burragorang.org
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