Uluru Revisited

A chance phone call from the regional mananger of ABC  Alice Springs Radio 783, Stewart Brash, has stirred my memories of attending the handover of Uluru back to the traditional owners in 1985. Stewart traced me after finding  on the internet some photographs I had taken at the event, thirty years ago. To commemorate the occasion, Stewart is collating some photographs for the station’s Facebook website, and a shot I took of a banner being dragged across the sky by a light plane on the day, proclaiming “Ayer’s Rock For All Australians” caught his eye.

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The intrusion of that plane, at the moment of high excitement as the ceremony peaked, was intended to register the offence which some took at the hand-over, although some interpreted the message as a positive one.

A day before the ceremony I was having a beer in a pub in rural Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills, when I saw an announcement on the television news about the handover. I immediately determined to get there, though both time and money were short. There were no direct commercial flights, busses or a train which could get me there on time it seemed, but somehow I stumbled across the possibility of scoring a ‘standby’ seat on a Fokker Friendship, departing Adelaide for Yulara Resort the next morning, a Saturday. With my backpack, a sleeping bag and a camera, and the payment of $70, I found myself flying low and slow over the mesmerising desert country on the way to Uluru.

Every trace of past rainfall and water-course was etched in patterns on the landscape, and the shadows of fluffy white clouds showed dark and sharp below against the vibrant coloured panorama. I wanted to shake my fellow passengers from their idle chatter and newspapers and to share the experience, but it seemed I was the only one captured by the magic.

Hours later, we tilted around Uluru and touched down on the tarmac of Connellan Airport. I stepped from the plane and into the warmest of sun, the brightest of colours, and an incredibly strong feeling of belonging.

I have posted on this blog previously my observations of the handback, so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that I got in a good position to take photographs, and was deeply moved by the occasion. After  couple of days exploring the rock and Katajuta, I managed to get a ride into the Alice, board the Ghan, and trundle back to Adelaide. I caught a cab to Glen Osmond, stuck out a thumb, and was picked up by an old school mate, who dropped me at my home in the hills.

Five years later, after spending two years as the arts organiser at the Yuelamu Community in the Tanami desert, I was back at Yulara, selling artworks from the community at the Sheridan Hotel as they explored the potential for a new gallery in a closed down bar. I spent a lot of time at Yulara over the next few years, during which time I visited either the rock or Katajuta on a daily basis. About this time I got hold of a copy of Ayers Rock, by Charles Mountforda seminal study of the creation myths of Uluru when knowledge of the stories was still very strong. This book confirmed what I had learnt during my time as an arts organiser; that every physical feature of the countryside was shaped by the adventures of the dreamtime ancestors, and that certain ‘skin’ groups had the ceremonial responsibilities for delegated sections of the land. Uluru, as revealed by Mountford, has a story for virtually every physical feature; rocks, caves, groups of trees, water stains and rock-holes, gashes in the surface, and the birds, plants and animals who frequent the region. One vivid tale tells of the evil spirit dingo, Kulpunya, sent by a tribe offended by a lapse in ceremonial protocol to slaughter the hare-wallaby people of Uluru. (Shades of the Chamberlains?)

I would explore a section of the rock on each visit, often sitting in a cave and contemplating the same view ancient eyes had taken in over millennia. It is sobering to realise that this whole great land mass was, a little more than 200 years ago, stitched together by song, dance, and ceremony.

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Today the great monolith towers 350 metres above the surrounding desert oaks and sand dunes, while the Minga (ants) from the Yulara Resort to the north visit in their thousands, forming a line of tiny specks as they journey to the top. The Anangu watch from their third world settlement in the south-eastern shadow of Uluru, and observe the 21st century intrusion of their land. Their observation, from frowning brows, is analogeous to the view Uluru has. The stories are locked into the land, and the Minga an insignificent distraction; but the keepers of the ceremony are fewer in number, as the stories fade into infinity.

The culture is precious, and its preservation, paramount.

Aboriginal ‘Policy’ and the LCP.

Tony Abbott likes to portray himself as the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, a claim which sits comfortably alongside the claim that he believes in global warming and has the policy to lower emissions.

It’s bullshit, and under Howard and Abbott, and with the support of the ALP, he has contributed greatly to the nadir the handing of Aboriginal affairs has come to in recent years. It began with the axing of ATSIC, was expedited by the intervention, which included the dumping of the CDEP, (Communty Development Employments Program) and culminates in Abbott’s pitiful droning on about being the great Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the greatest friend they ever had ad infinitum. This despite severe cuts to funding for Aboriginal affairs, including cuts to legal aid, cuts to support for remote out-stations,  and the effective disempowerment of the Aboriginal voice, apart from Abbott’s hand picked lackeys.

I was working at Mount Allan in 1989 when the CDEP was brought in to replace the ‘sit down money’ which was being paid to most of the residents of the community. The CDEP was effectively a work for a the dole program, in which one would work towards the betterment of the community for wages, with those who work the longest hours receiving more pay. Included in the package was funding to buy equipment, workshops and training, thus providing at Mount Allan, a modern motor workshop for the servicing and repairs of motor vehicles and other assorted repairs and maintenance, graders and front-end loaders for the maintenance of roads and landscaping, and the facilities for mixing and laying concrete.

The CDEP was not without teething problems, and relied very much on the quality of the administrator in the key position, a tough job, but only to be expected in a period of such major change. It was also very flexible, and funding could also go toward the work done in the cattle industry at Mount Allan, or the support of the arts industry. The CDEP was soon widespread in Aboriginal Communities, for the obvious benefits it brought. I will come to the cynical disbandment of the CDEP under John Howard later in this post.

Before 1990, the Aboriginal people of Australia had very little representation on a national level. The creation of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, was by far the best attempt to overcome this anomaly. Aboriginal people were elected by their peers throughout Australia and its islands. ATSIC was not perfect, but as was often quoted at the time, “The white fellah’s been fucking things up for a long time. Give us the opportunity to fuck things up for ourselves for a change.”

ATSIC also had oversight by the Federal Government, and got off to a good start, with their representatives being seen to participate in indigenous affairs, and with significant public recognition, including for example, an annual cricket match between ATSIC and the Federal parliamentarians. A certain amount of perceived corruption in its later years gave John Howard the excuse he needed to axe the organisation, helped in no small part by the ranting of the Labor Opposition leader of the time, Mark Latham.

In 2006 I was preparing for a visit to Croker Island for some research I was doing. I discovered online, that there was extensive work being done to facilitate the controlled use of Kava on the island. There were extensive boundaries being worked on, and a strict distribution criteria being drawn up. Residents were allowed one small bag of kava each, per fortnight, for $5. I was on the island to observe the first ever distribution of this substance, an island I hasten to add, which seemed to have a complete absence of grog, no doubt helped by the isolation of the island.

Unfortunately, while I was on the island, John Howard, using consequently debunked hysteria about the abuse of children to initiate an “intervention” announced that he would stamp his  mark on Aboriginal affairs, by further degrading and disempowering them. Government cheques would be purloined, so that a certain amount could only be spent at designated stores, to ensure that it wasn’t all spent on grog. No pornographic videos were to be allowed on Aboriginal lands, (but ok for white fellahs). Kava was to be declared illegal in all Aboriginal communities and only allowed for those of Fijian descent or other, for traditional use.

There was a Racial Discrimination law, which made such decisions awkward, so the Howard Government simply suspended the act for the purposes of the intervention. Because the government couldn’t control the wages the CDEP workers were getting, as they weren’t welfare cheques, the Liberals set about dismantling the CDEP. To its eternal shame, Labor, when it came to power in 2007, kept the same policies going.

Now, with its boots on the throats of Aboriginal people, the Abbott Government cuts legal services, training and other support for them. In addition, it is defunding support for the happiest, the closest to their land, and the healthiest Aboriginal people in remote regions; those in so-called out-stations. The ALP is making some half hearted objection to this decision, but frankly their support for Aboriginal people lacks credence, as apart from the Rudd ‘sorry’ speech, the Labor Party has jettisoned any Aboriginal policies worthy of support. It is left to the Greens to provide  a ‘left’ view of support for the downtrodden dumped by the major parties.

The same could be said of the treatment of refugees, but that’s another sorry tale.

”Poor Fellow my Country,” has never been so apt.

Crossing the Nullabor, 2014

Phew! The appropriate one-word summary of a journey across the Nullabor Plain. Our crossing was done from a Sunday to the following Saturday; i.e., seven straight days of driving, averaging something over 400 kilometres a day. There’s a lot to see on such a crossing, but as we had a week to do it in rather than a fortnight, most of it was observed rolling past. I should however, start at the beginning.

I was in ‘the west’ because I had a tale to tell about Captain Collet Barker; a presentation incorporating slides, a talk, and some songs. The venues were Albany in the south-west, where Barker had served as the Commandant of a rag-tag settlement for 16 months from 1829-31, and at Mount Barker, where a ‘mount’ and a town were named after him, a similar situation to the naming of a mountain and town in South Australia after the same man; the place where I make my home.

I had visited both places in 2006 as I researched Barker’s life, and thought it would be a fun challenge to take my presentation, which I have been fine-tuning for a couple of years, to the west, where they love their history, and then to ‘do’ the Nullabor on the way home. I had flown from Adelaide to Perth a couple of weeks before our return journey, and had my newly renovated 1989 Jackaroo shipped to Perth via the Indian Pacific train. Jan joined me, flying from Melbourne, where she had been with her son Skye, to celebrate his 40th birthday.

Perth was mild and sunny. Jan caught up with her cousin, a lonely lady in her late middle age who lives in isolation in a Perth suburb, and we met a niece of mine, Penny, and her fiancee Jim, at the Subiaco Pub, and went for pizzas afterwards, along with her workmates, who are all in the exploration side of the mining industry. Penny was working at the Granites Goldmine in the Tanami Desert when barely out of her teens, and has also worked in Botswana. She is a talented and beautiful lady, who juggles her career with the raising of two teen-aged children, at her house in Hobart Tasmania, while also living and working with Jim in Fremantle on the other side of the continent. Don’t know how she does it, but she do. They’re getting married in Freo in late December. Would be nice to make it.

A visit to King’s Park, the wonderful breathing space which overlooks the capital, and a journey to Fremantle (before realising Penny was in town) and a potter about Perth, and we were off to Mandura, 100ks south, to stay with Jan’s cousin, Ira. Husband Steve was in Kalgoorlie supervising a Karate tournament for the week-end (Steve is an accomplished teacher and exponent; a black belt I believe) so it was a pity not to catch up with him on this trip. We did, however have a pleasant evening with Luke, Ira’s son, and his wife Lisa and the newly born Isabelle. Ira’s daughter Elyse, partner Ryan, and son and daughter Taj and Em were also there.

On the Saturday I showed my presentation to Ira, sister Jenny, and Mum Iris, an eighty year old who still heads off into the bush in her camping van, and who is having a new house built in Mandura. It was limited to my laptop, but was a good run through to get the bugs out, and the audience seemed to enjoy it. A snack by the waters of Mandura in great company, and Sunday rolled around, with high winds and rain accompanying us on the 300k journey to Albany, where Ira and Steve had made their holiday house available to us for a week. We paused for a prize winning pie at the Mount Barker Bakery, eaten at the summit overlooking a cloudy wet day, before rolling into Albany in mid-afternoon.

The house is on Emu Point, the  headland leading out to the narrow entrance to Oyster Harbour.  From here it is an easy ten minute drive into Albany, on the road  skirting Mount Clarence, whilst providing spectacular views of King Georges Sound to the south. On Monday we  met with Malcolm Traill, curator of the Albany Museum, and did a test run with the equipment in preparation for the presentation the following Tuesday morning. I had met Malcolm in 2006 when he was in charge of the history section of the Albany Library.

On Tuesday morning I did my Barker presentation to a gathering of 87 people, many of whom are members of a historical group who meet weekly. They seemed to enjoy the talk, although I chose to drop the third song in my presentation as it went on for over an hour. Often when I do the talk I have a half-time break.

The Australian at its Nadir.

Congratulations to The Australian. 99.9% of its Commentary pages content on the 29th October was devoted to bashing the left, the ABC, and to promoting its right wing bias. It delved into the past to pick out quotes it could use to effect to denigrate the left, and it sang its own praises as a responsible organ which breaks important stories.

What a pity it can’t revisit its role in the invasion of Iraq, which sees hundreds blown to pieces on a monthly basis, thanks to The Australian’s advocacy. Who can forget, ten years ago, the touching front-page photograph of the noble American showing his humanity by offering a captured Iraqi soldier a drink of water – claimed to be a demonstration of Coalition compassion – before sending him off to Abu Ghraib Prison? More than sixty were killed in suicide bombings yesterday. This rated not one word  in The Australian’s World news section. Thank goodness we have the ABC. The Australian is severely embarrassed and compromised  on this topic, and prefers, Orwell-like, to purge it from its past.
Hardly the bastion of quality journalism. It doesn’t make any money, and serves only to push the views of its foreign chairman. Surely it is time it was closed down.

The Peramangk

The Peramangk were the mysterious dwellers of the Mount Lofty Ranges prior to the white occupation of South Australia in 1836. Twenty years after the Mount Barker region was settled, they had all but disappeared.
It is difficult to make an accurate assessment of the original number of Aboriginal occupants who dwelt in what we now call the Mount Lofty Ranges. For example, two separate estimates of the numbers of Kaurna on the Adelaide Plains at settlement, suggest as few as three hundred, and as many as seven hundred when the colonists arrived in 1836. Obviously it would be more difficult, given the many forests and a more rugged terrain in the hills, to make an accurate assessment of the Peramangk numbers. 
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Peramangk Man
A further complication was the spread of smallpox, even before South Australia was formally settled in 1836. Having established a foothold in the colony of NSW in 1789, smallpox gradually worked its way into southern Australia, possibly via whalers and sealers who used Kangaroo Island as a base as early as 1810. Smallpox is also said to have come down the major river, which we now know as the Murray, perhaps through native people who had come into contact with smallpox when upstream, and had brought it south. The traditional numbers were therefore depleted before settlement, and it is unlikely any serious attempt was made to obtain accurate numbers in a new, rugged land, where survival alone was quite enough to cope with. Having no genetic resistance to smallpox, the impact on the traditional inhabitants was deadly, as were diseases of lesser concern to Europeans, such as measles. An early account of the Peramangk people puts the greater number of them in the Mount Barker region, and they were often referred to as the ‘Mount Barker Tribe.’ One description tells of somewhere near 300 camped at the base of Mount Barker Summit, and another 300 camped along the Larataringa Creek and the springs to the south of the mount. It would seem a reasonable guess to put a figure of around seven hundred to a thousand Peramangk in the region considered their domain, based on these estimates.
One must also bear in mind that gatherings of this number would be rare, and would undoubtedly have been the result of important ceremonial occasions. Initiation, ‘increase’ ceremonies to ensure the abundance of food and the cycle of the seasons, ‘sorry’ business, (funeral rites) and the practice of allocating future wives to young men, are but a few of the ceremonies practised throughout the vast territories of Australia, and in the remote regions, still undertaken to this very day. In ‘normal’ times, groups of up to perhaps thirty, comprised of an elder, his wives, and his offspring, including in-laws, would roam the land, according to where the appropriate food, shelter or water was to be found.
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Mt Barker Summit (Womma Mu Kurta – The Mountain on the Plain)
Despite the reference to the Peramangk as the ‘Mount Barker Tribe’ their terrain was much more wide-ranging, and in general their territory was considered to be the region we now refer to as the Mount Lofty Ranges, extending from the foothills above the Adelaide plains, Mount Barker to the east, Myponga to the south, and northward to Angaston. Both the Kaurna of the plains, and the Ngerringerri of the lakes and southern river regions feared the Peramangk, who were said to be possessed of magical powers and sorcery. Prior to colinisation, there were three explorations of South Australia directly relevant to the fate of the Peramangk, and following articles will provide an account of those expeditions. Particular attention will be paid to early and first contact by these expeditions as an insight into attitudes and consequences of relationship to the indigenous peoples in general, as there is little documentation of first contact specifically with the Peramangk.
Mathew Flinders
Captain Matthew Flinders of the Investigator in 1802, and coincidentally Captain Nicholas Baudin on the Geographe the same year, commanded the first expeditions to undertake comprehensive exploration of the southern coast. Baudin’s explorations were predominately of a scientific nature, with a full compliment of botanists, artists, and other scientific people on board. He naturally created charts and named places as he went. Flinder’s brief was to circumnavigate the continent, mapping comprehensively, and therefore the documentation of his journey was skewed to this end. When western bound Flinders, (an Englishman) and the eastern sailing Frenchman Baudin met in the bay they called Encounter in April of that year, they exchanged charts and wined and dined together, although unbeknown to them, their countries were at war. They also in part accepted the place names each had given the coast during their travels, thus explaining the mixture of French and English names which dot the coast. The Fleurieu Peninsula is a prominent example of features named by Baudin. The Flinder’s Ranges, Kangaroo Island and Mount Lofty are among the most prominent and well known English names which Flinders conferred on the landscape. encounter bay
Encounter Bay

Incredibly, both of these renowned explorers missed the mouth of Australia’s most important river, not far from their historic meeting. In their defence, the Murray meets the ocean via a large lake before meandering around islands in diverse channels, and a long narrow body of water stretches some eighty kilometres to the south-east, sheltered from the ocean by large sand dunes. This body of water is called the Coorong. Sand dunes on both sides of the modest volume of water which constitutes the Murray mouth, as well as a possible sea mist, coupled with the distance from the shore at which the ships would have been sailing, would all have contributed to the oversight by both Commanders.

Some of the earliest sketches of Aboriginal people can be found in Baudin’s collection, and his party’s contact with Aboriginal people was comprehensive, although not so much in South Australia, where the rugged coastline made anchoring difficult. It was established that Kangaroo Island was devoid of Aboriginal people, although subsequent archaeological work has established that it had previously been inhabited approximately 10,000 years ago, when the island was still part of the mainland. No reliable explanation has been proffered as to why such a large and productive island did not have people in numbers living there at the time of settlement. There were, however, a rag-tag band of sealers of various nationality, including Americans, escaped convicts, and the Aboriginal women they had gathered from where ever they could. This included Tasmanian women, and also women from the mainland. These women were taken by force, resulting in a tragic retaliation in later years. This motley crew would have been living on Kangaroo Island when the next important exploration of Southern Australia took place in 1829-30, although Captain Charles Sturt was probably unaware of their presence. For some detail of Sturt’s journey, click here. A little over a year later, the  death of Captain Collet Barker at the mouth of the Murray River added a tragic chapter to Aboriginal/European first contact.