Warning. This article contains images of Aboriginal people who have passed away.
I have long been a ‘worshipper’ of Mount Barker Summit, if that is not too strong a word. Standing aloof and dominant over the surrounding lush countryside, this sandstone based and heavily wooded outcrop has been the commanding feature of the region for the millennia of black occupation under its original names, ‘Woma Mu Kurta’ or ‘Mountain on the Plain’ for the Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray and lakes, and ‘Yaktanga’, or ‘Rocky Head’ by the hills dwelling Peramangk people. But even the white-fellah name was bestowed on the peak before any European had entered the region.
Captain Charles Sturt, who journeyed down (and named) the Murray in the summer of 1829-30, was the first white man to record the sighting of Woma Mu Kurta, although he mistakenly recorded it in his journal as Mount Lofty. Flinders had named Mount Lofty when he mapped the coast in 1802, and as Sturt assumed the twin peaked summit he saw from the lakes was the twin peaked Mount Lofty, he recorded it as such. The loss of his chronometer some time earlier on the journey affected accurate calculation of the position. View more photographs here.
Captain Collet Barker, a compatriot of Sturt’s, was the next explorer to sight the summit a year later, but his view was from Mount Lofty, twenty kilometres to the north-west. It was Barker’s sighting which confirmed the existence of two separate mounts, and following Barker’s tragic death by spearing at the Murray Mouth, it was Barker’s friend Sturt who named the peak after him. Barker died on the 30th April, in 1831, and the summit was therefore named five years before the establishment of the South Australian colony.
The region was one of the first to be farmed, owing to the lush countryside and plentiful water, and the town which grew in its shadow with the same name has long been a regional centre in the sparsely populated Adelaide Hills. The summit was spared the wholesale clearing the surrounding land was subject to, owing to the steepness of its terrain, and poor soil. It therefore became a microcosm of surviving bush, and representative of what had been lost. It was also representative of the countryside the Peramangk had inhabited, and from which they traded and interacted with the Ngarrindjeri.
For more than 150 years the summit was relatively undisturbed apart from a dirt track to the top, two levels of parking, and a short walking trail to the summit proper. From here a 360 degree panorama can be observed, to the southern lakes, Mount lofty and the ranges to the north-west, Callington Hill to the east, and Brukunga to the north. A magnificent sloping valley of fertility leads the eye to the township in the near distance. View more photographs here.
On the northern tail, a quarry saw the first major assault on the mount, although this did not affect the general ambiance of the experience for those accessing via the track. All of this was to change; in 1984. One day while driving up the track I noticed that a trench had been dug along the left side of the road. I was curious about this, but became more alarmed when I read in the Mount Barker Courier that a police communications tower was to be erected. There was no further information, either of location, height, what procedure had been undertaken to allow a tower on the site, or anything at all; yet the work proceeded. One day I discussed the tower proposal with a fiery red headed lady friend of mine, who had a passion for environmental causes, and the ability to inspire both dedicated commitment, and unmitigated hatred.
We considered calling a public meeting, to which we would invite members of the State Government; in particular the Department of the Environment and Planning, the Mount Barker Council, and representatives of the Police to reveal the details of the proposed tower. Within a couple of days, Aurora was on television declaring the summit a ‘Sacred Site’.
I never had any doubt about the summit being an important and significant place for the Aboriginal People, and had in fact taken a group of Warlpiri men from the Tanami Desert community of Yuendumu (300ks north-west of Alice Springs) to the summit when I met them in Mount Barker a couple of years earlier. I had been running a taxi in Mount Barker from my Littlehampton home, and was surprised to pick up the group from the Hotel Barker one night. They had come south to accompany a group of women who were performing ceremonial dancing in Adelaide for a period. (Yuendumu being a ‘dry’ community, they were also taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a few beers.) I got to know these very traditional men quite well over the next few days, but never dreamed that I would be living and working in an adjoining community to theirs less than ten years later, but that is another story. View more photographs here.
In 1984, eight years before the stunning Mabo decision gave recognition to land rights for Aboriginal people, Aurora’s flame-haired statement was analogous to a red rag to a bull. My determination right from the outset was to defend the summit from this intrusion as much as possible, to make the instigators answerable, and in the event that a tower did go ahead, to make such a fuss about it that no one would ever dare to try to erect another. I intended to fight the tower from a local environmental point of view, but an early rising tide of Aboriginal activism and awareness was to envelope the issue, and in the process, to reveal a deep seated sliver of racism and ignorance from a wide range of the community; a community which had never had their ‘right’ to take the land off of the original inhabitants questioned.
There was a particular night for me, which I recall as the hinge around which my reality was to swing over the next few months, but effectively for the rest of my life. I had arranged to visit Aurora this night, with the intention of formally organising the public meeting we had discussed previously. I was at home feeling totally buggered, and telling myself that I didn’t have the energy to take the issue any further, and decided to stay at home. I was still running my taxi service, and the phone rang. The customer wanted a ride from Mount Barker to Wistow, a rare destination, but one which took me past Aurora’s house. I completed my fare, but as I neared her house on my return journey, I was still intending to go straight home. As I passed the house, the headlights fell on Aurora’s cat; dead on the road – run over since I had passed by some twenty minutes earlier.
I pulled over, picked up the cat, and knocked on the door.
“I have some bad news for you.” I said.
“My cat has been run over.” she said.
We dug a hole in her yard, and as we patted the soil down, a bird whistled.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a willie wagtail, the Aboriginal harbinger of death,” she said.
“That’s not the wagtail,” I said, but even as I uttered the words the answering familiar ‘chitter’ came. We went inside, and organised a public meeting.
Over the next few days, we booked the supper room of the Littlehampton Institute, and invited the various parties to to the meeting, planned for a week or so later. I would travel up to the summit daily, and was disturbed to see that the work was continuing apace. At about this time I began writing letters to the Courier, expressing my concern for the integrity of the summit. I learnt that the Mount Barker Council had initially knocked back the Police Department’s application to erect the tower, but they had been bullied, and informed that they might as well agree, or they would be over-ruled on the decision. The Council complied, with the proviso that the tower should be erected in the upper car park rather than on the very top.
Now on my daily visits to the mount, it became obvious that a huge concrete slab would be poured any time soon. A large square of earth had been evacuated, and steel shuttering was in place in readiness for the pour. We had had no response to our invitations from the officials, and it seemed that the slab would be in place before our meeting took place, rendering it pointless, and allowing us and the community in general to be treated with contempt.
I rang a lawyer (who is now a judge) and asked if there was any way the work could be delayed, and he said that if there was a question of it being an important Aboriginal site, one could contact the Aboriginal Legal Rights Services. He gave me the phone number, and I passed it on to Aurora.
A day or two later I called in on Aurora. She had been busy. Despite a rabid response to her television appearance, Aurora had addressed the South Australian Trades Union Council, and pleaded with them to use whatever means they could to ensure a fair go for the Aboriginal cause in regard to the Summit. The union agreed, but insisted that a picket line needed to be formed, comprising Aboriginal people. To my amazement Aurora informed me that a group which included Aboriginal artist Bluey Roberts, the famous Police tracker Jimmy James, Ngarrindjeri elder and historian Paul Kropinnyerri, and various relatives would be arriving at Mount Barker at midnight: and could I guide them up to the summit in the darkness to set up their camp when they arrived? This I did.
What mere words can express the outrage and hysteria which broke out over the next days, weeks and months? Workers who turned up the next morning found the narrow track to the upper car park blocked by two vehicles and a rough stone wall, a makeshift ‘wurley’ next to a tree on the track, Aboriginal men, women and children, and the Aboriginal flag draped overhead.
The newspapers, television stations and local media swarmed like flies, and the issue had immediately been transformed from an environmental dispute, into literally, a black and white issue. At home my phone rang hot, and many locals told me that they were against the tower being erected, but would not get involved because of the involvement of the Aboriginals. Furthermore, a line was now being run that those Aboriginal people who were now camped on the summit for what turned out to be for months, were being manipulated by white activists. This was the prevailing climate when a crowd of around sixty people gathered in the Littlehampton Institute a few days later. I was the mug standing up front hoping to keep order.
There were no spokespeople of the various authorities we had invited to inform us of the dimensions and ramifications of the tower, although a couple of Mount Barker Councillors were there in an unofficial role. A day or two before the meeting, Aurora told me that a local who was active in organising slide-shows wanted to open the meeting with a presentation. I had seen a show by this man previously, which in that case was predominately focused on the threat of nuclear annihilation, and I was concerned that a slideshow might be unsuitable for the occasion, but Aurora prevailed, and I relented with the proviso it should be kept short.
The lights were dimmed, and a slide and music presentation, focused on the environment, whatever its ascetic merits, rolled interminably on, until many members of the audience began yelling angrily that this was not what they were there for. Sensing a disastrous start to the night, I killed the show by switching on the lights, and turned to face a hall full of angry people yelling at each other.
I immediately announced that if people were going to conduct themselves in that manner there was no point in holding a meeting, and I would be walking out. The crowd quietened down, and despite the dearth of any new information due to the lack of officials, the general concept and known facts were discussed somewhat civilly for awhile, but I knew I had to introduce Aurora, the ‘spokesperson’ for the Aboriginal people, and when I did the mood changed dramatically.
Predictably, Aurora was accused of manipulating the Aboriginal people, of being a self appointed spokesperson, and of ‘beating up a phony sacred site’. When asked why there were no Aboriginal people at the meeting, she replied that they did not want to be subjected to white racism. The meeting eventually struggled to a finish, with little civility, more heat than light, a standard of debate and discussion set in stone, and a paucity of information which was to set the tone for the whole sorry story. More pics here.
Now it was war. The police never addressed a single public meeting throughout the dispute, and were obviously pissed off that anyone, let alone trades unions, Blackfellows, and ‘greenies’ should dare to question their authority. They quickly determined that the key to their quest for the erection of the tower was to convince the Aboriginal people to relent, whereupon the union ban would be lifted, the tower erected, and the rest could ‘go jump’.
Further complicating matters, Paul Kropinyeri asked me to pass on a letter he had written to the already hostile Mount Barker Courier, in which he referred to white people using the summit like a ‘cesspit.’ Because of the hostility I was getting on the phone and wherever I went in the community, I held the letter back. When I told him this, he went very cold on me, and we were never close after that. I submitted the letter the following week, but it was never printed.
Meanwhile, the shuttering for the base was removed, and eventually, the hole filled in.
For the next few months a motley mixture of visitors trooped up to the summit. Many were supporters, many were hostile. Mini-buses of Aboriginal kids visited, as did Northern Territory Aboriginals, politicians, louts, and everything in between. A very dominant presence was that of the police. Jimmy James of course, was a police tracker, extremely famous for the cases he had helped the police with. He had tracked lost kids, escaped convicts, criminals, and was feted in South Australian newspapers and media. He was a Pitjantjatjara man from South Australia’s far north, but had married a Ngarrindjeri woman, so became a relative by marriage to Bluey Roberts, who to some extent was taught some of Jimmy’s skills. I was disgusted therefore, to observe a police Aboriginal liaison officer telling Jimmy that the Police had ‘lost respect’ for him, because of his stand.
Now the dispute ground on, for month after month. The weather grew colder, and a small group of three local whites, (including Aurora) and the Aboriginal group negotiated with the Police. Opposition politicians flayed the Government for not getting the tower erected, the Courier editorialised mercilessly against the protesters, and when Paul and Aurora formed a relationship, even my communication with her became more remote. I continued to write letters to the Courier, all of which were printed, and even managed to get a one-on-one meeting with the Minister for Planning and Environment. He milked me for information while he devoured some Kentucky Fried chicken, and dismissed me curtly when he had finished. The dispute was going no-where, but neither was the tower.
Eventually, having camped on the summit for months, the protesters moved back to their homes. They left in place the wurleys they had built, and the odd bits of furniture they had gathered. This stuff was soon scattered and thrown about, and the Courier was soon on the spot, photographing the ‘mess’ and lambasting the protestors for rubbishing the summit. One day I opened the Adelaide Advertiser, and read that the Government had decided not to build a tower on the mount, and would find a suitable alternative.
I rang Aurora, to express my delight, though her response was muted. I should have paid more attention to the final paragraph in the article referring to ‘further discussions continuing’. The next day I read that a tower would be erected on the summit, but a higher one, on the lower car park. I was furious, and I let Aurora know it.
Eventually the terms of the agreement, and to some extent the pressures applied emerged. A major component of the debate revolved around the safety of the public, especially in light of the devastating Ash Wednesday bush-fires preceding the dispute. An anthropological survey was promised, and a plaque in recognition of the Aboriginal prior occupation and significance was to be erected. Areas would be landscaped, and the upper car park would be closed to vehicles. The tower was to be erected in the centre of the lower car park.
At this stage myself and some other defenders of the summit called another public meeting, this time on the mount, and to which I again invited the various parties once more to advise the public as to the size of, the use of, and the impact on the mount. All of my invitees refused to attend. In frustration I built a dummy, and dressed it in a keystone cop uniform, and covered it with a sheet. When I was attacked for having the temerity to call the meeting I explained that I simply wanted the authorities, for the first time, to address the concerned public, and I whipped the sheet off the dummy and announced that “This is the only representative we could get”, to yells of outrage.
The mayor of the day announced that he hadn’t been invited to attend, and I responded by saying that I had spoken to the council engineer who had flatly rejected my invitation earlier that day. We then tried to pass a resolution condemning the Government, the Police, and the Courier, but the resolution failed to pass. At least I had tried to utilise some semblance of democracy throughout the fight, no-one else had. During the meeting, the man responsible for the quarry which still scars the northern ridge, informed me that “The Dreamtime is over, Bob.”
There is no doubt that the pressures applied to the group were enormous, but to have come so close to stopping it then relenting, was devastating. To cap it off, I rang the copper in charge of the tower’s erection, and asked him why the old concrete base which was used near the quarry site for a tower, years earlier, was not considered a suitable alternative site. To my amazement, he did not know of this location, and had ‘thought’ the quarry tower was on the summit proper.
Parts of the agreement were kept, but there was an attempt to locate the tower not in the centre of the car park, but on a corner to one side. I noticed and reported the excavations, and the union bans were on again. Finally the tower was erected in the centre of the park. More photos can be seen here.
It looms there to this day. When it was erected there was one building, now there are three. It is now twenty metres higher than first promised. Because of the extra height, stabilising cables were attached. The bases of the cables had to be protected, so mesh wire cages were erected around them. But I believe there it ends. My original goal of fighting to the finish was accomplished, and I don’t believe there will ever be another attempt to erect a tower on the summit. Indeed, I sometimes hear crazy ideas about a lease running out, and the tower being removed, but that is a wish too far for me.
Today, councils fly the Aboriginal flag, and the traditional owners are acknowledged. Monuments are erected, and the respect for Aboriginal culture is greater than it has ever been. That status has been accomplished due to many battles fought long ago (especially Mabo) by brave people like Aurora, like Bluey Roberts, Paul Kropinyeri, and their families. And, god bless him, Jimmy James. He deserved better.