Strapped to the Sports Desk, my fingers jangling on keys, I become aware of the latent possibility that I am averse to sport. A nice game of Russian roulette is certain to pass the time, and I consider myself a surfing legend of the sofa variety, while the only attraction to a sweaty-thighed rampage through deep mud chasing a ball is the half-time oranges and full-time man bath.
Yet I find myself here, an Australian protestors’ version of the Mint 400, living the desert dream, knee-deep in dust, the roar of the race ragged in my ears, the whump whump of the sound systems a metronome to this unreal existence. And dammit I will win this race…
This is the Great Australian Protest Race, a race to the a bitter end, the inevitable headlong tilt, critical mass, the power of both the individual and the mob to affect change.
This is Arabunna country, home to the drive for Indigenous cultural recognition, justice and land rights for Aboriginal people, numerous campaigns against uranium mining at Olympic Dam and the exploitation of water from the Great Artesian Basin, as well as official recognition of native title over Lake Eyre, awarded in May this year after a 14 year wait. This is Uncle Kev’s home: an amazing man, Uncle Kev is an Aboriginal elder who has campaigned widely for cultural recognition, justice and land rights for Aboriginal people. He has a softness, a peace that belies his incorrigible strength, and his unswerving devotion to the protection of country, culture and spirit.
This is the dusty heart of Australia, remote, mercurial and wildly beautiful. There is a rich seam of authenticity, a visceral realism, and out here the genetic code that unlocks our survival mechanism is jammed ON.
The mob has gathered at Alberrie Creek Station to dance. Protestors, environmentalists, tangled ferals, travellers, families, loners, lords and the local mob have come to stamp their feet in the dust, to connect with this land and each other.
It is a postscript to the Lizards Revenge, a music and arts festival held at the gates of the Olympic Dam uranium mine at Roxby Downs, in response to BHP Billiton’s proposed expansion of the mine.
This is our playground, a place where thumping handmade sound systems and flaming timber spaceships are considered commonplace. In a surreal competition for “most unusual” a giant fur egg competes with the man with a celery stick ‘rudder’ up his bum and a clutch of balloons set to propel him into the sky, while a 70s muscle-ute sprays fire from the jet burner mounted on its tray. Cake baked in a solar oven, a washing tub with bent-bike propulsion, an armada of Jolly Rogers snatched taut in the wind and stiff gins at sundown mark our deliciously strange space.
Camp ovens smart and burble on fires that never go out, Tin Lids find ever ingenious playthings in a playpen of dirt and thistle, and adults lounge, half an eye on their offspring, the other on the construction that clambers up around them. The sandy creek is transformed into a kid’s birthday party, complete with balloons, fresh damper and Uncle Kev’s whispered knowledge as he teaches the kids how to mimic tracks in the sand with their hands.
It is our home away from home, where allegiances are formed, arguments fought, bread is baked and kids are lulled to sleep beneath inky skies studded with stars. Canvas cracks and writhes at its enforced tenure, willy-willys scour and rip at everything in their path and the clink clink of tent poles being hammered deeper into the dry dirt dissects every conversation. Caked in red dirt, sweat and wonder the tribe quickly becomes one with the land, the shanty town surges alongside the track and “adventure tourists” slow to 70 clicks to gawp and stare from shiny air-conditioned 4WDs.
The seductive the savage and the strange stroll hand in hand through the desert, dragging chipped heels and fairy wings, clinking tin cups full of moonshine and laughing till dawn. Scorched roo meat greases the air, a dingo and her pups watch warily from the Lake and a gaggle of hippies convince a tanker driver that the sacred fire they are lighting next to the servo is OK because it has sage in it.
And the main event? Perfectly normal, just a routine space mission for a timber spaceship and the illustrious Warwick Afterburner Smith III, sent skyward in the great burnout, a pagan celebration of life in all its guises.
Nothing to see here folks…
POSTSCRIPT: Shortly after the celebrations at Alberrie Creek, BHP Billiton announced plans to consult with the Government on adopting an alternative, less capital-intensive design for the open pit expansion that would involve the use of technologies to substantially improve the economics of the project.
In layman’s terms it means the project is on hold. Indefinitely. And while I am not foolish enough to believe this is the result of anything other than fiscal conservatism, the spotlight of social pressure shone a bright and ugly light onto the company, highlighting the harsh profile of environmental degradation and political and financial dissoluteness.
And I don’t doubt that this sacred place, with its protestors’ shawl of devotion, had a hand to play in what happened.
I’ve rediscovered my inner winger, intent on bringing down the opposition and scoring against the odds. Bring on the next round…