Category Archives: Creative Non-Fiction Writing

West Side Story – Kimberley Under Threat.

The following is taken from my colleague’s article published in The Big Issue magazine (Edition #426). Read the unedited version below.

West Side Story

With a state election looming in Western Australia on 9 March, Charlie Sublet travels to an area of The Kimberley that is under threat from a proposed Liquefied Natural Gas processing plant.

 This article contains references to Indigenous Australians who have died.

It’s 6am and I’m sitting on the dunes overlooking the vast Indian Ocean as it continues its ceaseless roll to shore. Morrning Glory, a wild vine with medicinal properties winds across the earth. Jagged rocks, burning amber under the rising sun, litter the beach. Welcome to Walmadan, an ancient and special place lined up for imminent destruction.

The Cliffs at Walmadan (James Price Point)

The Cliffs at Walmadan (James Price Point)

Walmadan (aka James Price Point) is a sacred Aboriginal area on Australia’s north-west coast, 50km north of Broome. It makes up part of the vast and pristine Kimberley region, one of the world’s last great wilderness areas. Named after the warrior, Walmadany, who fiercely protected his people against invaders, Walmadan is home to the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr Aboriginal peoples, the area’s traditional custodians. It sits on a songline – a continuous source of spiritual, cultural and physical sustenance.

Sixty-three days living in a van and 8460 km via a rambling route from Melbourne leave me here in this critically endangered place. I came because I had to, struck by a profound realisation that left me sleepless for five nights. The realisation was more ‘felt’ than rational, what some aboriginal people refer to as ‘lian’ (gut feeling). And perhaps it also reflected their belief that one’s relationship to the earth is reciprocal.

There is, however, a proposal by WA Premier Colin Barnett to build Browse LNG, the world’s largest Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) processing plant, which will destroy this songline and affect the entire Kimberley region. The plant (a joint venture involving, among others, Shell, BP and PetroChina) would cover approximately 25 square kilometres, require dredging of 34 million tonnes of seabed in a humpback whale calving area, involve 8000 workers and increase the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. It will tear apart the environmental, cultural, and social fabric of the region. Even so, Barnett has described the plant as simply “a giant refrigerator” (Q&A, ABC TV, 5 Nov 2012) and he has made his long-term intentions clear: the Kimberley will become the state’s mining hub for the next 50 years.

The Kimberley Metals Group Loading Yard at Wyndham. Inappropriately set in a sensitive mangrove and mudflat ecosystem.

The Kimberley Metals Group Loading Yard at Wyndham. Inappropriately set in a sensitive mangrove and mudflat ecosystem.

A recent New York Times article listed the Kimberley as one of the world’s top destinations, while also noting the grave threat from mining. If this proposal is passed, the resulting port will provide a massive incentive to mining corporations to enter the region. In the past decade there has already been a 500% increase in mining applications here.

This is a matter of international significance, like the ‘No Dams’ Franklin campaign of the 80’s which fortunately resulted in that hidden gem being saved and listed as a United Nations World Heritage Area.

The Kimberley is extremely rich in environmental and cultural elements, including geological wonders such as the Bungle Bungle, wild rivers, rainforests, pristine coastline, extensive rock art and incredible wildlife. In the northern Kimberley, unlike anywhere else in Australia, there are no recorded mammal extinctions, and new species of flora and fauna are continually being discovered.

The Kimberley’s beauty and significance go way beyond the visual and verbal. It is profound. It contains a space that enables one to fully relax and to experience a connection to something far, far greater than any of us. There exists a deep sense of belonging and calm in its wildness.

South Central Kimberley

South Central Kimberley

Twenty-five years ago, Aboriginal elder Paddy Roe created the 82 km Lurujarri Heritage Trail, which runs through Walmadan. It was Roe’s vision to share his culture and heritage with non-Aboriginals to foster understanding and reconciliation. Thousands of people have since walked this trail. Roe, now deceased, received an Order of Australia Medal, yet his legacy and many of his ancestors’ graves are at serious risk of being desecrated. Woodside were recently given approval to “excavate, destroy, damage, conceal or in any way alter” the area despite it being recognised under the Aboriginal Heritage Act. Imagine a similar activity at sacred graves of Anglo-Australians – war hero Weary Dunlop, perhaps, or sporting legend Don Bradman. It wouldn’t happen.

If the project goes ahead, the trail, Walmadan and the songline will be destroyed. A songline is a continuous living cycle that cannot exist in divided physical parts. 40,000 – 60000 years of sustainable and ongoing existence, and millions of years of environmental creation, would be destroyed for Barnett’s grand FIFTY-YEAR VISION – to see The Kimberley region become the industrial backbone of WA.

Camping at Walmadan for a week, I discovered it is not the “unremarkable piece of coastline” that Barnett claims it to be. His description stinks of cynicism and ignorance. He’s trying to pull the wool over the Australian public’s collective eye by exploiting the fact that the area is relatively unknown due to its remote location. It is reminiscent of the past Tasmanian Premier, Robin Grey, who described The Franklin River as a “leech-ridden ditch”. NB. Post his political career, Grey became director of Gunns Ltd (famous for wood-chipping Tasmania’s old-growth forests).

Walmadan is overflowing with life and culture. I encountered white-bellied sea eagles, goannas, snakes, petrified trees, infant coral reefs, dinosaur footprints, and a plethora of intertidal sea-life. I walked with traditional owner and law boss Phillip Roe (grandson of Paddy), who pointed out remnant grinding stones, axe heads, red ochre, sea turtle bones, human bones, ancestral graves, middens, and numerous plants providing bush tucker and medicine that helped sustain the world’s oldest living culture for aeons. The environmental and cultural wealth at Walmadan is anything but unremarkable.

Remnant Stone Axehead. Walmadan

Remnant Stone Axehead. Walmadan

There are two alternative options that would save the environment, culture, community AND money. A Citigroup analysis stated it would be $15 billion cheaper to pipe the gas to existing infrastructure in the Pilbara. And the option of offshore processing on a floating LNG plant would save $9 billion. Yet Premier Barnett continues to demand that it go ahead at Walmadan and is now actively campaigning against the floating facility. There is a seeping stench of an unrestrained ego desperate to be remembered for industrialising The Kimberley.

In addition to these issues, there exists a growing list of unethical and possibly illegal practices. Of major concern is the action taken by the WA Environment Protection Authority to change a regulation to enable the EPA Board to make decisions even if only one board member is eligible. When Woodside’s proposal was then submitted, four of the five board members withdrew due to conflicts of interest, and the one remaining member approved the proposal last July. Traditional owner Richard Hunter and the Wilderness Society of WA are challenging this in the courts.

With the state election approaching, the main parties have detailed their positions: Barnett’s Liberal Party is steadfast in his mission; Labor wants Walmadan to be the development site but is willing for the gas to be piped to the Pilbara; the Greens are the only party entirely opposed to the Walmadan option. Woodside is obliged to make a final decision by 30 June.

Walmadany the Warrior once protected his people and the songline. Now it is up to the people of Waldaman, and beyond, to safeguard the Kimberley from the exploitative hand of new invaders.

Lightning Strikes, Cambridge Gulf, Wyndham

Lightning Strikes, Cambridge Gulf, Wyndham

Charlie Sublet, photographer and writer, is a regular contributor to The Big Issue. For more of Charlie’s work, and for information, visit charliesublet.com, environskimberley.org.au, broomenogas.org and goolarabooloo.org.au.

While concerned by some significant editorial changes, the author is grateful to The Big Issue for publishing this piece at such short notice. Charlie Sublet has always chosen to supply his images and text to The Big Issue instead of any other magazines/newspapers because of The Big Issue‘s focus on social issues and its relative lack of offensive commercial advertising which can be found all through most magazines, newspapers, TV and radio stations.

Images and Text, Copyright Charlie Sublet and Hunter G, 2013

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“Toughen up Princess!” – Christmas With Quarantine

The quarantine checkpoint reared up out of the darkness – an ugly, ill-fitting, light-emitting beast, all insensitive lights and harsh shapes. I pulled up 150 metres short in a gravel siding at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning. Santa and I had brought in Christmas Day together and were celebrating JC’s Birthday (visit JC’s Facebook Page and become his ‘friend’) with an all-nighter road-trip along The Stuart and Victoria Hwys.

The Passenger

The Passenger

Termite Mound Santa - complete with present and alcohol

Termite Mound Santa – complete with present and alcohol

Exhausted after 600 kms dodging snakes, cattle, birds, frogs and toads (Santa doesn’t drive cars, only sleighs), and knowing I needed time to sort and eat potential quarantine contraband, we called it a night.

At 4 pm, after 11 hours during which I slept, repeatedly moved Claude (The Damn Van) to avoid being roasted in my mobile oven, and ate all I could of my remaining edible contraband, I rolled up to the checkpoint, knowing that I had been watched and quite possibly thought of as a loony.

I got in first with speech: “Finally made it”

“Whadaya been doin’ over there?! We weren’t sure whether to worry about you or whether you was a loony. We saw you move the van at least three times from place to place”

“Yeah, I’m from Melbourne. I was chasing the shady spots. The heat and humidity are killin’ me.”

“Oh, Toughen Up Princess!”, she exclaimed.

…And then we got down to business.

I mentioned that I’d probably have at least one of everything on their ‘banned’ list. This included fruit, veges, seeds, plant material, animals. She began peering through the windscreen to see what I had on the dash. “Right you can’t keep that” (pointing to the straw flowers collected while shooting an abandoned car on the Stuart Hwy south of Alice Springs ), “…that” (pointing to the bulbous, yet empty, seed pods off some tropical plant at Mataranka, where it really seemed the human world may have been overrun by nature (massive storms, thunder and lightning, spiders, oppressive heat and humidity, snakes, frogs….and thousands upon thousands of toads).

She let her eyes wander along a bit, then “that” (pointing to the dried banana skins, collected due to, um….laziness). “The used tea-bags are ok.” But I offered them up, declaring that I wanted to turn over a new leaf by having a clear-out, lest the Save The Kimberley campaigners in Broome think I’m a bone fide freak on wheels when I roll into town to see how I can help.

I asked if I’d have to loose the turtle and was told yes…until she realised it was made of stone.

Offending Straw Flowers

Offending Straw Flowers

Offending Seed Pods

Offending Seed Pods

Offending Banana Skins

Offending Banana Skins

In-offensive, but abandoned, tea-bag

In-offensive, but abandoned, tea-bag

Turtle - made of stone

Turtle – made of stone

And then came the hardcore confiscations:

Santa Claus – no fiction allowed in the frontier. Gone.

Offending Santa

Offending Santa

The Australian Flag and stubby holder – again, no fiction allowed in the frontier. Gone.

Offending Australian Flag and Stubby Holder

Offending Australian Flag and Stubby Holder

And the piece(s) de resistance that got me entered into the unofficial Quarantine photo album….

“You haven’t seen what’s on my roof yet.”, I proffered.

She looked up, turned on her heels, walked to the building’s door in silence, opened it and called out “Yep, he’s a definite loon. Come and check this out!” Clearly I had been the subject of some discussion prior to my arrival.

…It was parts of two dead emus. Emu I’s leg, collected somewhere in South Australia for it’s beautifully textured and padded foot; and the head, neck and torso one-piece (head still with hair) of Emu II – collected on the outback Arkaroola Rd, South Australia (near Flinders Ranges), for the rare curved beauty of the neck. I was going to get rid of the torso but…it was just one of those things you never get ‘round to; like cleaning the toilet…perhaps?

Emu I - leg and padded foot

Emu I – leg and padded foot

Emu II - the head and torso one-piece

Emu II – the head, neck and torso one-piece

Emu II - ready to roll

Emu II – ready to roll

Emu II had initially ridden well, mounted at the rear of Claude’s roof and wearing a tinsel bower in festive spirit. But the tropics takes it toll on many things and Emu II only lasted a day in the tropics before he wilted under the weight of the humidity, his head now below his body, looking at the world upside down. And his B.O. was overwhelming depending on the breeze. His days were clearly numbered anyway so quarantine solved a slight dilemma – where to otherwise return him to the wild.

Emu II - Wilted

Emu II – Wilted

Emu II - Binned

Emu II – Binned

Paste-Up - one day after entering tropics

Paste-Up – one day after entering the tropics. Now looks even more like Colin Barnett’s plan for The Kimberley.

Finally ready for departure, we exchanged pleasantries and Christmas wishes, I gave her my business card and asked that she email me the photo she took of me with Emu II and Claude. And we parted. But once inside Claude I suddenly realised two items had been overlooked: a cutting from a Burmese plant; and what I believed was a native orange collected from Arkaroola in South Australia.

The plant’s tale was a tragic one. It had travelled with me all the way from Melbourne and despite severe injury on Day 2 of the trip (broken limbs) and again on Day 38 (burned on the windscreen glass) (both my fault – best not to leave your kids with me), it had just begun to really thrive (after 5 weeks of a struggle, stamina and determination) in the humidity similar to that of it’s native homeland. Alas, it’s journey ended here.

Offending Burmese Plant

Offending Burmese Plant

We did the handover, I jumped back in Claude and finally arrived in WA and THE KIMBERLEY!!

But a few hundred metres down the road something caught my eye – two daring cicada exo-skeletons, skilfully clinging upside down to Claude’s inner roof like characters in an Escape From Alcatraz style movie.

Overlooked - Cicadas' exo-skeletons clinging to roof like escapee

Overlooked – Cicadas’ exo-skeletons clinging to roof like escape artists

Overlooked - Cicada's exo-skeleton clinging to roof like escapee

Overlooked – Cicada’s exo-skeleton clinging to Claude

We rolled on into the last frontier. And what else got through undetected after all that do you think? Me, Hunter G – Let loose to wreak havoc in the last frontier. Stay Tuned.

Here’s a pic of Hunter G prepping this post in the only place in Kununurra with a power outlet on Boxing Day! Inconspicuous and in disguise as always!

Hunter G - hard at work

Hunter G – hard at work on the public holiday

Hunter G - inconspicuous as always

Hunter G – outside Tuckerbox, but inconspicuous as always

And here’s an amusing clip about Escape From Alcatraz

Bye for now,

Hunter G

An addendum: to protect Quarantine employees’ jobs – artistic licence was used for some items: Santa, the Aussie Flag and Stubby Holder were not confiscated. They still ride the frontier with Hunter and Claude to this day.

Images and Text Copyright Hunter G, 2013 and available for sale (FREE for not-for-profit activities – so spread the word widely – just include a link to this blog). All profits from sales will be re-invested in Save The Kimberley activities.

Every Time I Enter the River

Every Time I Enter The River

Every Time I Enter The River

Every time I enter the river I find myself facing Death – two cucifixes nailed to a River Redgum on the opposite bank.

The gum is the tallest of all its compatriots along the bank for several hundred metres in either direction. It leans slightly forward and upstream, as if bowing to the oncoming murky brown waters in thanks. A twisted matting of roots slides quietly down the bank, slightly downstream of the main trunk, seeking and softly sipping those waters which have just previously been greeted by the giant gum’s leaning body.

About two metres up the broad trunk there is a distinct line where the river has previously reached in healthier times. Below this line the trunk is a dusty grey and appears compressed, squeezed to its inner core. In the centre of this section, staring out across the river, is a hand-painted cross – originally a brilliant white but now a dirty, weathered, forgotten white. It has been painted directly onto the bark and is perhaps 50cm tall.

Above the watermark line the trunk is fuller and a broader range of earthy hues is restored – from the heavier dark brown-black of the larger pieces of bark (which tend to hang slightly loose but disappear altogether the higher up the tree one climbs), through the mid grey-brown hues and on up to the platinum greys and silvery whites, the newest layer of life’s protective and sustaining skin.

Again in the central area, but slightly larger than the one beneath, another white cross hangs silently. This one is white wood, a whiter, fresher, newer white, and is nailed to the trunk. It is, perhaps, marking a more recent claim.

Mostly unnoticed, except from certain angles and at certain times of day, are two small reflectors. Yesterday, while floating downstream, a silvery glint, glass-like, caught my eye, drawing my attention to the haunting presence of the crucifixes for the first time; a signal to approaching life to pause for a moment in remembrance and in thanks (for that unknown victim, for family and friends, and for life.

Meanwhile, the dispersing and evaporating white jet-streams of two long-passed planes intersected high in the sky, forming another cross to mark the place where hundreds may have ended their journeys had timing been different.

And later, at sunset, another glint catches my eye as I sit on the opposite bank watching the river flow. This time a bright orange, the sun itself, reflects off a second reflector, marking a farewell, the passing of another day, a life, and a journey completed.

As I set out to photograph this scene I discover another element – even less discernable than the reflectors. I only notice it, disbelievingly, through the 400 mm lens and review it over and over again to make certain my thoughts. I am still not certain (maybe it is a trompe l’oeil created eerily by  the tree’s bark and texture). But it seems there is a particularly haunting skull with deep black eye sockets and a mouth seemingly devouring the top of the crucifix. I see myself and all of us suddenly magnified and brought to life.

…………………..

A story from a couple of weeks ago on The Murray River @ Grace’s Bend.

Images and Text Copyright Hunter G, 2012 and available for sale (FREE for not-for-profit activities – so spread the word widely – just include a link to this blog). All profits from sales will be re-invested in Save The Kimberley activities.