“It’s not like in the old days. They’d fucken come in, give you a beat’n an drag you out. Don’t care if they broke your leg. Now they walk in and say, ‘Excuse me, would you come with me please?’”
I am at the section of the Brighton Bypass which is due to be built on top of an ancient Aboriginal heritage site. Members of Tasmania’s Aboriginal community have set up camp here to protect the site and its history, tangible and intangible.
The community has vowed to remain at the site in the face of the bulldozers, which are slowly digging their way closer to the camp. A bridge is to be constructed over this railway line and, less than a hundred metres beyond it, the levee which is now the campsite. Pylons, which the State Government says will protect the site, will by driven into the ground on which tents now sit, but only after the ground and what lies beneath it has been torn up to construct them.
The people here are determined. They have been here before.
“At Oyster Cove they’d come in, guns fucken shooten into the sides of tents. Draggin’ people away…. You know my brother did this paint’n.”
It’s really good, I say. Do you paint?
“Nah, I’m a dancer.”
Around the campsite there’s a lot of reminiscing about protests past and lives once lived. I’m surprised to learn that I am in the company of some of Tasmania’s Aboriginal royalty. A son of the Mansell and Maynard families (“So I’ve got the best of both sides!”; the daughter of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Chair. These people know their history. No wonder they are here.
Around the campfire I hear other stories too. Stories that weave into my own. We talk about Sorry Day in 2000, when I and thousands of black and white Australians marched over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Two of the people I am talking to were there too. We talk about the emotion of that day. They laugh as they remember a friend who made the front page of the paper, wrapped in the Aboriginal flag. As all of the marchers were walking one way across the bridge, he walked the other way.
And there were stories so far from my own they are almost incomprehensible. Well almost. Some things can be grasped by the mind but cannot be grasped by the emotions. Except with deep sadness.
“Yeah they brought me here, sent me to the boys’ home.”
Why’d they take you there?
“To take me away from family. It’s ok, I didn’t mind. I got food, a bed, clothes.”
But as we shift around the campfire to avoid the smoke, the talk moves on too and, with no apparent consciousness, this man’s story reveals itself to be the story of his people.
Laughing, “Yeah I stood in front of the judge and said, ‘Me father’s Irish, me mother’s Aboriginal, you give me drink - what do you expect?!’”
What did the judge say? I ask.
“He gave me 8 months.”
I can’t help but ask about his tattoos - he has quite a few.
Can you show me your first tatt?
“Um no, we won’t go there,” he says, nervously tugging at his shorts.
“I’ll show ya mine. You know that song, ‘My boomerang won’t come back?’”
‘Course I know that song. It’s awful.
“Well, mine always came back.”
A little dog, Broccoli, has made himself at home at the camp.
He’ll be looked after by one of the campers while his family head back to Launceston. Jillian, the mum, is shooting a wedding on the weekend. When she’s not a photographer she writes for the Koori Mail, an online newspaper. We talk for a while about cameras and photography.
“I really want to get a fisheye. Saw it advertised for half price.”
Oh, I’d love to have a fisheye lens too.
“SEE JIMMY, KATE SAYS I SHOULD GET IT!. He’s not too keen on it…”
I know, I say, it’s hard to explain to your husband why you need yet another lens. It’s like handbags.
“Oh I’m not into handbags. Just lenses.”
They’ll be back after the weekend, for the increasingly tense wait for the big yellow machines to start their work. Surveyors are due in ahead of them, perhaps on the 1st of March.
In the face of this knowledge, everyone seems remarkably calm. Perhaps because they have seen so much worse and survived.
Whether they win or lose this battle, the people I met will not stop fighting. Sadly, there will always be another battle.