While travelling around Cape York, our first impressions of aboriginal culture had not been good. Our experiences at Lawn Hill did nothing to alter those impressions. In fact, what we were to hear about and then witness with our own eyes was horrifying.
About a year before our arrival at Lawn Hill, the Carpentaria Land Council, led by Jason (Murrandoo) Yanner, had staged a sit-in at the park for a period of about three weeks, to press a claim for land rights. They wanted the park. I have heard that Yanner is one quarter aboriginal, one half Chinese and one quarter white, but who knows? It always makes me wonder how much aboriginal blood a person must have to still be considered an aboriginal person. During the sit-in, Yanner allegedly threatened to use Bougainville-style terrorist tactics if his claim was not granted. We also heard other reports about other visitors to the park at the time who had left in tears at the rape of the land being perpetrated by the aboriginal people. Of course, all of this was just hearsay. We had not seen any of it for ourselves.
Aboriginal occupation of north-west Queensland dates back at least seventeen thousand years, possibly more, but has only been intermittent since white men moved into the area. After earlier failures, a permanent pastoral lease known as Lawn Hill was established in the mid 1870's, a lease which continues to the present day. In 1985, with the pastoral lease one hundred and ten years old, the area currently occupied by the park was donated by the owner of Lawn Hill station to the Queensland government to be used "for all the people of Australia". Shortly afterwards, the donated land became Lawn Hill National Park. While we were working at the park, the Goss state government re-gazetted the land to make it available for claim by aboriginal people, despite its history as a pastoral lease, despite the terms of its donation to all the people of Australia, and despite its lack of permanent aboriginal occupation - a requirement of any land claim as defined by the Mabo decision. Before any public outcry could occur, Mr Goss announced that his decision had nothing to do with the proposed CRA zinc mine, reputedly the biggest in the world, which was under construction about thirty kilometres from the national park's eastern boundary, and which was also the subject of an aboriginal land claim. Not long after this decision was made, Mr Goss was swept from office in a state election.
A few weeks into our stay, we heard that a meeting had been arranged at the park, between the Land Council and the mining company CRA, concerning a land claim being made by the Waanyi aboriginal people over the area occupied by their proposed mine. This mine was in its early developmental stage, but it was believed it could become the biggest zinc mine in the world, with an estimated value of a billion dollars.
Eventually the aborigines began to arrive for the meeting, most in late model four wheel drive Toyota Landcruisers. These then transported more and more new arrivals from the airfield near Adel's Grove. So what did we actually see with our own eyes? I saw one Toyota roll up, and six kids jump out of it. They all went racing across the campground, picked up rocks off the roadways, and began to attack any bird that moved, from pigeons to finches. I saw a group of youths walking off into the scrub with spears in hand. I saw another couple of young guys head off towards the water with spear-guns.
The next day Karen and I were taken off the amenities cleaning detail. Unlike the other rangers, we had not been immunised against hepatitis, which is apparently widespread amongst aboriginal people. After seeing the disgusting mess that had been made in the toilets that morning, I was not at all disappointed to lose this task. That afternoon the district ranger, Brad, caught a group of kids walking back to the campground from the falls upstream carrying four long-necked turtles, a rare and endangered species. The turtles were released back into the waters of the creek, but whether they subsequently survived is another matter. The meeting ended on the same afternoon, to be continued next day at Burketown.
In the morning, we went into the campground to survey the damage, and clean up. I quote directly from my diary here - "... we picked up garbage by hand from all over the campground, and removed stones from the grass as well. There was garbage everywhere - cans, tea bags, orange peel, kangaroo intestines, Mintie wrappers, dead fish, half eaten Mars bars, dead pigeons, bones, dead turtles - all discarded anywhere. There were cans and paper in the creek, there was shit in the gully and in one of the river accesses. Fires had been built on the lawn, cars had been driven onto the grass as well. We even had to dispose of a mattress!" It took four of us about four hours to clean up the mess in the campground.
Unlike all white visitors to the park, the aboriginal people did not pay to stay. The Land Council promised to send a cheque later to cover the costs of accommodation for the people it had brought to the meeting, but no money was ever received.
Later in the afternoon, John (the assistant ranger) and I loaded a pump and three hundred litres of water onto a truck to put out a fire left burning by the aborigines beside Lawn Hill creek about halfway to Adel's Grove. When we arrived there, the fire was bigger than we had anticipated, a large patch of burning logs and grass of about four hundred square metres. John went back to the ranger station for more equipment while I hauled burning logs out of the fire and doused them in the waters of the creek. John came back to the fire with Karen, and the three of us set up a portable pump to get water out of the creek and onto the flames. We spent two hours putting out burning logs and hot spots.
Two days later, on the way back from Adel's Grove, I checked the fire site and discovered it had flared up again. John and I returned to the fire a little later, and spent another three hours pumping water onto it, putting it out for good. John told me that he and Brad had visited the site a few days earlier when the aborigines had been in residence. They had the fires going then, around the base of a large tree, and were asked to put it out before they left. When we had arrived later, wood had been deliberately piled onto this fire to make it bigger, not to put it out. John believed the aborigines wanted to clear the area so more people could camp there the next time they came back.
A couple of weeks later Karen and I were dismayed to hear that another aboriginal meeting was soon to be held at the park. When the day of the meeting arrived, no aboriginal people had appeared. We thought the park had been spared, but the meeting had only been delayed, not cancelled. It seems that Jason Yanner's brother had been arrested at an all-black football game in Mount Isa, because of an assault on an Aboriginal Liaison Officer. After the arrest, a couple of hundred aboriginal people had gathered outside the Mount Isa police station demanding the release of the prisoner. A special court sitting was hurriedly arranged by the authorities, and Yanner's brother was released within two hours. I wondered if the same arrangements would have been made for a white man.
The Landcruiser convoy began arriving around lunch time. Yanner flew in late in the day, attended the meeting for an hour or two, and flew back out. He was accompanied by a reporter from the Brisbane Mail, who wandered the campground with his camera, taking in all of the activities. While I was talking to him, a couple of white campers came up to me to report they had seen some aborigines down at the Cascades, cooking turtles over an open fire.
"I hope you are writing down everything you see here," I said to him.
"I am," he replied.
I was looking forward to reading his report. A month or so later, I read a feature article in the Brisbane Mail, with artistic colour photos of Yanner lying amongst the water lilies of Lawn Hill, looking more Chinese than anything else, and sporting a rather impressive watch on his wrist. The article depicted him as the angry young man of the northern aborigines, and their potential saviour. I was stunned, but I should not have been. I have always found it amazing that the newspapers are owned by a couple of the biggest capitalists in the world, yet most of the content of those newspapers leans markedly towards the socialist end of the political spectrum. I particularly had to laugh when Yanner was quoted as saying that aboriginal people could teach CRA how to mine environmentally. As far as I could see, aborigines and mining companies had always operated along the same lines. Move into an area, take everything you want out of it, strip it almost bare, and then go somewhere else to do the same thing. Mining companies, however, are now required to rehabilitate the areas they have ravaged.
There were a few spots of rain on the evening that Yanner had flown out. Virtually none of the aborigines in the campground had shelter of any kind, and they soon started massing on the verandas of the ranger station. They asked if they could use the few portable accommodation shacks out the back of the ranger station for the night. Initially, they were refused. After all, if a white man turned up at the park and wanted to stay in one of the dongas, he would have been refused as well. A short time later the journalist arrived at the ranger station. He asked if it was correct that sick and old aborigines had been refused the use of available accommodation by park ranger staff. After a call to the district office in Mount Isa, it was decided to open the dongas to the aborigines. It was not the old and allegedly sick who used the dongas that night - it was members of the Land Council. What sort of agenda did the journalist have? Why did he report that Yanner was the saviour of his people, when he had not even arranged shelter for those he left behind after the meeting he had convened? It certainly made me wonder.
Perhaps the most disturbing incident at Lawn Hill occurred near the Lower Gorge, an area off limits to all park visitors because of the need to protect native species there. A couple of the rangers confronted a young aborigine who was about to use a spear-gun to shoot a turtle. When the rangers attempted to prevent this from happening, they had a loaded weapon pointed at them and were told "Fuck off. This is my land!"
To many non-aboriginal Australians, particularly politicians, "reconciliation" seems to mean "give them anything they want". Aboriginal people are allowed to hunt in national parks. In fact, at Lawn Hill they came in with no food and relied on killing native animals for survival. But if the law allows aboriginal people to hunt in national parks, shouldn't the law also specify that it be done with traditional hunting methods, not rifles, fishing rods and spear-guns? And wouldn't it be better to allow no hunting at all, for anyone? The wallabies and kangaroos which came into the campground at dusk to feed on the short grass were unafraid of humans. The birds which squabbled for water around the sprinklers had never been hunted. The huge catfish that lingered near the steps leading into Lawn Hill creek, and the turtles that played near the falls had no experience of fishing lines and spear-guns. When the aborigines arrived, the fauna of Lawn Hill National Park was slaughtered. Why is this allowed to happen?