October 6, 1999


Closing part of the ring road around Uluru (Ayers Rock) and replacing it with two spurs, one ending near the base oaf the climb and the other, well to the east of the rock at a new sunrise viewing area, are likely to be options put up for public comment early next year.Moving the road as well as the walking track further from the base in parts, with side tracks leading to major points of interest, may also be proposed, along with strategies to encourage walking.After consultation with interested parties, in particular Aboriginal traditional owners and tourism industry representatives, Parks Australia planner, Sam Rando, says Parks Australia is developing a number of options to improve the infrastructure of the park on three fronts:-The first responds to the cultural concerns of the traditional owners who wish to "de-emphasise" the climb and "make other changes that would make visitor management more considerate of cultural issues". This can be achieved partly by offering visitors a greater range of things to do around the Rock, but also by having them understand its cultural values. To this end, traditional owners would prefer visitors to go to the Cultural Centre first. At present many tourists by-pass it because of the road alignment. Parks Australia may propose realigning the road to take visitors straight to the centre.Traditional owners also want the ring road and the walking track pulled further away from sacred sites. To take one example, at present the T-intersection of the road from the resort and the ring road is sited right at the foot of an important women’s sacred site.The second front is environmental protection.Mr Rando describes the erosion of the plain surrounding the Rock as "significant in places, and primarily the result of unrestricted access many decades ago".Storms produce a huge run off of water from the Rock, which the raised surfaces of roads and tracks funnel onto the plain, in places creating erosion gullies.Over 50 years multiple roads and tracks have been developed around the Rock, the earliest ones, in particular, often in an ill-considered way. Although most have been closed off, some still present a problem. Improved siting and surfaces of used roads and tracks, and the rehabilitation of the defunct ones, will help.The third front aims for a richer experience for visitors, potentially over a greater number of days. Parks Australia may recommend the development of a number of loop walks, at the base of the Rock – at present not possible because of the siting of the ring road – and in the surrounding landscape. Following detailed negotiations with traditional owners and the tourism industry, the track around Uluru will be altered to take its lead from variation in the vegetation as well as from the Rock itself, creating a more interesting walking experience.Parks Australia may also recommend distancing the road from the walking tracks at all points, as at present there are few opportunities to experience the Rock without the sound of passing traffic or idling buses.The relocation of the sunrise viewing area may be considered. The present site is small, on a corner and hence dangerous, and unsuitable for photography with a standard 35mm lens. At the often crowded sunset viewing area, redevelopment could create a greater separation between vehicles and pedestrians, and possibly a walking track to a nearby dune, where visitors could have a more peaceful experience.Crowding is a key problem identified in visitor surveys. It could be relieved in part by a greater range of things to do, and loop walks would create better flow. There is also scope, says Mr Rando, for a more formal staggering of tour operators’ itineraries, and for alternative transport arrangements at peak times."These options will be the subject of a separate study, but we need to think about whether we can go on making ever bigger car parks," says Mr Rando.A lot of site specific changes are likely to be recommended, including the placement of toilets, shade, water, and seating at points around the Rock.Thought will also go into the development of more indoor experiences for the middle of day, particularly during the hotter part of the year.Visitor surveys show that people want more information in cultural and other categories. Parks Australia may recommend building an annex to the Cultural Centre that could offer additional interpretive information on the geology, botany, and European history of the area. Approval of a master site plan could take up to two years, but improvements at the base of the climb, the highest priority for the tourism industry, are planned to be completed before next year’s Olympics. They will include new toilets and shade structures that will take their "look" from the Cultural Centre. The distinctive style of this building will be drawn on to create a "trademark" look for the park. This may eventually extend to the park entry station which could better reflect the park’s cultural and environmental significance.Mr Rando suggests better site planning should also do away with the excess of "do and don’t" signs in the park. "You can use site planning to take visitor attention to where you want it to be, rather than relying on a sign," he says.Once put into effect, the three infrastructure strategies will increase the visitor capacity of the park, although a projected figure has not been cited.Some $3m has been allocated for the works.


The fate of the $500m Ayers Rock Resort, and a good chunk of the Central Australian tourism industry along with it, at the end of the day lies in the hands of the traditional owners of the Uluru - Kata Tjuta national park.They have a majority of two on the park board of management at present, which will be whittled down to one if Federal Environment Minister Robert Hill gets his way – but a majority they will retain.Since the emotion charged hand-back of "The Rock" by Bob Hawke in the 1988 Bicentennial year, the park is Aboriginal owned but leased back to the Commonwealth.However, the only enduring condition of that lease is its 99 year duration: practically all else may come up for renegotiation every five years, and talks are under way right now, says Joanne Willmot, the board’s chairperson.She says: "The 99 years is in place but we can tear up the lease and write a new one" every five years. Does that put the traditional owners in a powerful negotiating position?"Absolutely, and traditional owners, and not just the ones from here, but from around the lands, have been very clear with the land councils that they want to come down tough now, and they want to stipulate some of the things they consider important."People are getting a lot clearer about what joint management means, and what powers they have as land holders."Born in Queensland and with a record of senior positions with Aboriginal legal services and in the South Australian Premier’s Department, Ms Willmot speaks quietly but with unmistakable resolve about the economic and social aspirations of Aboriginal people in the area.While not a traditional owner herself, Ms Willmot says she is an agent on the board for the traditional owners.The bargaining chips are impressive, ultimately including the conditions of access to the park and its use by tourists, who number more than 350,000 a year.She says setting up a tourist resort on their own land has been talked about by local Aborigines, although she thinks that would only become a reality 10 to 15 years down the track.But the fact that the owners of The Rock get $3.75 per visitor – 25 per cent of the gate fee – while the Ayers Rock Resort earns perhaps a hundred times that amount, hasn't gone unnoticed.Ms Willmot hints that some of the bargaining muscle may be flexed shortly: the traditional owners are unhappy about Mr Hill's resolve to put a Northern Territory Government representative on the board, while strengthening his own powers over the park, through the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act due to come into force next year.Ms Willmot also says Aborigines are getting tired of going "cap in hand" to Parks Australia for money to train board members in their functions, and to accept invitations to other countries, while people from the Minister's office and Environment Australia are "travelling overseas and are able to use this as the international icon and talk about the structure here as a model of reconciliation and joint management."Where is the other partner?"We might say it's not the perfect model and there are a whole lot of things we need to fix up."My board members haven't had any training in sitting on a board."I find that's just outrageous."The troubles may go deeper: Ms Willmot says Aborigines are "committed to joint management but from the non-indigenous perspective". "I think people are still grappling with the idea about what is a workable joint management arrangement."You have cultural versus contemporary values and issues, and sometimes these are in conflict and it's not clear where the priorities are."If you want to go for an administrative management style from a western model, well, how does that fit in with all the structures of Aboriginal life?"It would be harsh to say [Aboriginal presence on the board is] tokenistic because none of us know what a workable model is."The fact that the Minister was able to enact a Bill we didn't agree with, with the inclusion on the board of an NT representative, that is a real problem."And the fact that the Minister just says, that's what's going to happen ... aren't we supposed to work co-operatively, in a co-management arrangement?"That doesn't sound like co-operation. It sounds like dictatorship!"Another concern is the proposed transfer of responsibility for implementation of board decisions from the park service director to the Minister. This, Ms Willmot says, opens the door for politicising the process: "We're still in negotiation with the Minister about the possibility of changing some of the issues we're concerned about in the new Act, to make it workable for indigenous people who are the joint managers of the park and who are the owners of the land".Ms Willmot says there is a deep sense that "this community has actually been left behind in respect to the development of this region."She says because of these unresolved issues "all parties are going through an upheaval at the moment," delaying the necessary groundwork for a greater participation by the community – which now has an unemployment rate of 95 per cent – in the region's economy.The first priority will be the "getting job ready" employment strategy (Alice News, June 16, see our web site) for all work aged members of the 350-strong Mutitjulu community: "Once you've got a record of career advancement, proper school facilities, and have in place all of those basic infrastructure and support resources that are provided in any community, then you can start to look at the bigger picture. These basics are in the process of being established now. "This may be followed by a string of small businesses ventures on Aboriginal land, and possibly, on Aboriginal lands adjoining the park."Hopefully, in 10 years' time, the people here will have total control over their own tourism ventures, as this is the expressed wish of the traditional owners themselves."Developments that do not allow for Aboriginal participation lose the momentum and the essence of what people started out to get in the first place."When people have control they know exactly what they want, and they work through the process, in their own way."


A roadhouse operator says his business has boomed since he stopped selling alcohol to Aborigines – with official permission from the highest authorities.Peter Severin has been the lessee of the 4162 square kilometre Curtin Springs cattle station for more than 40 years, and has converted sections of the homestead into a pub, store, motel and camp ground.The roadhouse, just 80 km east of Ayers Rock on the Lasseter Highway, and named after a former Australian Prime Minister, was the focus of bitter racial disputes for decades, over the sale of alcohol.Mr Severin says in the 42 years he has held a liquor licence he has never once been found guilty of a breach.Ironically, in this era of reconciliation, it is an apartheid style solution that has finally brought peace to the 72 year old pastoralist, and his life's work.Says Mr Severin: "The income we're now getting from the tourists would be about six times higher than the income we used to get from the Aborigines."It's paid off handsomely."The customers are happier. "We haven't got that tension, sort of listening and trying to stop Aborigines arguing, outside the licensed premises."Round here we get people from all over the world, and of a nighttime we sit under the bough shelter, talking, eating and drinking."It's just heaven on earth."In place for a five year period, the booze ban was sanctioned in late 1997 by the Human Rights Commission, and not only agreed to, but demanded by local Aboriginal organisations.For decades grog bought from Curtin Springs was being blamed for road accidents and violence on Aboriginal communities in a radius of several hundred kilometres, and Mr Severin, battling a succession of droughts and low cattle prices, had his hands full battling in the courts a string of publicly funded Aboriginal organisations."It started off in about 1962," says Mr Severin."In those early days Aborigines were not allowed to drink."Then came the referendum in 1967, conferring citizenship and voting rights upon Aboriginal people, but commonly known in the Territory as the drinking rights referendum."We in the Territory were not allowed to vote because we were not a state," says Mr Severin."It was the people in the states of Australia who gave the Aborigines the right to drink."I knew it wouldn't do them any good because I know it hasn't done us any good."So, I kept saying, no, you can't drink."They didn't know anything about the referendum."Along came the do-gooders, and they ordered beer for two of the local lads. "I knew them, having lived with them for nearly all my life."I said they couldn't have beer."They went back to Canberra and complained about discrimination. The Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs at the time wrote to me to say if I do not serve Aborigines drink, I'll be taken to court for discrimination.""So I served Aborigines drink."Then the same do-gooding mob took me to the Supreme Court on six occasions because I did sell alcohol to Aborigines."So I was damned if I didn't, and I was damned if I did."After a lot of heartache, $300,000 in legal fees and eight years battling with not the blacks, but the whites, we came to this agreement."Mr Severin, says it was ratified by the Human Rights Commission, the NPY (Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, Yankun-ytjatjara) Women's Council, the Liquor Commission "and ourselves, resulting in a total prohibition for Aborigines"."I asked the Liquor Commission to define the word ‘Aborigine' in my license."Aborigine was defined as a person of Aboriginal descent."The license rules out take-away sales to Aborigines from communities in adjoining Aboriginal lands in the NT, SA and WA, as well as to someone who "intends to supply liquor" to a person in those areas.Says Mr Severin: "A lot of licensees have wanted to get the same license, but you cannot get special measures invoked unless [the demand] originates from the community as a whole."The community has to ask Human Rights to invoke special measures. "A licensee can't because that's discrimination."Mr Severin says he hasn't had one single complaint about the new arrangement."It has worked exceedingly well because I used to tell the black drinkers exactly what was going on."For eight years they knew every move that was made."And when it came about, that was law and they accepted it as law."It hasn't stopped them from drinking. "They go to Alice Springs and everywhere else, but it stopped them drinking from our place here."The immediate effect was very drastic because they spent a lot of money here."I would say 75 per cent of the liquor trade came from Aborigines."We would get 120 blackfellers here Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and then you wouldn't see them."But the whites wouldn't pull in because there were blacks here."You'd see the coaches turn off the road, they'd see a mob of blacks and they'd turn back onto the road."In those days we would get six coaches a day, and they were the ones that had to stop here, to drop the mail off, for example."The others just went past."When this [new arrangement] was first invoked, the blacks weren't coming in and nor where the whites."In the short term it hit us to leg, but we had to bite the bullet. We had to make a decision."For 18 months we were on our knees."Now we're getting 29 coaches a day. "Blacks still come in, they can buy fuel and soft drinks, food, things like that."We might see one carload of blackfellers a week now."Our accommodation has been at a 100 per cent occupancy for 12 weeks."Our meals have risen from about $20 a day to $1000 a day."And now the alcohol consumption is increasing because people are coming in, having a meal, drinking and talking."It's absolutely wonderful."Mr Severin is no stranger to hardship."When I first came here, in 12 months we saw six people."I brought 1500 head of cattle out here and it didn't rain for nine years."We were forced to diversify."With the seasons getting drier and drier we finished up with 200 head of cattle, but then we had a little grocery store, and that got bigger and bigger, and at one stage we were the third biggest bread and milk sellers in the Alice Springs region."When the Aborigines began to buy meat from the store, Mr Severin set up a licensed abattoirs."We said, we'll put the meat on Northern Transport but they said, no, you fly it out."So we had to buy an aeroplane, and we had to employ a pilot."We were supplying 13 settlements, from Balgo in WA, across to Warburton, Kintore on the Territory WA border, down to Ernabella and Fregon in SA."We had a wonderful setup going."We started off killing two head a week and we finished up doing 30 a week, until we got kicked out."It was politics again, the same people who'd been at me about the liquor license. They said I had taken land away from our Aborigines, as if they owned them."It was put about, and that's on Hansard in Darwin, that I was poisoning the meat and would kill them all."That was about 12 years ago. "Within two months we were closed. Just like that."So I'm bitter. Not about the blacks, I can tolerate them. They're good people."It's the parasites who work for them."So, peace and prosperity appear to have descended upon Curtin Springs, in the nation's Aboriginal heartland, by means of almost total segregation: you don't drink with us, we don't drink with you.Whites and blacks have again moved poles apart."It's not a happy example for reconciliation," says Mr Severin.


Australia's first generation of indigenous scientists, engineers and architects met in Alice Springs last month to form a professional network, to support each other, indigenous students in related fields and, more broadly, indigenous communities across the country.Andrew Lane, Darwin-born architect now employed at Alice's Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT), says the Australian Indigenous Science Engineering and Architecture Network (AISEAN) is modelled on a similar body of American Indian professionals.This is the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), formed in the USA over 20 years ago. Its vice-chairman, Larry Orcut, told the Alice gathering that in the last financial year AISES raised over $600,000 to distribute as scholarship funds to American Indian students."We'd like our organisation one day to get to that level," says Andrew.Meanwhile, a working party will look at how to raise AISEAN's profile so that indigenous students will be aware of members as role models, and will be able to contact them if need be."We've all been through university, gone the hard road, so we'll be able to offer them support," Andrew says.For members, AISEAN will operate at both a social and a business level."For the last 18 months AISEAN has been a collection of names, some people knew others, but no one knew everybody. So in Alice we were able to put a face to the name, and a lot of friendships were formed."We also realised that business partnerships could develop through membership contacts. As an architect, for example, if I need an engineer to do some work for me, I could contact someone I know through AISEAN," says Andrew.The third core area of AISEAN's interest will be community development."We all took the view that there is no point in us being together unless we make a difference to Aboriginal communities across Australia."We can do that in two ways: one is to encourage the youth to study in these fields, so they can go back to their communities and impart their knowledge. "The other one is to act as an advisory body. "You get the classic situation where a salesman rocks up to a community, and says this is the solution for whatever technological problem they might have."Whilst the community would know what was and was not culturally appropriate, the likelihood is that there would be no one in the community to assess whether that technology is any good for therm. "We see that we could be a resource for the communities, regional councils, ATSIC or any other government agency looking at dealing with technology in Aboriginal communities."The detail of how AISEAN would operate in its various roles is yet to be worked out."We're still just a collection of people with good ideas," says Andrew.We set up a working party to explore the legal side of where we go from here, and expect to get feedback by the end of November."


Endeavour rather than material success drove the men at the heart of two recent books of Central Australian history; endurance marked the fate of the women. KIERAN FINNANE reviews Judy Robinson's Bushman of the Red Heart, a biography of her uncle, explorer, cameleer, and war hero, Ben Nicker; and Rose Coppock's Bush Tracks and Desert Horizons, a memoir of her parents,Tom and Dorothy Rawlins (See Part One in last week's issue.)
It was not his war death which earnt Ben Nicker his place in history; but rather his passion for wandering the Central Australian desert and knowing how to survive in it, setting an example that few white men have dared to follow.Ben made his first solo crossing of country between Hall's Creek to Ryan's Well at the age of just 15 and without a compass, relying for water and food on the skills taught him by Billy and Clara, the "wrong skin" Arrernte couple who had lived with his family.British explorer Michael Terry described the feat as "the finest, riskiest, solo venture in Inland history".Wrote Terry: "To [Ben], to be a bushman was not just a question of instinct so much as observation and remembering. No two trees, no two ant-beds, no two hills were to him exactly the same; all was recorded in a mental picture."In the two gruelling expeditions they made together in 1932 and 1933, not only Ben's bush knowledge but his skill with and understanding of camels saw the men through. The difficulty of handling camels and the animals' own suffering are vividly evoked in Mrs Robinson's account.Camels are a feature, among a few, that link Judy Robinson's narrative with Rose Coppock's. Together, the two books span some 60 years of European settlement history in Central Australia, with Mrs Coppock's account virtually picking up where the earlier one leaves off.Mrs Coppock has the advantage of having known her subjects, her parents, intimately. This provides her with the material for a more rounded and consistent narrative, fleshed out by remembered dialogue and gestures.The reader can hear the tone of a horrified Dorothy who encounters for the first time "things" in her daughter's hair, and reprimands her for swearing as a "wicked, wicked, bad little girl"; or of Jimmy Wickham trying to conceal the nature of his relationship with the Aboriginal women in his company:"‘There's nothing to hide – nothing to know.' He kept clicking the fingers of his right hand. ‘There's not (click) that much to know!' "Mrs Coppock's book perhaps also sits more easily in its genre of family history, relying transparently for the great part on her own experiences and memories, some of them recorded in diaries.She is assisted by remarkable powers of recall and observation. These are focussed in particular on Tom's work – from making bridles to sinking wells, he was always a resourceful perfectionist – as well as on the details of their domestic environment, of which she delivers meticulously detailed descriptions.She writes in a clean, dispassionate prose and when she occasionally allows herself some emotional latitude, it gains from the overall reserve of the narrative. Certain passages, revealing something of the inner life of an isolated young European girl in the bush of that era, thus achieve considerable poignancy.Of one of her many temporary bedrooms across Central Australia she writes it was a room "full of cool, grey shadows of other people's loneliness."Of her joy on the family's return to the bush after her father's army service in World War Two: "I was eight years old, breathing the strong scent of eucalyptus from leaves carried to re-thatch the old bough shed. The bushes slithered, whispered and sighed, piled high and roped down on the camel drawn wagon."Of herself a couple of years later: "In my own way, I was as lonely as anyone might be, but I had long ago come to terms with that by substituting land and creatures for people. I felt myself part of each new scene that unfolded ... My mind went with them."Ouida, Jimmy Wickham's Aboriginal consort, was her friend "although I was careful not to let anyone suspect that I regarded her that way"."We were both powerless; she because of skin colour, I because of age – and gender was against us too."What both Mrs Coppock and Mrs Robinson relate of European contact with Aboriginal people makes for a compelling sub-text to both books.Tom Rawlins emerges as a preemi-nently fair man, prepared to take all individuals on face value, and prepared for some self-sacrifice when it came to those close to him, including, for instance, Jimmy Wickham's Aboriginal family. Dorothy was ruled more by prejudices and fears, which held sway inside the house, condemning Rose to a much lonelier childhood than was necessary. She however – unlike some, as a number of anecdotes related by Mrs Coppock attest – would never have tolerated deliberate cruelty towards Aboriginal people.The Nicker parents had a far more down to earth attitude, living with Billy and Clara at the heart of their household and not attempting to restrict the free flow of knowledge from the Aboriginal couple to the children. They all grew up speaking Arrernte, and Ben was reputed to have a grasp of several other Aboriginal languages.There are a number of interesting accounts of contact with Aborigines during Ben's expeditions with Michael Terry. In one, the dehydrated and exhausted expeditioners and their camels have retreated to Davenport:"Aboriginals approached displaying none of the usual caution and diffidence. Instead, between gales of uninhibited mirth, they suggested that the travellers had got themselves in a right old mess."In another, one of the party comes across an elderly Aboriginal woman left to die: "It was difficult to resist giving her a drink but he had himself been a bushman long enough to know that to do so would prolong her life and defeat the purpose of her situation."Ben, whose father had by this stage died alone in a hospital in Adelaide, is reported to have suggested "that it could well be a more refined way to end a long and useful life than white man's culture offered."European experience of Central Australia is on a tiny scale relative to the land, and to the experience of indigenous people.The stories told in Bushman of the Red Heart and Bush Tracks and Desert Horizons, inscribed as they are across the land – its creek beds, waterholes, stony rises, spinifex clumps and termite mounds, – and in the histories of people, white and black, during times of great change, help to extend that experience, allowing readers to share in the knowledge of those who have gone before.Central Australians can be grateful to the authors and to Outback Books, the imprint of Central University Queensland Press, for this privilege.Both books are available in local bookstores, through the National Trust, and can be ordered from Outback Books (PO Box 1615, Rockhampton, Qld 4700).

Return to Alice Springs News Webpage.