Day 1: What the #WaterForRivers bus tour was really like

October 4, 2019

Well-documented corruption on a huge scale has dried out the Murray-Darling river system. Aboriginal communities along the river and its tributaries are calling it genocide. From September 28 to October 4, Aboriginal activist Bruce Shillingsworth helped those communities hold the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival to educate the wider public about the crisis. Two buses left from Sydney to follow the festival. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward, who took his nine-year-old son on the second bus, gives a blow-by-blow account of the trip.

Day 1: Sydney to Brewarrina

6.15am Group photos look better with fists in the air

We have thrown our packs, tents and mats on the bus and are ready to roll. Organiser Rachel Evans gathers everyone for a group photo, which is looking kind of lame till everyone raises their fists. And we're off.

6.45am Westconnex really is a huge monstrosity

Before long we're entering the newly-opened Westconnex tunnel, which is difficult to avoid as Google Maps sends you hurtling down it even when you have "no toll roads" selected as an option. This $45 billion motorway under the suburbs sparked years of protests.

7.00am Our fellow passengers appear to be a diverse bunch

To our left sits long-time environmental activist and journalist Tracey Carpenter, wearing a shawl. When asked why she came on the tour, she says: "I've come because I've spent 30 years working inland and 18 years in Bathurst, where I worked for the Greens. I worked on the Save the Macquarie River project.

"I'm also coming on the trip because it's a 60,000 year old culture that's being destroyed, so it's an incredible privilege to get this coming together of people and for us to be able to experience it."

Steph Luke, sitting next to her, says: "I've just come off a one-year good behaviour bond for protesting at Wollar coal mine. Check out the Last Man Standing doco about the guy who's holding out to stop the coal mine.

"I'm on the tour because I'm from South Australia, where we've had water restrictions for years, so I've seen what the end days are like and New South Wales needs to wake up to what it's doing.

"I'm housesitting in South Australia at the moment for a couple, not only to look after their chickens, but also to make sure their generator and water doesn't go missing. Their water went missing last year. They have to collect it in the winter and use it in the summer. So you see, water is an issue everywhere!

"I also came on the trip because I think what Bruce Shillingsworth is doing to make the issue visible is fantastic, along with the work of Rachel Evans."

7.32am Arabic biscuits taste great

Helen, a proud Lebanese woman from Sydney, hands out Arabic biscuits. She says she came on the trip to learn about the culture: "I'm the diversity officer at a school in the city, so that makes me the Indigenous students' support officer by default.

"There are about 10 Indigenous students at the school out of a total of 750 students. I used to do the same thing at a school in Redfern.

"I don't know much about the Murray-Darling at all, so I'm really coming to learn."

7.45am There are plenty of colonial names as you climb into the Blue Mountains

Many places are named after the white "pioneers" who first crossed the Blue Mountains, rather than the Aboriginal people who guided them.

People are watching Bruce Shillingsworth's Facebook video of the Corroboree last night in Walgett. Another bus left the day before and headed to Walgett, which hit headlines in January when locals had their drinking water cut off.

7.50am Katoomba is cold

We stop to pick up two people from Katoomba station in the Blue Mountains and to give our bus driver, George, a 15-minute break. The run along Katoomba station platform to quickly use the toilets is pretty bracing.

8.05am Our driver is a joker

I ask to take our driver George's photo as I get back on the bus. "I usually charge for that," he deadpans.

8.10am This is a moving feast

As we leave Katoomba, Helen hands out watermelon. "I'm from a big family and have looked after a lot of football teams," she says.

8.20am Cops have already pulled over the first bus

Organiser Rachel Evans gets a text saying the police have pulled over the first bus as they said it was over length. There's some tension in the air.

8.35am The beautiful scenery probably looks mundane to some passengers

As we roll down the other side of the Blue Mountains, the view out of the window is achingly beautiful, but there are many passengers on the bus who have no doubt seen it all before. We put on the anti-mining documentary Undermined to keep them inspired.

9.28am The Macquarie River isn't looking too healthy

We arrive at Bathurst and cross the Macquarie River, named after Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who ordered Aboriginal people to be shot. "It's still in bad shape", says Steph, as Tracey, who worked on the Save The Macquarie River campaign, takes photos. "There's my old house," Tracey waves. "Hi, grandma."

9.53am The bus driver is getting curious

Bus driver George asks: "So what's this trip all about?" Steph explains. He doesn't seem fazed.

10.25am The town of Orange seems to be doing well

We arrive at Orange. Tracey says Orange is getting a lot of money because of the Cadia gold mine, which also happens to be using a lot of water. She pulls up a satellite image of the tailings dam on her phone screen. "That's 2 kilometres across," she says.

10.40am Everybody loves Bruce Shillingsworth

Stephen Langford, an activist and former nurse, comes over and sits with us. He's from Paddington in Sydney, but was born and raised in London and Leeds, England: "I came on the trip because I know Bruce Shillingsworth and I think what's happening with the Baaka [Darling River] is a catastrophe.

"For me it's as big a catastrophe as what's happening with refugees on Nauru, yet it's not reported. I don't drive, so I'm stuck in Sydney and this was a great opportunity. I've never been to Brewarrina or any of these places.

"I know Bruce because I heard him speak when they showed Undermined at Amnesty International and I knew about the fish kills. He's been around our place for a party on his birthday and he's a great bloke. I like his artwork as well as it's just lovely. I love any art done on a black background."

11.55am Look out for kangaroos

Hey, we're not far out of Sydney, so seeing so many kangaroos is still a novelty, for some.

12.15pm Dubbo does great Vietnamese rolls

A quick stop for lunch in Dubbo. The town is used as a punchline by some, but our brief lunch stop turns up some surprisingly good food from a Vietnamese cafe.

12.20pm We eat them next to the town's giant mural of Pearl Gibbs

Pearl Gibbs was the most prominent early 20th century woman activist in the Aboriginal movement. She spent much of her adult life in Dubbo.

12.25pm There was no need to buy lunch, though

It turns out the rest of the bus are eating food that was already on the bus, in a park next to the bus. We probably should have just stayed with the bus.

12.45pm We now have a convoy of... two

Our car convoy arrives! OK, it's only one car. Nicole and her friend, Naomi. The other 49 that are supposed to be with us are probably with the first bus. We put hand sanitiser and toilet paper in the toilet (a slight oversight there) and after a headcount, we're off.

1.05pm Time for the next film

We put on the documentary Tocar y Luchar [To Play and To Fight] about Venezuela. From the sleeve: "To Play and To Fight presents the captivating story of the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra System - an incredible network of hundreds of orchestras formed within most of Venezuela's towns and villages.

"Once a modest program designed to expose rural children to the wonders of music, the system has become one of the most important and beautiful social phenomena in modern history. The documentary portrays the inspirational stories of world class musicians trained by the Venezuelan system, including the Berlin Philharmonic's youngest player, Edicson Ruiz, and world renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

"With interviews with many of the world's most celebrated musicians including the great tenor Placido Domingo, Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle, Guiseppe Sinopoli, and Eduardo Mata, To Play and To Fight is an inspirational story of courage, determination, ambition, and love showing us that... only those who dream can achieve the impossible."

1.25pm Everybody is complaining about the movie

"This movie is too obscure," says Green Left Weekly webmaster Matt Egan, who is acting as a helper on the tour. He puts on the anti-Vietnam war film Sir! No sir! instead.

1.35pm It seems there's a reason why there was no toilet paper on the bus

Matt Egan comes down the aisle telling everyone: "No shitting on the bus." It brings to mind The Happy Mondays' singer Shaun Ryder, who would deal with such restrictions on the band's tour bus by defecating in a plastic bag and throwing it out of the skylight.

1.50pm There are some strange towns out here

Gilgandra proclaims itself a "gasfield free area", but its main claim to fame appears to be a statue of a "man on the thunder box" - the town's answer to the dog on the tucker box.

2.30pm There are lots of dead kangaroos on the road

The crunch from this one under the wheels makes everyone at the front of the bus go, "Ugh!"

2.50pm The rivers are already looking dry

After a seemingly interminable drive, we pull into Coonamble. Our driver George jokes: "How did we get here?"

We all take a look at the dried up Castlereagh River. Back on the road, Matt Egan asks for a show of hands of vegans on the bus, for catering purposes. There are no vegans, but a handful of vegetarians.

3.24pm There's a lot of opposition to coal seam gas out here

We drive past a sign saying "Sack the Nats, Save the Great Artesian Basin." It's one of many we've seen today. Just metres down the road, someone points out a pink letterbox saying "Lock the Gate".

We sight a mob of emus as we enter Walgett shire. Walgett looks intriguing. Sadly it's only the first bus that gets to check out Walgett.

4.30pm It's probably a good job no one has shat in this toilet

We take the turn for Brewarrina and I visit the toilet.

4.31pm It's a nice view out of the toilet window

Better than the view inside, for sure.

5.20pm It appears emus are smarter than kangaroos about traffic

We pass the "Welcome to outback NSW" sign. George toots at an emu to get it off the road: "The emus are bloody smart - when they hear a noise they run in the opposite direction. The kangaroos go bloody everywhere. They come to the side of the road to eat the grass that's when they get killed."

When we arrive at Brewarrina, people wave at the bus from their gardens.

5.50pm There's kangaroo poo and bindis everywhere at the campsite

We pitch our tents in endless kangaroo droppings and thousands of prickly bindis at our campsite, which is also the town's racecourse.

5.51pm We're in a rush to get the tents up

"It's a race!" says Rachel Evans as we drive in the first pegs. It's true - we're in a rush as our bus was running late.

6.25pm It seems there's a super-talented rapper playing the festival

We're a bit surprised to see Murrawarri rapper Dobby walking across the campsite in front of us, even though we knew this is where his family is from. The last time I spoke to him indepth was when I interviewed him for the book Real Talk: Aboriginal Rappers Talk About Their Music And Country. It turns out he's performing at the Corroboree. He's just finished his debut album, made in an Airbnb in Paris.

6.40pm We're a bit too late to the Corroboree

The festival organisers had kindly held up proceedings because our bus was running late, but that left the dancers hungry. We're directed to get emu from the bush tucker stall, but the aunties there tell us: "The emu is men's business, but it's all gone - you gotta be quick! We do the johnnycakes. Want a johnnycake instead?"

It turns out the johnnycakes are still warm - and delicious. We spot Dobby in the crowd, who comes over looking just slightly concerned. "The only microphone is broken," he says. "But I have one song I could probably do on a megaphone."

7pm The festival is fantastic - and Dobby pulls it off

Among the many routines are the mosquito dance with swishing gum leaves, the fishing dance that teaches how to tickle fish, and a dance about filling up Brewarrina's famed fish traps, the oldest human-made structure in the world. It's all done with plenty of humour and grace as the anarchic kids who are performing threaten to disrupt the routines.

"When the whitefellas came out here, people were shot and killed for what we're doing tonight," says one dancer. "But now we can share it together like this."

Despite having no microphone, Dobby pulls a blinding performance out of the bag as he kicks his way around the sand circle with a megaphone. But it's his new song about the corrupt irrigators, "Language Is In The Land", that gets the most cheers:

Better rivers in better states
A better living, a better place
Preparation of better days
generation of better ways

If language is in the land,
Then the rhythm within the word,
If history’s in the song,
Then I’ll be singing it with the birds
They kill a million fish, and our
Rivers are barely running,
You ain’t thinkin' of my community
You are swimming up in your money

I’m bout to talk,
I hope you’re listening
My people are never givin’ in,
A PSA to the government
While I’m running within the riverbed

Tellin' you it's a drought,
What they rather have you believe,
They manipulating the country without the
Knowledge of what it means

Sick of watching the media trynna
Keep it all under wraps,
I been doing the same thing
And through my lyrics I bring it back

And it’s difficult to be critical when they’re
tedious with the stats,
TV’s a medium of the past,
Check Wikipedia for the facts,

We gotta call out the cover-up when they
Sweep it under the mat
With the Treaty and with the Gap,
Even Leonardo DiCap,
The rivers are runnin' dry,
And nothing livin' throughout the traps,
From Brewarrina to Menindee
I think the system is outta whack

So how depressing is that?
Imagine it for the kids,
You’re irrigating illegally
I would naturally resist

Two hundred thousand dollars,
It’s slapping him on the wrist,
Feel like slapping him in his face,
Tell em that’s for killin the fish

We’re shouting it through the halls
Let it rattle up through the walls
Take a hammer right to the weir
Instagram it and let it fall

If the language is in the land,
Then the narrative’s in the soul,
If the history’s in the family
Then I’ll carry it evermore

History in the ground
Language is in the land
Follow the Mundagarda
As he would travel into the dam

Pink and blue in the air,
The sun is watering down
The sky turning to caramel
Like a Paddle Pop in the cloud

And the birds, singing for rain, while the
Rivers are running deep, see the
Yellow belly and Cod,
and there's plenty of em to eat

Give the water to Mother Earth
gotta give her what she deserve

Better rivers in better states
A better living a better place
Preparation of better days
Generation of better ways

Read about Day 2 here.

Comments? Criticisms? Corrections? Email

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mat Ward has been writing for Green Left Weekly since 2009. He also wrote the book Real Talk: Aboriginal Rappers Talk About Their Music And Country and makes political music.

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