Day 4: What the #WaterForRivers bus tour was really like

October 7, 2019
Wilcannia to Broken Hill to Lake Menindee Map

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 world 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 4: Wilcannia to Menindee Lakes

4.30am This campsite locks the men's toilets at night

I wake especially early and make my way to the men's toilet block, but it's locked, possibly due to past vandalism. No one is around, so I use the women's block, then have a shower for the first time since Brewarrina. It's my first hot shower of the whole tour.

7.00am Serving breakfast is proving challenging

Tour helper Matt Egan says most of the food was given away in Bourke, so he's not sure how breakfast will be served. Before long, though, it all seems to come together.

7.30am A fire is lit for the speakers who are due to arrive

One of the activists brings over a fallen gum branch with leaves still on it, in case a smoking ceremony needs to be done.

8.20am Menindee Lakes sounds like a paradise lost

Three speakers from the Vanishing River project, which records the stories of people who are suffering along the drying-out river, have come to talk to us.

From their descriptions, the drained Menindee Lakes, our next destination, sounds like a paradise lost. The locals say Menindee, the site of the notorious fish kills, is being kept dry for mining.

Mark Merritt, who took the photo of last night's performance that made the front page of the local newspaper, says: "Menindee is a beautiful town - no shutters, no barbed wire. I was driving coaches down there on the way to Lake Mungo. There was always 100% employment until the past few years. Now half the population has gone elsewhere to find work. 

"The biggest buyer of fresh water in Australia this year was an overseas buyer. We're rubbing sticks together trying to make smoke while a few big companies are making millions of dollars.

"The pollution in the river is overlooked. They call it blue green algae because it sounds kind of organic. It's cyanobacteria.

"The first thing we have to do is understand that we do not own our own water. The whole region is collapsing. There's no dew. The emus are dropping like flies. There's thousands down on the lake just dying.

"They dug 43 holes and said it's part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Those cores were put in refrigerated containers and helicoptered out. Something is going on that we don't know about."

8.30am 'Lake Menindee is being kept dry to mine for rare earths'

Mark Merritt's fellow Vanishing River activist, Cath Eaglesham, says: "Lake Menindee is being kept dry to mine for rare earths, say the locals.

"They are surviving on bottled water. They have to bathe their babies in bottled water. There's a cancer cluster there too. People are living in Third World conditions without having fresh water."

Fellow activist Susie Peake says: "Our project, The Vanishing River, was to talk with the people for the radio and they were in tears.

"The water that comes out of the taps is so smelly you don't want to have a shower. Their clothes come out dirtier."

8.40am The MC from last night's Corroboree feels the need to speak

Brendon Adams, the Senior Dance Manager at Waradah Aboriginal Centre and the MC from last night's Corroboree, asks if he can speak. He is given a chair facing the audience.

"We go through 3000 boxes of water a month," he says. "When kids play football and have a shower they feel like they come out dirtier. It actually feels heavy. Nowhere else have I had water feel heavier. 

"The average lifespan for Aboriginal people nationally is 56.5, but in Wilcannia it's about 38 as we're facing suicide and depression. 

"Men's groups are hearing men saying they don't know what to do with their life. It's an added genocide, this river. 

"It's also affected our football games. We're a football town, but we have to attend sorry business all the time.

"We can't hose the footy oval so we can't play as the ground is so hard. People say 'it's only football', but it develops young leaders. If they can't do that, kids will resort to crime. They don't want to do that for fun - it's because they have nothing to do. 

"The government can blame climate and so on, but they know they can act. The government does not have to lie. The government knows there's a man-made structure there keeping all the water up at Cubbie Station..."

He trails off and breaks into tears. People in the crowd offer words of encouragement. He starts again.

"I just want to say thank you so much for supporting us," he says. "What people felt last night with youse there, they felt there were people out there who care. 

"I'm talking about 500 people. There used to be 1000 here. What my brother Bruce has done in creating this Corroboree all the way down, he's created a voice. The last time I remember a Corroboree like that was 2001. 

"This is not just a local disaster, but a national disaster, as it's already spreading to other communities. This land was stolen in 1788. Why are they stealing it again? It's got to stop." 

8.50am 'Our women are the strongest'

Later, away from the large group, people ask Brendon Adams more questions. A woman in the audience asks how local women are affected by the Department of Community Services taking kids away.

"Our women are the strongest," says Adams. "We're a matriarchal society.

"I came here to dance for two weeks and ended up married with four kids - that's how strong our Baaka women are." The audience laughs.

Someone else in the crowd asks: "How else can we help Wilcannia?"

"Social media," replies Adams.

9.08am There appears to be a big problem with the buses

Organiser Rachel Evans announces that the bus company provided only two drivers, instead of the four that were expected. The drivers cannot legally drive for 14 hours non-stop, so we'll have to break up the journey home over two days.

We'll spend another night camping in Dubbo and be back in Sydney on Friday afternoon instead of early Friday morning. "We went through a booking company, but then the booking company asked for as cheap a deal as they could get," she says.

9.10am There are some Wiradjuri warriors in the convoy

As I pack up our tent, I get chatting to our neighbour, Ricky, who I've seen jogging round the campsite with an unmissable athletic physique.

I ask if he and his companion will answer a few questions for Green Left Weekly

He smiles and says: "Green Left Weekly? The paper that tells the truth! Sure!

"We're both Wiradjuri. We're from the Central Coast, Forresters Beach, near The Entrance. 

"We came on the tour just to support a good cause, to reconnect to culture and to support Indigenous sovereignty, because they're the only people that have the knowledge and respect to look after the country." 

10.52am Two dancers and their kids power up our photo shoot

As the buses gather for a photo shoot before we leave the campsite, Brendon Adams brings over Peter Williams, the senior dancer at Waradah Aboriginal Centre.

"Let's do the dance poses," says Adams. They gather their kids front and centre before the banners and hold up their hands, then Adams gets then crowd to chant: "Water for the Baaka!" 

It's a powerful shot. 

11.20am A hair appointment is holding up the convoy

Activist Steph Luke has made an appointment at an Aboriginal-owned hair salon that's just opened that day, and she's running late.

The bus pulls up opposite and we all pile into the salon. The hairdresser and Steph are both grinning.

11.22am Water in this town costs $6 a bottle, say locals

As we wait for Steph to exit the salon, which is in the Wilcannia River Radio building, our fellow traveller, Gryffyn, crosses the street to talk to a group of Aboriginal people sitting on the pavement in the shade. When he comes back, he says: "They tell me one guy owns three shops in the town, so he can charge what he wants.

"He charges them $6 for bottled water."

11.26am 'Only pissing on the bus!'

On the road to Menindee via Broken Hill, artist Amy Elizabeth takes to the bus microphone. 

"Shitting on the bus is disrespectful to the driver, George," she hollers. "Chant after me: Only pissing on the bus!"

She has made a sparkly sign for the toilet.

12.25pm We pass a cop car that's pulled someone over 

Someone asks: "Were they Blackfellas?"

"No, don't think so," comes the answer.

12.34pm Look out, there's ticks about

Tour helper Malin takes to the microphone to warn that he's found three ticks on himself. More disturbingly, Zana, from Kurdistan, found one in his underwear. 

"Crush them with your fingernail or tell us if they've burrowed into you and we'll do something about it," he says.

Luckily, we have a doctor on board.

12.47pm Broken Hill will be a quick break

Green Left Weekly's Coral Wynter announces we'll stop in Broken Hill - the outback town that shot to fame in the film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - for only 20 minutes.

1.10pm We're getting close

First we pass a sign for "McDonald's Broken Hill" in the middle of the desert, then we find ourselves neck-and-neck with a resources train heading for this town that's the birthplace of mining titan Broken Hill Proprietary Company, otherwise known as BHP. 

1.11pm Being in transit is no excuse for being inactive

With 25 kilometres still to go, organiser Rachel Evans is working on a statement from the festival on her laptop with longtime activist journalist Tracey Carpenter. 

1.25pm Why 20 minutes in Broken Hill is actually 50 minutes

Broken Hill runs on South Australian time, even though it's in New South Wales. This is because, at the time the Australian dominions adopted standard time, Broken Hill's only direct rail link was with Adelaide, not Sydney. 

Even more confusingly for visitors, South Australian time is not one hour behind, but half an hour behind, New South Wales time. So everyone rushes across the street to the pub to go to the toilet, then rushes back to the bus, and spends the next half hour complaining that they could be in the pub.

Meanwhile, our driver, George, is on the phone with the bus company trying hard to get the extra drivers we were expecting for the journey home. 

1.49pm There's even someone from Germany on the bus

The timezone difference gives me the opportunity to grab a quick chat with Tatjana, who is from Hannover in Germany, but has worked with international students at the University of New South Wales in Sydney for years.

"I came on this trip because uncle Bruce Shillingsworth visited my daughter's school, Arncliffe Public School, teaching Aboriginal history, and she came back with a postcard about the tour," she says. "So my daughter, Miria, asked me, 'Can we go?'

"I looked into it and, because we've done a lot of outback travelling, I thought: 'What a wonderful opportunity to meet the local Aboriginal people in their land, which we love.' 

"The thing to learn is that parents ought to listen to their children, because they might have some journeys for us that are amazing." 

2.20pm Would you like red sand in your sandwich?

Not everyone wasted their time in Broken Hill. Fellow traveller Amie and my son went to the supermarket and bought sandwich ingredients. We're all asked to fill out a form to describe the sandwich we want.

Tracey and Steph make sandwiches en route as we drive through the filming location of Mad Max, just outside Broken Hill.

Our driver, George, seems to be inspired, as he's taking some hairy bends and dips rather fast. Half an hour later, we pass an emu with 10 chicks in tow. "And the father's nowhere to be found," jokes George.

3.40pm This lakeside resort has been left high and dry

We pass the pipeline that's bringing water from the Murray River to Broken Hill, then pull into Sunset Strip, a township on Menindee Lakes. 

We drive past holiday homes looking onto the dry lake. The boats in their gardens and driveways look absurd. We walk down to the dry lake edge. Several kangaroos hop through the scrub.

Green Left Weekly's Coral Wynter talks about meeting the locals here a month ago and how they told her the water coming out of their taps was gassy and smelled bad.

"They have to travel to buy bottled water," she says. "Everybody's got boats but no one can use them."

3.45pm 'We leave water out for the kangaroos'

We are joined by a local woman. She says she's hiding out from her family, so we decide not to name or photograph her. 

"We leave water out for the kangaroos," she says. "There's an emu with 10 chicks round here that I've been looking out for. You have to be careful when you're driving. The animals scatter and freak out but a lot of the locals claim they don't. Just ask the front bumper of my car.

"Where I'm from, we had water problems but nothing like this. I've been living here 15 months."

Amy Elizabeth, the artist from our bus, says: "It's so fucking stupid. You can't drink money..." then she trails off as her voice falters with emotion.

The woman sees she's upset. "It's not an easy subject to talk about," says the woman. "But I face it every day when I walk out of my fucking house.

"I really appreciate you coming down because I've heard about what you're doing. It ain't to do with the fucking drought.

"You've heard about the power cuts. We just get a letter in the mail saying 'plant power outage', no other fucking reason. Menindee is cut off from 4pm." 

4.12pm No-one's toasting this winery 

We pass the withered vines of the Menindee winery that used to produce Menindee wine. You can barely make out the vines from the scrub.

"All dead," says Coral Wynter. 

4.15pm There's no power in this town  

In Menindee town, nothing appears to be open because the power was cut off 15 minutes ago. 

The tourist info kiosk has lots of news reports about corruption of water usage. 

We pick up two people who missed bus one and got a lift with someone in the car convoy. 

4.20pm It appears our campsite's name is controversial

We've been told our campsite tonight is called The Burke and Wills Campsite, after the white "pioneers" who camped there in 1860. It's thought Burke and Wills died from eating untreated nardoo seeds. "They didn't listen," as Jason Dixon put it at the Aboriginal Cultural Tour in Bourke.

But it seems everyone round here now calls the campsite The Weir instead. Amy Elizabeth tells everyone on the bus to call it The Weir, "not that bullshit colonial name". 

Rachel Evans gets everyone to sing a Jesus song with the "Jesus" lyrics taken out. Ten minutes later everyone is still singing it. It seems the bus is going slightly insane.

5.00pm It looks like the campsite may get rained on  

As we travel 10 kilometres down the corrugated road, past a petrified forest to The Weir, dark clouds gather.

Our driver, George, appears to be enjoying dodging the corrugations. "This is the most interesting trip I've done," he says.

6.30pm 'I want to pass this on to my students'

After pitching our tent, we head down to the river that meanders through the dry lake bed and talk to fellow traveller Gryffyn. He's originally from Lilyfield in Sydney, but says gentrification forced his family further and further away from the city. He ended up growing up in Campbelltown, 42 kilometres south-west of Sydney's central business district. 

"I was interested in investigating the drought crisis more so than the abstract information from farmers and so on that you see in the news," he says. 

"It's important for all Australians to have Indigenous knowledge. I'm training as a teacher and want to pass it on to my students. Many have compared the trip to the Freedom Ride." 

7.00pm You meet some interesting people in the gloom

I take a panoramic shot of the river, then myself and my nine-year-old son load up our plates with dinner alongside the rest of the group.

We try to find somewhere to sit. Fumbling through the dark, we eventually find a concrete table far away from the tour group, occupied by a grizzled guy with a straggly salt-and-pepper beard. He's clutching a beer in a foam cooler as a dog snarls behind him, chained to his car's bumper. 

"Mind if we sit here?" I ask.

"Sure," he says, so we slide ourselves in, then he barks: "Where's my knife and fork?!" He collapses laughing as his three kids play silently beside him.

"Are you from round here?" I ask.

"Yeah, I own a shack in Menindee," he says. "My family's been out here years, on the river. We came to Australia in 1796, but have been working along the river for generations as graziers, miners in Broken Hill, but all along here."

"So what would you do to solve the water crisis?"

"Well, what they need to do first of all is move the big irrigators to the bottom of the river," he says. "Then they need to channel the big wet in the top end down to here. They're already trying to do it."

The project has been dismissed as too expensive.

"So," I say, "what do people in Menindee think about the notion that the lake has been drained to mine for rare earths?"

"Well, they'd have to mine the lake bed because they couldn't mine the shoreline," he says. "It's full of Aboriginal burial sites. Aboriginal people lived all over this country, often in permanent settlements, they weren't all nomadic."

"Well this tour we're on is Aboriginal-led," I say. "It's a Corroboree tour. They say the water crisis is a form of genocide."

"Yeah well, it's not just them," he says, his voice raising. "It's not just them! It affects all of us."

"Yeah that's what the Aboriginal people have been saying," I say. "It affects everyone... Are you coming down to the Corroboree tonight?"

"Yeah, we'll be down there," he says.

8.00pm This is the most comical Corroboree yet

There's a distinct levity about tonight's Corroboree, perhaps because all the dancers are relieved they've managed to pull off the whole tour and make it a success. Obviously it's serious business, but there's a giddiness that brings plenty of laughs. 

Peter Williams, whose percussion, dancing and singing in language is always impeccable, no matter what curve balls his kids throw at him, seems more willing than ever to go with the flow. 

After he closes the Corroboree, his youngest daughter insists they do the "butterfly dance" as an encore. He agrees. They get all the women in the audience up to fly around the sand circle, flapping their wings. It's a fitting ending to a cross-cultural, collaborative tour whose aim was to bridge the divide.

Organiser Joe McDonald takes the microphone to thank the Aboriginal hosts and bring home the gravity of what we've experienced.

"To all the people that came in the bus: You lucky bastards," he says. "You guys have been invited onto country and into history."

Fittingly, Bruce Shillingsworth has the last word. "I hope you got something out of this trip," he says. "I know you have. Everyone's changed."

Read about Day 5 here, in which we chat to many of the Aboriginal bus travellers on the journey home.

Comments? Criticisms? Corrections? Email

[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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