Being there for Bylong

Almost a day’s drive each way to spend a day ‘being there for Bylong’ at the IPC sessions in Mudgee on Wednesday 7th November re the Kepco Bylong Coal project. Many other folk made efforts too – and definitely not the ‘rentacrowd’ that some pro-mine speakers scoffed at. I don’t even like café lattes, but he told us all to go back to the city for them.

Whichever way you enter the stunning Bylong valley, from the Muswellbrook or the Rylstone ends, it is guarded by the most impressive cliffs. You feel as if you have been allowed into somewhere special, like Shangri-La. Which is why I chose it and the Andrews family at Tarwyn Park (now owned by Kepco) as the Rich Land for the cover of my book, Rich Land, Wasteland.

With subsidences predicted of up to 3.3 metres from the proposed mines’ longwalls, I fear for the cliffs that edge Bylong. The dozens of major cliff collapses south of Lithgow, from far less subsidence, is sickening.

Photo from the Battle for Bylong Facebook page

At the rally outside, prior to the day’s official speakers to the panel, locals and people from all over gathered to voice their support for Bylong. For me, it was like being at a funeral, where you are sad, but glad to see familiar faces; here too many were from past rallies or PAC hearings, from battles long-fought but lost, such as Wollar and Bulga.

Photo Tina Phillips

Inside, with 61 registered to speak, it was full until lunchtime at least. I noted the difference here, with no operating mine involved, as the room was not dominated by the high-vis shirts of mine employees.

Nevertheless there plenty of Mudgee business owners – motel, car sales, estate developers etc – crying doom if the Bylong mine did not go ahead; some speakers from Kandos pleaded for the jobs.

One farmer from Bylong commented tellingly on these calls, saying something like ‘so with three large mines you are not managing; will one small extra one save your businesses– and for how long?’

He and other Bylong farmers, and water experts, also set the record straight re the over-allocation of water there; the reality of water available is not what is on paper, and water sharing is needed, of when to pump and how much. And that is without a water-hungry mine.

It was often pointed out that the Ulan, Moolarben and Wilpinjong promises, predictions and modelling bore no relation to what actually happened/ is happening re water, noise, air pollution, traffic and social impacts. All are far, far more.

Is there no lesson to be learnt here?

Another mine so close to create cumulative impacts, yet this is not being taken into account.

The general inadequacy of Kepco’s research, modelling and plan, in water and economics, was made clear.

I was spitting chips at many aspects being treated with so little respect, but as always, it is the heartbreak for the people of Bylong that is the great injustice. As I only had 5 minutes, I concentrated on the social impacts.
And now we bide our time for Bylong.

Note that until 14th November you can still put in a written submission and be part of being there for Bylong through the Lock the Gate website.

This is what I said to the IPC panel:

In 2012 my book, Rich Land, Wasteland, on the impacts nationally of the rapid expansion of the coal and gas industries was released. I’d undertaken the two-year project because I’d watched modern mining being allowed to overwhelm and pollute the Hunter around Singleton and Muswellbrook.

The adverse air, water and health impacts were and are serious, with the most unfair impacts on rural lives. I saw the strain of the assessment years as began the fracturing, decimation and eventually obliteration of communities and the farming regions they’d served.

Once operations began, there was the immediate removal of quiet dark nights by a noisy industrial invader, and/or an insidious and heartstopping Low Frequency one, there was the sense of frustration at complaints being ignored, at monitoring manipulated to advantage, not truth, all the cards being held by the company, sales made in fear and desperation, confidentiality gags applied… and a pervasive sense of the Planning Dept being on the side of the company, and of the EPA being toothless.

‘Clearing out the country’ was my chapter on what happened to the Ulan, Cumbo and Wollar communities, and it’s mirrored in many places, like Bulga, Wybong, Camberwell…

I wanted my Rich Land cover image to convey family and farming traditions, good agricultural land, natural beauty, community, sustainability for generations. These were the resources to be valued above the mineral resources that seemed to have taken over the very meaning of the word ‘resources’ and whose short-term extraction, for private profit, was being allowed to destroy those environmental, agricultural and social riches.

I chose the Andrews family at Tarwyn Park in Bylong, for where else is the idea of sustainability so embodied in the land than in this living Natural Sequence Farming demonstration, even more important with climate change?

Yet here we are, facing the prospect of my iconic Rich Land losing many of those values, perhaps finally becoming more a museum surrounded by a Wasteland, as this project has been allowed to keep advancing despite acknowledged risks and inadequacies and deceptive practices. They have been coached to this point, when areas mapped as BSAL and CIC … and Tarwyn Park!… ought to have been off limits to exploration at the start.

Bylong Valley Protection Alliance fought hard to stop Bylong becoming a bygone place, its name signifying only a mine, like Warkworth. Nevertheless Kepco now own most of the properties, including the shop — the hub of the village — and a dozen or so families have left the Valley. People break, sell, and leave, yet the confidentiality clauses deny them the comfort of sharing experiences, or of helping those remaining.
And I’ve seen too many places where ‘stringent conditions’ as in your report are ignored or modifed, with too-few compliance officers to check often and at random. Too much ‘residual uncertainty’ remains here. How can you leave it to Kepco to use ‘adaptive management’ in so many areas, or to act on the better side in taking ‘all reasonable and feasible steps’ in others?

‘Residual uncertainty’ ought to be like reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Elsewhere, despite all the conditions, cliffs have cracked and fallen away; water sources have drained and cannot be mended; make good promises are impractical and time-limited; the fight for recognition of LF impacts from Wilpinjong was hell for supposedly unimpactable residents; you do not mention blasts going wrong, sending orange nitrous oxide clouds over the valley, as happens too often in the Hunter or Maules Creek.
Our system has allowed Bylong’s social fabric to be broken; no matter how much you mandate Kepco’s community handouts they can’t replace things like the camaraderie of organising the Mouse Races to fund local needs.

The oral history you propose is no substitute for the ongoing life of a community. A village is more than its buildings; it is people and their connections, it holds the history of the surrounding rural region, of gatherings, of families with generations, of pasts remembered… and futures hoped for.

Economic benefit for the wider region is no excuse for sacrificing Bylong; there are other ways for the state to gather revenue, and other ways to create jobs in non-harmful industries with a future.

It is NOT Ok for Planning to just note it inevitable that large mining projects have significant social impacts. Rather they should consider such a project inappropriate in that area and say no early. What was the Gateway for?

What is the point of a SIMP now? To survey the damage, to tart up the corpse? Or as at Wollar will this IPC say the damage is so great Kepco may as well finish off the job? Is the MidWest to be even further littered with tales of pain and heartache?
Whatever happened to a fair go?

Our rural communities are an essential part of the fabric of Australia. Please don’t be responsible for Bylong becoming imore callous collateral damage from an industry that belongs to the past, before we knew how toxic it is to our world.

Communities are not just nuisances in the way of a coal project. Consider the moral rights, not only the mining rights, and say NO to this mine in an area that ought to have been off limits — and still should be.

Dorrigo details

Rainforests are often majestic and always green worlds of their own. Dorrigo National Park has a two-hour walk that takes you through such a world.

While focal points like the Falls are spectacular, it’s the details along the way that fascinate me.

Conical hanging birds’ nests? Or accidentally arranged lichen?

Vines reach for the light way above, and lichen hitches a ride on most things, decorating bark to green furriness.

Different lichens decorate in different ways, here trailing like delicate green feather boas.

This walk is on a steep hillside, where the very large trees need all the earth hold they can get, so buttresses are common, but not often as narrow as these.

The bark of the tree varieties is interesting enough, but some bore strange markings like moon craters or excrescences like foetal creatures.

Fascinating details that I wanted a guide to quiz.

I saw many more varieties but could not photograph them as halfway round the walk I was caught in a thunderstorm, with heavy rain and stinging hail. I had to stow the camera in my bag and don the emergency plastic poncho. The camera survived the long wet trip back, my boots and trousers and the poncho didn’t.

Water works

Where I had lived for the past 4 years it had rained a lot — and very often only there, in that exact part of this spectacular valley, while adjacent areas missed out.

Where I live now has been hanging out for some of that rain, with the ponds almost dry and even this sole duck wandering the roads looking for wetter pastures.

But after a week of wet days, some deluges and much drizzle, the wetlands flood mitigation works below my place is roaring with white water, the channels are overflowing and smoothing pathways through the Wandering Jew ground cover that dominates.

This makes beautiful patterns with the water — and can be forgiven for the moment for its invasiveness.

Not to be forgiven are the tides of plastic rubbish waiting to swell and overflow their pools.

Waiting to catch them is this steel rubbish trap, through which the water pours, into the stormwater drain that runs under the road to the next creek. These traps are why my house will hopefully not be flooded ever again, as it was in the 70s, long before these water works were undertaken and the forest planted around them.

The solitary road-running Black Duck has found the freshened and filled ponds, but so far no other water birds can be seen.

Having just watched some of ‘Drowning in Plastic’, a BBC series on our appalling plastic waste and what it is doing to our waterways and water creatures, I am aware how lucky we are to have those traps to stop even this amount of plastic heading down to the Manning River and out to sea

Northern Nature

On the far North Queensland coast, evidence of Cyclone Yasi damage abounds, seven years later. On Dunk Island, the once-famous resort is still closed, unrepaired.

But even here natural survivors struggle on, like this coconut palm.

Years ago I had read Banfield’s Confessions of a Beachcomber about his time there. But Dunk Island is not the romantic and untouched place he described, full of wildlife.

I struggled to see any, and I’m afraid that the one frog briefly spotted on the climb to the top of the mountain may well be a cane toad. It was extremely well camouflaged and doesn’t fit any in my frog book.

There was no flora or fauna information on the Island, even though much of it still a national park, and walking tracks were vague.

The rocks are spectacularly jagged and slanted, thrusting up in sharp slabs from beneath the gritty sand of finely crushed coral. Shellfish cluster round their high tide bases.

Even well above any tide line, wasps find shelter in their hollows…

… and tiny tree seedlings root in any crevices where soil or rotting vegetation have lodged.

Beautiful as it is, I found Dunk to be a sad place, damaged by more than Yasi.

The coast is close here, a quick water taxi ride away.

It’s famous for its Cassowaries and crocodiles, but I saw neither. My most interesting northern sighting was of an Orange-footed Scrubfowl.

Not exclusive to the north, but not often seen by me, was what I think was a Spangled Drongo.

Inland, the mountains back the sugarcane coastal plains, trapping clouds and dropping rain, so that towns like Tully and Babinda vie for the title of the wettest town. (Babinda’s main street happens to be Munro Street!)

The edging range creates plentiful waterfalls and powerful rushing creeks, as at Babinda Rocks.

Wild, lushly grand country.

Duck Trails

The swamp/pond in the reserve below my block generally looks like a smooth bowling green. But now and then I see dark tracks through the algae topping carpet.

Going closer to investigate, I see two handsome Black Ducks entering the water, joining another bird that from a distance I assume will be a Purple Swamp Hen.

The ducks begin effortlessly gliding across the pond, trailblazing as they go. The trails close back over quite quickly. I could see four Black Ducks on the pond in all.

Black Ducks (Anas superciliosa) are common all over Australia. For once, males and females are similarly striking: the black eye stripes, peach cheeks and stunning individually outlined feathers, with a flashy emerald green ‘speculum’ hiding amongst them.

The other lone waterbird has me baffled. The colours aren’t right on the head and that distinctive yellow/lime beak has me beat. Could it be a Coot in a particular phase? Can anyone help?

From swamp to stream

Normally I have a view of a swamp, algae covered except where ducks forge a path. It’s the most permanent of a deliberately created wetlands complex of often dry depressions, built for flood mitigation with metal traps to catch debris.

I don’t usually get to see white water or hear it rushing through the forest, yet after a few days of welcome heavy rain, my swamp is transformed as it does its job of moving water.

Weedy sinks are pools, low-lying parts of the forest are semi-submerged and a small creek has found a path through the bottom of my garden.

And I know you’ve probably seen enough of these fungi, but I love that they are so prolific, with new colonies appearing every few days in this wet weather.

Water is Life!

Brush creatures

This is one of the larger inhabitants of Wingham Brush, a wonderful rainforest pocket reserve right near the town and the river. The Brush was rescued from being smothered by weeds and vines and now attracts many visitors to wander along its winding walkway and share its cool green world.

But ‘inhabitant?’

Well, I know it’s actually a Strangler Fig tree (Ficus obliqua), but my senses — intuition, imagination — say it could be a mighty sleeping creature whose sinuous limbs lie half buried in the leaf litter, reaching for what — or whom?

Or awaiting what or whom to cause it to awake…? And is that a pregnant one? Do Triffids breed?

These trees are a feature of the Brush, and some can be seen still in the process of strangling the host tree, its roots reaching for the ground to begin those amazing snaking buttresses. They grow on average 15-20 metres high and spread 10-15 metres and more when they are as venerable as some here, where signage says they are hundreds of years old.

One giant has fallen, another is dead, crumbling at the base. There is a nobility in its decay, and fungi find a home as it breaks down.

Giant Stinging Trees also live here, but the thousands of Grey-headed Flying-foxes who literally hang out here in the daytime do not seem to mind or be stung. These amazing creatures chatter and climb and flap their caped wings or drape them around themselves, suspended like strange fruit high above the walkway.

They make a lot of noise, they smell strongly, love the small orange fruits of the Figs, and occasionally drop rather messy gifts — wearing a washable hat is advisable!

If you look down instead of up, the Brush Turkeys (Alectura lathami) are the obvious kings — their queens are more elusive.

They form enormous mounds to incubate their partner’s eggs, scraping up dirt and leaves and sticks. I have watched them moving material for quite long distances to get enough to make these mounds, which average 4 metres in diameter and 1.5 metres high. As you can see, the sticks are substantial, all pushed backwards by the bird’s strong feet.

This mound seemed recently opened, so I assumed those chicks had hatched.There were some smaller birds poking about on the ground, but moving too fast for my camera; teenagers?

The birds are not very colourful, except for their bare red heads and necks, but the breeding males sport bright yellow wattles like ruffled cravats. No song either, although I am told they grunt.

An unexpected colour amongst the brown tones of the leaf litter were these small plants, which don’t look like Native Violets to me. Should they be there? Are they native?

This Black Duck (Anas superciliosa) is certainly native, and would love the brackish lagoon that edges the Brush.

What a treat for me to have this oasis within walking distance!

Treetop home

There have been no posts for a while as I’ve been immersed in the chaos of moving house again.

This time — the absolute last! — it was to a rural town, where I share my block with this Tawny Frogmouth, one of my favourite birds.

A quiet, retiring, serenely beautiful bird, with ‘eyelashes’ to envy. Their roosting habit is often described as ‘cryptic’, mimicking broken branches; this one is easier than usual to spot, being on its nest.

I am still waiting to hear its distinctive, if unmusical, call.

And with a few dozen Rainbow Lorikeets – not quiet. In fact they are known as ‘a noisy conspicuous bird’, whose ‘shrill screech and sharp chattering’ leave no doubt as to their presence

They are currently feeding on/decimating a big Queensland Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta) tree that is far too close to my house, so it will not be there for much longer.

(The Frogmouth’s She Oak is safe.)

Before that they were busy on a red bottlebrush tree out the front. They are the only Lorikeet with a blue head, striking against the red beak and above the orange, yellow and red bands and splashes on the predominantly green body.

One of the reasons why I will see lots of birds here is that my large block is edged on two sides by a forested wetlands reserve. I know I won’t see wallabies but have resigned myself to that wonderful Mountain stage of my life being past.

But here the rain still falls and works with the early morning sun to make diamonds to turn my mundane clothesline into regimented linear splendour. Despite the culture shock of road traffic on one side, I remain blessed.

Inland rocks

In the Nymboida-Binderay National Park, the water’s power is strong; visitors are warned of it. White-water kayakers take off from here at Platypus Flat. I stay on shore — deal with a flat tyre — and simply enjoy the sound of the water.

The current-combed trees show the force of the Nymboida at times, but not now, as the whole area is in drought, even the Dorrigo Plateau where these waters arise. The rocks bear witness, with the white line showing where the water level used to be for so long.

In the Cathedral Rocks National Park, at about 1200–1500 metres, there is no rushing water, the rocks are still and quiet… and awe-inspiring. I stay at Native Dog Camp.

On the nearby short walk to Warrigal (aka Dingo/Native Dog) Rocks I see enough rocks to lift my spirits. Balanced or brooding, they are always decorated with their dependent lichens and mosses, varied according to degree of shelter and sun exposure.

It can snow here — there are snow gums and snow grass. Rocks rule more than trees.

They lead to an upland swamp and tiny creek… where the dingoes come to drink … before circling back through more mighty boulders (tors) stacked or slumbering.

Dare I walk between these two? Might it decide to back up just a wee bit more as I do?

Next day I choose to walk to the more distant and far higher pile called Woolpack Rocks, an 8 kilometre round trip.

Again I cross a totally different world of swamp and low vegetation. In this climate plants protect their precious moisture with thin, spiky or leathery leaves. The occasional flash of gold from a tall skinny wattle or the threaded circles of juvenile leaves on a eucalypt are almost a lush surprise.

Then the path leads uphill, past the prehistoric shapes and wonders of banksias short and tall, and bushes of the rare and threatened Styphelia perileuca, unique to a small area here in the Cathedral Rocks National Park.

I pass even more fantastically and seemingly precariously arranged rocks. I am quiet; what might wake this mother whale and her baby?

The track winds up through taller trees and around to a deep green southern gully of tree ferns and rock orchids before reaching the dizzy heights of the destination rock pile.

Whoever named the collection up here had no imagination. Very few look like wool packs… and I am truly not even sure if they are inanimate. I have probably read too many Patricia Wrightson’s magical children’s books, like ‘The Nargun and the Stars’, which have strong affiliations with Aboriginal stories.

As at Hanging Rock, one could lose the narrow sandy path between these monsters. It is not our world up here.

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Rocky life

I love rocks. I can admire the grandeur of large scale features like this Natural Arch on the Headland Walk at Crowdy Bay National Park, but it’s the close-up details that attract me most.

That small group of rocks was closest to my camp. It is amazingly varied, as I’ll show you.

They are sharp and savage rocks, spelling shipwreck. But beyond the wild sea edge barrier there is smoothness and sensuality and small havens of seawater and life.

They remind me of certain Aboriginal paintings, with the subtle pink and ochre colours and the swirling and linking around central features.

Millions of barnacles, able to close their ‘mouths’ to avoid dehydration when exposed at low tide like this.

Fragile sea lettuce, sheltering with sea worms (Galeolaria, from schoolhood memory) in their self made ‘shell’casings and more barnacles

As I watch the gentle outflow of tide and the patterns itmakes in sand, I consider the far from gentle shaping of these rocks by the sea over eons. The power of water!

My next two camps are also rock-rich but far different…

Woman on the move

As you know, I love sunrises. This clearly not at my place. Actually, I don’t have a ‘place’ right now. For the next month I am homeless! The Woman is on the move, national park hopping to re-connect with nature, before I have to live in a house… in a town (!) … but with no neighbours except a wooded wetlands reserve, so my treetops will house lots of birds to share with you.

This sunrise is at Crowdy Bay National Park. Wild winds and whipped seas accompanied my first morning but it was worth braving the 6am weather for this golden welcome back to nature.

By contrast, the tea-brown creek outlet on the walk back to camp was calm.

And at my camp, the much-missed wildlife awaited me, with an Eastern Grey Kangaroo grazing close by.

To top it off, next an Eastern Red-necked Wallaby with pouched joey levered her way across the soft grass.

Shaped by land

It’s Autumn, so many locals are burning off their grasslands, or setting fire to their stacked bonfires of fallen branches and creek logjam clearings.

Being Autumn, it’s also a time of misty mornings and low-angled sunray surprises in this valley.

This particular morning I was treated to a combination of them both, as the sun’s warmth rekindled the night-dampened bonfire into smoke and released the paddock’s dew into rising mist. Only the smoke’s more blue colouring gave it away.

Autumn evenings bring early dark to the valley, while the far escarpment holds the last of the setting sun’s light.  It also often holds the gathered moisture of the day in a long rolling breath along the ridgeline, hugging the last of the land before becoming sky clouds.

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