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Australia - Sands of time: rock art versus Rocla

Published by MAC on 2010-12-21
Source: Sydney Morning Herald (2010-12-11)

Sands of time: rock art versus Rocla

By Deborah Snow and Gabby Greyem

Sydney Morning Herald

11 December 2010

Mysteries of the past are threatened by mining of the future, write Deborah Snow and Gabby Greyem

She picks her way down a steep bush slope in pelting rain, her stick proroclabing for muddy footholds as she leans heavily on a younger companion. Thick scrub catches clothes and whips faces. Leeches appear on hands, necks and socks. But nothing is going to keep 70-year-old Barbara Grew, a Kamillaroi woman, from this rendezvous.

With other indigenous women, she is taking her 12-year old granddaughter, Sarah, and a grand-niece, Tegan, to the bush site the locals have come to know as the sacred or ''clever'' woman.

The slope eases onto a broad sandstone outcrop which at first glance appears unremarkable. But gaze more intently and the outlines of a ''banded'' female figure appear in the rock, breasts and other physical features clearly etched. Aboriginal carvings of women are extremely rare. This banded female, denoting high ceremonial status, is rarer still.

''Isn't she beautiful ... she gives me goosebumps,'' one of the women murmurs.

Close by is a fainter carving: a large one-legged emu, the Daramulan, known in the ancient stories of this area as the son of the creator.

Rainwater pools in the worn grooves, scattering light, making the figures almost invisible from some angles. But take a step to left or right and they come back into clear view. There are other features of this site the women do not want the Herald to reveal. It's women's business and they've asked that no male official, not even the Planning Minister, be made privy to it.

They pore over the rock, talking in low voices about the mysteries of the past, these faint messages from hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago.

''I feel that I belong up here,'' Grew says. ''I know that all my culture is up here. I've been coming for a couple of years now, I just love it.''

In the background there is the constant dull roar of machinery from the nearby Rocla sandmine, where a dredger prepares another section of the 200 million-year-old sandstone plateau for pulverisation.

The mine ends just 100 metres away, fenced off at the top of the slope. To get here has been a half-day's exercise. The women have to arrange a visit with the mine office in advance, then be driven in mine vehicles along the top of plunging quarry walls to reach the perimeter where the bush track begins.

Outwardly, relations are cordial, the mine officers welcoming; but behind the smiles there is mutual guardedness. The quarry is the men's livelihood.

Rocla wants to extend its operations down the hill, cutting deep around the engraved outcrop and pushing into bushland which it bought from the Roads and Traffic Authority five years ago. Rocla paid $3.8 million for the land, from which it will derive hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue if the expansion is approved.

At full capacity the mine could supply a fifth of Sydney's building sand needs.

Yet continued growth of the mine was never a given, as an internal government memo dated November 2005 makes clear. In it the RTA's then property sales manager, Paul Gregory, warns: ''The RTA has been advised that development approval to conduct sandmining is problematic and may take some years to achieve.''

Few Sydneysiders are aware of the wealth of ancient rock engravings and stencils left by the original occupants of these lands, the Guringai and Darkinjung people. Jean Clottes, a former head of UNESCO's International Committee of Rock Art, was ecstatic about the area's cultural heritage when he came to Australia in late 2006.

Among the sites he visited was one with an eight-metre engraving of a priapic male, about a kilometre from the women's site. Some experts have speculated the male is the Biame, a creator figure in local Aboriginal mythology.

Bob Pankhurst, a retired farmer who has been combing the bush for rock art for 60 years, says at least a dozen major sites and more than 150 stencil drawings are scattered through Rocla's land and two neighbouring properties.

Pankhurst is sympathetic to the women's case: ''If you were a staunch Catholic and somebody came along and said, 'We're going to mine all around St Mary's Cathedral but we will fence it off and have the mine all around it', we would jump up and down.''

Dave Pross, an indigenous archaeologist who has also studied the area for years, is scathing about what he sees as the failure of National Parks to actively manage the sites. ''No government minister is interested; we have approached every damn person,'' he says angrily.

''This is the first time that women on the coast have stood up and said, 'This is enough. We are going to fight for our culture.' ''

Also lobbying hard against the mine's expansion is Tassin Barnard, who owns the 68-hectare Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park next door. She says the expanded quarry would bring heavy machinery to within 200 metres of her property, which functions as a tourist attraction, as an education centre hosting 20,000 schoolchildren a year and as a sanctuary for endangered animal and plant species. It also harbours several significant Aboriginal sites, including a rock overhang where hand stencils up to 4000 years old have been preserved.

Barnard bought the park from the former federal environment minister Barry Cohen in 2005, unaware Rocla was proposing to expand its operations again. It had done so once before, prompting Cohen to write to the then state planning minister, Frank Sartor, in December 2005: ''The decision of the government makes a mockery of its claim to be concerned about the environment and the Aboriginal people.''

The company says it will leave a horseshoe-shaped buffer around the women's site, initially offering a 30-metre margin. But the women want the expansion stopped altogether.

Rocla's own planning submission reveals the Department of the Environment, Climate Change and Water has deep misgivings about the company's proposal to leave the women's site stranded on a ''convoluted narrow tongue of preserved land''.

Jean Clottes invokes a starker image: ''It will be like a lone tooth in the middle of an empty jaw.''

Miner's water use is under investigation

THE NSW Office of Water is investigating claims that Rocla's Calga sandmine accessed millions of litres of valuable groundwater without government permits.

Rocla wants to more than double its sand production at Calga to a million tonnes a year.

But the Environmental Defender's Office claims Rocla held no relevant licences until January this year and that the licences it has acquired are insufficient to cover existing or expanded operations.

The NSW Water Commissioner, David Harriss, says the Defender's Office ''is investigating whether there has been a breach by Rocla under the Water Management Act''.

Rocla's quarry cuts deep into the sandstone plateau at Calga, intercepting groundwater from the subsurface aquifers.

Rocla told the Herald it holds ''sufficient groundwater licences for the existing quarry''. It claims most of the water it uses for washing sand at the quarry is run-off from rainwater, or recycled from its silt dams. It says it has always held a commercial bore licence for 6 million litres a year but not an ''aquifer interference licence''.

It says when a consultant identified this problem last year, it moved immediately to apply for one.

Rocla's regional manager, John Gardiner, says it is difficult to estimate seepage into the quarry because ''most of the inflow ... evaporates before it can be collected''.

However, a paper trail uncovered by freedom-of-information requests reveals officials expressing deep concern about the mine's water take as far back as 2004 - though nothing was ever said publicly.

On February 25 this year, the Office of Water complained it had ''attempted to clarify the actual take of groundwater from the

current operations against the entitlements held by Rocla Calga sands without acceptable response from Rocla''.

The office says if the mine's expansion is approved, it will increase groundwater interception from a maximum 28 million litres year to between 160 million and 600 million litres a year - a figure some hydrologists fear could severely affect the aquifer.

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