Asia, Bali, environment, geography, Indonesia

Geomorphic reflections

One of the main reasons I’ve moved house was the absolute racket emanating from the building site next to my old place.

At first the disruption was modest preparation, over a month or so. It involved clearing a former parking lot, felling trees, building site huts, planning and constructing site drainage, installing generators, lighting and ground level sound barriers, Once complete cranes and boring equipment were moved on site and the slow task of sinking footing shafts begun.

The building site at Jiak Kim Road
The building site on a bend (once a slip-off slope) in the Singapore River, the heritage godown can be seen in the top left

The site was on what would have once been on a slip-off slope, a bend in the river. Although levelled and the river banks secured with stone walls, beneath the surface depositional layers remained much as they once were.

Close to the river the bores yielded alluvial deposits and then clay. On higher land and places further from the river it was thinner alluvial material, shale like dry clay and eventually a soft light gray rock. This was a moment of surprise an encounter with the familiar and the primal. 

Tuff, or paras as it’s called in Indonesian, was a stone I’d often seen hewn from Balinese river valleys. There the grey rock is used in carving a pantheon of religious objects, decorative landscaping features and tourist souvenirs. To a geologically trained eye it is instantly recognisable as tuff, a volcanic sandstone. In Bali swift rivers have carved a radial system of ridges and valleys, deep into its layers. Yet now its sighting yielded memories beyond such geomorphic reflections.

CIDH piles

Preparing the CIDH piles for a 36-story twin tower building required a lot of boring. Pile drillers equipped with soil augers were used first, as they bored deeper more robust rock augers were needed. As each load of debris was brought to the surface and the augur lifted from the hole its contents had to be spun off. This wasn’t a smooth rotation but a stop start action. At each jarring stop in the rotation the equipment generated a load percussive noise. With as many as three rigs going at once days were punctuated with this jarring cacophony. Retreating to the local mall was an easy option. 

Tuff is a volcanic sandstone, consolidated ash fall. A soft rock that can sometimes be scored with a fingernail. There it was below, and Krakatau immediately came to mind.


An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. Image published as Plate 1 in The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (London, Trubner & Co., 1888). Creative Commons lic.

Krakatau’s cataclysmic eruption, in August 1883 blew the cinder cone off its small island in the Sunda Straits. In rushing sea water induced a massive explosion of rocks and superheated steam.  So loud was the explosion that stockmen driving cattle across Western Australia’s Hammersley Range thought it was artillery.

Reverberating from Bangkok to Manila, and from Saigon to Perth, tsunamis were recorded as far away as the West coast of the USA. In the now more connected world of the telegraph and undersea communications cables, reports of the eruption spread rapidly. Dutch authorities estimated the death toll 36,417 but with all such events, there can be no certain figure. Some suggest, more realistically, as many as 120,000 deaths.

Volcanic eruptions in historic times are well documented. Mt St Helens’ 1980 eruption in the Pacific Northwest is considered the most disastrous in US history. Extensively documented, it was a small geological event compared with Krakatua, yielding a mere 1.5 cubic km of tephra.  In comparison Krakatua ejected 18 cubic km. Such catastrophic events have an impacts far beyond their immediate regions. Krakatau produced tsunamis that swept through the Sunda Straits.  Yet none of these compared with the magnitude of the Tambora eruption.


When Tambora erupted in 1815-16 it ejected 150 cubic km of tephra. At first its impact on a wider region was unnoticed but by the northern summer of 1816 Spanish records reveal a summer that never was. In Madrid, temperatures fell below 15ºC from July through to August. Rivers froze and peaks usually snow free bore white mantles. Tambora’s eruption was the largest in recorded history.

Mounds of tuff grew

Mounds of tuff grew beside the boring machines along with the realisation that these events were not likely responsible. One possibility remained shrouded in the uncertainties of prehistory.

Drilling rig beside a pile of what appears to be tuff, spun off the augur

Mount Toba

About 600 kilometres away on the island of Sumatra Mt Toba erupted in these prehistoric times. Somewhere about 75,000 ago it produced 1000 cubic km of tephra in the first nine days of its eruption, and over the course of this eruptive phase ejecting a total of from 2500-3000 km3.

Mapping the three volcanoes

Toba’s eruption

Toba’s eruption had planetary consequences triggering a volcanic winter, the Pleistocene Ice Age, and burying vast areas, along with their emerging megalithic cultures, under hundreds of metres of tephra.  Sea levels fell as much as 150 metres and island hopping through the Indonesian archipelagos enabled human passage first east, and then south to Australia.

Map of Sunda and Sahul showing lower Pleistocene sea levels with Wallace, Lydekker Line and Weber Lines. Map by Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa). Republished under CC BY-SA 3.0

After the fall in sea level it was likely possibly What is now Merauke to Darwin in about three weeks.  The biophysical continuity is still is obvious, the ancient land connection documented on the cave art of Kakadu.

Toba today

Now the Toba caldera contains a huge lake.  Visiting it some 20 years ago I captured these images.

This view is from the north of the lake looking over the village of Haranggoal, 500 metres below.
The nearby Sipisopiso waterfall tumbles over 300 metres high cliffs comprising tuff from the ancient eruption.

My friend Wayan Cemul

This post is born of research for a short story I’ve just written about my friend I Wayan Cemul.

Cemul with some of his work. Photo by Chris Hazzard. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

No longer with us, he was one of the best teachers and communicators I have ever met. Shortly I’ll post the audio version of the story, on this blog.

The following YouTube video was made while Cemul was still alive. I thank Hans and Fifi for this.


Personal comment

Moving House

Sitting at the local Zion Riverside Food Centre, my local food hall. There was time for reflection, and the first opportunity to relax here in about 2 weeks.
Moving apartments seems to get harder as the years pass. So far I’ve only moved 17 times, hardly an example of itinerancy.


Pioneers of itinerancy

Itinerancy is a feature of life for some.
Kazakh yurt, shown on a horse-drawn cart. Wikicommons
The nomadic communities of the Eurasian steppes moved at least twice a year.  These movements generally coincided during the summer and winter. Severe winters made finding shelter for animals essential. In the summer they moved to grassed areas where animals could graze.


Development of languages

While nomads tended to move in the same region over time they also drifted further west. As they moved they made contact with more settled communities, acquiring new languages and participating in a linguistic synthesis that produced what we came to know as the Aryan language group, though the tainting of the term Aryan through its misuse by European Nazis, ensured the more neutral term Proto-Indo-European came into common use.


Linguistic evolution
Another way of looking at it.

The burden of possessions

Modern humans, at least those of us in the First World, are burdened by goods. We’ve long lost the economy of living a frugal life with few possessions and with tools and comfort that were enduring.  This angsting over moves is a First World problem.

One week after the physical move I managed to move our own kitchen one step closer to being functional. I’m still working on my office, though out of the mess I’ve finished a new story.


Exhaustion set in

What was to be a highlight in June, the 10th anniversary of the Acropolis Museum’s opening, came and went. Somehow I managed to cobble together an audio-visual piece to mark the occasion.
The launch of a song by Héllena Micy, The Parthenon Marbles (Bring them back) came and went. I managed to watch its launch, in the British Museum, live. Yet all had an air of unreality about it.


To dry clean or not dry clean

Preparing for the move had taken a while. The end game, the handing over to an agent, came yesterday, but not before they insisted on us dry cleaning some flimsy IKEA curtains. After numerous attempts at negotiating with dry cleaners who wanted outrageous prices and 3-4 day waits, I realised the curtains were marked ‘Do not dry clean’. Next step was to wash, dry and hang them. Easy enough and a great view from the second top rung of a step ladder up against the window on the 19th floor


Stuffing up the optical fibre

So fatigue has been an issue in setting up the new place. At first, I was so tired I stuffed up the fibre internet connection. I had more robust optical fibre on hand, than the length our provider ‘Star Hub’ had supplied. In my fatigue, I reasoned that it might be like a water pipe. My piece was thicker. Maybe this would let more light in, so we’d get faster speeds/more bandwidth. Well, that was the theory. It didn’t work, and since ‘Star Hub’ retained the pin for activating the connection, my new configuration failed. Eventually, they came and reconnected us. Next was the challenge of the smart TV. It should have been a pushover, but in my fatigued state if took far longer than usual.

Needless to say, we’re connected. The speeds are not quite as good as our last place, but still way ahead of Australia.

I almost forgot to mention that in the midst of the process where was a day with a funeral in the morning and a wedding in the afternoon.

Parthenon Marbles

Reflections on the imperative of reunification of the Parthenon Marbles

This is an audio-visual work I have produced in my role as International Liaison Officer,  and Vice Chair of the International Organising Committee – Australia – for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles (IOCARPM).

The work was completed with assistance from colleagues who form part of the global campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. Our motivation was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the opening of the new Acropolis Museum, arguably the world’s best museum.

This piece begins with a contemplative mood built by means of static images yet conveying the impression of movement with pan and zoom techniques.

Revealing dynamic relations between the ancient monuments of Attica [1] and their biophysical environment, the work moves on into the Acropolis Museum. Here it exposes the museum’s creative use of this dynamism.

Cutting to the British Museum, the work becomes more disjointed, the music more discordant.  Then images of protest dominate.

The only voiced segment follows.

Marlen Godwin, Secretary of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM), reads a poem written by Mrs Eyvah T. Dafaranos.

Next, Dame Janet Suzman, Chair of BCRPM reads from an interview with the current Lord Elgin.

The work closes with a simple installation created by a Greek Australian.

Lina Palera’s beautiful music, Seikilos Epitaph With the Lyre of Apollo from the Lyre 20 Project [2], lifts this work blending flawlessly with the images. There is some beautiful lyre music throughout.

[1] See: British Museum Diminishes the meaning of the Parthenon Marbles

[2] Attribution Non-Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)



The Last Rotting Props

The title is somewhat of a misnomer since this post represents the research base I wrote for what was to become a short story.

It was also written as an attempt to describe the political conditions operating around a project my company was undertaking for the Australian Indonesia Institute, a book entitled Geografi Australia. It was to be both a geography and history of Australia, written in Indonesian, and meeting the requirements of the Indonesian junior secondary high school curriculum. It too was published.

In the end I didn’t write a short story titled ‘The Last Rotting Props’, instead, I wrote several short stories that were published in my book Seen and unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.

I first wrote Unspoken Realities, then used the research as part of the background for an additional three stories:

Young Partai Demokrasi Perjuangan (Democratic Party of Struggle) supporters about to join a campaign rally during Jakarta’s 1999 presidential election.

I’m moved to publish it now after the recent return of a Liberal National Party Government in Australia, and also the failure of Prabowo Subianto in the recent Indonesian Presidential race.

In that election, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo attracted 55.5% of votes, and Prabowo only 44.5%. Despite this Prabowo has launched a legal challenge against the result.

Here is my original piece

Some Australian’s imagine that we inhabit a land whose national borders confer such a manifest degree of separateness that with a judicious border protection policy in force we need make scant adaptation to the social and cultural realities of our regional neighbours. They see our regional relationships as primarily strategic. Such an outlook is most often grounded firmly in a Eurocentric sense of nationhood and in a tendency to overstate our significance as a global and regional power.

Although we are the land that’s girt by sea, this state of mind is at variance with biophysical and geopolitical realities. At best this sense of separateness expresses itself in an array of quarantine measures designed to protect our agricultural and pastoral base from harmful foreign organisms, at worst it’s a disposition that’s susceptible to fear, a search for security in rich and powerful ‘European’ friends, nationalism and triumphalism.

Eurocentrism and race

1996 was a time of change. A Liberal National Party coalition Government was returned in Australia and John Howard became Prime Minister. There were obvious reservations. These resided in Howard’s inherent Eurocentrism, his relative disinterest in the Asian region and his view that the previous government neglected the US Alliance. Given the propensity for conservative governments to mismanagement foreign policy in the past, there were profound reasons for concern.

Warning signs were clear. Domestically Howard had long played the race card. It dominated his political ideology. He challenged the very notion of multiculturalism. He was against those supporting economic sanctions against South African apartheid and ‘dog whistled’ up the pressure to reduce Asian immigration. (Colter, Dr. D. & Bolger, D. John Howard and the Race Question. Australian Political Studies Association Conference 6 – 9 July 2008 Hilton Hotel, Brisbane, Australia)

A precarious relationship

The relationship with Indonesia was precarious. Suharto’s New Order Regime was beginning to mire in increasing scandals and corruption. One of the latest was the exclusive licence granted to Tommy Suharto to produce a new car that went by the curious name of the Timor. Indonesians have a great love of acronyms and the standing joke around Jakarta was that Timor stood for Tommy itu memang orang rakus or put simply ‘That Tommy sure is greedy.’

Indonesians with any sort of aspiration for the development of a rational economic system spoke openly about KKN or Korupsi, Kolusi dan Nepotism as major breaks on development.

Anti-Chinese violence

Beginning in Thailand, the Asian economic crisis of 1997 dislodged the last rotting props supporting the Suharto regime. In the midst of the economic chaos that was quickly manifest, I was conducting a tour for a ‘university of the third age’ group through Java and Bali, while the company was also managing a three-week field placement in Yogyakarta, for MLC Melbourne. All ran as smoothly as it could but by 1998 violent scenes, not witnessed since the anti-Communist purges of 1965, erupted across Indonesia. Irregular units, akin the militia, that were so favoured as a political tool later in East Timor, rampaged through major centres. In their wake followed sustained outbreaks of looting, firebombing, and stoning of Chinese businesses along with the rape and murder of Chinese Indonesians.

Shops looted and goods burned on the streets in Jakarta, 14 May 1998

Large tracts of North and West Jakarta resembled a bombed-out war zone after the worst of this violence. Even sedate Solo failed to remain untouched with a substantial part of its commercial district destroyed.

Back in Sydney,  Geografi Australia complete, but my Indonesia based field study business in tatters, and teaching Geography at SCECGS Redlands, I felt a strong sense of connection with events in Indonesia. This was not merely because of a familiarity with the locations where so much violence was now erupting, but also because there was a large group of Chinese Indonesian students at Redlands that year. As students from wealthy urban middle-class families they were on the technological cutting edge. All had mobile phones, Internet connections and email accounts. Then at night I was often on the phone to Margaret Hulbert, a relative, who was still living in Jakarta, as well as my close friend Henky Kurniawan. By day I’d often compare notes with my Chinese Indonesian students. Events in Indonesia unfolded in real time, for all of us.

Henky, my old travelling companion, was from a Padang Buddhist family that had converted to Roman Catholicism. A Chinese Indonesian, one of just 3% of the Indonesian population, he ran a graphic design and photography business and did a lot of work for the Catholic Church and UNICEF. Henky was also Rukun Tetangga (RT) in his north eastern Jakarta neighbourhood. I rang him almost every day through the worst of the violence.

Each day the story was the same:

Aman, kami semua aman (Safe, we’re all safe.)

Then one night I rang, and the reply was simply:

Hancur! (Destruction!)

I could elicit nothing more.

Later I discovered that a team of thugs, perhaps Prabowo Subianto’s irregular forces, or so we thought, had burned the supermarket complex, at the back of Henky’s house, on the other side of a drainage canal.

Henky spent 24 hours standing guard outside his house with a baseball bat. He’d already warned me that this could happen. Now I encouraged him to migrate to Australia, but he said there was little point as he would have to start again, and English wasn’t his strength.

On another evening I spoke with Margaret, as she sat without electricity in a darkened house illuminated by the red glow of the nearby shopping centre, now in flames.

The Habibie interlude

Under Suharto’s successor and former Vice President, Habbie, there were some notable changes. Free elections were scheduled, and political prisoners were freed, including Xanna Gusmao.

It was difficult to know whether Habbie was trying to put as much distance between himself and the corruption and injustices of the Suharto years, or whether he had always been waiting his turn to make an impact. In this environment, he seemed far from the arrogant technocrat that I’d heard speaking at the Regent Hotel in Sydney some years before.

One major factor that Habbie couldn’t easily address was the dual function – dwifungsi – of the military. It had socio-political role that guaranteed military seats with within legislature. Another area beyond his effective control were the separatist movements in East Timor, Aceh, and Irian Jaya.

The Acehenese struggle was a long one that dated from the time of Dutch colonialism, the East Timorese struggle was a remarkable and enduring resistance to Indonesian annexation, while the OPM continued to call for unification with PNG. Both Falintil in East Timor and the GAM (Garisan Aceh Merdeka – the Free Aceh Movement), were anti-colonial movements, fighting for national liberation and self-determination. The OPM seemed to have less focus but the opposition of the West Papuans to rule from Jakarta and the ill ease of many transmigrants with the human rights situation was obvious to anyone visiting the area.

Howard Government returned

Against this background of dramatic political changes in Indonesia, the Howard government was returned to power again in October 1998. Under Howard’s leadership, the government began to shift its foreign policy mix. Much of this change in settings seemed to be for Australian domestic consumption, but its impacts in the Asia Pacific region were clear enough.

Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Azmi Khalid acknowledged the validity of Australia’s peacekeeping mission in East Timor he argued that this role must not apply more widely. He said: ‘

We are actually fed up with their stance – that they are sitting in a white chair and supervising the colored chairs.

The Malaysian Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader described the Howard Doctrine as outmoded asserting that:

Asia does not want, nor has it recognized, the US as the policeman of the world, what’s more, one needing a deputy. Howard has drawn the wrong conclusion from Australia’s peacekeeping role in East Timor, which is a decision of the United Nations Security Council and not the arbitrary decision of the US.

Malaysia’s Sun daily, editorialised on Howard’s role in Asia in these terms:

We think it is folly. Indeed, it is more likely to create fissures in Asean-Australia ties than to ‘cement Australia’s place in the region’ as Howard claims it will.

A book launch

Now the book was ready to launch, but not before a teachers’ development conference program had been developed. These were exciting times. Australia was finally heading for a referendum on the monarchy and our company was finally ready to launch a publication, Geografi Australia, that had begun in 1994, survived three changes of President and an education minister there as well as a change of government in Australia.

If the postcolonial administrations had given Indonesia anything it was a bureaucracy. Departments were said to be wet or dry. This was nothing to do with their financial rectitude, as it could be interpreted from the standpoint of the increasingly deregulated market economies of the West, rather it related to how much they leaked funds. Fortunately, the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture (DEPDIKBUD) was relatively dry but like a lot of education departments, it had a well-developed hierarchy. So, we worked feverishly on the conference content, knowing that in this bureaucratised Indonesian way of doing things it would be necessary to leave lots of time up front for speeches.

The move towards democracy in Indonesia was far from smooth. Political violence and terrorism were increasing these strategies were not new. Bombings had long been a feature of the political landscape; it was the frequency and the intent that was at issue. Some attributed the recurrent bombings to military involvement, an attempt to frighten the Indonesian populace into resisting attempts to curb the military’s power in the face of a clear and imminent threat.

The greater prominence of some Islamic fringe groups such as Laskar Jihad and then Jemaah Islamiyah led others to conclude that it was these groups that were principally responsible for the bombings. Whatever the actual situation, there was confusion and uncertainty. In such a context the Howard Doctrine was at best unhelpful and at worst something that could be used by extremist groups as an example Western pressure that warranted strong measures in response.

Asia, environment, geography

Otters on the Singapore River

My posts are usually more serious than this one, but I’m enchanted by the otters that live along the Singapore River. Of course, they are wild animals despite their successful adaptation to urban life.

These days they’re experts at navigating the maze of drains and conduits developed here to help manage the equatorial downpours. They’re also quite territorial and will drive off other groups if they find their hunting areas infringed

I hope you enjoy this short video. The first part was shot on an iPhone 8 and the second part with a Sony Handycam (HDR-XR260).


It’s important to note that the otters haven’t shown this resilience all by themselves. There has been a concerted effort in Singapore to clean up the river.

When I first visited Singapore in 1972, the river was in a dreadful state, it had deteriorated since this image was taken in 1900.

A childhood remembered

In his post, The cleaning up of Singapore River and Kallang Basin (1977-1987), Singapore blogger Jerome Lim, describes the river of his childhood in these terms:

The Singapore River was a typically and sadly abused river, a dumping ground from the time people settled along its banks. The growth of modern Singapore amplified that pollution to such an extent that the river was pitch black in many parts. My ecology class always hears about this during the aquatic biomes lecture when I talk about nutrition states of water bodies because the memory of the filthy state of the river still haunts me!

Safe to drink

Now through commitment and a concerted clean-up, the water, with a little filtering and treatment, is fit to drink.  I’ve been drinking it for five years now.


For more on Singapore’s otters, check out the Facebook site Otter Watch

Parthenon Marbles

The Colourful Parthenon Frieze

For some 17 years now I’ve been engaged in the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

In that time I’ve often visited the British Museum and the outstanding new Acropolis Museum, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.  On my most recent visit, I encounter an audiovisual display exploring some of the unique features of the Parthenon Frieze.

I wasted no time in capturing a few moments of the display on my iPhone. Apologies for the poor quality images

Aboriginal, Australia, Dryland Irrigation, environment, geography, history, indigenous

In the land where the crow flies backwards

S.S. Nile on the bed of the Darling River south of Bourke, NSW, during a drought. The image was taken by the journalist C. E. W. Bean for the Sydney Morning Herald, circa 1909, (Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons, object no. 00017014).

This isn’t a long post just a footnote about the Darling River, it picks up on my post about the Darling River in March 2018.

I’m prompted to revisit this issue by a well-researched article, Shipwrecked at Brewarrina: Drought reveals historic Wandering Jew paddle steamer, from Jessie Davies.

Jessie’s article is about the Barwon River at Brewarrina and the remains of an important feature of European river history

For urban readers, the Murray Darling Basin Authority says this about the Barwon-Darling River system:

The Barwon–Darling river system is in north-western New South Wales. It takes in the Barwon River, from upstream of Mungindi at the confluence of the Macintyre and Weir rivers, to where the Barwon meets the Culgoa River. At this point the river channel becomes the Darling River and the Barwon–Darling system extends downstream to the Menindee Lakes.

In her article, Davies only makes brief reference to Indigenous occupance along the river system, yet this is an ancient presence. She observes, in reference to the wreck of the Wandering Jew, “Now, its rusted iron body lies for all to see in the river’s muddy waters just above the town’s iconic Aboriginal fish traps.”

Indigenous Occupance

Davies’ passing reference reminds me that the story of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers is quite a remarkable one.  Paul Dutton, whom I follow on twitter, also drew attention to the antiquity and success of Indigenous settlement along Australia’s inland rivers, in a recent Tweet.

People learned to live with the irregularities of the continent’s climate and didn’t only survive but prospered. The Brewarrina region of NSW is home to Ngemba, Ualarai, Murrawarri and Wailwan people. Today they are custodians of an intricate series of stone fish traps across the Barwon River.

Fish traps at Brewarrina

This complex array of linked weirs and ponds extends for 500 metres along the river. There is flexibility in the design allowing people to adapt the system to varying levels of river flow. People use their extensive knowledge of different fish species and the variations in flow to ensure suitable catches.

This is just one story of sustainable environmental adaptation and management that was such a feature of Indigenous occupance.

Bill Gammage, in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, provides numerous examples of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers of Australia. I won’t cite many but just draw attention to the book. I consider this work essential reading for every non-Indigenous Australian.

Rules of Indigenous management

Gammage explains that three rules directed all management of Australia before 1788:

  • Ensure that all life flourishes
  • Make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable
  • Think universal, act local

The fish traps at Brewarrina are just one example of the principle that applied to the whole continent.

Brewarrina fish traps

The fish traps are known as Baiame’s Ngunnhu [pronounced By-ah-mee’s noon-oo]by the Ngemba people. These are arguably the oldest known human constructions. Apparently constructed on a large riffle, they were first described by a European in 1848 by William Colburn Mayne, the Commissioner of Crown Lands. Gammage references Mayne’s description:

In a broad but shallow part of . . . where there are numerous rocks, the Aborigines have formed several enclosures or Pens, if I may use the word, into which the fish are carried, or as it were decoyed by the current, are there retained. To form these must have been a work of no trifling labour, and no slight degree of ingenuity and skill must have been exercised in their construction, as I was informed by men who have passed several years in the vicinity, that not even the heaviest floods displace the stones forming these enclosures. The Aborigines catch immense quantities of fish in these and are also enabled to destroy great numbers of fishing Birds of various kinds that are attracted to them by their prey thus imprisoned; and from these two sources the Tribes in that locality derive a considerable portion of their subsistence.

Gammage also reports from another source which explains that in addition to the major stone traps, “Several hundred successively smaller traps caught dray loads of fish.”

Chris Graham the publisher and editor of New Matilda, and former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine, wrote further in this for his February 2019 article, OUTBACK TOUR: Australia Has One Of The Oldest Human-Made Structures On Earth. Meh?

He observes that:

Despite Aboriginal people being banished from Brewarrina, and shuffled multiple times between missions in western and far western NSW, the custodians of Baiame’s Ngunnhu stubbornly continued to tend to their fish traps, and preserve them for future generations.

This continued into the 1970s, when the NSW Government decided to dam the Barwon with a weir, to provide water for irrigation for the few dozen farmers in the region. They built it right at the head of the fish traps, creating a pool upstream that sometimes stretches, in wetter times, for over 100 kilometres.

Now a National Heritage Place.

The Baiame’s Ngunnhu are now registered as a National Heritage Place. In the citation, the Australian Government acknowledges that:

The Ngemba people of Brewarrina used their advanced knowledge of river hydrology and fish ecology to trap and catch large numbers of freshwater fish. The unusual and innovative fish traps, known as Ngunnhu, are still visible in the Darling River, and have strong social, cultural and spiritual association for Aboriginal people with connections to the area.

The National Heritage listing goes on to explain that, the Ngemba people are custodians of the fishery, but maintenance and use of the traps were shared nations in the area, including the Morowari, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Barabinja, Ualarai, and Kamilaroi.

Baiame allocated particular traps to each family group and made them responsible for their use and maintenance. Neighbouring tribes were invited to the fish traps to join corroborees, initiation ceremonies, and meetings for trade and barter.

Lessons for contemporary Australia

Intensive irrigation farming, particularly cotton, is wildly out of accord with the environmental limits and with the practices adopted by Indigenous Australians. Their approaches were not merely sustainable, but they delivered certainty and abundance. We have a lot of learning to do.

I’m reminded of the line in the song, ‘The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards’. Though the version I first heard was recorded by the late Gary Shearston, it was written by Dougie. I’m pleased I’ve found the original from Dougie Young.

The White Man took this country from me, he’s been fighting for it ever since.

Douglas Gary Young (1933-1991), was Aboriginal songwriter and singer, was born on 30 August 1933 at East Mitchell, Queensland, he was the sixth child of Queensland-born parents Frank Young, white labourer, and his wife Olive Kathleen, née McCarthy, a Gurnu woman. Read more about Dougie here in Indigenous Australia