Coming over a rise about ten k’s out of Lismore you get your first glimpse of the camp. Amidst amaranthine paddocks and cows, against a backdrop of gentle hills cloaked in forest, it’s a great swatch of tents and cars glittering in the afternoon sunshine. It could be a festival for its size and incongruity.
Closer still, it resolves into orderly lines and rows of tents – streets in fact. Driving through the well signposted gate, you could indeed be at a festival, so well designated are the parking, camping and assembly points. It’s the well-heeled suburbia of the camping set, an upmarket gypsy rendezvous with four wheel drives and hi-tech tents and toilets. Solar panels blink at you from roofs and tarps and kids dash around along Simmo street.
Driving down past rows of tentage to the parking areas I remark the first aid tent, kitchens, well-built fireplaces. There must be hundreds of people here, on the eve of Richmond River Valley’s announcement that they intend to evict the camp, on account of tawdry slurs and alleged breaches of its DA conditions.
I park and walk back up to the information tent, where I spotted my friend Ruth on the way in. I see Mel there too, who runs a few online businesses and volunteers for all kinds of community organizations. She’s running the info tent and gets me to sign a waiver form in case of any unforeseen accidents.
Ruth runs an art gallery and a farm. She’s having relationship difficulties and we chat as we walk up the hill, alongside Kyogle road, with a constant stream of traffic swishing past us, some cars tooting, some catcalling or shouting encouragement.
Up the hill at Gate B about twenty people are gathered, sitting on the grass or makeshift chairs, listening to a man talking. He’s sitting at his ease in front of them, chatting evenly in a commanding, measured voice that I recognise instantly. It’s Tony Barry, the renowned Australian actor, who’s also missing a leg, packing crutches and one untenanted trouser fold. It would be a souvenir of his struggle against cancer, as hundreds of melanomas forced him to become an advocate of the controversial herbal treatment Black Salve, too late to save his riddled left leg.
I see Jarmbi, the huge, enigmatic Githabul nation spokesman, and his partner Iris, as well as some other faces I know, listening intently as Mr Barry yarns about his father, a tough Erskenville bloke, who wept openly when Ben Chifley died – the remarkable man who was called both a Communist and a Nazi, both potent insults in the wake of WWII, by Menzies the arch-conservative, when Chifley called for the nationalisation of banks, a visionary move that would have perhaps staved off the predatory merchant bankers who have nearly brought the world to its knees on several occasions since.
“That’s the kind of things they’ll call, us, they already have, but that just shows that they’re losing their grip on us,” he said.
Someone asks him what he thinks will happen here.
“If you want it to, it’ll be a showdown,” he smiles. “If you want it to it’ll just be a show. Keep smilin’ and the coppers won’t want to belt you around. Whatever you want to happen will happen.”
On request from an elderly couple, evidently farmers to go by their neat Akubras and work trousers, Mr Barry recites a poem by the irreverent ‘poet lorikeet’ Dennis Kevans, “Ah white man, have you any sacred sites”. That voice, stately and redolent with humour and emotion, rolls above the waves of traffic noise and Mr Barry’s audience smile.
Just then a woman, Katy, almost in tears, appears at the bottom of the track, leading two ponies. She’s just been separated from her unregistered car and horse float by some helpful police, and now has to walk her ponies back to Kyogle. Amidst ensuing hubbub, someone organises a 4WD with a towbar and within twenty minutes she’s sorted. The ponies don’t have to walk home.
Whilst kids crowd around them and they dutifully shy and snort, Katy tells how she can’t leave them here at the camp because of a ban placed by Tickies – cattle tick quarantine officers, summoned by some killjoy or other after the Franklin Riders had brought their far-travelled horses to camp. Someone remarks that this is just another camp closing ploy, part of the ongoing suites of bureaucratic mischief employed by the Bennetts and Walkers and their ilk, including an indignant sortie calling for a ban on the iniquitous playing of music.
Mr Barry departs in a mate’s car and I trudge up the hill to Gate C, which, having been once surrendered to council on an honour basis, has now been re-occupied by the feral contingent, and resembles Nimbin post Mardi-Grass, excepting the notable absence of any reasty aromatics. Jugglers juggle, guitar players serenade themselves, and under a small marquee, two amiable Nannas nod contentedly and explain to a dreadlocked gentleman some finer points of etiquette.
As I tramp down the hill a lone police car trawls slowly past. The driver and I briefly lock eyes. He’s a senior cop. I wonder what he’s thinking.
Back down at camp I chat to a bearded farmer from North Queensland who’s buying Lock the Gate placards, stickers and badges from the merch tent. He says there’s wells being drilled at his home on the Atherton Tablelands and he’s envious of the community here, hoping to be able to inspire something similar up there.
I spy my old pal, the Loon. We stroll through the burbs to Simmo Street, where he’s camped with some delightful ladies who want to play 500. Regretfully declining the invitation, I do take tea and hot cross buns and gaze at the enveloping hills.
Someone announces over a bullhorn that it’s time for a camp meeting, so we stroll over to the central fireplace, where around 150 people are gathered. They include a goodly contingent of conservatively dressed country folk, townies, backpackers, hippies and Bundjalung people. There are academics, artists, builders, office workers, retirees, tourists. As people sip tea, camp housekeeping issues are discussed, including the restraint of dogs and their doings, a vehement request for no drumming after dark, volunteers for toilet-cleaning duty, dishwashers and gate vigil rosters. An elegant lady named Sandra earns a round of enthusiastic applause for her valiant toilet cleaning efforts today, and vigil communication etiquettes are mooted.
I spot the original Simmo, the man for whom the role of manning (womanning?) tripods, modified vehicles, dragons or other drill-delaying devices was coined. I met him last year at Glenugie, a busy customer who works with troubled youth. He’s says gday but he’s too busy for fame, organising rosters and basic tenets of on-the-job communication training.
When all the camp business is dealt with, Ian Gaillard enters the circle and peering at his iphone, laments that his reading glasses are no match for the failing light. (Scattered laughter). He announces that he’s just done eight interviews with mainstream media. (Cheers.) With an assistant holding a megaphone and some borrowed glasses he reads aloud a letter from Adam Guise to Richmond Valley County Council. It appears we’ve engaged the services of a town planner, who’s helpfully pointed out that the letter of eviction served to the camp has been issued under the wrong planning laws. (Hilarity of sufficient magnitude that, were this Federal Parliament, everyone would be expelled by the fulminating Speaker).
Mr Gaillard continues, noting that an application for review of the camp DA has been submitted to the Land and Environment Court. He suggests that it makes insufficient reference to the making of music, whether it be singing in the shower, or perhaps the music of the spheres. (Loud cheers, general mirth and prolonged clapping.) The meeting breaks up and a long queue forms for dinner.
I head back to my car, as I have to go back to town to pick up my aging kelpie, Ticketyboo. As I’m getting into the battered Commodore a chap rummaging in the back of the next car along remarks in a neighbourly tone that the sunset is brilliant. I look up. Indeed, it is. Orange and cinnamon streaks purling over lustrous hills. The camp resonating with kids squealing, dogs yapping, the hum of gentle conversation. Smoke curls overhead, stirring veins into the sunset behind Simmo Street.