Read the transcript for Episode Five of Voice of Real Australia Podcast about The Drip Gorge in Mudgee and the women fighting to save it from the threat nearby mining poses

Tom Melville: [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Tom Melville. Welcome to Voice of Real Australia. Each episode we bring you people, places and perspectives from beyond the big cities. This week, we're going to Mudgee in the New South Wales Central West. If you wind up out that way, make sure you go to the Drip Gorge. Take the track from the car park and follow the Goulburn River downstream and you'll find soaring sandstone escarpments almost pink in some light. The drip itself overhangs the river and it gets its name from the constant trickle of water which runs down its side. It's a shady oasis and can be 15 degrees cooler in the summer than only a few hundred metres away. The drip was added to the Goulburn River National Park a couple of years ago. But some locals are anxious that the nearby Moolarben coal mine and its plans for expansion could damage the cliffs, impact the water table and render this unique and beloved spot too dangerous to visit. For them, that would be a tragedy, a sad ending to a story many thousands of years old. A group campaigning to save the drip has been fighting for years. And the women on the frontline took me on a tour. Before we got walking, the five of us sat in the picnic area. It's a lovely 22 degrees spring day in the car park is nearly full. [00:01:14][74.8]

Julia Imrie: [00:01:15] I'm Dr. Julia Imrie. So I'm a local as well as have carried a fair bit of research on the Goulburn River from the point of view of ground and surface water. [00:01:24][9.0]

Tom Melville: [00:01:25] Julie is a hydrologist. She recently wrote her PhD on The Drip and the Golden River. But her relationship with the area goes back a long way. [00:01:32][7.5]

Julia Imrie: [00:01:33] You're from around here. Yeah, I have a property further down river actually, we back on to the other end of The Drip, our property. I moved up here in the late 1970s and loved the area so much we're still here. But since then, I've done a lot of study at university because of the interest that this place has. It's such a fascinating geology, fascinating water system. And then, of course, there's the mining, which has come in since the 80s, mid 80s. So that sort of spurred my research in order to understand those impacts. [00:02:05][32.1]

Phyllis Setchell: [00:02:07] Hi, I'm Phyllis Setchell and I'm very much a local and I'm currently the chairperson of Mudgee Environment Group. [00:02:15][8.5]

Tom Melville: [00:02:16] Phyllis is barely five foot walks with a cane. She wasn't originally going to join us today and was planning to step back from the campaign she's led for so many years, but she felt she had to come. [00:02:26][10.0]

Phyllis Setchell: [00:02:26] Well, I came here about 30 something years ago with my grandchildren and my daughter. And there wasn't even a walking track that was usable. So we walked all the way to The Drip in the river, which was quite a feat. And we loved it so much. We came back again, and did it again over the years. And that's what we've done. And now I'm bringing my great grandchildren here. [00:02:53][26.8]

Tom Melville: [00:02:54] So we've got generations who keep coming back. She tells us about a trip. She took 12 months around the whole of Australia. [00:03:00][5.8]

Phyllis Setchell: [00:03:01] I came back and people said, what was the most beautiful place that you saw? I said, The Drip, Mudgee, right in my own backyard. It is lovely. [00:03:09][8.5]

Aleshia Lonsdale: [00:03:12] I'm Aleshia Lonsdale, Wuradjuri woman from Mudgee and chairperson of the Mudgee Local Aboriginal Land Council. [00:03:16][3.9]

Tom Melville: [00:03:16] Have you always lived around here? [00:03:17][0.9]

Aleshia Lonsdale: [00:03:18] Yeah, I'm born and bred. So my family's from here on my grandmother's line and so generations of our family have always come here. And so we were brought up coming here and there was no walking track then either when I was a kid. So it was walking up the river. But then my grandparents were involved in, you know, working on the original track with other people in the community and now is a land council you know, we've worked with national parks and community groups in terms of looking after the area and trying to protect the area. [00:03:48][29.3]

Tom Melville: [00:03:50] The area where we're sitting about a K from the trip was recently handed back to state control by the nearby Moolarben coal mine owned by Chinese company Yancoal. In 2010, the company had paid a little over two thousand dollars for 700 hectares of land in a secret leased conversion sale under the state's last Labor government. When the deal became public a few years later, the people sitting around me were outraged. You'd think that with the sites protection is a state conservation area, it would create a buffer zone around the drip from the gorge would finally be safe. But that's not how Julia sees it. [00:04:22][32.0]

Julia Imrie: [00:04:22] From the point of view of I suppose its title, they created a state conservation area, the government did, in order to allow mining to proceed in areas that they obviously were of significance conservation wise. And what has happened here is that this has been declared a state conservation area due to the mining that is going to be becoming already approved within 170 metres from where we are now, underground mining. And also there is plans to tunnel under the river mine to the north. So this is one of our disappointments, I suppose,. [00:04:53][31.8]

Tom Melville: [00:04:54] You see, a state conservation area only protects the surface and a short distance beneath it. A national park, however, would protect this area right to the centre of the earth. This crucial distinction is what's making lovers of The Drip nervous, particularly when you take into account the possibility that Yancoal will tunnel under the Golden River State Conservation area to mine on the north side. There's also planning approval to mine within 500 metres of the river on the south side, which should get going in the next few years. Yancoal says there's no planning approval for the tunnels needed to facilitate mining on the north side of the river and argues that all previous approvals had been rigorously assessed by relevant state and Commonwealth authorities, as well as the independent assessment panel. There's also a provision in Yancoal planning approval that there must be nil impacts on the drip. But Julia isn't convinced the mine is doing enough to make that happen and suggests that as long as the site is a state conservation area and not a national park, there remains the threat of tunnelling under the river. She says any mining activity near the drip could damage the delicate sandstone cliffs due to subsidence and so forth. [00:06:01][66.6]

Julia Imrie: [00:06:01] We could have cliff falls. So this is a sandstone country which is quite fragile. And you can see as you walk down, there's there's a tendency to have these sort of vertical cracking, like whole vertical jointing, which creates beautiful cliff lines, but also makes it slightly, you know, if if the ground moves too much, obviously you've got any sort of instability, there's a danger. [00:06:19][18.1]

Tom Melville: [00:06:20] And according to Phyllis, the decades of mining that have taken place in the area have already had an impact. [00:06:25][4.6]

Phyllis Setchell: [00:06:25] The subtle impacts have been gradually increasing as it's come closer and as the mining has become a larger enterprise than what it used to be. A couple of years ago, I had a phone call from a local photographer. She'd come down here. She lived just across the river. She came down here with her child to have a paddle in the rivers. New years' day, she didn't expect there'd be much water in the river but at least he could play in the river. And there was no water whatsoever. And being a photographer, she just snapped a photo of him with this total look of despair and unhappiness. What's happened to my precious river? I haven't got any water to play in. And it was an example for us to be off to show the public that during the times of drought and the effect of mining, depleting the water to the river was so obvious because then a little while later when we complained to the mines and said, well, you're supposed to be releasing water into the river, what's happened to that water day? They then from the desalination plant released water and there was water in the river. [00:07:48][82.8]

Tom Melville: [00:07:50] Go for a walk, no. Unless there's anything you thought I must ask, I would certainly think so. Yes, it's time to get walking. I'm beginning to get a sense of the history of this place and the lives of the people up and down the river. The bushland is gorgeous. Alicia tells me more. [00:08:08][17.9]

Aleshia Lonsdale: [00:08:09] So I guess over the years, an Aboriginal corporation and the Land Council have worked with national parks generally to do weeds, erosion work, the walking track, plant, native species. So you're just working on country looking after country generally is what we've been doing. A wonderful job. This looks fantastic. [00:08:30][21.5]

Tom Melville: [00:08:34] The track follows the base of the sandstone cliff. A little way to our right is the river. At this point in its course, it runs over sand and it's quite shallow. Julia guides school groups up and down the track and is about the best person in the world to take me on a tour. According to Phyllis, that breeze you can probably hear is not usually around in spring. Yeah, that's I think the thing is the second you get a microphone out the breeze will come. She reckons it might be the ancestors kicking up a fuss because she's brought a man to a woman's place. More on that later. We're walking and chatting for about half an hour before Julia takes us off the track and across the river. [00:09:13][38.7]

Julia Imrie: [00:09:19] So, Brett Whiteley and his friends with Wendy came down here to do some painting and wandered down the river looking for The Drip. They thought this was the drip, because there is a few was a few drips coming down. So they set up camp and there was a lovely day. It was actually then and there was a lovely sandbar there. And Brett, who's a bit of a showman, he was painting on canvases, then turned around, stripped off naked and then decided he'd go a little bit natural and he painted these here. [00:09:47][27.5]

Tom Melville: [00:09:48] These are the famous and somewhat controversial Brett Whiteley murals painted in the early 1970s. They're an appropriation of Indigenous bark paintings found in the Northern Territory. Interestingly, they're the types of images associated with women's spaces, just like The Drip. [00:10:02][14.0]

Julia Imrie: [00:10:02] So that's sort of 50 years they have survived. He would have used just acrylic paints. And when you get close, you can see the lichen has replaced some of those paints. But you've got there's a bit of a birthing mother, I don't think, a birthing figure. I don't know if you can see that with a separated redhead, but two breasts and what looks like something in the belly and so forth. There's a Nulla Nulla. There's a few basket, emu. [00:10:29][26.9]

Tom Melville: [00:10:30] And it's interesting that he picked up on this as a woman's place. [00:10:33][3.6]

Julia Imrie: [00:10:34] It is, isn't it? Yeah, it is. This is one of the interesting things about the site. And I was told by an Aboriginal woman, actually, Aleshia's, one of the sisters that that was where the men stood up on this cliff about 100 metres above. Yeah, that was set to go down. Yeah. And the women were down here in the birthing cave. But I'm not 100 percent sure how accurate that is. It's a nice story. [00:10:56][22.2]

Tom Melville: [00:10:57] I said the paintings were controversial because for many years people assumed they were genuine Indigenous artworks. It was only revealed a few years ago who the actual artist was. I asked Aleshia what she makes of them. [00:11:09][11.4]

Aleshia Lonsdale: [00:11:09] I don't know. Look at the time when, you know, the film sort of came out and there was an art exhibition at the time from local artist credit work about The Drip. So that question was put to us like I you know, are you angry with him or do you think he should be removed? And I guess it's like anything, do we think the track should be removed? Do you think the bridge and the sign should be removed? Like, I guess in some ways we'd rather it's not there, but it is there. And I guess it's a part of the story of this place. So I think we've got to ask we recognise that there are lots of river stories that are important to people in regards to this area, you know, and whether that's to do with when they used to come down and have picnics in the eighteen hundreds and whatever and you know, or whether it's the bikie groups that used to come here and use the place or whether it's, you know, school groups that've come out like everyone has their different stories for this place. And so we kind of want to be respectful to everyone else's stories as well. But yeah, so, I mean, ideally, it's it's not ideal. It's there. It's the same as the rock art up there. We regard that as, you know, being I the form of vandalism as well. But generally, overall, people are very respectful when they're out here and and they're coming here because they want to see the place. And yeah, they're very respectful generally in their interactions with the area. [00:12:30][80.3]

Tom Melville: [00:12:30] The Indigenous heritage of this place goes back thousands of years. There are hand paintings only a few kilometres away. And Wuradjuri women have been coming here a long time. But the Indigenous name for this place has been lost, a casualty of the greater destruction of a people and culture. And in terms of the fact that the name itself was lost. That tells you quite a lot. [00:12:51][20.9]

Aleshia Lonsdale: [00:12:52] Yeah, but we were very heavily impacted by invasion, so there's a lot of massacres in our area. People were put on missions and reserves or sent up to Brie and Wellington. So there was only a small community which remained on country and then married him with non-Aboriginal people. So we're even now we're still a small community compared to to other areas. So it was very hard hitting dispossession. And so that included loss of land, loss of language, loss of cultural knowledge. But, you know, it hasn't all been lost. People did retain cultural knowledge. And so that's this is one of the places where women have continued that that practise of culture. [00:13:29][37.0]

Tom Melville: [00:13:30] So, you know, people would be looking for when they come down here, you know, your ancestors, I guess. So this is obviously a perennial streams that's super important during the drought. But is there more to it than that? [00:13:41][10.7]

Aleshia Lonsdale: [00:13:41] Yeah. So they were coming here, as I said, it's part of women's business, but they were coming here for purpose, for it for a reason. And it was to carry out business. So generally. Right. We don't go into what that is. But yeah, they were coming here for purpose and it was leading on from other places. So they were at other sites in preparation for coming here first. [00:14:01][20.1]

Tom Melville: [00:14:04] We keep walking. At some point, just before The Drip, we cross an invisible border from state conservation area into the Goulburn River National Park. We go a bit quiet as we near the gorge and walk up a set of sandstone stairs to the lookout. Here we are. Oh. [00:14:24][19.8]

Julia Imrie: [00:14:25] Almost. The closest long wall, for instance, from the point of view of mining is probably about 500 metres away further. [00:14:37][11.9]

Tom Melville: [00:14:39] It hasn't rained much recently, but you can still hear that telltale drip of water sliding off the sandstone overhang and slapping on the rocks and water underneath. It's not hard to see why these women have dedicated their lives to saving The Drip. For them, it won't be safe until the mines are kept back and the state conservation area is converted to a national park. But the mines aren't going anywhere anytime soon. I asked the group if there's any way to ensure that the heritage value of an area is maintained while also maintaining any economic benefits a mine can have on a region and the country. Julia says she doesn't trust the mine's modelling. [00:15:14][35.0]

Julia Imrie: [00:15:14] They can't prove how they're going to achieve their Nil impacts. And you asked them and they say, well, you know, that they've got monitoring bores and well, they've got, I think, too near the river. Here is a few more scattered further down. And that is the extent of their groundwater monitoring today. They've already got evidence in their underground mining to the Ulan and in Moolarben that they're having a draw down effect on groundwater up to two kilometres away from the from the longwall, from the front of the longwall, the active face of the longwall. So, you know, even coming within 500 metres here, you're going to have a an impact on the on the groundwater that would normally make it to the river. [00:15:52][37.7]

Tom Melville: [00:15:53] Alicia is concerned about the health of the bush around here. [00:15:55][2.3]

Aleshia Lonsdale: [00:15:56] You know, we're part of a renewables energy resource sign. So there's going to be a lot of activity in that area. So I think that's really the way forward. You know, and from our perspective, it shouldn't be the imbalance where the priority of economic benefits and, you know, the benefits of coal mining outweighing community benefits, cultural values, all those sorts of values. It's a very skewed say in favour, in favour of coal mining, mining. It's like I'm yet to see where our cultural values or scientific values or community values. What does it take to outweigh a coal mine? Because I haven't seen it. I'm 40 and I haven't seen that in my lifetime. What does it actually take? Coal mining has had its day and there should be a move towards renewables. [00:16:42][45.9]

Tom Melville: [00:16:43] It's time for me to leave The Drip. I have a meeting in Mudgee. But before I go, I notice Phyllis sitting on a rock on her own, drinking in the scene. She's at home here completely. Mudgee is thriving. The drive in along the Ulan road, takes you through rolling bright green farmland, which turns into vineyards as you get closer to town. The Main Street, Market Street, is bustling. Businesses are packed with people from Sydney and the East Coast, contributing to a lively atmosphere. The town has an historic centre. There's a string of buildings more than a century old. Much of the town's wealth was based on the ultrafine merino wool trade. But now the invisible benefactor is mining coal mining, to be precise. [00:17:34][51.1]

Hugh Bateman: [00:17:35] I don't like it called a mining town at all. In fact, the mines have been incredibly good to Mudgee. I'm Hugh Bateman, local businessman and philanthropist. [00:17:45][9.4]

Tom Melville: [00:17:46] Hugh's Office is on Market Street, right on the corner. It's gorgeous. The floors are hardwood and the boardroom we sit in is lushly appointed. He was born in Mudgee, came off the land in the 1970s to sell real estate. In some ways, he's emblematic of the town's success. [00:17:59][13.6]

Hugh Bateman: [00:18:00] One time around about 1978 I personally sold 13 houses in one weekend and that's when things started to change for Mudgee. As a result of the mines we then had another reboost in the 90s as other minde came on. So it's been a bit of a ride for many. And we've seen new businesses arrive here and we've grown. It's that sort of thing that's created more of a cosmopolitan feel to the historic area. [00:18:32][31.3]

Tom Melville: [00:18:33] He says mining has supported other industries in much as well. [00:18:35][2.5]

[00:18:36] The mines have brought tourism. We're doing over 600000 visits from people a year here now, and it's recognised that 92 per cent of those people are visitors come back again. And I think a lot of that is attributed to people who've moved here to go to the mines from Queensland, from right around New South Wales and further afield. So they have their friends and family come and visit them. And so it's something that's grown. I think Mudgee has its own historical ambience resting in the nest of the hills. And it's a very peaceful place and a great place. And in fact, I, I often make the comment, you go a long way in this great big world of ours to find a place like this. [00:19:17][41.0]

Tom Melville: [00:19:17] The concern amongst some of the people that saved the drip organisation, essentially that the expansion of the mine may negatively impact The Drip. And they were chiefly worried about, I guess, subsidence. So there's sandstone cliffs are quite fragile. Do you, I guess, share concerns? [00:19:36][18.0]

Hugh Bateman: [00:19:37] Look, I think anybody would share a concern, if something like that happened. I mean, national parks would be jumping on the bandwagon and so forth. But the mines themselves, I believe, care. In fact, national parks and the local mines have in more recent times contributed to putting pathway's upgrading the pathways, etc. there as well as local council and with parking and so forth. So I think, broadly speaking, there would be a lot of concern right across the field in terms of maintaining its presence. I think in recent times, in the light of what occurred with Rio Tinto in Western Australia, I can't ever see that happening again because I think there'll be some huge fines. It's almost criminal what occurred in Western Australia. And I really don't think it'd happen from that point of view here. I do know there is a caring responsibility from their point of view, from talking to people over time,. [00:20:34][57.5]

Tom Melville: [00:20:36] Like many in Mudge in the surrounding area, Hugh is a regular visitor to the trip. [00:20:39][3.4]

Hugh Bateman: [00:20:40] Personally, I think it's a place of tranquillity. It's a real place of difference, particularly in our area. This sort of thing that you may find on the coast on occasions. But it's extremely rare for us. If you go there after rainIt is just the most magnificent place because you have the rain drops coming off the top of the stone onto the little creek that runs below and it's and then and the greenness. If you go through there in the spring, you get the opportunity you should go and have a look. It's just absolutely beautiful. [00:21:14][34.3]

Tom Melville: [00:21:15] But while he has seen his town benefit from the mines over the years and has seen a lot of personal success as a result, he knows that the coal under the soil about a half an hour to the north is a finite resource. [00:21:25][10.4]

Hugh Bateman: [00:21:27] We have to be acutely aware of life after the mines. So we have to create that through business and industry in the area. We have a very diversified business, an industry here now, but there is a reliance on the mines and we have to spread that. I'd really love to see more tertiary education here, perhaps an extension of one of the universities. I'd like to see more technology operating from here and of course, with Covid what we're seeing now is a lot of people are working from home and realising that they can do just as much in regional New South Wales as they can in Sydney. And of course, they've got a lovely big backyard instead of being locked up in a one or two bedroom unit. [00:22:06][39.5]

Tom Melville: [00:22:07] The Drip would be a key part of this tourist drawcard. But mines do have life left in them and will be around for at least the next decade. I asked Hugh if he sees a tension there between the value of our natural heritage and the economic benefits of industry. [00:22:20][13.5]

Hugh Bateman: [00:22:21] I don't know if there is a tension there. Certainly for those who are involved in indigenous and community and people who are close to it for the environmental would be certainly tense, I would imagine. Because there is a knowledge that a mining company is near. That's always going to be. And the balance of money over a heritage. Personally, I think heritage comes first. But the balance of things, I don't know if it will ever get that far. [00:22:58][37.0]

Tom Melville: [00:22:59] Unlike the women I walked with at the trip, he was confident in the minds. He's seen his town prosper. We get to talking about the proposed tunnels underneath the Goulburn River, just west of The Drip and the concern that any underground activity could cause the sandstone cliffs serious damage. But he believes the mining company knows what it's doing. [00:23:18][18.9]

Hugh Bateman: [00:23:19] I think mining companies will know the limit. And I think with technology, if they were to go under The Drip. I would hope that modern technology would provide that that sort of thing didn't occur. It would have to. And I would say that, you know, there was subsidence of any sort as a result of something like that happening would be disastrous. [00:23:46][26.7]

Tom Melville: [00:23:50] Back at the drip, I sense that Phyllis is contemplating that same thought. This is her place as much as anyone's. Despite the years long effort, they're still not satisfied and they can't fight forever. You fought for quite a while and had wins in that period. And setbacks and battles lost. Does it make you worried about what happens? [00:24:15][24.4]

Phyllis Setchell: [00:24:17] Yes, very worried. Do what I can do. We all do what we can do. I tried to look at the big picture and try to do a variety of different actions. We got a local artist to put together a book. When we engage with local children to draw pictures, gather plants and press them, write little things, you know, about why they love the. And these artists put it all together into a beautiful book that was handmade cover. And that was presented to the premier at the time. And our country, remember which one in Parliament presented to them with the 10000 signature petition to save The Drip. So the approval system is where it all falls apart. It always just gets rubber stamped. We go to those and we present papers and we we speak. And we have protests outside? What has it achieved Julia? [00:25:37][80.7]

Julia Imrie: [00:25:38] Well, look. We've pegged them back over the years years. I think around Lithgow is an example of what happens when there's no one there to speak up. And there's now people there that are speaking. And they've had a lot of damage, you know, to the groundwater systems and. But you can only hope and you get a choice. What do you do to sort of accept it or not move away? You know, I moved up straight up school. I loved the place so much. [00:26:07][28.5]

Tom Melville: [00:26:08] On the surface, The Drip is safe. The gorge itself is inside a national park. And the Aboriginal Land Council and National Parks and Wildlife are working hard to maintain the track and bush around it for us all to enjoy. For the people who have fought to keep it safe, however, the threat of the mine still hangs heavy. Hugh is hoping for a bright future for Mudgee in a world less dependent on coal mining. And Julia, Phyllis, Aleshia and many others want to ensure The Drip is a part of that future. [00:26:38][30.5]

[00:26:58] That's it for this episode of Voice of Real Australia. Thank you so much for listening. Subscribe on Apple podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen. I'll be back in a couple of weeks. If you like the podcast, please share it with your friends and give us a five star rating on Apple podcasts. Everyone has a story to tell if you'd like to share yours. Email voice at Lost Community Media dot com doray you. That's voice at aust - A-U-S-T community media dot com dot au. Our Facebook page is Facebook dot com slash. Voice of Real Australia. Voice of Real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by Laura Corrigan and me, your host, Tom Melville. Our editors are Gayle Tomlinson and Chad Watson. Special thanks. This week, go to Matthew Kelly. This is an ACM podcast. [00:26:58][0.0]

This story Voice of Real Australia Episode Five Transcript first appeared on Newcastle Herald.