First published in Tasmania 4o South, Issue 87.
Kings Run, a 338 hectare property just a few kilometres north of Arthur River on the wild Tarkine coast, is a six hour drive from Hobart – and worth every minute. It was to be handed back to Aboriginal ownership the following day in what would become the next chapter in the wonderful story of Geoff King and his wife Margo Jones, that will forever leave its mark on this little corner of the world, and it would appear, far beyond.
I had taken up the offer of camping nearby the night before the handover ceremony with the Aboriginal community on their land at preminghana, a stunning 500 hectare property just north of Marrawah, which was handed back to Aboriginal ownership in 1995.
From Hobart, I took the scenic route over the Central Highlands, over lands seasonally visited by Aboriginal people who tapped the cider gums for their sweet sap. By the time I stopped for a stretch at Rocky Cape the weather was wild. Through some form of alchemy, a sea eagle, never once beating its wings, managed to convert the aggressive wind into something calm and graceful as it surveyed the coastline. I walked to North Cave, where in 1826, Henry Hellyer (another surveyor) met local Aboriginal people and mapped their caves.
The great geological entrance looked cathedral door-like and inviting. As I looked to an angry Bass Strait, into a wind that threatened to blow my eyelids off, it wasn’t hard to see why the cave was an important place.
Such a long drive deserves a good audio book, so I was listening to Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. I couldn’t help but think of the similar impacts the people of the Americas and the people of Australia endured after the arrivals of Columbus and Cook. Thousands of years of one reality replaced in a relative instant – via disease, violence and environmental destruction – with another.
I arrived at preminghana mid-afternoon to find about 50 tents and perhaps 150 members of the Aboriginal community setting up or sheltering from the rain. I put up my tent then the rain cleared long enough to go for a short walk to the crest of a hill where Sharni Everett described the landscape and its human history and pointed out where petroglyphs are located.
As dusk descended, adults stood by the fire talking as children played nearby. There was a sense of great anticipation for the handover of Kings Run the following day. I stared into the flames and thought how important fire was to the hundreds of generations of Aboriginal people who passed through this land, and indeed how fundamental it is to being human. I thought about how it was mastering fire that arguably began humanity as distinct from the animal kingdom. Staring into the flames, as all peoples from all places have for millennia, I thought perhaps little was different when thousands of years ago, perhaps close to this very spot, a group of people shared shelter, food, story and community.
To many over the past 200 years, including Geoff King once, this part of Tasmania was seen as cattle country. Not only the green pasture inland, but even the fragile coastline and marshland that is home to numerous threatened species – the cows up here are even accustomed to eating kelp from the shore – but this has never been the dominant view of the Aboriginal community.
In many parts of Australia, Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their land to make way for cattle, often forced to then take part in their land’s destruction as farm labour. In Tasmania, they were simply expelled. “Aboriginal people lived freely here until the early 1820’s when their removal became a government priority in the area,” explains Andry Sculthorpe of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). “Many atrocities occurred at the hands of white men, pastoralists and government agents. This ultimately led to complete removal by George Augustus Robinson on behalf of the government in the 1830s.”
The King family ran cattle on their land from the 1880s, until Geoff began to realise the incredible importance of his land, both in terms of Aboriginal culture and environmental values. He removed the cattle and began restoring the environment and receiving visitors instead. At age 58, King died in 2013. In accordance with his wishes, the Aboriginal community was given first right of refusal to purchase the property, and so, in a reversal of the past, at preminghana and now Kings Run cattle have now made way for the natural environment and Aboriginal culture.
Late morning, in a clearing sheltered by trees and scrub in earshot of surf pounding the rugged shore, about 200 people gathered. A smoking ceremony was held. Two young men, bodies painted with ochre, danced around the fire and the audience before inviting everyone to walk slowly through the thick white smoke, rich with the incense of fresh eucalyptus leaves, to cleanse their spirits. Faces beamed. Several groups and individuals had come together with a common vision. They had pulled it off.
This is the second collaboration between the Tasmanian Land Conservancy (TLC) and the Aboriginal community. The first was at Trawtha Makuminya (formerly known as Gowan Brae) in the Central Highlands in 2013. “It is hopefully not the last.” says Stuart Barry, Chairman of TLC. Rangers from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre who manage preminghana will now also manage the 338 hectares of Kings Run.
The Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), which is a legislated body tasked with acquiring land for Aboriginal benefit, granted $680,000 to Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania (ALCT), while the Bob Brown Foundation (BBF) and the TLC secured $385,000 from donations (including $325,000 from Wotif founder Graeme Wood) to enable ALCT to buy the property.
“It was impossible for me not to get involved in this project,” says Wood, who first met Geoff King on a hiking tour of the West Coast. “The impact of that environment was deeply memorable.” But for Wood, the most lasting impact of his trips to the area is the affect King had on him. “He was an inspiration for me. He showed that the courage of one’s convictions can make a demonstrable change in one’s own lifetime, despite personal attacks from the less aware.”
Above all though, Wood’s readiness to help comes from his disgust at the treatment of Aboriginal people since the arrival of Captain Cook. “Physical aboriginal massacres don’t happen in 2017, but the spiritual and political desecration of Aboriginal history continues unabated, seemingly cheered on by the Hodgman Government.” Wood says. But “a piece of irreplaceable art or culture lasts only until it is destroyed for all time. “
Kings Run is rich in shell middens, seal-hunting hides and the remains of hut villages, written about in early colonial literature, huts that had multiple rooms, fire hearths and could house up to 40 people. It was part of a seasonal hunting area carefully managed with fire. “These places have helped to correct the misconception that our people just wandered around aimlessly without settlement or structures,” explains Andry Sculthorpe of TAC.
Wildlife biologist Nick Mooney, a visit from whom King once credited as beginning his ‘wake up call’ opened the speeches on behalf of Margo, pointing out that Kings Run has only ever had two owners, the King Family and Aboriginal people. Geoff and Margo wished it back to its original owners.
As children played on the land of their forebears, former leader of the Australian Greens Bob Brown described the handback as a “small step in recovering, for all Australians, a loss we have in our hearts at what was done in our past.”
Conservationists and Aboriginal leaders described the mutual benefits of the new future secured for Kings Run and how it took courage to see that their goals are aligned. On “a planet that desperately needs its 8 billion people to reconnect with the land – Aboriginal people are our leaders in this, both in body and in mind.” Concluded Brown.
Alignment of respect for indigenous culture and conservation should be no surprise and nor is it a Tasmanian concept. Just days before the ceremony at key international climate talks in Bonn, UN special rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz urged world leaders to do more to defend indigenous communities, claiming that they are the most effective custodians of the environment worldwide and that this will be essential for dealing with climate change.
In recent years, when Bolivia and Ecuador gave greater political power to their indigenous people, constitutional change soon followed, to recognise the ‘rights of nature’ and declaring that humans are dependent on ecological processes, clean air and water for survival. Our constitution was written when we were unaware of many environmental issues we now face and the laws that cascade down from it put matters like property rights far above sustaining an environment that can support us. It was also written long before our first people were granted any rights at all.
It felt like a rare thing then, to hear indigenous voices celebrating the environmental legacy of a ‘white fella.’ “We have waited 200 years for this. Today we once again become custodians of this land. It is part of us, we need it,” said Clyde Mansell, before committing to perpetuate King’s legacy of conservation.
To Sculthorpe, the value of Kings Run transcends the physical objects themselves. “The combination of the natural elements, the sound of the sea and the feel of the wind, the energy within the land and the remains of our ancestors gives meaning to life and its complexity.”
In less poetic words, this was immediately evident during my overnight at preminghana – such times ‘on country’ are clearly important in helping community members navigate through life. From an outsider’s perspective it felt like a close, familiar community, providing one another with support, advice, love and belonging.
As people explored Kings Run after the speeches, along the jagged and raucous shore, past the seal-hunting hides, to King’s famous little cabin where he treated his visitors to dinner, and back through the hinterlands, it was obvious the land will now continue to inspire people for many years to come.
“Aboriginal people have never really given up the fight to get land back. It is about being comfortable with the land and comfortable with ourselves,” said Sculthorpe. According to him, it is also about justice, which leads to healing and reconciliation, protecting a landscape from damage (often wanton and deliberate) and securing a future. “It has been a long past, but we have a long future.”
It is powerful to think of the hundreds of generations spending time on this land: being born, living, loving, dying, enduring ice ages and changing sea levels, whilst other civilisations around the world came and went. At kings Run, this story is once again being written, with the hopes and fears of future generations to paint the unwritten pages and a feeling of permanence has returned. A feeling of permanence has returned.
Not long after leaving to begin the long drive home, Galeano finished his masterpiece with words that seemed to be written not for the history of Latin America, but for the ceremony at Kings Run: “in the history of humankind, every act of destruction meets its response sooner or later, in an act of creation.”