LIQ­UID AS­SETS

The NSW spa town of Moree has wide skies and creative sur­prises in store for vis­i­tors, re­ports Jo Ken­nett

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

DAR­RELL Tighe flits around the Yaama Maliyaa art gallery like a bird, alight­ing be­side tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary in­dige­nous works and speak­ing en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about the artists, many of whom are stu­dents and grad­u­ates of the in­dige­nous arts course at the art deco TAFE col­lege across the road.

We are in Moree, the north­ern NSW coun­try town where Charles Perkins and the Free­dom Rid­ers ar­rived in 1965 to protest against the ex­clu­sion of Abo­rig­ines from the arte­sian baths. Af­ter a vi­o­lent clash with lo­cals, po­lice lifted the ban and in­dige­nous chil­dren en­tered the baths.

The ir­re­press­ible joy on their faces as they ran and launched them­selves into the wa­ter makes this one of the most mem­o­rable mo­ments in Aus­tralia’s his­tory to be cap­tured on film.

The years that fol­lowed were punc­tu­ated by racial ten­sions but th­ese days Moree is a town trans­formed.

Float­ing amid the steam at the spa baths is a mul­ti­cul­tural melange of vis­i­tors. The main streets, once re­mark­able only for the bars on shop win­dows, are lined with trees, long vine-cov­ered per­go­las and cafes.

Park­lands skirt the Mehi River as it snakes its way, like Gar­riya the rain­bow ser­pent of the Dream­time, through town. It is a sump­tu­ous splash of green on the wide brown plains of the state’s north and an­ces­tral home to the Gami­la­raay (or Kami­laroi) peo­ple, the sec­ond largest in­dige­nous group in Aus­tralia.

A key el­e­ment of the trans­for­ma­tion is re­counted in Mes­sage from Moree, a doc­u­men­tary that high­lights the work of cot­ton farmer Dick Estens in es­tab­lish­ing the Abo­rig­i­nal Em­ploy­ment Strat­egy. The ser­vice has been so suc­cess­ful, not least in bring­ing to­gether two cul­tures, that it has been repli­cated across the coun­try.

Sud­denly Moree had some­thing to be proud of and it has since gone from strength to strength. The town’s beau­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram has been the per­fect man­i­fes­ta­tion of the change in at­ti­tudes.

The re­birth is also ev­i­dent in Moree’s thriv­ing arts scene and Tighe, cu­ra­tor at Yaama Maliyaa Arts (Gami­la­raay for ‘‘ wel­come, friends’’), is pas­sion­ate about nur­tur­ing tal­ented in­dige­nous artists in lo­cal art pro­grams and gal­leries.

Tighe takes me over the road and through the gar­den of the Moree Plains Gallery to the Mehi Murri stu­dio where work­shops and classes for Gami­la­raay art stu­dents are held. There are works in tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary styles in a variety of medi­ums us­ing lo­cal ma­te­ri­als; many of th­ese are for sale and vis­i­tors are wel­come to stroll around.

I watch lead-light­ing teacher Colleen Moloney at work and we dis­cuss the in­spi­ra­tion of the land­scape.

‘‘ I stopped on my way home the other day and took a photo of the sun­set on my mo­bile phone,’’ Moloney says. ‘‘ I’ve lived in Syd­ney but I’ve been back home for 18 years and the skies still blow me away.’’

The clar­ity of the at­mos­phere and the un­ob­structed views from hori­zon to hori­zon make it pos­si­ble to see me­te­orites flar­ing as they strike the earth, mul­ti­coloured me­teor show­ers, im­pos­si­bly real mi­rages and masses of stars in ink-black night skies.

Har­vest time in Novem­ber is also storm sea­son, with bril­liant light­ning dis­plays and dou­ble rain­bows arc­ing over golden wheat fields. It is th­ese skies that in­spired in­dige­nous film­maker Ivan Sen, who filmed much of Be­neath Clouds in the area.

The Moree Plains Gallery, in one of the town’s many her­itage build­ings, show­cases the work of in­dige­nous artists.

A myall tree, in­cised with tra­di­tional Gami­la­raay mark­ings, guards the en­trance to the gallery and artist Lawrence Les­lie is carv­ing an­other two in the gar­den.

The per­ma­nent col­lec­tion in­cludes vi­brant works by Les­lie and an­other gifted in­dige­nous artist, Mar­garet Adams.

Les­lie has a linocut of the Mehi on dis­play at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia in Can­berra and his re­marks on the work read: ‘‘ Mehi River means Deep Springs. The river was the tucker for us. It was beau­ti­ful grow­ing up on that river. The colours (of the print) are re­lated to my coun­try.

‘‘ The trees are there and this is the mis­sion where I grew up, and there is Mt Ka­putar, which you could see from the mis­sion. I’m re­ally proud of that print and it brings back a lot of good mem­o­ries.’’

The gallery houses a small trea­sure trove of beau­ti­fully crafted in­dige­nous arte­facts such as bas­kets, boomerangs, spears, lil-lils, dig­ging sticks, didgeri­doos, shields, nul­lan­ul­las and woomeras.

There are also king plates, such as those for the king and queen of Terry Hie Hie, which white set­tlers awarded to prom­i­nent Abo­rig­ines as an in­di­ca­tion of their sta­tus, in an at­tempt to win their al­le­giance.

Inside the Moree Li­brary, the walls of the Dhi­iyaan In­dige­nous Unit are lined with en­larged con­tem­po­rary por­traits of lo­cal fam­i­lies that are stun­ning.

Donna Briggs ex­plains that the cen­tre, the first of its kind, is a keep­ing place for tra­di­tional arte­facts and was es­tab­lished to doc­u­ment and pre­serve Abo­rig­i­nal his­tory, es­pe­cially fam­ily his­tory.

The unit holds an ar­ray of re­sources such as mag­a­zines, books, DVDs, ge­nealo­gies and more than 10,000 pho­to­graphs. Briggs and man­ager Noe­lene Briggs-Smith also run cul­tural aware­ness pro­grams and Gami­la­raay lan­guage classes.

A colour­ful tech­nol­ogy dome that projects images of lo­cal in­dige­nous his­tory and events dom­i­nates the unit.

Briggs-Smith is busy trac­ing a fam­ily ge­neal­ogy with a young wo­man; they are dis­cussing visit­ing the ceme­tery to search for a par­tic­u­lar head­stone. Briggs-Smith was in­stru­men­tal in es­tab­lish­ing the Tran­quil­lity Gar­dens at the ceme­tery to com­mem­o­rate in­dige­nous ex-ser­vice­men.

The Gami­la­raay name for the gar­den is Ngindi Baa­bili Tub­bi­abir, which means ‘‘ They sleep in place of quiet­ness’’.

The open­ing of the Tran­quil­lity Gar­dens was marked by a tra­di­tional cer­e­mony to bring home the spir­its of in­dige­nous sol­diers buried over­seas. The Gami­la­raay peo­ple be­lieve that the dead should be buried in their home soil, and so soil was taken from the gar­dens to the war graves of in­dige­nous sol­diers abroad.

There are sev­eral places in the area of spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance to the Gami­la­raay peo­ple, such as Boob­ora La­goon near Bog­ga­billa, Cranky Rock, the bora grounds at Col­ly­mon­gle, Ber­ri­gal Creek with its rock carv­ings, and the Myall Creek me­mo­rial at the site of the Myall Creek mas­sacre.

NAIDOC week, a cel­e­bra­tion of in­dige­nous his­tory, cul­ture and achieve­ments, is held in Moree and other lo­ca­tions in July.

In Au­gust, Har­mony on the Plains Mul­ti­cul­tural Fes­ti­val brings to­gether Moree com­mu­nity mem­bers from more than 40 cul­tures in a week-long cel­e­bra­tion fea­tur­ing mu­sic, dance, food and cul­tural dis­plays.

There are other events on of­fer through­out the year, but it is worth visit­ing Moree at any time just to see the daz­zling sun­sets and share in the re­vival of an an­cient yet en­dur­ing cul­ture.

Check­list

Moree is 607km north­west of Syd­ney on the Newell High­way or 480km south­west of Bris­bane. Qan­taslink has daily re­turn flights from Syd­ney to Moree. More: www.moree­tourism.com.au. Mir­a­cle­oftheWaters by Zeny Giles (Pen­guin, 1989) is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries about Moree’s arte­sian spa cul­ture. It’s out of print but avail­able from sites such as www.book­sand­col­lectibles. com.au; www.grants­book­shop.com.au or www.ozz­books.com.au.

YEARS ago I ar­rived in Moree to work on the cot­ton har­vest, stay­ing at a guest­house run by a Greek chap named Nick. Night shift fin­ished at 7am and it was just a walk around the cor­ner to the hot arte­sian baths. Peo­ple would sing out ‘‘ Good morn­ing’’ as I inched my way into the pool and un­der the tor­rent of wa­ter spout­ing from a pipe that pum­melled my limbs into bliss­ful jelly.

Vis­i­tors with ac­cents that gave away their mostly Mediter­ranean her­itage drifted through the steam­ing wa­ter, ev­ery­thing shin­ing and back­lit in the morn­ing sun. My body al­ways let me know when it was time to get out and jump into the cool­ness of the Olympic pool. I would swim laps, mes­merised by the stream of sun­lit bub­bles that my fin­gers carved through the wa­ter.

Back at Nick’s guest­house, the old men would in­sist I have a grappa or schnapps, which made me sleep like a baby. On the week­ends, when the fam­ily had Greek bar­be­cues, I would wake to huge plate­fuls of food they’d saved for me. At Easter I was given red-painted eggs and I won­dered if I was sup­posed to eat them. It was like liv­ing in an­other coun­try. The kind­ness of the peo­ple and the rit­ual of tak­ing the wa­ters linger in my me­mory.

Nick and his wife are gone, but the melt­ing-pot at­mos­phere is much the same. Euro­pean im­mi­grants ar­rive to hol­i­day, stay­ing at fam­ily-run guest­houses or mo­tels and walk­ing each morn­ing and evening along the street to the baths, wear­ing dress­ing-gowns and slip­pers.

The spa wa­ters are drawn from the Great Arte­sian Basin, 850m un­der­ground. The bore was sunk for ir­ri­ga­tion in 1895 and when it be­gan to flow, mil­lions of litres of hot wa­ter flooded nearby stores and the newly con­structed Vic­to­ria Ho­tel. The wa­ter was no good for crops but the high min­eral con­cen­tra­tion and nat­u­ral heat were found to ease dis­com­fort and pro­mote well­be­ing.

In 1898 the Moree Hot Arte­sian Pool Com­plex were opened to the pub­lic and now there are two hot pools, an Olympic-sized pool and two chil­dren’s pools. A hand­ful of ac­com­mo­da­tion houses have smaller ther­mal pools on site. The Gwydir Cara­park on the out­skirts of town has four pools and is a mem­ber of the Fam­ily Parks group. The Best West­ern Dragon and Phoenix is lo­cated in the main street near the baths and of­fers an arte­sian pool and four-star rooms.

The Arte­sian Spa Mo­tor Inn has a ther­mal pool, mas­sage ther­apy and the Arte­sian Gar­dens Restau­rant, which show­cases lo­cal pro­duce. Set on an es­tate a short stroll from town, the spa­cious rooms open out on to lawns over­look­ing Broad­wa­ter Creek.

Check­list

Moree Hot Arte­sian Pool Com­plex is open 6am to 8.30pm Mon­day to Fri­day and 7am to 7pm on week­ends and pub­lic hol­i­days. The min­eral-rich wa­ter is 41C and pumped in through spa jets and spouts. A masseur is in at­ten­dance but book­ings are es­sen­tial. More: (02) 6757 3450. www.vis­itnsw.com.au www.fam­i­ly­parks.com.au www.drag­onphoenix.com.au www.arte­sianspamo­torinn.com.au Jo Ken­nett

Mes­sage from Moree: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, do­ing strokes in the pool; Abo­rig­i­nal ac­tivist Char­lie Perkins with chil­dren out­side the pool in 1965; and inside in the same year af­ter the free­dom rid­ers’ protests; warm baths soothe aching bones; the art deco pe­riod build­ing that houses the TAFE col­lege; MeeiDream­ing by Mar­garet Adams

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