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