Returning to Stanage

by Robin Taubenfeld

A year has passed since the accident.

My friend has convinced me to tackle the fateful road again.  I am worried. The last – and only – time I drove it, I braked on a curve, spun out the tires, lost control of the car and after spinning around on the road just barely missed crashing into a fallen gum tree.  I nearly killed us all. My 9 year old daughter was in the back, as were my friend’s 7 year old son and her partner.  She was in the front with me and yet she proposed travelling the road again; we had never made it to Stanage Bay and while our original purpose had passed, the goal was still there and unachieved: to see the land the military had begun using for military training, to explore the pristine coastline used for amphibious landing practice, to document the militarised country… A trip to the beach. A contested space.

Tarnished through invasion…colonisation, transformed through colonial farming/homesteading, but with an ancient coastline left relatively intact, harsh, wild and teaming with life, Stanage Bay sits just north of the Shoalwater Bay Joint Military Training Area on the central coast of Queensland.  In 2017, despite not being designated for military use, its shores were transformed from tranquil World Heritage listed waterways to enemy territory in need of

Landing craft air cushion (LCAC) 10, assigned to Naval Beach Unit (NBU) 7, conducts an offload of Marine forces and equipment as part of a combined amphibious assault during Talisman Saber 17.

offensive landing and occupation.  As US naval ships waited in deeper water, marines moved in to capture the beach, their amphibious vessels scouring the sand – also not terra nullius – but home to minute and vital Benthic ecosystems.  Who lives here? Snail, fish, crabs, sea worms, corals, sponges, sea anemones, tiny creatures and plants that support sea grass beds for dugong and turtles…and more.  The benthic – or sea floor – zones are diverse.  Sea grass for precious dugong. Warm waters for migratory whales.  Estuarine waters home to local and playground for hundreds of species migratory birds, fish, mangroves, the occasional crocodile, butterflies, worms, non-endangered brigalow scrub, the Great Barrier Reef and all its resplendent coral, eels, sharks, sea cucumbers, shrimp, marlin…  A coastline replete with undocumented middens and footprints of Aboriginal ancestors… now further tarnished by its use in practising further invasion.

We had tried to make it to the beaches of Stanage Bay before the military tarnished them with the footprint of modern day invasion. But we had failed. Perhaps it was the wrong time.  The accident we had, afforded us another adventure.  The blown out tires and sad-faced children caught the attention of a passing military vehicle which rescued us. Ironically, the “enemy” became our saviours – not only helping us fix the fixable tire but also driving me deep into the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, up a mountain, the only place to get reliable enough mobile phone coverage to call a tow truck.  The lovely young female army mechanic who had helped us agreed that the war games in that region were problematic… she had joined the military to get skills. The fact that young women  – or anyone – feels they need to join the military to get skills hurts…I know we can do better.  And for her, though she may not agree, I further resolve to see an end to war games at Shoalwater Bay – and an end to war everywhere.

Every two years some of the world’s largest military exercises, US-AUS combined force Talisman Saber, take place primarily in Shoalwater Bay.  Some 30,000 personnel are involved. While 2017 was the first year these exercises expanded in to neighbouring public and private land, since its inception in 2005, Talisman Saber has seen huge combined air, sea and naval manoeuvres involving live firing and the use of nuclear powered and nuclear-weapons-capable vessels, take place every two years within contested and yet purportedly protected space:  The World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Ramsar listed wetlands, the unceded lands and waters of the Darambal people. 

Because of that accident, we never got footage of the beach before it became a war zone.  But thanks to that accident, when we made it to Stanage Bay we went there with people of the land.  It was better that way.  The land, the waters are sacred and the descendants of those who colonisation had possibly never allowed to walk on their traditional lands are still there and hungering for connection – reclamation.  That contested space is theirs.  We can be conduits to amplify their stories but we cannot tell them.  That accident taught us that. The story is connected, as we all are, by the waters of the world, the air we breathe and winds, seeds, animals that traverse the continents and seas – but it is not ours. My story is one of connecting to that path.  As an American and a mother – and a migrant to this ancient land – I feel I have no choice but to try to find some way to decry empire – to have hope for the future by acknowledging the past – and the present.

Talisman Saber is more than a local issue.  As its name indicates, its purpose is to wave the sword in the region, to demonstrate and increase the might of the US military presence and Australia’s support for it.  According to Defence, Talisman Saber is “meant to achieve interoperability and strengthen the U.S.-Australia alliance.” With satellite activities taking place around Queensland, in the Northern Territory, and the Timor, Coral and Arafura Seas, Talisman Saber relies on support infrastructure from Rockhampton, Brisbane, Amberley, Sydney, Canberra and other military and civilian sites in Australia, the US and the Pacific. Across all of these a common thread is the ongoing colonisation, nuclearisation and militarisation of important ecosystems and indigenous land.  To this day, and in all these regions, militaries control access to local communities’ traditional lands.  There has been small but consistent opposition to these Talisman Saber in Australia and a growing movement towards decolonisation and demilitarisation around the world.

As part of Friends of the Earth Brisbane, I am involved in opposing Talisman Saber, providing both an environmental analysis and social justice critique of it and other US-led military activities in Australia. Since 2005, we have focused on networking with local communities, engaging in environmental assessment processes, and building relationships with affected local First Nations communities.  In 2013 Friends of the Earth released the report US Bases in Australia: An environmental and social justice perspective, which has helped raise awareness and broaden the arguments against hosting US military activity in our region. We want to see Shoalwater Bay de-militarised and returned to Traditional Owners. Talisman Saber is the tip of the iceberg of the deep military relationship Australia is cultivating with the USA.

We are alert and alarmed.

With increased support for and investment in military industries in Queensland, Australian government ongoing opposition to nuclear disarmament, and proposed expansions to military presence, work on these issues has never been more important.

Due to the combined threat of climate change and nuclear war, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the time on the Doomsday Cloak to 2 minutes to midnight. In the Trump era, we have the opportunity to help move away from military-driven disaster. By valuing spaces, standing for them and walking and working alongside their traditional custodians we can dismantle the structures that push for ongoing military use and usurpation of land and seas.

We made it to Stanage Bay though we didn’t venture on to the actual beaches used by the military. We heard Darambal stories of birth and connection – and disconnection. We met settlers, tourists and fisher people.  We are trying to understand what it would take to give this land, these waters a voice.

We are currently in the process of developing new tools, including a visual artefact or set of artefacts, exploring the natural beauty and intrinsic value of Shoalwater Bay.  We are working closely with First Nations friends to find new ways of speaking about and connecting to the issues which will provide greater long-term support for the process of decolonisation – affording Darambal people access to their land and standing alongside them to protect it.

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