A place dear to my heart is the small Aboriginal town of Baryulgil. It is where my parents were living when I was conceived and where untold generations of my paternal grandmother’s line have lived, smack dab in the heart of the Bundjalung Nation, in the New England and Northern Rivers regions of the state of New South Wales.
Prior to relocating to Victoria, it had been an annual pilgrimage for my family and I to travel from whichever town we called home (Yamba, Grafton, Newcastle, Blue Mountains, Wagga Wagga), to venture north to Baryulgil, to camp at Christmas time. Each year we would spend about two weeks, camped on a tributary of the Clarence River, near Baryulgil and Washpool State Forest, enjoying nature, the quiet and the company of nearby family.
Dad, Mum, my brother, Uncles, Aunts and cousins, all would spend time in our camp, or share it with us, sitting around the campfire, beneath a stand of ancient Bunya Pines, listening intently to stories of our family history. I would spend time with my older cousins, learning to hunt kangaroo and goanna and dive deep into the river for turtle. It was a great time in my life, and it’s a tradition I intend to continue with my wife and our growing family. Sometimes however, traditions can be threatened by matters of the past, as is the case with Baryulgil.
When my folks were living at Baryulgil, it was for four years in the 70’s when my dad was working at the local mine. It wasn’t great pay, but it allowed the small tight-knit Aboriginal community of Baryulgil to survive and in some sense – to thrive, when others were struggling to exist at all.
Dad’s job was to stand on a cubic slab of stone as wide as a car and to split it in half with his sledge hammer. He, just like the other workers would do this, repeatedly, until their stones were many small, flaking, stones - small enough to be picked up and thrown into a skip. Dad having not long been out of the game as a professional boxer and football (rugby league) player was able to get his quota filled a few hours before most others and perhaps in the long run, this, along with his fitness was what saved him from the stones. Baryulgil mine after all was an asbestos mine.
No shirt, no mask, no protection of any kind. It’s no wonder then that very few men that worked in that mine alongside my dad are alive to tell their own stories.
Linked below is an mp3 recording, made by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in 2001 and dealing with the history of Baryulgil Asbestos Mine, which had been owned and operated by James Hardie industries. In the audio file are interviews with my Uncle Ken ‘Linky’ Gordon and his wife Pauline (my dad’s sister). Uncle Linky was one of the many unlucky ones, having been diagnosed in the 1980’s with Asbestosis, the primary disease, among others, associated with asbestos. He’s been gone now since 2006.
Whilst I do love Baryulgil, it’s the area and the people, rather than the small parcel of land identified as Baryulgil Square that mean a great deal to me. Relatives continue to die there. Children with ocular cancers, and having had an eye removed because of asbestos are typical of what the community faces. Both my mum and dad in recent years have had scans with the Dust Disease Board, to certify that the currently are disease free, and I can only hope that continues to be the case.
My mum’s contact with the dust is limited in comparison to the miners. Uncle Linky in particular, who worked in an enclosed room, would finish work with his hair grey and asbestos fibres in his nose and ears. I have another uncle, who is still picking shards of asbestos out of the tips of his fingers and toes as his body tries to expel their poison. Sure, my mum only had to wash the dust covered clothes, but it only takes one shiver (a shard of the asbestos rock) to cause the sickness. The once dirt roads near Baryulgil were once literally made of asbestos and the local school kids played in a sand pit filled with the fibres.
Although where my family has always camped is not an area contaminated in the slightest per the township itself, I must now wonder, how greatly should I be concerned for my own health?
Awaye! Podcast: Burying Baryulgil (mp3 format, 25mb)
Images: Top, is my dad relaxing at our camp in 2004. Bottom is my Uncle Ken 'Linky' GORDON, circa 2000. A still from a television documentary 'Black Fella, White Dust'.