We are all Gippslandians for different reasons. A diverse bunch of outstanding people who share this beautiful slice of the planet. Kick back and listen to some extraordinary yarns being shared by extraordinary humans, about starting a life here and making Gippsland home.
Granite Mountain has got to be the most remote corner of Gippsland. Seriously, check it out on a map. It’s two hours from any town. The roads are gravel; they twist and turn, up and around, even through, steep mountainsides. Mostly the view is of vast wastelands, where logging has ripped through, leaving strange landscapes of scraggly regrowth where the forest is struggling to fight back. We bump and rev along in Dave Caldwell’s beat-up Land Cruiser, a trusty relic from the 80s. The Land Cruiser is littered with maps, supplies and novels: Chomsky, Hesse and Ursula K. Le Guin.
The windows are down, it’s 38° outside and the wheels are spinning up shitloads of dust that sticks to our sweaty skin. We can smell smoke. “A lightning strike bushfire to the east,” Dave says casually. “There are more and more bushfires out here. The logging dries out the soil and only drier plants can grow back”, he tells us, his arm resting out the window. There’s a tattoo of a cassette on his forearm. I wonder if it’s a symbol for changing times. The tattoo glistens with sweat too.
The drive is epic; nature is pushing back and scrub pops up mid-track. Bumping along, Dave tells us about his world. He’s spent the last 15 years fighting for the protection of East Gippsland’s forests. He talks so passionately and uses his hands so dramatically that sometimes Dave has to stop the car altogether to finish a story.
We pull up next to a patch of old-growth, cool temperate rainforest. It instantly feels 10° cooler. We wander in. “Islands amongst the destruction”, Dave says, gesturing at the rainforest around us.
“Check out these soft tree ferns,” we touch the lacey leaves, “In these old-growth areas zoned for logging, there are ferns carbon-dated at a 1000-years-old. Do you know these plants move? They slowly creep forward. No wonder they were Charles Darwin’s favourite plant…”
Dave confetti’s sentences with scientific names for flora and fauna the way most of us use inane words like ‘like’. “Over there, see the Elaeocarpus Holopetalus?” he says smoothly. Dave has an articulate, cool drawl. Later I learn he means a Black Olive Berry. Dave can name every plant and animal we see.
Dave was born in Inverness, Scotland, but grew up in ‘Radelaide’. Fifteen years ago he came to East Gippsland as the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) was running a skills session on tree-sitting. Dave never left. He now calls the town of Goongurah, ‘home’. He lives off-grid and studies the unique biodiversity here. Dave discovered (and saved) the biggest tree in Victoria. A rare Errinundra Shining Gum that was in a logging zone. The trunk’s girth is 18.5 meters (holy moly!) and it’s now a popular tourist attraction.
It is illegal to blockade. Although it’s State Forest, the areas zoned for logging are renamed ‘Timber Harvesting Safety Zones’ and trespassing can result in an on the spot fine of $440 and a summons to court. The blockade is a huge tripod of sapling wood with a hammock in the top. It blocks the only road into the Granite Mountain old-growth forest. A female in her 20s from Sydney is up top as we walk under. Her brown legs dangle over either side of the hammock, as she catches up on reading for uni. Someone stays up there at all times, a walkie-talkie is tied to a rope under the hammock. The blockaders we meet here are scientists, students, professionals and parents wanting a better world for their children. They’re from all over Australia.
“We practise non-violent direct action,” says Dave, “blockading is still important but the most powerful way we save the forest is through science. We gather as much information as we can and collect evidence of endangered species”.
We’re walking down a gravel road past huge yellow and black machinery; some logging began before the blockade got up. It’s startling to see the forest begin and end so violently. Dave conveys the sense of pain that comes with constantly seeing this destruction and the beauty of what he does too. “What I realised is when we do save a bit of forest, is that if we weren’t here, it would have been destroyed. Once gone, you can never get that biodiversity back. We’ve saved thousands of hectares of forest from logging.”
For Dave, it’s global and personal, “There’s something about the forest in East Gippsland that captures me. It’s where I feel a sense of place and belonging. Living in the bush, under tarps, and blockading, working as an activist... it’s what I love doing. The really important message is that one person can make a difference.
“East Gippsland is the only place left in Australia with continuous forest and vegetation from the Alps to the coast. Nowhere else has that. What we’re (GECO) campaigning, for now, is to make an Emerald Link of National Park from the mountains to the sea.”
When asked what the personal cost is for making this cause his life, Dave pauses. We’re sitting on a massive (naturally fallen) log. The moss is damp on the backs of my legs. Dave is watching a Eulamprus Skink. There is a stillness, even a sadness to Dave as he contemplates the question. We sit in silence, watching the lizard explore. When Dave does talk, the skink startles and disappears under the leaf litter.
“There is a personal cost,” he says, “This job, we don’t get paid, we volunteer our lives for the environment. We are a long way from anywhere. Life can be hard... and isolating”. He sits silently for a while longer. “It’s worth it though,” he says, “it can’t be quantified. It’s not the normal reward people get from work.” Dave turns to look me in the eyes. “It is absolutely worth it,” he says, and he means it.
Laura and Jonno
Filling three hours of ABC radio every morning with Gippsland news is easy for these two. It’s the switching off at any other part of the day that’s hard. “We’re always thinking of the next story. You’re always working, always observing. Wherever you are. Even if you’re not working at that moment, you’re still thinking, could this be a story?” says Laura Poole, who is the Chief of Staff at ABC Gippsland. Jonno Kendall, an on-air presenter, nods in agreement.
We meet at the spanking-new Gippsland Art Gallery at the Port of Sale. While we wander through the intoxicating Imagine exhibition, Laura and Jonno compare notes on current affairs. Hazelwood’s closure, Federal politics, the proposed Port Albert wind farm, jobs in Gippsland - nothing is off-topic. It’s their business to know everything that’s happening. And they do. It’s not a Sunday stroll through an art space, rather, it’s a potential story, sparking conversation about which of the artists featured could be interviewed on their morning program. Although, Jonno adds mid-conversation, “talking about art on the radio is a bit like dancing about architecture”. Some cracking jokes about Jonno’s ability to interpretatively dance about architecture are inevitable here.
These two journos have spent their entire adult lives firing-off questions and feeding the media machine. It is interesting observing their shyness on the receiving end. The way they talk with each other is fast and very funny. But with a camera and voice recorder aimed at them, Laura and Jonno squirm. They even stop midway through their responses to ask, “Am I answering your question?” It is a relief actually, to know through all the quick wit and supernatural ability to remember names, facts and dates, these journos have kryptonite too. Some of their reserve is summed up in Jonno’s rhetorical question, “When you’re a public figure, how much of yourself do you keep private and how much do you share?”
Is it okay to say Laura is about to marry a local teacher and footy legend named Clancy? That Jonno’s wife Belinda has just had their second baby girl? Can I write down how passionately they care about Gippsland’s future? Where is the line of privacy and objectivity for this morning-radio duo drawn?
They both grew up here. Laura on a spud farm in Thorpdale and Jonno in Sale and Bairnsdale. They are ‘go-and come-backers’. Yo-yo Gippslandians. And man they’re keen on Gippsland. They share their reasons for moving home with ebullience. Words like “beautiful”, “pristine”, “community”, “nature”, “family” and “love” are echoing with our footsteps through the gallery.
They both burst out laughing after their, ‘I Heart Gippsland’ pillow talk. Laura and Jonno are cynical people by trade and take a few minutes to analyse themselves and the conversation. Laura and Jonno read between, around, over, under and through lines. The verdict on their love of Gippsland, “I sound corny, but I mean it”, says Jonno.
Then with a sparkle-in-her-eye smile, Laura reveals the true reason she came back to Gippsland. “Clancy wanted to move back and win a grand final with the Mirboo North Tigers,” she laughs. “Which he’s done!” adds Jonno.
What do they love about their work? ‘Cos, it’s this radio gig that brought them here too. “It’s a rush,” says Laura. “There’s always more to do. There are always more stories. There are always more people to talk to... and we have a lot of fun!
“It’s the conversations people are having about what they heard on the radio that I find interesting,” says Laura. “The best moments are when a talkback caller comes through and it’s just something off the cuff. It’s so important to have journalists in regional areas. We can tell stories that nobody else is telling.
“Listeners want us to tell stories about people who aren’t in the media all the time. Stories that are unique to where we live. In the metro news, it’s just a bit more obvious who will be in the news that day. Out here, it’s sometimes less obvious and that’s a nice thing.”
We are standing in front of the uncomfortable sculpture by Sam Jinks, ‘Unsettled Dogs’. Fox heads on frighteningly life-like naked bodies. It is hard to look at or look away from this artwork. Like the media, it is showing us something about being beautifully and horribly human. Like the media, Sam Jinks’ sculpture represents us, he strips us bare and makes us unsure where the line of privacy should be drawn.
This new gallery makes art and thought pop. We walk out past Sam Leach’s Sebeok on Safari. We are all lost in ideas. You can see question marks spinning around our heads.
“I always ask myself the question, what are people in Gippsland going to be talking about today?” says Jonno. “Waking up in Gippsland, what do people want to know?”
Gippsland’s a big place. That’s a big question.
Lyndy and Scotty
When we step into the Lake Tyers General Store, Tattoo You is playing. LOUD. Lyndy is grooving behind the counter, sizzling up a burger with the lot. Really, it’s the whole atmosphere that’s sizzling. Some locals are ordering dinner (fish and chips and a takeaway tub of slow-cooked coq au vin), and banter is bouncing off the walls. Scotty and Lyndy call each other ‘babe’, and are one of those couples that have tangible love-electricity sparking between them. Everything screams, ‘Rock star!’. The burger Lyndy cooks even looks like it’s from a pimped-up food van at a music festival. Lyndy’s wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, the words ‘We Will Rock You’ sparkle with relevance.
Scotty has played guitar with The Screaming Jets, Horsehead, Christine Anu, James Reyne… “and the Divinyls, don’t forget the Divinyls babe,” adds Lyndy. He has toured with Metallica, Live, Hoodoo Gurus and Midnight Oil... Scotty and Lyndy rattle off so many names it’s hard to keep up.
Lyndy Moore and Scotty Kingman made a freaking big decision a couple of years back. They left their rock star lifestyle and took over the Lake Tyers General Store. “From the wild life to the wildlife,” jokes Lyndy. From inner-city Melbourne to a tiny Gippsland beach town.
Scotty provides a comparison of being on stage with The Screaming Jets for the past 13 years with living in Lake Tyers. There is a similarity he says, in the way creativity ignites and evolves, “It’s something about the creative part of my brain, it gets tweaked up on stage. Every time I play guitar at a concert this happens in a different way.
Even if you’re on stage playing the same songs, the songs are never actually played the same way twice. Whether it’s a minute change or something bigger, the way the music evolves each time sparks this creative feeling. Living in Lake Tyers gives me the same feeling. Seeing the different skies over the beach, the beautiful nature around here. It’s the same creative tweak as the songs.”
Just as we get talking about starting a new life, Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up bursts into the air around us. Mick Jagger’s voice crawls from the speakers... “if you start it up, kick on the starter give it all you got.” This is exactly what Lyndy and Scott have done. On a whim, they came and gave it all they’ve got. Plus, the Lake Tyers General Store is completely revamped, it’s groovy in here.
“The best adventures... you aren’t sure what the outcome will be,” says Lyndy, “we came in not knowing a whole lot about running a small business and it’s been a steep learning curve,” Lyndy says this with a genuine grin. You can tell she doesn’t back away from a challenge.
“I get far more reward here on a daily basis than I ever did in the corporate world,” adds Lyndy. Lyndy had a high flying gig in music and event management. “A lot of really lovely stuff happens when you immerse yourself in a small community like this.” And Lyndy has done just this; helping to crowdfund the new Buchan pub being an event organiser with Groundswell music festival.
Some kids rock in and buy snowballs for a buck each, their eyes goggle at Scotty’s guitar leaning against the shop counter.
So, why the move? Scotty answers this one. “I’ve travelled a lot around this country, several times over, and I don’t think there’s a better place than here. I really don’t,” says Scotty. “There’s just a real energy around here. When I get back to Lake Tyers, after being on tour, I take a big sigh of relief.”
Lyndy jumps in, “When we first came down here, people were like, ‘God, that’s a long way away. Why would you live that far away?’. But anybody who’s come to visit us, they don’t say that anymore. They get it. It’s a beautiful, special place.”
The photoshoot is hilarious. Photographer Aldona, Lyndy, Scotty and I are in stitches. To say Lyndy and Scotty are playful humans is an understatement. “Come on babe, throw your axe over your shoulder,” teases Lyndy. They egg each other on until they are air-guitaring as if playing in front of a mosh pit. We are in the middle of the Lake Tyers main road but not one car comes through the whole time. Pelicans do though, a whole flock glide overhead.
“It just seemed to be the right thing to do at the right time. It’s a big change to make from where we’ve been but one we embrace wholeheartedly. It seems to be easier to deal with life living in a place like this. You know what I mean? It just has a nice vibe. It has a restorative effect. We’re happy here, aren’t we babe?”
“Yeah, we are,” replies Scotty.
Nyetap and Nyabiey
The whole time we talk there’s constant drumming in the background… bada boom bada boom bada boom boom boom. And singing. Raise the roof, soul-filling singing. Giving even an atheist like me goosebumps. We are sitting on the back steps of the Morwell Anglican Church. The concrete is hot and it’s lucky we’re in the shade. It’s Sunday afternoon and the service is nothing like I imagine church to be. This is the Sudanese service, spoken in English and Nuer, well not really spoken, sang, all to the rhythm of djembes.
Nyetap Ruach and Nyabiey Jiath are cousins. They were born in Addis Ababa. They have a relaxed and gentle way of making me feel okay when I have no idea where Addis Ababa is. “It’s the capital city of Ethiopia”, smiles Nyabiey, with a casual shrug of her shoulders.
Nyetap and Nyabiey are in year 11. They are smart, worldly and focused. Nyabiey wants to study Psychology and Nyetap, Law. They love school. Their top subjects are English and Biology. They’re incredibly well-spoken and literate. They throw around names like Graham Greene and George Orwell when responding that their favourite pastime is reading.
They are nonchalant about their Gippslandian status. For them, it is just ‘home’. Nyetap says, “I’m just the same as any teenage girl. We have all the same opportunities here.” Nyabiey agrees, “I can relate to that. We all live the same lives. We’re all just teenage girls in Morwell. There is a good community. Good schools. Lots of stuff to do. The only difference would be being at home, being a teenager at home isn’t necessarily the same for everyone.”
Home for Nyabiey has been different things. Her family spent time in a refugee camp in Ethiopia after fleeing war-torn Sudan. Sudan has since become two separate countries, Sudan and South Sudan. Nyabiey was six when she arrived in Australia. “When we were living in a refugee camp it was difficult. There were so many other people living there also. I don’t remember anything about the camp, but my father tells me sometimes the conditions were bad: food, shelter and water; basic human needs were hard to get.
“We took many vehicles and trips to get where we are now; cars, vans and trucks. The main form of transport was the aeroplane, which of course was the first time anyone of us had ever travelled in one. The experience on the plane was amazing and I remember every part of the ride. It’s a feeling and experience that I won’t ever forget.”
Both girl’s families are from the Nuer tribe in South Sudan. They have their own language, called Nuer, which these young women speak fluently, as well as English.
Nyabiey and Nyetap don’t have many memories of Africa. They don’t mind talking about where they have come from, but they are living in the moment, here in Gippsland, the place they call home.
“I have more knowledge of Gippsland than I ever will of Addis Ababa. But everyone was connected there as well - because of that it was a good place to live too. I remember family and friends all being together, which is what I also love about here,” says Nyabiey.
Even with refugee camp experiences in their formative years, Nyabiey and Nyetap’s memories of early childhood in Africa are of family, friends, belonging and connection.
Nyabiey says, “We were always together as a family and we had people nearby, families that lived close to us, and we did everything together.” Nyabiey remembers dirt floors, a strong sense of community and, “Like a LOT of singing”.
The drumming and singing in the church behind us gets louder for a moment. BADA boom boom BADA boom boom. The rhythm is like a heartbeat.
“I love living in Gippsland,” says Nyetap. “I like how there’s enough space for everyone. There is so much different stuff we can do here. Everyone likes living here. We know each other, it feels safe. You can rely on Gippsland and the people here.”
Nyetap and Nyabiey talk about their part-time jobs, Beyonce, playing netball, stuff you imagine teenagers talking about. There is a depth to them though that is palpable. They are immersed in local life and have a sense of the wider world. They think about Donald Trump, the future of the planet and the ongoing conflict in South Sudan.
Nyabiey says, “Our community, for years now, we’ve been thinking about South Sudan. Because all our parents are from there and there’s been, what would you say…”
Nyetap jumps in, “It’s like a feud that’s been going for a really long time.”
“So yeah,” Nyabiey continues, “it’s recently gotten very bad the last couple of years. So in terms of world politics, we are thinking about South Sudan and our families are all thinking about this as well.”
So how does it feel to live in Gippsland as someone who identifies as Australian and South Sudanese?
“Just normal!” they both say. These two are best friends, as well as cousins, and it seems like they can almost read each other’s minds.
Then Nayabiey says, “I have experienced racism. Not very bad, but it has been there a little bit.” Nyetap adds, “Yeah I’ve experienced some racism. Most of it happens online.”
“Yeah on social media… We would say, if you don’t understand something about who we are, just ask us. Or stop and think before you say some things,” says Nayabiey.
The drumming is still going. Boom boom bada dada boom boom bada dada. An infectious beat. It is hard to leave these women. Their smiles are so genuine. Their minds are so strong and thoughtful. I wish them a gazillion galaxies of luck and love in their lives. Though they don’t need it. They will take on the world for themselves.