Now although I might consider myself a little bit of an conservationist, I am not the type to go around chaining myself to bull dozers or yelling on the front line of a protest. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that I’m not sure it changes anything in the bigger picture, with all due respect to others who take that course. I’ve always believed that you’ve got to be the change you want to see in the world, don’t buy into the fear, rah rah rah…. But if anything is going to turn me into one irate, yelling, eco-terrorist determined to risk all in order to make a difference, it would have to be the coal mining fiasco currently ensuing in the Upper Hunter region of NSW.
Now I do realise that coal has been dug up and shipped out of this part of the country by way of Newcastle since… well, just about forever. But as we progressed further along the BNT and into the area, the scale of the operations both current and planned was a huge shock.
Our buddies who are travelling in the vehicle also had a similar experience. Upon driving through the little town of Bylong, the sign at the entrance of town proclaimed that it was the home of the famous Bylong Mouse Races. Deciding that it was probably the one and only time they would ever get to see a professional mouse race (!!??), they made further inquiries, but were sorely disappointed upon hearing that the rodents had run their final race last year.
”There just aren’t enough residents in the valley to make the mouse races viable anymore. Most people have sold up their farmland to the coal companies, and the few that are still here don’t really have the energy for it anymore,” our friends were sadly informed.
Despite claims that coal provides huge employment opportunities in the region, statistics show that only 1% of Australians and 5% of those who reside in the Upper Hunter are employed in coal industry related work. But more worrying than any of this is the fact that 90% of coal operations in NSW are owned by foreign companies.
Bylong is just one of the dwindling rural communities in the Upper Hunter region, with its 150 residents dropping to just 50 over the past 18 months, as a result of land offers too-good-to-refuse from foreign coal giants.
This was just the first of many stories we heard of the loss of community structures as result of coal mining expansion in the area. Down the road, the Wybong notice board, which not so long ago probably promised of community events and social happenings, now hangs rusty and overgrown with bracken, with most of its former viewers long gone and cashed up with coal money from the sale of the family farm. And who can blame them? Farming is a tough gig. Rural homesteads and gardens that were no doubt once tended with care lay abandoned, now unwanted and unnoticed by new owners who are interested only in the ‘black gold’ that lies beneath.
As Z and I travelled past countless numbers of these properties, we wondered what the inhabitants of 100 years ago would have made of it all. There must have been enough abandoned places to house Sydney’s entire homeless population. We humans sure have a funny way of doing things…
Passing through Kayuga, it looked as though roads had been named and signed, and then strangely left unfinished. We were later informed that plans had been put in for additional residential roads and then abandoned.
After the beauty of the Widden valley, it was a rude awakening to see gate after gate locked and chained, with threats of prosecution from one mining company or another- many even had security vehicles patrolling the roads for them!
To add salt to the wound, the beauutiful TSR (Travelling Stock Reserve) at Manobalai which we camped at was right smack bang in the middle of the latest round of coal explorations in the valley. We were then to be further disheartened when we learnt that the farm on which we were given permission to camp the following night had already been bought out by the coal mob and destined to be mined within the year.
So its been an interesting lesson. We were expecting to be challenged by the BNT, and indeed we have been. Navigation problems, saddle rubs, sourcing water, exhaustion; none of these came as a surprise. But I have been challenged in a whole different way these past few weeks by seeing what an enormous impact greed can have on this fragile land of ours. I have seen some absolutely stunning sights, but wasn’t really prepared for the disturbing ones. Nonetheless, I feel so blessed to be able to commit to the trail and experience it warts and all with Z. I just hope the beauty of it all will still be around for her grandchildren…