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An old man’s dreaming

Mintabie will soon be without its opal miners - "a timely vindication of a great wrong perpetrated by greedy and ignorant people"


TUMBY BAY - In 1976 I was working for the South Australian Museum travelling in the far northwest visiting and recording sacred sites with Aboriginal elders.

On one such trip I was out with an old man called Mungatja Mick Wintinna. He was an Antakarinja man in his mid-nineties.

Earlier in the week I had piggy-backed him across some sand hills to the place where he had been born in the late 1880s.

On this particular day he wanted to show me a significant hill that was part of an important Milpali (goanna) myth cycle.

Mick was almost totally blind but, as we drove across country, he had no difficulty navigating. I followed his instructions and by mid-morning we had pulled up at the hill.

As we got out of the Land Rover I noticed what appeared to be a camp near its base. Upon our approach, I could see two rifle barrels poking over a barricade made of fallen timber.

The men with the rifles were opal prospectors and they were guarding a strike they had made near the hill. They were very interested in Mick because they had heard that there were opals at other sacred sites.

Mick told them they couldn’t dig up the hill because it was an important creation hero resting on his travels.

If the hill was damaged the whole myth cycle could be damaged and the repercussions would be dire for the traditional owners.

Upon my return to Adelaide I registered the hill and placed a five kilometre no go zone all the way around it.

A year or so later the Pitjantjatjara/Yunkunytjatjara people were granted freehold title to what had been the North West Aboriginal Reserve.

The title included the hill and I thought that with its registration as a sacred site it would be doubly safe.

Mick, as an Antakarinja man, had a close affiliation with the Yunkunytjatjara people now occupying his traditional lands and was happy with the arrangement.

South Australia was way ahead of the other states when it came to Aboriginal land rights but what we hadn’t counted on was a change of government.

When the Liberals assumed power they effectively excised the area of Mick’s hill from the Aboriginal lands and allowed the opal miners in with their huge bulldozers.

The hill miraculously survived in the middle of the town that sprung up there. At its base were built shacks, makeshift shops and a hotel.

The town became a convenient place from which to despatch illegal alcohol and drugs into the Aboriginal lands.

The beautiful desert country was dug up, flattened and despoiled.

Mick died a long time ago but I wish he was still around.

In a few days’ time, the opal town that became known as Mintabie is being closed down.

The miners have until the end of the year to get out. They are upset but the current government is adamant they have to leave.

The irony is that it was a Liberal government who let them in and a Liberal government that is kicking them out.

The devastation they will leave behind will take millions of dollars to repair. Who will pay is yet to be decided.

One day, however, Milpali and his hill will once again stand tall scanning the desert around him watching for the mythical hunters pursuing him.

It is a timely vindication of a great wrong perpetrated by greedy and ignorant people. I’m glad that at least I’m around to see it.

If I ever see Mick again I’ll let him know that Milpali survived and is doing well.


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Daniel Kumbon

I can relate to this story, Phil. The sand hills of the Milpali reminds me of Mt Waruwai in Porgera which has been levelled by the giant gold mine.

Whatever sacred sites that existed there are no more. In its place is a gaping open pit mine which gets bigger every year.

On the cliff walls can be seen illegal miners who fall to their deaths every year. I don't know how many have perished over the years. I reported on the first 23 killed when the mining operations began in the early 1990s.

Scared or not, illegal or not, man will still go after these sparkling stones and leave a trail of death and destruction. Funny, nobody takes any of it to the next world.

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