Survivor of atomic crimes in The Centre



Every six weeks or so I drive between Alice Springs and the southern reaches of the Lake Eyre basin.

A few months after meeting the French tourist (Night Drive) who suffered from acute anxiety but had the courage to drive an unreliable bomb across the continent, I had an inspiring encounter with a lithesome Aboriginal man.

Departing Coober Pedy after lunch I quickly found myself struggling to stay awake. Long days and difficult schedules were catching up with me and in the middle of summer, the heat through the glass was sapping.

Out the window I try to identify familiars, naming the plants helps stave off fatigue. It’s far too hot to follow the recommended procedure – stop on the roadside, tilt the seat and take a power nap before resuming my journey.

I’m forced to make a choice between a sugar hit or strong coffee; a slow death by sugar is definitely preferable to falling asleep at the wheel.

The roadhouse staff are backpackers, French on this occasion and of cheerful character that possibly highlights the brevity of their tenure in retail. I promote the cultural values of nearby Coober Pedy as a unique place to live and work but they’ve already been spooked by the town’s underlying reputation as the Wild West. I do my best to counter, giving them a lecture about stereotypes and telling them I’ve encountered no threats, quite the opposite, fifty years of friendship and wonder.

The lavish ice-cream kept me alert for less than an hour before the deep tiredness returned. I kept my eyes open with great effort, blinking and pouring water over my head and chest to assist the struggling air conditioner.

Hot and tired I began to experience minor hallucinations as distant bushes took the form of road signs. I was startled by a fine splatter of mud on the passenger side window animated by a ray of light, that on closer inspection, didn’t look anything like a fly past of fifty budgerigars.

Then I saw the lilting, wafting form of a slender tree, moving side to side in the heat shimmer. I blinked hard several times and the tree continued dancing.

At two hundred metres the man took definite shape and I began to brake. I was driving north and he was walking south but there was no sign of a disabled vehicle nearby. We exchanged a wave when he realised I was intending to stop and he walked to the roadside while I turned around.

Confused, I asked: “What’s happening, where are you going?”

The hatless man whom I later established was 50 years old was clutching a small bottle of water, its contents perilously low. He extended a lean muscular arm and pointed south west in the direction of a low range about 20 km away.

“Indulkana, short cut.”

Wow, that would take me six hours minimum.

He nodded his head and said: “Get to community tonight.”

Where you coming from? He pointed back to the north east and muttered “been walking days”.  Shocked, I made some room and said: “Jump in, I’ll drive you there.” He sank into the front seat and asked, “maybe just go to turn off,” still 10 km short of his destination at Indulkana.

I admonished my passenger for walking with so little water, mid-afternoon on a day of 41 degrees and he replied a little defensively that he’d tried to have a sleep under a bush but he had too much pain from cramps in his feet so he kept walking. He was a resolute character and I decided not to interrogate the circumstances of his long walk any further.

By way of changing the subject I mentioned the Yankunytjatjara statesman Yami Lester and his family of campaigners from nearby Wallatinna, and my passenger responded with delight, confirming he was a relative.

Early March I was strolling the streets of Northcote, Victoria, when I saw this huge mural of Yami on the town hall wall. Rod Moss.

Yami’s totem was ngintaka, Varanus giganteus, the largest goanna in Australia, commonly called Perentie (pictured). A photograph of goanna tracks features on the first edition cover of his book: Yami. The Autobiography of Yami Lester.

An indigenous rights leader and activist on many fronts, Yami represented people of the APY Lands of South Australia with great integrity and distinction. He served as Director of the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs for six years, an organisation he co-founded in 1969 with the Reverend Jim Downing of the Uniting Church.

On the international stage, Yami is best remembered as a casualty of the British Atomic Tests and a tireless advocate in gaining recognition for the 1800 Aboriginal people, catastrophically impacted by radiation.

“In 1953, I was just ten years old when the bombs went off at Emu and Maralinga. I got sick and went blind from the Totem 1 fallout … and lots of our people got sick and died also,”  said Yami in a Friends Of the Earth (FOE) interview.

Yami died in 2017, aged 75, and later that year his daughter Karina campaigned at the United Nations in support of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Decades earlier FOE and the Australian Conservation Foundation had supported Aboriginal people in their campaign to prevent the establishment of a high level nuclear waste dump in arid South Australia.

Yami inspired and supported the many activists who worked on this six year campaign. The campaign was led and finally won in 2004 by senior Aboriginal women, the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, from Coober Pedy, many directly impacted by the 1950’s atomic testing.

“An ambassador for the NO Dump Alliance he spoke loud and strong against nuclear waste dumping in South Australia. In 1981, Yami was awarded the Order of Australia medal for service in the field of Aboriginal Welfare. And his daughters, Karina and Rose, continue their father’s legacy today. They were deserved winners of the 2015 Jill Hudson Award for their powerful leadership in the fight against the high level waste dump …” 2024.

The eulogy posted by FOE captures the essence of Yami’s story, his kindness and great intelligence, the horrific consequences of the atomic tests and his life time of advocacy.

“Along with Maralinga veteran Avon Hudson, Yami was responsible for the formation of a Royal Commission in the 1980’s that shone a light on the atomic crimes of the British government, the spinelessness and culpability of (Australian) state and federal governments, and the ugly racism that pervaded everything to do with the atomic bomb tests.” (FOE, 9 August 2017).

Many serving military personnel were also callously exposed to radiation by those in charge but clearly not responsible. I try not to think about the unknown toll on desert wildlife.

In the late 1990’s I visited Yami and his family at Wallatina to take photographs for a poster and book cover commissioned by the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD), its press a leader in the publication of so many significant books preserving language and documenting culture.

Thereafter our paths crossed occasionally during Yami’s visits to Alice Springs for meetings or shopping and the Yankunytjatjara leader would always respond to us by name. I witnessed this incredible ability often, in mixed groupings or people out of context, it didn’t matter.

Without introduction Yami responded confidently to the many familiars who approached him in the street. I imagine he applied the same incredible recall for voices in the halls of Canberra where he was so effective.

Often required to engage in hard conversations, nonetheless Yami is remembered as one of the most effective and unifying figures of our times. He was greatly admired and loved by everyone who knew him.

Living alongside Aboriginal people from different language groups over the past fifty years has profoundly shaped my thinking. Predictably, sacred country, totemic plants and animals have become a rich bridge with my traditional interlocuters, especially the Arrernte.

And so it has become a habit to remember special friends through their animal or plant totem. In this way, Yami lives on and I can well imagine his family and close friends thinking of that distinguished old man whenever they encounter a large and impressive ngintaka strolling through his desert estate.

Postscript: Spurred on by cold war tensions and fear of a world war involving weapons of mass destruction the British Government were unsuccessful in gaining approval from the US and Canada to conduct tests in remote areas.

Permission was granted by the Australian Prime Minister Menzies and the atomic testing program began in 1952 off the coast of WA.

Seventy years later a warning sign located at Trimouille Island in the Montebello group, an archipelago of about 174 islands, recommends minimising exposure to radiation by restricting visits to one hour per day.

In total 12 nuclear weapons tests were conducted by the UK in the 1950s and 60s, mostly at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. Despite public safety assurances, radioactive fallout was recorded as far away as Townsville.

According to Wikipedia (Nuclear weapons tests in Australia) “a few hundred smaller scale tests were conducted at both Emu Field and Maralinga between 1953 and 1963.”

Recently Australian nuclear test files were removed from the National Archives at Kew and placed in the Nucleus archives that focus on the British civil nuclear industry.

According to a CNN report, “Nucleus also does not offer the type of online access to its records as the National Archives does … In correspondence … the NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) suggested those interested in the files could file freedom of information (FOI) requests.”

According to the BBC, “multiple UK departments – including the Home Office and Cabinet Office – have been repeatedly condemned by auditors for their poor, disappointing and unacceptable treatment of FOI applications.” Sounds familiar!

Anyone who has navigated the Freedom of Information process will understand freedom’s price, of information hidden behind redacted details and walls of “commercial in confidence” by governments desperate to avoid national shame and more comfortable shaming troublesome citizens.

Clearly, the 30 year convention for declassifying documents does not always apply. In remote Australia, today’s activists and scholars are often thwarted by spurious claims of commercial-in-confidence by local, Territory and Federal Governments.

In contrast, I don’t think we can begin to imagine the difficulties faced by Yami Lester and others trying to get past the maze of secrecy provisions cited by successive Department of Defence and Ministry of Defence in both Australia and England.

Probity afforded by the McClelland Royal Commission (1984-5) helped. I intend to write further on this dreadful chapter in our nation’s history once I’ve had a chance to visit and document various sites.

Double the number of houses on the market



There are about twice the number of houses for sale in Alice Springs when compared with what is regarded as a strong market. has 284 properties listed, nearly double the number when the market is strong, according to Lindsay Carey, the local representative of Real Estate Institute NT.

“This is a very high number,” he says.

The average price for a house is $467,000, calculated by the News from the first 19 houses listed on the company’s website.

Prices for flats and units average $257,000 over five first-page listings by

The average cost of houses offered by Domain, calculated over the first 18 of 212 listings, is $584,000.

Some of the dwellings are listed by both companies.

According to the Census the usual resident population of Alice Springs Town Council Local Government Area in 2021 was 25,912, living in 11,686 dwellings with an average household size of 2.51.

The ABS estimated resident population was 26,518 in 2016; 28,938 in 2021 and 29,213 in 2023.

Prison population grew 9% in Fiscal 23



The latest prison data release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the Eva Lawler Labor Government has lost control of both our streets and our prisons.

The Territory’s prison population continues to grow, increasing by 9% from 30 June 2022 to 30 June 2023.

We know that the prisons are full to the brim, and yet there are more criminals than ever before out on the streets destroying the lives of innocent Territorians.

This infrastructure debacle squarely rests on the shoulders of Lawler and her Deputy, Chansey Peach, who have neglected to devise adequate plans for our prison infrastructure.

The recent announcements regarding women’s prisons, conveniently timed on the eve of an election, merely showcase their penchant for making hollow promises they cannot fulfill.

Lawler’s decision to shut down crucial alcohol and drug rehabilitation centres and repurpose them as prisons is essentially a short-sighted robbing Peter to pay Paul scenario.

The ABS figures show around 40% of prisoners are on remand – the rapid increase in crime under Labor is blowing out timeframes for hearings and bogging down the court system.

Around 75% of NT prisoners have been in jail before, showing Labor is failing repeat offenders.

Better programs and engagement with prisoners will drive down repeat offending. Our successful Sentenced to a Job that Labor trashed, and our new Sentenced to a Skill programs for youth and adult offenders will transform lives.

Expanded work camps in communities for adults and boot camps for youths will provide strong alternative sentencing options: Compulsory alcohol rehabilitation, Sentence to a Job, leave prison job ready.

Steven Edgington, Shadow Attorney-General and Minister for Justice.

AT TOP, from left: Paech, Eddington, Lawler.

Night Drive


Emus and a roo carcass.


Travelling south, I leave Alice Springs before first light and I’m rewarded and indeed frustrated by a brilliant meteor plummeting to earth in the south west.

The heavenly body is primarily bright green with an orange tail and I fail to capture it even though the camera sits on the seat beside me ready for such moments.

Simultaneously braking, winding down the window, seeking a gap through the roadside trees and pointing the camera is futile, a second too late. I know this chance, the most impressive, brightest and closest I’ve ever seen will never come again.

Just after sunrise a carcass on the roadside, pulverised by the passage of vehicles, causes me to stop. Roadkill roos are often a signifier of low rainfall when hungry herbivores are attracted to the green flush produced by moisture runoff from the bitumen road.

This is an especially wet year and I’m puzzled by two carcasses so early on my journey, an exception to the established order of the season. The act of dragging the second carcass, a barely recognisable female and with no need to check the marsupial pouch for a miracle survivor, is sobering.

The plague of invasive buffel grass, an alien green verge, provokes in me a frenzy of pointless kicking to dislodge the healthiest specimen. According to the Vomit Colour Chart this new growth of buffel grass resembles undigested bile, although I’m forced to admit that some anglophiles might be stirred to song in celebration of green pastures a world away.

While the poor soils of the hyper arid country, the stony plains around Coober Pedy are effective in slowing the spread of buffel, there is another silver lining that deserves mention.

Feral camels have spread quickly through the sandplain and dune deserts of inland Australia but the gibber country seems to act as a disincentive to their south-westerly march and that’s a great benefit to plants such as quandongs that are so prolific in the Eromanga basin and palaeo drainage country.

Sadly the gibber landscapes transformed during wet seasons were a less effective barrier to the early invaders, rabbits, cats and foxes, that caused so much devastation during the early period of European colonisation.

Will we fail to act on the geographical advantages protecting the desert wonderlands around Bon Bon, Tarcoola and Kingoonya allowing camels to invade through the backdoor from Western Australia?

Roadkill: A spotted nightjar.

As the desert uplands fall away, the sky expands. I yawn for the hundredth time and look for a reason to stop. On my last excursion down the Stuart Highway I noticed several pairs of shoes and a random thong hanging from an isolated Gidgee that had provided me with a rest stop in the past.

Clearly the wannabe sculptors and doodlers found inspiration in one of the roadhouses that parades pub humour by hanging caps, bras or nickers from the rafters. A custom that is particularly sad when the appalling apparel covers craftsmanship in important heritage buildings.

Parking in the generous shade, I pulled out a knife kept handy for such occasions and removed the nonsensical detritus, puzzled by the fact that all three pairs of boots were until recently in good condition. This could only happen in the “civilised” world.

A large body of water catches my eye at Karinga Creek, fiery sand dune reflected on its mirrored surface and I’m hopelessly distracted for several hours variously flying the drone and exploring ephemeral channels on foot.

A vibrant flush of greens and yellows floating on water would soon replace the desiccated copper leaves of last summer’s nardoo pressed into dry cracking mud. To reach my destination at Coober Pedy, still three and a half hours away, I’m left with no alternative but to keep driving after sunset, albeit at reduced speed.

This rare inundation event would recharge aquifers, saturate parched subsoil and herald a great awakening of dormant life in desert land systems.

In time this once in a ten or fifty year event (depending whose hyperbole you follow) would give rise to a plague of rodents and locusts in its wake. Numbers of the introduced house mouse, Mus musculus, exploded rapidly and it would be another few months before populations of the endearing native hopping mouse, Tarkawarra also peaked wherever the highway intersected with sandplain and dune habitats.

Caught momentarily in the beam of my LED spotlights the small mice darted back and forth and I swerved to straddle rotund frogs and pale geckos being hunted by relatives of that feral cat, its green eye-shine watching me from the road side.

Crouching kangaroos are much more problematic and constant vigilance is required to distinguish individuals among the bushes, one that might be startled or dazzled by spotlights and make a poor decision to cross the road. Elongate snakes required more definitive braking and swerving but there was no saving the invertebrates.

A blizzard of insects struck the windscreen, the larger moths, grasshoppers and beetles collided with the ferocity of hail, the mosquitoes and termites with the gentle pitter patter of early rain; the brutal collective environmental impact of LED spotlights.

The carnage was extreme and there was nothing I could do but watch in mounting sadness as briefly illuminated shapes entered the spotlight zone, ethereal and angelic to splatter violently in front of my eyes, clinging to the windscreen for a microsecond before the onrush of wind swept myriad mangled forms into the dark.

A magnificent king cricket, pinned briefly to the window in a swirl of its own body juices vanished to be consumed by a crow in the following morning or possibly ignored by a corvid, already too fat to fly.

I try not to think about the mass of insects killed during my single night drive; numbers fluctuate and pulse, their identity and density an indication of the presence of unseen swamps nearby. A sudden increase in the density of termite alates provides compelling evidence that I was passing through a woodland of old growth mulga.

The prevalence of spotted night jars, swooping across the bonnet to catch that fat moth, oblivious to the peril of a fast moving metal object, force me to slow my speed yet further and apply the brakes with urgency.

With its trademark white epaulettes, another nightjar approaches from the gloom, pivoting left and right in a graceful zig zag movement, beak opening wide in the manner of an oceanic predator cutting a swathe through a cloud of krill. I flash the high beam on and off in an attempt to break the false moon spell that has gripped the incoming stream of insects and pursuing nightjar.

To my knowledge I’ve never killed one of these ethereal birds but I did come close when one was knocked senseless and pinned to the Hilux grill. Fortunately, the bird recovered quickly and enthusiastically accepted the hawkmoth carcass I offered, one it had briefly caught and regurgitated at the moment of impact.

Belly full it returned confidently into the night and the memory of its painterly plumage stayed with me for a long time and ensured that I braked harder in future. Years later I photographed a road kill nightjar, its head crushed by a hurtling metal object the night before but glorious wings and plumage still perfect.

Making a toilet stop served only to increase my sense of guilt as old familiars, rhinoceros beetles crash to and fro between the headlights and Yeperenye moths cartwheel and pirouette in an energy sapping flutter.

This is not a relaxing drive in the desert and I vow for the hundredth time to avoid night drives unless it’s at a very slow speed for the purpose of observing nocturnal wildlife, instead of beating them to death.

Next day I’ll check my phone and make a cursory search for any references to the massive meteor, surely some lucky photographer was at their tripod waiting for an Uluru sunrise and joyously vindicated for being up early? Nothing!

I disappear into the silence and cool of the dugout and fall into a pattern of writing essays punctuated by photographic forays into the outlying desert. On my return to Alice Springs a week later I leave before sunrise.

In daylight the murderous carnage of the night before is revealed in full graphic detail, of flayed and broken bodies and patches of bone and fur blended into the hot bitumen to become cellular smears of abstract design.

Catching the headlights, touching roadside memorials record the resting places of the vanquished, those who succumbed to sleep for a micro second on that sweeping bend, others who gambled with alcohol, speed or faulty tires and lost.

I couldn’t have predicted the French tourist, broken down. While cursing my luck and the fateful intersection of our itineraries, we clearly had to help. The clapped out 4X4 vehicle had a faulty injector so we sent him ahead and came behind as escort.

At the next stop we lifted the bonnet once more and confirmed the sound of escaping pressure was louder. Then we discovered a film of oil in the radiator header tank and our new friend announced grimly that he suffered from anxiety attacks! Towing his vehicle was a wiser plan and in that moment another unplanned night drive became necessary.

Beetaloo gas to ‘change NT forever’



The Territory’s $40 billon economy by 2030 “won’t happen without the growth of this sector” said NT Minister Mark Monaghan (at right), addressing more than 300 members of the extractive industry yesterday.

The other target with the same deadline – 50% renewables – never crossed his lips when he opened AGES 2024, the 25th annual conference in Alice Springs.

Mr Managhan said gas from Beetaloo is “on the cusp of changing the Territory forever” as Empire Energy and Tamboran Resources are expected to make their final investment decision on pilot production activities this year.

The Beetaloo Basin, about half way between Alice Springs and Darwin, is controversial because of the fracking there.

According to Ian Scrimgeour it is believed to contain more gas than the Ichthys field which is estimated at more than 12 trillion cubic feet (TFC).

The value of a one TCF contract delivered over a several year term would be $9 billion to the purchaser. That would put the value of the Beetaloo gas at $108 billion.

Dr Scrimgeour, head of the Northern Territory Geological Survey for more than 15 years and recently awarded a Public Service Medal, is the highly respected organiser of the AGES conferences.

He gave an overview of the mining industry to the Alice Springs News.

Which new mines, gas or oil deposits have the money and are ready to start operations in the The Centre in the current year?

DR SCRIMGEOUR: At Warrego near Tennant Creek Northern Iron have commenced construction of a plant to process the tailings there to produce magnetite.

NEWS: Are there any mines for rare earths and other critical minerals needed for electricity generation or storage?

DR SCRIMGEOUR: Arafura at Aileron are close to making an investment decision for the Nolans project.

NEWS: How much does the department spend on exploration and makes the results available to the industry at no charge?

DR SCRIMGEOUR: The Resourcing the Territory Program is funded at $9.5m. Of that about $3m is for competitive grants for the exploration industry. The remainder is focussed on generating the new data to stimulate exploration and we give all that away for free.

NEWS: The total value of mineral production in the Northern Territory was $4.4 billion last year. In the 2023/24 Budget royalties amounted to $367m. Apart from this, how much of the mining money stays in the Territory?

DR SCRIMGEOUR (at right): I don’t have the figures on that. The $4.4 billion is just the value of production, the value of material sold [not the costs].

NEWS: What was the best news from this year’s AGES?

DR SCRIMGEOUR: The diversity of opportunities and new discoveries of graphite and rare earths have been the main highlights.

NEWS: In Central Australia?

DR SCRIMGEOUR: No, the recent graphite and rare earths discoveries are more in the northern half of the Territory. However, we are seeing very strong interest in rare earths exploration here in Central Australia

PHOTO at top: Government online promotion of its code of practice for petroleum and gas exploration, appraisal and production activities.

UPDATE 18/4/24

$367m in royalties on $4.4b value of material sold would be 8.3% ad valorem (on the total value of the ore, oil or gas produced, not the profit or loss made).

UPDATE 18/4/24

Mr Monaghan and Chief Minister Eva Lawler issued this media release:

The Territory Labor Government is focused on growing our economy and natural gas is a key pillar in our comprehensive plan.

As announced on the ASX, Empire Energy has successfully raised over $46m enabling them to progress drilling in the Beetaloo Sub-Basin for natural gas.

The drilling will comprise of a pilot development well for pre-production testing. Empire Energy is anticipating commencement of commercial production by 2025 with the first supply of natural gas going into the Northern Territory Market.

This announcement highlights international confidence in the Beetaloo Sub-Basin and in the Territory’s economy moving forward, with an estimated $17 billion increase in economic activity through the Beetaloo Sub-Basin alone.

Telstra’s Universal Service Obligation doesn’t cover mobile phones



“Mobile phone connectivity is not included in Telstra’s Universal Service Obligation. That relates solely to landline services and payphones,” Telstra told us when we asked.

So what? Well, here is the deal.

Universal Service Obligation (USO) is best illustrated by a story involving Molly Clarke (at left), a feisty elderly lady who lived at the western edge of the Simpson Desert, south of Alice Springs, in the Old Andado homestead. It is 525, 344 or 440 km from town, depending on which way you travel.

The first few times I called in, always by light aircraft, her only telephone had a handle which you had to crank. If it got through to someone at the other end you hoped you could hear what they were saying.

However, under the Federally mandated USO Molly had a right to get a telephone landline no better and no worse than anyone else in this egalitarian nation.

It cost Telstra a motza, of course, but Molly got her tower.

That wasn’t the end of the story. At one time Telstra’s monthly bill was $17.30 (if I remember correctly) in excess of what Molly had expected. Telstra wouldn’t budge, neither would Molly. She told Telstra that they can take their tower back.

However, it’s still there today (photo at right).

Cut to 2024. Landline phones are rapidly disappearing. More and more people are using mobiles.

But the Federal Department of Communications still tells us this on their website: “The USO is a long-standing consumer protection that ensures everyone has access to landline telephones and payphones regardless of where they live or work.

“Telstra is responsible for delivering the USO, and must provide standard telephone services (STS) on request to every premises in Australia within reasonable timeframes. This is both a legislative and contractual obligation.”

What about applying USO to mobiles?

“The Australian Government is currently examining universal telecommunications service arrangements in light of changes in available technologies and consumer preferences over recent years.”

Until that is sorted out – if it ever will be – this is happening: First, as the public switch to mobiles continues, Telstra’s financial obligations under the USO are diminishing. The shareholders are smiling.

And no matter how lousy the mobile service is, they will charge you the same, be it one bar or five bars, and no matter how overloaded the Personal Hotspot may be which most people use a stand-by way for getting online when NBN lets them down.

When asked Telstra told us: “The plan amount paid by customers for a Telstra mobile service across Australia is the same and they are all month-to-month plans, so you can change or leave when you need to. We do not charge different rates based on where people live or the cost on delivering services to those areas.”

In other words, if you don’t like it, too bad. Just move to where we provide a decent service.

“Mobile coverage can never be guaranteed all of the time and we encourage people to have multiple forms of connectivity available where possible such as landlines and for internet, the NBN or Starlink.”

Telstra nor sells Elon Musk’s Starlink service, so buying it do fill the gaps of a poor mobile service would turn out to be a nice little earner.

PHOTO at top: Molly Clarke’s iconic house at the edge of the Simpson Desert makes it mark in Australia’s telecommunications history.

Open government



You’re a journalist in Alice Springs and you get a media handout from the Chief Minister, Eva Lawler (pictured), the supposed paragon of transparent government.

The release doesn’t provide a phone number. You can get a list of minders but there is a brisk turnover of spin doctors and updated lists are not automatically provided.

A further irritation is that if you send questions to a minder who has been replaced, instead the message – which is usually urgent – being forwarded to the current minder you get it flicked back and told it has to be sent to such and such.

These are tricks to make the system of getting information the public deserves to know in a democracy slow and irritating, no doubt in the hope of the journalist giving up asking. For example:

The Chief Minister, in her handout, invites you to reply:

You do, to the address given

But then you get this:

That’s what it says:

It’s the same with the handouts from most Ministers.


Sitzler, Aboriginal interests in huge dwellings project



The directors of Melanka Pty Ltd, which will “deliver” 174 multi-level dwellings in Todd Street, are Michael Sitzler, David Ross and Randle Walker.

Mr Sitzler is a member of a builders dynasty that started in Alice Springs but moved to Darwin.

Its recent Alice Springs projects are the Supreme Court and the six storey apartment building just completed on the eastern side of Todd Street.

Mr Ross is the former director of the Central Land Council (CLC) and Mr Walker heads up the Aboriginal investment company Centrecorp which has the CLC, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and Tangentyere as shareholders.

Chief Minister Eva Lawler said in a release on April 3: “The 180 dwellings in Alice Springs will be delivered over the next four years, with 90 of the dwellings to be used by key workers, and the remainder to be offered for sale and rent in the private market.”

Blueprint NT will “deliver” six dwellings in Kilgariff, said Ms Lawler.

Neither she, Mr Sitzler nor Mr Walker would disclose whether the new complex would be built on the land where formerly the Melanka hostel stood, a block that has been empty for some years, but that has been converted to eight story zoning in 2014 for a major project (architect’s drawing at top) that never got off the ground.

The Ms Lawler and the proponents of this new project will not disclose how much the NT Government will invest nor the costs and rent of the dwellings.

UPDATE 4.30pm April 16

Mr Sitzler provided the following statement:

The new development being proposed by Melanka PL is on the old Melanka block.

There will be six separate buildings, five will be five storeys with one at four storeys.

The government is not putting any funding into the development but have agree to lease 72 of the units for government workers and Melanka will lease the balance to interested parties.

The overall development cost is approximately $90m and the development will take around four and a half years to complete once commenced.


‘Let police do police work’



“Leave policing to the police. Politics and policing don’t mesh. When they come together problems arise. Politics confuses everything.”

That’s the message to the NT Government from Leo Abbott, an Arrernte traditional owner, former NT and Federal public servant in both Labor and Liberal administrations, a consultant on Indigenous issues and land management to private companies including mining and pastoral.

He blames the current crime fighting fiasco on the interference by a gaggle of ministers, sometimes contradicting each-other, while the present police leadership has decades of local knowledge is on top of things.

”Commissioner [Michael] Murphy (pictured above welcoming SA police in town to assist with combating youth crime) has come from the ground up. He started as a constable at Hermannsburg 30 years ago. He knows how to talk with Aboriginal people,” says Mr Abbott (at right).

What should the Police Minister be doing? He’s in charge of the police?

“He should be backing the commissioner and the leadership team, listen to his team.

“Why have a commissioner and a deputy commissioner and inspectors if the Police Minister is calling all the shots, overriding their decisions?

“They worked across the Territory, in communities, talking to people. They have a pretty good understanding of the Territory.

“They know a number of people they worked with over the years.”

Mr Abbott says his gigs included working alongside FaHCSIA [the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs] as well as Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Indigenous Engagement Program.

“I’m a Territorian born and bred,” which gives him the advantage over “too many FIFO people coming here.

“Locals can get into places where things need to be done, getting them done more quickly.”

Mr Abbott also says these issues need to have bi-partisan support.

Only biological control can eradicate buffel


Buffel on the bank of the Todd.


The Bradshaw Walk is one of The Centre’s small gems.

Starting at the Overland Telegraph Station, five minutes from the CBD, the slim track winds its way south, along a low range of hills at right.

On the opposite side, from elevated positions, walkers can catch glimpses of the Todd River.

The region’s iconic orange rocks dominate the landscape.

Between them glitter brooks, after the rain we’ve just enjoyed, narrow enough to step across. Tadpoles are celebrating the end of their underground wait.

It’s hard to tell how many of these small water courses there are as you may be crossing the same one several times – maybe five?

Bushes and trees range from mulgas, corkwoods and witchetties to majestic gums.

You’re close to town yet it feels miles away, a mini-version of the Larapinta Trail, an hour return, a hint of the adventures that make up The Centre’s powerful appeal.

This is where the good story ends.

The green that surrounds you is buffel, as far as the eye can see, a malicious plant predator that has overwhelmed much of The Centre, and is continuing its relentless advance.

Renowned Central Australian botanist Peter Latz, who has studied the introduced plant for decades, likens the magnitude of impact on the country of buffel with the megafauna’s extinction.

On the Bradshaw walk there is only one ground cover that is not buffel, interspersed with couch, which is almost as bad.

That patch measures about 30 square metres (pictured).

After decades of warnings and campaigning, and buffel having been declared a weed in South Australia, the NT Government has now taken the significant step of replacing one buffel committee with another.

It is charged with considering declaring buffel a weed but Chief Minister and Minister of the Environment Eva Lawler hastens to add that buffel grass remains highly valued by cattle producers.

Her department says: “All walking tracks are regularly assessed under a walking track assessment framework to ensure they comply the walking track rating against national standards.

“The Bradshaw walk was last assessed on 12 March 2024 to identify a schedule required works.”

The department does not disclose what has been “identified” during what Mr Latz (pictured) describes as the worst buffel season ever. 

The recent heavy rains created an ideal opportunity for spraying the weed which needs to occur during its vigorous growth phase. There is no indication that this is happening along the Bradshaw walk.

Says the department: In 2023 and to date, approximately 144 hours of ranger hours have been spent on slashing and spraying the Bradshaw Walk, Riverside Walk and various other sections of trails and walks that are located within the Alice Springs Telegraph Station footprint.”

That is about 20 ranger minutes a day.

“This includes engagement of Aboriginal Rangers through the Central Land Council, and the use of low security prisoners from the Alice Springs Corrections Facility. This commitment is ongoing.”

The department did not disclose how many of the 600 inmates of the local gaol were engaged in the work, or could be.

The commitment is not quantified but Mr Latz’s own work is a measure of the effort required.

He has a 10 hectare block: “I’ve spent the last four years trying to get rid of buffel. I only succeeded by hard work for half of my full-time work.

“Australia was dominated by browsers in the past. It didn’t involve grasses that were fire and grazing tolerant. Grasses were mostly under trees and water courses.

“The CSIRO said we’ll fix that, so they went to four or five different countries and brought back all the different strands of the buffel grass, a beautiful gene pool to find the best one to take over this country.

“All the pastoralists were very happy. We haven’t had any bad dust storms for 50 years. But are we better off?

“You just have to drive along Ilparpa Road. On the eastern side there’s been three or four buffel fires and there is hardly a tree to be seen,” says Mr Latz.

“But on the western side, which hasn’t been burned for 50 years, there’s lots of mulga scrub with ironwoods and other stuff in amongst them.

“The only way we’re going to do it is by bringing in biological control just as we had to bring in two diseases to deal with our rabbits.

“We haven’t got rid of the rabbit. But they are no longer a bigger problem.”

Widely reported discussion of biological control includes the importation of buffel eating bugs from Queensland where they are treated as a threat to the pastoral industry.

Mr Latz says conventional control was carried out around the Desert Park, but large area removal is impossible without biological control. 

“But the pastoralists will try to stop it happening.”

Secret police



The media releases from the police spin doctors are frequently short of salient information and phone calls from journalists to fill in the yawning gaps are not returned.

Law-and-order problems go right to the top, says Independent MLA for Araluen, Robyn Lambley, referring to the “backflipping on a monumental scale” about curfews by Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Chansey Paech.

Two examples from police reports this week, experienced by the Alice Springs News:

April 5 – Aggravated assault: “Between 3:20am and 3:45am a 27-year-old male was walking from Barrett Drive towards Tuncks Road. He was allegedly confronted by up to four males and assaulted, before the offenders stole items from his person.”

That area, part of the tourist precinct, is currently under curfew. If the assaulting males were under 18, as has frequently been the case for far too long, they were breaking the law by just being there.

And further, the politicians and police brass touting the curfew as being a success would be talking through their hats.

Has the victim, who fortunately was still able to make his way to the hospital, been asked by the cops for a description of the assailants? We don’t know. They certainly haven’t told us, which makes their request for information – mostly the purpose for media releases –less likely to yield anything useful.

April 4 – Liquor Licence Suspension: “Police have served a notice of suspension to a licensed premises on Gap Road in Alice Springs today. This decision follows a series of concerning incidents at the licensed premises over a number of days culminating in the requirement for Police to resolve four incidents on 3 April involving intoxicated individuals and behavioural offences stemming from excessive alcohol consumption.”

This is pretty bad stuff. No licence holder would be proud of it.

Yet police did not reveal which of the licensed premises they were talking about. There are four or five of them in Gap Road. From the police release it could have been any of them.

We made specific enquiries with the police media section but it did not provide the information.

We had to do a ring-around to find out it was the Gap View Hotel (pictured), which had to be closed on Thursday and yesterday, ordered by the police under Emergency Powers, according to the pub’s manager.

This withholding of information from the public is perpetrated by a police force 2.7 times bigger than the nation’s (per capita), that has just been supplemented by 60 officers from Darwin, now needing to be supplemented by a further 20 officers from South Australia, and is due to get an extra $200m over the next four years.

The absurd state of our law and order system doesn’t end there. Ms Lambley quotes Mr Paech as having said in Parliament:

“A youth curfew is madness. It will not have a positive impact on any young person. It is targeting the wrong people.” (September 17, 2019.)

“The Member for Araluen is playing a game at the moment about a youth curfew. Youth curfews do not work, let us put that to bed right now. They are punitive and send a negative message to our tourism industry.” (February 12, 2020.)

Now of course Mr Paech is toeing the new government and party line, rather than “demonising” curfews, as Ms Lambley puts it.

Treaty gets push at Alice conference



Monetary compensation and self-government are major issues in the NT Treaty Commission’s final report which was given broad attention during a two day Indigenous convention in Alice Springs this week.

Treaty Minister Chansey Paech, who addressed the convention on both days, made it clear he agreed with the recommendations in the June 2022 document.

“Right now we want to invigorate the Treaty process, engage in truth telling, revitalise local decision making,” he said.

The report states: “The clear message during consultations has been that there is a need for multiple treaties in the NT securing the sovereign status of each First Nation and facilitating their self-government.”

It also calls for local and Territory wide recognition and representation for First Nations, independent decision making at a local level and participation in the democratic process, economic independence and reparations.

Tripartite agreements between the First Nations, the NT Government and the Commonwealth Government should provide for Treaty reparations that are “grants-based, not loan-based.

“Reparations should, among other things, consist of acknowledgement and apology, guarantees against repetition, measures of restitution, measures of rehabilitation and monetary compensation,” according to the report.

Mr Paech said: “The result of the Voice Referendum last year showed us that Australia doesn’t know or understand our history.

“Don’t let people tell you that a Northern Territory Treaty is going to cede sovereignty. It is not. We will always be sovereign people and this is always going to be Aboriginal land,” Mr Paech said in his speech.

The “bush mob” overwhelmingly voted Yes.

“We don’t need the rest of the country’s permission to do what we did.

“I encourage each and everyone of you to contact the Office of Aboriginal Affairs on behalf of your community [for] grants to tell your stories.”

That process is clearly under way, judging by the pamphlets distributed at the conference:


• National Indigenous Australians Agency: Stolen Generations Redress Scheme, up to $75,000, healing assistance payment $7000.

• 3000 jobs over three years with the National Indigenous Australians Agency.


Truth, Healing and Reconciliation Program: Two grant rounds of  $300,000 each, individuals up to $20,000 each round.

First Circles: Supporting Aboriginal leaders, costs for members attending workshops and the cabinet meeting.

PHOTO ABC News, Felicity James: The opening of the Barunga Festival festival in July 1988 when the historical statement was presented to Prime Minister Bob Hawke, laying the foundation for the Treaty movement.

Did Pine Gap target missile that killed Zomi?


The Alice Springs News sent the following email to the Prime Minister at 6.15pm today. We will publish the response if and when it is provided.

Dear Mr Albanese,

Israel has acknowledged that its forces used a drone to fire missiles on the World Central Kitchen convoy in Gaza. Australian aid worker Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom was killed in that attack.

Would you please pass on this question to the American and the Australian heads of Pine Gap (pictured) near Alice Springs: “Did the joint facility provide or transmit to the Israeli military the target coordinates for this strike? Please provide a yes or no answer.”

We intend to publish the answer if and when we receive it.

Youth crime: Continuing the status quo isn’t an option.


Marion Scrymgour, MP Member for Lingiari, bush campaigning in December 2022.

Letter to the Editor

Alice Springs residents are all guests of the holders of its native title, confirmed by the Federal Court on May 23, 2000.

That applies not just to non-Aboriginal people but also to Aboriginal people whose country is somewhere else, and who are either visiting or who have made their lives in Alice for the long term.

Distinct and separate communities of Aboriginal people reside within their own town camp areas, under their own arrangements.

That is something quite separate from land rights but it reflects an accommodation which was reached long ago amongst Aboriginal people themselves.

The organisation which is tasked with facilitating services and harmony within the town camps is Tangentyere Council.

Last Wednesday Chief Minister Eva Lawler put in place a youth curfew in and around the CBD in Alice Springs.

This action took into account violent rioting and damage to property in the town area and then in one of the town camps on Tuesday.

There was a legitimate concern that further unrest would spill back into CBD area, and in any event criminal behaviour within the CBD at night has been a long term issue of concern.

It was deeply saddening that the rioting on Tuesday took place after one of the most solemn and dignified memorial processions Alice Springs has even seen.

Carrying small branches with leaves, a large group of predominantly but not exclusively women made its way to the location within the CBD of a vehicle rollover on the night of March 8 in which an 18 year old person was killed. The vehicle, which is alleged to have been stolen, is alleged to have been driven dangerously in the moments leading up to the accident. Healing will take a long time.

Also on Wednesday, the Central Land Council Executive issued a release.

Police have confirmed that things have been quiet in the CBD, our young people having realised that conditions have changed.

It was very disappointing to hear comments that because there was some serious offending in the suburbs on Thursday night, this meant that the curfew wasn’t working and that the problem had just been moved to a different location. 

The offending on Thursday night took place at two separate locations outside the curfew zone. Offenders broke into business premises in Ciccone and allegedly stole property, including weapons.

And there was yet another suburban home invasion where vulnerable victims were allegedly threatened at knifepoint to hand over keys to vehicles, with two vehicles then being allegedly stolen.

Vehicle thefts in the suburbs have been taking place repeatedly, going back long before the curfew was put in place, but usually following the same pattern, which is that after the vehicles are stolen they are at some point taken into the CBD at night and driven in hoon fashion there, often in the presence of other youths.

This was what happened on the night of October 15, 2020, when after being driven through a red light and hitting and killing an Alice Springs citizen riding his motorbike, the stolen car was then driven dangerously in and around the CBD for hours, even down the Todd Mall itself.

To suggest that the current curfew is moving offending away from the CBD to the suburbs is completely misconceived.

No-one has said or expected that a CBD curfew will curtail the spate of suburban home invasions, but it may at least make it less likely that stolen vehicles will be driven into the CBD.

The other comment which has been made is that some young people are out on the streets because they don’t have a safe home environment.

That is a problem which needs to be addressed by all relevant stakeholders, including Territory Families, and all levels of government will need to be working together with those stakeholders to make kids safe, including crisis safe spaces, longer term boarding accommodation, family responsibility agreements, and enhanced local youth programs.

But in what world does it make sense to say that because there are problems for a young person at home their safety should be secured by green-lighting their presence in the CBD in the early hours of the morning?

The Alice Springs curfew may be just a small step in a long journey, but it is a welcome acknowledgement by the Chief Minister that continuing the status quo isn’t an option.

Marion Scrymgour, MP Member for Lingiari.

Tighten youth bail: CLP



Bail laws covering young offenders should be tightened, according to local CLP Members urging the recalling of Parliament to deal with crime in Alice Springs.

“We have seen time and time again a lot of young people being allowed out on bail. Breach of bail is currently not an offence. There are a whole swathes of issues currently in the youth justice space, issues we would address,” said Braitling MLA Joshua Burgoyne who spoke to local and interstate media on Thursday, together with Namatjira MLA Bill Yan.

NEWS: What are the issues?

BURGOYNE: We have a lot of young people offending without any consequences. We see this time and time again. I am one of the few politicians that I know of who has actually spent time sitting in the youth justice law courts, to see what occurs. And while we can’t talk about what occurs in there I am seeing first hand what is occurring. It’s so important to explain to everyone right across the nation … the youth justice space here in the NT is broken. In 2019 we had huge changes coming in and since then we’ve had lawlessness continue to increase. We’ve seen an escalation in offending, an increase in stolen motor vehicles being driven dangerously around our town. This sort of behaviour needs a response, not for young people to simply be taken home.

Both Mr Yan and Mr Burgoyne also called for long term social solutions, programs that “divert young people from a life of crime, to ensure they have a bright future.

Several questions dealt with the absence or presence of PALIs – cops at bottle shops, essentially a taxpayer funded support for the liquor industry which itself has to make sure it don’t sell to people on the Banned Drinker’s Register. And if they do, should it not be their responsibility?

NEWS: Aren’t there better ways to manage alcohol sales than bottle shops? For example home deliveries, payment by credit card only. Whether the PALIs are there or not, crime is taking place.

Mr Yan said increase despite restrictions and decrease in the number of days take-away alcohol can be sold “we haven’t seen much of a decrease in criminal activity.

“We’ve seen a slight reduction in domestic violence and other offences but on the flipside we’ve seen an increase in property offences, whether they be commercial or domestic.

“There needs to be a suite of other things to make that effective change.

“The restrictions have really driven up secondary supplies, sly grogging,” said Mr Yan.

“The vulnerable people who are addicted to alcohol are now blowing their incomes on paying huge amounts for alcohol, to the detriment of their families. The entire Centrelink money is blown on grog.”

Meanwhile Donna Ah Chee, CEO, of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, commented in a media release about the NT Government’s recent measures.

Her 459 word statement did not mention the word “curfew”.

“The emergency situation is a required circuit breaker that will lead to an immediate improvement,” she said.

“It is sad that we have got to the point where an emergency situation is declared to protect public safety.

“The emergency situation is a required circuit breaker that will lead to an immediate improvement.

“This emergency situation has been immediately caused by a family dispute due to recent tragic deaths in Alice Springs,” said Ms Ah Chee.

“However, these deaths have occurred on a backdrop of the decision by the Police Minister to walk away from full coverage of the take-away outlets with PALIs which has again led to an influx of remote people to town.

“It has further been caused by many years of lack of investment by successive governments, especially out bush, on the broader social determinants of the unacceptable behaviours we have seen from young people and related adults over recent days.

“We need to ensure that if young people being taken home do not have a safe home to return to that family responsibility agreements are utilised coupled with a targeted family support service.

“Parents need to take responsibility.

“It is really unfortunate that a decision was made to not target the $40 million announced for education in Central Australia only on the Aboriginal children and young people who are at the centre of our town’s social concerns.

“Amongst other unmet needs, there is a vital need to ensure there is access to long term, secure care rehabilitation for young people who are only likely to respond to this type of service.

“Congress does not want to ever see full coverage of all take-away liquor outlets by PALIs or their equivalent removed in the foreseeable future.”

PHOTO AT TOP: And now there were four. After bottle shop cops were withdrawn by the government, today there were four instead of two at the Coles liquor outlet. ABOVE: Yan (at right in the photo) and Burgoyne speaking to media.


Cops at bottle shops: expensive bluff?

Cops at bottlos: how it works, and how it doesn’t

Bottle shop cops need to be brought into line: local chain

Bottle shop cops ‘security guards, paid for by the taxpayer’

Bottleshop cops deter grocery shoppers – claim

Are cops at bottle shops just bluffing?

‘Curfews don’t reduce crime’ claim as youths aged 12, 13 and 17 alleged of violent attack


Letter to the Editor

We are calling for the NT and Commonwealth governments to urgently rethink their approach to recent crime in Alice Springs. A two-week curfew for children will not improve community safety nor address the drivers of contact with the justice system.

Research clearly shows that curfews are ineffective in reducing crime, urging the government to take an evidence-based approach instead of reaching for punitive quick fixes.

A curfew won’t meaningfully affect what’s happening in the lives of children who are out at night in Alice Springs, but is more likely to put them in contact with police and pull them deeper into the criminal justice system with lifelong repercussions.

As NAAJA has pointed out, this response is particularly misguided if it is intended to prevent events like that outside the Todd Tavern this week, as that incident is understood to have occurred during the daytime and primarily involved adults.

We need policymakers and police to work with Aboriginal leaders and support community-led organisations working on the frontline, as the evidence shows this is what actually makes a difference.

If there is going to be federal involvement, it needs to be around resourcing of community-led responses – not punitive crackdowns and riot police.

The Justice Reform Initiative, a multi-partisan alliance supported by more than 120 of our most eminent Australians, has previously called on the NT Government, in partnership with the Federal Government, to establish a $300 million Breaking the Cycle Fund over four years to boost community-led organisations and projects that are successfully breaking the cycle of incarceration.

Dr Mindy Sotiri, Justice Reform Initiative

UPDATE 11:23am Friday

Police arrested three youths after an aggravated burglary in Alice Springs overnight in an area of the town not covered by the curfew.

Around 10:30pm, while the curfew was in place in the CBD, multiple offenders unlawfully entered a residence on Standley Crescent, Gillen, which is not covered by the curfew, armed with various weapons.

According to a police media release one of the offenders allegedly threatened one of the residents with a firearm before the group stole the keys to two vehicles and fled the scene.

No injuries were reported.

Members from Operation Grimmel, Crime and general duties deployed into the area and recovered both vehicles abandoned just south of the CBD, police report.

A short time later, police located three males, aged 12, 13 and 17 and arrested them in relation to the alleged offending. They all remain in custody pending further investigations.

In the media release Detective Acting Superintendent Michael Schumacher said: “This was a violent, confronting attack on a vulnerable resident.

“Detectives are working swiftly to apprehend remaining offenders, as well as to confirm what weapons were used and to get them out of our community.”


CLC calls on young people to respect cultural leadership


Letter to the Editor

The executive committee of the Central Land Council condemns Tuesday’s senseless and shameful behaviour. We call for the perpetrators to be held to account.

It is never OK to frighten residents and damage their property.

They have disrespected the native title holders of Mparntwe who have made it very clear how they expect people to behave.

Young people should not take matters into their own hands but follow cultural leadership and authority.

The peacemakers deserve everybody’s support.

We commend the Aboriginal leaders and the steps they have taken so far and who are trying to resolve the dispute peacefully.

Cultural processes are best dealt with on country, under the guidance of the elders and senior community leaders.

The CLC will support community leaders to help families resolve the underlying disputes.

CLC chair Matthew Palmer and Deputy chair Warren Williams.

PHOTO: From our archive, CLC council meeting, April 2023.

Curfew knee-jerk, short sighted, inflaming: NAAJA


Letter to the Editor

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) is concerned and dismayed by a move by the NT government to impose an “emergency” youth curfew in Alice Springs in an apparent bid to tackle crime.

The curfew, coupled with a decision to send dozens of additional police officers to the town, appears to have been made without community consultation.

The decision risks inflaming problems in the region.

If this knee-jerk policy is in response to reports of violence outside the Todd Tavern it is misguided and misplaced as the incident is understood to have occurred during the daytime and primarily involved adults.

While a tragic car accident claiming the life of a 19-year-old man several weeks ago allegedly involved adults, not minors.

A youth curfew will not address the very real challenges facing Alice Springs and surrounding communities – it’s nothing more than a short-sighted quick fix that demonises young people and risks inflaming tensions and escalating problems.

Further, there appears to have been no consultation, including with support services that most certainly will need to be called upon.

A curfew is a blunt instrument and does not seem to factor in that many young people have after-school sports and part-time jobs in the evening, while for others, home isn’t always the safest place.

So many questions remain unanswered, including what do police intend to do in the event a young person is not at home during the imposed curfew hours. Will these minors face charges as a result, further criminalising their behaviour?

NAAJA implores the NT Government to immediately back down from this draconian and potentially disastrous plan.

We ask the Chief Minister and the Police Minister to speak with us and speak with Aboriginal leaders in the community to explain what this curfew will mean.

Territorians are right to be concerned about crime and offending.

If we are going to come up with solutions that work for Aboriginal people in Alice Springs, then Aboriginal people need to be involved and working together with government to improve community safety.

The underlying drivers of crime and offending are complex, and over-policing is not the solution.

Instead, the Northern Territory urgently needs an evidence-based approach to stopping the cycle, such as meaningful investments in programs and initiatives that better support people, including children and teenagers, with employment, education, and health, including issues around the misuse of drugs or alcohol.

Principal Legal Officer Jared Sharp, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.

What they don’t tell you about grog and crime



Supporters of alcohol control, including Natasha Fyles, the Chief Minister until recently, are misleading the public by omission: They attribute the recent substantial reduction in some crimes to restrictions including the barring of take-away sales on Mondays, Tuesdays and what amounts to most of Wednesdays.

Ms Fyles, to justify her decision to bring in the measures, claimed that domestic violence has halved since they were introduced.

But the supporters of these drastic regulations don’t point out that the drop in crimes followed the catastrophic situation created by the end of Stronger Futures in mid 2022, sending crime through the roof. It brought Prime Minister Anthony Albanese into town.

And before that, when take-away trade had been permitted seven days a week, the level of crime was much the same as it is now. The anti grog activists are not giving that much airplay.

In fact there was less crime in some important categories, according to the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, the region’s most vocal activist for restrictions, apparently contradicting its own arguments.

The controls of the local alcohol trade, baffling to most visitors, is a concern for Tourism Central Australia. It is seeking a seven day bottle shop trading in the high tourist season, starting soon, and a return to five days in the crime high season – summer.

So far there has been no reply to TCA from the government.

A Congress document, with apparently limited circulation, obtained by the News, shows that between October 2015 and June 2022 – when bottle shops were open seven days a week – alcohol related domestic violence was less frequent than now, under the five days a week regime.

And there are far more property offences.

The Congress paper does not take into account the mayhem when Stronger Futures came to an end. It takes advantage – misleadingly – of the uncharacteristic peak.

Under “Key Findings” the paper quotes “significant reductions in domestic violence presentations at the Alice Springs Hospital Emergency Department (monthly DV presentations down 39%) … a considerable reduction in crime, including domestic and family violence (alcohol-related Domestic Violence Assaults are down by 43%; alcohol-related Assaults by 42%; and Property Offences by 15%).

“Comparing the 12 month period February 2023 to January 2024 (when the regulations were in place) with February 2022 to January 2023 (when they were not), there have been 406 fewer alcohol-related DV assaults; 521 fewer alcohol-related assaults; and 996 fewer property offences.”

It makes no comment about the current situation, in some respects more serious than before June 2022.

In 2022/23 Congress received $67m from funding bodies, plus $11m for capital projects, and spent $49.5m on employee costs.

We asked Congress and the government whether the organisation’s involvement and advocacy in alcohol issues had been examined by independent experts. We received no reply. 

The government appointed Liquor Commission, which has nine members, and is an independent statutory authority with extensive powers to regulate licensing of an expensive and frequently lethal substance, would not comment nor agree to provide information.

The quantity of alcohol consumed is not known with certainty. Says the Liquor Act: A registered wholesaler must lodge returns “about all sales of liquor made … during the quarter”.

There is a requirement for a licence “to sell liquor from a place outside the Territory for delivery to a person or place in the Territory”.

However, it does not appear that holders of an interstate retailer’s licence need to provide returns (they are not wholesalers) and so the quantity obtained by online orders is not known and that makes the total consumption figure worthless.

We asked the government but got no reply.

Meanwhile the convoluted system under which the grog business operates is causing confusion even with the big players.

Jessica Tancred, Media Manager, Corporate & Indigenous Affairs for Coles, responded to an enquiry from the News: I can confirm on the record that no Coles Liquor retailer – Liquorland, First Choice Liquor Market or Vintage Cellars – offers online delivery in the NT.

“In the NT, there is a banned drinker register (BDR) in place and therefore no one can purchase retail liquor without first having their ID processed through the BDR scanner, and this is not possible for online liquor delivery.”

She had not heard about the interstate retailer’s licence, which saves people waiting, queuing and answering questions about where they will be drinking their alcohol.

AT TOP: The long queue on Wednesday afternoons.

Buffel a weed? Yet another committee.


The Government has determined the next step to reduce the impact of buffel grass in Central Australia.

The Buffel Grass Technical Working Group (TWG) was formed in 2023 to address environmental concerns around buffel grass, which makes wildfires more intense and impacts biodiversity.

The TWG provided its findings, which recommend a Weed Advisory Committee be formed to build on the findings and develop a management plan, with the view of declaring buffel grass a weed.

The committee will include members with expertise in land management and stakeholders from the pastoral industry with diverse backgrounds, to ensure we better understand the economic and environmental perspectives as well as the practicalities of managing buffel grass in Central Australia.

The committee will develop a strategy that prioritises areas and methods where direct management of buffel grass will be most valuable and effective.

The strategy will take three months to complete and build on the work already completed by the TWG.

The strategy will be used to determine how declaring buffel grass as a weed can balance the protection of priority areas with the role buffel plays as fodder for the pastoral industry and as a soil stabiliser.

Kate Worden, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water Security.

Moving closer to that elusive miracle of life and light



I strain to see the light reflecting on the surface of another dam in my budgerigar quest. Nature photographers understand the importance of being early, to anticipate is definitely preferable to chasing the light.

Sitting quietly in the predawn gloom I recognise the distinctive flight sound of incoming Bourke parrots, arriving in pairs but it’s too dark to see these secretive birds. 

At sunrise the sound of Bronzewing pigeons is quickly verified as I count seven adults and a few more hanging back in the shadows. Specular highlights of the Bronzewings, in green and bronze flash in response to the rising sun and family groups of mulga parrots follow, iridescent green head plumage competing for my attention.

A pair of galahs, several diamond doves and a family of crested pigeons appear on the opposite shore but their privacy is short-lived as a multitude joins the throng.

A tentative flock of thirty or so cockatiels completes a couple of circuits calling to one another and checking for danger before joining the reassuring grey of the crested pigeons.

Within a few minutes all are vastly outnumbered by the first waves of budgerigars.

In a discrete curve of the bank where “dead finish”, Acacia tetragonyphylla shrubs meet the waterline, small flocks of zebra finches arrive in nervous groups, drink hurriedly and return to safety within the spiky shrubs, their thirst momentarily quenched. A lone dingo approaches cautiously and it’s barely 7am.

Amongst other budgerigar fantasies, I wanted to photograph a flock and render them as soft green brush strokes passing across the flank of a dune with the desert receding to infinity.

Budgies in woodland.

A line of mesas hovered on the horizon, completing the theoretical photograph. But how to capture the blur of budgerigars moving across the frame? Was it a matter of patience, of returning to the same site at the prescribed time for several days in a row?

Frustratingly, I had a few near misses on the first two days as group after group flew past, behind me or above me or too far away, always just outside the perfect frame. Later that night, sitting on my swag contemplating the stars I had an epiphany. On the third morning I changed my shirt.

I had long since discovered that being open, conspicuous and moving slowly around wildlife was often better than sneakiness; swathed in camouflage while attempting and failing to hide.

On this occasion I reasoned that transparency was not enough. Could I intrigue even a few flock leaders to come for a closer look at this strange human and bring their minions with them?

Perhaps a modicum of heat stroke was informing my epiphany but I decided that wearing a fluoro-blue shirt might well appeal to budgerigars with their tetrachromatic vision, a feature that provided increased sensitivity in the ultra violet range. (For the record, I had nothing fluoro green or yellow to hand).

To complete my seduction, I resurrected a spindly broken Acacia where it had been thrust aside during roadwork, planting a tall and substantial branch into the roadside some five metres from my vehicle.

Certainly I’d watched budgerigars moving through landscapes often enough to know that they undulate up and down but also side to side, often veering within easy reach of shrubby vegetation either as a place to pause and rest or crouch and evade fast flying falcons.

For reasons unclear, luck or persistence, or the bright blue shirt that seemed to attract a marginally higher fly past of budgerigars, I finally managed to obtain a satisfactory image.


A few days later the budgerigars performed a mesmerising ribbon dance at dusk which I failed to capture in the manner I’d settled on.

The flock of perhaps two thousand followed the contours of dunes and swales moving in and out of sun and deepening shade, flying slowly at heights of between one and five metres above ground level.

This continued for perhaps 10 minutes whereupon the budgerigar ribbon moved to the tallest dune. Here, catching only the reflected light of the setting sun, the flock “ribbon” became a more rounded “serpent” following the dune crest for several hundred metres, and then abruptly angled skyward gaining height rapidly and shape shifting as it went.

No longer elongated, the mysterious cloud breaks into several smaller parts, folding over, coalescing and dividing once more, ever higher and then as light levels plunge, they vanish.

I know without reviewing any frames that my photographic attempts are unremarkable but there’s little time for despair and there’s always tomorrow.

Consoling myself I follow the flock’s trajectory, passing by the old railway ruins of Engoordina. When I saw the budgerigars settling into trees up ahead, I found a place to camp so I could enjoy their company at a respectful distance.

Ripening grasslands dominated by native oat grass, trembled in the evening breeze between the widely spaced dunes. The aggregation had chosen as their roost, a broad swathe of mulga with outlying desert oaks on all sides.

Collectively I believe there were 5,000 to 10,000 birds present but it’s impossible to know. I lay on my swag in a state of rapture listening to the chitter-chatter of so many voices and still after 9pm by the light of the full moon they continued to arrive in small flocks, guided to this precise place in a very expansive landscape, by what instinct? Wanting to make this time last I battled a strong need to sleep for several hours.

Euphoric in their presence, I gladly accept that most of the imagined photographs crowding my brain can never be realised in three life times.

Even in apparent failure I enjoy every photographic quest. With each attempt I move closer and closer to that elusive miracle of life and light, until on rare occasions I can literally bathe in something glorious. For some-one who remembers all too clearly a teenager’s existence in Melbourne, perhaps otherworldly is closer to the truth.

The alarm awoke me at 5am and I made preparations for the potential exodus, reasoning this would take the super flock west to the nearest water and conveniently past and over a blood red dune, one that had certain Saharan qualities.

I leaned against the trunk of a desert oak and waited patiently for the moment. At sunrise they rose in clouds and volleys, departing every which way except west.

In admiration I watched the bunched and disparate flocks unify and climb, steadily gaining height before flying south and then boomerang style they turned south-west and disappeared from view.

I did not take a single frame but my euphoria was unabated. Recounting this story back in Alice Springs, I cursed myself for failing to record their nocturnal voices on my phone.

AT TOP: Flight of budgerigars.

Alice solar report: Now options must be chosen



The $12.5m Future Grid report released today is documenting options for a variety of solar power issues, but it doesn’t tell the government which ones to adopt.

The “Roadmap” makes it clear there needs to be a new round of studies to make those decisions, with only six years to go until the government mandate kicks in for 50% of electricity to come from renewables by 2030.

Project Director Lyndon Frearson explains the cautious approach: “If I came out and try to predict the future and say this is what I think is what 2030 is going to look like, any one of different people will say, well, we’ve spoken to someone else and they predicted a different future, to say you’re wrong.”

Mr Fearson says leaving options open means: “You can continue to observe the market, the different interests different investors have and you can make decisions as time goes on about what the preferred framework actually is.”

Key milestones along the way are identified in the report, such as for the rate of private installations: “It is a series of decisions over time,” he says.

The four main variables are: “One is a highly centralised solution, one really big battery and one really big solar farm, or it is highly decentralised, with lots of solar systems on people’s roofs, with lots of batteries.”

Another choice is for the existing electricity generation – the 10 gas powered piston engines installed at Brewer Estate for around $100m during the Giles Government – to always stay on, or have times when they are switched off.

“That’s the solutions space that we are exploring,” says Mr Frearson

What can we expect in Alice Springs?

“We don’t need to get to a point when the generators are switched off. However, to turn the generators off is technically viable, and it is economically viable.”

So what do we do?

“The report maps out the body of work that needs to occur immediately and over the next two years to five years, to be able to get to that point.

“The priority actions that are outlined are largely the same for all four scenarios.”

While the report, originally due out in October last year, does not give priority to any of four the options it makes it clear that some of them may become unviable unless these “immediate” actions are taken.

And that – in a nutshell – will mean getting all the ducks in a line for a “collaborative action” or at least be part of the conversation: “No one entity can implement it,” says Mr Frearson.

Included need to be the consumers, people investing in their own rooftop systems, private sector companies owning solar farms, retailers, the government owned Territory Generation and PowerWater with both their networks and their system control, the NT Utilities Commission, the Australia Energy Regulator and Market Operator, external technical advisers and experts, management and distribution of community photo voltaic (PV) including excess amounts in the grid.

This has been an issue under examination in Alice Springs for some years although many other locations are also dealing with it.

Judging by the two executive summaries and the media release today, no advice nor consideration is given for groups of private people who may wish to do their own thing, saying good-bye to the government grid, linking together in small groups their rooftop panels and batteries.

The next moves will require more money.

How much? Well, the optimisation result in table No 1 puts the range of net present costs (the sum of the discounted benefits of an option less the sum of its discounted costs, all discounted to the same base date) between $155.8m and $216.9m. No recommendation is given for one option or another.

Some recommendations are in play already: Bringing inverters up to the right standards; designing grid forming batteries; protection systems upgrades during disruptions; more interacting engagement with residential, commercial and industrial photo-voltaic (PV) systems users; management and distribution of PV with a proactive program of community engagement to deal with periods of very low demand; emergency responses; how to deal with excess amounts of renewables in the grid.

The report boasts that the “Alice Springs power system has the opportunity to be on the leading edge of this global transformation” to renewables.

Anthony Seipolt, of Cadency Consulting, has provided comment to the News in the past. We provided him with the two executives summaries (not the full report nor the the techno-economic modelling report). We asked: “How much in this report is new and is making a fresh contribution to the needed knowledge – here and in the world?”

Mr Seipolt said: “The report and supporting analysis seems to be very specifically focussed on The Alice. I don’t see it as breaking a lot of new ground, and neither should it.

“The report is focussed on the specific circumstances of The Alice and how to manage these as the energy sector undergoes an enormous transition.

“I couldn’t see what the assumptions around EV (electric vehicles) uptake were, and whether this included V2G (vehicles that can feed back into the grid).

“It is possible that EV uptake in The Alice would be lower due to the distances involved and the current lack of charging infrastructure.

“In other states, this is emerging as a critical area as it leads to increasing maximum demand, or being able to actively manage peaks far better.”

PHOTO at top: Workers on the report (from left): Chaitanya Meshram, Barbara Clifford, Janette Elliott, Jimmy Cocking, Paul Rodden, Mr Frearson and Parveen Sangha in front of a solar collector at the precinct of Desert Knowledge which oversaw the preparation of the report. Photos from the report.

Front line lawyer to fashion public safety policy for Greens



Asta Hill, with a decade of front line work both as a prosecutor and as a defence lawyer, is a leading figure in creating a policy for the Greens to deal with the noxious crime rate in Alice Springs.

Another local woman, Cherisse Buzzacott, is thinking about launching herself into the political arena, also with crime as the main concern, viewing it from the vantage point of health management. 

She says while she is still deciding on what this future looks like, she is adamant that not being tied into any previous policies provides vital opportunities in the current political environment.

Both women got hints about how to be a pollie at a workshop last week offered by Women for Election.

Ms Hill (pictured above, holding baby, with other workshop members), who has been preselected by the Greens for Braitling, says despite being a minor party they will “absolutely” have an influence after the NT elections in August.

“There is a real possibility we will have a minority government and that the Greens, along with Independents, will have a considerable amount of power.

“I think we are at a real crossroads in Territory politics,” says the Alice-born lawyer who worked nearly 10 years in the judicial system in town. Before that she was engaged in law interstate and overseas. 

Is she likely to work together with Independent Robyn Lambley in Araluen?

“I can’t really speak to any relationship we have with Robyn Lambley on policy at this stage. I’m not even aware of her police platform at this stage.”

Ms Hill says she and volunteers have been door knocking for six months: “Prime issues are community safety, climate and the cost of living, which ties to workforce issues as well.” 

NEWS: How would community safety issues be tackled?

HILL: That’s an enormous issue and I’m planning to launch our policy on justice and community safety in the coming months. But unlike the incumbent [the CLP’s Joshua Burgoyne] I have worked as a lawyer in Mbantua for nearly 10 years, and I have seen the justice system and engaged with it from almost every angle. [I was standing up] for individual clients who were being failed, deleteriously impacted by a broken system. What we are developing is a response to crime and a plan for community safety which is grounded in evidence and which provides a solution to problems that are really a result of decades of policy failures on the part of the major parties.

NEWS: Were you working as a prosecutor as well as a defence lawyer?

HILL: I worked as a prosecutor with the DPP and then I worked for NT Legal Aid as a civil lawyer with a human rights focus.

Ms Hill, mother of two, says the party membership has grown “astronomically” in the last year, more than doubling, to nearly 300 members across the NT. More than 150 members voted in her preselection.

NEWS: What are the five most important issues in Alice Springs?

HILL: I’ll be happy to talk to you guys about my candidacy but that would have to be on another occasion.

She says Women for Election had given her a “strict brief” that our interview would be only about the workshop. This is news to the News.

Cherisse Buzzacott (at right) will stand “probably” as an Independent and isn’t quite sure yet whether in a Territory or Federal seat, but she’s adamant that “not being tied into any previous policies” provides vital opportunities in the current political environment.

“You have leeway to make decisions not only along the values you have but also the values that the community and the people who voted you in have,” says the health professional and member of a prominent Indigenous family.

A workshop in Alice Springs last week by Women for Election has given her “the foundation to set up what questions to ask, working in the structures, to navigate this system, I’ve never been exposed to that before.

“Everything is new. It can be quite scary. That’s why a lot of people don’t go into government although they want to change things.”

NEWS: What are the most important issues in Alice Springs?

BUZZACOTT: There is an obvious separation amongst the community. There are issues with crime and around youth. For me, being a First Nations person, there seems to be a divide, an us-and -them.

NEWS: How can you fix that?

BUZZACOTT: Trough understanding, a bit of truth telling of how we got to this place. Knowing the history of the last 15 to 20 years. You could have predicted that this would happen. There were no real strategies, no real support for the community. With the growth of the town things are just kind of collapsing. We don’t have the structures, the resources, we don’t have the jobs.

NEWS: What are the town’s other problems?

BUZZACOTT: I’d rather talk about positive stuff, what our strengths are. As a First Nations person I see the connectivity of the community, the local people so willing to give, demonstrate the culture and the language, share with people. You don’t get that in a lot of places. We’re lucky. It’s a very unique place. We’ve got a lot of people who’ve come to Alice Springs, and not just Aboriginal mob but we’ve got a big multi-cultural community. They’re always willing to share. There’s constantly events, festivals and celebrations, different religions, different cultures. It’s something I didn’t see growing up but I see it now, my children get to experience that. There is this an open mind to other things.

NEWS: Given that, why do we still have the problems you mentioned earlier?

BUZZACOTT: There are problems that have been laid here in the foundation, they’re kind of long standing, stuff that’s been happening for a while and building up. Things that are disempowering.

NEWS: Who needs to fix it?

BUZZACOTT: It has to be everybody. All together. But we can’t do that without actually talking to the people who’re actually having the issues. The power’s been taken away from them.

NEWS: What do you think the solutions are?

BUZZACOTT: [Doing away with] the top-down government constantly making policies, putting in strategies that they think might work.

NEWS: Should transparency of our political system be improved?

BUZZACOTT: There are some things maybe the general public shouldn’t have access to, such as working in health or the police force, and that’s just the way things are run. But I think it gets to a point where government needs to be more transparent. People need to know what exactly is being out on the table. What kind of figures, what are the objectives, what are the outcomes. What’s actually been invested. Big amount of dollars are coming in, we need to actually see where it is going, what are the long term effects. We need feedback where it is going in two years’ time, what has been promised. We need to see what the results are. Too much of transparency falls down with not giving the community what the results are.

NEWS: What was the most profound experience that made you decide to become a politician?

BUZZACOTT: It’s been a journey, being involved in health, seeing injustice in health, trying to advocate government meeting with politicians. You get promises and then things don’t happen. Participating in the Women for Election workshop, that was kind of the turning point for me. We can actually change things if we are actually inside. Get in and see if we can make a difference. You a hearing from women who’ve done it. It’s possible.

Meanwhile youth “live in facilities to ensure that court sentences and orders are enforced” will be built in Alice Springs (in Gap Road), Darwin, Tennant Creek and Katherine, according to Chief Minister Eva Lawler.

They will also be providing “training and education services to help young people get their lives back on track and get into the workforce,” says a media release.

“The Department of Education will provide vocational education and other education services to break the cycle of re-offending.

“The Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities will shortly launch a recruitment campaign for a youth justice and outreach workers along with teachers and registered training officers.

“The Territory Labor Government is also progressing the Youth Justice Review, today announcing an independent panel and terms of reference.

“Western Australian commissioner for Victims of Crime Kati Kraszlan will chair the three-member Independent Review Panel, which will be supported by a team of senior government officials.”

A flash flood of budgerigars


Budgerigars rising from waterhole.


The first of three budgerigar stories in the Alice Springs News prompted a reader to  recall “the sheer volume of noise generated by that many wings.”

I admit it’s a unique and difficult sound to describe. I’ve used the term feather storm to convey the contradictory mood of a soft roar, perhaps the tonality of driving rain in reverse or surf crashing on rocks filtered by distance but words can’t accurately describe it. Suffice to say, it’s my aim not to generate a feather storm in the first place because such intimacy is likely to cause unnecessary stress for the flock.

I do recall an unexpected 20 seconds or so, more a feather torrent than a storm, forever etched in my memory. I was driving sedately down a dirt track one late afternoon searching for a waterhole when I suddenly encountered a huge budgerigar murmuration performing one of their late afternoon flock bonding rituals.

Turning a bend, I was confronted by a serpentine river of green filling the road ahead. With the energy of a flash flood, the flock flowed along the road canal just above ground level. Fortunately the windows were shut and I gasped as the leading edge of the torrent opened up and swallowed the vehicle.

Massed budgerigars.

I immediately turned off the engine and the vehicle rolled down the dirt track, engulfed in a whispering cloak of green. The numbers created a dense wall on all sides and I strained to see through the flickering chinks of light as the emerald energy became a swirling kaleidoscope, myriad hues of green, black and yellow.

Time slowed and although the vehicle had stopped, I rode in a magical chariot, carried forward by the impetus of the flock sweeping past. The spell broke suddenly and the budgerigars were gone.

I can confirm that not a single budgerigar was harmed by this interaction. Recovering from this encounter, I was startled by another flock of five hundred rising up to join their friends and managed to take an image through the still closed and grubby side window. I call it budgerigar rain.

For the photographer it’s imperative to keep well back from waterholes where wildlife, ever mindful of predators, are trying to drink.

Accordingly, I decided to buy a remote trigger for my camera, and thus equipped, located a small waterhole where budgerigars were focussed. Unfortunately the not very high end Bluetooth device fell short of its suggested range. Frustrated, I returned to town and commissioned my electronics guru to chop up a cable release and connect 25 metres of cable between the camera and activation button.

The cable reel worked perfectly and I rushed back to the ideal waterhole where I would float my cleverly camouflaged camera to capture the descending flight of budgerigars coming to drink.

Predictably the birds had moved on and I commenced the frustrating process of locating their current drinking places with some success a few days later. Unfortunately the waterhole was huge and the budgerigars were spread out in various points around its edge. There was little point deploying my twin catamaran raft incorporating two plastic decoy ducks on this occasion.

Returning through Apatula (Finke) I follow the track that takes its name from the Ghan railway line tracing the complex interzone between Lhere Pirnte (Finke River) and its floodouts to the west and Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) to the east.

During the second year of a La Niña event I spent several days trying to photograph flocks of budgerigars revelling in the bounty of seeding grasses, their incursion into the desert country aided by recent rain that had filled ephemeral claypans and outlying dams of the neighbouring Finke cattle runs.

At dusk and next morning I watched the direction taken by numerous small flocks numbering up to 500 and studied the maps in an effort to identify a viable water point.

There was a dam from a bygone era that seemed like a good candidate but there was no track of any description leading to it. The sun was already high and the temperature uncomfortable for my 38 degree core but still I decided to use the low yield midday hours to do a recce.

I planned to walk the eight km and check it out but underestimated how long this would take, given wide detours to check on promising clumps of verdant green or climb yet another high mesa to scout the surrounds.

Budgerigars, dunes and mesas of Munga Thirri (Simpson Desert).

Already muscle soreness in my calves was tinged with a heaviness that indicated a build-up of lactic acid but maybe the next stony plateau or the next would reveal the elusive dam. The presence of high circling hobby falcons was a strong indicator that prey were present in numbers but still there was no water.

In several more hours, walking like this without shade and economising on water, I’d likely feel the first stomach cramps and dull ache as blood supply, beginning with the non-essential organs, begins to shut down.

At this point I’d seek a shady tree, drink water and rehydrate because ignoring stomach discomfort will lead to head issues: possibly confusion and mistakes, walking in circles and given enough time, potentially hallucinations. Fast forward a couple of days to the point of organ failure and death, or a kidney transplant and the life of an invalid if by some miracle I’m rescued.

Numerous tracks criss-crossing the sandy country are a reminder that camels, the harbingers of change, are becoming a real consideration for bushwalkers across much of the arid zone. Further west in the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts the browse lines are evident where camels have stretched to graze the foliage of trees and quandongs are fast vanishing from the landscape.

I feel privileged to have seen this desert wonderland before the onslaught of buffel grass, camels and wildfires of growing intensity. Of course, for all its magnificence, the ravaged biodiversity that I first encountered as a young man had already lost so much of its richness and vigour during the initial waves of colonisation and the introduction of rabbits, cats, foxes and grazing livestock.

Diamond doves, small flocks and family groups moving among the tussocks in characteristic short bursts of flight, are music to my ears. A startled button quail joins the ensemble and I take care not to step on a hidden clutch of eggs.

The camels, led by an emotionally unstable blubbering and salivating bull, were the last straw. Fortunately I saw them first and began a long and unplanned detour, circling around and detouring again when I came across a camel pad that was clearly a well-used highway.

The presence of useful trees that a nervous photographer might realistically climb to safety were limited and I was forced to accept the dam had been reabsorbed by time and regrowth.

Sensibly I returned to the vehicle by a more direct route, guzzled a litre of water laced with electrolytes and lay down in the shade provided by its reflective white skin.

NEXT: A fluoro-blue shirt worked better than camouflage in Mike’s encounter with his feathered friends.

Alice romance and achievement story aims for Hollywood


1976 (from left): Former St Francis House boys Desmond Price, John Moriarty, Charles Perkins, Vincent Copley, Isabel Smith, Father Percy Smith, Les Nayda, Gordon Briscoe.


Old letters that reveal a romance, made possible by the threat of a 1940s Japanese attack, have provided the inspiration for a movie script that may take Alice Springs to the big screen.

Sample movie poster.

Finding Miss Almond is a story about the life of Isabel Almond, my grandmother, who in her late twenties was living in Adelaide in 1941 when she was drawn to Alice Springs for the Christmas holidays to visit her boyfriend who had joined the army.

Alice Springs had become a major staging camp for the army as the Japanese threat intensified in the Pacific during the second world war culminating in the bombing of Darwin in 1942 by 188 planes. 

I pieced the story together, looking closely at my family history since my father, John P McD Smith, passed away suddenly in November 2022.

John had been a regular contributor to the Alice Springs News and shared many stories about Aboriginal people helped by his father, Percy Smith, who was the first resident Anglican priest in Alice Springs from 1933.

Sharing the story of Isabel and Percy Smith was very important to my late father, which began when he and my grandmother gave evidence to the national inquiry into the Stolen Generation in 1996, set-up by the Keating Government.  

Since my father passed away I have been immersed in all of the old photos and documents and talking to the Aboriginal families. I found the submission notes for the national inquiry. Then I found my grandparents’ love letters folded neatly between the pages of one of Isabel’s prayer books, along with a photo of Percy. 

Then by surprise someone sent me the transcript of a 1996 interview with Isabel by a lady called Annette Roberts as part of her research for her biography of Sister Eileen Heath (A Life with the Lid Off) who managed St Mary’s Mission, that I never knew about.

Her descriptions of Alice Springs were so vivid. I knew that this was something special that had been preserved for me to share.

Outside the old Church of the Ascension in Bath Street in 1944 were some of the first group of boys who went to Adelaide. Bill Espie, John Palmer (back), Noel Hampton, Charles Perkins, Malcolm Cooper (Front), Mrs Isabel Smith, Father Percy Smith.

I kept trying to put this all aside and move on, but the 2023 national debate about the voice referendum kept the issues front of mind, as the multi-generational impact of Isabel and Percy’s love and care was part of the daily news for months with Rachel Perkins, daughter of Charlie, leading the YES campaign.

So, I started to write and write. A book then evolved into a screenplay before a chance connection with a big time film director, Mark Webber.

The movie starts with Australia grappled by the fear of war in the early 1940s as Isabel travels on the train into the unknown Central Australia in the height of summer. 

There she meets the local priest who was also a part time army chaplain supporting the new community of soldiers. Isabel and Percy married in 1943 in Alice Springs at the old Church of the Ascension, after an intense and whirlwind romance that changed her life.

She left everything behind in Adelaide, friends, ageing parents, a wartime job in a munitions factory and a career as a music teacher. A bold move. 

From there she was thrust into the daily work of caring for children at St John’s Hostel for bush children, which Percy had set up in 1941 in Bath Street.

She fell in love with the Aboriginal children and became a trusted friend to their mothers.

In the 1996 interview for the Eileen Heath book Isabel talked emotionally about the day when she first met Charlie Perkins and his younger brother Ernie and their mother Hetti, when she asked Father Smith if the boys could come and live at the hostel.

Charlie and five other boys, eventually came with her to Adelaide in 1945, with the permission and support of their mothers, for an opportunity in the big city at what was known as St Francis House in an old stone Victorian mansion with a square castle like turreted tower by the sea near Port Adelaide.

Such was the success of the home in its early years that more boys soon followed from Alice Springs and other parts of the country. The social experiment began to attract attention.

I hope this story wlll bring people together and showcase the beautiful Centralian landscapes to the world. 

Honeymoon Gap, where Isabel and Percy camped for a few days after they married, the Old Telegraph Station as the site of The Bungalow, and the open desert views from The Ghan as the train gets closer to Heavitree Gap, would all be potential filming locations.

It is an opportunity to introduce people to the Centre, through a nostalgic 1940s period lense and then trace Isabel’s life with the Aboriginal boys she cared for and what they went on to achieve to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.

Among the St John’s Hostel and then the St Francis House group were trailblazers such as John Moriarty, the first Indigenous Socceroo who is known for his Qantas Aboriginal Flying Art series, historian and academic Gordon Briscoe who was the first Indigenous person to stand for Parliament and to achieve a PhD, civil rights activist and Commonwealth Department Secretary Charles Perkins and Wally McArthur who played rugby in England after he missed out on Olympic selection for running, on racist grounds.

Other key figures include Joe Croft who lived at The Bungalow in the 1930s after being removed from his mother. He was helped by Percy Smith to get to a top private school before he became the first Indigenous person to be accepted into an Australian university.

Bill Espie who became a Chief Inspector in the NSW Police Force after being one of the first six boys to go to Adelaide with Isabel and Percy in 1945.

Woodford, Tilmouth, Butler, Palmer, Cooper, Bray, Kunoth, Hampton, Nayda are all known Alice Springs names that are part of this story.

The film is being coordinated by Live Heart Productions with the support of Mr Webber, Los Angeles and Adelaide based film director and actor who has had a remarkable record of success with his films at major international film festivals including Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival held each year in Utah. Mr Webber said from Los Angeles where he is finishing his latest film Figments of Freedom: “There is an enormous appetite for authentic stories told from the heart. 

Father Smith celebrates 50 years of ordination 1926-1976. (From left) Charles Perkins, Mrs Isabel Smith, Father Percy Smith, Bill Espie, John Palmer, David Woodford.

“The international market is desperate for genuine content as Hollywood resets after a tumultuous 2023 defined by strikes and conflict as actors have rallied to protect themselves from the AI threat. Acting is a pure art that needs to be preserved and protected.

“I am honoured to be working alongside Mark to bring his family’s incredible story to the big screen.

“Finding Miss Almond has all of the ingredients to be a great film, love, conflict, passion, war. I want to help deliver Mark’s dream project and create opportunities for local acting talent to shine.”

Without Mr Webber’s help the project would not be possible. 

He has a track record of taking unique stories from concept to screen success. 

With his guidance, experience and collaborative approach I want to share Isabel’s journey to shine a light on the stories of the people she knew and young people she loved and cared for and the lifelong bond they shared. Her story is also their story.

Isabel and Percy believed in the children, at a time when few other people did.

They helped them to find acceptance, in a world where they thought acceptance would never be possible.

“It is important for people to understand their past. The past is always influencing the present. We cannot change that. All we can do is try to better understand it.”

Mr Smith is determined to see the project through to the end and said a wise person recently told him, “Never stop believing in the power of storytelling to amplify marginalised voices.”

[Mr Smith is the writer of the script for the film, researcher and provided all the primary sources of information.]

Camping with ancestors on the bicycle track



Running along the track next to the Todd riverbed I detour around a family squatting on the path.

No-one goes anywhere. There’s an amicable silence. They just sit.

It’s early, and the heat hovered overnight. Now the day meets the sun and the morning’s afire.

I sweat, they sit.

There appear to be four generations there, the adults simply sitting, the eight-year old and the ten-year old taking turns to dandle and delight in the baby.

Great-grandmother sits at a small remove. She’s a small figure, compact, legs tucked beneath her. Sitting, she gazes north.

No-one addresses her. No-one speaks. I widen my detour around the group and run on.

Upon my return, the group remains where I found them. I’m ready for a rest. I stop and ask: “Do you mind if I sit down here with you?”

Grandpa says, Okay.

I choose a spot close to the old lady and sit and drip.

The old lady’s voice crackles softly. Old people camp here. Old time.

The penny has dropped. The old one wanted to be with ancestors, to remember them, to “camp here” and look out toward her sacred places. The family must have brought her here. I wonder which places are sacred. Silly question: Better, which places are not sacred?

Is the old lady thinking Wild Dog Dreaming, or Yeperenye (caterpillar) Dreaming? Is she simply taking in the scene, the empty river bed, the trees and the grasses, the birds and the bugs, the clouds and the smells (how gorgeous is the early morning gumtree scent along the Todd!), the wind, the heat, the sun, the busy life in the not-dead dry river?

Before my run, I recited my prayers, including psalm 148. Our curricula are similar: Praise Him sun and moon, and shining stars, highest heavens and the waters above the heavens – fixed for all time, Law which does not change – sea monsters, all the deep seas, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy winds, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds … youths and maidens, old and young …

All of creation is the old one’s business. All bespeaks a creator. All, all sacred in her garden, her Eden.

A little later, driving along the road bordering the Todd, I pull up short. There’s a shape on the road. The shape is black and has mass.

It’s a person, a person lying on the road a metre or two in front of a vehicle coming in the opposite direction. The vehicle has stopped.

The lying person is a woman, plump, not old, lying belly up. A second figure enters the scene, an adult male, tall, thin-limbed. The man runs to the woman, seizes her arms and pulls her backwards, away from the traffic.

Not so fast: The woman resists. She struggles towards her previous position. The man means business. He takes a fresh grip of those wrists, hoists the upper torso and heaves her back to the edge, where he arrests her return.

Normal traffic resumes in Mparntwe (Alice Springs).

At work in the clinic I meet a man who has the glorious tight curls that you see on some elderly Aboriginal people. In his case, the natural silver has a pinkish tinge. The man pushes a walker. He’s tall, well made, but bent now. He looks cast down.

I compliment him on his hair.

Gotta do something to brighten up.

We sit down and I ask how I can help.

Tablets, ran out.

We talk. I ask him about his life.

Got my own place here, own house. Two bedrooms. My son, he come and he camp with me, him and his wife, two little kiddies. They stay with me.

The man looks sorrowful.

Is it good, having family with you?

I love my son, the kiddies. But they noisy, they everywhere, all them, all four. They been with me six years.

They on list for they own house, but I don’t think they go. I do the washing, do most of cleaning, why they want to leave?

I make a diagnosis: sadness. There isn’t a tablet for sadness born of love.

We talk about the man’s lifetime, all spent here in Mparntwe. I hear about his childhood, the mission school, the church. He tells me about his parents, his churchgoing mother.

I wonder: Do you think it might help if you talked with a minister at the church? Go and have a yarn when you feel down?

Maybe. Might be I do that.

You know my mother, she say to me one day, I know where is the Garden of Eden.

I say, Mum, that’s a place in a story.

She say, I know it! I know where!

I say, Mum, where is it?

Mother says, that Garden of Eden, it here!

I think I get Mum’s point.

The old man resumes, smiling now. Mother, she was right. This here, this the Garden of Eden.


Following feathered dancers into the desert



From Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) to Kiwirrkurra in the Tanami, I’ve followed budgerigar murmurations – those magnificent formations in the sky created by thousands of birds –over many years. This obsession is mostly confined to summer months when flocks are boosted by fledglings especially during the high rainfall years.

The only form of luck I know is persistent searching, planning and imagining. Long meditative drives to check on the status of water in dams or claypans. Follow the falcons and think like a flock of budgerigars. Search out those plains of native oat grass and a safe place to drink, a daily requirement for these granivorous birds.

Hopeful stake outs in the perfect location if only the budgerigars comply in the right light, from the right direction, in the right numbers. Camping overnight in the mulga with a chirruping multitude, I fight the urge to sleep, and dream of success in the morning.

For weeks that quintessential image beckons like a mirage, just out of reach. Hot sleepless nights, hypnotic days. I resist the urge to record on video the balletic grace of the flock, a much easier path than trying to capture the perfect still frame.

Acrobatic budgerigars react to the threat of a black falcon.

Finally from the vantage of a dune crest I photograph a wide ribbon of budgerigars moving slowly over spinifex hummocks, the bright green birds contrasting sharply with a background pattern of shadows.

The feathered dance resembles a phalanx of stars and I return from the edge of madness, sunburnt, exhausted and smiling. And plan my next desert holiday. Few photographic moments can compare with the euphoria I feel in the presence of a budgerigar host.

One early morning in late September I followed flocks on their way to drink at a dam where I sat for a while trying to analyse the best photographic options. By 0730 there were already thousands of birds roosting in nearby trees and coming to drink in turbulent waves.

For the next hour or two, the numbers of budgerigars rose steadily as did the predators, black falcons an ever present threat at the water’s edge. Rashly I estimated the number of budgerigars to be upwards of 100,000 birds occupying every tree for several hectares and filling the sky much of the time in a complex layering of flocks.

I’m reasonably familiar with flocks of 1,000-5,000 but greater numbers are beyond my comprehension so there could have been many more on the day but surely no less.

Avian predators watch from the tree tops, resting after each failed attempt, recovering and waiting for a fresh opportunity. Hobby falcons seem to rule the outer approaches and black falcons command the water where they use the banks of the dam to conceal a low level attack, flying fast and hopefully seizing their chance in the panicked retreat and melee of drinking budgerigars.

Budgerigars resting in the mulga.

A pair of black falcons appear to be working cooperatively; one bird driving flocks of budgerigars from the water’s edge and towards the second falcon in the act of breasting the earth embankment that encircles the dam. Contemplating piracy, a couple of fork-tailed kites and a hopeful goshawk watch each manoeuvre intently, hoping to snatch up any young budgerigar felled and injured but not successfully clenched in falcon talons.

Sitting well back from the water’s edge and remaining motionless I allow myself a smile as young birds attempt to land on my shoulders. The predominant green plumage of the budgerigar constellation changes colour across three zones.

Top and bottom, the water and the sky reflect cyan and this dulls the plumage of the birds while pushing forward the true colour and vibrance of those budgerigars flying through the centre of frame where yellows are enhanced. The final image needs only a shallow veil of sharpness to cope with the blizzard of detail. Closer inspection will reveal that every leaf on the two trees is in fact a roosting budgerigar.

NEXT: For the photographer it’s imperative to keep well back from waterholes where wildlife, ever mindful of predators, are trying to drink.

AT TOP: Immense flocks arriving in the early morning to drink at a turkey’s nest dam. How many birds? Look very hard.

Mansions for bush communities, courtesy governments?



Over the next 10 years 2700 mansions, at a cost to the taxpayer of $1.5m each, will be spread across Aboriginal communities in the NT outback.

At least that’s if you figure it out from the numbers touted by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Chief Minister Eva Lawler this week: $4 billion over a decade with “up to 270 homes built each year, with the goal of halving overcrowding [and] to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” as Ms Lawler puts it in a media statement. 

It simple: $4,000,000,000 divided by 2700 houses equals $1,481,481 per house.

As it is commonly assumed that housing money meant of Indigenous people largely finishes up in white pockets and administration, we have asked Mr Albanese and Ms Lawler for a break-up of what the $4 billion will be spent on.

We also asked: Are there requirements for prospective tenants to provide support during construction such as free labour? Will rent be charged and if so, how much?

No answers yet. (See UPDATE below.)

The NT Government has a problem being up front about money it is spending on bush housing.

Our investigation last October of a $30m contract yielded incomplete responses.

Independent Member for Araluen Robyn Lambley is now asking questions in Parliament about this. Such Parliamentary questions must be answered within a month.

Using information from, a national firm linking up tradies and businesses, a government style three-bedroom home can be built for $195,000. If the job is out bush let’s add another 10% for transport. That makes it $214,500 per house.

That is one seventh of the amount in this week’s announcement.

The land for Aboriginal housing, of course, doesn’t need to be bought: It belongs to them, mostly acquired under land rights.

Perth based Murray River North is a manufacturer of houses on Alice Springs airport land for some 40 years. The houses are built there and road freighted in sections to their destinations.

The one pictured at Top is a three bed duplex in Docker River.

We asked the company about prices for their homes and the cost of transport but – surprise, surprise – hard facts are hard to come by.

We received this statement: “The challenge is twofold.  Firstly, the company is bound by commercial confidentiality to not disclose the value of contracts signed with the government to the level of detail you are chasing.”

That level of detail was asking for the costs of a three bedroom home and the per-kilometre cost for transport.

“And,” the statement continued, “practically, even if they were free to disclose, it would be highly misleading because all the homes are delivered on a tender package basis – not house by house.

“This means the figures could vary wildly and any figure we provided you would be grossly inaccurate.

“In terms of transport costs, again, this is also a tender-by-tender matter and depends on such a wide range of factors there isn’t a cost per kilometre I can provide that is accurate.”

UPDATE 2pm March 14:

A Federal Government spokesperson provided this comment: “As Territorians understand, you can’t just grab an online quote from a national website and expect costs to be anything like the same in a remote area.

“The average cost of delivering a 3 bed house in remote NT communities is $817,000.

“This includes not just the build, but infrastructure such as connections to services.

“We will be building and maintaining homes as efficiently as possible and making local jobs a priority.”

UPDATE March 15

The Tennant Creek based consultancy Wilya Janta Housing Collaboration is seeking a slice of the $4b action.

CEO Simon Quilty said: “While commendable, this funding will only make a difference if governments are genuinely committed to engaging with community and working on innovative solutions to housing design and evaluation.

“Building houses is one thing, building trust and community is another.”

Chair of Wilya Janta Jimmy Frank Jupurrurla says it is crucial that these new houses are well-equipped to withstand extremely hot weather caused by climate change.

“Governments focus too much on cost efficiency and doing things quickly, but in the long run, these houses are making our people sick, our well-being is forgotten. The new houses being built today are not designed for our culture or our climate.

“Us Wumpurrarni people really want to work with government.”



13-year-old girl missing


UPDATE March 14, 7.50am: Police report Sanatanya has been found safe and well.

Police are holding concerns for a missing person, 13-year-old Alice Springs girl Sanatanya Namatjira (pictured).

She has not been seen since she left her Bath Street home around noon on Thursday,  March 7, when she planned to walk to the 24-Hour Store on Gap Road.

Sanatanya is Aboriginal, 160cm tall, weighing 50 to 55 kg with a skinny build and black hair with a dyed yellow streak.

She was last seen wearing a black t-shirt, black pants with an army pattern and black thongs.

Police can be contacted on 131 444, quoting NTP2400025524.

Tourism, cattle tycoons, here’s your chance



The best way towards Closing the Gap is trading oneself out of misery. Start a business. Get into the fast lane.

That, in a nutshell, is the view of Bobby Abbott and partner Mary Tupou (at right). They are already on their way, as the managers of the Ormiston Gorge caravan park and coffee shop, and have recently acquired a business in Alice Springs.

But Mr Abbott says despite the assets his clan can put on the table, via their Taarna Enterprises Aboriginal Corporation, investors are not beating a path to their door: Approaches to two major corporations, one in tourism and one in cattle, have yet to be replied to.

Mr Abbott, member of a prominent Western Arrernte family, and Ms Tupou say the essential by-product of launching into enterprises is creating a self-reliant future for young Aboriginal people.

Pastoralism is a job about which many Indigenous people speak with pride: They or their ancestors, in less than a generation, became some of the world’s best ringers.

So what does the corporation have to offer?

A freehold location, almost 100 hectares, in the magnificent West MacDonnell Ranges national park, a few hundred metres south of the sealed road to Glen Helen resort, which is 20 km to the west. Ormiston Gorge is some 20 km to the north.

A hill, earmarked for a six star hotel (modesty isn’t in Mr Abbott’s vocabulary), offers a view to iconic Mt Sonder.

And most important asset, says Mr Abbott, is a cohort of young people determined to break the dependence on generations-long welfare.

What’s needed, as Mr Abbott sees it, is to replace the hypocritical approach to developing Indigenous commerce: “You call a meeting. You transport people there. You pay meeting fees. You take a photo from behind. You serve lunch. Nothing happens.”

PHOTO at top: It’s a small start but it’s a start: Containers and a row of tents are in place at the site for which Bobby Abbott and partner Mary Tupou have big plans: It all will start with a pottery and ceramics studio with a kiln where Aboriginal artists will work and sell their creations. Below: The view to Mt Sonder.