Biirrinba Carries Life
One afternoon, after a long hiatus of contact, help was humbly sought and lovingly given.
I called my childhood friend Dan Ross seeking his counsel.
At the time, my day-to-day was centered around raising my two young children, but a lofty dream remained in the back of my mind: to be the first non-Indigenous person to solo navigate one of Australia’s wildest waterways, the 400-kilometre-long Biirrinba (Clarence River), surviving off the land and the river. But I’d hit a snag in my preparations: my Dad.
Hayley Talbot and Dan Ross kayaking the Clarence River. All photos: Thunderbox Films.
As a kayaking beginner, some may have seen what I was setting out to do as only a few stations short of insane. My Dad was among this bunch and could not offer his blessing. It was confusing because in many ways he had prepared me for an undertaking like this my whole life – martial arts training from childhood, out at sea on boats, feeding me oysters straight off the rocks before I could talk, and encouraging me to get my hands dirty in the wild, camping, fishing, catching crabs... But on a journey like this – solo for several weeks, completely isolated from help – he couldn’t trust in my skills and was turning his back.
As the departure date grew closer, the active projection of my father’s fears surged over me like a storm, eroding my self-belief. Dejected, I wound up at Dan’s place, silently staring into a cup of tea. His progression, from professional surfer to Patagonia Global Sports Activist and high-performance coach, centred on a holistic approach to mindset, training, and preparation. He seemed like the right place to turn.
Dan Ross getting barrelled near the mouth of the Clarence River, Australia.
“Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath,” he told me. “Take your mind to a moment, place, or person that has brought you happiness and deep love. Feel the elevated emotions associated with this moment as you return there. Feel what you felt, see what you saw, and fill your body with this energy upon each breath. Let it heal the conflict in your heart and mind. Now open your eyes… and message your Dad. You both need to go for a walk.”
I didn’t get my Dad’s blessing on that walk, but I did successfully journey that river home. Home to my family, myself, and, despite having had knots in his stomach for weeks, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a prouder man waiting there on the banks when I paddled in than my Dad. Standing on the sand too, was Dan.
Fast-forward four years, and we’d gone from friends who grew up surfing the same waves, watching and being guided by the same elders, to linking up to advocate for our community and protect its way of life. Dan and I have been working to understand our homelands and the plans being made for them. It’s been a journey of both history and of identity.
This week Corazon Mining announced Native Title Access has and government support for their prospects at Mt Gilmore, the backdrop to the jewel of the river.
The mighty Biirrinba carries life through as she winds like an emerald serpent from her source at Rivertree, high in the Great Dividing Range to where she becomes the sapphire sea at Yamba. We’ve met courageous people all along this river: traditional custodians, generational farmers, conservation scientists, fishermen, and knowledgeable locals. We’ve listened to the stories of the three Indigenous nations Gumbaynggirr, Bundjalung, and Yaegl.
The river Dan, I, and these countless others grew up alongside is a precious natural resource. Sadly, it’s often the same old story, instead of ensuring its health, protection, and preservation, myopic political entities and mega-corps are seeking to exploit it. There are currently 18 active exploratory mining licenses in the pristine upper reaches of the Clarence River, and on top of that, there are four councils out west who have revived interest in damming part of the headwaters to redirect water inland for Big Ag.
Earlier this year, Castillo Copper released its latest report of drill findings at Cangai, just upriver of Grafton. They have expressly stated their intention to progress the site to an open cut mine and they are now seeking a mining lease from the NSW Resources Regulator to expand their operations. This week Corazon Mining announced that Native Title Access has been granted, and that they have a Co-Funding Agreement with the NSW Government (Cooperative Drilling Grant) for their prospects at Mt Gilmore, the backdrop to the jewel of the river. In mining circles this area has been dubbed ‘Cobalt Ridge’, owing to the grades of cobalt that have been discovered. Mining the fragile ridgelines of any river, particularly in light of the numerous, environmentally disastrous failures with such methods, is fraught with danger and risk.
On the Clarence itself, there have been many fish kills associated with historic copper mining impacts in the last century. The rare and stunningly beautiful Eastern Cod, found only in two rivers in the world, was almost completely decimated. Only through diligent conservation efforts has it just recently been brought back from the brink of extinction.
Biirrinba passes through three Indigenous nations: Gumbaynggirr, Bundjalung, and Yaegl.
This a rallying cry to activate local hearts and to foster community, which is the bedrock of our society. We want every person in the Clarence Valley and beyond to know what is currently happening upriver and what, if left unchecked, will happen downriver. The Clarence needs sustainable strategic planning and forward-thinking solutions that honour the past with future-focussed stewardship prioritising clean air, healthy soil, and reverence of water as our most precious resource.
Our internal worlds create the external world. So what action does tending to the internal garden look like for you? Beneath the crushing weight of the climate crisis, the global pandemic, and a new boiling point of racial injustice, violence and protest, we’ve perhaps never needed to tend to our internal gardens more.
The duo is pushing for strategic planning and future-focussed stewardship of The Clarence. Photo: Gary Parker.
Banner image: Biirrinba/The Clarence River from the air.