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[ Remembering the FoE Rides against Uranium ]
Sydney to Canberra
I first joined the Ride Against Uranium in 1976. The ride was a moving joyous protest and celebration of the bicycle, and the potential for solar and renewable energy as opposed to the dangers of uranium, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons proliferation.
It was a festival on wheels, before the modern era of city critical mass bike rides and the 'great' touring rides now organised by Bicycle Victoria and other cycling organisations. We did street theatre in the Atomic Energy Commission Lucas Heights Visitor Centre, in front of wharfies on their smoko in Port Kembla, and on the streets and towns on route to Canberra. We convened public meetings wherever we could. It was a way to educate ourselves in energy use and environmental practice and engage with communities we passed through.
Support vehicles accompanied the rides, to carry packs, food and cooking equipment, bicycle spares, educational materials, and to pick up anyone falling to far behind.
While in Wollongong, local FoE activist Col Pollard and I attended a meeting with South Coast Trades and Labour Council Secretary, Merv Nixon. The Trades and Labour Council assisted the ride with a truck to help transport many cyclists up the steep Illawarra pass to Moss Vale. It was a concrete symbol of the growing concern in the labour movement about uranium.
By the time the ride reached Yass we were a dedicated team who talked politics, enjoyed doing rhythmic drumming rounds, and eating the great vegetarian food (while some of us also looked forward to a hamburger at the next cafe stop).
Many of those over 18 attended pubs in the towns we stayed in to talk to the locals (mostly all men) and sometimes to provide music and anti-uranium songs as entertainment. Music and songs were important to our movement, just as they have been important in many previous social movements and campaigns.
Yass was where we met up with the Melbourne riders. It was a mingling of tribes who had been traveling for 9 days. A melting pot of music, food, politics, laughter and cycling stories. A cyclist's corroboree.
The final day of riding, from Yass to Canberra, was a mass of bicycles. In 1976, over 350 people had riden from Melbourne, and another 70 from Sydney. Local cyclists from Canberra swelled the numbers further. It was a tremendous feeling coming over Commonwealth Avenue Bridge occupying the full three lanes of the road.
The police had set up a road block, but cyclists simply raced across the lawns to set up the tents in front of parliament house, where we were welcomed by black activists from the Aboriginal Embassy.
While in Canberra, there were visits to the Aboriginal Embassy on Mugga Way, protests in the public gallery of parliament, street theatre in Civic and on the steps of parliament, and a cycle tour of embassies engaged in the nuclear cycle, including the USA, Great Britain, USSR, Germany, France, and Japan.
Evenings were spent around a campfire drum singing songs and talking to visitors and tourists. Even the odd politician came over the road to join us for a while: former Minister in the Whitlam Government, Tom Uren, came up to me and said we were doing a good job and to keep it up!
I remember the street theater in front of parliament house one night. Nuclear Power ran out of control resulting in an explosion (with light, sound and smoke effects), which turned the audience into a mass of crawling, screaming mutants heading for parliament house. The police lines immediately fell back unsure of how to deal with this new form of protest. Ultimately, it was the person with the microphone who calmed things down. It was very funny to watch, though.
On a cold Saturday morning in May, the first day of the school/uni holidays, about 350 bicycle riders gathered together in the City Square in Melbourne, ready for the start of this year's Long Ride to Canberra in support of a ban on the mining and export of Australian uranium.
We set out around midday through the usual brown haze generated by the dense Saturday-morning traffic a long column of bicycles stretching from the Square right up to the Ansett-terminal end of Swanston Street.
About a hundred cyclists returned home after accompanying us out of the city, while the rest, including riders from Adelaide and Hobart as well as Melbourne, continued up the Hume Highway towards Kilmore, camp for the first night.
Most people came well prepared this year - they rode ten-speed geared bicycles and were very fit. As our numbers grew along the way, we were surprised at how everyone handled the longer, more arduous sections. We awoke nearly every day to a bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine and this made cross-country cycling very pleasant.
At night, people dossed down in sleeping bags on the floor of the church hall or football club house that we were staying in, or slept outside in the privacy of their own tent. For many it was their first experience of living and working together in such a large group.
Cooking was admirably handled by a collective of people who threw themselves into the mammoth task of producing satisfying nourishing meals based mainly on high-energy vegetarian foods.
Eight support vehicles accompanied us, carrying the luggage, cooking gear, food, bicycle spares and tired or sick people. A bus went ahead each day to prepare lunch and then continue on to the evening stopover to get dinner ready for us.
As luck would have it, there were no serious accidents or illness, apart from a few cases of gravel rash, and although many people were dogged by flu, everyone battled on regardless.
Cars and trucks rushed past us, but we were relying on ourselves to get there, revelling in the freedom of the fresh country air and warm sunshine. With no steel and glass to surround us, all day to get there, and often a kind wind blowing from behind us, the land gradually spread out before us. The hills and mountains, the grass and trees, the rivers and creeks all unfolded as we struggled up hills, raced down again with the wind roaring in our ears, cruised along in conversation with other riders, or pedalled powerfully ahead whenever the mood took us.
We all enjoyed the many detours along quiet country back roads. Once, between Wangaratta and Albury, we climbed 1500 feet, a tiring experience for many, till we got to Beechworth and then we were rewarded with a sweeping downhill run from the mountains to Yackandandah in the valley. Scenic indeed!
A number of public meetings were held at night in the towns we passed through, and we saw films and discussed the issue of uranium mining both among ourselves and with the many local people who came along. We decided that the best way to relate to the people of the towns we entered en masse was to be friendly and smile and wave. This was in contrast to the aggressive, chanting demonstrations that many of us had been used to, and our colourful street theatre was enjoyed by many.
When we handed out information leaflets to people in the streets, a great deal of sympathy for our cause was evident, people saying things like, "Hope you get what you're going for", and "Good on yer", etc.
. . . another 70 bicycle riders had set out towards Canberra. They came from Sydney, Brisbane and Townsville, and although the numbers were smaller than expected, any disappointment on that score was quickly forgotten as the spirit of the group was so wonderful. We made a closely-knit happy bunch that moved as a united protest, and not just as a random collection of cyclists.
The ride had many highlights to make it a worthwhile and memorable experience. On the way out of Sydney we were hassled by the police who tried to force us into a single file, and they stopped us several times. At Lucas Heights, site of Australia's only nuclear reactors, one of our younger cyclists was involved in an incident with a motorist employee of the AAEC (Australian Atomic Energy Commission). Our witnesses claim the motorist accelerated onto the back wheel of the bike in frustration at being slowed down by a mere cyclist. According to NSW police, the Commonwealth police who witnessed the incident gave conflicting evidence as to the registration number of the car, but we got his number anyway.
Later that morning everybody descended on the Exhibition Room where the attractive toys of the Atomic Energy Commission display the "clean, safe and efficient" lies of the Commission's hard-sell propaganda. Along with a busload of tourists, everyone cruised from one push-button "Instant deep harbour" machine to another new delight. THEN, Tara tara, the public relations man appeared with a noose around his neck, dragged by Cappo (read Capitalist) accompanied by a chorus of hisses and boos, shrieks and screams, all fall down Dead!! (twitch) Street theatre is at its best when everyone is a player - can't work out why the old ladies from the bus didn't join us. Effective and lots of fun and the boys in blue had a ball carrying all those `dead' bodies out the door.
On to Wollongong where we cycled out to meet the: Port Kembla wharfies - the best group of unionists in the land. We exchanged speakers, then gave another street-theatre display for them. Wollongong gave us exceptionally good media coverage.
Riding out of Wollongong, headed for Moss Vale, the steep grade (as much as I in 7 at times) and strong headwinds and rain made the going tough.
In Goulburn and Yass we also received really good media coverage by the local papers, and all along the way the riders worked really hard at getting the message across to the local people of the towns we passed through. At Yass we were generously given the Old Soldiers' Memorial hall by the Mayor, and we needed it when the Melbourne riders descended on us the next day. Luckily the hall was big enough to accommodate us all.
After ten days on the road, experiencing the exhilaration of pedalling across the Australian countryside on our own power, hundreds of us rode into Canberra towards our goal - the long white building that represents democracy in our country.
Four-hundred bicycle riders streamed down from the hills in a mile-long torrent of colour and shining machinery. Flags flying, bells and hooters sounding, people chanting "Keep uranium in the ground!", the column converged around Mining Industry House.
Leaping from our machines, we swarmed through the glass doors and across the foyer, leaving the watching office workers open-mouthed in amazement as we shook the sacred bastion of capitalist enterprise in a pandemonium of raised invocations against the crime of uranium mining.
Charging up the staircase, we quickly flooded the three storey building with people, and with our cries reverberating we left just as quickly, our calling-cards (green stickers with a message) plastered over anything within reach.
Pouring back onto the road, the procession continued in the direction of Parliament House, through the red lights at intersections, accompanied by police motorcyclists attempting to act like sheepdogs in controlling a determined unsheep-like mob.
Above our leading tandem bicycle flew the Land Rights flag, its black, red, and gold colours flashing against the bright blue sky. And the sun beamed down.
Rolling across the Commonwealth Avenue bridge, everyone spread out over the whole three lanes, and we cruised down the other side towards a police blockade of the road leading to Parliament House. The police had obviously been listening in to our meeting at Yass the night before. They forced us to take to the lawns and we sped over the grassy surface towards the steps, where we were met by a contingent of men in blue.
A group of blacks from the Aboriginal Embassy in Canberra were there to greet us, somewhat astonished at the spectacle, and the tents we carried soon mushroomed on the lawns around them. Riders quickly formed human chains to move the gear from the support vehicles into the camp. Senior police questioned the ride organisers about our occupation, but it was obvious we had come to stay. People rode their bikes round and around Parliament House. Eventually things quietened down as the camp and kitchen were prepared for the night ahead.
Many Canberra people came to the demonstration held later that afternoon. Speeches were given by Jack Mundey of "Green-Ban" fame, Keith Smith of the National Aboriginal Congress (NAC), Jim Keefe, Federal Labour MP from Queensland, and John Price of FOE (formerly of FOE England). At the time of the meeting, a delegation met the Deputy Leader and Minister for National Resources, Doug Anthony, with negative results. Doug just smiled a lot as usual.
It was getting dark when the street theatre opened up; horrifically masked players, acting the part of mutants, writhing and groaning, in mock premonition of the radiation poisoning of Earth that uranium mining threatens.
Everyone joined in and spontaneously writhed and crawled across the road towards Parliament House, the "blue men" uncomfortably attempting to block the tide of bodies clawing and clutching at their feet. Glowing in the background were our model reactors, burning and exploding in giant mushroom-shaped smoke clouds.
When the demo was over, we lined up and ate dinner, and then enjoyed a concert until the early hours. During the evening some politicians came over to visit our camp. Some riders ventured into the citadel opposite, only to fall asleep in the gallery to the droning of the peoples' representatives. Still, it was warm and the showers and toilets were welcome news. Outside the night was freezing. After all, it was Canberra.
Next day many people visited the House and their local elected Members to do some lobbying, while a brave group lectured the assembled men and women in Parliament on the existence of future generations and what about how long? They were promptly ejected.
Unfortunately, due to problems because of return journeys, only about fifty or sixty riders visited the Japanese Embassy that afternoon. Regrettably the Ambassador was in W.A. talking about uranium mining and waste disposal with Premier Court, so we simply took pictures to show our friends in Japan.
Then we rode around to Mugga Way, where black friends from the Aboriginal Embassy showed us around their recently donated premises. Keith Saunders of the NAC welcomed closer relations with groups like FOE in the coming struggle for Land Rights and he said that blacks were dead against uranium mining taking place. He proposed the idea of a "reserve for whites", somewhere near Arnhem Land, where white people seeking to establish a way of life in harmony with nature could assist the local black people - especially in the field of alternative technology - who are fighting to keep their land and their way of life.
Most Melbourne riders left in the afternoon for the long train journey home, while Sydney, Adelaide and the remaining Melbourne'riders stayed on for another night.
The ride was a great success in terms of publicity generated, as we scored front-page news and TV 'coverage all around Australia, but next year we could well stay longer in Canberra to lobby more concertedly, unless of course we were actually able to stop uranium mining before then!
And during the ride everyone learnt many things, about themselves and living with other people, about uranium mining and nuclear power, and, of course, about bicycle riding.
ENVIRONMENT BIKE RIDE
TOWARDS ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLES `FESTIVAL'
FOE is organising a summer bike ride from Melbourne and Sydney, leaving at the end of November to reach Eden on the 3rd of December. At Eden we will spend two days resting and touring the local woodchipping areas to see how Australian forests are being rapidly eaten away to feed Japanese papermills. Then we will ride up the mountains to Cooma and on to Canberra for the alternative lifestyles conference which Jim Cairns, among others, is planning for December 10th to 14th. By adopting an alternative mode of transport to the conference, which people from all around Australia will be attending, FOE will be making an active contribution towards the development of alternative lifestyles in Australia. We also hope to take some soft technology with us, in the form of solar panels, windmills, bike trailers, etc, to help make the conference a festival. Contact FOE in Melbourne or Sydney for more details.
1975 Ride | Index | 1977 Ride
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