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1984 Ride to Roxby

Photo: Roxby banner
Roxby Banner of the Parrots against Proliferation Affinity group at the entrance to Lucas Heights reactor in the southern suburbs of Sydney

In august 1983 and 1984 blockades of the new Roxby Downs Mine in South Australia occurred. Greenpeace was the Sydney co-ordinating organisation for the blockade. In 1984 I attended pre blockade meetings along with Meredith Brownhill who worked at Inner City Cycles in Glebe. We decided to organise a Ride to Roxby of Sydney cyclists and set about organising publicity. An extra carriage on the Indian Pacific was organised to carry cyclists and their bikes from Sydney to Broken Hill, and other blockaders to Port Augusta. The ride was farewelled at Sydney Town Hall by Jack Mundey, renowned Green Bans unionist and councilor on City of Sydney Council.

The first day we rode south to the Atomic Energy Commission Nuclear Reactor at Lucas Heights, where we camped for the night. We were told we would not be allowed to camp on the same side of the road as the facility: to camp in the gully opposite where we would be effectively out of site of passing traffic. We made our camp there, but refused to be invisible by lighting a small fire beside the road, with our banners up on the AAEC signs.

The next day cyclists rode back to Central Station to catch the Indian Pacific, while through the night and next day I drove the ride support vehicle, loaded with food, camping equipment and spare bike parts, to meet the train at Broken Hill.

John Englart
May 2004

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Ride to Roxby Downs 1984

Meredith Brownhill
Freewheeling Magazine No 28 Summer 1984/85 Page 47

The recent history of long distance bike rides in Australia owes much to the anti-uranium protest movement. Between 1975 and 1977 some four thousand young people pedalled their machines as a form of protest from the coastal cities to the national capital at Canberra.

To show that the pedal or perish spirit is not drowned in the apathy of the eighties an intrepid group of pedallers rode to join the recent blockade of the Roxby Downs uranium mine in the deserts of South Australia:

Meredith Brownhill describes the 500 km trip made by bicycle riding protesters from Broken Hill through Port Augusta and Woomera to Roxby Downs in August, 1984.

Photo: cyclists
At times the ride resembled a travelling Carnival. Here the riders meet up with their vehicle support crews for a chat and a welcome breather from the heat and head winds.

Having decided to participate in the Roxby Downs Uranium Mine Blockade the thought of a bicycle ride instantly occurred. A bicycle ride seemed an excellent way to publicize the cheap, energy efficient and nonpolluting aspects of cycling. The social contact with local people that occurs when cycling seemed an excellent opportunity to talk about the dangers of uranium mining, the nuclear fuel cycle and the nuclear arms race. And besides, cycling is fun.

Filled with enthusiasm and excitement I found another like minded cyclist, Anarchist John, and in time we found others and planned our bike ride and actions at the blockade.

Before the ride, some of us attended weekend training workshops in nonviolent, civil disobedience. It was a worthwhile experience where bonds of trust and caring were established that would give us strength and solidarity. Skills were also acquired in decision-making procedures which gave me hope that, at last, there were alternatives to boring meetings.

The nine of us who rode together had a couple of workshops preparing our bikes for the task ahead. Our enthusiasm soared - and the equipment on our bikes increased! It was worth it. With a 25 kilo bag of rice, some spare parts and John's household car for our support vehicle we were set to go.

Immediately before our ride we held a protest ride in Sydney and camped overnight at Lucas Heights to publicise the Roxby ride and uranium gas leakage which had just occurred.

Sunday, 19th August was the official start of the blockade. At Central Railway there was pandemonium as 37 Roxby activists boarded the Indian Pacific. There were other bikes being taken to Roxby besides ours. The platform was piled high with bikes, banners, tents, shovels, boxes of food, woks, sunhats and guitars.

We were met in Broken Hill by John, our fellow cyclist and support vehicle driver. It was cold and raining - no one cared much at this stage as we were filled with excited expectancy about our ride ahead. With the other Roxby activists who were continuing by train to Port Augusta, we sang songs, said fond farewells and held up our "Pedal for Peace" banner as the train moved past.

Photo: cyclists
The author battles the head winds on the way to Roxby. The countryside shown here is typical of the terrain encountered on most of the journey.

This, the first stage of our ride was the hardest as we cycled straight into the dreaded westerly winds. Alfred, a longtime intrepid tourer, was the only person to enjoy what he called a challenge! For the rest of us it was hard going.

For me, a slow rider at any time, the head winds made the journey physically very difficult and demoralising. We seemed to move so slowly across the almost flat, open salt-bush plains, a bend in the road became a longed-for goal, as did the car with John standing there offering sustenance.

However, there were moments of enjoyment in the early mornings and evenings when the wind dropped and all was calm. Having travelled through this country by car, I discovered a new beauty in the vastness of the plains and sky. The drought had broken and Salvation Jane, saltbush and grasses grew thickly on the red earth.

On the first night we established some common agreements about cooking, rest stops etc. We also agreed not to graffiti buildings in town and to establish as much friendly contact as possible with local people. So we kept graffiti for the highways and billboards. We also agreed to stick together in towns in case we were attacked for being 'greenies'.

In our second day's cycling, motorists began to stop and tell us of another cyclist who was trying to catch us. It was Phillip, who had been to the mountain bike trial en route - John drove back and gave him a lift so we could all be together.

The towns we drove through consisted of petrol station, pub and shop, and even there we found a few supporters for our ride. The publican of the Olary pub used to work at the Radium Hill uranium mines and told us many of his work mates were dead. Indeed, the Registrar of Deaths shows that 40% of those who worked underground at Radium Hill have died from cancer.

Photo: cyclists
Cyclists with support vehicle in the meagre shade shortly after the hailstorm.

We rode on through Yunta, Oodlawirra and Peterborough, through headwinds, torrential rains and a hailstorm.

We made it to Wilmington which is sheltered by the Mt. Remarkable Ranges, and made camp in Debbie's favourite spot, an old river bed with gum trees and celebrated her 21st birthday. An assortment of bongo drums, whistles, cowbells and a lagerphone appeared. Wil played his recorder and we all drank a lot of port around the camp fire that night.

Next morning up the road came more bicycles with flags flying in the breeze, a tandem towing a trailer with a child in it, and a very old green bus with yet more bicycles stashed on top and behind. We were now 25 cyclists and a child.

We learned from the Adelaide cyclists that they too had been riding through wind and rain, and on muddy roads. They had spent time in Port Pirie and erected a sign at the tailings dam indicating its hazards. This 'dam' was a children's playground until 1978 when it was fenced off. The tailings have been eroded by wind and in 1981 high tides caused a breach in the dam.

Our first night with the Adelaide riders, and our last shower, was just south of Port Augusta. We had to camp at Stirling North because the campsites at Pt. Augusta would not accept us on political grounds. It was here that motorists began to throw objects and to yell abuse at us as they roared past. We were not surprised by this hostility as this mining/industrial area has been affected with rising unemployment.

Once out of Port Augusta and pedalling north, the countryside changed to light scrub with brightly coloured wildflowers growing. It flew past as we cycled along and indulged ourselves in trick riding. Martin had an unfortunate series of punctures remedied by a new Cheng Shing tyre. And Ian and Louise powered along on the tandem, sometimes singing whilst Sassa in the trailer passed food supplies to them. Someone always rode behind the trailer to protect Sassa from passing cars.

Photo: cyclists camped outside Narrungar base
Cyclists camped next to the entrance to the Narrungar base.

Photo: Use of Cameras prohibited.
"Use of Cameras prohibited", the sign said.

On our ninth day on the road we had 90 km to go to reach Narrungar, U.S. military communications base, by mid-afternoon. Helen, who deserves a special mention for pedalling a women's single speed bike with an 84 inch gear ratio all the way from Adelaide, set off early. Battered old bikes arrived at Roxby just as well as any of the well-equipped touring bikes from Sydney. Bicycles are marvellous and never to be underestimated!

The "Star" police force (specially trained and named for the blockade) came to meet us on motor bikes, and the unmarked police car that had tailed the Adelaide bikes all the way passed us.

Shady sun hats appeared on heads as we cycled up one of the few hills on the ride, and climbed up onto a plateau. It was a strange and fascinating landscape. Salt lakes could be seen glimmering at the base of the plateau cliffs - almost like looking at the ocean. There were no trees, no scrub, just very prickly ground cover and lots of blue sky.

We stopped to rest and plan our entrance to the base.

Our imaginations and activist ambitions soared as we saw ourselves cycling straight past the police, who couldn't catch us on our bikes, into a top security base. Road barriers would cease to be an obstacle as we'd ride around them and go across-country. There would be no stopping us now that bicycles had become new tactical vehicles in the struggle against U.S. nuclear proliferation.

We saw the top of the dome-shaped tracking station shining in the valley as we approached, then we saw the "all clear" signal from our 50 or so supporters. Excitement and tension mounted as we gathered speed and turned the corner, cycling through a cheering crowd. We flashed past the first sign saying "No entry . . . seven years in gaol". There were still no police in sight, so we thought "great - let's go for it." And we did. Over the grid, past another sign, past another cheering group and then down the hill to the base. All too soon a white barrier, cement-filled drums and the Star Police Force loomed up in front of us. Worse, there was no way around as they'd dug a trench. End of fantasy!

Before we left for Roxby next morning John planted a date palm and laid a stone next to it with the date and our cyclist logo painted on it. We also erected a sign on the Stuart Highway saying "Narrungar: Nuclear Target", but it didn't stay up for very long.

Stefan and David couldn't wait so they rode on ahead. The rest of us had lunch in Woomera, a strange town with a park full of aeoroplanes and weapons. This glorification of war was more than we could bear.

We now had 80 kms of dirt road left to cycle - we were almost there. The sun was getting hot and the tail wind had long gone as we rode into sand dunes. The rolling sand dunes have small scrubby trees growing on them and in between the dunes, which run east-west across the centre of Australia, there are often claypans and stony flat ground that have very prickly grass and thorns galore. Many of the claypans are sacred to the Kokotha Aborigines.

Photo: cyclists arriving at the gates to Roxby
Cyclists arriving at Roxby Downs Blockade

Our last morning's ride was hot, dusty and windy with the road rolling up and down over the sand dunes. The Star Force motorcycles passed us yet again. With great enthusiasm 21 bicycles and a tandem with the trailer headed for Roxby. A police helicopter flew over, circled and flew away. I had to laugh - were we really such a threat?

Great joy, there was the camp with people welcoming us. We soon arrived at the main gate in style, taking up the whole road. The scene looked familiar with the police and drums of cement. People were singing and drums were playing and we were at Roxby - we'd made it.

First Rob, then Martin and Manfred disappeared with a police escort. Then it was my turn to be arrested. I still had my foot in the toe clip, so sooner than drag me off the bike two police officers wheeled me through the gate and to the paddy wagon. I felt I was arrested in the best possible manner - on my bicycle, so for me it was all worthwhile.

Twelve cyclists were arrested with 50 other blockaders who came onto the road to support us. We were all charged with loitering. Most of us pleaded guilty, made a statement about uranium mining in court and were duly fined $25.

I felt as if I was passing through a time warp as we were driven straight back to Woomera Police Station. The police were accommodating and gave us vegetarian salad sandwiches for tea. As we were starving everyone decided that the cyclists deserved an extra sandwich - that made 3 each. Minutes later, we were all curled up together for warmth under shared blankets and fast asleep on the floor of the cell. I dimly recall hearing voices amusedly saying "gee, look at the cyclists, they're all asleep" . . . no wonder. At 1.30am we were awoken and taken into court.

At 6am the 12 of us retrieved our dusty bicycles from the mine security guards. All the flags had been broken and removed from the Adelaide bikes, and the panniers of some had been searched.

Photo: cyclists camp
Cyclists campfire at the Roxby Blockade

Photo: cyclists camp at Roxby
Cyclists camp at Roxby with vehicles and banners providing wind breaks.

We continued to stay together at Roxby as an affinity group and built a beautiful camp site for ourselves, bicycles forming part of the windbreak. The uses of bicycles at Roxby were endless: one powered a sewing machine to make banners, others charged batteries by running Sanyo dynapower generators when cycling or by wind power at night to provide light.

We felt that not only had we made a valuable contribution to the Roxby blockade, but we had really demonstrated a practical and alternative energy source.

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The Journey to Roxby

From private letters on the journey to Roxby
and participation in the Roxby Blockade protests.
By John Englart

Ride progress report from Peterborough, South Australia

by John Englart, Friday 24 August 1984

Our ride is going well. There are 9 people - eight cycling and myself driving the support vehicle.

At Broken Hill we did an interview with the Broken Hill newspaper and photo. We asked they send a copy to Greenpeace.

From Broken Hill we started out in rain and strong headwinds. It fined up about midday but no lapse in the wind. Made it to Coburn before sindown - a shelered camp.

Photo: Bush camp.
A Bushcamp in South Australia on the way to Roxby.
Photo: John Englart

Second day to Olary also had strong headwinds but a clear day. The desert is quite green and alive. We did not arrive in town till dusk. I was worried some might be still cycling at night but all just made it. Another sheltered campsite. A few of us went to the pub and talked with a couple of locals. One expressed concern at the hazards of mining uranium and detailed that one third of people who worked Radium Hill (nearby) are now dead. Still lots of radiation around Radium Hill. Very receptive to what we were saying.

Next day we cycled to Yunta with very strong headwinds. I used the car for the cyclists to slipstream at 20kph. First one group, then a second group.

On thursday Meredith and I rang the media: Adelaide Advertiser, ABC, 2SER, 2JJJ, SMH and informed them all of our progress. Will ring again from Port Augusta on Monday. On Sunday we meet the Adelaide cyclists.

Talking to the ABC we discovered that there is a group of cyclists riding from Brisbane! Great news and we look forward to meeting them whenever.

Peterborough is a medium sized town and we have replenished fruit and vege supplies here.

We have generally had a fairly sympathetic response on the ride with some good natured disagreement (as expected). Those that disagree are acknowledging our strength of comitment and wishing us good luck.

Blockading Roxby

How the police manipulated the media

The cyclists initiated the action at Nurrungar which was quite exciting. About 60 people came down from Roxby to support our action there. Of course the arrests there were only symbolic of the secrecy surrounding the base. In the evening after the arrests two people went for a long liesurely stroll and got within 400 metres of the buildings before they were picked up and escorted back to the gate. Another person at night crawled to within 150 metres of the buildings and returned undetected.

The road from Woomera to Roxby (75-80km) is gravel and goes through open gibber desert and sand dunes (which are plentiful with life). Roxby is actually situated in sand dune country, so its quite pleasant with trees and scrub. The sand is a rich red and can be so very fine. The sky is a brilliant blue. But when the wind blows (apologies to Raymond Briggs) the red dust gets in everything. You find at the bottom of your cup of tea a red sludge. There is red grit in all the food you eat.

Newspaper Coverage: Sydney Morning Herald Page 3 photo
Newspaper reports that "Fighting breaks out after police begin arresting demonstrators...".
John Englart commented "All the heavy handed aggression came from the police. I saw police horses sent in to trample on people sitting on the ground. It was pure aggressive sadism on the part of the police. And one of the reasons I decided to stay on my bike was to protect the people sitting down from the police horses. So I was arrested for failure to cease loitering (while astride my bicycle), in preventing injury to others. Thats me on the bicycle in the photo."
Source: Sydney Morning Herald, conversation with John Englart

Anyway, last Thursday the Blockade had organised a big welcome and picnic lunch for the cyclists. And it felt like a great welcome riding through base camp to the gates. But we were setup. An interesting item is that two detectives in an unmarked car had shadowed the ride from Melrose (before Port Augusta). Was it coincidence it was police buses which drove up behind us as we reached the gates? Anyway, just after we reached the gates we were welcomed by old blockaders.

The police were very keen and started arresting cyclists very quickly after a 'warning' to cease loitering. It was impossible to obey of course in the crowd so twelve of us were arrested. Immediately cyclists were arrested and dragged into the compound, people started blockading the buses by sitting and lying down in front of them in solidarity with the cyclists.

Police then tried riot control tactics. I saw their five police horses move in and actually trample people. That was when the police lunged into the crowd at the side and a scuffle happened and the "violence" occurred. I saw the incident of the cop grabbing his balls - it was a put up job - nothing struck him. I was about 2 metres away looking straight at him.

My bike with myself astride it provided some protection from the horses for the people sitting and lying either side of me. And then I was politely asked to cease loitering. I said I couldn't and was promptly dragged away (my feet didn't touch the ground - I was freewheeled).

That all happened at 3pm or just before. Taken to Woomera and was processed 6.00pm. Had to hassle for blankets. Dinner was salad sandwiches and fizzy drink. Fifty one of us locked up together.

The court sat between 12.30am and 3.00am. I pleaded guilty and made a statement. Fined $20 plus $12.50 court costs. This court experience was reasonable and had the semblence of ordinary legal procedures. We then had fellow blockaders drive us back the 80km to Roxby. Had to hassle for our bikes with our panniers at the police compound at Roxby at 5am. It was bloody freezing cold.

Just settling in to camp life by Saturday when Wattle group approached the Parrots to do an action that night. At this stage fines for trespass were $20-$50. After the fourth charge you were remanded in custody to Port Augusta or Adelaide.

The action that was planned was to walk to the pilot plant and tailings dam and to split into three groups: first group to put some lime in the tailings dam; second group to U-lock the pilot plant gates; and third group to undertake a diversion.

Its a bloody long walk - especially if you attempt to stay outside the lease to avoid detection as much as possible. We walked and jogged for six and a half hours from 10pm to 4.30am. The last 150 metres was low scrubb which was floodlit. We were detected soon after leaving Base Camp and half an hour later were buzzed by the helicopter (no navigation lights, you just heard it circling above).

The diversion was successful and we dispersed the lime into the tailings dam. We didn't succeed with locking the gate. The arrest was quite friendly. "Your early this morning. We didn't expect anyone till dawn". Some police were quite interested in why we put lime into the tailings pond.

From the pilot plant we were taken in two 4 wheel drives to the Administration building where we were sorted into the two vehicles. A setup. They sorted those with previous arrests into one car to go to Andamooka. We were treated well by 'constable Greg' at Andamooka.

Then the court hit us.

One Justice of the Peace tried us and the police prosecutor read this incredible statement how we were all involved in Thursday's "violence" and how the local people were living in fear of us and afraid to leave their homes.

My first arrest experience at Woomera gave me confidence, so I interrupted the prosecutor and asked for a pen and paper. When I was making my statement I tried to rebute the allegations of the prosecutor and I was interrupted by the Justice of the Peace and told it wasn't relevant to my case. I told him it was as relevant as the prosecutors statement and continued my talk. I finished my speech saying Roxby Management Services (RMS) should be on trial, not me, in regard to their negligence with the method of tailings disposal.

The three of us who were second arrestees and had pleaded guilty to trespass got:

John Meredith Jeff
Fine $200 or 6 days $150 or 5 days $150 or 5 days
Bond $150 1 month $200 1 month $200 1 month
Condition 24hrs to leave 48hrs to leave 48hrs to leave

A person who chose not to plead was remanded in custody and taken to Adelaide. He appeared on Tuesday and got a $75 fine, no bond or conditions. This was his third arrest. The eleven of us on the action have agreed to jail solidarity in Sydney in two months time.

Hence my stay at Roxby has been cut short. It was a lovely feeling up there - particularly all the jail support. I'd go through it all again. Met so many inspiring people - some I already new. New friendships and stronger friendships.

Sydney Morning Herald Story based on the prosecutors diatribe which did not even mention statements to the court by defendants

Unpublished Letter to the editor, SMH
Wednesday 5 September, 1984


In regard to your Roxby Report on Monday 3/9/84, we object to the context and reportage of the Roxby Downs Blockade that our photo was used in. The article represents the Police Prosecutor's viewpoint and in no way represented our (the defendants) viewpoints. Does this mean the media are in collusion with the police and Roxby Management Services to deny our right to peaceful protest and a fair hearing in the media?

As three of a group of eleven Sydney residents we entered the mine lease on Sunday morning. This was a conscious act of non-violent civil disobedience and we were subsequently arrested and charged with trespass. We were successful in depositing a small amount of lime in the tailings dam.

This symbolic act was to emphasize that acidic, toxic, radioactive tailings are not being effectively neutralised to limit the escape of heavy metals and radium. Roxby Management Services (R.M.S.) do not intend to neutralise the tailings because it will increase costs and create a larger volume of tailings material. The proposed disposal method is the cheapest, easiest, and least safe of the alternatives available.

According to the Environmental Assessment Report on Olympic Dam prepared by the Federal Department of Home Affairs and Environment (May 1983), "There is insufficient information in the final Environmental Impact Statement to enable a complete assessment of the system to be made and information available from laboratory test results, and calculations is not adequate to confirm the practical application of the proposed system." (Page 19)

Our protest was peaceful and in no way interferred with the lives of local residents. If there is a seige at Roxby Downs it has been created by Roxby Management Services who have restricted mobility and prevented the miners and their famillies from having contact with the protest.

We believe Roxby Management Services has neglected to look into the impact of the mine both on the environment and the health and safety of workers and residents.

We remain for Peace and a Nuclear Free Future

John Englart
Meredith Brownhill
Jeff Robertson

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