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Take a walk with Milawa Billa, the River Murray: #CroakeyGo reports from Albury

Just a few minutes drive from the centre of Albury, a border city of more than 50,000 people on Wiradjuri Country in southern NSW, is a fabulous public sculpture walk featuring works by local Aboriginal artists.

Their sculptures are set against the magnificent backdrop of the River Murray, or Milawa Billa, who is described as “an old man of Aboriginal lore, telling a thousand stories, connecting communities along the rivers 2,400 kilometres”.

Visitors to the Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk are encouraged to walk slowly and with respect; the Albury City Council website says Wiradjuri Law demands that “we have profound respect for each other and we do things slowly and with care. The country itself is our nurturer. The land and the river provide all.”

On a recent Monday morning, a group of walkers – including the Mayor Kevin Mack, Deputy Mayor Dr Amanda Cohn, local health advocates and community members – joined a #CroakeyGo.

It was an opportunity to bring local people together with members of the Croakey Connective (following our previous day’s planning meeting) to share stories while walking and talking while immersed in beautiful surrounds.

We were also grateful for the participation of Rebecca Thorpe from the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), who travelled from Melbourne to join us.

As we discussed the health issues on our minds during the obligatory introductory Periscope interview, a diversity of issues and viewpoints, as well as our commonalities and connections, were evident.

A reunion

An especially lovely connection was seeing the walk reunite Croakey editor Marie McInerney with a couple she hadn’t seen for more than 30 years – Karen Bowley, who had taught McInerney and her siblings in Clare, South Australia, and her husband, Dirk de Zwart.

As a young journalist on the Northern Argus newspaper, McInerney had reported on de Zwart when he was a local councillor.

Threading through the trio’s stories across time and place were a shared passion for social justice, in particular the impact of justice upon health, with Bowley now a lawyer working in health justice partnerships.

Watch Bowley talk more about her work in justice and health in this interview below with Dr Megan Williams, a contributing editor at Croakey and academic at UTS.

Focus on youth

The Mayor of Albury spoke of his love for the river, and called the walk an “undiscovered jewel in the crown of our city”, saying that even some locals did not know about it.

Chair of Albury Wodonga Headspace and a former policeman, Kevin Mack wanted to focus on the struggles faced by many young people and need for more focus on their needs.

Describing his conversion from punitive approaches to restorative practices, Mack said his worldviews had changed as he came to understand the impact of trauma and poverty upon young people. “I see a lot of young people struggling in life,” he said.

Listen to the Mayor’s interview with Marie McInerney here, where he talks about gaps and mismatches in agencies charged with responding to young peoples’ needs, and the difficulty of finding sustainable funding for restorative justice programs.

Other issues on walkers’ minds included the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the mental health of doctors, the disastrous impacts of climate change, the joys of vegetable growing, and concerns about obesity and sugar. The social determinants of health were another common theme.

More than one participant mentioned the importance of people, especially children, spending more time in nature and less on their screens.

Liz Marmot, an advocate for women’s health, spoke of campaigning for medical privacy for women seeking access to abortion services, a longstanding issue of concern in Albury.

With four dogs joining us – including Zella and Harpo, who usually accompany Rebecca Thorpe to work at VACCHO in Melbourne – we were also reminded of the close bonds between species.

As we walked out, Croakey Contributing Editor Dr Megan Williams was thinking about how traumatic it is for Aboriginal people to be incarcerated and away from healing contact with country.

“I am thinking today about identity and particularly for our brothers and sisters who are in prison and may get at the most three hours a day outside time, if that,” she said.

“For Wiradjuri people, rivers are imprinted on our identity and our sense of being, and how soul destroying it would be to be locked away from that. Whatever the reason for incarceration, I do believe that access to country is healing.”

Williams was also thinking about what it means to walk lightly – “for me, walking also means just listening; to hear the sound of the leaves, the sound of my own voice in my own head, my own narrative, to listen to the others walking”.

Our first stop was before a large Reconciliation Shield in steel, by Tamara Murray, a Barkandji and Yorta Yorta woman, urging us to “walk together on this journey of reconciliation”. She told us, via the signage in front of her artwork: “I believe that the River is the Giver of Life to everyone who lives in or visits our community”.

The back story

Williams interviewed Narelle Vogel, Albury City Council’s cultural development officer, while they sat on “Creature Seats” – chainsaw-created sculptures by James Fallon High School students working with mentors from the Aboriginal Men’s Shed.

Vogel told of her passion for doing “community development with an arts twist” and the back story to the sculpture trail.

The Council obtained Federal funding to establish the walk, which opened about three years ago. The initial plan was to commission six works, but Wiradjuri Elders leading the process wanted to accept all applications. They did not want to say no.

So the walk has 11 sculptures, each with their unique stories, and 33 artists were involved.

And there are stories within stories. Wiradjuri Woman, carved by Wiradjuri artist Leonie McIntosh into a 350 to 400-year-old Iron Bark Tree stump, has a hollow at the top where parrots have raised their young.

When McIntosh discovered nesting birds in the hollow, she delayed her work until the fledglings had left home.

“That was part of Yindyamarra; she [the artist] was moving gently and with respect,” said Vogel, who noted that as a non-Aboriginal person, she learnt out of that a valuable lesson about slowing down and paying attention to what matters.

Watch their discussion below.

Talking healthy food production

A “Maya” Fish Trap Sculpture made by men from the Aboriginal Men’s Shed – representing an ancient technology used both to harvest and preserve species – provided an appropriate backdrop for discussions about healthy, sustainable food production.

Lawyer Karen Bowley and retired lawyer Dirk de Zwart told about the work and pleasure of a large and productive vegetable garden on their rural property near Wooragee, and their passion for encouraging people to eat local, fresh and in season.

“We try and grow as big a range of vegetables for our own household use,” said de Zwart. “I can go out there today and harvest tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, capsicums, eggplants, beans, I’ve got different types of kale, carrots, okra, zucchini pumpkins.”

They also harvest a substantial crop of almonds and hazelnuts and preserve quite a bit of their excess produce. De Zwart says he is now far healthier than when he was a lawyer working at a desk.

“We love it,” said Bowley. “It tastes really good; you feel good about yourself growing this beautiful food.”

Focus on the wider determinants

Croakey editor Amy Coopes, who recently moved to Albury from Sydney for her medical studies, interviewed Dr Amanda Cohn, an emergency medicine doctor, Greens Councillor and the Deputy Mayor, about intersections between her political and medical interests.

Watch the interview below, where Cohn talks about her passion for health-promoting urban design and for addressing the social, economic, and environmental issues that affect her patients.

“People with drug and alcohol issues are often self-medicating for other issues, whether trauma in childhood, relationship issues, result of under-employment, or discrimination of minority groups,” she said.

“Health is a fundamental human right, and it makes me really angry and upset that what postcode you have can affect your health outcomes in this country.”

Cohn also chairs a local umbrella group of agencies and people working in the domestic and family violence space, bringing together police, housing and tenancy advice, family lawyers, doctors, social workers, and mental health workers to share information and develop whole-of-community solutions.

The group has developed to a stage where it can start doing some powerful advocacy, she said, including identifying service gaps. It is developing a culture of collaboration rather than having agencies competing against each other and working in isolation.

Learn more about Cohn’s local priorities in this reflection on the successes and frustrations of her first year on the Council, and watch the interview below.

Reflections from participants

Rebecca Thorpe, media and communications lead, VACCHO
The CroakeyGO in Albury could not have been better for an Aboriginal health organisation such as VACCHO to take part in. Walking on Wiradjuri Country with the VACCHO pups, Zella and Harpo, and seeing the fantastic pieces designed by local artists along the Yindyimarra Sculpture Walk was the perfect backdrop for discussions on Aboriginal health.

A standout discussion for me was with Meg Williams about improving the lives of Aboriginal people caught up in the justice system and what they need upon their release from incarceration.

It was such a pleasure to meet the dedicated crew responsible for Croakey and to have other locals join us in our walk and discussions. A big thanks to the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Albury for taking the time to participate.

Meeting the artist behind Bogong Moth Migration, Ruth Dacey-Davys, as we ended our walk was the most wonderful piece of serendipity. As we spoke later that evening, she said: “The Ancestors made us meet today, it was meant to happen”. I feel the same way.

(Rebecca’s interviews from the walk will be published in a forthcoming post).

Dr Megan Williams, Croakey contributing editor
The walk was beautifully developed – an inspiration for other Councils – easy to achieve, set out in sections, and informative. The walk was a relatively short moment in time that generated a lot of information, discussion, critique and plans. Walking focuses people and conversations. Walking and being in a naturally stimulating environment seems to generate connections between topics, people and solutions to issues.

I thought constantly about how incarceration generally limits people’s access to the natural environment. Even if people get exercise, use the gym and play sports in teams in prison, this is usually limited in time because of lock-ins and other administrative needs in operating institutions.

Walking in the natural environment has many health benefits. Care for the natural environment and its accessibility by community members is more important than ever for many reasons including to have hope, because the environment grows and does so without human intervention – it is resilient. And to offset sedentary work and life and effects of pollution.

What I took from it was that content for writing, and journalistic tasks can be generated quickly and with depth whilst walking, because walking is neutral, side-by-side, non-invasive and a focussed time. This reinforces the benefit of walking. What I would like to come out of it is information to share with others about the day, and for it to contribute to the pool of information on CroakeyGo (which could be case studies) to develop it as a methodology.

Amy Coopes, Croakey editor

Karrai binaal birrimal billa
Ngangaana-gu birrimal karrai billa
Dya birrimal karrai billa durai ngangaana ngingu

Land of much bush & rivers
Look after the bush, land & rivers
And the bush, land & rivers will look after you

For the Wiradjuri, ‘yindyamarra’ means ‘go gently on the earth’, and it feels like we need this invocation more than ever before. In an era dominated by white noise and the inertia of minutiae, we rarely, if ever, take a moment to lean into the loud silences of our shared existence and simply listen.

Meandering in collective thought by the stoic rapids of Milawa Billa – the Murray River – was an apt way to draw breath after two days of reflection on the state of journalism, health, and as Megan so eloquently put it, the shifting standpoint of this peculiar time in history.

Cradled by mountains and rivers, there is a serene security and eternal strength in the lands of the Wiradjuri, and we were humbled to walk in their steps along the Yindyamarra sculpture trail; bogong and fishtrap, fertility and fealty. Reprise; renewal. Resistance; reprieve.

Photo by Amy Coopes, on descent into Albury

Paula O’Connell, Croakey business development
CroakeyGo was an excellent opportunity to share ideas on public health, and I was particularly impressed with hearing from Deputy Mayor and emergency medicine doctor, Amanda Cohn. She summed up public health from her emergency medicine experience where she sees a cross-section of the community and that some issues are broader than the trauma for which they are visiting the emergency department: it is the child abuse, drug abuse, incarceration, trauma from refugee or minority that give rise to the emergency visit.  By tacking these broader issues, a healthier society results.

Marie McInerney, Croakey editor
This was my second CroakeyGO and it was just as special as the Melbourne one, in being able to dig a little deeper into local health issues while wandering a fantastic trail, in this case the Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk along the Murray River. Can’t wait to go back and spend more time there.

Along the way it was also good to talk to Albury Mayor Kevin Mack about his journey as a police officer and how, through a growing understanding of the impact of trauma, he had shifted from a punitive to a restorative approach, albeit stymied as ever by defunding.

Also loved meeting up with old friends who I hadn’t seen for decades, meeting new people with many health issues on their minds, and hanging out with the Croakeys. It’s a great way to start the week – walking/talking journalism, discussing issues of local concern in an environment that speaks its own complex and powerful stories.

Mitchell Ward, Croakey creative director
What I love about #CroakeyGo is meeting a whole bunch of people from different fields and disciplines as we discover new places and learn about and experience beautiful and culturally significant locations. Though I do enjoy meeting and chatting to a lot of new people (and dogs), I am prone to wandering off taking photos/videos and immersing myself in nature –  I highly recommend it!


Dr Ruth Armstrong, Croakey editor
All three of the CroakeyGo walks I’ve participated in have been beside significant bodies of water.

In Sydney we skirted the harbour foreshore between Manly and the Spit, following a well-worn path that wove in and out of the coastal scrub to reveal iconic views and big blue skies.

In Adelaide we followed the paved cycling and pedestrian paths, to learn about some of the ways in which the Kaurna people have used and continue to use the River Torrens (Karrawirra Parri) for traditional and community practices.

And our Albury walk was centred on a section of the mighty (and much contested) Murray river (Milawa Billa), following the Yindyamarra Sculpture trail through Wiradjiri country. The sculptures themselves were beautiful, but their genius was in the way they spoke to the river, quietly telling stories of Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land through which we were passing.

The Albury CroakeyGo walk came on the back of the Croakey team’s first face-to-face planning meeting for two years and, I think, the first time the five editors who currently rotate through the Croakey chair have all been in the same room at once.

Suffice to say, there had been a lot of talking over the weekend, and we woke up on Monday morning enthusiastic for Croakey’s future, but a little weary. Some of us even got lost on the way to the meeting point, taking a stroll to the wrong side of town before joining the walk proper!

But the unexpectedly-vigorous flow of the river through the dry countryside, and the tranquillity of the series of lagoons on the other side of the path worked their magic. My first conversation of the day was with Mayor Kevin Mack who asked, not unreasonably, what we were trying to achieve by visiting random towns and inviting people to walk and talk with us.

I was able to share with him that, for me, the walks are a way of bringing people with different perspectives together, to share concerns and ideas about a range of things that impact on health. The walking focuses our thoughts outwards, and facilitates conversation, and the use of social media, periscope and formal reporting serve to amplify the voices of the participants.

Towards the end of the walk I paired up with Kevin again, this time each with a labrador in tow. In the interim I had had conversations with other walkers about medical services and training in Albury Wodonga, an initiative to connect up social and legal services with health services for people affected by domestic violence, and the need for local women to be able to access reproductive health services securely and privately.

I asked Kevin what he would like his Mayoral legacy to be.

‘I’ve come to realise that it’s not just about the roads and buildings you leave behind,’ he told me. ‘It’s also about finding out what people want, what they will use, what they think will make their lives better. Leadership is about learning to listen… and focusing on the solutions, because the problems will come to you.’

Listening for solutions seemed like good advice all round. It’s something we hope to continue to prioritise at Croakey, and if that involves a bit more walking beside bodies of water, I’m in.

See you at the next #CroakeyGO?

Melissa Sweet

A river place holds many stories. Some are ancient, and others are quite young; some are lost in time, and others are not for telling. Some are still being made and others are yet to birth.

As we walked alongside the river, we saw, heard and felt some of the stories, and together we made some of our own along the way.

In the days after, I thought often of that river and the trees along it, and the people with whom we had walked and talked. I wondered what it was that they would take from the walk, and what could we, as the Croakey connective, make from these walking stories.

Listening again to the interviews, hearing the walkers talk about the issues they cared about – that “really float my boat”, as Narelle Vogel put it – it is clear the walk brought together people with diverse and yet connected passions.

The walkers spoke of their care for the river and wider environmental concerns, their respect for Aboriginal cultures, and their worries about mental health and wellbeing, and in particular the struggles of young people and others who are disenfranchised.

While it is hard to pin down exactly what a #CroakeyGo is or what it does, one thing that became clear in Albury is its capacity to showcase both the strengths and concerns of a local community.

That is something we can work with as we go forward at Croakey. One thought is that given we spent so much time on the walk talking about the challenges facing young people, perhaps we should plan a #CroakeyGO that connects with young people?

If anyone wants to run (or walk) with this suggestion, please get in touch.

Meanwhile, over the next few days, a few of us Croakeys are participating in a Global Editors Network hackathon – “Connecting with Local Communities” in Sydney on Thursday and Friday. It is also supported by the Walkley Foundation and Google News Lab.

We will be looking for ways to take #CroakeyGO to the next stage, and would appreciate your thoughts.

What sort of digital development might help grow #CroakeyGO into a more sustainable and useful journalism service for local communities?


• Croakey acknowledges and thanks Albury City Council for assistance in organising the #CroakeyGO

PostScript: Some Croakeys are already planning further trips and walks along the trail. If you are inspired to head there, this is the sign to look for:

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