Bradshaw station is the rugged traditional homeland of the
Djamadjung and Murinkura Aboriginal peoples. The sprawling pastoral
lease was purchased by the Australian Defence Force in 1996 but the
parties are only now close to signing Defence’s first
substantial Land Use Agreement with Traditional Owners.
Native Title signatory, Joe Lewis (seated) and Traditional Owners
Photo: Dennis Schulz
Bradshaw station, 240 kilometres south-west of Darwin, was Joe
Lewis’ mother’s country. The Djamandjung Aboriginal
elder recalls growing up at the Bradshaw homestead, a place called
Juliki in their language. It is not far from the sandstone hills
created when Kumarringi the emu fought the great brolga back in the
Dreaming. After winning the epic battle the brolga flew off leaving
the emu gravely wounded and forever flightless. Young Lewis broke
horses in the yards here and buried his mother at the end of the
airstrip. Now the Defence Force has acquired the remote Northern
Territory station, aiming to spend $64.8 million to turn it into a
training facility for heavy armour.
The purchase could have been a scenario for conflict. Joe Lewis and
the other Traditional Owners (TO) of Bradshaw placed a Native Title
Claim on the property through their representative, the Northern
Land Council, after it was purchased in 1996. Since then, NLC and
Defence lawyers have been locked in negotiations over concerns
about the acquisition. In return for granting Defence a 225-year
lease, the Traditional Owners wanted compensation, preferential
contracting opportunities and unrestricted access. But above all,
they wanted assurances that their many sites of cultural
significance were protected from the impacts of tanks and other
Both sides now report that a Land Use Agreement (LUA) is all but
signed. The agreement will not extinguish Native Title rights but
will give Defence a secure lease on the land. It is the Howard
Government’s first substantial LUA and the government is
watching its progress closely.
"It will be an ‘all-of-government’ agreement," states
Mike Scraston, Defence’s national head of infrastructure.
"This is the first complex LUA we’ve signed with so many TOs
over such a large area. We want the finished product to be a model
for future Aboriginal agreements."
Construction has begun even before the LUA is signed. In a
demonstration of cooperation, permission was granted for Defence to
build the new access bridge over the Victoria River during this dry
season. The $8 million bridge was completed without developers
losing an entire year of construction activity.
Bradshaw is a massive 8500 square-kilometre property that rises
from the mangroves of the Bonaparte Gulf, inland to the high
sandstone cliffs of the historic Victoria River District. Its
conservation values sparked the Australian Heritage Commission to
place Bradshaw on the interim list of the Register of the National
Estate—a nationwide heritage list that encompasses natural,
indigenous and historic places.
It is an environment that Defence is committed to protect. A fire
regime was initiated, along with strict feral animal control and a
plan to regenerate areas that were overgrazed by a century of
pastoralism. There are plans to build two camps and spend more than
$25 million on cutting more than 300 kilometres of roadworks. But
they will use only about 30 per cent of the Bradshaw area as much
of it is simply too rugged to train upon.
They will train in two flatland, black-soil valleys but only during
the dry season between May and September, the unforgiving monsoonal
rains making year-round use impossible. But where they will train,
there will be heavy vehicles, up to 40 tonnes, having a significant
"There will be live firing," explained training director, Major Rod
Gill. "In the future there will probably be aerial
bombing—but we’ll concentrate that on designated areas,
then rotate those areas to create less impact on each one."
Cultural imperatives will change the way Defence goes about their
business. Not only will their movements be relegated to only
certain areas of the property, but they will also exclude
activities from areas where sacred sites exist. There will be large
areas identified as ‘women’s or men’s
places’ by the Traditional Owners and Defence maintains they
will adhere to those cultural taboos. Female soldiers will not
train near men’s sites and vice-versa.
Defence maintains they will not damage sacred sites. Traditional
Owners have met periodically on the property to identify sites of
significance in advance of the bulldozers. Many had not visited in
years, and the trips rekindled important cultural messages for
The Aborigines were impressed by Defence’s attitude regarding
the protection of their homelands.
"We been working together with this Defence mob," says Traditional
Owner, Jerry Jones. "They tell us they going to look after this
country. If anything gets buggered-up they’re going to fix it
up. We’re happy about that."