After the Storm

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To a casual visitor, hindmarsh island, on the south Australian coast where the Murray River mingles with the Southern Ocean, might not seem like much. About 15 km long and 6 km wide, it is mostly flat and featureless, with a landscape largely cleared and, for much of the year, buffeted by wind. Flocks of sea birds hover over lonely estuaries and dark cattle stand in paddocks. Several hundred homes and holiday shacks overlook the sand dunes and the river's brown ripples.

The island might have remained little known outside South Australia but for a decade of national controversy about the building of a 300-m-long bridge between the island and the holiday village of Goolwa. The $A14 million bridge finally opens this week, ending a bitter tale that began as an idea for a bridge and became a fight about the assessment of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs. Serious talk of a bridge to replace the overworked ferry emerged in the late 1980s, when developers Tom and Wendy Chapman began work on a multimillion-dollar marina on the island. In 1991 the state government announced it would build a bridge. Three years later, those plans were thrown into chaos when the then federal Labor government placed a 25-year ban on construction. It did so after women of the local Ngarrindjeri people said the bridge would violate sacred and secret beliefs relating to the island and its waters. Those assertions were disputed by other Ngarrindjeri women, who said they had been concocted to stop the bridge's construction. A 1995 Royal Commission found that the claimed beliefs had been fabricated. Legal battles continued, and it was only in late 1999 that building began in earnest.

Goolwa is not a place given to stress. There are often more boats on its waters than cars on its roads. But the bridge issue fractured the community of about 3,500 with protests and factions. Pat and Peter Denver have watched the bridge take shape from their neat front yard on the Goolwa waterfront. "It's so lovely," says Pat, "and we never thought we'd see it in our lifetimes." The elderly couple spent 20 years on the island, and their two sons still run the island's largest farm. One son, Kym, helped lead the pro-bridge campaign and the family knows at first hand how divisive the issue became. "People on different sides of the street" is how Kym's brother Brian-some of whose friends lobbied against the project-describes the town's mood during those years. "But the bitterness has passed."

Tom and Wendy Chapman's son Andrew says the family is vindicated by the bridge's opening. "They were hard years," he says, "and it should not have been that hard." The Chapmans are still fighting in the Federal Court for nearly $A20 million in damages. But the story of the bridge has brought people to Goolwa from all over the country. According to Andrew Chapman, that's meant he has hardly had to advertise the marina development, which will eventually include 1,000 new homes, the island's first shops and a resort.

The rancor has eased, but the bridge still divides opinion. "It looks a lot better than I expected," says one resident, who doesn't want to be identified. "I've always kept right out of it," she explains. Another couple have planted trees outside their house so they won't have to look at the bridge. Island resident Jan Medlyn was another critic who feared the bridge would bring more traffic. "We wanted to keep the island quiet but we lost," she says, "and we've accepted that we have the bridge now."

For those who led the fight, acceptance is much harder. Ngarrindjeri spokesman Tom Trevorrow says his community is still deeply wounded. The clash within the community pitted relatives against each other. Many relationships, says Trevorrow, "may never be fixed." Even worse, the Royal Commission findings mean "we have gone down in history as liars and fabricators," he says. "We'll be forever trying to clear our names." It's too early to say whether claimed Aboriginal connections to land will affect development proposals elsewhere in Australia.

At the bridge's highest point, the view will take in several farms and new subdivisions. In 1830, from a high point on Hindmarsh Island, explorer Charles Sturt first saw the waters of Encounter Bay after traveling down the Murray. It was a historic moment at the end of a harsh journey. The completion of the bridge marks the end of another type of journey. It too was difficult and testing, and its impact was felt far beyond the windswept island on the edge of South Australia.