Coonabarabran, a small country town in Central West New South Wales, is much like many other small Australian towns: 3,000 close-knit souls and a big sandstone clock tower in the main street that’s also the war memorial. All directions reference the clock tower. Farmers live on large properties – for sheep and wheat – around town, and these are often in drought. The Castlereagh River never troubles its banks with more than a trickle. Good high school; tidy main street; lively CWA; three pubs; proud First Nations heritage. No one is particularly well off. People stop to chat, and young ones tend to head off to Sydney.

What makes Coona different are three remarkable attributes. It stands on the Newell/Oxley highways, exactly halfway between Brisbane and Melbourne, which means it has more motels per capita than anywhere I’ve ever seen, and a lot of trucks and grey nomads pass through. For many years, my mother ran the John Oxley Caravan Park, and I reckon she met a good third of all Australians during that time.

Coonabarabran is also the ‘gateway to the Warrumbungles’, a truly spectacular mountain range formed by an ancient volcano and now surrounded by a huge national park full of wildlife. The Pilliga Forest is nearby, exciting everyone from birdwatchers to yowie hunters.
And Coona has stunningly clear skies for stargazing. The Siding Spring Observatory is fifteen minutes from town along Timor Road. Some of the best optical telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere are up on the mountain there (we sneer at the Parkes radio telescope). International astronomers coming and going add a certain cosmopolitan flavour to the town, and every shop adopts its own star or constellation: Mum’s caravan park featured the Horsehead Nebula. The nearby Warrumbungles have been declared the first International Dark Sky Park in the Southern Hemisphere, an honour kept for places that have exceptional starry nights and a unique nocturnal environment. It’s the best place in Australia to see the Dark Emu.

Coonabarabran cave

As a child, I thought these attributes made Coona the place furthest away from anything interesting. As an adult, though, my favourite place to be in the world is just outside this small town, at the observatory lookout, staring across the range towards the Breadknife rock formation. The best of human striving is behind me, and the best of nature is in front. This place delineates the lines where human need meets the natural world.

As a human rights lawyer, I live by Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1958 maxim on how best to measure global progress:

“… where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

Recently, I’ve started thinking about the future of climate justice and the associated problems of mobility and adaptation. And I’ve realised that one way to start exploring these issues is by going home and posing a simple yet painful question: what would make the people of Coonabarabran walk away from the place where they live? And have they already started to leave?

Please read the rest of the article at Griffith Review ‘Leaving Coonabarabran’


Professor Susan Harris RimmerProfessor Susan Harris Rimmer is the Director of the Griffith University Policy Innovation Hub. She was previously the Deputy Head of School (Research) in the Griffith Law School and prior to joining Griffith was the Director of Studies at the ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.

With Professor Sara Davies, Susan is co-convenor of the Griffith Gender Equality Research Network. Sue also leads the Climate Justice theme of the new Griffith Climate Action Beacon.

Susan is the 2021 winner of the Fulbright Scholarship in Australian-United States Alliance Studies and will be hosted by Georgetown University in Washington DC.

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