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Somewhere in central Australia

Deadly Treadlies was a bicycle recycling project minted in 2003 in Alice Springs by Ian Sweeney and Mick Cafe, working for the Tangentyere Council and Central Land Council. In brief, the project provided the materials and skills to recycle 2nd hand bikes for the Alice Springs community. It won awards, it recycled bikes and it kept Ian Sweeney off the street – all good news.

I went out to visit Ian in 2008 for about 10 days and spent a couple of days with him in the Larapinta Valley camp where he was managing the administrative centre for the camp. Ian and I spent two days fixing bicycles, recycling old parts and generally getting kids on 2 wheels in a collaborative workshop setting. It was part of the kids activities roster for the camp and it was great to get out there and be a tiny part of developing the bicycle scene in Alice. At the time I felt pretty ill-equipped to really ‘touch base’ with the community other than to be another well intentioned ‘blow-in’ from the big smoke. But bicycle repair was the only thing I really had to offer, other than an open mind, and for whatever it was worth, they got what I had while I was there.

Larapinta Valley Admin Centre front and back verandahs

To say it was rewarding is a massive understatement and I gained a whole lot more than I gave. As part of my day job I had done some aboriginal cultural heritage awareness training and so that had essentially briefed me on some of the most easily grasped issues, Ian filled in some of the finer detail about the work his does and the community I was visiting. It was a week that I won’t forget and feel now that I was given a real gift – just being out in that part of the country is special. Ian had been out there for about 5 years at the time, and since having a short sabbatical in Melbourne, he’s back out there again working with the community. The desert can capture a man’s heart so they say.

Something that I saw that will stick with me was this little girl who hadn’t ridden a bicycle before, getting on, pushing off, then riding through the sand like it were mown grass. Cycling in sand is hard and cycling for your first time usually takes some time to master – heading off into the sand is the cycling equivalent of jumping off a harbour ferry to learn to swim. It was impressive from a girl who was probably three and a half.

Somewhere else in Central Australia

I’m writing all this down because I think it illustrates the power of the bicycle to build capacity in communities. The joy of riding a bicycle is something that has no boundaries, and is easily shared with a simple smile. Its also a damn useful, sustainable, cheap and appropriate transport mode.

I’ve recently written a review of the movie Bicycle Thieves and although it’s not much of a ‘cycling movie’, it is a story that illustrates how a bicycle can create markets, economies and sustainable work. Perhaps I am making too much of all this, but suspend your disbelief for a moment, and imagine a city with all it’s short, commuter and general transport trips taken by bicycle. It’s a deadly idea.