ABC: Jabiru's first underwater hockey league helps breathe life into mining town winding down

Publish Date:
30th May 2018

read on ABC website

by Jesse Thompson and Annie Brown

Drive through Jabiru on the right day and the looming expiry date of the town's mining heart is all too evident.

But stop by the swimming pool on a Tuesday night and its lanes are humming with life.

It's rehearsal time for Jabiru's inaugural underwater hockey league, and a thick, smoky haze is cast over the pool as the dry season causes temperatures to drop to a brisk 25 degrees.

"If you're shivering you're not working hard enough," Denise House, a player of 24 years, shouts.

Ms House is the team's coach, captain, cheerleader and founder, having established the sport here when she moved to Jabiru at the end of January.

She seizes a waterproof camera and drums up cheers from the audience — a few families that have gathered poolside to watch the spectacle.

"There's not much here for kids and adults to do sport-wise," Ms House said.

"This is something different, and you don't have to have brilliant hand-eye coordination.

"You don't have to be committed; it's like whoever turns up, you're on this team, you're on this team, so it's not like when you do a sport and it's a season."

Her team of about 15 players, most of them local children, agree.

"We don't really get to do much in Jabiru so it gives us something to do on the weekends," one team-mate said.

'They thought it was a joke'

Little more than 1,000 people live in Jabiru but the number has slowly declined in recent years.

Situated about 250 kilometres east of Darwin in Kakadu National Park, the town was built in 1982 to support the large uranium mine operated by Energy Resources Australia (ERA) on its outskirts.

As the expiry of ERA's lease in 2021 draws near, a question mark hangs over the town's future.

Many locals work either in the mine or for the services that support its employees and their families and other options for work are thinning. Jabiru's hairdresser, coffee shop and bakery have all closed in recent years.

Amid this climate, it was Ms House who convinced her family to relocate to the town despite facing unemployment while her partner worked in the mine's rehabilitation.

Initially they declined the offer.

"Then we discussed and we said: 'Look, let's embrace the uncertainty, take the adventure,'" she said.

"Then we said: 'Yep, let's do it, because how often do you get the chance to live in a World Heritage-listed national park?'"

She recalled learning the town had an Olympic-sized swimming pool and making a beeline for the facility's manager so as to get a hockey league up and running within weeks.

The response from locals was incredulous.

"They didn't think it was real; they thought it was a joke."

Earlier in the day someone told the ABC it was a good-looking way to drown.

But Ms House said she felt an obligation to introduce the sport to the town.

"I think it was important for my mentality and my fitness," she said.

"If you've got something that you can bring to the community, why not?"

Plans beyond 2021 hatched

Ask people why they enjoy living in Jabiru and many may tell you that a World Heritage-listed site is a special place to call home.

But some also said there was little that reflected this in the current layout of the town.

"At the moment you come and you come to the back of all the shops — there's no real sense that you're in Kakadu National Park at all," Justin O'Brien, the CEO of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, has previously said.

Draft plans for the town beyond 2021 reported in March showed a pivot to tourism, including a significant redevelopment of key sites to make use of the unique setting.

There will be significant change, and significant challenges, especially as ERA's lease requires it to rehabilitate the area before withdrawing from the town, possibly taking with it essential services like power, water and housing.

Overseeing this transition sounds like a headache, but John Bray insists he has the best job in Australia.

Mr Bray is the regional director for Jabiru with the Chief Minister's department and he has an optimistic attitude about the years ahead, even canvassing a solar future for the town.

Still, he's expecting an exodus of the locals he has come to know by 2021.

"That's a given," he said.

"What our research studies have shown is that we expect a transition from a mining-based economy to a tourist and a government services town, and to me that's exciting."

Mr Bray is confident broad support for the draft from Mirarr traditional owners will convince tiers of government and other stakeholders to get behind the plan, whose approval is critical to a new lease being agreed upon.

"We're expecting a 19A lease, which at the moment has in-principle agreement between the Commonwealth and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation," he said.

"That 19A lease will provide a 99-year lease [over the township], and that 99-year lease will then provide the guarantee or the provision for businesses to invest in the town."

Some of the biggest concerns come from the handful of long-term residents who work in the mine but wish to stay in the town beyond 2021.

"I'm sure there'll be an opportunity for those people to stay," Mr Bray said.

"It may not be in the mining sense but it may be in some other type of industry that may be generated here."

Future league

Jabiru's tourism future isn't the only big plan for the town.

Ms House wants to see the establishment of an official Northern Territory underwater hockey state team within the next two years.

Rehearsal had finished and most of the team had broken into shivers as they debriefed.

"That doesn't mean they have to be amazing players; it's just a matter of them wanting to give it a go and go off to another state to play, or even play in Cairns or somewhere else," Ms House said of the league.

"It'd be great if this could continue to other small areas in the Northern Territory as well."

Ms House is one of the many families whose future in the town past 2021 is uncertain but her outlook remains positive.

The sport has been established and local support is strong; it would be difficult to continue without a town to play in — or the people who live there.