Protesters aiming to protect the Djab Wurrung trees from destruction by Vic Roads in 2019 (Image: Supplied)

Lidia Thorpe first heard that sacred Djab Wurrung trees were set to be destroyed when she was still the Member for Northcote, a state seat in Melbourne’s inner north.

Speaking to me earlier this year, the Gunnai-Kurnai and Gunditjmara grandmother explains that she was emailed by a number of non-Aboriginal groups in the area warning her of the proposed bulldozing by the Victorian government. Thorpe is a Djab Wurrung woman with an unbroken matriarchal line. Safe to say, the planned destruction of 800-year-old sacred women’s trees piqued her interest.

“So I drove up on the Sunday without talking to anybody, I placed my hand on one of those trees and immediately I felt that connection, that spiritual presence that a lot of those trees and a lot of that area have,” Thorpe says.

“I was overwhelmed, actually. I had no intention of staying the night but I ended up staying the night in Ararat and going back the Monday morning and doing some media around it. That was over a year ago. We started a campaign to save the trees, gathered people to stand on the frontline and set up a protest site which obviously still remains today.”

Since then, the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy has grown from a team of around a dozen in June 2017. Their goal was to use their bodies to halt construction of the Western Highway duplication project by Major Road Projects Victoria. It’s a standoff that saw the agency agree to protect at least 15 culturally significant trees in May.

Now there are hundreds of protesters at the site; camp spokesperson Amanda Mahomet says roughly 500 volunteers joined their ranks mid-week. Crikey was unable to verify this, but did spy at least 150 at one of the three major camp sites.

That growth is in part due to the fact that police have been expected since an eviction notice came into effect Wednesday night. Environment Minister Sussan Ley officially rejected federal protection earlier this month. The group was informed of their potential arrest in mid-August by waking to 14-day eviction warnings plastered across gates.

Arriving at the camp on Thursday morning, there’s a welcoming atmosphere. Small campfires are ever-present; there’s a constant flurry of events; and music is blasting from somewhere, which included Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty”.

Camps, portable toilets, solar panels, a message board filled with tasks and offers, and a wooden makeshift house litter top camp. One of the sacred women’s trees is blocked off to men and photographers. Still, it’s unquestionably stunning.

Groups work to either paint, cook, chop, or dig. Other volunteers lead legal training groups, providing tips on what getting arrested might look like, or conduct camp check-ins around the fire, providing general information and self-care tips.

Handmade signs are plastered over every conceivable area of the site, written in both English and Djab Wurrung. This was done in part, hilariously, by a volunteer who found and re-purposed a stack of discarded United Australia Party corflutes.

Campers are bracing for cops but, despite the eviction deadline passing, they never come. The most interaction police have had so far is a tour of the car park by the Ararat sheriff. The going theory around camp is that, with numbers peaking at 500 on Wednesday and media still roaming, police will wait until numbers die back down.

With no cops to resist, activists take to convincing locals in town. They have exactly no luck.

Responses range from valid reasons for a road upgrade (one woman had lost someone to a road accident), arguments against Djab Wurrung protesters (“where were they back when the road was built in the ’60s?”) to outright malice (“I’d burn it if I could”, a woman says while smiling).

Later that day, I think of Thorpe’s one request: for all groups — Djab Wurrung and government, supportive and antagonistic environmental groups, and Arrart locals — to meet and work on a compromise.

“We don’t need to go down that path [with police], we don’t want to have people to be hurt, we want to sit down and have a respectful about a way forward,” Thorpe said. “But it can’t be with the government’s processes, it has to be with our senior Djab Wurrung women who’ve protected this area from day dot.”

As Crikey publishes, police have yet to arrive. A boat-like structure wrapped in tarp has been lifted into one tree, along with supplies in preparation, presumably, for more drastic actions. Among campers there is still hope for the Djab Wurrung songline.