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They helped build a 'solar village' after Cyclone Tracy. 40 years on Pam and Peter still live off-grid

Saturday November 6, 2021 - 20:42 AEDT
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The Gartons helped build the solar village to demonstrate that communal off-grid living was possible. - ABC

Pam and Peter Garton's children didn't get much screen time growing up.

The family was part of a community-led vision to build a "solar village" in bushland near Darwin in 1978, four years after Cyclone Tracy flattened the city.

"The children certainly didn't feel any need for television, they had plenty to explore outside," Ms Garton said.

"It was a favourite place for friends too ? school friends used to enjoy coming out here because it was a bit of an adventure."

Now, the Gartons are the last founding residents still living at the village, which has 13 off-grid blocks of bushland in the Northern Territory rural region of Humpty Doo.

It was the "enormous generosity" of others ? donations of time and money ? that brought the village to life, according to the Gartons.

Students from the University of Queensland were also involved.

"They did all the research, looked at all the options and sent this amazing document to us in about a year," Mr Garton said.

Looking back through the faded family photos, the Gartons joke that Darwin could have built an "alternative energy" satellite city after Cyclone Tracy.

"The whole Top End of the Northern Territory, the infrastructure was destroyed," Mr Garton said.

"There were all sorts of open questions about how Darwin should be rebuilt and we thought we could contribute to that decision."

The urgency to rebuild and debate at the time about the longevity of fossil fuels meant their ideas gained some traction with government.

"That was in the early days of self-government of course, when the people who were running the Northern Territory were not just the bureaucrats, they were locals and they were people we knew," Mr Garton said.

"They didn't dismiss us."

In the end, the solar village concept was pursued via an environment peak body the Gartons set up.

"We decided that it's all very well talking to government and having these ideas, we really had to demonstrate that it could be done," Mr Garton said.

"So we advertised for volunteers to get together and establish a solar village near Darwin."

One of the main contributors was electrical engineer Owen Peake and his family, who became the Gartons' neighbours.

Mr Peake worked for, and went on to become the chief executive of, the NT's power and water authority.

"He knew everything about everything electrical. Although we had ambition to use solar power, he was able to help us from an electrical point of view to make it work," Mr Garton said.

"The sort of equipment that you had available was pretty primitive and noisy, now it's all automatic."

"But it was fun at the time ? lots of energy and commitment."

The residents moved a huge ex-Navy water tank to the village for its water supply, navigating tightly spaced road signs and low-hanging power lines.

"We had a group of people in front of the truck going along and cutting the signs off so we could get the truck through, and another couple of people behind welding the signs back together again," Mr Garton said.

"We also had a couple of people with tall poles, holding up the power lines where they were too low."

"Being people with limited resources, we had to be fairly creative in achieving our goals."

The group also negotiated to buy several windmills from a pastoral station for $500 each. 

"We all took a fortnight off work, we got a couple of trucks and lots of equipment and we went and pulled down four 24 foot-diameter windmills," Mr Garton said.

Mr Garton said the station owner confessed later he did not think the group would be able to dismantle and transport them.

"He said, 'You bastard, you took all my windmills'. I said, 'You sold them to me'. He said, 'I know, I didn't think you could get them down'."

Gazing up at the roof of their home, Mr Garton explains how it was built.

"This big beam across here was left over from the Adelaide River bridge," he said.

"A friend of ours, an engineer, gave us that.

"I was telling him how I was going to build a bridge out of scrap steel and he said, 'I've got some spare beams, I build bridges for the government, I'll send you some', and he sent a truck and crane."

The Gartons said life off-grid now was much easier, despite the harsh Top End climate.

"Solar panels were nowhere near as efficient as they are now," Ms Garton said.

"It's a very comfortable house to live in, the rammed earth walls are 12 inches thick so they maintain temperature fairly consistently.

"We don't think about the need for air-conditioning. We've got a small spa pool, we have all the conveniences we need."

Ms Garton said the solar village experiment had been a success, for her family and as a demonstration to others.

"You can imagine our frustration when we watch what happens politically now and the sorts of repetition of the things that we were talking about 50 years ago," Ms Garton said.

In the beginning, the couple said they investigated the reasons other communal projects succeeded or failed.

Mr Garton said the two essential elements ? according to researchers ? were an intention to contribute to society, rather than drop out, and a way for residents to exit.

"So we bought the land as a company and anyone who put money in got an entitlement to a block, according to how much money they put in."

Ms Garton agreed it was a pragmatic approach to communal living.

"We were never a commune," Ms Garton said.

"We were definitely pragmatic and we were always conscious of the legal position so everyone was secure, that nobody would be left bereft if they wanted to move on."

Anna Weekes and Liam Golding are among the next generation of families living off-grid in the village, inheriting their block from the late environmental activist Hip Strider.

Mr Strider was a school friend of Mr Garton's and lived at the village until his death in 2015.

The couple transported an old RAAF house onto their block and they generate enough solar electricity to use air-conditioners.

"I'm really proud of the legacy of the solar village. I'm really proud of the hard work that people before us have put in and our ability to live off-grid," Ms Weekes said.

"We've got really great neighbours ? there is this new generation of people moving into the solar village and investing."

"A lot of our kids go to the local school so there's quite a lot of continuation of community-building that the solar village was really integral in, in the beginning."

As an ecologist, Mr Golding said he was particularly interested in the regeneration of the once sparse bushland because of the deliberate exclusion of fire from the area.

"We want to keep it in a really good state, it's high conservation value," Mr Golding said.

"When they first came here it was heavily degraded. Now, ecologically it's transitioned to another state, has a whole bunch of different mammals and also different tree species and we want to maintain it.

"It's a great snapshot of what can be done when people get together in the spirit of community science and make something happen."

The couple said they were determined to keep sharing their block and the story of the village with others.

"It feels like a big responsibility sometimes and it's a bit daunting, there's a lot of bush to look after," Ms Weekes said.

"You want to be honouring the hard work that people have done prior to us."


© ABC 2021

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