As Kuyani man Tony Clark sits on the edge of the vast salt lake he takes a deep breath before attempting to explain what the crusted and speckled red and white Country means to him.
“A place called Arkoona, not far from here, is where a huge massacre took place," he whispers.
"... my great-grandmother’s grandmother was actually shot in one of the sandhills out there.”
It’s hot and windy. A tear slides slowly down the side of his face.
“Our riches are in remembrance of ancestors and where we come from, because we would not be here if it wasn't for them,” he says.
“And we're here to protect the very land that they owned, not to destroy it, certainly not to destroy it for our children either.
“We want them to sit in the same spot where I'm sitting now and enjoy what they see, a beautiful Country.”
Lake Torrens is a special place which connects the Barngarla, Kokatha, Kuyani and Adnyamathanha people.
It’s sacred to me too. I am Kokatha, and a journalist. I’ve driven the 400 kilometres north from Adelaide to see for myself the potential threat the drilling operation poses, as well as what is at stake.
Tony Clark has been initiated into manhood, a cultural practice his people still undertake.
As he sits on a dirt mound, talking about injustices his people continue to endure today, just a stone’s throw behind him, a drilling rig with workers from Kelaray prepares to puncture the lake.
The company has been granted permission by SA Premier Steven Marshall to drill between 170 and 1230 drill holes over three phases to “assess the potential for economic mineral deposits”.
It’s unclear what will happen to the Lake if they find any.
Because of its significance, the company was required to apply for permission to legally “damage, disturb or interfere with” an Aboriginal site under South Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Fifteen Traditional Owner groups strongly opposed the application, and FOI documents obtained by The Point show the state government’s own Aboriginal heritage advisory group also recommended the proposal be rejected.
It moved a motion of opposition against the project on 10 September 2020 because of the site’s Aboriginal cultural significance and the lack of support from Traditional Owners.
But three months later, in the quiet period between Christmas and New Year, the premier Mr Marshall, who is also the state's minister for Aboriginal Affairs, signed off on it anyway.
Mr Marshall declined The Point's request for an interview.
'A travesty of justice'
“To us, the silver, gold, oil, whatever, it’s of insignificance to this Country, especially where in this area, and in Australia, many of our ancestors are buried in the sand,” says Traditional Owner Mr Clarke.
One of the Traditional Owner groups, the Barngarla people, have launched a legal challenge to stop the drilling from going ahead. Another group is also planning a separate challenge.
The Barngarla Aboriginal Determination Corporation chairman, Jason Bilney, says his people were not consulted properly.
“We’re not against development or mining, we’re all about working together, and where they can and can't mine, and some places they just can't mine at all,” he says.
“This is just one of those places they can’t mine.
“It’s basically like putting a knife in your mother you know, you’re putting a hole, you’re destroying your Country, you’re destroying that storyline, let alone the underground water aquifer, because everything is connected to all of us.
“We are protectors of our own land, so we have got an obligation to protect and preserve mother nature and protect our culture and what's left for us.”
In January this year, a state government spokesperson defended the premier’s decision, saying there would not be permanent damage to cultural heritage during the drilling exploration.
“The decision was taken after extensive consultation with Aboriginal people and organisations,” the spokesperson said.
“The exploration program will not permanently impact the anthropological and cultural heritage of Lake Torrens.”
But Uncle Harry Dare, an Elder for the Barngarla nation, says drilling on any part of the lake will do more than impact the cultural heritage of all four First Nations tribes.
“Them breaking our storylines and our songlines through that Country is actually destroying us as a people,” he says.
Mr Dare says the four First Nations groups surrounding the lake need to put aside any tensions and unite in opposition to the proposal.
“I believe that the only way we’re going to go forward, is if we stand together as one.
“Let’s give away our little petty differences about, ‘I’m Barngarla, you’re Kokatha, you’re Kuyani, you’re Adnyamathanha’, whatever. This is bigger than us. This is something that we have to fight for together - united we stand.”
A parliamentary inquiry is underway in SA to review the strength of the state’s cultural heritage laws, particularly the policies and standards.
SA Greens MP, Tammy Franks, says the decision by the premier to approve the Lake Torrens project despite widespread opposition, including from the State Aboriginal Heritage Committee, showed the laws need to change.
“The premier has heard those 22 groups say, 'No' and yet the premier said, Yes. The premier shouldn’t be allowed to as the minister for Aboriginal affairs...accept and say yes to a mining company when the Aboriginal groups have said no,” she says.
“I think South Australia (has) probably the worst Aboriginal Heritage Act in the country.”
“I think it needs some fixing. I think that Juukan Gorge has shown us that there's a political impetus here and a community uprising asking us to do better.”
Mr Marshall and representatives of Argonaut Resources’ Kelaray declined The Point's request for an interview.