Last Tuesday on the 27th October Chris, Johnny and I headed to the Pine Gap US Military Spy Base 20kms outside of Alice Springs. This was my first visit to Pine Gap and the experience was more significant than I expected. Kaylene, Barwon and I only had a couple of weeks in Alice Springs and when Chris asked me what I would like to do whilst here, I mentioned that I had heard much about this Spy Base and would like to pay a low key visit, just to have a look etc. Chris suggested it might be interesting to do reading from the Gospel of Mark whilst there (as we are keen followers of the Gospel of Mark) as often the place and context you read Scripture profoundly influences the message. This I thought would be a great experience but also quite low key. It turns out that you can’t do low key at Pine Gap.
We found the unmarked turn off quite easily from Stuart Highway as Johnny had attended a couple of the protests in previous years. We drove along Hatt Road in the empty darkness around 8pm, outside of Alice Springs which is in the heart of Australia’s Outback and Wilderness, 1500kms from a Capital City, heading to a site known as one of the world’s largest ECHELON ground stations, home away from home to the US National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency and a place where missiles and other weapons are guided to their destinations in places such as Iraq to harm, kill and destroy. Needless to say I felt a deep sensation of heading into the surreal, which was ironic as, on one hand we were entering the vicinity of what is largely an invisible piece of our society, yet on the other hand is a place that is deathly real.
As we got deeper in we passed two signs indicating we were approaching the Joint Defence Space Facility and should turn around now. We’d never seen such signs before on a public road and wondered about their legal status. We drove on; surely they were just warnings for lost tourists? Surely we had a right to look at a facility built in the country we live? As we approached the last bend we came in view of the entrance to Pine Gap. Lights flooded the road and illuminated the huge wire fences that were only shadowed by the enormous gates and security measures (bit like Jurassic Park really…the theme music stuck in my head for days after). We pulled up underneath a third sign about 100 metres from the gates that indicated if we passed this point we could be imprisoned for 7 years, which wasn’t in my list of things to do in Alice Springs.
As we turned off the engine someone asked if we had a plan, to which we all said ‘nope’. But we did have some Bibles and we got out and sat in the back of the Ute tray, Aussie style, underneath what I’d like to say was the beautiful night sky, but instead it was the scores of security lights burning wastefully into the night. No sooner had we got comfy, looked at one another and comprehended where we were, we heard an alarm and noticed the gates opening slowly to an Australian Federal Police vehicle. “Is this for us?” we asked. Surely not, we were not even close to their ‘prohibited land’ and hardly causing a threat as three blokes with a bible sitting in the back of a Ute. But you guessed it; this was our welcome to Pine Gap. I didn’t expect a cuppa, but things weren’t looking up on our arrival at Pine Gap.
Two officers hopped out of the vehicle and enquired about our business at Pine Gap. Apparently reading the Bible is not the business of Pine Gap and it is actually prohibited, and we were asked to leave the vicinity. We politely questioned the police as to why we were required to move on when we were sitting here peacefully and not even wanting to enter the secured area? We were informed that the even the vicinity of the secure area was out of bounds (sounds like we’re in school now). We asked then where could we go for our bible study? They responded that we shouldn’t be anywhere on the 5kms of Hatt Rd at all. Not looking to get arrested we discontinued our questions and agreed to leave. However, they wanted to take down our drivers license details. Why one of us asked? They responded “to get checked”. We asked, “checked for what?” They said to get checked. So I guess they’ll be ‘checked’.
While they examined and noted our beautiful license photos we took the initiative to do our Gospel reading of Mark 13 real fast. They then searched our vehicle and took its details down and thanked us for our cooperation. We said no worries and hoped that we had made their night a little bit more interesting. As we got into our Ute and they got into their massive 4wd Federal Police Vehicle fully decked out I asked in humour if they would like to swap vehicles, which only got me a blank look. Fine. Time to leave ‘the vicinity’ of Pine Gap.
When we returned home we spent some time reflecting on our experience and marvelled at the appropriateness of the reading of Mark 13 (which was found and read under extreme pressure!). We remarked similarities of the disciples stating sarcastically in verse 1 ‘Look Teacher what large stones and large buildings’ and the huge temple of war on our left. We noted the irony of the ‘signs’ (v4) as we sat underneath one threatening to take away 7 years of our life. We read the constant urgings of Jesus to ‘be aware (but not alarmed [wait that’s John Howard])’, to watch out, to stay awake in this time of wars and rumours of wars. To stay awake is a repeated discipleship metaphor for Marks Gospel and incredibly relevant for us as we sit in a country that has been in perpetual war for the last 8 years. We also reflected on Jesus’ warning to his disciples ‘you will be handed over to councils, beaten in synagogues and stand before governors and kings’ (v9) while we stood before the Australian Federal Police and were searched, questioned and our behaviour reported to ‘higher authorities’. However, verse 14 hit us like a ton of bricks and as Chris read it in the midst of the police reporting our presence we turned to look at Pine Gap – ‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege setup where it ought not to be…flee to the mountains’ (except it was dark and we couldn’t see the mountains!) Interestingly, one can see pine gap from the nearby mountains, and also be far enough away as to not elicit the attendance of the Feds.
After setting out for a simple look at Pine Gap and a quiet Bible Study our encounter made us aware that we had experienced something significant. To go to such a place as Pine Gap, to open up the Bible where it is not allowed, to challenge the culture of war with Scripture gave us a little taste of the prophets of old and also the prophets of new such as Martin Luther King. And for once in our life we didn’t fall asleep during a bible study! Maybe more bible studies and church meetings should be held in the places where God’s love has been made criminal, illegal and even traitorous. Where the threat of arrest is imminent and the message of Jesus Christ to not harm one another, to love our enemies, to forgive one another and lay down our lives has been forgotten.
Note : Pictures not our own