Could this be the biggest, longest, most visionary, most ambitious, most interdisciplinary and potentially most consequential community cultural, social and economic development initiative in Australia? (And the Universe?)
- The Inland Astro-Tour (IAT) is a community-driven open source astro-tourism, cultural heritage, community development and STEAM (Science Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Outreach initiative to catalyse new cultural, social, economic and educational opportunities in south-eastern Australia’s rural and remote inland.
- It will link more than 40 astronomical research observatories, dozens of public and private observatories and many sites of astronomical significance, including First Nations sites and the Warrumbungle Dark Sky Park near Coonabarabran, and give visitors to the Inland new opportunities to experience the full glory of the night sky in ways that are not possible in large cities and towns because of light and other pollution.
- An incorporated association, Inland Astro-Trail Inc., was established in 2017 to develop, promote and manage the IAT. An IAT Inc. Secretariat will be established as soon as practicable to coordinate and promote themed events, activities and experiences along the IAT, and to work with communities, state and local government authorities and the private sector to attract more visitors to the Inland and catalyse new opportunities for Inland communities.
- IAT Secretariat staff or consultants and volunteers will also conduct research, establish an online presence (dedicated website, social media etc), develop a branding and marketing strategy, coordinate IAT events, lobby, fund-raise, liaise with member groups, and do whatever else is necessary to ensure that the IAT becomes a force for positive change in Inland communities.
- The IAT will use the existing network of Inland highways, country roads and rail lines between Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra to funnel travellers into rural and remote villages and towns and our small inland cities. IAT routes, observatories, sites of significance, events, festivals and other activities and experiences need to be marked on maps and signage, distinctively branded, and promoted through the IAT Inc. Secretariat. Major towns and regional cities along the IAT include Armidale, Tamworth, Narrabri, Coonabarabran, Dubbo, Parkes, Orange, Bathurst, Cowra, Canberra and Wagga. Outliers such as Broken Hill can also be included, as can any other Inland community which has developed or wants to develop activities and experiences that fit within IAT’s broad remit.
- World-class research observatories along the IAT routes include CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) near Narrabri and the Parkes ‘Dish‘; ANU’s Siding Spring Observatory (SSO) near Coonabarabran which is home to around 50 individual telescopes, including the Anglo-Australian Telescope, Sky Mapper, the UK Schmidt and Macquarie University’s new Huntsman Telephoto Array, for example; Sydney University’s Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST / UTMOST) near Bungendore; NASA’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (Tidbinbilla Tracking Station), and ANU’s Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra. All are being used by Australian and overseas astronomers and astrophysicists to answer big questions about our Universe or to receive and transmit data from spacecraft and satellites. Researchers from most Australian universities are involved in this research and data collection, and all could, potentially, contribute to the IAT in more active ways.
- The IAT will be developed in at least three stages. Stage I covers inland NSW from Armidale, Tamworth and Narrabri in northern NSW to Coonabarabran and Dubbo Parkes, Orange, Bathurst, and Cowra to the Southern Tablelands and the ACT, and south into the Riverina (the 700 Kilometre Array region). Stage II will extend the IAT south into inland Victoria to include the historic Ballarat Observatory and Mount Burnett Observatory in the Dandenong Ranges. Stage III will extend it north into inland Queensland to include a range of observatories, such the Charlesville Cosmos Centre.
- Many locally based astronomers operate private observatories near inland towns, such as Tamworth, Coonabarabran, Dubbo, Parkes, Orange, Bathurst, Cowra, Canberra, and Wagga. Astronomical groups, including the Canberra Astronomical Society, Central West Astronomical Society (Parkes) and the Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club (TRAC), offer public stargazing opportunities, day-time astronomy and astrophotography. Planetariums are also being developed in Tamworth and Orange and, on completion, will become major IAT attractions. The Tamworth facility is already funded while Orange is awaiting funding.
- The IAT traverses the Country of many First Nations peoples, including the Gamilaraay, Wiradjuri, Ngunnawal, Ngarigo and Walgalu where locals have been observing the sky for 65,000+ years. First Nations communities are now actively reviving and reclaiming their astro-heritage and reconnecting their ancient songlines. First Nation cultural astronomers are now available to share some of their knowledge with their own communities and the general public.
- The inland highways that are part of the IAT are used by thousands of ‘Grey Nomads’, southern sunseekers, family holidaymakers and truckies who regularly drive between Melbourne and Brisbane. Many of these travellers could be induced to spend more time and money in inland communities. A well-promoted and coordinated program of unique, high-quality cultural events and experiences, including astro-themed arts/science festivals, performances, stargazing, observatory tours, and geocaching expeditions, could encourage them to stay one or more extra nights. Such a program would also offer Inlanders new cultural, social, educational and economic opportunities.
- CSIRO and universities which own and operate research observatories along the IAT will be strongly encouraged to engage more effectively with local people in the towns and rural localities hosting their installations and to acknowledge their responsibility to provide rural communities, especially young people, with the same or similar learning opportunities they offer city people. CSIRO will also be strongly encouraged to update and upgrade its Visitor Centre at the Parkes Observatory (and websites) to a standard comparable with NASA’s Canberra Deep Space Centre and other internationally significant astronomical installations, and, in its static and interactive displays, refer to First Nations astronomers and the diverse settler-descendants who have gazed at the night sky from Inland NSW. CSIRO will also be encouraged to more fully interpret past and current research being undertaken with the Parkes ‘Dish’. There’s much work to be done to bring the Parkes Visitors Centre up to world-standard.
- Astro-tourism is a growing sector of the global tourism market and could attract thousands of international visitors, especially from countries where the night sky is so light polluted that few stars are visible. Potential source regions include all of Asia, Western Europe, and North and South America. The IAT’s international dimensions require further research, the development of world-class venues and ‘product’, and a carefully targeted marketing campaign.
- To attract global attention, the IAT needs an international signature event, such as a prestige festival modelled on existing international astro-festivals, such as the EU’s Starmus and the BlueDot Festival at Jodrell Bank Observatory, UK. Such a festival could be a cascading series of celebrations along the full length of the IAT (a longitudinal festival) over a 2-4 week period rather than a single event. The cascading longitudinal model would ensure that the maximum number of communities benefit. Suggested sites for the ‘cascades’ include Tamworth, Narrabri, Coonabarabran, Dubbo, Parkes, Orange/Bathurst, Canowindra/Cowra, Bungendore, and Mount Stromlo.
- ‘Satellite’ or fringe festival activities could be held along the IAT signature festival. These could include local cultural heritage and art exhibitions and performances, local food and wine, bushwalking, farm tours, wildlife experiences, sports activities, talks and conferences, special geocaching events, and an international 700 kilometre Astro-Cycling tour between Mount Stromlo in the ACT and the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri, for example. Moonlight cycling events to local observatories to view the moon close-up with local astronomers could also be instituted along the IAT. (The Astro-Cycling concept has already been discussed with people at ANU, and with at least one CSIRO astronomer and is considered very achievable.) And, of course, star parties! IAT communities already host a variety of these, but much more could be done in this field.
- Some towns on the IAT already host astro-themed festivals, events and experiences. These include Siding Spring Observatory’s Starfest (October long weekend) and Stargazing Live television series with Brian Cox and other celebrities; Parkes Astro-Fest; the David Malin Astro-Photography Awards exhibition, Condo SkyFest, Coonabarabran’s new Festival of the Stars and International Dark Sky Week celebrations (April). Local community groups, observatory operators, and tourism businesses offer other astro-themed experiences. The organisers and their communities would all benefit if these events were branded, marketed and enhanced with the support of the IAT Secretariat.
- The very different demographics of the East Coast and the Inland need to be carefully considered in devising IAT events and marketing strategies. Just 13% of the state’s population lives west of the Great Dividing Range. The rest of the population lives on the East Coast, the overwhelming majority of them in Greater Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong. The demographic differences between Inlanders and Coastals are substantial, however. As the ABS stats reveal, Inlanders tend to be older, poorer, less well educated, less healthy, more conservative and significantly less culturally diverse than Coastal people. The Great Dividing Range is, therefore, a cultural as well as a geographical
- Most Inland rural communities are overwhelmingly of ‘white’ three-plus generation Anglo-Celtic descent with relatively little experience of cultural difference. Only a small minority was born oversea. In some metropolitan coastal communities, on the other hand, first generation migrants, many of them from India and China, constitute up to 50% of the population. Another third of Coastals are the children of migrants. These demographic differences are most evident in Sydney and Melbourne where more than half of all migrants and their children live. These groups tend to have little or no connection with rural or regional Australia and, according to anecdotal evidence, are unlikely to see any reason to visit the Inland. This lack of connection to Inland communities means that many Coastals negatively stereotype Inlanders just as many Inlanders negatively stereotype them. One of the IAT’s greatest challenges, therefore, will be to induce recent migrant groups to cross the Great Dividing Range to experience the Inland for themselves.
- To attract these groups, the IAT Secretariat will need to develop culturally specific programs for city-based migrant communities. These could include events and experiences to enable migrants to explore the ancient skylore of their birth countries. These traditions include ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hellenistic, Chinese, Indian, Arab, Persian, South American, Malay, Celtic and Islander cosmologies, for example.
- The IAT Secretariat and partner organisations could develop cultural exchanges with other astronomically significant places, including, for example, China, Chile, Hawaii, Canary Islands, Manchester UK (Jodrell Bank), the EU States (especially Germany, Spain and France), USA, Canada, Russia, South Africa, and the many countries with Islamic astronomical heritage.
- IAT Inc. will conduct its first AGM after the IAT Symposium in Parkes on 6 February 2019. The new committee is expected to produce a business plan and marketing strategy, conduct a membership drive, lobby, fund raise and establish an IAT Secretariat. Substantial changes to the IAT Inc. constitution are required to ensure that the new organisation can function effectively across the full length and breadth of the IAT region in accordance with the IAT’s founding vision.
- The Inland Astro-Trail was first mooted in a blog post dated 5 March 2016, Introducing the 700 Kilometre Array, by Merrill Findlay on bigskiescollaboration.wordpress.com. The following year, it was discussed in a panel session at the Skywriters Project’s First Big Gig on 8-9 July 2017 in Parkes with Parkes Mayor, Councillor Ken Keith OAM, and astronomers Donna Burton, Les Dalrymple, Peter Starr and Trevor Leaman.
- The IAT will also be featured in the first Skywriters Anthology, a collection of prose and poetry about humanity’s relationship with the Cosmos, as experienced from south-eastern Australia’s rural inland (the IAT region). The book will be published in 2019, in hardcopy and three digital formats and launched along the IAT.
- Many more ideas will be tossed into the pot at our First Inland Astro-Trail Symposium in Parkes, NSW, on 6 February. Please feel free to add your own ideas as comments on this page.
Forbes, 12 January 2019
T: 61 404057162
 A list of current events is now being collated.
Page created 12 January 2019. Last revised 21 January 2019. Then on 4 May 2020, the Astro-Trail was changed to Astro-Tour in response to current research on the tourism industry.