Tombstone Fairies restore historic graves

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Denmark 6333
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ABC Great Southern

By Aaron Fernandes

Updated

October 06, 2017 19:24:22

Video: The Tombstone Fairies of WA's Great Southern

(ABC News)
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Hundreds of neglected graves in country Western Australia have been given a much needed spruce up courtesy of a renegade group known as the Tombstone Fairies.The Tombstone Fairies is a group of volunteers in the Southern WA town of Denmark, who put aside local laws to preserve history in rural graveyards by bringing tombstones back to life.”We felt that this was really important and so we just did it,” Tombstone Fairy Bev McGuinness said.”That’s how the ‘Tombstone Fairies’ came about, we’ve flown in, done the job and flown out again.”Headstones can tell you so much about families, and it’s always exciting to find someone that you’re connected to if you’re hunting for someone in a cemetery.”

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Tombstone Fairy Ross McGuinness touches up a forgotten headstone. I finally found her, where was she buried down the road from the house I grew up in.” Photo:
Mrs Smeed photographed two days after her family drowned. (Supplied: Denmark Historical Society)
Only the mother of the family and one child, who were not on board, survived.”There is a photo of Mrs Smeed taken at her house a few days after the deaths … it’s almost as if she had a premonition not to go in the boat because she knew something would happen,” Ms McGuinness said.Two years ago, the Tombstone Fairies were contacted by descendants of the Smeed family.”We had two people in the space of a month come looking for the family. They knew about the drowning but they had no idea that they were all buried here in a line,” Ms McGuinness said. The cemetery opened following the deaths of three children due to influenza.”Having lived here long enough now, I recognise the names of really early settlers and the contributions they’ve made,” Ms McGuinness said.”People often contact us who are searching for relatives who were early settlers, with the possibility that they might be buried here in Denmark.”Walking the rows of tombstones today, it is remarkable how many are inscribed with the names of children.”Particularly in the early years of the cemetery, there were not the drugs available to help children when they got sick,” Ms McGuinness said.”Diphtheria, whooping cough and influenza were probably the three major killers of young children at that time.”Cemeteries as a place of discoveryWhile many people may find being surrounded by graves unsettling, for the Tombstone Fairies it is a chance for discovery.”I’m a passionate family historian, so I’ve been interested in cemeteries for a very long time,” Ms McGuinness said.”I was hunting for someone in my family for 30 years. They are the burial plots of an entire family who drowned in a nearby river.”The Smeeds were a local family who lived near Wilson Inlet until 1911,” Ms McGuinness said.”They took a boat ride on the lake, the wind picked up and they were swept into a deep channel.”The wind tipped the boat over and all seven drowned, children as well as adults. Photo:
The graves at Denmark Cemetery preserve the stories of early settler life. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Drowning deathsSeven headstones lie in a row at the centre of the cemetery. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Fairies fly around the lawShire of Denmark spokesperson Claire Thomas said it can’t grant the ‘fairies’ any rights to restore the graves as the rights belong to the families of the deceased, under the WA Cemeteries Act.”We want to make it clear that we haven’t given [the Tombstone Fairies] permission,” Ms Thomas said.”Because that’s not something we can do.”Passionate Tombstone Fairy Ross McGuiness said the fairies flew ahead with their plans nonetheless.”There were over 200 headstones that needed work,” he said.”So it was more or less that if the fairies came and did some work on the headstones, no-one would know who was responsible.”We’re not defacing them, we’re not altering them.”We’re simply making them legible so that people can find their family members when they come looking.”

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Three of the headstones of the Smeed family who drowned in 1911. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Early settler life and deathDenmark cemetery first opened in 1911, when the town remained a fledgling farming settlement of around 300 people.

Is it wrong to poach African wildlife? The answer is complicated

Travellers tailor the trip they want, a combination of local guides and the Blevin brothers take the traveller into a wilderness area, and money is reinvested into directly into that community.”At the very least, every single one of our tours will spend some time in local communities on a trip — whether it’s a day to three — and those tourist dollars are seen.”One of the most important aspects to this is ensuring communities begin valuing tourists.”This was an issue with large tourist organisation from developed nationals, such as the US, the UK and Australia, “Mr Blevin said.”A lot of tour providers simply take a wealthy family from a developed nation, fly them into five-star luxury lodge and then fly them out again.”Neither the tourists, nor the local community nor that wildlife they’ve just viewed will see any of those dollars because it’s consumed by the lodge, the travel companies, and the people who book the trips for them.”Eyes openedMr Blevin was born and bred in Zimbabwe, but his family left their farm in 2003 as a result of the Mugabe government’s controversial land reform program.It was this move to Australia that opened Mr Blevin’s eyes to just how dire the wildlife situation was in Africa. (Supplied by Diwa Zambezi)
So they set up the tour company. “It makes it a lot cheaper and not only that — 100 per cent of those funds contributed go directly into protecting what our clients just looked at.”If nothing is done, then expert predicts that elephants in the wild will be extinct within 30 years and as soon as 12 years.”Rhinos much sooner than that unfortunately,” he said. (Supplied (Diwa Zambezi))
“We spent a lot of time around the world, and in Australian particular, seeing how well-looked after wilderness areas and wildlife are here,”It makes you realize how poorly looked after and protected the species in places in and around Zimbabwe are not looked after.”We just realised immediately that is a big problem and we needed to help fix it.”Mr Blevin grew up speaking one of the official Zimbabwean languages, Shona, and this has also been instrumental to the tourism venture.”It makes a significant difference to your ability to really connect to Zimbabwe.”It took moving to Australia for me to realise how special this was.”To the local Zimbabweans, the ability of a ‘European’ man to speak Shona is a sign of respect for their culture and their home.”It has also opened doors for the tourism venture. Photo:
Nicholas Blevin (right) with brother James set up Diwa Zambezi to protect African wildlife. “The fact my brothers and I grew up in Zimbabwe means we’re connected to a lot of the tour providers in Africa, which means we can offer local rates. (Supplied)
It is a start, but shifting the value of wildlife from its carcase to a tourism dollar will not happen overnight.During a recent visit to Zimbabwe, Mr Blevin visited a primary school and asked the 200 children whether it was wrong to poach.”Two of them said it was a bad thing. The rest said it was all okay.”It is for us to try and create a value around their wildlife, which means employment opportunities, which means education.”Unless the developed world created value and protection for these species, it would not be long before the only vision of an elephant would be a photograph,” Mr Blevin said.”And it’s not that far off.”Tourism ideaThe idea for the travel arm evolved after the brothers set up the charity three years ago and they discovered just how difficult it was to fundraise.”Money talks.”

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Diwa Zambezi raises money through travellers to protect wildlife, like these elephants. While the developed world is outraged by the poaching of African wildlife, a central Queensland man, who grew up in Zimbabwe, says there is a reason for it.Teacher Nicholas Blevin regularly returns to his homeland of Zimbabwe where he said animals were under dire threat from poaching.Up to two-thirds of the world’s large animals, including elephants, rhinoceros, and big cats, face extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.A significant threat is due to the illegal bushmeat trade and poaching, but this is where it becomes complicated.”The reason for poaching is that killing animals is something tangible,” Mr Blevin said. Blevin brothers James and Benji with guide Rex. Photo:
Diwa Zambezi employs local communities to create tourism value. “The village will get meat, they’ll get bones that they can carve into trinkets, tools and obviously ivory and another bits and pieces.””It’s far more valuable to sell them than it is to look at them on the plains.”It is because of this that Rockhampton-based Mr Blevin and his brothers, James and Benji, set up a wildlife conservation charity, Diwa Zambezi, a tour company that pours all its profits back into local communities.
ABC Capricornia

By Inga Stünzner

Updated

October 06, 2017 19:54:56

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Tourist dollars go directly to the protecting the very animal the traveller sees. ((Supplied: Diwa Zambezi))
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Rockhampton 4700