Homeland [-o-] E-bike 1.0

In the face of a climate catastrophe, can we still find hope? 


When people first hear about the Homeland [-o-] E-bike most people ask how the project got started. I know it sounds dorky but the project emerged out of love. This collaboration between Borroloola homeland and Glowworm Electric Bicycles would have never happened if Jason and I weren't in love and we have our ancestors thank for their guidance. I come from two large Hakka and Sze Yup families who were based in Darwin. My greatgrandparents ran a bake house and store out of Pine Creek, this is on the road out to Borroloola. Jason's mothers mothers country. It seems like the collaboration was destined.


I met Jason's family here on Gadigal country before we were ever able to make it up home. Having our kids grown up in the shop while trying to juggle running this business, meant that family or friends would always make a stop into see the kids. Glowworm has been really lucky to have the family always stop in for a catch-up, feed and test ride. I think the families have enjoyed it too. Almost everyone who has dropped in has tried at least one bike. Scotty often works the odd shift for the store, gaining some training to maintain the homeland ebike. Even mum has jumped in the rainbow trike for a lift to the markets ;)


I think we can all relate to feelings that wash over us when you ride in a bike gang. We just rode to the September 20 climate strike and I felt unbeatable. On one of the most recent visits to the store, a big mob came to town for a film edit and we were also trying to get some of the young guys into school. Of course we went riding during the shop visit and tried to capture some of the experience. Riding bikes and enjoying the living ecologies is my big love at work, that exposure to the living world and enjoying people's reactions who haven't ridden in ages. 



Fast forward to one of my first trips to Sandridge, the outstation we stay on in our homelands near Borroloola. We're super lucky to be invited by Mum Nancy, Dad Stewart and the family. It's located on beautiful Country, roughly 10km from the township and is relatively autonomous because it has a solar system installed. Despite this massive advantage, you are still regularly required to head to town for supplies. 


On a run for supplies, we stopped unexpectedly to pick up some family who had run out of fuel. They had already been waiting a while in the hot winter sun. No big deal, they jumped in and we went to town, picked up supplies and a jerry can of diesel. But the more I listened the more I understood the complexity of that issue.


Just across a swamp from Sandridge is another outstation Wandarngula. This is much larger in size and until a few years back had a school and shop operating out of it. The journey from the outstations to the townships are much more frequent, twice daily during the school term. I learnt that the school had previously taught students in language and the defunding of the school, and more broadly life on the outstations, is tied to the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act rebranded Stronger Futures or more commonly the Intervention.


If you don't already know about this bipartisan policy, please do some research and read up on it. The Intervention is a crafted response suggested to target one fabricated issue. But through critical eyes, the clear motivation is getting people off Country. Reflecting on the situation I described with broken down cars, I see how the Intervention should be addressed. A requirement of welfare assistance is school aged children attendance in government schools. The Wandarngula school teaching in language is no longer an option, the 10km journey needs to be made daily, putting further strain on already finite resources. 


The ebike design was going to originally try to test if a custom designed electric long tail cargo bike could battle the roads in town and out to the outstation. One of my partner's brother after test riding showed an interest in carting his toddler around for the daycare trip which is probably the real moment we thought we could try ebikes in the homelands. But a more pressing issue presented itself in 2018 - contamination of drinking water with lead and manganese in Garrwa 1 and 2 camps. The government wrote to residents saying the levels were too high for consumption especially for babies and pregnant women. 


Just outside Borroloola is a mine that diverted the Narwinbi River once it moved to open cut decades ago. The effect of the mine is really unknown. In law and research, you really need baseline data to show causal effects. This baseline data of the river's health is missing. The community is constantly under threat to continue life on Country. First they were told to stop fishing the river, which literally runs through town and was a huge source of food. Then land holders around the mine had to cull 400 head of cattle over lead contamination. And just last year the water was undrinkable. The bike design changed to respond to this water crisis. 


Despite these catastrophes I feel strong that the issue can be overcome. Listening deeply to the Elders, they need healthy Country not just in its physical health but the relationship with its custodians. The families have identified that an ebike that could access river sites to monitor the water could be useful in their Warburdar Bununu. Speaking to the Elders on a recent trip, I'm continually deepening my understanding on how protecting water is at the heart of having healthy Country and healthy families. This is not just relevant to the mine's activities, the impact of fracking also posses huge threat to water quality. The NT was only recently opened up to fracking and the drills are literally on standby on the road to Borroloola. 


There is a lot more work needed across many areas of the Warbudar Bununu project, particularly funding for research. The community has already partnered with UTS at Jumbunna, ISF and School of Design to establish a methodology for water testing that uses both Western and Garrwa schools of thought. This ground breaking methodology works in both the traditional names of locations along side rigorous data collection that can hold up in court and academic journals. The model of research is based on citizen sensing, where the community regains control over the research. However, we need support on funding this part of the research. 


The function of the ebike is for the citizens to access the cites around the community that will be tested. Using an autonomous, electric lightweight vehicle to gather the baseline data, measure it longitudinally over years aims to hold the mines and corrupt governments accountable for the destruction of the land. At the heart of this ebike design are principles of: self determination, just transitions, and autonomy.


We already sell fat tired electric bikes, but we were able to custom design a bike to suit the harsh conditions of the Gulf. The big shifts in design needed to combat unsealed roads, hot sun, heavy rain, limitations in power access. As a prototype we modified the bike to be more robust and build in fail safes in case of a bad situation. It's actually super late, I've only just finished the bike and the solar setup and tried to write this up before the launch tomorrow.

I'll do more detailed design layout soon. 



So number one approach of the design was working out whether the community wanted the ebike  and what would be the uses. A ebike testing water is very different to an ebike taking kids to school. Once we worked out the main priority of the bike, we started to listen and work out what changes and modifications would be needed to withstand conditions. It definitely helped that I had spent time in Borroloola and it also helped having Scotty stay in Sydney and work at the shop. We were able to come identify some of the key areas that needed modifications to design.


The three main areas we addressed were:

Design that could handle rough conditions including unsealed roads and heavy rain periods

Design that could travel long distances affordably

Design that was autonomous from the system and potentially provided solutions to other issues.


We modified the bike to meet these requirements and designed our own lightweight solar system that could provide energy for the community beyond just powering the bike. The concept originally was just charging two batteries that could both plug into the bike, but really a solar system just for a bike is impractical. We adapted the design so the solar system would charge up a battery, this battery would then pump into an inverter and spit our power just like a power point in a home. Up to 1500W. This is a lot. 


The system can charge phones, laptops, ebike battery, even lightweight well designed Mamoth fridge at 85W. This really just depends on what the community wants to use power for within the limits of the system. This design aligns with a just transitions model, moving away from fossil fuel energy but also considering the requirements of the design to have low impact. i.e. ebike battery uses 1% of lithium compared to an electric car. 


We had to purchase specialist products but all the battery, wiring and connections were mainly recycled from Glowworm Electric Bikes. Our shop prides itself on waste management and has really led the way for other shops in reuse and recycle principles. We also ensured the design of the bike had built in fail safes in case of breakdown. We did also built in fail safes for the solar unit, so if the battery or inverter ever experienced a problem, the solar panel and controller could still charge the bike battery.


When I summarise this project after discussions with other people from other communities I see the potential. Starting with longterm collaboration and deep listening this easy to implement design can provide communities huge benefits for mobility problems with low investment. The model could be easily scaled up to maximise the potential of a just transitions for families and communities most affected by climate change and extractive industries. 



Our kids love spending time at Sandridge. Milyari our first child together is a natural musician and dancer so spending time with the family accelerates the learning and understanding we value in life. Warnurra my baby is a boss and spending time on Country comes naturally to her. Evelyn my oldest loves the bush and animals, especially the green tree frogs. Even if my kids weren't connected to Country, I'm still obligated to protect country. We all are. We all live and experience Country daily and if we want to live a healthy life, we need to care for it first. This applies to where we reside too, here on Gadigal Country.


I'm not from this Country, I don't belong to it but now because of all my family I have a stronger connection to it through our kids. I'm from a different land and only recently had a real urge to follow those ancestral roots to discover that belonging. While I'll always be in a state of becoming and never belonging to this Country, I still want to honour it by following the leadership of its Custodians. I'm grateful for everyone in my life, particularly Aunty Rhonda, who has shown me the way more recently. My family in law have taught me a lot too, especially Mum Nancy. Healthy Country is at the heart of everything. Ontologically I never really comprehended the gravity of this, especially grown up primary on western thought with little connection to my fathers, fathers Taoism. But seeing the gravity of this statement in view of my children's connection to Country and generally the state of everyone's hopelessness, I will stand up and fight with them to protect Country. 







Big shout out to Manny who is a co-designer of the project and I still consider him a Glowworm even though he's not at the shop anymore.

Also credit to Panda for the quick turnaround and blueprint mockup - I used the blueprint for wiring ;)


Want to further help this project? There are many things an individual could do to help us protect Country. Please contact us on email if you want to start a deeper longterm relationship with this project.


Some areas we need help on:

-Funding the research to get professional support from the Institute of Sustainable Futures to develop and hold the research that can hold up in court and academic journals

-Funding the community to support the on the ground researchers. These community members will be facing tough conditions and testing river systems alongside the local crocs

-Funding the freight to get the bike and solar unit to the homeland

-Funding this project to the next level to get more ebike and larger solar systems into the community and other interested communities.

-Talking about the project and sharing this page with friends

-Watching the film Warburdar Bununu to understand the threat to water

-Following the Darrbarrwarra and Indigenous Design Synergies pages


  • Robert Smart

    Raf Van Hulle’s bike that he won France to China Suntrip on:
    Full video of Suntrip with all bikes:
    Fat tyres are not very puncture proof. Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour are the best.
    Pic of my old bike, I’m building a new one https://ibb.co/jZjZ3Fg
    Strive to help our home Earth survive, Bob.

  • Craig Sahlin

    I was lucky to attend last Saturday’s event at the shop.

    Ali and Jason’s story of intertwined indigenous and migrant roots is a classic Australian tale. The strength of family relationships and use of their skills to help their community is inspiring.

    Sobering but not surprising to learn how government policy subsidises fossil fuel companies but not communities and provides no assistance to renewable solutions on outstations.

    Their work is not easy and Ali’s candour about the struggle in keeping everything afloat was moving without being showy.

    I’m not much into Facebook sharing and the like but I will be sharing this story and hoping to contribute in some way.

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