The difference a day makes. Today and Yesterday.
The Kimberley Hotel has two garden bars. One is out the back, beside the pool. On the sunny cooler days of the dry season, when there is no need for air conditioning, it is a popular place for patrons to sit and drink. There is an open passage past the restaurant dining room to the main bar. There, the pool tables are populated by players, who bet money, cigarettes or beer on the outcome of the games. In the front, there is a veranda with tables where bar meals are eaten and another garden bar where on Thursday nights the weekly trivia quiz is held.
This particular Saturday afternoon I was out on the veranda drinking my usual lemon lime and bitters. I was only there on the off chance of a conversation with someone interesting. My bike was parked outside and I was hoping to have a chat with any bikers passing through. I figured the best place to meet them would be the hotel.
The pub was noisy as usual with the buzz of conversation, the knock of billiard balls, and the occasional shout of victory, or a cry of “unlucky!” after a missed shot. On a high stool at the bar behind the pool tables, an old aboriginal gentleman sat quietly alone, sipping a beer. He stepped out onto the veranda for a few minutes to smoke a thin, carefully rolled cigarette. Then he returned to his stool with his beer. He was a handsome old man, with white hair and beard, bushy eyebrows and a weathered face from which his dark eyes twinkled with cheerful humour. He looked for all the world like a kindly old blackfeller Santa.
Outside, a tourist bus pulled up and disgorged its passengers. There seemed to be dozens of them, mostly retirees, by the look of it. They all made a rush for the bar and ordered enough beers and glasses of wine to keep the bar staff busy for a full fifteen minutes. Some also ordered meals and went to imbibe their drinks on the veranda as they waited for the food to arrive. The noise of conversation doubled. One of the tourists, an elderly Englishman with a northern accent, eyed the old Aboriginal gentleman for a while. He seemed to make up his mind about something. Picking up his beer he sidled over and sat on the next stool.
“G’day” he said. “Are you local?”
“Yep.” Said the old man.
“And you’re Aboriginal, right?”
The old man held his arm out beside the Englishman’s. His black skin was answer enough, but “yep” he said laconically.
“Can I ask you a favour then?” said the Pom. We’ve just come up the Tanami from Alice Springs. I bought a boomerang down there. I did not get a chance to ask anyone to show me how to throw it. And I’d like to get a few shots of a real indigenous person throwing a boomerang, to take home. Will you throw it for me?”
The old man looked dubious. “I don’t think so mate” he said.
“I’ll buy you a beer”.
“Alright then. Where’s the stick?”
The Englishman went out to the bus and returned in a few minutes with an enormous boomerang and a digital camera.
The old man took the boomerang and walked out past me to the edge of the veranda. He raised it and threw it towards the bus. Then he turned round and walked straight back to his stool by the bar. He finished his beer in a few swallows, in anticipation of the promised fresh one. The Englishman had started clicking with his camera as soon as the old chap stepped on to the veranda. He walked out, still clicking, following the boomerang with his lens as it veered left away from the bus, lifting and spinning through the air. Over the bus it flew, out over the road beyond and back around high over the trees beside the pub. He ran around behind it, trying to track it as it flew. Chasing it, he disappeared from my sight around the corner of the building. I expected the projectile would land in the pool. I waited to hear the splash, but I was surprised at what happened next.
The boomerang came flying down the passage from the back of the hotel and skittered past the old man’s feet, coming to a halt under the pool table, not more than two metres from where he sat. The pool players went silent looking at it, and at the old man sitting calmly on his stool. A few seconds later the tourist followed it, gushing with enthusiasm.
“That was incredible! That passage is only a few feet wide!” He took a few shots of the boomerang where it had landed and picked it up. Then he went over to the bar and bought the promised beer. “Could you do that again?” he asked. “For another beer? I didn’t get a shot of it flying around the back of the hotel”.
The old man shook his head. “I only do that once a year” he said. “Come back next year.”
The tourist looked disappointed, and for a moment seemed about to try to persuade the old fellow, but it was plain the old man was resolute, so with a sigh of resignation the tourist accepted the decision and patted the old man on the shoulder. “Thanks again. That was really amazing. Wait till I tell them about this back in Kettlewell.”
He went over and sat down with his fellow travellers. He showed them the pictures he had taken on the screen of his camera. There was a murmur of appreciation as he told the story of what they had missed. A few of them raised their drinks to the old man, but he was not looking their way.
After a minute or so the old gentleman rolled himself another cigarette, picked up his beer, and came out onto the veranda to light the rolly.
“That was a great throw” I said.
“Bugger that” he said. “I was taken away when I was eight. I was raised at the mission. That is the first time I’ve ever thrown a bloody boomerang”.
The kids took me to visit the “Jesus Cave” on the bluff out of Balgo. This is a cave once used by the mission nuns as a place of prayer, hence the name. Access to the cave is by an aluminium ladder down a manhole-sized opening on the top of the cliffs of the escarpment. As I climbed out of the troopy and limped down towards the cave entrance, the kids all raced ahead, and then, suddenly came racing back again, screaming.
Sunning itself right by the top of the ladder was a two metre king brown snake. The biggest I have seen in the flesh.
The King Brown, or Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis) is one of Australia’s top ten deadly venomous snakes. I have handled a couple before, but none this big.
I cursed myself for not having brought my camera. I had not brought my catching gear either. One of the boys in particular was totally panicked, and wanted to kill the snake. I tried to explain that this was not a good idea and that provoking a snake was foolish and more than likely to result in someone being bitten. I told them that we should just leave it alone and come back another day. They would not come away with me, and were determined to kill it or chase it away. I could not have that, so I ordered them all to stay back while I moved the snake away with a couple of sticks. This put the lad into even more of a panic, and I realised with just a little gratification that he was afraid for my safety even more than I was concerned for his.
I gently lifted the snake with the sticks and started to move it away from the cave entrance. It did not seem too bothered and allowed itself to be carried, then guided away.
But my young friend was still screaming hysterically that the snake would kill me and started shying stones at it. His aim was not too good, and a couple of the rocks narrowly missed me. I told him to stop because now he was really putting me in danger, but he was too far gone to listen. The others joined him, ignoring my orders to stop. A stone or two hit the snake, and its demeanour changed instantly from passive to aggressive.
I stepped back quicker than my semi-crippled condition would normally allow. The snake followed me as stones continued to rain down on it. Finally it decided it’d had enough of being pelted, and slid down into the cave entrance, ending our chance to visit the cave that day.
On the way back I tried to explain to the youngsters that they should leave snakes alone and that most people are bitten because they try to kill them, but I could tell they were not convinced. Irrational fear is just that. Irrational.
One of the girls had filmed the incident on her phone. I will try to get a copy from her.
I drove to Bililuna on Tuesday, in convoy with Jake. The plan was to check out the reported damage to my donga – my new home – which was broken into on the weekend, and to see what needed to be done at the youth centre, which had been trashed some time before. Afterwards we would proceed to Mulan so I could spend a few days with Tika to see how this job is done.
Past Ruby Plains and the Wolfe Creek turnoff, just after crossing a riverbed, I saw an emu, which is a pretty rare sight these days on the Tanami. I considered that a good omen. Shortly afterwards I came upon a willy-willy twirling on the side of the road. As I approached, it moved across the road in front of me and picked up a shiny green VB beer can which it whirled around and around. I have never seen a beer can being swung around in the air by a whirlwind before. I was wondering what sort of omen that might be, bearing in mind the stories Des tells me of willy-willies being the preferred means of travel of the wise old people, when the beer can suddenly came flying straight at my windscreen. Not sure what to make of that.
It is an odd time to be travelling the Tanami. We drove through a bewildering combination of dust, gravel, sand and mud, under blue skies and blazing sunshine.
At Bililuna, the damage to my future donga turned out to be minimal, a broken window and damaged door lock. However quite a lot of the appurtenances were missing. Moving in might be delayed. We went to the store, to learn that the community had already taken matters in hand. Most of the gear that was stolen had already been returned, and was being stored at the school. Even what remained unaccounted for had been identified, and the culprits had agreed to return. A lesson there. Let the community deal with matters such as this.
For those non-Australians who are wondering what a donga is, it is a small portable house (or office) somewhat larger than a shipping container. The one that will be mine has a double bedroom, bathroom and toilet, lounge area and kitchen/laundry. Perfect for a single man, especially one who is in the throes of downsizing and who intends to end his days as a grey nomad in a caravan or yacht.
We visited the school and introduced ourselves to the principal and staff. There is a new principal since I last visited, and our discussions were very positive. I am looking forward to collaborating with her. This is going to be exciting.
Next to the basketball court to talk to the kids. They were enthusiastic to learn a new youth worker was coming at last, though a couple seemed a bit dubious about my age and physical stature. They were suitably penitent about the damage that had been done to the youth centre, and crestfallen when they realised that I would have been starting that very day, had there been a home for me to move into. They wanted to know if there would be camping, and swimming, and fishing, and football. I assured them that we’d be doing all those activities and more, subject to good behaviour and co-operation.
Jake and I both like a bit of adventure, so we decided to attempt the back road to Mulan despite the recent rains. We soon found our way was blocked by mud holes and swamp where in the dry season there is little but sand to slow one down. We didn’t even get to the river crossings. After exploring a couple of alternate routes that also ended in deep wallows, we reluctantly turned back to Bililuna and headed down the main road via Balgo.
This diversion made us about two hours and a half late. Tika had a meal waiting when we arrived, for which we were most grateful.
The rest of the week I spent in Mulan with Tika, and a very interesting time it was. I re-established contact with some of my network of associates, and even met a few new valuable contacts.
You learn a lot in this job. On Friday, which is movie night, I learned that there is such a thing as cheese-flavoured microwaveable popcorn.
Some Bililuna boys were visiting family in Mulan and I gave them a lift back home today on my way back to Halls Creek for the weekend. We had a good chat. One of them is very enthusiastic about nature, and snakes in particular. We swapped snake stories and talked about the species that can be found in the area. It looks as if I may have found myself some lieutenants already. I undertook to get them a football each if they promised not to cut them up for shanghaies.
They promised. But they will anyway.
Now, I have some more packing up to do.
I have a really good boss. We had our periodic heart to heart today after work, and shared insights and ideas. I really appreciate the support and understanding he displays, and I particularly appreciate that he has no unreasonable expectations. His background and mine are very different, but we share many experiences and opinions.
I had been pretty devastated a while ago when an official of the Department suggested in an email that the Shire (read Alan) was not demonstrating value for the money invested in the program I lead. The problem was that I had not produced statistics sufficient to satisfy the Minister of the number of people I and Des had spent time with, lecturing on Trachoma, handwashing, environmental health and so on. My approach has been to gain some trust, find people who would actually listen, and get them on our side, willing to act to help change the status quo. My argument was that the acceptance and support of one influential person, who will champion our work in the community, was worth a dozen lectures to a dozen young people or their parents trapped at a session they didn’t want to be at, listening to another gardya telling them what is best for them, and forgetting us the minute we drive home.
Time spent with one person who can influence others may be a far better investment. My efforts have been spent doing the rote stuff expected, to an admittedly minimal degree, but I have been working quite hard to build relationships and to gain some trust and respect. Also to put Des in frontman position. We help with a lot of matters not directly covered in my brief, but which can be loosely defined as environmental health and community wellbeing. We have been trying to show that we really were there to help, not to patronise. In particular we have been trying to encourage the communities to regain control for themselves. The successful delivery of the message I have been engaged to spread depends to an enormous extent on the credibility and respect given to the messenger. Something some may not appreciate. If it was easier than that my job would never have been created. I believe I may be making some progress, though I doubt here will be a great quantum leap in what remains of my career.
At my first performance review a month or so ago, I was relieved and elated to learn that the boss and the CEO were completely with me. They understood and accepted my approach. It reminded me a little of NZ where those in Head Office were perceived as having no idea of how the real world is. (Until I went to head office, that is – of course). This is a long term game. My employers have committed to it and if the two year funding renewal we have just been given is not renewed again in two years time, the CEO intends to keep me on somehow. By then I hope Des will be my replacement. I will be 65.
In an hour-long phone conversation with my counterpart at the Department, we came to an understanding of our relative positions and an agreeable compromise that I would continue as I have begun, but I shall produce some better statistics they can show the Minister.
It was a surprise to learn that I am the only Environmental Health Officer in the Trachoma programme. Not just in WA, but in the entire country. All the others have a clinical background. Nurses, mainly. As Trachoma is very much an environmental health problem, not just medical, and inextricably bound with other environmental health problems which have the same root cause and the same cure, I feel I am in a superb position to at least try and encourage some change. The cutting edge, to coin a phrase, of community environmental health.
Even so, had I fully understood at the start how great the challenge really was, I might have thought twice about applying for this job. The so-called Aboriginal problem is deep and complex. Those with simplistic solutions show very little understanding of just how deep and complex. I cannot pretend to understand it, but I can try. Anyway, I am here now, and though I know it will be very little in real terms, I am determined to have something to show for my efforts before the retirement curtain. The positives of being here still outweigh the negatives, the greatest of which, apart from the distance between me and my loved ones, is the distance between me and the ocean. I have never been so far from the sea. It is surprising how that affects me. The positives are mainly the insights I am slowly gathering, the great, awe inspiring country I get to explore, and new friendships.
An interesting insight: the boss told me that back when he was visiting communities, the people in Balgo were bewailing that there were no jobs for them out in the community and it was impossible for them to find work while remaining in their own country. The boss pointed out that there were plenty of jobs for them. The community store was run by outsiders. The CEO of the community and his secretary were outsiders. The clinic staff – nurses and doctors – were outsiders. The contractors who built their houses and installed their sewage systems and water supplies were all outsiders. They could have any of those jobs if they wanted, they merely needed to get the necessary qualifications. They needed to want the jobs.
His assertion was met with incredulous looks. Such is the self esteem of the locals, and so indoctrinated they are by the contemptuous attitude of the gardya who exploited and patronised them, that unless they have some artistic ability and the motivation to pursue it, they could see no future employment except as station hands, labourers or maybe for some, the remote dream of professional football. Is it any wonder that social problems arise?
This is not an attempt to excuse those who commit crimes and waste their lives. I can almost understand how apathy may become such a tyrant in the circumstances. It is not an excuse for apalling behaviour. I am trying hard to understand how the worlds oldest culture, so long unchanging, and so quickly torn asunder, can mend and survive through the 21st century. Culture must adapt to change, in my opinion. Mine did, others have. We give away those cultural practices that no longer work for us. My in-laws ancestors were, only a hundred years ago, cannibal. My own collected the heads of their enemies. Change is not only inevitable, but necessary.
The poorly envisioned unforgivable attempts by the Australian Government to change Australian indiginous culture have resulted in a hideous backlash and we see the results around us. Most of the changes that were introduced were negative, destructive and oppressive. We have to do better than give material things and tell them to get over it. We need more indiginous people to lead. To become professionals. People like my mate Des, who was part of the stolen generation and who suffered such indignities and brutality that his story brought me to tears, yet who has lived his life, and raised his own children and those of his extended family, in such away that he can be very proud. Des says that he has learned a lot from me. I can sincerely say I have learned a lot from him. To have huge numbers of people like Des may not happen for a while. But it can happen. If even a few of the children Des and I speak to, or who are influenced by the parents we speak to, can become a leader, then our work will be a success. That is the time scale we are looking at. We have no illusions. That is why we believe the long term effect of our interactions will hopefully be more profound than the number of interactions I report in the next few years. If that seems too grand an ideal, it is a better cause than counting how many kids have managed to keep their hands and faces clean, if only while we are watching.
I still suffer from depression. I have bad times in the small hours. I have failing knees and I am overweight. But I am off the antidepressant pills and I go to work cheerfully. Because I still believe.