An Interesting Day

Today was an interesting day.

First of all,  the community store was robbed of $2,600 worth of cigarettes and tobacco in the early hours.  Going by the price of things out here that would be barely a shoe-box full.  It took until about 2 pm and a community meeting before things were sorted out.  The store was shut until then. Some, but not all, of the stolen stuff was recovered.  The culprit was identified, and will not be well regarded for his actions.  The store is owned by the community itself.
I was quite glad to be diverted from it all by one of my lads, who brought me a black headed python  (Aspidites melanocephalus that he had caught at a friend’s house not far from the Youth Centre.  He wanted to save it from being eaten.  These pythons are highly prized as a delicacy in these parts.  My young friend, like me, is very fond of snakes for themselves, not for any culinary reasons. He considers himself a “snake expert” and I am happy to let him teach me.  He handles even venomous snakes with confidence, and removed a king brown  from the school only last week.    I am really getting to like that kid.  We carried our new  python friend about all day until we found somewhere to let it go.  I would really have liked to keep it, but besides being illegal, it is impractical.  Especially when it would be eyed by everyone the way you might look at a particularly delicious chocolate cake.
Shortly after, he brought me a spotted nightjar that had flown into a car last night and broke its wing. I trimmed the feathers near the break, so I could splint and tape it,


I now have it in a straw-filled cat box. I am not overly confident in the likelihood of its recovery but I am feeding it mince and water and keeping my fingers crossed.

It occurs to me that if it does survive it will probably never fly again and I have just acquired a new dependent. If so I shall probably name it Grumpy Cat.  Look at that face. (Edit: He didn’t make it. Died in the night.)


I took a bunch of boys and girls out into the desert looking for bush tucker, since many had not eaten breakfast because the store was not open .   Well – I drove, but they took me.   They know where all the interesting bushes are.   We brought back a bucket of “bush blackberries” to share with their families.   These are tiny little fruit that look like miniature plums.

After 2 the store opened.   I bought some sausages and bread and put on a BBQ.  Not sure I should have been cooking with a python around my neck. Lucky there were no health inspectors around.

Then another bunch of kids and I went out past lake Stretch looking for more bush tucker.  We found quite a lot.

I have now tried “bush blackberries”,  “bush tomato”, and mardijwah which I learned is a sticky gum exuded from the tree of the same name.  It is slightly sweet, with a pleasant, mild flavour and the consistency of amber coloured toffee with a runny centre like treacle.  The kids are certainly very keen on it, though apparently it causes severe flatulence.  It also , I am told,   gives one diarrhoea if one overindulges.  I drove my little friends home and got rid of them as soon as I could after I learned that.  I’m OK so far…

A Juicy One

While I was doing all this, I was also baking sourdough bread.


Week One in Kururrungku

Progress report:
I now have two messy houses. One I am moving from, and one I am moving to. Still trying to work out what comes, what gets dumped and what gets stored. Since the entire donga is not much larger in area than my previous lounge this is proving trickier than anticipated.
At the donga, the grass is cut, and the brown snakes now have nowhere to hide. I am getting two goats soon, and have already identified some recyclable material for a chicken coop. There’s a young camel that wanders around.
The neighbour’s dogs like me.
In community, I have already made some helpful and friendly contacts. I have a basketballer willing to coach the kids. The community is very friendly. The kids are kids. My biggest problem so far is sorting out who is who, and how old they are. I work with over 12s in theory. My second biggest problem is parsing accents, and understanding kriol.
The girls are pestering me to organise sports and activities for them as well as the boys, a point well taken and a priority.
A good first week.
And the sky at night out there…..

Mixed Portents

Mixed Portents

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.

My Donga, from next door.

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.



Blue Remembered Hills

I flew back to New Zealand two weeks ago, for only the second time since I left.  The occasion of my visit was the Premiere of my younger daughter’s short film, Shmeat.  Coming as it did so shortly after learning that I was not to be continuing my role in Aboriginal Heath promotion and Trachoma prevention, the visit felt rather symbolic . It was enlightening to see that my girls are now adults with friends, plans, dreams and lives that they were managing perfectly well for themselves.  It also made me realise there was no longer a single valid reason for me to return permanently to NZ,  The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.  

I returned to a house and job that I would soon be leaving, but I have a new job to move to, and a new location.  Once again, for the umpteenth time I am turning to something I have never done before, but for which much of my previous experience seems to have prepared me. I already have ideas.  Those I have discussed with my soon-to-be superiors were well received.

So it is time once again to pack up, shed more of my unnecessary accumulated impedimenta and move on.  The prospect of living even more remotely than I do now is both daunting and strangely attractive.  The first plus that occurs to me is there is a lake not far from where I’ll be.  Not the ocean, but it may be an acceptable surrogate.

There is only one direction: forward.



Ten years ago I wrote this:

Posted on July 24, 2006 by Alan
I was thinking about how boring life can be and I realised that in my younger days I took more risks and had more excitement than I do now. i used to go out sailing alone, scuba diving, spearfishing, climbing cliffs and diving into underwater caves. I went overlanding in my land rover, camping on offshore islands, and dune jumping in my beach buggy. But that was before we realised that the dune ecology could not survive such behaviour.

Nowadays my idea of living dangerously is to wash my blood pressure medication down with a glass of grapefruit juice.

Taking risks is fun, and I think maybe we lose an important and necessary factor in our lives if things become too safe. Not that I suggest we should all go out and do death defying things where one slip means that someone collects your life insurance, but a little adventure now and again has got to be good for you – right?

Such a lot I have taken since then.  Not all successfully. Yet I am still here.

Slow Progress

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.