I am feeling rather ambivalent about yesterday. I took some lads hunting way out in the bush about an hour down the Canning stock route in an area I have not visited before.
They were after goanna. Frankly, I was not really expecting to see them succeed. However, they killed two beautiful specimens, both quit big – around one and a half metres in length. On the one hand I was sad to see these fascinating creatures killed. On the other I was impressed to see the young teenagers using their tracking skills to follow the trail of a lizard well over a kilometre until they ran it to its lair, dug it out and killed it.
The chase started when one of them spotted the sign of a goanna that had walked across the track we were following. They were out of the troopy in an instant, dashing barefoot through the spinifex, picking up the trail intermittently and following the lizard’s path for nearly half an hour before they ran it to ground. Then they dug until they could seize it by the tail, pull it out of its hole and swing it around to dash its head on the hard earth. I filmed the process on iPad, but I am not going to post the movie. It is disturbing.
Instead here is a photo of a goanna I took on another occasion. One that was not killed.
Two lizards died. Predators predated. Two families enjoyed meals of something they enjoy as much as we gardia enjoy our roast turkey or pork. The boys did well. Best of all we had some good talking time.
The weather is warming up considerably; not that it has ever really been cold here from my point of view, except for a couple of relatively chilly nights a few months back.
The recent heavy rain has topped up the waterholes, though the creeks have not yet started flowing. I had 18 kids today, the most I have seen at one time for weeks. They asked me to take them to their favourite swimming spot which is in Sturt creek just across the Tanami road opposite the ‘back’ road into Billiluna from the Balgo side. I ferried them in two trips. In places the tracks were axle deep in water and we all enjoyed splashing through the ponds in a shower of bright red spray.
I had to clean the troopy when I got home.
Two of the boys will be going away to high school next year. I used this news to give them both a bit of a boost and some encouragement, and to discuss in general with them all about their prospective futures and ambitions. I waxed lyrical about the fun and excitement in learning new things and seeing new places. The wondrous potential of the world outside of their little corner of it. I told tales of the places I have been and the things I have seen. Some of my little goldfishes actually paid attention for a short while.
We also talked about planning, rewards and consequences. The School and I are taking some of the deserving students on a trip to Darwin and the Kakadu next month. This has a few of them quite excited, though I was surprised to learn that some youngsters are very reluctant to travel far from their homes and family. It seems this is the reason that many don’t go to high school.
They are still demanding sports trips to other communities, something I have not been delivering lately. It gave me the chance to lay out the trip rules again: School attendance and good behaviour are prerequisite. We need a team that actually turns up to practice at least once a week. We also need a coach. I know nothing about this strange game called AFL. There are some very good adult players in Billiluna, and I asked the kids to persuade one of them to coach for us. Same for the basketball girls. I also suggested perhaps we might try forming a girls’ football team but that idea met with even less approval than an earlier suggestion of mine to form a boys’ basketball team. At least some of the boys do like to play basketball. Thinking it over, it would only work if the girls had someone to play against. Not likely, I suppose, given that it is clearly seen as a male sport.
The swimming spot is a favourite because in the middle there is a small island with a tall tree. It gives them an easy climb to a branch, about eight metres above the water, from which they can jump in.
When I learned their intention, I insisted they carefully check out the water below to ensure there were no sunken branches or snags in the landing area. The creek is so brown and murky there is no way of knowing what is beneath the surface. They all seemed to believe it would be just as it always was, and thought I was being silly. I’d rather be thought silly than have to explain a drowned child to a grieving parent. I told them so.
No one mentioned the recent tragedy, but I could see that this thought struck a chord. A couple of the older boys checked the landing zone for me. I was grateful, because I would have been obliged to do so myself before I let them jump, and I did not really feel like swimming today.
Occasionally, I ask myself, as a person suffering depression – albeit medically managed – whether I am in the right job out here in a remote community far from everything I have ever known. The black dog does get me down periodically. My job is simple enough on the surface, but it is more important than some realise. My role is to help and support at-risk children, try to keep them out of trouble, encourage them to attend school, and show them that there can be a worthwhile future for them. I am not a child minder or entertainment officer, though both those activities are tools I use to start a conversation once I identify those who most need my encouragement or support.
My community kids are a constant reminder of how well-off I am and have always been. They keep me busy and can be very demanding, but if things get too much, my hours are flexible enough that I can take a break, rest my legs and carry on later. Sometimes I work 9 to 1, nap until 3 and continue into the evening. Unless it is very cold the kids are usually out until 9 or 10 at night. Give them some balls, play some music, and they have fun without mischief. I can usually find a moment to talk to those I need to while the others play. The freedom I enjoy in how I go about my job is one of the best things about it.
I have learned however, that I must partition off that part of my life and keep some time for myself. I need to be able to get away and explore the countryside – and my thoughts – alone, except for my dog. It is good that I can have time alone. My own time is important. I cannot be working every day, all day. I get along very well in my own company which is an essential skill. Even when I am down, I prefer to deal with it alone. Misery does not always love company. Not that I am miserable very often. I remind myself that my record of getting through bad days, so far, is 100%. When things start to get on top of me, I am free to take a break. Even so, I feel almost guilty when I return to a well provided and comfortable home with clean sheets on a warm bed. Something not everyone out here has.
There are always the little golden moments that make the darker ones go away. Today I cooked a barbecue. My little six year old admirer came up to me with a mouth full of sausage and bread with tomato sauce, and said ” I love you Mr Alan”. I know she means it.
I drove up to Halls Creek on Sunday ready to pick up a few things on Monday and complete some admin stuff at the Shire office. Sunday and Monday are my weekend days, but I often end up doing work stuff. No problem because my days and hours are flexible. I hadn’t planned to, but I ended up staying Monday night as well. I still needed to shop for hardware and a few items for the Youth Centre.
Then the rain started. Surprisingly heavy and totally unexpected at this time of year in the midst of the dry season. On Tuesday morning Budgie warned me he was planning to close the Tanami so I should get started for home, which I did. It was already pretty hairy between Ruby Plain and the Wolfe Creek Crater turnoff. I was down to 40 or 50 kph and still sliding around. The trip usually takes me two hours and fifteen minutes. Today it took well over three hours. By the time I arrived the troopy was red with mud from top to bottom.
When I arrived in Billiluna a convoy of Grey Nomad tourists up from the Alice Springs end were fueling up ready to head north. I had the fun of telling them they could not go, and indeed they should not. I advised them to camp locally. Fortunately I was able to tell them where the good spots were.
I phoned Budgie to give him a road report and headed for bed very early. I had eaten one takeaway meal in Halls Creek on Monday and ended up with a nasty dose of what I suspect was Bacillus cereus intoxication.
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…
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.