Tag Archives: Aboriginal Culture

Overlapping Circles

Under a heavy duvet I was warm but I knew it would be frosty once I got up that morning.

I’ve written about this before.  As I write this it is 13 degrees Fahrenheit (-11 Celsius) in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is normal.  It’s been cold and dark since November, and it will remain cold and dark until April.  And so there’s this psychological hurdle I can’t get over where I believe everywhere else must be warmer.  And mostly, everywhere else is.  But not Melbourne in spring.

I don’t know how cold it was in Melbourne last October—below 50F/8C in the house in the mornings, for sure.  I could hear a feeble whishing of air from a “heating vent.”  My heating vents at home issue forth gusts of hot air that could knock you off your feet.  There was no basement in Dean and Lisa’s house, and the windows weren’t double glazed, so any heat went straight out the windows, literally.

I summoned the courage to crawl out from under the duvet and made a run to the toilet room.  The dog, Penny, a black lab, came loping toward me and I hugged her, if nothing else for the warmth.  Heidi was up making a cup of tea.

“Oh hi there, how’d you sleep?”

“Really well,” I replied.  “I think I’m so tired here every night that even my Restless Legs are taking a vacation.”

Dean and Lisa had left for work.  They work at a nearby Aboriginal girls’ college, a boarding school, and—I’m not going to get this all right—but there is a branch component for Aboriginal kids in the outback.  So Dean flies to the back of beyond and stays for weeks at a time.  He loves the kids and the job, but there is nothing to do when he’s off duty.

“We don’t have a ute,” (a truck) he said, “although even if we did there’s nothing in town to do.”  Dean teaches maths and science and Lisa is the school’s e-learning coordinator.

Before leaving Minnesota I’d spoken with my cousin’s wife, who is Native American, about maybe bringing some Native American-related gifts for the girls at Dean and Lisa’s school.  “They’re Black, aren’t they?” she asked.  “Then get them some magazines like Ebony and Teen Jet.  They probably don’t see Black faces in ads or billboards or magazines.”

That was an excellent idea, so I had handed Dean a stack of teen mags.  But the one I had bought on a whim, a publication about how to live off the grid, would prove to be the most popular.  There was a full-page ad for guns on the back cover.  “But it’s got good articles on starting a worm farm and making lamp shades out of animal hides,” Dean had observed as he’d flipped through it.

How do we all know each other?  Simple.  Heidi was in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt looking to go diving and someone said, “You should go see Dean; he’s an Aussie and he’s the Mayor of Sharm El Sheikh.”  The unofficial mayor, of course.  Dean had been living there for some time and knew who to talk to.

Eventually they both wound up living in London, where Dean met Rob, who is from Bemidji Minnesota.  A mutual friend introduced me to Rob when I was living in Oxford, and one day he said, “Hey Annie, wanna go to Greece next week?  There are these two Aussie girls who teach with me who want to go and we need four to avoid the single supplement.”

Heidi was one of the Aussie girls.

Dean and Lisa being at work gave me the opportunity to snoop around. Not that I looked in any of their drawers.

The house is perched on a steep hill.

I couldn’t get over all the fruit trees growing—just growing!—in their yard.

This appeared to be a giant daisy tree.

I have this plant in a pot at home but it’s 12 inches tall, not twelve feet.

The three of us faffed about for hours, then Dean came home on his lunch break to take us to the train station.

History, Great and Grim

I hope I don’t sound critical of Alice.  The place reminded me of another country town where I have spent a lot of time—Lanesboro, Minnesota—where my son Vince lived for years.  It had the same combo of hardy blue-collar local folk, a sizable airy-fairy artist contingency, and a population that lived among but apart at the same time; in Lanesboro it was the Amish and in Alice it was the Aboriginals.  I never spoke to an Aboriginal in my month in Australia.  I never had an opportunity.  I would have loved to hear their perspective on their place in Australian society.  But I’m sure they’re beyond tired of being interviewed and researched by curious white people.  I’ll make a New Year’s resolution here to read two books written by Aboriginal authors in 2019.

We walked along a deserted road under a fierce sun in intense heat.  We had seen a sign that said, “Alice Springs Telegraph Office” but it hadn’t indicated how far.  We’d been walking for 15 minutes and there were no further signs.

“It’s a car culture out here,” I observed.

“But why is there a sidewalk?” Heidi pondered.  “I looked into renting a car but it would have been stupidly expensive.”

Thankfully we had slathered and sprayed on sunscreen and donned our hats and sunnies, or we would have been baked red in minutes.  I was happy to strike this obligatory pose since it was in a bit of shade.

We weren’t so far away from civilization that Heidi couldn’t get a signal and Google the number for the telegraph station.  She called and they assured her we would reach them in a matter of minutes.  And we did

The Alice Springs Telegraph Station is a historic trust site.  We paid a small admission fee and joined the tail end of a walking tour.  This is the eponymous (underground) spring.

The guide explained the difference between Ghost and River Red gums.  I immediately forgot.  There are hundreds of different gum species.  All I know is that they’re all glorious.

One of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th Century, the overland telegraph line ran from Darwin to Adelaide. That’s a long way.  The Alice Springs station was the halfway point and was completed in 1872.

There was a heartbreaking exhibit about a 1930s campaign that forcibly removed children born of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers from their homes and institutionalized them in Alice Springs.  The idea was to expose them to European customs and give them a “proper” education.  Which meant they lost out on education about their maternal culture.

This was a replica of the home for “half caste” children. It would have been freezing at night and scorching during the day.

Some of the children were traumatized for life, while others said being given an English education was the greatest opportunity they could have been given.

We walked around and peered into a  ye olde timey blacksmith’s shop, post office, and stables, which had a plaque telling the story of the camel’s arrival on the continent.  Camels carried a year’s worth of supplies to Alice Springs.  Their arrival must have been an annual highlight in an otherwise solitary and harsh existence.

We had paninis and cappuccinos in the office/gift shop/café, where I bought some wombat hats and a CD with Australian folk music that I have thoroughly enjoyed since, in place of listening to the news in my car.

We asked about walking back, and to our surprise learned there was a straight path into town that would take us no more than 15 minutes.  Hurrah!

“The bus takes a very circular route, so walking is faster,” explained the guy at the desk, who was Canadian.

A few minutes out, some Italian guys yelled “kangaroos!” at us and pointed to nearby rocky hills.

“They’re actually Rock Wallabies,” Heidi said helpfully, but the Italians mansplained no, they were kangaroos.  The critters were so well camouflaged that my photos couldn’t capture them.

There were also plaques inlaid in the walkway that chronicled other sad episodes in Australian history.  This is only about half of them.  I thought “confrontation” and “emergency” were great euphemisms.

Alice, Sans Springs

Alice Springs. I knew little about it except that it was in the middle of a vast country.  It held a mythical status in my mind, maybe because it was named after a person—in this case, the wife of one of the men who built the overland telegraph line. There were no springs in Alice Springs except underground.  If you were dying of thirst and you could make out the outline of a river in the desert, you could secure water by diffing down six feet through sand and rock.  The rivers never flowed above ground unless there was a flood.  Perhaps that’s why it’s usually referred to as just Alice.

“They have something called the Henley-on-Todd Regatta every year,” Heidi chuckled, “where they race ‘boats’ on the dry riverbed.”

Alice is also the midpoint of the legendary Ghan, the train that runs almost 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north.

Originally called the Afghan Express, it was built for the British by immigrants from what is now Pakistan, who imported camels from India and Afghanistan to help with the job.  The camels did very well.  In fact, Australia now has over a million of camels running wild in packs in the outback.

I had checked out the Ghan and it would have cost me about $700 to get to Alice from Adelaide.  This didn’t line up with my plans with Heidi but I would definitely go back and do it someday.

First, we had breakfast.

Someone had taken the trouble to decorate the stairwell of the motel with painted scenes from nature.

“You wonder if they were taking the piss,” Heidi said as she traced the names Boobialla and Cocky Apple with her finger. Taking the piss means “to joke mockingly.”

Each of the three mornings we ate breakfast in the motel restaurant, we sat for over an hour drinking coffee and talking.  This is my favorite part of traveling—spending lots of time with people I like.  Heidi and I talked about our families, our jobs, our pasts, our plans, travel, men, news, culture, and everything else.

Finally we stepped out into the heat of Alice to get our bearings and find the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum.

Alice struck me as more of the Wild West.  Now, obviously I never lived in the Wild West and don’t even know exactly what I mean by that except it includes images of cowboys and Indians and dusty towns with saloons and lots of drinking and gambling and perhaps a gun fight.  There was none of that in Alice that I saw, except for the dust.  The people were definitely scruffy—I guess it would be nicer to say they were casually dressed.  It was a contrast with Sydney, where men wore expensive suits and shoes and women sported skirts and heels.

There were a lot of Aboriginals, and many of them were barefoot.  Their feet must have been tough to withstand the heat of the pavement.  There were also plenty of Aboriginals dressed like the rest of the non-tourist population; that is, as bus drivers and students and shop keepers.

I am not Aboriginal nor an expert on Aboriginal culture.  I have felt guilty writing about what I observed, when it could be construed as negative.  It is my understanding that Aboriginals are plagued by the same troubles as many Native Americans: Obesity and its attendant health problems, alcoholism, domestic violence, and poverty.  Beyond these statistics, I don’t feel like their story is mine to tell, beyond what I saw firsthand.

And about drinking in Australia.  My expectation had been that everyone would be guzzling Fosters and stumbling around in the streets.  This was also an impression several of my American and British friends shared before I left.

I think this impression came from our encounters with Aussies in London and elsewhere.  Once I thought about it, these had been mostly young people living away from home for the first time.  I should have known that they didn’t represent the entire Australian population, who didn’t appear to drink any more than Americans.

Steaming and Swagging

The Aboriginal story was one of the most intriguing things to me about Australia.  Maybe it was because I didn’t feel like it was told very well, but only hinted at.  I’m sure there are loads of books on the subject.  Our friend Dean, who we would stay with the following week, teaches at an Aboriginal school.  I looked forward to learning more from him but for now it was a lot of, “There’s a dreamtime story about that but we can’t tell you what it is because you’re not Aboriginal and it’s sacred.”

There may have also been a factor of Aboriginals losing their culture by being forcefully removed from it.  This was one of the similarities between Australia’s Aboriginals and Native Americans.

“I went to a powwow in Wisconsin a few years ago,” I told Heidi, “and when I asked my Native American in-law what a certain dance signified, she didn’t know.”  Was that because the meaning had been lost to time, or because she personally just didn’t happen to know, or something else?  It felt like a sensitive subject and I didn’t want to ask a follow up question for fear of implying she was ignorant about her own traditions.  But a lot of natives and maybe Aboriginals are not well versed in their culture, because in both countries children were taken away from their families and forbidden to speak their language or practice their traditions.

Heck, I don’t speak any Czech or German and I know nothing about those cultures except as it relates to the World Wars.

I sure wasn’t going to ask of the Aboriginals, “Are your people plagued by alcoholism, diabetes, and domestic violence, like Native Americans?”

Our next destination was Kings Canyon, where we would hike the next day.  It was a four-hour drive from Ularu, halfway between nowhere and the back of beyond.  The road and the hours unrolled, flat and monotonous; I sat up front in hopes of seeing a kangaroo but no dice.

After our one toilet break, which was a fetid, smelly “long drop” toilet, I sat in back with Heidi and tried not to drink any more water.  My Restless Legs Syndrome started to torment me, as it sometimes does on long flights or drives.  Heidi had caught a signal on her phone that morning and I had piggybacked via her hotspot but now there was nothing.  Heidi leaned over on the window and slept while I wiggled and kicked my legs.

If I could just get up and walk around … I got my wish, as Meg pulled over and put us to work collecting firewood on the side of the road.

“Man, it’s roasting out today,” she remarked as she watched us load parched wood into the back of the bus.  “No wonder we haven’t seen any roos.  You know they don’t sweat, so they literally bake to death if they move around too much in the heat.”

That seemed like a very counterproductive natural adaptation for an Australian animal.

Back on the bus, we entered the Kings Canyon Resort.

“Ooh, this looks nice,” said Heidi.

“I wonder if there’s a pool?” I said excitedly.

Then we passed a sign that said Campground and Meg announced, we’ve got another 20-minute drive over some pretty rough … argh!”  The bus lurched sideways, then rocked to the other side, and I was grateful I didn’t have sciatica on this bone-crunching trail.

I just looked up George Gill; he was the editor of a Navy journal.  Interesting choice for a desert campground.

The site was beautiful.

Katie was there with a burrito bar for us.  After wolfing it up we built a bonfire.

Megan gave a swag demo. Swag = an outback bedroll.

“Just make sure there’s nothing in it before ya get innit,” she advised.  “Like a snake or a spider.  And if you wake up and there’s a dingo staring down at you, don’t panic.  They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

Yeah, right.  I’ve heard that before, about bears.  I would miss the star gazing, which was bound to be awe inspiring, but I would wake up with my face intact, in the tent.

More Questions than Answers

Meg drove around to the other side of the rock and we disembarked again.

“After a little talk ‘n’ walk with an aboriginal guide, we’ll visit the cultural centre and then head out to our next camp for the night,” she explained.

“Cultural center …” I said to Heidi, “I wonder if it’s the same one we were at yesterday?  I could buy those pillow cases?”

“Yes,” she replied, “How exciting.”

We were invited to sit in a circle on the ground by a young white woman who introduced herself as Donna.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get up again, so I remained standing.  I can hike, bike, or swim for hours but I have a hard time getting up off the ground due to my scoliosis.

“This is Bessie,” Donna said, introducing the woman next to her wearing a t-shirt that said:

I used to think I would do something important with my life, but I kept getting distracted by Sparkly Things.

The work sparkly was, of course, bedazzled with glitter.

“Bessie is our local guide,” explained Donna.  “She lives in the nearby community.”

Community, I learned, referred specifically to Aboriginal settlements.  I had heard something about some indigenous people somewhere not liking their photos taken, but Donna said to go ahead and snap away.

“I’m a PhD candidate in Aboriginal Culture at [some university],” continued Donna.  “And I’ll be translating for Bessie.”

She said a few words in what I assumed was Pitjantjatjara, the local language.  Bessie said about four words in response.  Then Donna translated, “Bessie says ….” and talked for 10 minutes.  Who knows, maybe Pitjantjatjara packs a lot of meaning into every word.

This was repeated; Bessie didn’t seem into it, or maybe she was just tired, or maybe Aboriginal Australians also wear the dead-pan expression common to Native Americans.  She would force out four or five words and Donna would wax on about various customs and objects which she passed around, including a boomerang.

“Contrary to popular belief, most boomerangs are not designed to return to the thrower.  They are designed to break the legs of an animal like a kangaroo, and you wouldn’t want that coming back to you!”

It went on for some time and I felt self-conscious about standing.  If Bessie could get up again I should be able to.  So I sat, and then Donna said, “Now we’re going to walk over to those caves and Bessie is going to tell us about the paintings.”

Heidi helped me up and we walked a short distance.  The paintings were beautiful.  They told stories using symbols for things like people, emus, and the sun.

I had expected to learn something about the Dreamtime and creation stories, but as I wrote previously, most of them are sacred and not shared with outsiders.

The Cultural Centre was a different one from the one we’d already visited.  It was a circle of shops and workshops and a café around an open plaza.

“There’s a museum-like thing if you can find it,” bawled Meg as we jumped off the bus.  “The café is super slow so get in line now if you want a cuppa!  You’ve got one hour!”

Heidi and I got in line and took turns keeping our place.  It took 50 minutes to get two coffees.

The gift shop was extremely expensive; I was relieved not to see “my” pillow cases.  There was a workshop where Aboriginal women sat on the ground painting while tourists watched.  I realize it is the Aboriginal way, to sit on the ground, but I felt very uncomfortable, like I was watching animals in a zoo.

There were signs everywhere that said No Photos.  I think they are trying to prevent people from taking photos of the paintings and then just printing them out without paying for the labor that went into them, which is substantial.

Meg had been right, the museum was hard to find and once we did find it we had only 10 minutes left.  I would have skipped the coffee and the shop for an hour here but it was too late.

Back on the bus!