Thursday, 28 November 2013

All the Eights Pt 4


   In 1983, when I was 38, we spent the second of two years at Areyonga. In the previous ten years we had lived in Papunya, Brisbane, Ti Tree, Lajamanu and Alice Springs.
   When we left Finke at the end of 1973 we moved to Papunya, 200 km west of Alice Springs and spent three happy years there (not many whitfellas stayed that long—in fact Alice Springs people couldn't believe we'd take young kids out there!).  Andrew was born in 1975 and Helmy towards the end of our stay at Papunya in 1976. 
   Papunya had a mixture of Western Desert tribes which included Pintubi people with very little previous contact with white Europeans.  There were about 1000 people there, which of course was far too large to suit the Indigenous lifestyle.  The school had 300 children ranging from preschool to secondary boys and girls.  There were 12 white staff, about 20 indigenous staff and the job was huge.
   After being appointed from Finke to be Principal, we arrived there in the middle of one of the wettest summers on record.  As far as I can work out the reason I was promoted to Papunya was because during the previous year in Finke the Alice Springs office hardly heard from me, which apparently was unusual, no requests for assistance or complaints.  I did question whether they meant for me to go as assistant principal, but that was not the case.  Needless to say, our trip out to Papunya in early March involved lots of swollen creek crossings and carrying our toddler and baby through the water as part of a convoy.
   The principal's house had been commandeered by someone else and the one we spent the first night in had no flyscreens, it was full of mosquitoes and the toilet was overflowing.  There was no power; the pastor's wife brought some candles over.  From then on things got better.

The vege patch, Papunya backyard, 1975.

    The community had lots of amenities such as police, clinic, store, church and such niceties as a citrus orchard, piggery and an open-air picture screen.  Communication was very basic, consisting entirely of telegrams over the flying doctor network and a weekly mail plane which could also carry our orders of perishable meat and vegetables.  There was a tennis court, though!  The Papunya Tula artists had just begun and the famous honey-ant mural was still on the school wall.  We still have some paintings by Long Jack Phillipus and Johnny W. Warangula we bought at that time direct from the artists.
   Sammy and Gordon Butcher, later to become famous in the Warumpi Band, were still teenagers at school at that time but there was a band already that pre-dated Neil Murray.
   An influence on my music in the Papunya days was a 12-string guitar-playing teacher who was a great bluegrass player.  He introduced me to Doc Watson and taught me walking bass while finger picking.  I could play Freight Train and Wild Mountain Thyme for a while.  Meanwhile, I remember that the post-primary girls at school were into the various tartans of the Bay City Rollers and Rod Stewart.
   A vivid memory I have from that time is attending a full initiation ceremony of some boys, although the circumstances were not ideal.  The boys were in trouble with the law and the court accepted that if they were initiated they could avoid further punishment.  The police sergeant and I were chosen to witness the ceremony, apparently as representatives of white law.  It was a full ceremony with plenty of smoke, dust, dance and chant and took all night.  The climax came in the early hours when the boys were 'cut' in a scene I could never forget, and whisked away to a bush camp for their apprenticeships.
 Family photo, 1976.
    Apart from the cross-cultural challenges of the job and the rapid increase in the size of our family, I was also studying for a University Degree by correspondence.  At the end of 1975, I sat for an exam in the courthouse attached to the police station and was somewhat distracted by the fact that a large group of men with spears surrounded the police station in an attempt to free a prisoner.  The whole incident was over in 10 minutes but the Alice Springs newspapers called it a Front Page Riot.
   During 1975-6 the community began to revert to its origins—mainly the Pintupi began to migrate back out west and set up outstations, first at Yayayi and Kungkayunti (Brown's Bore), and later at Watiyawanu (Mt Liebeg), Walungurru (Kintore), and all the way back to Kiwirrkurra in WA.  The school size dwindled until there were only about 40 children at Papunya.  It was time to leave.
   We still keep in contact with people from those days, and I love it that Andrew in the course of his work has been able to keep re-visiting his "dreaming country".

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   At the end of 1976, I was given study leave to complete the degree at Queensland Uni and we went to Brisbane for 12 months, where Helmy started walking and Jacqui started preschool.   In some ways it was like a holiday for a year but there were always assignment deadlines and all-night sessions to get them done. For one assignment I wrote a mini-thesis entitled "A Case for the Abolition of Compulsory Schooling for Tribal Aborigines in Central Australia"—I felt as a result of the Papunya experience, that the only viable way to provide education on the outstations was to abandon the idea of "schooling" as we know it and start from first principles, attract rather than compel.

   Jamboree Heights where we lived was a brand new suburb south-west of Brisbane and I recall there were plenty of excavation sites providing clay, which I purified and did some modelling with the kids.  In the mid-year Semester break we planned a major excursion by road to Cairns, but only got as far as the Glass House Mountains before the motor of the bus blew up.  Later in the year we did get up to Hervey Bay.  Helmy had her first birthday on the way home.
   When we left Brisbane, I was appointed principal of Ti Tree, 200km north of Alice Springs on the Stuart Hwy, and one attraction was the ability to drive on bitumen roads some of the time!  And the pub!  The school was known colloquially as the Taj Mahal—we even printed some appropriate t-shirts when one of the staff's activities became t-shirt printing.  Ti Tree was unique in that it had schooling from preschool to tertiary, after a teacher training course began when I was appointed.
   Some bright spark, recognising the building of the school was a mistake, justified its existence by establishing a large empire.  It employed university lecturer, adult educator, office staff, laundry staff, full library, music room, sick bay, big storerooms, ran a kitchen and dining room with a full-time cook and a boiler room.  The number of children was about 40 and teacher's college students numbered a dozen at best (most of these were from the top end and always homesick).  The staff enjoyed facilities such as a dark room and I began printing black and white photos.
   No-one could explain why the school had been built.  The best explanation was that it was designed as a hospital for some future contingency.  Using the facilities for a full residential tertiary institute really just compounded the issue.  For accommodation a fully operational caravan park was built in the school grounds and 28-foot caravans left over from Cyclone Tracy were installed.  The professional cook was employed to feed all the students, preschool to tertiary, the latter three times a day.  I did a couple of trips to Napperby Station with the cook to take delivery of beef 'killers' to supply the kitchen.  The specialty of the cook was meat pies and they were beaut, straight from the oven, organic beef, better than Balfours, but then I discovered the secret was a four gallon drum of black goo called 'pie flavour'!
 Daniel and friend near the hall and dining room, Ti Tree. 1978.

   Anyway, the politicians unveiled a plaque on the school wall around October, the bureaucrats put a note in an annual report and at the end of the year the school reverted to being a primary school!  The Department required me elsewhere, and we Cooks moved on.

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In 1979, Lajamanu (formally Hooker Creek), was a large community of Warlpiri people; one of the more isolated places in the NT, north-east of the Tanami Desert and 560km south-west of Katherine by road.  The climate is a cross-between the dry central desert and the tropical north, the best of both worlds.  The community had a homogenous settled feel to it compared to, say, Yuendumu or Papunya.
   On arrival we pulled up in our bus outside the house of the deputy principal where there seemed to be a gathering of teachers and apparently there was some surprise at the size of the family that began to disembark.
   The school was large with a dozen white teachers of whom five were neophytes.  This meant a huge job with five probation panels involving guidance and assessment.  I made noises in the department and union that the situation shouldn't be allowed to arise at a remote school where the work is difficult enough.  I had so much influence that more teachers with no teaching experience were appointed in 1980!  One teacher lasted only until Easter—he came from Geelong and before this had never been east of Melbourne, let alone out of Victoria.
   The aspect of the job that I loved was setting up the beginnings of a bilingual education program in Warlpiri with people like Ned Hargreaves and Paddy Patrick.  The younger kids began their literacy learning in Warlpiri instead of English and we had to make all the written materials.  Jacqui was in Grade 3 and was in the same situation as kids who learn English with no background knowledge.  We also started a regular bilingual newsletter Lajamanu Mirrawarri to give the adults some experience of written Warlpiri.
 Ladies on a picnic, Lajamanu, 1980.
   We went on some great trips in the district.  North of Lajamanu was a place called Sambo Rockhole (on a tributary of the Victoria River, I imagine) where we went camping and on school trips.  Our bus was just capable of negotiating a huge 'jump-up' down onto the flood plain; there was a fear that we wouldn't be able to meet the challenge of climbing back out again.
   On one trip we caught a 500mm catfish and baked it on the hot coals—not the tastiest fish but beautifully fresh.  We also had a raft of old fuel drums that we could pole up and down the lagoon like Tom Sawyer, so the kids loved the place.
   Another trip we did a couple of times was to drive west out to the Tanami Rd and then via Rabbit Flat to Yuendumu.  This was before there was any mine traffic.  One time we gave other teachers a lift and one of them was camped in his swag alongside the bus while we stopped overnight—a fact that Doortje had forgotten when she tipped a full chamber pot out the window during the night!
   Another memorable trip involved driving at night on the back road from Wave Hill to Dunmarra with the headlights burnt out and Doortje shining a torch out of the side window.  It was a slow trip.
   An interesting incident occurred when the police sergeant and I went on a Sunday afternoon to get a killer to supply beef for some of the families.  We killed and butchered the beast on its skin in the paddock and then brought the quarters back to the police cells to be hooked on the bars for the meat to set.  Later we did lots of cutting and mincing.  Later still I was required by the police in Katherine to sign a statement acknowledging my role on that Sunday—the Sergeant was either disciplined or charged for cattle duffing!
   For several reasons I needed to have a break from schools and in September 1980 applied for a job with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Alice Springs as a community relations person and we packed up and left Lajamanu at that time.
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   There were two of us in the D.A.A. unit whose job it was to promote success stories to counteract the continual negative press 'enjoyed' by Aboriginal communities.  I became the de facto photographer and set up a dark room at home.  Several of my photos appeared in the local Alice papers and nationally in the D.A.A. magazine.  I spent a lot of time holding the hand of the journalist, whose background was in commercial radio, with no Aboriginal community experience and very little life experience.  The first time we camped in the bush, he climbed into his swag in his full set of striped flannel pyjamas!  I didn't stay in that job long.
   I transferred into project management involving communities in the border region of WA, SA and NT, such as Ernabella, Pipalyatjara and Kaltukatjara (Docker River).  I loved the remoteness and beauty of that country, and the people I met, but the distances involved meant I was away most of the week, with a swag thrown on the back of a Holden ute.  Doortje was at home looking after four little kids at school and preschool and we decided at the end of 1981 it was much more sensible to be all out bush in a community together, instead of separated half the time, so I went back to teaching.

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   Areyonga (Utju) is a Pitjantjantjara community, 230km west of Alice out past Ntaria (Hermannsburg), at the  start of the Mereenie Loop to Watarrka (Kings Canyon).  In 1982, there were about 150 people there and 30 kids in the school.  The school was nominally a one-teacher school, but an official bilingual literacy program had begun there and it enjoyed a big budget.  There were also plenty of buildings.  Besides me there were two other professional staff, a teacher/linguist and a printer who operated a full offset printer capable of reproducing full colour photos and illustrations.
   Two teacher assistants, Nyinta and Albie, meant that we could have two classes and the linguist helped out with the Pitjantjantjara lessons with the junior kids.  Her job was to produce reading materials, teaching aids and so on, using local informants, and devise the literacy program.  Despite me being the boss, she was paid more than me—I didn’t mind at all but thought it was typical of the NT bureaucracy.
   Anyway, it was a wonderful working atmosphere and I like to think we were very productive and the kids' satisfaction with the program very evident.  The idea was for them to become literate in Pitjantjantjara in the first couple of years and then transfer the skills into English later.  Our own four kids joined in all the activities except that I took them for some extra English work.  We made sure that plenty of lessons took place out in the open, collecting bush tucker and so on, to become the basis for stories and written material.
 A class in the bush, Areyonga, 1983.
   Of our own kids, Helmy was the only one I taught when first she began school, as I'd had non-teaching roles when the others began.  It gave me a thrill to watch her learn to read, but to be honest she taught herself in no time at all.  Jacquie finished primary school in 1983 and I believe her standard was as high as anyone else who began secondary school with her, with no detriment academically by her being at Areyonga.
   Rumour has it that when the four went home for morning recess Doortje had them reciting 'times tables' as they went back out the door.
   In 1982-3, communications weren't quite so primitive at Areyonga.  There was a public telephone booth but it did involve booking calls and you still had to say "over".  However, the school now had its own two-way radio and it was a daily occurrence to listen in to the 'sched' and send or receive telegrams on the flying doctor network.
   We had a regular picture show at the school—16mm feature films were hired from Alice Springs.  I remember that we saw Grease a few times in two years.  Video was becoming more common.  Initially the school had a recorder and camera that used one inch wide tape but soon we had Beta or VHS, I forget which.  Someone in the community was having the ABC football match of the day featuring Drew Morphett sent up on tape each week and we watched it in the school.
   Areyonga is in a beautiful location in a steep-sided canyon ('Utju'), gouged by a creek over millions of years.  The sounds of donkeys and mudlarks would echo off the walls, as well as kids playing.  In two years we saw the creek flood about four times and loved to explore the rockpools where the creek turned a corner into the hills near our house.  Our backyard was really a cliff face, too steep to climb.
   The house was a modern brick affair with heating and ducted cooling.  We always seemed to have visitors.  A succession of Areyonga Desert Tigers keyboard players cut their teeth on the instrument in our loungeroom.  Doortje always had ladies in for a cuppa.  She became involved with the women in the fledgling batik cottage industry and we still have a framed bush tucker print hanging over our bed.
   I wrote a few songs while we were at Areyonga (although the Areyonga Song was a rip-off of a sea shanty) and towards the end of 1983 the family made a cassette recording of ten songs called Singing Together.  The recording studio was the loungeroom, the equipment one mike stand and stereo mike.  There is some double-tracking involving a second cassette recorder so sound quality was not of the essence.  I'm glad we did it though—the kids' voices sound great now and a couple of the songs I'm proud of.  It was not uncommon for a recording take to be aborted by a knock on the door and "Kungka, you got tea leaf?"
   The dump at Areyonga was a good source of old bikes and I began to revisit an old hobby.  Many bikes were discarded only because the tubes and tyres were ruined so they weren't hard to restore.  Two bikes I remember were a high-rise chopper type with 3-speed T-bar gear change on the top bar, and a BMX for Daniel, I think.  It wasn't long before bikes were being brought to the house for puncture repairs and it was always a pleasure to see one going again.
   In those days our camping was done under the stars with the minimum of equipment, probably a large tarp for a groundsheet and blankets, a camp oven, tucker box, and not much more.  We camped in the creek at Tnorala and watched shooting stars in the days before the place was understood to be out of bounds.  We camped at Mutitjulu next to Uluru before this was no longer possible.  We camped in the valley east of Areyonga.  We also bought a canvas tent to use in more civilised camping and used it first in Palm Valley and then on the memorable Broome trip.

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   When we left Areyonga at the end of 1983 it was the end of an era.  The kids were starting their own adventure with secondary schools, Doortje wanted to be closer to her parents in Victoria, and I was due long service leave and subsequently became a "house-husband".  It was be fifteen years before we went back to live in the NT after the kids had all flown the coop.

We made many friends on the remote communities and some we still count as close friends, keeping in contact one way or another.  To be able to drive out to Areyonga and visit friends who have become community elders is special.  Swapping Christmas cards with others, or sharing oysters on a deck with a view, is just as special.

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This will be the last of the series.  By 1993 the kids were all adults, and would be able to spot my porkies, so I'll leave it up them and Doortje to tell the rest.  Thanks for typing, Helm.

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