In the bush - Living with the Aborigines

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Oceania » Australia » Northern Territory » Alice Springs
December 10th 2008
Published: December 10th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Apparently 80% of visitors to Australia would like an Aboriginal experience. Personally I'm surprised its not 100% because for me, when I think of Australia, I think of kangaroos, koala bears and Aborigines. You're guaranteed to see a kangaroo as there's something like 60 million of them, koalas are a little more elusive though there are many zoo's to see or hold them, but the aborigines, those still in touch with their culture, are a little harder to find.
There are many 'experiences' on offer, from bush walks where you can get to sample some bush tucker to cultural centres where you learn their culture from inside 4 walls. There are also many art centres where their art will be explained to you as best it can be, but without paying for it you'd be pushed to find a positive Aboriginal experience in Australia.

We became aware of the huge divide in Australia between the whites and the Aborigines immediately - its something you don't grasp if you are outside of the country or if you only spend time in the major coastal cities.
In Perth, we rarely saw an Aborigine as we were warned away from the areas that they populate but after we visited Broome in the far north of WA we realised where the problems lie. Alcohol.
From Broome to Alice Springs via Kununurra, Katherine and Darwin we experienced nothing but drunk aborigines. They were never really a threat to us but obviously a threat to each other and apart from them occupying ever street corner they were dirty and smelled awful. Needless to say our initial experiences of the aboriginies weren't the most positive, but we did sympathise with them as they have been cruelly treated by the Australian governments up until recently. Naturally when we were offered the opportunity to work on a cattle station running the general store for the alcohol-free Aborigines out in the bush we jumped at the chance.

Our placement was at Red Gum store, which is situated 280km north-east of Alice Springs and is 35km away from the Utopia region, an area famous for the quality of art its residents produce.
After 140km of bitumen and another 140km of rough red dirt road we arrived and were greeted by Margaret and Brian, an elderly couple running the shop. They told us what to expect in the store, mainly that the aborigines are 'feral bastards' that shouldn't be trusted. It seemed a little harsh but we took note yet still looked forward to the experience to come.

The work wasn't anything to write home about - Laura worked the til and cooked the food, I stocked the shop and maintained the grounds. Margaret and Brian pretended to manage.

Pretty soon we were on first name terms with a lot of the aborigines that came in. Its worth noting how English a lot of the names are. Some of the regulars include Harold Morton, Sam Dixon, Sandy Hunter, Mary Jones, Amy Nelson - it is their skin name that separates them, which is their traditional name and is often the name of the land that they own. We have Knangwarreye, Pitjarra, Mbitjana, Ngala and Kamara amongst others.
Some of them have ridiculous names such as Paddy Motorbike or Donny Onion - a result of a cattle station owner with a sense of humour, who named them that way. The old cattle station owners also gave them their date of birth as it is something that they don't pay attention to or celebrate. Because of the size of the cattle stations out here, they are often more than a million acres, the station owners wouldn't return to some communities for 3 months so on the date of his return, if their were new babies he didn't recognise, he would give them the birth date of that day. Hence out here you have numerous aborigines with the same birthdays (not that they care).

There is always the language barrier out here, English not being their first language and some English words having no direct translation. In many ways its like being in a foreign country as you use a lot of pointing, a bit of guesswork, and a lot of gesticulating to get your message through. I made a conscious effort to learn some words that would help me through but its an incredibly difficult language to grasp - all the words pretty much end in 'a', 'arra' or 'atta' - and my memories shot to pieces already, so currently I know 'balla' which is 3, 'Mwarae Cura' which kind of means thanks/see you/I'm doing ok, and 'dandale' which means hairy arse. Thats about as far as I'm going to get I think!

As some of you may be aware, the aborigines are said to 'come from the land'. They say that they have always been here, that they were formed by the land and they will return to the land after they die. They have always lived in the bush, for what is estimated to be 60,000 years.
They have a use for every bush or tree in the desert. They know where to find water where there are no visible signs of water other than is what is growing on the land. Basically, they are survivors of the desert.
In modern terms, this is converted to their cars. I have never seen so many cars in such a poor state of repair yet they keep going. They sound awful, they often have shattered windscreens, they rarely have 4 tyres the same on them and I've even found a melted battery in 1 car that had burnt through many wires and by all accounts had ruined the car. The next day, with just a new battery, they had the car running.
The roads are partiularly treacherous after rain when they basically turn to mud, yet they all drive 2-wheel drives, and drive them well. One time I had to get pulled out of a huge ditch I had created for myself when I skidded into a puddle (in a 4WD Toyota Landcruiser I may add), which was 3 feet of sloppy mud. 'We stick to the middle of the roads when it rains - you should too' said Elton, who towed me out. Good advice I thought.

As much as they survive when the conditions are harsh, they are painfully lazy people, particularly the men. They could be compared to the jobless layabouts that plague Britain, in that they are on the dole and want everything for nothing and with no effort given.
I find it incredibly sad that these people who survived only off of what the land of Australia offered them are now surviving off of what we offer them from the deep fat fryer. They also consume a frightening amount of microwave foods - it appears that if it is no effort to get it then they want in abundance.
Having said that, every now and then we do get some of them coming in with various culinary delights such as kangaroo 'cuts' (basically fillets) or perentie, a thin lizard of about 6ft in length. Knowing the size of the desert, its a pretty mean feat to catch anything out here, so fair play to them.
Every now and then we get some people coming in with 'bush medicine', a plant that smells exactly like Vics Vapour rub, which they mix with fat and use as a soother. In the old days they would use the fat from a kangaroo, which I'm sure would have smelled awful.

They may be out of touch with their ancient sources of food but they are still in touch with a vital part of their culture - their art.
Utopian Aboriginal Art is widely regarded as the best art the aboriginals in Australia have to offer, and to be honest I can't disagree - it is superb and completely different to any art I have seen before.
Like most aborigines, they paint stories passed down through their families that are related to the dreamtime. The Pitjarras will often paint Caterpillar and body paint, the Ngala's are protectors of the Bush Plum whilst the Knagwarreyes are guardians of the Rainbow Spirit. They each have their own indivdual 'stories' that they paint beautifully.
Before the introduction of canvas and acryllic paints in the 1970's they often painted on rocks in the desert. Some rock art in Arnhem land in the far north of the Northerm Territory has been found to be 40,000 years old. It is the longest running continuous part of their culture. It is also a part of their culture that is significant to their income.
On average a painting measuring (roughly) 100cm by 150cm will net them between $250 - $500. On the market, depending on the artist and the care taken over the painting, they are worth between $5,000 and $30,000.
My inital instinct was to ask why they don't get that themselves - and there are many reasons. One is they don't pay for the canvas or the paints - they are provided. Another is they have no contacts - they don't know anyone outside their immediate family so wouldn't be able to find buyers.
A fantastic project going at the moment though that does benefit them more is the Utopian Aboriginal Art Project, which gives a percentage of the final sale price back to the community.

The reason you can't give the artist a percentage personally is because they are wilfully irresponsible with their money. In many ways they do not understand the concept of money. As an example, they will come into the shop, buy, say, a tin of corned beef with a $50 note, notice they have $43 left and then go and buy another single item, and so on and so on until they have nothing left. They don't understand the concept of saving, they just spend what they have. In the rare cases when they do have money, after selling a painting for example, they spend it on rubbish like toys for the children who do not appreciate it. The toys I often find broken in the yard outside.
Therefore it is a worrying concept to imagine what they would do with as much as $30,000. It would not be like me and you getting $30,000 - it would be chicken and chips all round and crap toys for all!

The store recently hosted an Australian Rules Football weekend, which promised to be mayhem. Many stores host these types of weekends to boost sales and for periods of the the year all the aborigines will travel round to all the stores hosting these events, some as far away as Queensland.
The weekend brought 140 cars. It may not sound like a huge number but they don't travel 5 to a car, often double that. The most I saw in 1 car was 15, small children standing up in the boot whilst the rest packed into the front. A colleague saw a car with 21 in it. So we had a lot of people to deal with.
For the most part, everyone was well behaved - the children on the other hand were not. It seemed at some points like everything was literally walking out the shop, we managed to catch some of the little thieves but sometimes we just weren't quick enough!

The football itself was of a good standard I thought. I was amazed that the majority of players played in bare foot - it was a pitch made up of hard pack sand and an aussie rules ball is pretty hard and heavy. There were also numerous players playing in trousers - astounding considering it was 30c+ all weekend.
But it was very competitive, there were some good goals scored and in the end the Cowboys won, a team from nearer Tennant Creek than Alice Springs.

Whilst the boys played footy the girls played softball with slightly less enthusiasm as there was only 3 teams. In the evening a band played and there were competitions for dancing and dressing up as a cowboy!
The dancing was bizarre - not traditional at all. It was all ass-shaking and not much else, from the boys as well, but they were all having a good time so fair play.

The experience out here has been wonderful and is so far removed from my home and anywhere I've been that it will always have a special place in my heart. In some respects the aborigines are 'feral bastards', I've found children taking a crap on the shop floor 3 times, and they don't wash themselves or their clothes. But they only have clothes because we gave them to them, otherwise they would still be living as proper bushmen. They still only wash when it rains, when there is enough water in the creek to do so.
They are warm, genuine people who have a strong emphasis on looking after family and friends. They are survivors and they just get on with it, living, they way they know how. It has been a fascinating insight into the lives of some truly wonderful people.


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