A Country I Called My Own

This is an edited version of my 4000+ word reflective submission following an Aboriginal Cultural Immersion program in July 2011.

Aboriginal culture, as with any culture on our humble globe, would be impossible to summarise in a tome of encyclopedias, let alone a thousand words.  The culture of the peoples native to this beautiful sun-blessed, drought-ridden and flood-prone country is the oldest known to man, existing for hundreds of millennia with traditions virtually untouched by outside influences until recently.  Despite the tiny blip that European history is on this continent, my perceptions of Aboriginal culture are embarrassingly limited.

Growing up in Victoria, the child of an American and an English-heritage Aussie, my knowledge of Aboriginal culture was informed by our over-simplified education system.  It was the stories of the dream time, read to my  class by the librarian at the tender age of five, that first sparked my curiosity about native traditions. That feeling of wonder and awe still overwhelms me.  The stories were so rich and powerful. For the first time, those stories made the world make sense. 

Above the bench on which I sat during many a high school lunch hour, there proudly hung a plaque commemorating the native tribe belonging to the land upon which our school (not so) humbly stood. I often wondered what these lands had looked like when the Wurundjeri people lived here, minus the monstrosities that we now call buildings. I wondered if our “Federation Courtyard”, with its Aboriginal-inspired artworks and Australia-shaped stage would really pay adequate homage to the people who once found their food and water here, who feed their souls through connecting to the land.
Before my immersion camp, I had envisaged a community that would reject the visiting ‘white folk’.  Instead, I was constantly awestruck by the affection I received, the amazing culture, scenery and environment around me. How do I show others the vivid colours of wild expanses of greenery? It’s greenery but not really green. It’s not desert foliage but it’s not rainforest. There are these immensely tall trees, some sparsely distributed and some huddled together, as if united against the elements. There are the bushes and the ferns and the grass that sits closer to the passing visitor. Either side of you are visible mountain ridges, or what would have been mountains before wind and rain pummelled away at their surface. Above the sharp line of the ridges and far from our gazing eyes are the trees that sit atop these ancient hills. Trees that have the most magnificent view of them all.

As we drove along the bumpy road from Darwin to our destination, if road is an appropriate word for these disruptions of such natural beauty, I watched the endless landscape roll past me. I was enthralled. I wondered how people managed to walk through this wild landscape before we had neat pathways clearing a way for our movement. I thought back on this concept later, when told that the grass could be as tall as me, if not higher, during the Wet Season. How, I wonder, did the many families who lived on this land thousands of years before me navigate this terrain with grass that high? How did they avoid the crocodiles? How did they manage to stay alive despite the harshness of this environment? How did other societies lose this phenomenal skill?

Somehow, the knowledge developed by families, clans and tribes in each region of Australia helped them to navigate the wilderness that baffles my Western mind. I’ve heard stories of particular tribes knowing that if the wind were coming from one direction and the sun was in another, you would be able to cross a river without fear of crocodiles. It seems like a reasonable theory, although I wonder how many were lost in the many years of testing other possibilities. For me, crossing the a large river and low-tide in a big, strong, somewhat crocodile-proof 4WD was still a scary process. I watched the cars go ahead of me and thought that the water washed over the cars rather high. I wondered how we would get across without flooding the car, our feet and everything in the boot. When we made it to the other side of that river, I felt like we had conquered Mount Everest. Somehow, through the mechanics of the car and some superb driving skills, we managed to remain alive, in one piece and only a tiny bit damp. It was at about this point I realised just how sheltered from environmental conditions my city upbringing has made me.

Crossing the river was by no means the end of our journey - we still had a two hour drive ahead. I was surprised. Shocked because it was a two hour drive for the community to anywhere to purchase food or fuel. A two hour drive to medical services, the police and relatives. The drive is made all the more difficult as it has many pot-holes and ditches caused by the torrential rains the Top End receives during the Wet Season. I started to get an inkling of how difficult it must be to be ‘seen’ by governments and services when you live so far from their reach. I wondered at how isolated it must feel in the Wet Season. I wondered how difficult it must be for the custodians of the land to seek employment, let alone to hold it down. I felt so small in such a wide, orange and green landscape.
When we arrived that evening, I looked at the surrounds and was just baffled. Surely, if we were flying overhead, we would disappear between the trees, only a speck of buildings amongst nature. We were so isolated. At the same time, we were surrounded by an untamed, wild, natural beauty unlike that which I had seen before. We were connected to ourselves and to nature more than we could ever be in the city.

As we explored, I was struck by more than the land's sheer magnificence.  I was overcome by how happy everyone seemed. When I look around the city, I see glum faces peering intently at their phone calendars in a vain attempt to find time for cooking dinner. I am used to seeing people so caught up in their thoughts that they nearly walk into passers-by, and children so tightly bound in cotton wool by their parents that they have forgotten how to have fun. Here, everyone seems peaceful. The children are almost exploding with smiles and enthusiasm. They are so fit and intelligent. The adults watch on and go about their days, calm and graceful in their movements. Empty words do not fill the silences. Instead, we were free to enjoy the chatter of birds and the rustlings of plants in the wind.
From the outside, life here seems much more simple than life at the city. There are fewer inane distractions. There are fewer pointless meetings and useless technologies. It’s so much more quiet. However, after a few days there, I started to realise how so many things would be much more difficult. If you wanted to read a book or buy some new clothes or get some groceries, you have to go a very long way to find a store. The selection at the nearest store is incredibly limited and a visit further afield would be infrequent considering the cost of fuel. While postal delivery of goods is possible, that adds on an extra fee to already costly items. I would also imagine that access to the Internet would be limited or non-existent, making online orders impossible. Sending the children away each week to attend school must be heart-wrenching. While children can be a handful, it becomes even more difficult to involve them in their own culture when they are away for long periods of time. Though life seems simple at first glance, it’s so much more complex as soon as you scratch the surface.

On our second day, we were Welcomed to Country by the Elder. I felt a little bit nervous being splashed with the cold water of the stream. I also felt like it was not something I deserved. What had I done to be honoured with a welcome? Who was I to be on these people’s land? I wondered if the water was to cleanse me of bad spirits I may have encountered on my journey. Later, when told scary stories, I wondered if I had been in danger for the time I’d been here without a welcome. I wondered if it had been our host's accepting presence that kept us safe.

Immersing ourselves in daily activities, we climbed the steep slope of a nearby ridge. For a few minutes, I was focused solely on putting my feet in one safe position after another. Instead of considering the myriad things that flit through my mind on any ordinary day, my mind was calculating whether the rock in front of me was embedded in the hill-face or loose on top. I was wondering whether the leaves would be slippery or provide extra friction and trying very hard not to think of what would happen if I tumbled backwards. I had been focused so intently on my footsteps that I was surprised to reach the rock painting. I looked up in awe at the hand prints on the wall and wondered how many people had traversed this path over the millennia. I felt so privileged to see something that would be so sacred to the descendants of those with their memories on the wall. I also felt ashamed that some of my compatriots in the city possess little respect for these pieces of history.
Warming ourselves by the fire at night while munching on the delicious meals, I felt like the days had fed my soul. I could feel my body recharging itself. Being away from the city is so grounding. As we all chatted about our day’s experience, I wondered how I had been lucky enough to go on a trip as amazing as this. Me. A city kid. Despite my complete lack of any similar experience, I felt so connected to this place. I stopped caring about being grubby, about the way the dirt just wouldn’t come out of my skin and about how I was probably smelly. I dreaded going back to Sydney, where I’d have to face the wrath of proper hygiene. To imagine that only 26 hours after getting home I would have to practice full hand hygiene sent shivers down my spine. I knew the patients I would see in days to come were suffering not just from their conditions but also from their complete disengagement with nature. I realised that modern hospitals must be incredibly distressing for Indigenous people.

I could write forever but I would never be able to get across just how much I have gained from being here. No number of words could express my gratitude for being able to see the true beauty of this country. The fragility of nature, the strength of a limitless culture a place I wish I could call home.  I don't have control over this land. I am but a nomad on its surface, forever at its mercy, forever moments from its terror, always embraced by a sense of belonging.


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