A few months ago we (two colleagues and I) did a vaccination drive at one of the town camps. We had been approached by Department of Health and Aging (DoHA – the Federal department), asking if we had any way of providing them with photographs of indigenous people having their recommended vaccines, because they needed new material for the development of posters. We approached this particular camp, where I know some people well, and they agreed.
DoHA sent a photographer and assistant on a pre-arranged day and we traveled to the camp in convoy, photograph consent forms in hand. There was a wide demographic range – babies, older people, pregnant women, teenagers, and we administered dozens of vaccines. Mostly influenza, but various others as well. It was, as vaccine drives always are, the best fun imaginable – hard work, chaos and hilarity all rolled into a few fast-lived hours of craziness.
Some of the photographs arrived on my desktop last week and we took them out to show the models, promising to return soon with proper copies. Below are a tiny sample of the stunning photographs. The elderly man with the cowboy hat (I’ve given him an alias) doesn’t speak English. He looked at his photograph, broke out into an excited smile, and said excitedly “Bobby Wagner!”. He then put his finger on his nose, and then on the photo, then back to his nose, repeating “Bobby Wagner” a number of times.
The other day I was driving into town behind a police paddy wagon. Sitting on the floor of the caged area, was a dark silhouette of a thin figure, still as a statue, cross legged, arms (perhaps handcuffed?) crossed around behind his back, looking out of the cage towards me. We pulled up at a roundabout and I was contemplating this sight in front of me – could this be one of my lingering memories of Central Australia, symbolising all of the social issues we are known for? I wondered about his childhood and adult experiences which had led to him being transported to the police cells in a cage, his thin body probably knew malnutrition well, was he sober, how well did the police know him, where were his family, had he ever gone to school?
These contemplations flowed as we pulled up at a roundabout, when I was snapped into consciousness as I realised he was shouting out, and then it became apparent that his shouts were aimed directly at me. No sooner did I realise this, than the wagon drove off around the roundabout, leaving me behind. Was it someone I knew calling out? Was it a stranger who saw me looking and shouted obscenities? Perhaps neither, but these are the two most likely possibilities. Another typical Central Australian interlude!
The jacarandas are farewelling me in flower. The second, less vibrant photograph below, is a jacaranda at the bend of Sadadeen Road, with Hidden Valley town camp and the East McDonnell Ranges (Yipirinya) as a backdrop. Yipirinya is the Arrernte name for the McDonnell Ranges, which are divided into east and west by a narrow gap at the southern end of town, through which squeeze the dry Todd River, a two-lane road with a precarious footpath running parallel to it, and a railway line.
Yipirinya, or Ayeperenye, is also the name of a local native caterpillar which forms a long procession by biting the back end of the caterpillar in front of it. Short trains of these caterpillars, probably somehow separated from the rest of the train, have occasionally ended up lost in my back yard. Apparently on satellite image, a long caterpillar procession is exactly what these ranges look like. This aerial view of the land is the foundation of dot art.
There are many indigenous stories about Yipirinya, which local children grow up learning in the same way that I grew up learning bible stories. Some years ago I was driving through The Gap with Gloria who was about eleven in the front seat. She pointed to an outcrop in the range and said “See that little caterpillar oba there?”. “Ummmm…. no?”. She looked at me like I was mad, “Right there, that one!”. “Oh, okaaayyyy……?!”. I’m going to miss the rusty red caterpillar ranges, but not as much as I’ll miss Gloria and her big extended family.
For the first time in months, it rained. King, my old remote friend, was here for lunch and we were sitting outside when he said to me “Big Rain coming”. Really? “Yeah, coming real quiet way”. How do you know? “Feel it! Real still”, as he put his hands out to feel the still air. I put my hands out in imitation, hoping to learn how to sense the rain, but there was nothing. About five minutes later a brief but heavy shower hit, complete with thunder. “See? I told you!”.
King spent his childhood walking from west of Kiwirrkurra, east into Haasts Bluff Community. When he told me this story he said he was “this big” when they started out, and “this big” when they arrived. His hand height looked to be about two years of growing, from around 6 to around 8 or 9 years old. This would have been in the 1950s or perhaps early 1960s. I asked him what he did when he arrived in Haasts Bluff. Started going to school. That must have been really different for you? “Yeah, real different. Teacher was real cranky”. He didn’t see cars or white people, and had known nothing of sitting still while the adults instructed you in a classroom. They travelled on foot, eating bush foods all the way. Below is a photograph of Haasts Bluff as I know it (I last travelled there about 3 years ago). There is a small indigenous community of perhaps 200 people there, with a clinic, school, womens centre, shop, etc. And a watercolour by the original famous indigenous landscape artist, Albert Namatjira, whose biography is well worth reading.
Later in the afternoon, on my way over to Sadadeen to photograph the jacaranda, I gave way to a Holden Sedan with a big dent in it’s side and no windows. I wished I had my camera ready as this car passed me by with the back window completely missing and the back passengers sitting in their well ventilated car, looking ahead as though everything was as it should be! Alas I didn’t, so instead here’s a photograph of the sun shining through our cloudy sky.
Today I was very busy with various preparations for my looming departure. Tonight I had a barbecue with the boy I fostered for 2 years, and some of his family and current carers. We sat under the outcrop of red rocks on the hill rising above the house, where the 8 year old boy climbed and explored until it was too dark.
As they were leaving after dark, I was standing in the cul de sac with his mother and baby sister, and in the corner of my eye I saw a dog run across the corner at the T-junction two houses up the road. I turned to look, and the dog transformed into a large kangaroo bounding up the street!
A gusty, cool and overcast morning with ring necked parrots feasting at the back door.
I said my first farewells today, with some flowers arriving at work from my Darwin colleagues, and a friend arriving in town en route to a holiday which ends the day after I have left town. We had dinner together with another friend at a popular pub called Monte’s, which has a great beer garden. I knew Monte’s when it was a low budget burger joint called Dingo’s in the late 1990s, before becoming a more upmarket restaurant called Bluegrass. The Monte’s outfit surpasses it’s predecessors by miles, with great food, decent beers and wines, a relaxed and busy atmosphere, play area with good toys for children, a stylish and unusual art deco interior and garden design, etc. I love it there, and will miss it.
There is a local woman called Jennifer who is half-blind, usually unkempt, and often drunk. She lives in various places, including the riverbed, and wanders the streets with a crooked walk, knocking on doors where she knows she will receive a friendly welcome, looking for food. She once knocked on my door looking for food and when I could not offer her any, she asked instead for some shoes. I had some spare thongs which I gave to her. She put them on and then whispered to me “you got any spare undie?”. I told her that I didn’t, because my undies would fall off her thin bottom. I have encountered her numerous times since then, most recently when I was on my bike outside the house with some vegetables in the handlebar basket which she mistook for fruit – she looked at the red capsicum and asked for an apple, and when I said I didn’t have one she looked at a brown onion and said “what about orange?”. I invited her in for a tuna sandwich instead, and she used the toilet.
Some other friends of mine, Sandy and Paul, had an experience with Jenny when her husband was still alive about ten years ago. They were both well known figures around the streets. Sandy and Paul had gone to bed forgetting to lock the front door. They were traveling the next day and had made ham and mustard sandwiches for the journey, which were in the fridge. After they had both fallen asleep, the air conditioning turned on, waking Paul, who got up to investigate. Sandy woke to a shout by Paul, and followed him out into the kitchen, where she found Jennifer’s husband on the floor, having been knocked down by Paul, and Jennifer with a ham and mustard sandwich in her mouth, whose first words were “too much mustard, give me water”! They called the police, who charged the intruders with break and entry.
As with many of the local pubs and restaurants, Monte’s has a security guard at the gate, keeping drunks outside. This tends to make Monte’s, as with many of the other institutions, a “whitefella drinking place”. We often sit at a booth table on the edge of the beer garden, a short distance from the wrought iron fence, giving us a good vantage point for various activity on the footpath outside the fence. Last night three police officers were patrolling the strip on horses, various crowds wandered by, a young man outstretched his arms, putting each arm and his face through the gaps in the fence and shouted out excitedly towards the crowd in Monte’s for no apparent reason, while an older woman stood at the fence holding her canvas dot art in our general direction, hoping to score a sale.
Meanwhile, inside the gate after sunset, Jennifer appeared. She wandered in cautiously, looking around (but I doubt she could see anything in the low-lit garden). She walked past our booth and stopped at the booth next to us, where some small girls were sitting independently of their adults at a nearby booth. She struck up a conversation with these girls, and soon enough she was sitting with them. They seemed to engage happily with her. At one point she sang a song to them at the top of her lungs, which the nearby booths including us turned to observe with amusement. At another point, she and a girl of about 10 hugged each other like long lost friends. Some young men, perhaps the girls’ fathers, came to the table and chatted with Jennifer, and a short while later she was eating a pizza which she definitely had not ordered herself!
Normally when someone like Jennifer gets into the beer garden, they are noticed by staff and moved on. However, she was causing no harm, and the fact that this young family were so inclusive towards her seemed to blend her presence into the crowd. I felt as though I had witnessed some out-of-the-ordinary kindness.
I moved out of my house in April in preparation for my trip overseas. Initially I moved two doors away, to my old boss’ place and sub-let a room with a friend/colleague. Eight weeks later I began house sitting, and from mid June until now I have had continuous house sits, most of them complete with use of a car – which was handy because I took the battery out of my unregistered old bomb, parked it in the shed and have packed it high with my stuff (and half the shed is piled high with my boxes). Given that most of the world live with just the clothes on their back, I do wonder at my need to have so much stuff, but I am not yet ready to get rid of everything I have stored, so it sits there. The tenants have been brilliantly hospitable, allowing me access to the shed whenever I ask. Nevertheless I’m sure they’ll be pleased in ten days’ time when the landlady stops visiting!
Today I began my final, brief house (and dog) sit in the northern suburbs of Alice Springs, at a colleague’s lovely home. The back yard rises up into the hills, beyond which the vast expanse of the Central Australian ranges and desert stretches into infinity.
Walking the dogs just before sunset:
Walking the dogs in the morning light.
This afternoon I moved to my final Alice Springs “home” until I return. A self contained tin shed in Ameeta’s back yard, under the watchful eye of beautiful, wallaby-infested Spencer Hill. At 38C I thought a dip in the pool was warranted, but it was like an ice bucket so I lasted about three minutes.
I sat under the verandah in my wet towel and moments later my new, temporary landlady appeared with two gin and tonics in her hands! We sat chatting while a ring-necked parrot and a yellow-throated miner fought over the nectar on an eremophila directly in front of us. I hope the bird life in Cambodia is as interesting as ours.
It was a crazy week at work, not really worth writing about (writing a handover manual, hand over meetings with the team, cleaning up files, completing overdue jobs, that sort of thing). I did have a few final catch ups with some different people, including Barb who came armed with photographs of her times in Cambodia, which gave me a glimpse of what lies ahead. Also a morning tea on Thursday with my workmates, where Rebecca recited an ode she had written in my honour, highly amusing. I went to the town camp where I have spent so much of my life in the past ten years, to say goodbye, and gave out as many hugs as I could. After working in the same place for eleven of the past thirteen years, it was a reasonably big deal to be saying goodbye, but I am only leaving for two years, so I don’t feel a finality to my farewells, which makes it easier.
This evening I left work for the last time for two years. I had my first glimmer of excitement as I drove home. I showered, changed and walked from Spencer Hill, at one end of Old Eastside, to Chifleys Resort at the other end, for my farewell drinks. Old Eastside is the oldest suburb outside of, and just across the river from, the CBD in Alice Springs. It’s my favourite suburb and I have lived here for most of the past ten years, amongst the tree lined streets with old character filled Territorian style homes. I wandered past a number of different houses where I have lived over the years, down to the riverside and along the river, to the resort, where a surprisingly large crowd of friends, neighbours, colleagues, and ex-colleagues gathered for some fun and frivolity. It was a great final night out, with lots of laughs, and they even made me give a farewell speech.
This morning I had my last Alice Springs hair cut and colour, bought a new suitcase and stocked up on thank you cards for a few people. This afternoon I chilled out under the verandah. Houdini, the neighbourhood chook who flies from one house to the next strutting her stuff around the yards, fluttered over the fence and bwarked around with one eye on me, following me to the laundry door, and out to the washing line. Sasha the old cat lazed in the chair next to me, a few lizards whizzed around under the crispy ground leaves and birds flew in and out of the garden pecking at branches.
This evening I joined Megan, Sam, Jo, Katrien, John, three children and a dog named Lou-Lou, and we drove in convoy east out of town, along Undoolya Road which becomes a red dirt track a few short kilometres from the suburbs. Past Whitegate Camp, where an extended indigenous family group live in three-walled tin sheds on the edge of the station where they were once stockmen, nannies and housemaids. Now they sit in the dust, or walk the 8km or so into town to catch up with their urban responsibilities such as checking in at Centrelink or the bank, meeting up with family from other camps or communities, and having a drink at the Todd Tavern’s “Animal Bar”. This bar is one of a few which open in the middle of the morning, and close at the same time the attached takeaway bottle shops open, meaning the drinkers leave the pub, stock up on takeaway alcohol, and continue their drinking elsewhere (home or various locations in the scrub around and just outside of town) . The process keeps taxis busy, as they pick people up at the exit to the bottle store, drive around to the entrance, through the bottle store where their passengers make their purchase, then drop them off at the exit to pick up the next takeaway customers. The police often park their paddy wagons, or sit on their horses, outside the bar at closing time, to try and monitor what is going on. These thoughts all whizzed through my head as we passed Whitegate, where I’ve spent time in a work capacity, meeting people and learning a little about their lives.
Along Undoolya Road, at the beautiful bloodwood tree we veered left into the scrub, put the car into 4WD and climbed the rough track up Undoolya Hill. Jo was in her little old car, which only made it about halfway up the hill, where she parked and joined our car, then we convoyed in the two Toyotas to the top of the hill. We set up a picnic table, sipped wine, nibbled Megan’s gourmet bites, and watched the Yipirinya Ranges as the sun battled the rain clouds, and finally won with a beautiful sunset before the lights of Alice Springs slowly turned the darkness below us into a glow of urbanity. Unfortunately I only had my iPhone so the photos are low resolution snaps.
Lunch out with a friend. Then picked up 8yo and took him via the car wash (it’s always exciting going through the car wash!) to the Skate Park so I could watch his skills one last time. Then over to say goodbye to King, and ended up taking him over to visit some family briefly before dropping him home again. Then my last dinner in Alice, poolside on a cool evening at Chifleys Resort with Mairead.
Going to bed with bags still unpacked. Nothing like leaving things til the last minute!