From Mount Isa to Darwin
A car trip with some old mates has introduced me to a part of Australia I’d never visited but which people who grew up in this country instinctively feel at home in. We passed through a largely uninhabited landscape where nothing much happens. At one stage to the east of Tennant Creek the road ran perfectly straight for half an hour, and this in a region where cars keep pretty close to the maximum speed limit of, gulp, 130 km per hour. There’s pleasure in the sparse vegetation and the native fauna that inhabits it, the clarity of the air, the soil that turns from red to brown as you head north and the trees become more substantial, the massive ant hills and the wonderful warm springs at Mataranka.
But no-one can journey through this part of Australia without encountering Indigenous Australians (Aboriginals), and for those of us who grew up as Australians of European descent this is not easy. The shuffling gait, the sense of boredom, the apparent lack of possibilities of employment (astonishingly, those who work in the roadhouses and similar places that cater for visitors are largely backpackers from northern Europe, with scarcely an Indigenous among them), and the impact of alcohol are all too obvious. One might respond to the last of these issues by declaring some areas dry, but sick people who recently visited doctors with symptoms they could not identify turned out to be suffering the consequences of drinking something they had brewed from Vegemite and oranges to circumvent such a policy. How could the deeper issue, of what leads people to drink in this way, be tackled? What resources are there in the traditional culture of the First Australians? I wonder whether some of them sit in parks not only because these are safe and comfortable places to wile away the hours, but because the practice is a remnant of something from their ancient culture. I honour recent Australian governments from both sides of politics that have developed policies and spent money to try to overcome these problems, but the situation of the original inhabitants of this country remains a source of shame for all of us who now live here.