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DESERT WISDOM

DESERT WISDOM 

This is the story of two rather naďve New Zealand-trained teachers who spent 19 months, 42 years ago, in an isolated desert school among the Alyawarra people at Lake Nash. Initially the Alyawarra adults were aloof. However, the children were keen to attend school and show these whitefella teachers they could learn. 

After the school had been operating for a time it became clear the children’s reports to their parents were positive and this in turn was reflected in the behaviour of the adults. This acceptance allowed the teachers to break through the cultural barrier to discover that a remarkable culture existed hidden from the outside by the rather extreme living conditions and racial prejudice the Aborigines were subjected to. The story outlines this intricate culture and how it has changed over the years. 

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ISBN: 978-1-922229-37-3  
Format: Paperback
Number of pages:154
Genre: Non Fiction

Cover: Clive Dalkins

Author: Ian Tarrant
Publisher:
Zeus Publications

Date Published: 2014
Language: English

 

Author Bio. 

The author is now retired and lives near Lismore NSW. He is divorced with three adult children; Marama (Miriam), Naomi and Tane. Twenty-two years of his working life were as a schoolteacher. During his teaching he ran an Activity Centre in New Zealand which catered for adolescents who found the secondary school system unrewarding, ran a double unit for so-called ‘backward’ students and spent twelve years teaching Aboriginal students. He also spent time as a social worker and education officer.  

Having been raised in the country he worked on cattle and sheep stations in both Australia and New Zealand. He is still a keen horseman. His academic interest and hobby is Anthropology in which he has a degree. He also spent four years full time post-graduate study as a non-enrolled student. This was possible because he was receiving the sole parent benefit.

CHAPTER ONE

 

Driving into the sun

 PART SAMPLE

 

The steady rhythm of the motor was my only company as I drove across a Mitchell grass plain – a vast, lonely place. The Australian outback heightens your sensitivity to things you take for granted in more populated areas and the steady beat of the motor was reassuring. The sun didn’t help though. It was hot and had been doing its best to fry me. To make matters worse, as the day matured, it was dead in front, making it almost impossible to see where I was going. I was driving west, in the late afternoon, towards the Northern Territory border, on a track that consisted of two rutted wheel marks. Lake Nash was somewhere west about eight kilometres over the border.

I had asked a chap in Camooweal, ‘How do you get to Lake Nash?’

‘See that road there, mate? Well, drive down there and turn west and you can’t miss it.’

It was over 160 kilometres from Camooweal in Queensland to Lake Nash in the Northern Territory and the detailed instructions had filled me with dismay, but the ‘and you can’t miss it’ meant it would be quite rude of me to further question my informant. In those days, the philosophy seems to have been, ‘If you don’t know where you are going you shouldn’t be out here,’ so road signs were as scarce as water. In fact, I only ever remember seeing one sign pointing to Lake Nash and that was on a road coming from another direction.

Eventually, by putting my head out the window, I found the sun was not as blinding and I was able to make better progress. Just as the sun was slipping behind the horizon I passed over a cattle grid in the fence line – at last the Queensland-Northern Territory border. Not far from the grid I negotiated a number of dry creek beds and drove onto gravel country. In the fading light the buildings of the station loomed into view. I drove slowly along the road, past some buildings, until I saw the ‘Police Station’ sign over the only building that wasn’t made of corrugated iron. Even in the half-light it stood out like an oasis as it was surrounded by flowering shrubs and green trees. I climbed out stiffly to be greeted at the front gate by a uniformed police officer. He invited me in and said I was to stay with him and his wife until I sorted out things at the school. The Northern Territory Administration had made this arrangement with him. I was very grateful because, after several days travelling from Armidale in New South Wales in the blazing heat of February, I wasn’t looking forward to preparing an evening meal.

My wife Tessa and I were New Zealand-trained teachers with several years’ teaching experience. We had arrived in Australia with our four-and-a-half-month-old baby and had been staying with friends in Armidale. From there I had written to the Northern Territory Administration enquiring about a teaching position for myself as Tessa didn’t want to teach until our daughter was older. Not having received a reply I decided to drive north in our new Valiant station wagon to look at a position on a cattle station some distance from Alpha in Queensland. Tessa and our daughter Miriam stayed behind with our friends Ray and Mary Craven in Armidale. When I reached Alpha I rang Armidale and Tessa told me the Education Branch of the Northern Territory Administration had a position at a place called Lake Nash. She gave me their phone number in Darwin.

The Alpha job didn’t look too promising. The place had no telephone and consequently hadn’t received my telegram. Realising it would be unfair to take a baby to such an isolated location I rang Darwin and told them I would travel to Lake Nash to view the conditions there.

On the night of my arrival the policeman told me a bit about the station. Lake Nash and Georgina Downs had been amalgamated into one huge pastoral unit covering an area of about eleven and a half thousand square kilometres. This made it one of the largest in the Northern Territory. The station was managed from the Lake Nash homestead, situated about half a kilometre from the huge waterhole which gave the place its name. Nearly a kilometre from the homestead, also near the lake, was the Aboriginal ‘camp’. Here about one hundred and eighty of the Alyawarra people lived.

The manager employed twelve Aboriginal men in the stock camp for about six months of the year. The head stockman, the offspring of an Alyawarra woman and a white-fella, who had in turn married an Alyawarra woman, lived in the camp with his wife and children. Four Aborigines were employed full time to assist the white mill mechanic maintaining the numerous mills and bores. Several Aboriginal girls were employed in the homestead and the manager also employed a gardener and a store assistant, both Alyawarra. The policeman had an Aboriginal tracker working for him. (From later observation he did the work of a gardener.) There were also white people employed as a storekeeper, nurse, station cook and camp cook. When we first arrived the station manager’s wife was also the nurse.

The next day the policeman took me on a tour of inspection. When we inspected the teacher’s living quarters (a large Duralumin caravan), and the classroom (an old building at the camp), I realised why the Administration had made arrangements for me to stay with the policeman and his wife. Both buildings had been left in a chaotic state. The previous teacher, who had left midway through the previous year, must have had a tough time to leave everything in such a mess. School books, mattresses and kitchen gear were scattered throughout a thick layer of dirt in the teacher’s accommodation caravan.

This caravan had a gas-powered stove, a refrigerator and a water heater, but no electricity, and the only internal door was to the small bath-cum-shower, toilet and hand-basin facility. As for the classroom, it was in similar disarray, but whereas the domestic caravan was modern, the classroom was ancient. Yet somehow it had a strange dignity which I came to appreciate more as time went by. Both had been securely locked, so the local community were not responsible. I realised later that all the dirt in both buildings was not the responsibility of the previous occupants but simply the result of being left vacant in this region where red dust penetrates everything and it was a daily battle to keep it at bay.

When the policeman drove me to the classroom in the camp, no Aborigines came to speak to us. In fact the place looked almost deserted. Only one humpy in the camp was high enough to stand up in. They were all made of corrugated iron held together with string and wire and reminded me of hastily erected dog kennels. Some homes were just a blanket hung over a wire strung between two steel standards with the ubiquitous fire a short distance away. I later found that all the materials came from the station rubbish dump. At first viewing it really looked like a relocated rubbish dump that had been scattered somewhat and recently burned with various fires still smoking. I came to learn this was far from the truth.

The old classroom was not much better. It was a low, squarish, corrugated-iron building with a gable roof with no aperture in the north- or south-facing ends, but each side had four- or five-metre-square holes cut in the iron and covered with fly gauze, torn in most places. There was a four-inch gap between the concrete pad and the side walls where the skirting boards had fallen away. Bits of it were still lying around. The concrete toilet block, about twenty metres to one side, had obviously not operated for some time. The taps were broken off, the boys’ urinal was full of rubbish, and all the toilet pans were blocked with clothes, faeces and other rubbish. It was a very smelly mess and I was rather stunned by it all. Should I ask my wife and baby to come and live in such a place?

In fact Lyon and Parsons when writing of Lake Nash in 1989, describe it well:

The Barkly Tableland was not a hospitable place for Europeans in the early days of the cattle industry, if indeed it can be said to be so today. It was dry, dusty, fly ridden, scoured by winds, mercilessly hot for much of the year and so isolated as to be practically another planet. The landscape did not compensate for the difficult conditions with vistas of rugged beauty as it did elsewhere in the Territory either.

 

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