Leah Francis : Finding the Way contents

Top End Diary

SUNDAY, 21st JUNE, 1998

Last night we went to half of the Indian Cultural Society's festival on Mindil Beach. The dancing was good, the music mediocre, but the women's clothes were worth going for, said Leo.

This morning I'm off to Aboriginal territory with Margaret Sharpe and her daughter Cath.

We're sitting in Jen Monro's kitchen while Margaret gives and receives current information about Alawadd. She teaches Alawa to Alawa children. Strange that Europeans are preserving, recording and perpetuating Aboriginal languages more vigorously than Aborigines.

The term 'tribe' is taboo. 'Mob' is preferred. Jen spoke of a 'mongrel child.'

Drive To Arrive says a road sign.

Cath lives in Brisbane with two Anandamaga, yoga practising nuns.

Margaret lives in Brown Street Armidale around the corner from an Aboriginal mission. There's clear distinction between the people on the mission and the Coories who 'live uptown.'

"I'm getting used to this car," says Cath. "It doesn't want to go fast, so I'm staying on 110". Glory be for a wilful car!

This town's called Adelaide River. There seem to be three petrol-station-stores, a green-grocer and nothing more. No wonder service stations go broke!

We lunched outside the war cemetery but saw neither its graves nor the Adelaide River.

We're admiring some "brightly-coloured ants: gold with a green bulb at the end." The ants you find in Armidale, says Cath, are an inch long with a bite at one end and a sting at the other.

Lunch was the home-alone-type: one whole carrot eaten banana-style, some lettuce, a third of a tin of salmon, rice and seaweed crackers and some prunes. Margaret and Cath bought food last night. We couldn't buy fruit until we passed the fruit fly barrier, and the one shop we passed was closed.

Aborigines in this region have a genetic tendency to have thin legs. Cath says "sometimes they look like eggs on legs."

The Stuart Highway is taking us toward Mataranka on the Roper River. Burn-off down one side of the road has left it orange, while the other side is green. Like the Irishman's mother and father!

I'm sitting in the front of the car now and what a difference it makes. Never have I wanted to be anything but a driver, but a back-seat driver is no good.

Tall, scrubby vegetation, open canopy, balding-grassy ground cover, plenty of red dust. The sky has changed from blue to dirty-red.

There's not a hill to be seen in any direction, says Cath.

There are bee-boxes along the side of the road, but Greg, last week's tour guide, said there are no honey bees.

Remember the 1995 Sydney bushfires? Margaret says the Northern Territory Aborigines saw them on television and asked, "Isn't anyone looking after the land?"

Not a car is moving in the heart of Mataranka, among the service stations, hotel and take-away food stores. Of course, this is the Stuart Highway, and there'll be plenty of traffic in the morning.

We're wondering when someone will set up The Big Termite Mound to match the big pineapple and banana.

Off Stuart Highway, we're approaching the Mataranka Homestead and caravan park, where the hot springs spring.

The road looks purple in the colours that follow the sunset.


Darkness brought a mass of flying foxes, shouting and whirring their wings. This morning I woke to hear what seemed to be the river, but we are quite a way from that. It was the flying foxes' wings again. I don't think they were going anywhere at first, but when the sun rose, they vanished. Lots of other birds are scavenging among the tents. There's plenty of room around us, but the huge camping area is well peopled. Anyone who passes stops for a word. At half-past seven, many people have gone, but we are waiting for Cath to see the light.

Greg told us there are no kangaroos in the Top End: only wallabies. Yet in Katherine Gorge there was a painting of a kangaroo with a joey, and Margaret says Aboriginal languages have words for kangaroo.

Apostle birds are well equipped to preach to every creature. They can run, hop, jump, climb and even fly. The bird book says they congregate in groups of twelve.

The warm springs are almost still, and a perfect temperature. The pool is big, with a few bends, and there are trees and scrub around it, giving plenty of shade. The flying foxes are about again, some clinging to the trees, others flying about, all who are awake making their presence heard. At every little puff of wind they all flutter and chatter.

People of all ages and many languages shared the pool with us. good preparation for another long drive. We've turned left off the Stuart on to the narrow Roper Highway to Hodgson Downes, now known by the Aboriginal name of its billabong, Minyerri.

To get to Minyerri, we turned right and took a rocky, rutty, dusty, grey-red road through Roper Valley Station. To Margaret, it's a good road. Leo wouldn't venture one metre along it.

The Aborigines bought Minyerri and other stations either with government funds or royalties from the mines. A Creole notice asks us to drive slowly and watch for children.

We see well-built corrugated iron houses, wrecked cars, caravans, roads, lots of kids, tins, plastic bags, bottles and a plain office and council building with a cement verandah.

Over the PA system comes a call in English for women who need the clinic to go there now.

I'm doing nothing while Marg and Cath light the fire and cook our stir-fry. Cath assumes she should chop everything. I'm hot, so I don't protest.

Little children touched the car as we drove in, but nobody stares at us, as they would in the Solomons. Probably they think we're just government people.

The flies never give up, but they are slower and stickier, so you can kill quite a few.

This old school we're living in has a small demountable at each end, and two sets of showers, toilets and laundry tubs, hot water and iced water, a table and chairs and even some teatowels, all in the breezeway. We spend most of our home time in the breezeway. Ian, one of the white couple who manage the place, came to unlock one of the rooms for us to sleep in. They are air-conditioned, and the electricity isn't even solar.


Margaret and I walked down to see her Aboriginal 'mother', Cleo, and a few 'old men.' They spoke in Alawa, Creole and English. Creole is a combination of languages used by particular people. It's a more specific term than Pidjin, but of course it takes dIfferent forms according to populations. disX's especially useful where more than one language is spoken, such as in many Aboriginal communities where various clans or mobs are relresented, and English is also spoken. Nevertheless, the basis of Creole seems to be English.

I'm reading a book set in India. The author speaks of 'pink English'. That's English coloured with punjabi words (or no doubt words from other Indian languages).

The church is evangelical-anglican. It consists of a store-room and a roof over the stoney ground. People sit on the ground or on blankets. The minister, Felix, is an Aborigine, known to his flock as "daddy". They used to have long services and Bible study every night, but Belix is growing old and tired, and gives only two services a week: Sunday and Wednesday. He won't let any other minister come into the community.

The public address system is used whenever anyone is wanted for a phone call, or at the council offices, and for community announcements. The Europeans speak in English, the Aborigines in Alawa or Creole. Creole is replacing Alawa because it's easier. There are similarities between Aboriginal languages and Latin, such as declensions.

A donkey followed us, and has settled at the bottom of our steps. He's more interested in us than the community are, but then, they are Europeanised.

Every night two kittens come to see us. There are many dogs about, and most of them have a lean and hungry look. We've also noticed a half-tame pig and a pet turkey.

At ten o'clock we cake to the town centre, near the office and the store, the public telephone and the houses, to watch a graduation ceremony of Alawa students from Batchelor College. It's now a quarter to twelve, and nothing has happened. Although the students have minor achievements they will wear traditional academic dress. Their European lecturers are in academic dress as well. I wish I had a book or knitting to fill in the time.

We're sitting on a low brick wall under a roof. There's no building. Just the roof.

The motor on an unattended diesel truck has chugged away for an hour or more. Kids are playing. People are lolling, lying, sitting, standing about.

Margaret has a degree in science with an honours major in maths, a Bachelor of Divinity from Moore, a certificate from the Summer Institute of Linguistics and a PHD in linguistics from New England. She worked at the CSIRO, then went to Moore and SIL. She was a missionary-linguist for CMS and SIL in the Philippines and Australia for a few years.

When she married Phil she had to leave the SIL programme because, though Phil was a practising Anglican, he wasn't involved in SIL.

She has retired from lecturing, but manages to get research grants. Aboriginal studies are well funded.

Graduation has begun, two hours late.

Certificates of completion of a course or a stage in community studies, community maintenance, general education, and teaching have been awarded. Health studies will soon be introduced. All the students, and indeed as I find it, all aborigines have English names, and the head of Batchelor College is making no allowance for people who don't speak Australian-English. People are sitting or standing under trees, or in the sun, and the kids are playing, shouting, crying. There's plenty of open space, so the sound isn't intrusive. Only a few of us are sitting under this roof, behaving like an audience.

Aborigines are speaking now, in Creole or broken English.

That's it. None of the promised dancing or singing, no 'refreshments' for the graduands.

All the way from Batchelor, near Darwin, about eight hours' drive, for a fifteen-minute ceremony.

Cath is a strange girl, self-absorbed, self-effacing, demanding, thoughtful, generous.

On our walk through the hot, sandy dirt this afternoon, Cath and I met two women with about a dozen children, collecting, or catching food for the community's diabetics. They had a few seeds in their bucket. The women spoke to us in English. Cath joined them in their seed gathering.

We also found the larger part of the billabong we'd seen yesterday. Minyerri Billabong is covered in water lilies. Even in the deeper section, none of us were tempted to swim.

We also discovered two disused sheds and a disused high-set colourbond three-bedroomed house originally occupied by the station manager. Cath and Margaret know it well from early visits when white people were running this as a cattle station.

This land is used for nothing now, not even gardens. The Aborigines live close to one another, suburban style. Their houses have no adornments or gardens.

Margaret's Aboriginal 'mother', Cleo, went fishing yesterday. She caught a little bit of fish and collected waterlily seeds and roots. Aborigines eat almost every part of the waterlily.

Speaking of fish, Margaret and I went to the store and bought a piece. We had half each. Margaret and Cath have chosen the foods and quantities. I just paid. Cath's a pseudo-vegetarian so she doesn't buy meat, but she certainly ate the chicken we bought on Sunday.

The store is managed by an Asian. It's like any country store, and it doesn't sell anything specific to Aborigines. No souvenirs either, of course.

It's difficult for Aborigines to work in stores because custom obliges them to give their family or clan-members what they are asked to give. Their only way of avoiding this is to say the boss won't let them give things away.

Tonight we walked down to the public telephone. There are street lights where the houses are clustered, and some people were watching television. Fortunately, this is a 'dry' community.

A branch of a tree scrapes along the metal roof of this old school whenever the breeze stirs it. It sounds exactly like someone slithering about in the bottom of a cast iron bath.


Margaret is away with her Alawa people, I've been working on the cook-book for newly blind people Gillian Gale and I are supposed to be writing, and Cath has been sleeping, writing down her dreams and doing her yoga and meditation. It's eleven o'clock and she hasn't yet eaten. I'd like to pop into our sleeproom to get a book, but why disturb her.

At last, cardigan, warm shirt and socks are off. One year in this climate and I'd buy a fur coat. With the warmth came the flies.

No sounds but the birds, high, low, close, distant, and the breeze shuffling things about. No people, no cars. Even the cats have disappeared. It's good for a change, and if one had to live completely alone, this setting would be preferable to a block of units.

The birds have flocked around to herald the sunset, and for me, a quiet day has ended. Margaret has been working, Cath has been reading, I've been doing both, and more.

The water is pumped from a bore, and augmented by tanks of rain water. Every building has piped water, and there are septic systems throughout the property.

The mosquitoes have taken the place of the birds. They are ferocious.

A few years ago church was on every night. Now, apparently, it's Wednesday and Sunday. It's on now, but the others don't want to go.

People play cards for cash around here. We watched a few as we came back from the phone.


It's half past seven. Margaret and Cath have been for an hour's walk. I stayed behind, thinking they'd explore more if I wasn't delaying them, but they stayed on the road, and saw nobody. The community will rise when it chooses and conduct itself in the manner of white Australians: breakfast of wheatbix, tea and toast. We see their babies in disposable nappies. They are said to substitute them for feathers in some of their ceremonies!

The cool wind is shaking the branches, and at nine o'clock the birds have settled for the day. Except for ours, there's not a human sound.

At ten o'clock we're back from a walk to find suitable people to discuss language with. You don't make appointments, you find people. You don't knock, or walk into houses. You catch people.

Tonight's dinner could have been a disaster. Cath was dissatisfied with the way Margaret drained the pasta so she did it again. The lid of the billy slipped and the pasta landed in the dirt! Margaret scooped up a serving for herself. Cath and I preferred to do without. Fortunately, even Cath is well-mannered, so there was no bickering or blaming.

We had dinner in our sleeproom because Cath couldn't stand any more mosquitoes. I never want to eat inside, but owe certainly sat and talked for longer than usual.


At seven we're driving me to Mataranka to catch the bus to Darwin. Mosquitoes and flies are breakfasting on us.

Margaret feels that though the Aborigines stand about and do nothing they are more cheerful, have more self-esteem and "stand straighter" than they used to. I suppose doing nothing is better than working for low wages and being put down by white people.

Elsie National Park sounds great. Elsie station on our right is managed by whites.

Mataranka is cool, slightly cloudy, breezey and free from flies, as I wait for the bus.

LUNCH! My first garbage meal for six days: fish and chips here at Katherine. The bus is too cold and too crowded, and it's leaving late again.

Hours later we're at Palmerston, a satellite town of Darwin. Darwin used to be called Palmerston. It's the fastest growing town in Australia. It has a military establishment, the usual mass-produced shopping-town, and even KFC!

The driver says there are eighty thousand people in Darwin, sixteen thousand in Palmerston and eight thousand in surrounding rural areas. A hundred thousand, he says, is the right number.


Jak fruit are so delicious we wanted to take some home so we returned to Parap markets to find some. They didn't look so luscious. It's as well we didn't buy any, because the only fruit you may take from Darwin are pinapples and coconuts. A foreign killer is destroying their mango crop, and must be confined and exterpated, because it loves fruit.

Darwin is far away, and home is an hour's journey along this railway line.

I wish you comfortable shoes, light baggage and entertaining holidays.

Leah next page
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