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aboriginal

6-months on the road

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6-months on the road

For this milestone we are in Northern Territory on the Gove Peninsula, East Arnhem Land.... and we are wandering the airy corridors of the YIRRKALA ART CENTRE - an expansive display of Indigenous Arnhem Aboriginal art.

It's been 6mths now, since leaving the cooler climes of Bayside Melbourne... and every now and then something special has come our way...  like a special moment or thing, an event, a place or person. This time it's all about a priceless national treasure we have never heard of.

To get to Yirrkala it's been a drive on the reddest of roads,  billowing dust the norm, corrugations common and the occasional rut  - '24hrs from Katherine' the information brochure says, although 'only' 700km as our truck flies.

We overnight at Mainoru Roadhouse, our recommended stop in accordance with our over-the-counter, no-cost, 10-day permit from the Northern Land Council office in the Katherine main street.

On our arrival at Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, we seek out the 'Dhimurru Corporation' office for camping permits on Aboriginal land, then our NT liquor permit to buy take-away alcohol.

The seaside town of Yirrkala is 20km to the south, the scent of frangipani on a breeze, the sun hot, the Gulf of Carpentaria a glittering turquoise blue and the sand a dazzling white.

The gallery is adjacent an Aussie Rules oval of green grass, a stadium/shed and store. Impressive murals cover outside walls... the heros of Aboriginal rights going back to the 1960s. The gallery entry is plain and unadorned, the glass door dark and dusty under a wide, shady verandah. 

Once inside is another story... a treasure-trove of handmade indigenous art typical of this isolated region. There are forests of traditional wooden Yidaki - didgeridoo - with the most intricate traditional designs, wall hangings and paintings. Shelves are stacked full of books, CDs and carvings. Simple racks are laden with woven bags and a photographer snaps special pieces in a cluttered room off to the side.

Justin is lean, has a greying mane of straight hair and has been here since the 90s. He rises from behind his computer screen, stands tall in a plain white tee-shirt and blue jeans. There is something we must see, he says.

Out back is a specially-built darkened room with timber steps down to a small sunken cellar of sorts - atmospheric with soft lighting designed to highlight 2-vertical panels. Both are intricate in their design - rustic browns and blacks - with a low bench seat directly across from, and in front of the panels. There is a lot for the visitor to take in. 

The panels are about 1m wide by 3m high and hang side by side. And they tell an Aboriginal creation story, wonderfully presented in detail by the Indigenous artists, but evidently with no Christian influence, coersion or direction.

Justin tells a story that begins "before my time", the panels created by Yolnu elders and gifted to the newly opened Methodist church in 1963, intended for permanent display as a screen behind the communion table. Justin waves one hand towards the front door. "You would have seen the church over the road."

The story continues... 10yrs after the panels are installed - around 1983 -  a new missionary arrives at the church, saying the panels are inappropriate for a church, and are most certainly "heathen" works. Both panels are stripped from inside the church against the wishes of the Parish Committee.

The panels lie neglected and forlorn for 4yrs - but are never completely forgotten - propped against an outside wall exposed to the ways of mud wasps and weather, before being rescued by a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists, then cleaned by the staff of the Australian University.

Justin pauses for effect and to gather his thoughts while peering over the top of thin-rimmed glasses. "And that was the beginning of a movement here in Arnhem Land... you might say, the very beginning of the entire Australian Indigenous Land Rights movement."

Down in the cellar my eyes are drawn to the panel on the right, with a small figure top and centre - a diminutive, painted bird - this little bird being the ancestral link between the spirit and the temporal worlds, flanked by helpers on his immediate right and left... the cicada and the possum. Alas, an ancient story considered inappropriate to the doctrines taught in a civilized house of worship. 

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postcard from laura

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postcard from laura

Down from 'The Tip' we say goodbye to our top end `adventure-4WD' companions Wendy and Al, and it's on to Laura... not to be confused with nearby 'Old Laura' or 'New Laura'... and we are here for the 2017 bi-annual ABORIGINAL DANCE FESTIVAL.

Laura is an outback town with a population of 80 - a pub with Chinese backpacker staff that serves barramundi and beer, with space for campers out back. There's a post office doubling as a general store, a caravan park and tourist information centre.

But it's just to the south of here that things get special... with the world-famous Aboriginal QUINKAN ROCK ART going back thousands of years, including striking depictions of emus, kangaroos, human figures and the ever-present spirit world. And further south there is a camping ground surrounded by a natural rock amphitheatre where the dance festival is held.

And this year's festival has special significance for us, being just back from 'The Tip', and now with some knowledge of the participating Cape York Aboriginal communities that include Mapoon, Bamaga and Lockhart River... isolated Australian Cape communities of which we were previously unaware.

Our favourites are the Lockhart mob, having visited the area on our way north to the tip of Cape York, and having been lucky to later meet 2-teachers considering leaving their current positions at a Brisbane school to embark on "more challenging, more rewarding roles"... at Lockhart River as it happens.

We are camped nextdoor at Elliot Falls when we first meet on the Old Telegraph Track, and after a swim to wash off the dust are kindly invited around to share their fire.

Steve is aware of the gravity of their decision, but they are both "looking for a change after almost 30 years in the system". He pauses to collect the right words, looks across at his partner Karen and adds. "We really would like to make a difference, and we think we can do that." He pokes at the fire. "I'm told the big thing is to get the kids to school in the first place, and then to create opportunities for them that make coming to school a more appealing option than not coming". He then adds " We hope to go there and be good role models for the kids." Steve looks pensive, and Karen nods agreement. We are impressed. Steve is a big guy, looks fit, and both Steve and Karen are eloquent and impassioned. We are sure they'll be a formidable combination, a great help to the Lockhart community and the school principal whom they have both known since the late 80's where they met in Canberra.

At Laura the dance festival is in full swing, with the LOCKHART RIVER MOB currently going through their paces. And it's obvious they are the favourites in our part of the crowd, especially with a woman in a wide-brimmed hat. She stands behind us, her shouts enthusiastic, loud and encouraging... and very biased.

We are struck by the age mix of these Lockhart dancers - tiny kids of around 2yo, teenagers and older dancers too. One Elder wears glasses and has an intercom unit strapped to his belt. Another is a middle-aged woman with wide eyes, wild grey hair and very animated... all have the traditional paint, grass skirts and the totemic moves of their clan. And we are struck by the rhythms and chants, the gasps and cheers of the mixed crowd... the hypnotic click of clapsticks and boomerangs.

Postscript - 13 July 2017 - We receive a message today from Steve and Karen. Yes, the enthusiastic Lockhart supporter at the Laura festival was in fact the current Lockhart school principal Siobhan. And Steve and Karen have accepted the offer to live among the Lockhart River Aboriginal community to teach and mentor the kids.

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Postcard from Lanjanuc – Mt Alexander, Central Victoria

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Postcard from Lanjanuc – Mt Alexander, Central Victoria

This is our first road trip in the new truck.

We head north on the Calder for an hour at the start of this southern Spring. It's Kyneton for coffee, and baguettes for later.

Another half hour and we leave the Harcourt Valley towards Sutton Grange, then off again northward to the mountain where the truck grinds upwards, and where we finally pull over to the side.

A tartan, rubber-backed blanket is spread over a mammoth granite slab, our sitting spot framed by trees with scars of black; their burned bark a reminder of savage summer infernos from years gone by, rushing up from 350m below, those same rolling plains now a painted panorama of pastoral green. 

Television towers cast shadows over us, straddling grey eucalypts and grey ragged boulders; shadows the Jaara Jaara folk never saw as they sought out tucker of Black Wallaby, ringtail or Eastern Grey. There's a shimmer in the leaves, the breeze slight and from the south, the smells all eucalyptus and earthen. They called this place `Lanjanuc', those first people; a 370 million year-old granite and bush-covered outcrop, a sacred place of solace and observing their ancient but suddenly changing world. 

In our world, the late lunch baguettes are welcome: of eggplant, chicken and crusty French bread. It's 12degC, the sun warm on our backs, Bendigo somewhere to the north. 

It's getting late when we head onwards and downwards, but there's something else here to see: something odd and strangely out of kilter.

We follow the western slopes south, cockatoos and corellas grazing in a paddock; sidling past sprawling orchards of apple and pear. Then on a red, rutted dirt track once more up, in the north-west foothills now, classic Australian bush both sides.

Until just ahead there's a change, no Manna, Wattle or Box just here; and not the ubiquitous dark spread of plantation Pine. 

These trunks are tall and straight, the sweeping bows wide and still winter bare, while on the ground lay a wild crossbreed jungle of suckers that defy the last of winter, a riot of large green leaves - classic Oak. So, this is `THE OAK FOREST' - the 20-acre, planting a mix of Algerian, bristle-tipped, English and cork. Planted in 1900, there were grand plans to use the acorns in the leather tanning industry.

Looking back down the hill, the truck sits silent at the bottom of the track in the last of afternoon sun and surrounded by a forest more in keeping with Medieval Europe than in the walkabout wilds of Central Victoria. We're 150km north of Melbourne, an Antipodean-European city just 180 years old.

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