The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery

HALF my child­hood seems to have been spent in tran­sit. Dad was in the air force and we were con­stantly on the move, driv­ing up and down the east coast from Mel­bourne to Townsville, log­ging up long desul­tory hours on the high­way. I think it’s partly for this rea­son that I have no great love of the Aus­tralian land­scape: I’ve seen far too much of the worst of it. Show me a pic­ture of the Aus­tralian bush and mem­o­ries of ‘‘ I spy’’ flood into my mind, played in a state of trav­elin­duced stu­pe­fac­tion be­tween Mackay and Rock­hamp­ton; or Forbes and Parkes. The reper­toire was quickly ex­hausted once you got past ‘‘ c’’ for cow and ‘‘ g’’ for grass. Not that there was much of ei­ther.

Two later ex­pe­ri­ences have given me a slightly richer ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the great empti­ness: the first was a week-long visit to Abo­rig­i­nal schools in the Cen­tral Desert and Arn­hem Land in the early 1990s. It was a pretty dispir­it­ing ven­ture: Abo­rig­i­nal kids then, as now, seem to re­gard the class­room as a for­eign coun­try in which a strange and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble lan­guage is spo­ken and there is no fun to be had; which, when you think about it, is not far from the truth.

Yet, as the sun was set­ting quickly over the Cen­tral Desert on a win­ter’s af­ter­noon, I had an ex­pe­ri­ence just short of an epiphany when from the com­fort of a Range Rover I saw a group of dusty, un­shod Abo­rig­ines leave the con­fines of the petrol sta­tion at which I was parked and walk into that land­scape — into the gath­er­ing dark­ness, the on­com­ing cold, the rusty empti­ness — un­til, fi­nally, it en­gulfed them. There could have been some en­tirely un­ro­man­tic pur­pose to this dis­ap­pear­ing act: for ex­am­ple, they could have been schlep­ping off with a con­tainer of petrol hop­ing to get high in pri­vate. But it struck me with some force at the time that they were go­ing the wrong way. I felt like call­ing out to warn them: You come in from the dark and the cold and the empti­ness; you don’t go to­wards it.

I was also struck by the ac­tual and metaphor­i­cal gulf be­tween this small group dis­solv­ing into the dark­ness and the mech­a­nised world of the petrol sta­tion in its pool of yel­low light, with its cash reg­is­ter go­ing caching and its im­per­sonal comings and goings. I think our alien pres­ence on their land struck me then, as never be­fore; and with it came a sense of their dis­pos­ses­sion, their alien­ation, their tragedy, that gave a new di­men­sion to the his­to­ries.

The most re­cent of these two ex­pe­ri­ences, on a cruise along the Kim­ber­ley coast to­wards the end of July, gave me a rea­son for cheer. Af­ter skid­ding across the wa­ter in an out­board­pow­ered Zo­diac, I set foot on an iso­lated point that led along a rock-strewn path to a gallery of Brad­shaw paint­ings: at­ten­u­ated ghost­like fig­ures, a mys­te­ri­ous lumpy an­i­mal not un­like a wom­bat, hand sten­cils, all tat­tooed by time into the red, red rock. A few days later, at Raft Point, I was lucky enough to see an­other gallery aglow with Wand­jina spirit fig­ures. For me the most im­pres­sive part of the whole ex­pe­ri­ence was not so much the Abo­rig­i­nal elder who ex­plained the scheme be­fore us, it was the young peo­ple from the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal community who met us on the beach, helped us on the climb to the gallery and sub­jected us to a rit­ual campfire smok­ing — or cleans­ing — after­wards.

They were dif­fer­ent per­son­al­ity types, to be sure: the elder girl who ad­dressed us was more tra­di­tional, an­other more West­ern­ised, while the young man with them said barely a word. But they showed in the hour or two we spent with them how com­pat­i­ble a tra­di­tional way of life — for they lived just off the beach nearby — could be with a quite canny tourist con­cern.

I used to think cul­tural preser­va­tion was a red her­ring in the quest to im­prove the life op­por­tu­ni­ties of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, but now I think it’s the key. Cul­tural pride, rather than sub­stances of abuse, flowed through the veins of these teenagers; and with it came a great open­ness to the ef­forts of mid­dle-aged white folk to learn about the sto­ries — their sto­ries — sten­cilled on the Kim­ber­ley rocks.

Cul­tural preser­va­tion, and restora­tion, is a more valu­able as­set in the Abo­rig­i­nal strug­gle than any num­ber of Toy­otas (the Abo­rig­i­nal car of choice). I wish I’d learned more about this cul­ture of im­mea­sur­able an­tiq­uity ear­lier. I cer­tainly would have been more adept at read­ing the myth-sat­u­rated Aus­tralian land­scape, and made a bet­ter fist of ‘‘ I spy’’.

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