In this article, Effers offers us a first-hand account of her experiences, of which this is Part 1. We are grateful for this glimpse into. . .
Part 1: Some Meetings Down Under
(For the purposes of this article I refer to Aboriginals. This is in the knowledge that there are many tribes and it is a generic term).
A few years ago I, a white Englishwoman, visited Australia. I organised it on the internet from my small flat in Peckham, south east London. The other side of the world was another planet for me and the route was laid out on the screen; a 4 wheeled drive bus, taking twenty tourists round Oz. Poms as I was, I was to find out.
I was vaguely aware of Aboriginal culture from films, but really it was visiting the landscape and ocean that attracted me. . . and also to meet Aussies.. . white fellas as I later heard them called. The words 'Pacific Ocean' seemed ridiculously romantic. I would look at web cams on my computer in the middle of the night, showing when 'surf was up' on blinding sunny beaches. Small figures were sometimes visible, riding waves.
White fellas east coast didn't disappoint in reality. But the trip started in a new way, when we went inland, Outback. Out back. I'd looked down at it from the plane as we had crossed for hours in the darkness. . .waiting..and then as it got light this blurred mass of patterns of red, brown, yellow, grey appeared. And it was everywhere. . . for more hours. . . until the great blue of the Pacific appeared.
Much later I saw a lot of old black and white photographs in books and some in museums of people in traditional dress and painted with traditional body paint designs. . . also the map of Australia that shows the territories of the many tribes that once existed and covered the whole continent when Europeans arrived. All shown in pretty colours.:
It was fragments I got. But I wonder whether I was getting it at all.. . I couldn't honestly say.
The landscape is literally covered with places that have significance for Aboriginal peoples, and it is requested that tourists do not even go look at certain features. Once we were taken to a narrow river valley, boulder strewn.. . mostly dried up. . . steep rocks either side. The guy leading our tour, who was well informed about these things, said we shouldn't follow the ravine all the way down because of the importance of the pool at the end. None of us did.
I saw a place in the desert also surrounded by rocks, a big depression in the ground which was the 'quarry' where the many coloured ochres were collected for paintings and body paint.
I saw the rock paintings in the Kakdu national park in the far north. . . many hundreds of years old; they are periodically re-painted. We had a guide; I don't think he was a full Aboriginal as he was described. . . but we didn't question him on that. He had a lot of knowledge. . . but really it was like visiting a museum in the landscape. There were the remarkable rock paintings of animal and plant Dreamings..the streams, (the rainy season had just ended), where certain plants were put in pools to paralyse fish to bring them to the surface and be easily caught. . . the flight at evening of a flock of black cockatoos, echoing around the rocks eerily which stays with me. . . as a kind of personal dreaming. . . but what did it mean?
It was all empty of the original people living there..(actually I just dug out the booklet I have on Kakadu. . . it says the Bininj/Munggy tribe still live there. Most of the booklet is aimed at tourists to do with hiking and camping) I can only give my experience. . . and the booklet admits that most have died out or 'moved'.
One night in Alice Springs, the town in the middle of the Outback that serves visitors for visits to Uluru, (Ayres Rock), our group went out for a meal in one of the restaurants. They are full of tourists. Oysters are even flown in from the Pacific, thousands of miles away. As we walked up the street, on the left in a park were hundreds of black people. They were all drunk, the group leader told us, and gathered there every night. So it was all the white fellas indoors and all the black fellas outdoors, and that means the women and kids as well. We selected our restaurant and tucked into oysters and kangaroo. I gave the oysters a miss – though I'd had them on the Pacific coast, sitting at a beach cafe, looking at the surf. At the end of the meal I suddenly stood up. . . .I couldn't stand it any longer. . . and announced I was going out for a walk and to talk to the Aboriginal people in the park. Our group said I was mad and it was a dangerous idea. I said I hated the apartheid of Alice, and I was going.
But when I got there they weren't having any of it. What I liked was that they immediately fell into speaking in their tribal language, and basically ignored me. It didn't feel the least dangerous.
Another time it was arranged that we would meet two old Aboriginal women. They wouldn't talk to the men in our group. It was 'women's business'; or look us in the eye. Eye contact is traditionally minimised for communication as can be perceived as painful.
Somehow I kept meeting things. But I didn't know what. Consciously that is. But I always felt at home in a stubborn sort of way because some Aboriginals stubbornly held onto precious things that were alien to the 'western way' of doing and thinking. Some pubs in the Outback had signs up saying 'No thongs'. I once saw a mass of thongs disappearing into a cloud of red dust as the barwoman went outside and shouted at a group of young Aboriginal men to clear off. . . and came back in mumbling about 'those people' causing nothing but trouble.
And the young man sitting on the quayside of Sydney harbour, where the ferries come and go, playing his didgeridoo. I went to Manley Cove on the ferry every day for the last few days in Sydney.. . . to watch the surfers there performing incredible manoeuvres on the waves. One day an Aboriginal guy came up to me and asked if I would buy him a beer. . . I went to the bottle shop and bought him a couple. I don't know why he selected me. Then he took me to the local 'cultural centre'. . . and we watched dancing and some people talking about politics.
The next day I was looking down from the plane again. . . the colours still muted. . but soft and harsh together.