Memories of Working in the Outback or Learning to Love and Respect the First Australians Part 1 – Why
With some trepidation, I stepped off the small passenger plane in North West Arnhem Land to the place that would be my home for the next two years. I walked into a world that was totally foreign to me. My experience here would turn upside down my beliefs and my prejudices in a way that was totally unexpected.
Part 1 Why am I here.
I travel as one part of a team. My partner, soul mate and wife is Kim.
At that time, Kim and I had been travelling for about six years. Both of us had had relatively successful professional careers and neither of us was prepared to sit in the rocking chair on a porch for the rest of our lives. I always say we travel by accident. In common with many travellers we have met in the last six years, we do not plan our lives. Instead we are open to opportunities and when we spot one we both like, we go for it. Often we do not know what we will be doing next week, a situation that is both exhilarating and frightening.
Kim is a travel addict and likes to explore the world. I like to go somewhere and basically not move for two years. So, we compromise. We look for opportunities to base ourselves in an interesting part of the world and visit the areas close to our base. One of us works in a professional job and the other finds work in whatever is available in the area.
We are both well qualified to do this. Kim is an experienced teacher with a Masters in Linguistics specialising in English as a second language for adults. I am a dual qualified Chartered Accountant and CIMA Accountant. We both we brought up in England and are Australian Citizens.
In the six years prior to moving to Arnhem Land, we had lived and worked in Croatia, Southern California, Mexico and Sarawak (on the island of Borneo). We few had not worked in outback Australia and thus we knew more about the tribes in Borneo than we did the first people of our own country.
Like so many Australians, my experience of Aboriginal people from my own country was limited to a wishy washy theoretical knowledge derived from watching dance at folk festivals, debates on TV and hearing some wonderful music. I have had no Aboriginal friends, no Aboriginal confidants. I knew little about their culture and less about their history. Like so many non-Aboriginal Australians, my knowledge of Australian history started with the first fleet. Kim knew more than I did as she had worked with Aboriginal people and studied their language.
We both decided that, if possible, we should look for openings in remote Australia.
Kim applied for a teaching job in Arnhem Land and I applied for an accounting job. Mine came through first.
I was to be the Chief Accountant of the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation based in Maningrida.
In Arnhem Land, non-Aboriginals were called “Balandas”. This comes from the Macassan word for Dutch or Hollander. The Macassans were a trading people from Indonesia who came to Arnhem Land from about 1700 in search of sea slugs and other valuable catches. They arrived in Arnhem Land in December returning in April utilising the trade winds. They traded with the Aboriginal people of the area.
Hang on a moment. I was told that no-one traded or had contact with the Aboriginal people before the white man came. This was the first prejudice to be debunked and I had not even arrived at that time.
I believe that Balanda is the best word to describe non-Aboriginal people in local homelands.
It is a common belief that Balandas fall into one or more of three classes:
In our case I will add a fourth class called curiosity.
Maningrida from the air
My basic research before taking the job had revealed the following:
· This town of Maningrida is 500 kilometres East of Darwin with a population of 2,000.
· It was set up in the 1950s as a trading post in an attempt by the Native Affairs Department to slow down the drift of Aboriginal people to Darwin.
· The first 250 kilometres from Maningrida to Darwin is a dirt road impassable in the wet (approx. 6 months between November and May) and the rest of year requires a decent four-wheel drive.
· In the wet the only way out of Maningrida is by plane at a cost of $700 return.
· The town has two small supermarkets and one small takeaway.
· Alcohol can only be purchased by those with a licence once every two weeks. It must be bought and paid for on a Monday to Wednesday with delivery ten days later (Saturday).
So, one fine April day I stepped of the plane at Maningrida Airport wondering what the next two years would bring.
Roley Sykes is a business consultant and accountant specialising in making finance understandable