Why are we doing this? Why am I moving with my husband and two kids under four to a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land?
I think it began in Adelaide airport.
The year is 2007. I am twenty-seven, fresh-faced, mustard-keen and dressed in a blue pin-striped suit that I will only wear twice in my eight month public service career and never again after that. Today I’m greeting the delegates for our conference: a two day Indigenous women’s leadership workshop hosted by the Australian Government – currently represented by me. The women are coming from around Australia. I’ve ‘met’ them already on the phone. They are from the Glasshouse Mountains in Queensland, the Pilbara in Western Australia and Bourke in rural New South Wales. They are from all over.
D is one of the first to arrive. Her lean, tall body, dark gleaming skin and bright tropical print skirt make her easy to pick as one of ours. She has had a long commute: to get here she has caught a taxi from her home to Nhulunbuy, a small plane to Darwin, then a connecting flight to Adelaide. She is exhausted but doesn’t complain. Instead, she takes a seat to wait for more women to arrive so she can share a taxi back to the hotel. As she waits we chat – me slightly shy, her road-weary. I learn she’s from Arnhem Land, that she translates regularly for various organisations up there, that she is heavily relied on by her community…and that she likes Elvis and has been to Graceland. What the?! Her slow, deep laugh makes me feel at ease. An hour passes as we wait for delayed flights, before I eventually ask if she wants to take a taxi to the hotel alone. She sags gratefully at the offer and I feel terrible I hadn’t thought to ask earlier.
Over the course of the conference I get to know D better. She is there with two women from Elcho Island. I like them immediately. They are the ones whooping with undisguised glee during music performances and gesturing me to their sides to whisper cheeky extra requests like asking to use my government mobile phone. D is clearly a leader and I am not surprised when she tells me her name means ‘the rock that stands in the middle of a flowing river’ for that is what she is: calm, strong and powerful.
At the end of the two days, D makes me an offer: “You should come up to the Garma Festival. It’s in Arnhem Land – near where I live. I can get you a volunteer job.” I can’t stop thinking about it and within the week I’ve called to take her up on the offer, convinced a friend to come along and booked in leave without pay from my job.
Arnhem Land is stunning and I’m swept up in the cultural richness of the festival. I’m put to work in the lino-cut tent, helping to set up and provide supplies to Yolgnu artists who want to make a print. It can hardly be called work, it is a pleasure watching the artists create. But it is the time between ‘work’ that grabs my heart: the time with D and her family. On Day Two her grandson ‘adopts’ me and I’m given a name: Ganiwu. Cycad. (There is a funny story about that but I’ll save it for later).
By the next year, I’m determined to go again. This time I end up spending a few days with D’s family at their home after the festival. It is a rough cluster of dilapidated houses on a pristine beach: white sand and crystal blue water. I am treated as family and everyone I’m introduced to is a ‘sister’, ‘brother’, ‘mother’, ‘aunty’ or other relation. I’m overwhelmed by the hospitality, the kindness, the generosity of spirit. When the time comes to go home half the family escorts me to the airport in a maxi-taxi playing an Elvis CD D has brought for the journey: I’m in tears.
These visits made me want to experience life in the top end, but if I’m honest Adelaide airport was not the real beginning. It is the reason why we’ve ended up in this particular location, but it is not the reason we’ve come to an Aboriginal community. That story can be traced back as far as a six year old me writing a story about an Aboriginal family, using a few thrown-in Aboriginal words: I don’t know what language it was. I have vague recollections of seeing a documentary about an Aboriginal family. I suspect that, being an only child, I was lured in by the idea of large, extended families. Of having a community.
Luckily my now-husband, then-boyfriend, J was not caught off guard by my desire to go bush. I’d told him early on in the relationship that this was something I wanted to do. When we’d been together a couple of years I left to spend a month in Papunya working on a literacy project called SWIRL. The experience confirmed what I already suspected: red dirt was in my blood. The following year J came on the SWIRL trip to Papunya with me, and when he said “There’s nothing here, but there’s everything” I knew he was a keeper.
I decided to do a Diploma of Education so when we eventually worked in the NT I could teach. I graduated but never taught because we had a son, L. Less than a year after L’ birth I was pregnant again. We decided to travel north with L on a research trip slash holiday. We wanted to see if J thought he could live and work in Arnhem Land: it turned out he could. He started to put a job application together, with the thought that we’d aim to move up there once Baby Two was born. But three months before the baby-who-turned-out-to-be-R was born, J’ mother suddenly passed away. It came from nowhere: she was perfectly healthy. She was only sixty-one years old. The family was thrown into grief and there was no way we were going to leave while things felt so unstable.
Fast forward two years and J finally applied to teach in Arnhem Land. He was told there were no jobs in our chosen community, but his records were kept on file. Six months later, when we had all but forgotten it as an option, he received a call: it was a job offer to teach highschool in the exact community we’d hoped to move to. We got three weeks to pack up life as we knew it and relocate.
I have read and loved so many of those travel books: woman turns (insert age) and decides to make a radical move to (insert country). You know the type: think Eat, Love, Pray, Almost French, La Dolce Vita. But this is not one of those. For one, I have a family: two kids and a husband, who are very much part of the adventure. This isn’t a fantasy, it’s a fam-tasy in which we have more time for living and for each other. For two, we’re not running from anything. There is no crumbling marriage, professional meltdown or personal crisis. We are very much in love with each other and our kids. My husband has a permanent teaching job. Financially, we are okay. We own (part of) our own house: in fact having only just bought it five months ago we’re feeling incredibly settled. For the first time in years I’ve been creatively inspired and have given myself permission – financially, logistically and professionally – to write and develop my own ideas. Having the kids in three days a week at a great local childcare centre has definitely helped. But now, despite all this, we’re flying out in eight days – yes, eight days – for a life that is largely unknown – with no childcare, no set work for me and our extended family thousands of kilometres away. We will probably live in an old brick three bedroom Department of Education house which recently had a fire caused by the airconditioning unit. We will buy a diesel 4WD so petrol sniffers won’t syphon our fuel. We will arrive with only 80kg of luggage which needs to contain everything from our bedding and clothes to kids toys, cutlery and kitchen saucepans.
And so I lie awake in my comfortable queen-sized bed in suburban Sydney, adrenaline pumping through me, tossing and turning, wondering….why are we doing this? I know why. I just need to keep reminding myself.