We broke down in the outback, 100 Kms from Cape Crawford and without signal to call anyone. Not that we had made the smart decision to get insurance anyway. So we slept in the car on the side of the road until morning, when we got a lift to the Heartbreak Hotel by a friendly stranger. We learned more than just to be more prepared next time and to trust in the knowledge and kindness of strangers, this was when the racism in Australia, towards the aboriginal communities in particular, became starkly clear.
We didn’t really see it in the cities, it was shrouded under government schemes to “bridge the gap”, lost in crowds of entitled white people, British descendants, and overwhelmed by the western culture of money, indulgence, consumed by consumerism. Aboriginal communities are seemingly kept at the sidelines of the city, by their choice or ours I don’t know. Probably a mixture of both topped with a dash of casual daily racism. Even at work, I hear regular outbursts about how there are “too many Muslims!”, and how ‘they are all terrorists taking London for themselves and reaping havoc’.
When you move slightly out of the city, you start to get glimpses of indigenous art, separate from the city galleries where it is all lit up and hung neatly on walls, sold as souvenirs. On the country walks I took on bad days and in the less wealthy parts of Melbourne, you come across colourful hand painted murals, some self-initiated bursts of creativity, some commissioned. All telling a story, the truth behind Australian colonisation from an indigenous point of view.
Since starting out on this trip, the indigenous community and the relationship between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ has become increasingly, uncomfortably, apparent. It started in grocery shops in small outback towns, as we crept North from Adelaide, we crossed paths with the occasional indigenous shopper, always with an eye of caution. We were told stories before leaving of the tricks the indigenous people play on backpackers, and the chaos they cause on the road. It doesn’t help that a lot of the white people here outwardly voice a fear of the indigenous people. Unfortunately, however founded the reasoning might be, there is still a commom fear and prejudice against the native people of Australia.
When we got to the Red Centre, we started to see more, large groups of people gathered just outside the towns and by the time we got to Katherine, the majority of the people outside were indigenous, in groups surroundinding the shopping centres and shouting loudly in parks and service stations and pestering the local coffee shops for free water. In the cities they appear as a nuisance, bringing aggression and a jarring inconvenience to the sofisticated life of the white population.
Later on, in Borroloola, we are told that most live outside on the streets, and despite ‘the locals’ massively outnumbering the white population, the built up areas still appear singularly inhabited. When we broke down, surprisingly everyone who stopped had a comprehensive knowledge of cars and we got a rough idea of what was wrong, but still no means of getting anywhere to fix it. At this point I was suffering with an unfortunate case of dehydration and heat exhaustion and we decide not to seperate. This decision was deemed dangerous and challenged by most people, and we were warned not to leave our car alone.
“The abbos with strip it.” Says one person.
I hear this expression a lot, especially in the Northern territory. In the end we took the risk and got a lift to the nearest rest stop together, The Heartbreak Hotel, and called for a tow. After all we had seen barely any people and none had posed a threat at all. Something I admire Australia for, the people are always up for lending a helping hand.
At the campsite we are driven to, we befriend a few of the long-termers and grey nomads, including kind-hearted all-rounder and loving father, Kendall, who tells us of the clans fighting between camps. There are four in Borroloola, all living and conflicting in such a small town. At one point a huge fight between them broke out and there were only two police officers on duty. The same police also have to mediate shopping times between clans because fights break out so often.
He also tells us that it is his job to maintain council housing in the area, and that for aboriginal homes they repair windows with boards instead of glass until the next time or until a white family move in. According to him everything he fixes around the town is destroyed by the aboriginal people. We talk a bit about the alcohol ban and dry communities, more people tell us it’s because the aboriginal people don’t have the DNA make-up to handle alcohol and often get unruly and aggressive.
At the camp in Arnhemland the aboriginal people we came across, including those in a nearby camp, were infinitely more humble and welcoming than the cowboys we were employed by. Despite all the negativity we have encountered towards the indigenous communities, the majority of our experiences with them have been civil, if not fairly pleasant. Obviously I haven’t lived here long enough to experience any of the negative situations so many tell stories of, but I think we’d all do well to be a bit more open minded and aware of the impact the British originally caused to their land. It has been hundreds of years so maybe the sting of the colonisation and tragedy caused by the original settlers would be better off left in the past, to a certain extent, but a little humility never hurt anyone.