Life changing events can be rare, but by their very definition can change the course of one’s life or at the very least, change one’s life outlook. The recent Bellingen High School ‘Aboriginal Studies’ excursion to Uluru has been one such event.
Twelve Bellingen High School students, accompanied by a small group of teachers and support staff, embarked on a cross country journey, following the ‘Seven Sisters Songline’, to arrive in Uluru “relatively unscathed” says Aboriginal Studies tutor Jenni Farrands. The group encountered inspiring Indigenous-led initiatives juxtaposed against striking poverty, but the general consensus was a powerful sense of hope for the people encountered and the projects witnessed.
The students raised some of the funds towards the excursion through selling their very own lemon myrtle cordial. Jenni Farrands is the very humble driving force. “The students pick the lemon myrtle leaves locally. With Rowena McGregor’s help, lemon myrtle cordial is produced and bottled and the labels are made at school,” says Jenni.
The very first day of their journey the group visited the pool in Moree where the ‘Freedom Ride’ of 1965 staged a protest to highlight the exclusion of Aboriginal people from the swimming pool. (The fact that the Freedom Riders’ first stop was the theatre at Bowraville, made this experience even more significant for the students). They then visited the heritage-listed Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps, “a place where more than eight indigenous clans formerly gathered” says student Rosie Stephens, as the traps were shared not owned.
It was also in Brewarrina that many students were first exposed to some harsh truths, visiting the ‘Hospital Creek Massacre Site’, where more than 400 Aboriginals were slaughtered in the early 1900’s.
A visit to the Clara Hart community in Enngonia, (one hour’s drive outside Bourke), was a trip highlight. The community has 120 inhabitants and prior to two years ago could have been described as socially disadvantaged, due to their isolation from any major centre. However, today they have a thriving market garden producing traditional bush tucker, including bush tomatoes, quandongs and bush bananas. “Before the market garden was established, transport to Bourke was only provided once per fortnight. This meant fresh food for the community was scarce,” explains Jenni.
An interesting observation made by teachers and students alike was that community projects being driven by the Indigenous people themselves were the most successful and enduring. “These projects aren’t subject to the whims of government and changing government policy” says Rosie. Another such project was the ‘Purple House’ in Alice Springs.
Purple House is an innovative Indigenous-owned and run health service. Remote Indigenous people in Central Australia are up to 30 times more likely to suffer from kidney disease. Families must move off their country and come to Alice Springs or Darwin for dialysis treatment. Communities are left without elder leadership, families are broken and culture is weakened. Patients suffer from isolation and depression, restricted by a dialysis machine for their foreseeable future.
Purple House is a home away from home for these Indigenous dialysis patients. Now operating 14 remote clinics and a mobile dialysis unit called the Purple Truck, Purple House is getting patients back home so that families and culture can remain strong. There is no doubt, all the students were abuzz about what they saw at the Purple House, not to mention what they tasted. The brave sampled feral cat on the BBQ. And excitingly, since the excursion the Purple House has been awarded $25 million in Federal Government funding.
Teachers and assistants all commented on the extraordinary comradeship amongst the students. “From the very first camp everyone pitched in to get camp set up as soon as the bus stopped for the night”, says assistant Rowena McGregor, who spent many hours behind the wheel of the bus. Beanie crocheting proved a popular pastime at each camp fire for everyone, and the stunning end products served as fabulous presents along the journey. And some of the student’s special skills shone. “Darcy McHugh is the best cook in the universe” agreed students Rosie Stephen and Aleisha Alford.
Despite many breakdowns on the notorious Plenty Highway testing the patience and skills of the ‘older’ crew, the students just “chilled” and in fact, student Miller Halpin proved a bit of a mechanic, (despite denying the claim). “At every stop the camp kitchen was quickly erected and lemon myrtle cordial was a pit-stop favourite,” says Rowena.
Anecdotally, teachers, staff and parents alike have commented on the profound effect the journey has had on the students. When asked about any enduring images or memories, the Bellingen High School students agreed that they felt a sense of hope for the communities they encountered, but Aleisha’s observation- “the forever changing colours of the landscape,” seemed to signify that this group really did experience a connection to country.
*The ‘Seven Sisters Songline’ comprises seven stories that connect people, land and country. The local Gumbaynggirr story ‘The Women Who Made the Sea’ is one of these stories.