Sunday, October 02, 2011

Farewell to the Kimberley

Having spent around four months in the Kimberley region, it's time to move on. The weather has changed and we're now into the next season; the build up to the wet. The temperature has increased to around 38 degrees every day and more relevantly the humidity has kicked in. It's now stifling during the day and so stuffy at night that sleep is a difficult and sweaty affair. Being outdoors in daylight hours means permanently dripping with sweat, even if not doing anything of any physicality. The only possible respite is to jump into a refreshing water hole or caravan park swimming pool. The idea of walking to any gorges or through other areas of natural beauty in this heat is now unthinkable. I guess in hindsight Finn and Jazzy's passing out on the Duncan was probably attributable to their first exposure to this change in climatic conditions. It is much more oppressive. Since being in Kununurra I've worked pretty much nonstop. Catching up on work that had been building up while I'd been doing far more interesting things like swimming with crocodiles or clambering through rocky gorges.  The view from my office here has mostly consisted of the inside of the air-conditioned van as being outside for too long makes concentration difficult. Tori has spent these days working out ways to keep the kids cool, which has involved days by the pool or a trip to the Kununurra Leisure Centre to play on the water slides, or even a trip to the super air-conditioned supermarket. We went on a quick getaway down to the acclaimed El Questro Wilderness Park for a couple of days, spending the night in one of their pricey bungalows at the Station. We'd heard so many mixed stories about El Questro from "must go" to "don't bother" that we needed to just see for ourselves. One thing is certain about the place and that is that the owners have really got their act together. They bought a run down cattle station of one million acres with no habitable buildings and unmusterable cattle in 1991. In the last twenty years they have gone from sleeping in tents and swags on their property to building the equivalent of a privately owned national park, complete with camping and caravan park through to luxury accommodation.  At the top end, a stay in the El Questro homestead comes in at around $1,000 per night for a two night minimum stay. They have helicopter tours, boat tours, fishing charters, tagalong 4WD trips, guided walks all charged at a premium with seemingly no shortage of takers, along with a quality restaurant and a bar. And on the other side of the Gibb River Road they have a working cattle station. With the incredible Cockburn Ranges running through the property and including the majestic Emma Gorge and luxurious Zebedee natural hot springs, they have sussed it out incredibly well and have milked it for all they can, albeit in a tasteful way. It certainly doesn't feel like the other places we've been and you sense that you could never really be alone at any of the prime spots in there. I suspect it is always relatively crowded. Notwithstanding, it is certainly a beautiful place.

The afternoon we arrived we lazed by the swimming hole for a couple of hours and then went for a drive up to Saddleback Ridge Lookout to check out the 360 degree view we'd been told about. One of El Questro's attractions is its many 4WD tracks and the signs as we were entering the track to Saddleback Ridge indicated that this was indeed a 4WD only track. A little way further along after driving across the Pentacost River, we were greeted with a sign that I found somewhat more disturbing. "Warning! The track ahead is extremely steep and narrow. Only experienced 4WD drivers should proceed past this point". It is true that I am now quite an experienced 4WD driver, but my most recent experience had resulted in me being towed out of a gorge after some moments on a steep incline where I shat myself. The words "extremely steep" immediately triggered the churning in my stomach and shakiness in my legs that I get when standing on the edge of a cliff. I wasn't really sure whether I should go on. "Come on. You're an experienced driver. She'll be right", Tori chimed in on seeing my nervousness. So with that we started our climb up to Saddleback Ridge. And they weren't lying. It was extremely steep. There's something about the design of a Landcruiser that when it's going up a steep hill it seems to be facing almost vertically up. You get the sense that you could almost be driving straight up on the perpendicular. As we turned the tight corners up the incline, the car responded well, as it has really through our entire journey. I somehow was able to overcome my anxieties and was filled with relief when we made it to the top of the hill. And what a breathtaking view it was. Removing whatever breathe I had left over after the drive.

The next morning we made our way to Zebedee Springs. The springs close to the general public at 12pm so that the rich people from the homestead and those on pricey tours can come down to enjoy them without being accosted by the riff raff such as ourselves. They are one of the major attractions of El Questro and with beautifully warm 32 degree water rushing over the rocks and into the various pools surrounded by lush vegetation, it is easy to see why. Such a beautiful place. We stayed until the ranger politely made it clear that 12pm had arrived and it was time to move on. After lunch we walked down El Questro gorge, our aim being to get to the half way pool for a swim and then turn back. The aforementioned heat of the day was well and truly upon us, so when we arrived at a swimming spot on the creek we decided to stop there for a dip to cool down. Everyone was a bit hot and bothered and indeed looking a bit shaky, so we decided to head back. That pretty much sealed it for me as far as gorge walking in this heat goes. We'll just have to come back this way again to get to the many places we didn't make it to on this trip.

A major feature of the Kimberley that I've touched on but haven't really gone into in detail so far has been the fact that this is a largely Aboriginal region of Australia. Both Broome and Kununurra are mixed towns containing a large number of white fellas who are there to support the local industries such as pearling in the former, diamonds in the latter and high volume tourism in both. But there is also a very large black fella population in these main centres. And in the more than one thousand kilometres in between these two towns, the whole region is dotted with Aboriginal communities in all sorts of remote locations. And the other three towns in the region, Derby, Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek are predominantly Aboriginal. I left Melbourne looking forward to exploring some of the rich indigenous culture that exists in the more remote parts of Australia. The art. The music. The dancing. The stories of the dreamtime. It was one of my main aims for the journey. But it has not really come to fruition. Instead I have had my eyes opened to the extent of the problem that exists in Australia with our black brothers. Even writing this now, I'm not really sure where to start. It's a very delicate subject. But I guess it seems to start with alcohol. Something that I love and certainly have had my fair share of. And if I were to calculate how much of my money that I've effectively pissed up against the wall over the years, then I would probably be quite shocked. And many of the conversations that I've had with people about the drinking problem within the indigenous communities around here, have been with people in a pub while we've been sucking back on a beer or three. So it's difficult to take too high a moral line on the evils of the demon alcohol. But it is clearly a problem. The licensing laws have been changed in the last couple of years in both Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek so that it is now not possible to buy alcoholic beverages to take away. You can drink in the pub, which is open from 10:30am until 7:30pm, but no takeaways. That is other than low alcohol mid strength beer in Halls Creek, making it somewhat like the outer of the MCG during the Boxing Day test. Everybody wants a proper drink but they can only buy mid strength. At the G it means that everybody piles out of the ground during the lunch break to race down to the Corner or the Royal for a "real" drink, and then as soon as the day's play is over the pubs are full with people hanging out for a proper drink. In Fitzroy Crossing it means that when the pub shuts, young guys jump into their car, often pissed, and drive up to Derby 250km away to stock up on as much alcohol as they can bring back. They then either share it with their friends or sell it on the black market at over inflated prices. Most members of indigenous communities are receiving government benefits, because there are no jobs available in the communities and when you're given money for free, getting a job in town probably doesn't seem like such a high priority either.  And if you don't have a job to get up for in the morning and you have a steady income stream from the government, why not get pissed every night? The problem comes when all of a sudden there isn't enough money for food for the family because it's all been spent on grog and cigarettes. And everybody is so pissed up that domestic violence is common. As is sexual abuse within family or community groups. And an extraordinary number of teenage suicides. I have heard so many stories from so many different people while travelling this area. People whose opinions I trust as well as the inevitable racist "hate the coons" type of folk that I've also met. Shane, the manager of the Crossing Inn at Fitzroy, is fully aware of the problem. He decided that he would try a proactive approach to reducing the amount of alcoholism within Fitzroy Crossing and decided that everybody who enters the pub in the morning would be breathalysed. Anybody who measures over 0.04% alcohol in their bloodstream is politely refused entry. If they kick up a fuss, they are barred for a week. He told me that on the previous Saturday when they were testing people at 10:30am, 150 people were refused entry to the pub for being more than .04. With the pub having closed at 7:30pm the night before and no takeaways available, people were obviously still getting their grog from somewhere. On the positive side, there are obviously those indigenous folk who are getting it together. I spent many mornings watching Finn playing footy alongside the Aboriginal Mums and Dads of Finn's team mates who clearly were just the same as anybody else who was there. And we have seen small pockets of community life that is focused on respect; for yourselves, for your family and for your community. The Mowanjum festival was one such beautiful example as was the remote Laarri Gallery at the Yiyili Community. And I have no doubt that there are those getting it together within the communities, hidden away from the world of the white fella. But to deny the enormity of the problem is a complete denial of the truth. It seems that much of the political power of this country comes from Melbourne and Sydney, huge cities that are as good as a million miles from here. It really might as well be another country. Down there, over our many varieties of coffee, we discuss issues such as "bridging the gap", which refers to the difference in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous folk in this country which is quite significant. We talk about the poor state of Aboriginal health with many people dying of preventable disease. And we  put pressure on our politicians to spend money on these situations so as to remove this embarrassing blight on our consciences. And the money is spent by the millions, regardless of which government is in power. With Kim having been born in Broome, I've seen the health care on offer in this region at close range and it is second to none. In fact the standard is significantly higher in many regards than in Melbourne and Sydney. I'd certainly rather sit waiting for a doctor at the Fitzroy Crossing or Broome Hospitals than at Box Hill Hospital. Or that dodgy one up in Ringwood. And for the local population here, the health care is free. Prescription medicines are free for the indigenous population. Education programs exist to try and inform people about the effects of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy, or what foods you should and shouldn't be eating for good health, or that it's not ok for your partner to beat you. But if the problem is in any way diminishing, it seems to be happening at a very slow pace. And there is no doubt that there are different laws here depending on whether you are black or white. A lot of guilt exists from the years of the stolen generation. And rightly so. But the backlash to the other side is that in situations where community services would probably take a child out of a white home and place him or her into custodial care, a black child will most likely be left to tough it out. The shopping centres of Broome and Derby are regularly filled during the day by young Aboriginal kids who clearly should be at school. The problem is so rife that shops have signs indicating that children will not be served during school hours unless accompanied by a parent. We got into a conversation of this nature in Fitzroy Crossing with a couple from Melbourne. After a few minutes she revealled that she actually worked for an Aboriginal government department in Victoria. I raised the stories that I'd heard and she was quite defensive, suggesting that I only saw a part of the picture and that all the good stuff was happening in areas that weren't accessible to me. (Yes, they had a camper trailer). I think she thought I was a racist bloke who was just looking to slag off the Aboriginal population, as has been done in this country for many years. It seemed to me that she had no idea of the scope of this problem, which I found somewhat disturbing for someone working in the area of indigenous welfare. There seems to be some sort of politically correct approach to sweeping this under the carpet, insisting that it is pure racism to suggest that many Aboriginal people and their communities have a severe alcohol and drug problem. Especially from the cities down south. That it is just some kind of racial stereotyping on behalf of those making the claim. I would suggest contrary to that, in that if we can't acknowledge there is a serious problem here that needs addressing, then it isn't going to get any better. And the problem is endemic and runs deep. We saw a couple of great examples where this is trying to be addressed.  On our path up the Duncan Road, on our first day at Caroline Pool, I met TJ. A huge man. Black fella who had grown up in Halls Creek. He and a dutch guy who was working with him, ran a youth group for the young indigenous guys of Halls Creek. They would  take them out every Wednesday to teach them about something of their culture and the bush and try to get them away from the path of alcohol and drugs. Swimming in water holes. Fishing. Digging in trees with an axe for wichety grubs. Cooking up kangaroo tail over an open fire. And further up at Palm Springs a few days later we met an older indigenous couple who ran a program for Aboriginal kids in the area who had just been released from prison. They grabbed the kids as soon as they got bail and got out, to try and get them out of the typically troubled alcohol and drug fuelled family lives they had come from and teach them a trade. Give them some skills. Teach them some self respect. "It's not their fault", said Jane. "They are just young kids who don't know any better. They are mostly good boys who made some bad decisions". It was truly heartening to see this, but there is no doubt that much more is needed. I'm still not really sure what to make of the whole situation with the indigenous communities up here. Ultimately I guess I feel despair and disappointment. Much greater minds than mine have tried and failed to really address this situation. I don't see any easy or fast solution myself, which I guess is where the despair comes from. It will be interesting to get into the Northern Territory and see what effect the "intervention" has had on this same problem over there. I'm hoping it's on the right track.

Well I sort of digressed there on a rant that has been building up for a while. It has been a common theme of our time in the Kimberley, but there have been many other themes also. Those of beautiful swimming holes surrounded by majestic gorges, abundant bird and animal life of many exotic varieties, crocodiles, four wheel driving across corrugated roads and stony water crossings, the horizon emblazened pink as the sun sets behind the boab trees, the red dust of the pindan that seems to find its way in everywhere and that I'm sure I'll still be finding in things a year from now when I've long been back in Melbourne. I've loved my travels through the Kimberley and look forward to coming back here. It is a diverse, beautiful and at times challenging part of the world. And indeed it is also farewell to Western Australia as a whole, where we have spent most of our journey so far. Because tomorrow we head eastward and into the Northern Territory.

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