Outback teachers

Epenarra  school 1986 -1988

This is the long version of Alison and Digby’s story of their time going to live and teach in a remote cattle station school in the centre of the Northern Territory.

By 1985, Alison and I had finished  (although the new owners may disagree), and sold our mudbrick house, we’d both finished our Masters degrees in Education, had renovated  the sad bits of our Port Melbourne house and had settled into a very suburban routine.  I would drop her at Southern Cross for her train ride to Geelong TAFE and I would drive against the peak hour traffic out to Eltham College. Weekends were spent walking or xc skiing. And we were ready for a new challenge.

Teaching overseas was the obvious next step, with international schools in various countries hunting staff, especially Brunei and Saudi Arabia, but we’d heard several horror stories about contracts being extended unethically, so there was little attracting us. The PNG education department advertised, looking for teacher educators for their Tertiary College at Lae. We applied and were granted a joint interview in Melbourne, conducted by their staff. We were left very disillusioned by the interview, and withdrew our application after deciding that we were unable to work for such a disorganised system. It did, however, draw our attention closer to home, and the NT Teaching Service.

We applied as secondary teachers and were given positions at Katherine High School for the start of 1986, and told to report to Darwin on the 26th January for induction.  All our belongings were packed and freighted up to Katherine, we bought our first diesel cruiser and headed off at the end of the 1985 school year to drive to Darwin.

We ambled slowly up the coast, camping and canoeing and started looking at land in a general sort of way once we passed Rockhampton. Nothing really grabbed our attention, all overused goat country, although Eungella out of Mackay looked interesting.  We eventually camped for a few days after the New Year on the banks of the Daintree river. We’d been that far north in 1976 but that was the limit of our northward push that year as it was too wet, in July, to go much further! This time we fatefully went on a day trip up to Cape Trib, and stopped in at Memaleca fruit farm which was advertising a fruit tasting tour for later that day. We introduced ourselves to Colin and Dawn and were given an invitation to return for the tour and help out as it was their first time with tourists and they were a little stressed.

We enjoyed their company through the tour and dinner after, so much so that Dawn asked if we would be interested in staying a few days as caretakers while they took their older daughter to Townsville and her flight to Jakarta. The younger daughter didn’t want to go but was not allowed to stay home by herself. We leapt at the opportunity, this being an era of Carpe Diem, and returned the next day to help out. 14 year old Leah took over and showed us what needed doing, including taking us out to net flathead for dinner in their creek mouth. 

A few days of bliss in the rainforest followed, but the wet season rains started.  Rain like we’d never seen bucketed down all night and with our Darwin deadline approaching we started to panic.  Dawn and Colin were due back the next day, so we packed and were on the road again, with four deep rivers to ford to get back to civilisation and a sealed road on the south side of the Daintree.  We made it through the waist deep rivers, learning just how important a diesel engine with a snorkel is for life in the tropics. I remember the approach to Oliver Creek, had about 300m of dirt road invisible underwater, about 30-40cm deep, where you simply stayed in the middle of the gap between the trees. The main stream across the road had the car nosedive to submerge the bull-bar, before clawing its way up the other bank.

The storms and rain chased us across Qld and the NT, but we made it to Darwin on time, excited to start a new chapter.

Town house in Katherine

All our belongings had arrived at Katherine and had been unloaded into the education department townhouse we had been allocated. The high school had a few surprises, with 12 of the 18 staff being newbies to the NT, if not first year out teachers, we were all out of our comfort zone and away from family support. The town had a huge influx of workers to get the new airbase up and running, so a town built for 3500 had double that competing and queuing for resources. The school had a few aboriginal students, with a good support staff and specific classes to bring them up to age level, but the recent arrival white kids were a major problem with an embedded hatred of learning and no respect for authority not established by physical force.

Along with 10 of the new staff, we had had enough by the end of term 1, and asked staffing if there was any chance of a transfer to an aboriginal school. The immediate reply was yes, there is one vacant and we need a married couple to staff it, as there is only the one house. Without hesitation we accepted “Oh, sure, where is it?” to start at the beginning of term 2, 2 weeks away.

Neither of us had ever actually fronted a class of primary school students. I had at least spent a couple of years teaching science and environmental studies to primary school teacher trainees and supervised their class practice, but actually teach the littlies, no. Feeling slightly panicked, we made a few calls and were able to contact a much loved ex student from our time teaching at Murtoa in 1973, then teaching in a preschool  in WA in Fitzroy Crossing. WA had its term break offset from the NT, so we were able to spend our term break doing a teaching round in several community schools in the area that Julie was able to set up for us.  We were also able to spend some time with another friend at Lajamanu school, one of the larger community schools which at the time was running a dual language curriculum. Junior classes there were able to have most of their instruction in Warlpiri, with more given in English as they got older. Despite significant successes, I believe that this was discontinued a few years later as the cost benefit could not be justified.

Fuel still to be loaded before departure from Tennant Creek

We were escorted out to the school by Tom, from the Tennant Creek education office, with the truckload of our belongings and 40 drums of diesel fuel for the term.  Tom introduced us to the station owners, Heather and her two adult sons, showed us the school HF radio that we had a daily sked to maintain, gave us a run down of the school facilities, handed over the keys and left us to it.

Epenarra School, slightly bent radio mast in front

Epenarra school is on a cattle station on the Frew River, about 300 km out from Tennant Creek, the nearest town for supplies and where our education department superintendent was based.  The school consisted of two classroom caravans on opposite sides of a covered deck, with a bathroom caravan across one end. Outside facilities included a playground with a jungle gym and the only grassed small school football field in the NT. Teacher accommodation was another caravan about a kilometre away from the school but closer to the station homestead. Power was supplied from one of two generators running full time, with copious fresh water from a pumped bore.

The little generator being serviced.

The head teacher, me, had to pump fuel by hand from 200 litre drums every day and do the servicing on the generators. Summer time fuel usage was around 80 litres a day when all the air conditioners were running full time, and we would need the 24 kva genset.  As demand eased off we were able to switch to the 8 kva gennie and 20 litres a day. A shed by the footy field had about 4 years supply of paper and toilet paper, which looked fine until we opened one of the cartons and discovered that it was all termites.  They had eaten straight through the concrete floor.

Our home in Epenarra

All the school buildings and our home were silver bullet caravans fixed on concrete foundations with the wheels removed.  I guess they could have been moved but it’d take a lot of work. Our van had a carport lean-to on one side and was fenced off against the cattle, so we were able to quickly establish a vege garden on virgin soil with ample water. This became a major stopping place for the women on their way home from the store, admiring the tomatoes etc and hoping for spares.  The Frew river ran just below the house, but for our first year at the school it was simply a dry bed. During our summer break, rain in distant hills to the south filled the river so for our second year we had a 3 km waterhole to play in. In fact it only rained once or twice in our nearly two years there, enough that everyone ran outside to dance in the rain, yelling kwadja indele, or water from the sky.

A dry Frew river bed

The school had been closed for 18 months as the department had been unable to find suitable staff (ie a married couple), despite the elders of the community visiting the Tennant Creek every week asking to have the school re-opened.  Our concerns about abandonment and consequent vandalism were set aside as soon as we arrived to find the grounds around the building clean and tidy, the grass mown and a little ridge of dust inside the front door. Nothing inside had been touched in 18 months, even the blackboard still had lessons from the last class.

All the class learning materials were hand me downs several years or even decades old. Reading materials were inadequate and although there was a tape player for multiple listeners, there were only a couple of picture books to match the tapes. A Beta video player was the pinnacle asset for the classroom. We sat down with the superintendent on our first visit to town and he was able to dig into his slush fund to allow us to raid the education store for any learning materials we wanted. We discovered then that the NT government would also match on a dollar for dollar basis any money we could raise, and that really pushed our hunter gatherer buttons.  Video nights were a universal favourite fundraiser, where we could show a rented video to the entire community and sell hotdogs and lollies. “The Gods must be Crazy” was a favourite, although everybody laughed in very different places to us.  The bushman walking away with his large bum wobbling put them all into hysterics.

Commodore 64 in action

We asked our old schools for help, so PLC and Eltham College became major social supporters for us. Eltham College Year 8 kids set up home snail farms, where they could sell harvested snails to Stephanie’s restaurant for 5c each.  This and other activities raised enough money, (doubled by the NT government), for a couple of Commodore 64 computers, a VHS video player and new TV’s. We also set up a longer term project with the kids rehabilitating some of the school grounds and planting up a vegetable garden and recorded every step on our video camera. This was edited into the winning entry on a state wide competition, earning the school around $3000 for a satellite dish and associated hardware.  After having only ever watched TV on recorded tapes, broadcast tv was quite disappointing for them as they couldn’t keep going back to watch the best bits.

Alison’s classroom with Ada, Stella and some mums.

Alison took on the junior class and her first task was to negotiate with the community to identify her teacher aide.  None of the younger children had much English, so a helper was essential. None of the adult women wanted to take on the job, so Alison dug in her heels and told them that there would be no classes until someone was there to help.  After a couple of days with Alison on strike, Stella emerged with the support of the community and agreed to help out. Stella was perfect as a liaison as she had been brought up by a white family as one of the stolen generation and at adulthood had sought out her tribal family. Her English was perfect and she was able to help us understand the often conflicting behaviours. 

Stella with Alison’s brother Peter, nephew Lachlan and SIL Pam

 The best example of this was early on when we talked with her about how unhappy we were with their living conditions while we had all the comforts of a normal home.  She replied saying that you realise that they are all discussing how unhappy you must be living so far from family, while we have our families around us.  Stella became Alison’s tribal sister, which made her skin name Nakamara and mine Japuljari as we were married. Later that year, Stella stepped back in favour of Ada, who was happy to help although she was still breastfeeding her youngest.  The weaning of Jolene led to her eventually being included in Alison’s classes despite being far too young. Ada was also married to Maxie, the school cleaner, who became a liaison mentor for me.

Ada on one of the playground toys, mainly used as a fort.

I had the older students, those who could actually write a sentence in English and mostly knew their letters.  Interestingly enough, my middle age group knew the names of the letters, but not their sounds, so sounding out a word was impossible for them at first. Senior class activities settled in at around grades 2-5, with about 3 kids at each level, despite the age range from 7 to 17.  My two oldest were both Nakamara women of marriageable age who were therefore banned by their culture from talking to me.  I could sometimes get them to read to me, but only while we were both looking away.

Margorie, Noelene, ? and Jennifer, my senior girls.

There was no way we could come close to following the set NT curriculum, so with no overbearing supervision we set out to do the best we could to get the kids numerate and literate enough to survive in Tennant Creek shops. Formal classes in the three Rs took up the morning, while I took all the boys and Alison took all the girls (and parents and babies) for the afternoons. Typically we would cycle over to the school at around an hour after sunrise and open up letting the kids go and do whatever they wanted until 9am. Once I had checked that everyone was present, I would slam a steel bar against an old gas bottle, the clanging echoing across to the community and the homestead. Once I rang the bell, anyone not there would be too ashamed to come late, so I would always check and ask about absentees first.

Numeracy was always going to be a challenge, with the Alyawarra language only having three number words; nothing, some and many, while distance could be indicated by the angle of your arm to the ground.  Most of the community did their shopping at the station store, where everything was put down against their dole cheque, so no money actually changed hands.  Buying things in shops in town was a challenge to many of the community and this became obvious at video nights.  We would put on a weekly movie for free on the big deck at the school, and sell hotdogs at $1. One of the young men had had no formal schooling, so he would always start his evening by presenting a large note, expecting us to make correct change. He would then continue to eat hotdogs throughout the evening, each time presenting a random note until he finally had to offer all his coins with an open hand, allowing us to select the coins we wanted. So it became important that we run a shop and that we had something for sale for every coin. As 1 and 2 cent coins were still in use, this was a challenge, but we could take a small loss by selling lolly raspberries at 1 cent each. Suddenly copper coins had a value, while up until then they had been rubbish money, discarded into the fireplace. Our copper coin collection had to be washed before taking it to a bank! Role playing shopping and making change or paying correctly became a major part of morning activities in both classrooms.

Hank Moore road show in town. Young men all by the toilet. Station owners, Bruce and Heather, sitting in the audience

My outdoor afternoons with the boys became their focus for literacy classes in the mornings.  I would try to get them to write down their own stories of what they had been doing. The most popular stories would always be playing hunters and the hunted in the dry creekbed. (Ie cowboys and Indians). Other story lines included building a tree house, or a raft, fixing bicycles, patching tyres, hunting local wildlife as in “Teddy found a corella nest and ate them all”.  There was a lot of debate about the word ‘killed’, as it was always in use in their stories.  As in “Deryck killed Kelvin but Kelvin ran away”.  It turned out that Killed to them meant badly injured.  I think in a very Christian community, this was how Christ being killed on the cross then coming back could be explained. It was quite shocking to them that Christ was killed dead, and came back.

Senior boys and a treehouse under construction.

Despite the C64 computers only having that 64Kb of ram, they worked as word processors and the kids were able to print out stories they had typed. The computer also became reward time for kids who completed work well and a game called BoulderDash became their focus. As they worked through the game it got progressively harder and rapidly lost its appeal. I spent many hours playing to master all the levels, so I could always show them that there was more to come, or they would simply give up. That was my excuse anyway.  I was intrigued to discover that in 2021 it is still available, although I haven’t yet downloaded a copy, scared of getting fixated again. For class time, we had a series of learning activities, so there was always a child using a computer in both classrooms. I remember an air- conditioner failing in Alison’s classroom, and indoor temperatures around the computer were around 45C.  That wasn’t enough to stop them, although the younger kids would fall asleep playing Reader Rabbit on the keyboard. One of the mother boards failed and we took it into Tennant Creek for repair. The technician showed us that the entire board was covered in mud from wasp nests. He simply hosed it all off, dried it out and off it went. Tough little computers, and kids.

A chocolate race at Easter, eaten with knife and fork.

Food was the absolute focus for all the kids, all the time.  There never seemed to be enough to fill them, but we learned that this is part of living with feast or famine. Without refrigeration, all available food is eaten while it is available.  This is the cultural norm, so imagine the problems with obesity and health that arise when too much food, especially fats and carbs, becomes available all the time. Lunch times at school at first was just a break where we’d have something to eat and the young kids would often have a parent come by from the store with something for them. The older boys would disappear into the scrub where they would sit in wait for a flock of zebra finches to settle in range. Shanghaies loaded with gravel would bring down a few, which would be dropped into a spinifex clump and set alight. Lunch is ready.

Alison’s boys enacting Mrs Wishy Washy.

I had established a fish tank in the senior classroom, with tadpoles collected from the river. They eventually developed into frogs, but then they simply disappeared one by one despite seeming to be fully enclosed.  The mystery was eventually solved when I found Kelvin with the lid half off and a sharp pencil poised.  The frogs were just another food source for them.

In our second year, the community finally achieved a legal excision from the cattle station so that government funds could be sourced to build a permanent town. The new town was about three kilometres from the school, so some transport problems needed solving. A tractor trailer combination was used to bring the kids and women into the school and store every morning, and again to collect the kids every afternoon.  The mums started leaving the kids at school for the day with their lunch being a packet of crisps and a can of lemonade. We decided that we’d rather see them eating cheese and vegemite sandwiches, so every week Ali’s class would make a heap of these and put them in the freezer. Kids were expected to book a sandwich at morning tea, so we could take it out to defrost. Some never bothered with ordering, just happily bit down into their frozen sandwich.

None of the kids and few of the adults had been out beyond Tennant Creek, so we arranged a bus and trailer for a 10 day trip to Darwin. All the regular students with Maxie and Ada with Stella came along. We had several activities every day, but mostly three meals every day with unlimited food available.  It took until day 8 for some of the kids to admit to be full and stop eating.   It was a very busy trip with roller skating, a movie at the cinema,  a visit to the RAF and a seat in an F111, a crocodile farm, a restaurant with table service, a swim in the sea (too salty), a boat ride while we stayed in a hostel with a swimming pool.  Most of the evening meals were around a bbq where Maxie ruled, but we set up for a vegetarian meal one night.  No-one said anything, but Maxie sidled up to ask “where is the meat? So we smuggled some out for him. The movie was a very special treat with “The Charge of the Light Brigade” being on in town. War and horses were perfect.  The kids however had never had to be quiet when watching a film, so full voice participation was normal for them but unacceptable for the rest of the audience, 50 or so people scattered around us. We arranged them all so that one of us could touch each of the problem children, ( Kelvin – I’m looking at you) and just managed to keep the roar down.

Making the vege garden that would win us a major cash prize.

We had about 15 students regularly attending, with another 10 who would drift in and out as their families moved through the communities depending on the family commitments. We kept all the books worked on by these feral students at the school, so they would always have something to work with when they arrived.  There was still a very strong bond by our community members to the larger Alyawarra tribe, so ceremonial business would involve everyone. This was mostly arranged for school holiday times, so disruptions were uncommon. We were not permitted to learn anything about the ceremonial business, you could see the eyes glaze over and drift away if any direct question was asked.

There were many more of these cultural issues for us to deal with as we learned about them. Simply looking at the person you were talking to would be enough in an Alyawarra community for them to withdraw and stop communication.  By looking directly at them, I was being aggressive. Similarly, asking a direct question would always receive a Yes answer, as it is the least aggressive.  We had to learn how to ask indirectly in order to receive a useful answer.  I remember driving with Maxie, our school groundsman, and chatting with him with finger flicks. Without eye contact or saying a word he told me with a flick, “Hey, look at those Kangaroos”.  I would be expected to see his finger on his lap move while I’m driving and concentrating on the road. Pointing with a finger was rude, so lips or chin could also be used to indicate a direction, a habit Ali and I picked up that lasted many years.  One of the skills a teacher acquires is to be aware of everything that’s happening in the classroom without necessarily looking at everything. This skill also develops in a quiet environment, where little changes, so personal perception opens up to include your full visual field. That awareness, of noticing the little changes, is what aboriginal trackers have become famous for, and at first it seems magical to someone coming from a city, where you have to focus on what’s in your immediate view. However, it is an acquired skill, and develops as you live in a quiet environment.

Another of the differences that it took us a while to get used to was the absence of social grease. The language words for please and thankyou exist, but were never used in practice. If you ask for something, it is because you need it, and if the person you are asking has that thing, they are expected to share it. But yes and no are both acceptable as replies. It is generally very difficult for a westerner to say no, our society expects us to agree to any reasonable request. We would often be asked to give something.  In town it would be money, in the community it would be to drive someone out to a hunting place, or share garden produce.  We were seen as a valid resource for anything, and had to harden up to ensure we only gave away things we were happy to give.  Money was the hardest, as anyone we met in town would always be broke. We established a pattern where we accepted having a total outstanding loan of $100, with no more than $20 lent out to any one person. As money was repaid it could be lent out again. This worked more or less, keeping most of us happy.

The Alyawarra were widely dispersed in the region roughly enclosed by Tennant Creek to the west, Brunette Downs station to the north, Lake Nash station on the Qld border and Utopia to the south. Many other small communities were founded, some successfully and some to fade away as bore water dried up or other issues caused the abandonment of the settlement.  The Alyawarra people were in general a very non-confrontational group, so in the larger towns on the Stuart Highway, where several tribal groups gathered such as Ti Tree or Ali Curung, the Alyawarra people tended to live on the fringes, forced away by more aggressive people like the Warramungu or Warlpiri.  Or if funding could be made available they would form small settlements back on their own tribal land where they could be granted title.  One of these, Canteen Creek, was about 70 km further out east of us and several families moved to live out there as buildings were finished. A good looking brick school was under construction during our second year, so we visited a few times and watched what was happening with interest. Canteen Creek was to play a large role for us the following year, but more about that later.

Tractor under rebuild with my helpers

We were told about another abandoned community called Ten Mile north west of us so one weekend we went for a bit of an explore to see what we could find.  Several wrecked cars marked the location, and not much else except for a mini 4wd tractor, also wrecked and shot up. I looked it over and thought it might make a good project for me to play with as the engine looked ok.  So we found out who the owner was and where he lived, found him and offered $200 him for his wreck.  He accepted happily and we loaded it onto a trailer to take back to Epenarra. After a bit of cleaning, it turned out that the engine and gearbox ran well, but the clutch had burned out. It had then been abandoned, the wiring ripped out and the tyres destroyed with a shotgun.  All the sizes were a bit unusual, but I had the clutch rebuilt in Melbourne, the front tyres replaced and did temporary repairs to the rear wheels to get it rolling.   I found out later that this model of Mitsubishi tractor had never been imported into Australia. Some solo operator in Darwin had brought in a few from PNG and sold them off cheaply with no parts or back up.  When the time came to leave Epenarra, I loaded the tractor up and took it across to Cape Trib where it became our main machine for several years until the lack of spares eventually killed it. Even then the engine still ran so I cobbled it together with a rubber block onto an old 240v alternator and it became our back-up generator for another 20 years.

The community had a large trailer intended for a tractor, so we were able to load the whole school into the trailer and head out into the desert for more adventures hunting and gathering. We could be driving down an bush track and suddenly the kids or Maxie would sing out to stop. A tiny native bee had been spotted and followed by eye back to a tree.  An axe would appear and the tree taken down and split open for the honey. My environmental soul would wince, but this was the favourite treat for everybody, called sugarbag because of the way it is stored.  The honey is in small wax bags rather than comb and is all mixed up with bees and larvae.  The honey therefore is slightly crunchy with the bodies, but is intensely sweet, much more so than commercial honey. Other treats could be found as we moved out of walking range of the community, and keen eyes spotted every possibility as we drove along. A small black fruit called nugitch had a tasty sweetness, bush coconuts were an insect gall with a large grub still resident, bush banana peeled like a banana for a starchy lump but not much taste. Paddy melon were also eaten but had to be treated very carefully to avoid the extremely bitter black layer in the shell. A rag was always carried to clean this out before eating. If Maxie came along, he would always have an old single shot .22 just in case a bush turkey noticed him. This was aimed by looking along the barrel as there were no sights.

Lachlan eating some Nugitch

One such trip became especially exciting as we had some parents on board. We stopped in a random swale and everyone dismounted.  I was assigned to a senior male, and while Ali and the women headed off into the scrub, we started out in a different direction. He spotted some goanna tracks very quickly and simply followed them to where they disappeared into a hole.  I think he then said ’three’, but showed three fingers as well, I guessed that this was where the goanna had been three nights before. He circled around and found the tracks again, following again until the next hole “two’.  And again to another hole where he pulled out a piece of reinforcing rod and speared it into the sand about 50 cm away from the hole. I was most impressed when he lifted up the 90 cm goanna, speared through the head. I got to carry lunch back to the car, although after 3 hours following the lizard through its 3 days wandering, I had no idea which way to go. We were in what appeared to my eyes to be dead flat open desert, but he pointed and said, ‘’over the hill”. Sure enough, we were all of 200m from the trailer with maybe a 50cm hill in our way. The women by then had a fire going and several piles of vegetable bush tucker waiting for our return.

The goanna was cleaned and made ready for cooking by pushing a sharp stick up its anus and twirling it around to entangle all the guts, heart, liver and lungs. This was withdrawn in one piece and cut off leaving the body intact and still sealed.  It was then cooked by draping it across red hot coals, steaming the inside meat as the carcase swelled and the skin scorched.  Ali and I got to eat the tail, white meat just like a cross between chicken and inner tube rubber. We couldn’t help but notice one of the women had a shopping bag with a couple of cans of stew, just in case.

There was no phone service in the area, but the school was equipped with a HF radio. We were required to call in daily at midday for a radio check in with the office in Tennant Creek. “Victor Zulu 8 Tango Charlie, This is Epenarra School, do you read, Over”.   We would then be given any relevant information and get to listen in as each community school in the Barkly region was contacted in turn.  Once the office had finished and signed out, we were able to chat from school to school. As many of the schools were single teachers, this was a wonderful way to have a social life and connect to people dealing with the same problems.  The radio also could be used to call into a phone connection service allowing us to make a 6 minute call if we were lucky. Every hour, on the hour, the operator would ask for stations wishing to connect and there would be a free for all, with all stations calling in at the same time. She would note down the ones she heard, then read her list and ask again, repeating until the next hour of available time had been filled. Our signal was relatively weak, so she would rarely hear us through the cacophony. We could listen in to the ensuing phone conversations, mostly station people calling their children off in boarding schools. So real phone calls usually had to wait for the fortnightly trip into town.

Our teaching revolved around a 9 day fortnight, with one Friday reserved to allow us the time for the 4 hour drive into Tennant Creek for resupply. We would shop, go out to dinner and spend the night in a motel before heading back on the Saturday.  The Dollypot was the best restaurant in town and it offered food with entertainment as it was set on a mezzanine floor looking down on the squash courts.

Christaline and the decorated Christmas Tree

As this was a Christian Baptist community, Easter and Christmas were special times for everybody, and the school was expected to play a major role for both times.  The older boys approached me in the last weeks of school before our first Christmas, telling me it was time to go and get the tree.  It took a while for the penny to drop and for me to connect that they meant a Christmas Tree. This was an exercise for all the boys to show me where a decent tree could be found.  There were certainly no pine trees growing in the area.  We all headed out across the desert, eventually arriving at a cluster of small Native Pine tucked away and out of sight.  The boys pointed out the stumps of trees of Christmas past and finally settled on the one they needed for the coming days.  I dutifully cut it down and they ceremonially carried it back to school where the girls had been making decorations.

Christmas Party with the frogs in ponds

As far as the kids were concerned, Easter was all about the chocolate!  Although all the art work generated for weeks before were all of Jesus in various poses, but mostly on the cross.  Among other chocolate and food related activities, we had planned ahead enough to buy a hundred or so mini chocolate eggs and hid them everywhere around the school and grounds. We were very sneaky with the hiding, so our eggs were still turning up several years after the event.  Alison involved her class in making green jelly with chocolate frogs embedded aka Frogs in the pond. These were stored in the fridge for eating the next day, but when they were taken out, shock horror, one of the frogs had been eaten. Ali said ‘who’s eaten our frog?, and her entire class pointed and yelled “Christaline”, (Stellas daughter! )  No sharing of guilt here. 

Big book read aloud time.

A special day in the year that the community and the kids had to teach us about, was “Clean Up Australia Day”. This was the day where everybody in the school and the community was expected to spread out and walk through the entire area picking up all the rubbish. Stella co-ordinated the work, so everyone knew where to go.   As no-one at Epenarra (except us) actually drank alcohol, everyone became most excited if a beer can was found, with lots of discussion, in language, about who might have dropped it! I think ours was the cleanest of any community we visited so should have won an award every year.

Another regular event in the school calendar was the Barkly Region School Sports day. One of the schools would offer to be host, and everyone else would roll up for a day of joint activities. That sounds fine, until you factor in the 4-5 hour drive each way, so 2 nights camping and all food for each school.  One year the sports were up on the Qld border at Lake Nash school.  They had recently moved onto their own land after a long term confrontation with the cattle station owners (Vesty’s). The story has been published, called “We are Staying”.  Their new community and school were correctly called Alpurrurulum, but Balanda (white fellas) had too much trouble trying to pronounce that, so it stayed as Lake Nash until we trouble makers arrived there to teach the following year. Yes that Double R is rolled, like the Scottish burr.  Maxie drove us up there in the Tennant bus, taking all day to get there, and hunting along the way, but once there our kids were still very shy and hung back even with their own tribal group, with the boys going into hiding and refusing to participate in most of the games.  One of the bright spark young teachers had the brilliant idea of having them participate as a Chinese dragon, which became a crocodile weaving around the sports field.

Sports team at Lake Nash

We came back to the school for the start of our second year after visiting Cape Trib again, and discovering that we could buy land there, (but that’s another story).  We brought back a load of odd fruit for the kids, knowing that anything edible would be of interest, but we hadn’t reckoned on their resistance to change and new things. Interested, yes, but don’t expect us to eat it was the general reaction.  Rather like them offering us a witchetty grub, eeww.

Not quite a swimming lesson until the washdown.

The exciting event was that the river had come down while we were away.  A 3 km waterhole, 2-3 m deep was our new eastern boundary.   We quickly discovered that none of the kids could actually swim beyond a dog paddle, so swimming lessons rose high on our priorities. We hunted down a dozen kickboards from one of the town schools and found a good beach with a gentle slope where we thought we could improve their swimming ability.  The boys were all much more interested in getting muddy and leaping into the water from overhanging branches. We all had a great time, but I doubt that much improvement happened beyond what you’d expect from more practice.

A couple of events at the start of 1988 really upset our applecart to shoot us off in a new direction. A new superintendent started at Tennant Creek, who was determined that Epenarra should follow the NT curriculum more closely, and one of the most senior Alyawarra women elders died in Murray Downs, the community to our south.  Our entire community left to participate in several weeks or months of sorry business, formal grieving.  This left us with 4 students and Murray Downs school with 35. Our new super insisted that this was not acceptable and required one of us to use our car to commute to Canteen Creek while the other one stayed at Epenarra.  We weren’t prepared to do that, so at the end of term 1 we were transferred to Lake Nash School out on the Qld border south of Camooweal. We also applied for a new job with the NT Open College, running an Adult Education campaign, which we won, so the Lake Nash school position was just for term 2. By the end of the year we had completed our 3 year contract with the NT and were off to start a new life at Cape Trib.

We went back to Epenarra in 2006, as the experience had never been far from our mind and we were curious about what change may have occurred. Alison wrote her story at the time and published it here. https://wordpress.com/post/iamfootlooseandfree.com/1238


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