In these Covid times with international travel a distant dream, the Northern Territory is enticing would-be travelers to their state. One frequently seen ad is captioned: ‘Different in every sense’. Robyn and I beat each other to say ‘sure is’ every time we hear it, for we spent a couple of years in the territory at an indigenous boarding school miles from anywhere.
My arrival at the school was different. The school was in crisis: too few students to make it viable and too many students enrolled that didn’t want to be there. The principal had been fired and house parents were sending trouble-makers home. And then I show up knowing very little of the background, and no clue as to where ‘home’ might be. Two boys were walking across the oval with their bags, so I asked them where they were going. ‘Home’ was their reply, so I rode my bike alongside them thinking I can accompany them home, teacherly duty like. Where is home? I asked. Ngukurr (sounds like nooker) they replied. ‘Is it far?’ ‘No’ was their answer. Then I asked if we will be there before dark. No, it will be a few days they said. At that I persuaded them to come home and stay at my place with the promise to sort things out tomorrow. Next morning I find out that ‘home’ is more than nine hours drive away. So, the expelled kids live with us, and when a few more join us the full wrath of the house parents’ comes crashing down. Not pretty, but necessary. Not my first exposure to that judgment/punishment vs compassion/tolerance dilemma, and also not my first time as defender of those who need somebody in their corner. Guess who became principal.
Nearly all schools have camps, but these were different – a boys camp and a girls camp. One highly organized, many topics of major significance (sex education), guest specialist speakers, great food, good accommodation, and of course hot showers and little gift bags of perfume goodies. The other was, well the word that comes to mind is ‘blokey’. Yes, we covered the sex bit, but hardly made it the focus. Showers, no. Bags of goodies, yes, chips. Guest speakers, no but watched a great movie. Our focus as stated was: ‘Fishing and Fun’ so we all knew why we were there – to do what these boys do best. One thing that amazes me is the boys’ approach to fishing. They catch fish to eat, not later when they have caught enough, but there and then. No gutting or scaling, but straight on the fire, turned a couple of times then the skin peeled off and the flesh eaten. Equally amazing, their expression of fun is to do a forward roll and land on their feet, sometimes several in a row. So sand dunes and river banks make a perfect gym equivalent. And no, I didn’t try it.
Sport is common to all schools, but here again our school was different. Robyn, myself and another teacher took a group of students into Darwin to play inter-school soccer. We didn’t win many games, mainly because some schools take their sport very seriously. We had just come from a camp of fishing and fun, and the fun aspect carried over onto the soccer field. Competition demanded girls in each team. Most schools had a token two girls; not us. Our girls are used to mixing it with the boys and played as good as the boys. Barefoot and fast, kicking and all. Oh what a delight to see such lithe supple young people enjoying themselves and scoring amazing freakish goals. Discipline poor; teamwork barely; strategies non-existent; captain/leadership none; coaching next question; having a good time and spending too much energy chasing each other, yes. It was the only time I saw a group of players decide to have a little chat in the middle of the game, completely oblivious to the action around them, then with an amazing burst of energy join the game again. They play the game of life by their rules.
And I remember the excursions. Yes, we used the college bus and took a cut lunch, but in most other respects it was an excursion with a difference. They were mustering at Twin Hill Station, an indigenous owned and run cattle property just twenty minutes from the college. One of our house parents was a senior figure in the company and we were there at his invitation. We took the four-wheel-drive bus, a great lumbering beast that allowed us to really look down on the world, and on the cattle. Fourteen hundred of them.
We saw the vehicles first, a row of utes and quad bikes to slow the cattle down. You see these Brahman cross animals are part wild and you can’t just ‘drove’ them quietly. When they go they run, and would lose too much condition and exhaust themselves if let go. Then a row of utes following the giant herd and when they saw us, they stopped, and next thing the bus was empty and all our kids were up on the backs of the utes shouting and laughing. Not sure I gave permission for that, but like the animals they were following – part wild. And the helicopter, it was something else. I tried to film it, but half the time it was lower than the trees and I couldn’t see it. I was hoping it didn’t fly that low near the kids, or they would be swinging from the skids for sure – they wouldn’t be the only ones on the skids if anything happened. A day of cattle, noise, dogs, quad bikes, utes, a helicopter, men in big hats, and four huge road trains lined up. No wonder Robyn and I had to drag them away: “Aw Miss, can’t we stay here …”
Those tempted by the ad campaign won’t get to experience what we did of course, but they will see barrel-chested men on Harley Davidsons wearing nothing more than navy singlet and shorts; four-wheel-drives jacked up high with pony-sized hunting dogs in cages on the back, and they will experience a frontier approach to life unlike anywhere else in Australia. Yes, the Territory is different in every sense.