Today we are throwing the guide book out the window. We are going with the flow. Up the track a bit, and towards some unexpected insights into Territory living.But first … to Batchelor and its reinvention
On the way to Litchfield NP is Batchelor. We’re stopping briefly to peer in the windows of the now deserted National Trust listed St Barbara’s Anglican Church. One of the first prefabricated buildings still standing in the Territory its certainly seen better days but I can imagine the ladies in starched dresses, and the aboriginal alter boys pulling uncomfortably at their collars while peering through the slats.
Batchelor is a pleasing little town.
Its infrastructure was obviously heightened after the 1949 discovery of uranium nearby, with the mine operating from 1952 – 1971 providing the town with its boom period, and Australia with the topic of much debate. It is said that Australia’s first uranium mine, the Rum Jungle Uranium Mine (White’s Mine) has been one of the greatest economic influences on the subsequent development of the Top End.
For the last 40 years Batchelor also been home to the Bachelor Institute of Indigenous Education which provides research in Indigenous knowledge, employment, education and training for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in the NT and across Australia.
Set in what was once the single men’s quarters of the mining company, it helps position individuals and communities to pursue education, and economic aspirations. Our white-fella philosophies hope it delivers on its promise. It’s a complex thing this argument for aboriginal opportunities and what some deem as interference. We wish we had more of an understanding as we pass through this country.
Bachelor is the gateway to Litchfield NP.
Litchfield NP’s many waterfalls and walks to sandstone outcrops have been closed in recent days due to fires in the area. The website’s given the all-clear and we cruise into a park covered with termite mounds, weather-eroded outcrops and refreshing rockpools.
The park is historically home to the Aboriginal Wagait people, and has been named after Frederick Henry Litchfield who was a member of the Finniss Expedition who formed the first European connection with the area.
For 75 years until the mid 20th Century however the area was the centre for tin and copper mining. It eventually fell under a pastoral lease until its designation as a national park.
Tough lives, tough times
The Blyth Homestead Ruins, remnants of a 1929 homsetad built by the Sergeant family and abandoned only in the 1960’s are a terrific spot to bring ourselves up to speed on the mining and station life of the area.
The Squids were quite taken with the simple story book, much of which was possible thanks to a young family member in recent years recording her great uncle’s recollections.
It was told simply, in a weather proof scrap book, perched on top of tin drums, surrounded by dusty, ramshackle furnishing on the dirt floor of the homestead. I’m a sucker for a good story so we stopped there for a while.
Magnetic termite mounds
We take in the Magnetic Termite Mounds – Master Squid toting along his compass to see what all the fuss is about. Standing up to two metres high these mounds reach for the sky. Termites are surprisingly intriguing critters – from their Queen to their nymphs – they’ve got this inbuilt little compass that makes you look twice at what they get up to. And so have entomolgists, and other boffins who visit this area.
The magnetic termite mounds are constructed in a north-south orientation, acting as a built-in temperature control mechanism, allowing only the least possible surface are to be exposed to the heat of the sun.
Cascades and creek swims
Lacking our own internal devices to escape the heat, we go off in search of rockpools and waterfalls.
First stop of Buley’s Rockhole for some rockpool leaping and plunging, followed by a bracing walk down several flights of stairs to Florence Falls. This is obviously a fav spot of the Coach tour groups and their clientele with silly in-jokes and antics – it’s too crowded for us – we don’t stay long.
The Squids are asleep by the lookout of the cascading Tolmer Falls but rally by the gorgeous Wangi Falls for a dip amongst a rowdy mob of local kids at sunset.
They are students at the nearby indigenous boarding school Woolaning Secondary School – the first of its kind in Australia with kids as far as Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Kakadu being sent by their community to gain an education.
They seem rambunctious, and delighted that lessons are done for the day. This is their after-school playground…and it ain’t half bad. I’d venture to suggest that if any of them suffer from homesickness, Wangi Falls would be a great cure.
We are fortunate to be given an insight into these kids by a generous, burly aboriginal bloke by the name of Michael Walker. Or Wayne. That’s his other name , “There’s 7 other Michael Walker’s in my family,” he tells us.
Wayne is their house parent, “along with me missus who is back getting their dinner ready”.
Wayne /Michael, who spent some of his childhood in Victoria’s Morwell, (legendary Aboriginal boxer Lionel Rose’s home town) speaks to us with a mix of generosity and humility. This is a rare experience for us on this trip, and we are grateful to him for his insight and willingness to talk.
The unexpected lesson
So often on this trip we have felt incredibly out-of-touch with what aboriginal Australians are thinking, incredibly confused about how we should or should not approach them for conversation, incredibly white. This is not our country, this is not our culture. We are strangers.
And then we meet Wayne. In a brief conversation as kids splash and screech in the water, white teeth flashing, ebony skin glistening in the water, he shares so much.
He is not their first house parent. It sounds like they’ve been through a few. Several of them white. But I feel he may be the one with the most profound effect. He’s certainly had that on us.
These kids, they’re all-right. TheIR people want them to come here, even if they don’t. They act up a bit, but they’re kids and they’re away from their country some of them.”
I tell them…youse kids know the blackfella way … you hunt, you camp, eat bush tucker and you’ve got your ceremonies … but this is your chance to learn whitefella ways … the computers and internet and communication and business ways. Then you can make a choice. Then you can decide your future. It’s good to know both blackfella and whitefella ways.”
Wayne /Michael tells us later that he is making boomerangs as his “art-hobby” and sells them locally, while encouraging the kids to find their own ways to connect with their culture through their own designs.
They know their stories, they respect their stories … they’ve just got to keep finding ways to tell their stories so both whitefella and blackfella keep listening.”
“And it keeps them busy,” he adds with a chuckle.
Meeting Michael Walker has been the highlight of our Litchfield NP exerperience. Memories of waterfalls may come and go but his willingness to chat with us, share thoughts about culture and community, answer our white fella questions with consideration has provided us with a vital moment of insight. As whitefella’s wanting to listen, we can’t thank him enough for his very personalised Welcome to Country.