Number 50

n50

From bush to town, but always in a community

Jane Ulrik

I came to Central Australia to find my identity. I had struggled with it in the city, where there were pressures to conform and constraints of acceptable behaviour for a woman. I’d studied nursing – it was either that or teach; not much of a choice for a woman. I didn’t want to get married and host dinner parties. I loved the bush, loved to drive and loved my dog. I could drink, swear and change a tyre. I figured I could somehow make myself useful in this exquisite part of the country.

I’d first seen the desert while on a bus trip with a girlfriend in 1977. We travelled to Alice Springs, the Rock, Darwin, Broome and Perth, and from that time on I knew where I wanted to be. I returned to the Red Centre in 1980 to forge a life different from the one I would inevitably have had if I’d stayed in Melbourne. I was 21 and up for adventure.

Pretty soon after arriving I met Richard. He’d worked at Amata, a community in the south east. He was to chase me around for some time before we got a job together at Docker River, where we attempted to manage a store. Richard felt strongly that the health and well-being of people living remotely depended on good food supply and economic management. My experience was profoundly lacking. As a teenager, I’d worked part-time as a “check out chick” at Woolworths. I’d never been to an Aboriginal community before.

Life was tough. Richard was away a lot but we had some great times. Six weeks after we arrived, with a debt of huge proportions, it rained; and it rained and it rained. Thirty inches of rain came down in six weeks. Every vehicle was bogged, the store was empty and we had no credit.

We didn’t see a store truck for four months and we had to feed 400 people. I remember a helicopter coming out to pick up elderly people from one of the 18 outstations but they didn’t think to bring any food. Curtin Springs sent some meat out to us and Richard braved the 11-hour drive to Alice, returning with the ute loaded up with supplies, and surprisingly we all survived.

We had the radio telephone, the RFDS radio and that was it. We had tragedy after tragedy and many deaths.

We always had dogs. Whitefellas came and went, some good and some not so good, but always they came with emotional baggage; we all did.

We were fortunate to work with some great people, in the most beautiful country, the Petermann Ranges. The Docker River mob “grew me up” in the real sense. I learned about being a mother from watching others, from gentle discipline and a lot of trial and error. People loved me and protected me, often from myself.

However, my experience as a store manager was different from that of other white people who worked out bush. I wasn’t there to immerse myself in Aboriginal culture. My language skills were and are poor. I rarely knew Aboriginal people’s relationships to each other and I didn’t devote any time to knowing what my obligations and responsibilities were in relation “to family”. I was under the money pump, feeling the weight of financial responsibility.

For this reason, I didn’t have much fun. My life was serious, or maybe I took it too seriously. I often feel quite sad about these missed opportunities. But I was honest and ready to apologise for my shortcomings. I think people found it pretty funny that I didn’t like tourists much. I once heard a friend pass on the comment of a visiting driver, who’d said, “I’d hate to meet her in a dark alley.” I’d been less than enthusiastic in attending to his fuel needs after dark, as he headed through to Perth. But I had had to walk almost a kilometre to open the fuel pump, then walk back again in the dark. Richard had had the car; he went to town a lot.

Samual Store Worker was born seven weeks prematurely, in the winter of 1985. He was so white he was transparent. Sometimes, I didn’t see him for hours on end, as he was off in camp with Mary Gillian and the kids. I often wondered who was feeding him. The community cared for Samual as if he were their own. Rosa and Ernest named him and he belongs to that country, forever.

In October 1985, with much fanfare and excitement, Ayers Rock was handed back to its traditional owners and became known worldwide by its Aboriginal name of Uluru. We were enthusiastic about land rights and community control; this was a political turning point, we felt.

After nearly five hard years at Docker River, we moved to Mutitjulu, the community by the Rock, in 1986. This was the time when Azaria Chamberlain’s disappearance made headlines around the world and strangers would say to us, “Oh, you live at the Rock? Did the mother kill the baby, then, or was it a dingo?”

Maruku Arts and Crafts had moved to Mutitjulu from Amata some years before and Richard went to work with the punu. Many artists worked in the region, making artefacts and traditional wooden implements, and a team from arts and crafts travelled great distances to buy and sell them.

Ush and Josephine lived next door. There were families all around; the community was right there. And old Snowy kept the place looking gorgeous.

Yulara was built and offered some flash accommodation for visitors but we didn’t get a local rate. There were good tennis courts, mind you. I did some work at the clinic and child care centre. Asta, our daughter was born in 1988.

Mutitjulu was great. We lived in the old police barracks and had a beautiful vegetable garden. We also had many adventures, with snakes, fires and the constant battle with the elements. Once, it snowed on the Rock and I remember a terrifying hail storm, with hail as big a golf balls.

We had some extremely sad times too. The grief of losing extended family members and friends was frequent. Chronic disease, ill health, accidents and grog took their toll on the community all time.

I was tired, Samual had started school and there was too much drinking.

So I moved to Alice Springs with the kids in 1990 and started work at Congress, running a shop again. Richard followed; we were going to try and make a life for ourselves in town.

The Red Shop, as it was called, was on Gap Road. It was a catalyst both for us to change our lives and for an Aboriginal health organisation to encourage change through food rather than alcohol sales.

We poured all the grog down the drain and handed back the liquor license. There were too many takeaway liquor licenses in Alice Springs, we felt. But we soon discovered that without subsidies, we couldn’t make a profit out of a voluntary food voucher system for town campers receiving welfare. We tried but the big supermarkets beat us because they could buy in bulk. Eventually, one of the supermarkets agreed to treat food voucher recipients with respect and we closed our doors.

Meanwhile, to help pay the bills, I did night shifts at the Hetti Perkins Aged Care Centre in Warburton Street. I loved and hated it. Senior Aboriginal men and women, holders of the law, had been taken off their country to be cared for away from their families. Very few had any visitors. They were so lonely, with no language speakers, no campfire and no song or story, but most of all with no children. It broke my heart.

We moved to Chewings Street, where Richard had bought a lovely little house, next door to old Charlie’s place, with the citrus trees on the corner. Rowley, our third child was conceived there. Mika and his boys lived out the back in a tent. We tried hard to be a family. The house was small and our needs were great. So then, together, we bought 50 Giles Street. Richard loved it. I hated it; it wasn’t what I wanted. It was too big, and had a swimming pool.  

The previous owners had had cats. The carpets had to go. We slept outside. The pool went green and we all got hot. Richard’s shade business took over the back yard, and so did is mates.

But the kids loved the pool, the neighbourhood loved the pool, and in the end it kept me sane. Number 50 has been keeping me sane ever since. I stay home and people come to visit; it works well with me.

Moving to town was hard for me. Giles Street symbolised the end of my bush era; one that no longer exists or maybe I just don’t belong any more. I don’t know the new generation who work out bush; their life is so very different. Phones, faxes, internet, computers, flash cars, better accommodation and a different system of governance – that’s how it is these days.

Gradually, though, I found a new sense of community in Giles Street. For the kids, going to school meant walking, either to Ross Park, Saint Philips or Centralian College, but they never walked alone; they always had mates to accompany them. At the house, there was always a mob of kids; the gate was forever creaking and the dogs barking. We neighbours would baby-sit for each other, sell eggs to, mow lawns for, raise money from, share birthdays with, visit rellies, build studios, move trees, start cars, water gardens and all the other things that neighbours do.

Giles Street has become my new life. People pop in for cups of tea. Mr Kulitja comes like clockwork to tell me the news from Docker River. Enquiries are made about my kids; where they are and what they’re doing. He often brings people I haven’t seen for ages and we look at photos of their kids, hug each other and remember. “Nanna Jane” is something I am coming to terms with now.

Community is continuity and stability, something that whitefellas don’t seem to do particularly well, except perhaps on Giles Street. To relatives down south, we are known as the “Giles Street mob”. Others know us simply as “Jane’s mob”.

Jane Ulrik

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