Friday, November 16, 2012

From The Beginning

I enjoy travelling greatly. Expanding my horizons, meeting new people and learning about new cultures keep me interested and on my toes. The itinerant life is not for everyone though. Living out of a backpack can be tiring, though for most people it is the lack of permanence, stability and long-term human relationships, be they friends, family, colleagues or a partner, that play mostly on the mind. Man is indeed a social animal. These aspects do not weigh so heavily on me (whether that is a social strength or weakness is up for debate); but relationships are reciprocal affairs, and however much I may be callously OK without my nearest and dearest the opposite is not always true. And so my father decided (rather spontaneously for him) to come out and travel with me whilst I'm here in Australia.

Looking out across the Kakadu forest from the top of the Arnhem escarpment at Gunlom Falls.

In the meantime, whilst waiting for my father to arrive, I had to find something for myself to do. And despite having been to Darwin before I did have something in mind. When I was here previously some seven years ago, I had decided not to visit the nearby (300km is considered quite close in Australian terms) Kakadu national park as many of the more interesting sites were still off limits due to the high floodwaters left over from the preceding wet season. I could not come to the region twice now and not visit the premier attraction of the Top End. So I packed my bag with just my tent and 7 litres of water (it is exceptionally hot and humid in the far north of Australia and you sweat buckets simply by sitting down in the shade) and bought myself a bus ticket to Jabiru, the main aboriginal settlement within the park. Most people visit Kakadu either with their own transport, which I don't have, or via an organised tour. But at $500, more than my entire spend for over a month in East Timor, I quickly rejected that option pretty quickly and put my faith in my legs, and the kindness of strangers to give me lifts.*

Kakadu covers a vast area to the west of the Arnhem escarpment where waterfalls thunder into the forests below which then give way to savannah-like flood plains that finally merge with the sea. As a repository of Australian tropical biodiversity it is eminently significant, but it is just as important for its Aboriginal heritage. The Northern Territory is where Aboriginal culture has remained strongest within Australia thanks to its remoteness and only relatively recent contact with the Western world (not that they were completely isolated, as the northern tribes had contacts with Makassarese merchants who came down to trade for sea cucumbers, and left behind a bunch of Indonesian loanwords in return). Almost 50% of the Territory is tribal land and Aborigines make up a third of the population, more than anywhere else in the country. Aboriginal culture was looked down upon for a long time by the white colonialists as backward and primitive, yet their knowledge of the land is unparallelled and they have the unique distinction of being the oldest continuous civilisation in the world. There are rock paintings that are upwards of 10,000 years old that depict myths and legends that are still passed down within their communities.

Aboriginal myths are classic!

Unfortunately the Aborigines, due to their negative experiences with white Australians, have retreated to their tribal lands and contact with the rest of Australian society is minimal. Instead the only Aborigines most people encounter are the ones who have left their communities (often kicked out due to misdemeanours) and gravitate towards larger settlements where they fall prey to booze, violence, petty theft and begging. This reinforces the negative stereotype many Australians have of the black community as they don't get to the various positive facets of Aboriginal culture. To be fair the Aboriginal community has a multitude of problems: not just alcoholism and petty theft, but child abuse, spousal abuse, poverty and rampant unemployment. Some of it may be down to traditional customs (especially those of gender roles within the community), but much more of it is down to them simply being the poorest and most downtrodden group in society. Only 13% complete secondary education and their life expectancy is more than 10 years below that of the rest of the country. Christ, they didn't even have the same voting rights as the rest of Australians until 1983! Of course there is no simple solution to fixing the ills of the Aboriginal community as the tightrope tasks of preserving their unique culture and improving their standards of living and integrating them into the wider Australian community pull in very different directions. Recent history is littered with well-meaning, but ultimately disastrous, attempts to solve this problem, perhaps most famously with the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families and tribal background and brought up in a totally Western way.

The latest such episode in outside involvement in Aboriginal affairs started in 2007 and is known as the Intervention. Initiated by the federal government in exasperation at the inability of the Northern Territory leadership of resolving long-running societal problems within Aboriginal communities they went in hard, banning all alcohol on tribal land, strictly prescribing what benefit money can be spent on, funnelling it mainly through mothers rather than fathers and withdrawing it for the slightest infraction. The Intervention is now winding down with mixed reviews. Some say it was another example of overly-paternalistic, colonialist condescension, whereas others, including several Aboriginal leaders, have said that it has empowered women, reduced violence and made apathetic communities wake up.

Whatever the long-term outcome Australians' view of Aborigines is still very schizophrenic: at times contemptuous and outright racist, sometimes heavily guilty and repentant, and also proud of their distinctive culture and art. Though it is the former that shines through most often. Aussies are famously laid back and friendly, but there is an oft unconscious, yet deeply-rooted, prejudice towards "black fellas" (an acceptable, and not at all negative appellation) that can trip off even the most gentle of tongues. (Not that we Europeans are any better with the way we treat the Roma in our midst.) Nevertheless attitudes are, ever so slowly, changing, with more positive depictions of Aborigines in the mainstream and a concerted effort to educate the entire country about the Aboriginal historical narrative. I am curious to see whether the two sides can find a way to coexist harmoniously; whether the Aborigines will integrate fully with the rest of Australian society or live apart, separate, in order to preserve their culture. Or is that even possible against the inexorable force and attraction of modernism? If it is an either/or question, as seems to be the case with so many traditional communities throughout the world, it is not a decision I would want to have to make.

*The hitching worked out fine. Interestingly though, of the 10 people to give me rides in Kakadu 5 of them were German. Coincidence? An imminent German invasion of the antipodes? Or perhaps they are the only Europeans who currently have money and are able to afford a holiday in Australia?

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