There’s so much more to say about our time in Pukatja. The festival, the waterhole, the card games, the team getting to know each other, the Jesus stuff, the donkeys…
Or the time the kids found out where we were staying. They decided to stay too. There was a whole afternoon that we had our own little fan club waiting outside our front door, yelling our names.
“Phiona!Phiona!Phiona!Aidan!Aidan!Aidan!Chris!Chris!” And so on. For a few hours.
One even burst through the toilet window, surprising the occupant. Ah, fame.
But the real reason we were in the community, and why we were spending time with the kids, was because of Easter. AKA, the Jesus stuff.
The Uniting Church workers of the region invited us to come and help out at the APY Lands Easter Convention. Four days of celebrating Easter in a distinct style – a mix of Anglo tradition and what the Anangu call Inma (celebration). One tradition that the whole community came out for is the Good Friday Inma. A good hour was dedicated to dressing up – the kids as tiny Roman soldiers, the women as Mary and Mary, and a young Anangu man as Jesus, carrying the cross. He was whipped (by kids with leaves), nailed to his cross (by long red fabric), and placed in a tomb (a small tent). Come Easter Sunday the women would visit his tomb, and find him gone.
Sunday morning we resisted the story at dawn, with a 5:30am start. The area around Pukatja is rich with hills, and the one behind the church has a particularly spectacular view. In our tiredness we joked and laughed with each other, only to be told that this is a sad time. No laughter during this Inma.
So in silence we climbed our hill, and waited for the sun to rise. We sang old hymns, and said prayers for the young people of the region. We continued praying until we saw the sun reach the top of a distant mountain.
Once the sun was up, the hot cross buns were eaten and the tea was served. Our intrepid leader found herself in a conversation with a local Anangu man, who was talking about life for the young people of Pukatja. He was so passionate and sad, that soon all of us were drawn into what he was saying.
“What will happen to our young people? We old people grew up with tradition, but where are our young people? And how can you help? You must help.”
That last question was a bit of a shock to our collective system. How can we help? What do we have to offer? We’re under no delusion that spending a few days playing games with the kids will have long term positive impact. So what will? And here we are, about to leave. Carrying the faces and names of all these children who we may never see again, and who’s future is uncertain. What have we left them with that will last, other than yet another group who’ve come in and out of their lives?
Last year in nearby Indigenous community Amata, we spoke with an elder named Leah. We wanted to know if it was ok to take and publish photographs of our time there.
“Oh yes. Tell people about Amata. Show them our community, help others to see us”.
The truth of Australia’s remote communities is that they are easy to ignore, and with some of the things that we don’t quite understand we’d prefer to turn a blind eye. Or we try to force our way in to fix what we see as the problem. The biggest challenge I take away from Pukatja is to not turn away. To see all the unanswered questions and to feel the pain of not knowing the answers. It’s not for us white fellas to solve; it’s for us to listen to people like Leah, people like the man who talked to us on the hill, and to not forget the questions. To bring the questions out into the open and make others aware that these kids exist. Maybe we have some of the answer, and through more conversations with more Aboriginal leaders we can find a new way to do these visits and to tell this story.
But right now we can only say ‘wampa’.
What Actually Happened.
Day 1: We arrive, feel awkward and confused, but play an amazing game of Emperor and Scum.
Day 2: We attend the community’s Good Friday Passion Play, and then play an amazing game of Jungle Speed. That night we attend an Easter service (our third by that point) and find out that the children of the community are incredible/exhausting/insatiable/noisy.
Day 3: We plan and produce a festival for the kids. This goes for 2 hours until we are interrupted by an impromptu church service, the fourth Easter service by this point. We play more card games, visit a waterhole, and then go to yet another Easter service.
Day 4: We’re up at 5:30am to attend an Easter dawn service. We get home for a croissant-y breakfast, a round of cards, and then another Easter service. We get in trouble because we can’t keep the kids quiet enough. Then accidentally sign on for a few hours of cooking sausages for the entire community. Then we go home.
No wonder it’s a bit hard to put into words, right? But lets talk about that part in Day 2 where we finally meet the kids.
We weren’t quite prepared to be so beloved. And being beloved is exhausting. After plonking ourselves on the ground, a mob of kids jumped all over us. This probably sounds metaphorical; it isn’t. Chris, Aidan and Nan managed to find themselves instantly integrated into a game of marbles, while Heather, Phiona and myself became sitting apparatus. Phones were removed from pockets, selfies were taken, games were played, phones were gently taken back and placed back into pockets, and then they discovered how willing we were to give them piggy backs.
“Put me up there,” says Adalina, indicating my shoulders. It’s been a while since anyone’s been up there. Has anyone ever been up there? Can my back take it? Actually, no time for questions; she’s already climbed up. And there she’ll stay til the night is over.
“Let’s go this way”. She grabs my head and points me in a particular direction. I obey.
“Now over to that wall. I’ll show you a trick”. She grabs a rope and climbs from my shoulders up a wall. She reaches the top, makes sure I can see her, and then with a proud smile climbs back down. “Can we go get some water?” I figure the water must be close by. It isn’t.
Soon there’s a whole procession of us, with at least one Anangu child each tagging along, walking through the community at night to the water fountain on the side of the shop. To the swing set. To the other swing set. Not back to church yet, let’s climb this. And so on. It was more fun than any of us have had in a long long time, but by the time we got back to our accommodation that night we were dirty, tired, sore and with a ringing in our ears that couldn’t just be from the church’s massive speakers.
When I went to bed I found chewing gum on my shoulder.
“That was amazing,” one of us said. “But there’s three more days of it to go”.
Part 3 is here.
“So, who wants to go to Pukatja?”.
We were sitting around our Basecamp dining table which had only recently been set up, with a couple of newbies from Victoria who had only just arrived at camp, discussing a plan which had only just been decided on.
The past week had been a series of umms and ahhhh with regards to Pukatja. Every year Fusion gets invited by the Uniting Church to help in a remote community over Easter weekend. Our challenge this year was there was no accommodation and a thousand unanswered questions about what would happen over the weekend and what our task there was. It maybe involved a few church services, each in a language we didn’t know, with unexplained cultural aspects, and very undetermined start and finish times. It maybe involved doing festivals with the kids, or maybe storytelling, or perhaps just sitting with them. Maybe we’d be helping the Salvation Army do a sausage sizzle and serve hot cross buns, and that would be it.
Can we take our cameras? Dunno. Will they object to having their picture taken if we do? Dunno.
Haw many of us should go? Dunno. Is there phone reception? Dunno.
Could we sleep in that person’s backyard, like they suggested? Dunno. Would we have access to a kitchen? Dunno. Showers? Dunno.
With many ‘dunno’s hanging over us, we still had to answer that first question: Who wants to go?
S0me hands shot straight up. Others took a little longer to get there.
Regardless of where we were internally at that point, the very next morning, at 8am, eight of us piled into the van and heading into the very unknown.
Pukatja, previously known as Ernabella, is a community across the border in South Australia. It took us about 5 hours to drive there, with only one toilet stop. It took us a little bit longer because we couldn’t find our accommodation, which ended up being the floor of a TAFE building. Better than a backyard.
What we experienced was far more intense than we expected, in many ways. Our first night was a shambles. We showed up for a church service, and while our intrepid leader Rose made her way around the elders of the town introducing herself, the rest of us stood wild-eyed and bewildered watching something we only barely understood.
“Hey you.” An elder beckoned us over. “These kids are watching you.”
What looked like a small army of children stacked on top a nearby picnic table stared shyly in our direction. We shyly stared back.
Should we go over there? Dunno. What if we sat down? Dunno. What do we do with the kids if we do make contact? Dunno. Do we look like clueless white people right now? Probably.
Luckily we were saved by an invitation from up the front to come up and introduce ourselves and talk about the Pilgrimage to Uluru. We were off the hook. For now.
How do we make contact? How do we go into a strange community with complex issues and start to do things with the kids? Are we crossing a cultural boundary, or perpetuating an unhealthy dynamic?
It took us a while to grapple with these questions, and we overthought it all and avoided the issue until our brains hurt.
In the end it was simple; we went over to where the kids were, and we sat down. Within seconds each and every one of us had at least one child on top of them.
“What your name? What’s this? What’s her name? Can I take photo? Can I get on your back? Can we go to the swings?”
The man who’d invited us, Peter, joked that to get by in Anangu culture you only had to know one word: ‘Wampa’. It means ‘I don’t know’. Couple that with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and you can respond to anything the Anangu throw at you.
We went in to Pukatja requiring an answer for everything before deciding how to respond. Is this ok? What if I upset someone? What if we look like idiots? These kids, on the other hand, had decided to act and use their questions as a way to connect.
By the end of our time in Pukatja we had ‘wampa’ down pat. And once we got the hang of it, so much more was able to happen.
Stick around for part 2.
The thing about the Pilgrimage to Uluru is that someone’s got to go ahead and make a place for all the Pilgrims to come to. That task falls to the intrepid group of explorers known as the Basecampers. Basecampers are a strange breed, with many strange habits. We are readers, thinkers, philosophers, planners, tea drinkers, youth workers, housekeepers, and web designers. And we all have to do hard labour in the hot sun.
Volunteering for Basecamp is volunteering for the unknown. It’s like running into a strange dream where nothing makes sense, you travel for several days and then suddenly you have to build a town. Luckily over the 16 years that Pilgrimage to Uluru has been happening we’ve built up quite a collection of tents, caravans, pegs and bits of rope that we can actually make it all work.
So here’s a bit of our journey.
Beginning in Tasmania (yes, that far away), a van full of stuff and Steve travelled to Melbourne, picked up a Chris, then headed on over to Adelaide. In Adelaide we picked up Aidan, Nathaniel, Phiona, Biz, Sue and even more stuff. A whole other van appeared, carrying a Dave, and we met up with a car and a Rodney in Kapunda. Then the actual journey began.
From Kapunda to Coober Pedy on Day 1, took 9 people, 3 vehicles and 9 hours. With a few stops along the way, and one particularly big storm.
One of the things that you have to prepare for when travelling through the desert for a few days, is the weirdness. Not Wolf Creek style weird, just landscape weird. Australia is weird. You can begin your morning driving through rolling hills of green, then on the shore of a beautiful blue harbour, then suddenly it’s Mad Max and you’re living in a cave. We ended Day 1 in Coober Pedy, and slept* underground as we mentally prepared ourselves for the 4am start on Day 2.
*HAHAHAHAHAHHAHA it was so hot as if anyone slept.
Day 2 went by in an under slept fever dream. We drove for many many hours before stopping for Breakfast at regular breakfast time. It took about 7 hours to get from Coober Pedy to Yulara, our home base, and when we arrived we were greeted by air-conditioned caravans, hot tea, and all the opportunity in the world to nap.
Lol, no. We were greeted by empty space, hot sun, and 3 days hard labour.
But more on that next post!
Give the camp blogger a drill and you wont get an update for days. I still have the bruises to prove it.
So setting up this thing is a massive task. We’ll be living here for a month, and through 16 years of experience we’ve managed to learn (sometimes the hard way) what is necessary to live a normal, basic existence. For some of us that means good wifi and plentiful supply of TimTams.
For others shelter is more important.
Either way, Basecamp involves setting up five caravans, two annexes, three tents, two marquees, two ovens, two fridges, a washing machine and a kitchen sink. At the end of the process, which takes 2 days at minimum and many many more if we get blessed with rain or extreme heat, it looks a little bit like this:
Our mini village is our home, and despite all the work that goes into it (*rubs bruises; treats sunburn*) it’s worth it for the little life that we live here each year.
Apologies for the delay on this one folks, but here is an update from our final 3 days of the Pilgrimage!
Day 10 (Tuesday) was a really relaxing and special day for us all. We had a shorter drive to Broken Hill so we were able to take our time a bit more, enjoying the sights and each others’ company. Once we arrived in Broken Hill we had a lot of time to kill so we had a refreshing 2 hour chill time at a playground with coffees in hand (both of which the leaders were very thankful for!) and amazing play equipment for those extra energetic people to have some fun!
On Sunday morning (day 8) we awoke at the glorious hour of 4.30am in order to make our way to a lookout for the Dawn Service (at sunrise) with all the other pilgrims. Wide awake and kicking (I joke) we arrived at the lookout, only to find we were early! (oops)…. but when all the other buses arrived we made our way up the small hill to watch the sun rise over Uluru. The view was breathtaking.
Hey Errybody! Here is an update on days 6 & 7 from the Western Sydney bus! These two days were particularly special as we were at the rock and got to hang out with all the other pilgrims from around the country!
Day 6 (Friday) was the day we got to go up close to Uluru and touch it! We went on the Mala walk, which goes a couple of kilometres around the base of the rock, and along the way we heard some Dreamtime stories (or Creation stories, as the Indigenous folk prefer to call them) and a bit of history behind the rock and it’s significance to the Anangu people. This was a pretty exciting time for us to be up close and personal with the amazing monolith that we’d travelled so far to see! We also got to spend a bit of time reflecting in silence at Kanju Gorge at one point in the walk. Was a great opportunity to stop and reflect on all we’d seen and learnt so far and just take in the massiveness of the rock.