It was Day 8 of the tour and we drove down from the beautiful red earth hills of Walatinna back down into flat desert sprawls. We drove past the entrance to Uluru, saw the rocks in the distance, stopped at a gas station and then continued on. We rolled along seemingly endless stretches of earth, rock and low lying shrubs and at one point we saw wild horses galloping the distance. Then we started seeing low hills and mulga trees, and more vibrant green bushes. When we got to the outskirts of Alice, high rocky ridges started to emerge.
It was dark when we arrived and we were greeted by Barbara Shaw, an ardent anti-Interventionist and Aboriginal rights activist, who I recognized from John Pilger’s film 'Utopia' and the Our Generation documentary. Barb has ancestral ties to Muckaty through her grandmother and lived in one of the ghettoized areas of Alice Springs called a "Town Camp". Some of what Barb said when she welcomed us was:
"This town will inform you of race relations. All you have to do is walk around with your eyes open. Go into any supermarket and you'll see the difference in how we're treated to how a white person is treated. It's in your face. We don't expect you to bash every copper, unless you want to. Just take photos, put them on Facebook and let the world know what we have to put up with." She also told us that "you're not allowed to have ganja on ya" and that the police like to hang around the gates of the Town Camp randomly searching people.
We had dinner (including Kangaroo tail) with Barb and some of her family, friends and neighbours. I ended up hanging around a fire with a group of men who said they had all gone through initiation together. They were drinking beer in defiance of a large sign posted outside of the camp forbidding alcohol and pornography in the town - part of the Intervention program. The guy I spoke to the most said he felt that programs like Stronger Futures, the Intervention and Closing the Gap were only "widening the gap" between Aboriginals and other Australians.
We all slept in a horse paddock near the town camp and there were wild dogs cackling murderously in the distance as I drifted off to sleep. I woke up with hills and ridges behind me and gum trees nestling a dried out river in front of me.
I decided to walk from the camp along the Todd river and spend the day wandering around Alice Springs alone. When I mentioned it to some of the girls who were on the bus with me as I was getting ready to leave, they told me that I shouldn't go alone because I might "get raped". I left the bus and found one of the locals and long-time activists and asked her if it would be safe. She said that it wouldn't be a problem at all and I would just see "drunk people hanging out around the river". When I returned to the bus, I brought up the comment the girls had made previously and they denied having said it and said that that it wasn't what they meant. I ended up getting a ride part way to town and then headed through the outskirts of the city and made my way to the public pool. I was ready for a hot shower.
When I first got into Alice Springs, I ended up running into a French-Canadian guy who was riding his bicycle around and I asked him what he thought about the Intervention. He told me that it would be hard for me to understand why it was necessary as a visitor and that I would "have to live in the town for a while" to see the dynamics and understand it better. I asked him if he thought it was racist and he said, “no”.
I had another discussion with a woman working at a hotel. She said that she thought the Intervention was a good thing and that it was necessary. She said that a lot of visitors criticized the situation and reiterated that one needed to live in the town for a "really long time" to understand the situation properly. She said that the town experienced a “real boom” as a result of the Intervention and that many houses were built and many jobs were created. I asked her if those benefits were extended to Aboriginal people and she said that they were for “everybody”, yet that it “isn’t in Aboriginal people’s nature to work”. She said that Aboriginal people have “heaps of money thrown at them.. heaps.. a lot of them are more cashed up than what I am and I work 12 hours day”. She acknowledged that there was no easy solution and that Aboriginal people should be living their “old ways”. I brought up some of the factors that have made this difficult like removing children from their families and taking over their lands. She acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and said that she “wasn’t racist”.
Once I got to the pool, I also asked an employee from the pool what he thought about Alice Spring and the Intervention. He told me that “It wasn’t like apartheid”, and that there’s “lots of great things about Alice”. I was like, “Okay, what?” And he was, like, “uh, like the community... like... that-” pointing to a large sports oval across the street from the pool that had one entrance and was heavily guarded all around. Only Aboriginals were playing games or in attendance and white police officers on horseback encircled the area.
As I entered the pool, two small children with trachoma came running in after me. One of them seemed to be blind in one eye. I hung out at the outdoor pool for a while and met an Irish couple who had lived in Alice Springs for a long time and one of them was a health care worker. She said that there was “a lot of racism” in the health care industry and in daily life and that it was really upsetting to witness. After my shower, I wandered back out into the streets and ran into an older Aboriginal couple on their way to the sports oval. They said hello and started chatting me up and then invited me to join them. They were from North Western Australia and told me that they spoke 4 different tribal languages and made the trip to Alice to watch their son play in a rugby game.
We entered in across from the pool and they took me over to where their friends and family were and introduced me to some of them. I chatted with them for a while and then I had to go sit under the bleachers, as it was too freaking hot. There were other people hanging out under there with tablets and snacks and they looked over at me curiously, then seemed to accept my presence. I sat under there for about an hour, looking out at the game periodically and wrote in my journal. As a person who’s a bit of a space cadet and a daydreamer, the thing that struck me right away was how deeply grounded everyone was. I had read that Aboriginal people had been living on their lands and practicing their culture for 40-50000 years; the oldest intact culture on earth.
I left at the intermission and as I walked out I waved goodbye to my new friends. Just as I was about to leave the heavily guarded exit, I saw two teenagers holding hands walking across the field. The boy had thick dark curls and dark brown skin and the girl had reddish-brown hair and was ivory fair.