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The Aborigines

(Reprint from News: March 16, 2002)

March 14, 2002


Alice Springs was interesting and colorful, but it was also kind of seedy and I was glad to leave and get back out on the highway -- so much for my childhood fantasies.  I thought about driving all the way up to Darwin, which is about three full days from Alice Springs, but for several reasons I decided not to go up to the "Top End."  I wanted to see some places up there like Kakadu National Park (where they filmed the waterfall scene in "Crocodile Dundee"), but it was still the Wet Season and I'd heard that a lot of the roads there were still flooded.  Apparently it was also pretty hot and sticky up there and motel rooms are pretty expensive around Darwin.  Also, I was getting road-weary and I didn't want to tack on another week of driving across this very large continent, so Darwin will have to wait until my next visit to Oz.


After leaving Alice Springs, I drove all day north on the empty two-lane Stuart Highway, passing a roadhouse every hour or two.  Around 3 p.m. and with the thermometer hovering around 95 degrees, I pulled into Tennant Creek (pop. 3,500), a mining town with a large Aboriginal population.  Indeed, it was the only semblance of a town that I passed through all day.  After filling the tank, I found a motel across the street and, after chatting with the pleasant owner for a bit, got my key and hefted my duffel bags into the room.  After closing the door, I cranked the AC up all the way, turned on the radio and listened to the local country music station, and proceeded with my typical post-drive ritual:  downloading photos.


By dusk it had cooled off 10 degrees outside, so I emerged from my nice-and-frosty room and wandered the quiet streets of this pleasant little town that sits alone in the desolate Outback.  On the way back to the motel, I stopped at a store where I bought some groceries, enough to get me to the coast.


2-2891_Tropic_of_Capricorn.jpg (27862 bytes)    2-2895_John_Stuart_Memorial.jpg (55321 bytes)    2-2897_Road_Construction.jpg (32857 bytes)

Above left:  Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn near Alice Springs.  I was now officially in the tropics.

Above center:  Memorial to John McDouall Stuart alongside the Stuart Highway.

Above right:  I guess this is why they call central Australia "The Red Center."


2-2907_Devils_Marbles.jpg (45761 bytes)    2-2913_Tennant_Creek.jpg (49157 bytes)   

Above left:  The Devil's Marbles near Tennant Creek, a large area of granite boulders way out in the middle of nowhere.  This area reminded me of Joshua Tree National Park in California without the crowds.

Above right:  Tennant Creek is the only town between Alice Springs and Katherine a distance of 800 miles.  There isn't much to do here... except spend the night in a motel.


The Aborigines

About half the customers in the Tennant Creek grocery store were Aborigines, and one scene in particular was memorable.  A white woman and an Aborigine family who were obviously dear friends but who apparently had not seen each other in a long time embraced with unrestrained happiness and excitement.  What really struck me about it was that, although I'd seen plenty of Aborigines in Australia during the past few weeks, this was the first time that I'd seen whites and Aborigines interacting so joyously.  The event made me think more deeply about the Aborigine situation in Australia and so, being in the middle of the Outback, I thought this would be a good place to discuss it. 


You don't see many Aborigines on the east coast of Australia or down in Victoria, but you do see a lot here in the Outback.  The Aboriginal story is very complex and I've been trying to figure it out during my drive through Australia.  In many ways, their plight is similar to that of the Indians (oops, I mean Native Americans) in the U.S. but in some ways it's an even sadder story.  I'll try to summarize what I've learned here, but I'm sure it's going to be over-simplified.    


When the first white settlers landed in Australia in the late 1700s, Aborigines had been living here for over 50,000 years.  Unlike in America, where the white settlers recognized Indians as native inhabitants, the first white settlers here viewed Australia as an empty continent.  They just moved in and took over, while enslaving and killing thousands of Aborigines in the process.  Unlike in America and in New Zealand, the native tribes in Australia didn't mount a coordinated resistance to the white intrusions, mainly because there were dozens of separate Aborigine groups, many of whom spoke unique languages.  


During the early 1900s, the whites tried to extinguish the Aboriginal race by breaking up families, forcing children into boarding schools, and outlawing the language and customs -- a policy that largely failed.  Over the past 30 years, the Australian government has tried to make reparations to the Aborigines, including returning some of the land to the original tribes.  Although a lot has been done to heal the wounds of the past, there's much that remains to be done.


Australian Aborigines today, like Native Americans in America, face a lot of problems, including discrimination, poverty, and high levels of unemployment, alcoholism, and substance abuse.  From what I've seen, and save for a few chance encounters in grocery stores and such, there doesn't seem to be very much social interaction between Aborigines and whites in Australia.  It's probably for the same reasons that there isn't much interaction between Indians and whites in America:  a difference in culture, a lack of understanding, and some degree of mutual suspicion.  It's certainly a sad situation, but it does seem to be getting better... slowly.  


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