After a brutal 5 a.m. start I left a very cold and windy Melbourne and arrived in a very warm and sunny Broome just after midday and met up with Karen Williams (ILF Executive Director), Cate Patterson (Pan Macmillan publishing director) and Deb Danks (ILF program manager). Deb had already organised a car, so after a quick trip to a supermarket to cram a shopping trolley full of our lunch, dinner and in-car snacking requirements for the next six days, we hit the road for the four hour trip to Fitzroy Crossing.
It had been almost two years since my last ILF trip to the Kimberleys but soon the familiar mix of red earth, red dust and apparently infinite red dribble-sandcastle style ant hills left me in no doubt as to where I was. Everything dry, sharp, red, gold, yellow, grey and a thousand different shades of pale green underneath a deep blue dome stretching from one side of the horizon to the other.
It took two and a half hours to drive to Yakanarra from Fitzroy Crossing, which was longer than expected. The dirt road had been damaged by the more extensive than usual flooding of the recent wet season. At times the whole car shuddered and vibrated like a malevolent fun park ride … except without the ‘fun’ part unless your idea of fun involves negotiating a road full of trenches, rifts, gutters, holes and boggy sandy patches (which my idea of fun definitely doesn’t but, fortunately, Deb’s does). A highlight of the trip for me, though, was sighting brolgas—which I’d never seen before—three tall grey funereal birds with little red caps picking their way slowly across the sand. A highlight for Deb was spotting a large goanna, which she assured us was the very best eating of all the animals in Australia. She managed to resist the urge to jump out and catch it, however, because it was not her country (‘you don’t go to your friend’s house and clean out their larder’).
Incredibly, finally, and against the odds, we made it to Yakanarra with all—well, most—of our body parts attached. Yakanarra is a remote indigenous community set on a one-square mile excision on Gogo Station. It was established in 1988 and has grown from a population of two to a now flourishing community of 150 indigenous men, women and children. The primary purpose of the Community is to allow indigenous people to practise traditional cultural activities, with a secondary purpose of providing people with a safe and healthy place to live away from town.
We were greeted at the school by the smiling principal Helen Unwick, a passionate teacher who moved there from Launceston four years ago. It’s hard to imagine two places more different from each other but Helen loves it and has no intention of returning to Tasmania any time soon. Which is very fortunate for the students, as high teacher/principal turnover is one of the many factors that makes education difficult in the communities. The school is well supported by the community and you can see it in the students who are all hard workers … and players.
Recently a documentary called ‘Yapawarnti Palu Rijikarrijani’ (Children Playing) which features many of the students from the school won an award for Best Achievement in Indigenous Filmmaking at the St Kilda Film Festival. Directed by Kai Raisbeck and co-written by Matty Braid, one of the five teachers at the school, it shows the kids entertaining themselves by catching fish, chasing pigs, swinging on rope swings, swimming, rolling rocks down a hill, watching planes take off from the vantage of the Lookout and playing Upper primary football—a game they made up themselves, which draws from several codes. (I especially loved the rule that the ball had to be passed to each member of the team before a goal could be scored.)
After watching the film—and then viewing the library that was renovated and stocked on an ILF trip late last year—we visited the kindy and pre-primary children. They were very taken by the picture of the ‘mamu’ (monster) in ‘The Naked Boy and The Crocodile’ collection and we ended up helping them all to draw their own mamu pictures, (though their word for mamu was ‘bila’).
Then we went to the upper primary classroom to make books with about 15 students—the combined classes of upper primary teachers Matty and Steph. The students were quick off the mark and had fun making a range of both fiction and non-fictions books with titles like, ‘The Butterfly World’, ‘Winning the Grand Final’, ‘How to Roll Rocks Down a Mountain’, ‘How to Play Upper Primary Football’ and ‘The Forbidden Pool’.
The kids called Matty ‘Leo’ due to the fact that his name was very close to the name of a member of the community who had died some time before. The mourning period had officially passed but the name ‘Leo’ stuck. Name-changing for this reason is very common—Matty told us of one girl who’d had to change her name four times in a relatively short space of time.
Sadly, our vist was due to finish because we had our 2-hour return trip to make before it got too dark to drive, but the students had not completed their books. So, with some quick thinking and phone-work by Helen, we arranged to fly back out to the community again the following morning—before our afternoon sessions at Fitzroy High School.
We arrived at Fitzroy Crossing airport and met our pilot, Sam, who declared himself to have been a reader of the Just! books when he was at school. To my alarm he remembered Just Annoying! and Just Crazy! particularly fondly. I would much have preferred that he’d spent his youth reading Just 6-seater Cessnas and how to fly them without crashing!, but he’d already completely charmed Karen and Cate so my reservations on the matter had to be put aside.
Despite being traumatised by a bad experience in a small plane as a ten year old (well, ‘bad’ as in projectile vomiting) Cate very bravely took her seat and thanks to a smooth morning’s flying managed to make the 30-minute flight out to Yakanarra slighty shaken but not stirred.
The follow-up workshop was a lot of fun. Despite the students’ initial reserve they LOVED having their books read out to the class, even though some of them had their jumpers over their heads while I read. There was great hilarity whenever I mispronounced one of their names.
The return flight from Yakanara, however, was NOT a lot of fun. It was very rough, the plane dipping and dropping and sliding all over the place. Karen and I were okay but it was too much for Cate who had to re-live her ten-year-old trauma. Not that there was any shame in that. Another five minutes and I would have had to join her and blot my Fitzroy Crossing copy book once again. (Our previous trip to Fitzroy Crossing was marred by a particularly virulent stomach bug suffered by me, bookseller David Gaunt and publisher Malcolm Edwards—although I still suspect that Malcolm’s relatively much faster recovery suggests that his illness was perhaps not caused by a stomach bug and more likely the result of having over-indulged the previous night. But I digress into the realm of pure speculation on this count.)
Back on land, even though we’d just endured what was surely the wildest small plane trip in the history of aviation, we managed to find our appetites for lunch and then went on to Fitzroy Crossing High. Despite having twenty students and only forty minutes for each workshop things went surprisingly well. The primary students were right into it and didn't want to stop working on their books so their amazed teachers have promised to let them keep working and send the books on when they're finished. The older group were initially a little more challenging but then, to our surprise, they got into it and had a good time. Notable titles from this group included, ‘The day my Boomarang went crazy’ by Branden Croft, ‘The Girls and the Anaconda’ by Aimee Lee and ‘When I catch cats and dogs’ by Khalad.
On our return I went for a run (still too hot at 5 p.m. just in case you were wondering) and then we had another peaceful picnic-style dinner under the trees.
We left Fitzroy Crossing at 6.30 a.m. and, after fueling the car up with diesel and ourselves with toasted egg and bacon sandwiches, we left for the 3-hour drive to Halls Creek. At a brief stop at a camping ground along the way we witnessed a mid-air riot of hundreds of cockatoos—the Kimberleys can be a noisy place ... but more on that later—that didn't let up the whole time we were there.
Then it was on to Halls Creek High to work with a group of highly motivated upper primary school girls and one boy (the rest of the boys were attending a football clinic). They embraced the book idea and wrote many books across a wide range of topics: ‘What happens at bush’, ‘My sisters and I out riding horses’, ‘I am running’, ‘The three best ways to lock a door with no lock’, ‘The Evil Twin’, ‘The Rainbow Snake & the Windmill’, ‘Me and my family at Banjo Bore’, ‘Things I like doing in Halls Creek’ and ‘Mustering Cheeky Bulls’. Again I was struck by the wildly different experiences these kids have compared to their counterparts in the city.
Having accidentally booked ourselves into the dreaded Kunnunurra Hotel (which, on our previous trip we learnt to the considerable cost of our sanity and a good night's sleep, is the karaoke capital of the Kimberleys) Karen helped us to narrowly escape a fate worse than a fate worse than death by unbooking us from Kununnura and booking us into the arguably less exciting but unarguably infinitely more peaceful Lakeside Resort on the shores of Lake Kununnura.
Thursday saw our much anticipated return to St Joseph's school in Wyndham--the school whose students wereresponsible for the lion's share of stories in The Naked Boy and the Crocodile. We arrived at 7.45 a.m. just in time for the morning assembly where I attempted to explain to the students how far and wide their stories have travelled since our last visit there two years ago. I presented Dominic Bradshaw and Calli-Rose with ILF thank you certificates—later in the morning Dominic's sister Romina turned up along with Lazarus Edwards, both of whom were now at high school. Lazarus, you may remember was the author of 'The Naked Boy and the Crocodile', which we used as the title of the collection, but he was not, as it turned out, the artist responsible for the illustration of the crocodile. Dominic was quick to point out that this was HIS drawing, not Lazarus's, and, wanted to know why he hadn't been credited. I explained that we would have given him credit if we'd known and added an acknowledgement onto his thank you certificate. Lazarus used his time in the workshop to write a revenge sequel in which the crocodile returned with four of his friends to finish the naked boy off once and for all, which—depsite Deb’s severe doubts about whether crocodiles actually ‘lick’ their prey before eating it—culminated in the memorable line: "then they licked him and tasted him all over and chewed him up like a piece of bubble-gum". So I guess the moral is that if you’re naked it’s best to avoid swimming in water-holes.
During the session the gardener got stuck in the lift outside, which inspired one boy, who was quite prepared to take my advice about writing about the events in their lives, to write a book called 'The Day the Gardener got stuck in the lift'. In fact he was SO excited about this day he wrote a sequel, 'The Day the Gardener got out of the lift', which unlike the comparitively boring real-life resolution, involved a massive fart and an even more massive explosion. Other notable titles from the session included, ‘The day my teacher got struck by lightning’, ‘The red eyed bull and me’, ‘Places I love in Wyndham’ and ‘The Day After I Got My Licence’.
After a half hour break in which the kids ate the remains of the watermelon that was a little worse for wear—but no less delicious—for having rolled out of the back of the car the night before, we reassembled for a sharing session. By the end of it most kids either read or had their stories read out for them. Then, after all donning new ILF T-shirts, we assembled for one of the most shambolic group photo sessions I've ever been involved in, and after creating a new world record for the most amount of pieces of paper, T-shirts, baseball caps and running shoes ever signed at an ILF event we said our goodbyes and rushed to Wyndham High School for the first of two 45-minute sessions with the upper primary students.
On our arrival at Wyndham High we were welcomed by the deputy headmistress who assured us that Wyndham High School is the friendliest high school. I wanted to find out whether they meant it was the friendliest high school in the region, Australia or the entire world but, alas, she had urgent duties elsewhere and left us in the staffroom to figure out more important things like which cups belonged to the staff and which cups were for the visitors—a mistake which my lecturer at Teaching college explained was punishable by death, and even though we were in an apparently VERY friendly school, we didn't want to take any chances.
After the excitement of St Joseph's we were all pretty tired but luckily the 5/6 class had been extremely well prepared and the students had more than enough energy and questions to fire us all up again and power through another successful book-making class. The books are yet to be finished and sent through but I particularly liked one called, 'Lessons from Grandpa' in which each page features various pieces of advice such as 'Never hit an elephant with a broom' and 'Never wet a wasp with a hose'.
The 4/5/6 class after lunch were equally keen for a laugh and some imaginative story telling. Together we came up with the tragic story of a girl who falls in love with a watermelon ("I love you mr Watermelon") but then they fight and she smashes the watermelon and eats him ("mmm...I LOVE mr Watermelon"). Then the class set to furiously writing and illustrating their own individual small books, which, like the other class they promised to send through.
As the plane out of Kununurra didn’t leave until 8 that evening we had a day to sleep in and recover before the long flight home. We spent the better part of the morning sorting through our enormous haul of books, wrapping the best written and best illustrated ones from each group in crimson serviettes borrowed from the Kununurra cafe. (Could this be the beginning of The Crimson Serviette Awards for excellence in remote indigenous book writing?) These books will be copied and added to our ever-expanding library and in time hopefully form the basis for another collection of stories in the tradition of The Naked Boy and the Crocodile. One thing that was apparent was that, despite the difficulties and challenges that living in a remote community poses—especially for the schools—given the opportunity, indigenous children are just as capable of achieving great things as children from more advantaged backgrounds.
In the afternoon we drove about fifteen minutes out of town to the Zebra Rock Cafe on the banks of the Ord River. There, in the spacious grounds, we found a picnic table under an enormous Moreton Bay Fig, which provided all the shade we could want on a hot Kununurra afternoon. It was tranquil, peaceful, idyllic … well, until a dog tied to a tree started barking. And barking. And barking. But after a while it stopped and settled down to sleep. Then a fearless peacock came poking its head with its weird little blue tufts into our picnic, which made Cate feel slightly uncomfortable. Meanwhile the rest of us were feeling more than slightly uncomfortable about the scores of tiny brown ants that were pouring out of the table top (in which they obviously lived) and doing their very best to carry our picnic away right in front of our eyes.
Then the dog started barking again. Then the cafe started playing music. Then a quiet but persistent alarm began peeping. A cockatoo started shrieking as if it was being murdered. The dog stopped barking. A plane droned overhead. A speedboat towing a water skier did figure eights on the lake in front of us. The man on the adjoining property started whipper-snippering his lawn. A Kimberley outback tour bus pulled up and idled for fifteen minutes right next to us while a group of tourists got out, which set the dog off again barking and barking and barking and then the man next door reappeared—this time on a ride-on mower. As, by now the ants had carried away every last morsel of our food to their picnic-table paradise, we decided it was time to find somewhere a little more peaceful and drove back into town to the Kununurra Celebrity Tree Park to watch the sunset. (No, the trees themselves aren’t celebritities but, rather, famous celebrities who have visited the town, such as John Farnham, Kate Ceberano, HRH Princess Anne, Rolf Harris and Baz Luhrmann, have planted a tree in the park.)
KCTP proved relatively peaceful, if you don't count the children yelling and screaming in the playground. Which we were prepared to overlook. We concentrated on the smoky pink sunset. But then somebody started up a chainsaw. I was worried that some mad tourist was trying to souvenir one of the celebrity trees, but it was much worse! What sounded exactly like a chainsaw was, in fact, a remote-control racing car. A big one. As we made our way back to the car through clouds of smoky petrol fumes we all agreed that it would be a relief to get back to the relative peace and quiet of the city.
Despite my best efforts over the week, Deb finally proved herself the superior story teller at Kununurra airport by first making Karen—and later, Cate—believe that a small black bug that landed on the table was a particularly large nit that had fallen out of her hair. No matter that the small black beetles were all over the floor—when Deb tells you something in her quiet voice with a straight face you tend to believe her.
She also told us a story about some of the sillier kids from her home community of Borroloola who liked to swing out over the river on a rope to see how high 'Mr Boombastic’, the local three-legged crocodile could jump. This story sounded too good to be true, too, but then again, it's too incredible NOT to be true. What is for certain is that it’s better than anything I could make up … (which is just one of the many reasons why I love visiting community!).
Thanks to Deb and Karen and Cate for all their hard work in making it possible and ensuring it was such a successful and enjoyable trip!