A little mechanical experience

It seems I am caught in a machinery warp. A few days ago we were driving on the Stuart Highway.  Traffic is usually light but on this morning a vehicle drove past with cautionary bubble lights ablaze indicating some hazard was approaching. So I became extra cautious when I could see another similar vehicle approaching at a distance. I slowed thinking it must have been an extra wide hazard to require two out runners. Looking carefully I could see no such trouble ahead.
As the second vehicle neared I saw what looked like a yellow garbage bin rolling along in front of it.  The signalling vehicle looked as if it was about to run over this obstacle as it neared even closer. The circular bubble had a drooping black tail. It dawned on me it was a solar vehicle. The tiny vehicle was racing along and its protective vehicle was almost on top of it. Feeling for that driver I was  sure he/she must have been exhausted trying to protect it and at the same time attempting  avoid running it over.
At the next fuel stop a tent village had sprung up with a large  pantechnicon parked showing all the advertising of the sponsors of the Solar challenge. The little yellow vehicle was being transported to Darwin for the start of the race. In the meanwhile the drivers were testing the vehicle and themselves before the races official start. Another larger vehicle was driving loops in the dust so I wandered over to find out more.There were two university teams parked in the grounds. One team from  Minnesota university  the other from Michigan. According to my advisor the little yellow dust bin was built for speed alone. The car present was more representative  of a passenger vehicle it was being driven earnestly in circles by a young lass. To be race ready the drivers had to have logged driving experience of at least 12 hours. This team was well behind in driver familiarity and was also testing the vehicle to see if anything would break. It was a passenger vehicle of sorts. At least it had a passenger inside. The car had a solid top and the driver sat in an aerodynamic pod on the left and the passenger in another. Both pods seemed to be suspended under the solar panels between the wheels.
I was told it was generating 200 watts of power and it had regenerative brakes that generated power even when stopping. This might seem a lot but Cadel Evans was using 450 watts of power on the mountain stages of the tour de France.   Therefore it seemed underpowered for the job ahead even with some battery storage.
On reflection I needn’t have worrier end about the  driver following the little yellow dust bin. It was probably equipped with all the latest technology that would automatically stop the car from the hazard it was following.

However the solar race starts at the end of the month and it will be interesting to see if either of these modern, yet primitive, users in this technological race finish. I will be left wondering about them because the journey is long and the dangers real for the drivers especially given the thundering presence of road trains they will encounter.

When the rubber hit the road

That black stuff on the ground at each corner of your car can kill you or thrill you. It is so important that for the most part we don’t even think of it. Yet only a few years ago, in the evolution of things,  drivers were very aware of the spot where the car and road meet.
It is highlighted here in the Discovery Caravan Park in Clare. The park is playing host to the Combined Veteran Car Clubs of Australia. In the park there are a hundred or so veteran cars. They were all built before 1918 yet to a vehicle they present a  kaleidoscope of colour and movement as up to date as tomorrow. Their creaking mechanical bones alert you to their age but  they give nothing else away as to the journeys they might have made.
They are as loved as a Ming dynasty vase. To get here each was hidden from prying eyes in their own little motorised cocoon that towed them here. The most spoiled of them had its own transporter. Their names are beautiful forgotten  words of yesteryear. They are gleaming paint and brass. And although they have much in common they are unique.
Stubborn, some of them. To wake up they have to be tickled, stroked, pumped, and primed. Some even need the attention of a throng of watchers to perform. They will blow smoke. Or they will groan. They will whine. And at the point it seems they will save there energy for another day they will roll the dice of life and get going. This morning was a case in point is was cold. A driver raced back to his covered trailer to retrieve a membership lanyard. He parked his car, put the brake on, and walked three meters. He climbed back into the car, took off the brakes, put the car into gear and it blew black smoke, it roared, it damn near exploded and it stopped. Thirty minutes later the driver had taken off cowls, pumped this, primed that, been assisted by another chap and the thing would not start. The assistant drove off. Something was done and the machine started as easily as an electric vacuum cleaner.
Little dips and bumps in the road surface make these little machines roll and buck. Yet on a good tarmac they roll along as without a care in the world. To give colour to their performances most drivers and passengers elect to wear all or some contemporary clothing. So their appearance is magnified by costume and character. Moustaches, bonnets, gloves, goggles and other paraphernalia remind the viewer of the forgotten film Genevieve, the story of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Rally. The characters are all here. I’m certain it you listen carefully you can hear Glynis John’s thin voice.
About the same size as these cars is the golf cart the maintenance man uses. Being electric it is almost silent. Apart from that the big difference is in the tyres and wheels on the cars and the cart. The Veterans stand tall. Each is propped up on 24 or 26 inch spoked wheels. The tyres are narrow. Possibly only 80 or 90 cm across. Where as the golf cart has wheels no taller than a man’s shoe is long, but wider than a pair of shoes placed side by side.

And here lies a story worth telling. Not so long ago, mid last century, when this writer started to drive. Tyres were narrow, they had poor performance in: longevity, in reliability, in staying inflated and so forth. In fact before driving any distance it paid to check the oil and water and the tyre pressure before even thinking of turning the key. We were taught our well being depended on the 4 hand print sized rubber contacts our car had with the road. Without power steering, and disc brakes life on the road was tenuous. These vehicles are a reminder of those times and how the reliability of modern vehicles isolates the drivers from the reality of real hazards on the road.

How hard is too hard

How hard is too hard for troubled people?

How hard is too hard for troubled people?
Eighteen months before my mother was born the Aboriginals Ordinance 1911 was signed on 8th January 1912. There can be no doubt the intention of the authorities were pure. Their aim was rescue children of part-descent white parentage from aboriginal camps (by force if necessary) and raise them in the manner of their white parent because it seemed a caring thing to do. A more cynical reason it was done was though fear of  being out numbered. A Royal Commission and thousands of broken homes attests the policy was wrong regardless of the reason. 
This thought brings me to a visit I made to the 6 mile camp today. It is with displeasure I record my thoughts today as they are written from my privileged perspective as a white visitor to a community of people deserving their privacy. Yet  it would be as if to record a white-washed version of this blog  if it was ignored.
The first thing to notice as you turn into the camp is the orderliness of it. The streets are bitumen. They are wide. The house blocks are generous. The camp has several buildings for community use. There is also a covered basketball court and much more I missed. From corner of my eye and to the right I saw two dogs that seemed to have been alerted by our vehicle racing up a side street to cut us off. My reaction was to say, “cheeky dogs.” The driver and passengers were mute.
As we drove closer the dogs turned from us and joined an adult male walking under a bough shade to join some friends. I was wrong. The dogs weren’t interested in us they just wanted to be with their owner.
In less than one hundred and fifty metres from the highway the first house had at least three damaged, chocked up, cars in different stages of decay. The bonnet up, smashed windows, or all four wheels missing and a least one car blocking the road to the through traffic. This is the sort of prejudiced thing one expects to see. The barren dryness of the place is something unexpected. Red dust seemed to cover nearly every surface.
We were returning a sick child to his home. The address was signified on the property by a number spray painted in large numbers on their wheelie bin. The home was poorly maintained and painted in a weak green colour. It was surrounded by a waist high mesh fence with items hanging over almost its entire length. Dozens of other items littered the grounds right up to the door. We dropped off the child, farewelled him and dropped a teachers’ aide at another. 
On another corner, behind a fence, in the yard the occupier ambled through at least ten dogs toward the gate. The number of dogs seemed excessive to this southerner. The animals were a motley lot emphasising a prejudice at work broken by our driver’s words. She said she was a good worker, as was her husband. “Those two are not afraid to work” she said.

Of course every stereotype imagined can be envisioned and to a point seems justified. The unemployment rate there is between 40% and 50%. This camp is bigger than the 12 mile camp but by all accounts it is better in nearly every way than that. The seventeen kilometre road to 12 mile  is considered too dangerous for some to ever want to drive In or out. In fact there was talk that it was too dangerous for the children on the bus to travel but they do it twice a day. Those that attend that is.
How can this lifestyle be accepted? Was Tony Abbott correct to say they should all be shut down?  Should  the NT government do as  the Western Australian government is doing, and turn off the power and water and shut down these camps?  I honestly don’t know but it is not a lifestyle choice alone to live in your own neighbourhood.
Next, I return to the affects of trauma. I ask the academics among my readers to verify an understanding I hold. Viz. [The grand children of Second World War and Vietnam veterans are affected with illnesses related to the traumas their relatives suffered.] is this true?  I am not in a place to verify this but if ordinary Australians are still being affected by armed conflicts that ended over 70 years ago surely the same injury is possible in the broken aboriginal families from so long ago.
Today I spoke with teachers’s aide April she left home at 16 and went to a boarding school in Alice Springs. Obviously bright enough to finish her studies she was homesick and she returned. She said she came back and worked. In fact she never stopped. At first she washed floors, worked in the kitchen and did other work until she go her job in the school. She lives in a smart house next to us.Today she is a cultural elder. She is completing her studies (almost complete) at Batchelor College In Alice Springs and Darwin. She also paints. Her paintings are in demand and she earns up to $800 for them.
She illustrates another side of remote living – it dislocates families. For any child to have the best education possible it means leaving home before the kids have any idea of their future interests.It is not the fault of their school. The numbers are too low to justify reasonable subject choice even if they could find specialist teachers.
The stolen children program was costly in so many ways, however it was also a failure in other ways – up to a point. It failed to wipe out cultural practices and language. As each year passes the number of spoken languages across the world diminishes yet many of the aboriginal languages have current usage. It is of significant ethnographical importance that these old languages remain.
I have written previously how I admire the ability of the children to speak at least three languages when they start schooling. The difficulty of course for those brought up in an oral tradition is to learn early enough the skills to survive in a world with ever demanding ability to read and write in not one, but more, languages. However this is a digression from the sobering reality facing indigenous people today.
Much of the trouble stems from the stolen generation and its repercussions. The horrible family breakups and the long years waiting  not to  known what has happened to the missing bits. The families which never reunited still suffer. This was government policy but it was not the only one influencing aboriginals. Governments have come and gone in quick succession. Each new  one with differing views, differing policies, and differing outcomes for the people under its charge.
To return to 6 mile camp for a moment – Maureen my driver, said one of the reasons for the popularity of dogs lies in a former policy where dog owners were given bigger payments than those without. The policy no longer exists but the dogs do in aboriginal settlements. Work for the dole is another contentious issue. How can dole recipients not dislike a policy that forces them to appear to do a job that has no future, or is no more inspiring than to pick up other people’s rubbish for 5 days a fortnight?
Today  people are used to “sit down money” for not working.  The walk off at Wave Hill in 1966 meant the old station practice that people worked for nothing but food and not much more  had to stop. It meant the government was obliged to provide sustenance money when stations had to pay proper wages and they employed fewer people. In the scheme of things 50 years is a mere moment in the lives of the indigenous. Is it any wonder some think it is easy money? A few short years ago they did much more for a whole lot less.

This is a subject bigger than my biased views so I will prĂ©cis some of the things worthy of more thought: Isolation, shifting policy positions, poor education, poor job prospects, foreign language, family dislocation, blame for systemic changes,  are all just symptoms that lead to other problems. Drunkenness, violence, hopelessness, depression, theft, imprisonment and suicide are  all outcomes pressing in on the disadvantaged first people.

It is  hundred and five years plus since the beginning of the devastating “stolen generations” policy began. I haven’t an answer. I just have more questions. My challenge to you, the reader, is to do a little to help the helpless. Aboriginals want to fully live in the society of their choice as you do. Like you they deserve to live their lives without h


To see the land it is best to walk

Rambling is a good English word too sparingly used. It means to walk about the countryside. No, that is not the dictionary meaning but it is good enough for me. To ramble over hill and dale is a relaxing way to travel and the English do it easily every summer.
To see this land beyond postcards properly you have to walk across the country just as it always has been walked. One step at a time.  As you walk aboriginal art will make sense. The red earth is dotted with individual items. The grass rarely intermingles with a neighbouring grass. The desert potatoes do not cohabit with the runners. The wispy flowering grasses stay aloof from the striking Sturt Desert Pea which crawls along the ground in different directions.   Curiously it has big bulbous black “eyes”  on each of its long red faced flowers watching the surrounds.  JL a local indigenous artist says, “The donkeys like to eat that fellow.”  I haven’t yet seen a wild donkey, nor have I seen a bush banana. But I am told they both can be found in numbers.
A most striking thing about walking are the number of tracks it is possible to see. The task for the uninitiated is to identify the animal, or bird, responsible for making the a track. Tracks. It is always tracks. One set of marks will be criss crossed by several  others and although it is possible to follow the marks made by one animal it soon becomes apparent that the land hides tens, no  hundreds, of unseen creatures. The hurried snake leaves a set of s shaped mini sand dunes to signal it is going somewhere you are not supposed to follow. The bird, I presume it is a bird, walks like a drunk going nowhere and in no particular hurry. The kangaroo determined to get to a late morning lounging spot under the trees is economical in its footprint. Bayonet  mark  and skid, bayonet mark and skid, six, seven or eight metres apart let you know he, or she, was running late for that date.
It is beyond the capacity of this southerner to follow human footprints for very long through the dust and grass but it is surprising just how many foot prints can be seen even well off a beaten track. Therefore it is unsurprising that those who have always lived here can find their quarry by doing just that. Some children cornered an innocent blue tongue lizard this morning without even recognising the skill they exhibited. Because their quest was so easy it was even more marvellous to the observer.
The rambler in this countryside must look up as well. The umbrella of an azure blue sky reaches from horizon to horizon in this flat land. Nearer, one notices the mulga and yet another tree species attracts your attention. It is the whitewashed bark of a eucalyptus. Of course when you inspect the beautiful bark you realise the tree has evolved to lighten the bark without human touch. It does this to reflect the intense heat of midday so it can preserve its vital fluids. 
To go from hamlet to hamlet drive by all means but if you want to see the land go for a walk. It is the only way to see the unseen beauty it hides.

Footnote:  Now the mean spirited of you will have consulted your dictionary and found that to ramble  has another meaning that is sometimes applied to written work such as this. If you did happen to refer to the dictionary then my thanks goes to you to spare the writer and save your comment on the prose presented.

The sounds of Silence

The Sounds of Silence

Without the hum of urban traffic the outback seems very quiet but that very quietness encourages one to listen.   Ridiculously at first the silence is deafening.  
The first thing one notices after that is the sound of the desiccated grass as it is flattened underfoot when walking. The blades of grass crack like broken bones when a boot compresses them into chaff.  The rasping sound of the foot on sand.  The left step, the right, and the scrunch of the stride, followed by the cracking sound of the grass when it steps on it is quite mediative when repeated over a reasonable distance. 
Then afar one hears the sound of muffled human voices hidden from view. The very sound of another human voice raises inquisitiveness,and in the distance it is possible to make out a shade shelter made from sticks and under it men sitting in the dust chatting to one another about who knows what. Out of respect your eyes are averted and the walk is continued.
On another day the wind is up and the strings of the casuarina tree make orchestral sounds. In the wind it hums, or whistles. Further along the road the pendulous seed pods of the Elegant Acacia tambourine  their unwritten tune on each new gust of wind. At first it is a subtle sound, like the sound the rosary beads hanging from the waist of an old style nun as she rounds a corner. As the breeze rises the tree vibrates. The sound of the rattling pods becomes more agitated and the whole tree adds to the sound. The wind lessens and an uneasy calm settles for a few moments as the tree awaits  the next gust.
On the plains one does not have the advantage of elevation that allows you to hear sounds from all directions as you do, say, when you are aloft in the You Yangs, or the Grampians. There the screech of a cockatoo, and the sound of a crow directs your attention to a compass point first and then you search into the distance for the originator of the sound. On the flat plains the sounds emanate from all directions too but anyone on the ground can only hear a few hundred metres at best.  One does not have to have good hearing to hear the Babblers go about their day. The bird is busy little chatterer.  It walks, climbs and performs acrobatics with it mates all the while babbling away.
In a land of immigrants it should not surprise one to realise it also has immigrant avarian strangers. The rooster next door is availing himself of the light of the full moon to such an extent that Irish visiting teacher Sianaid could not sleep on her first night here. Her sleep was interrupted several times by his cocka-doodle-doos hours before his hens were. She could not ignore his boastful call as it was from a vantage point only a chain from her open bedroom window. Her second night was not much better even though she closed her window.
Drought is hard on birds. And as waterholes dry the native birds naturally reduce their numbers. So it was with pleasure I saw a parrot  soaked to the craw under a sprinkler in the school garden this evening. So wet and bedraggled was it that it had lost all shame and it rolled, legs akimbo upside down as close to the mechanism as possible. It relished in the water as another might in a dust bed. Replenished, it just stood in the spray enjoying the moment. For not a second did it make a sound.
Another common sound in this uncommon setting is the sound of trucks crossing the cattle pit on the highway near the hamlet. Given experience one identifies cars, cars with caravans, and semitrailers. No experience is needed to recognise the rumble of yet another road train across the steel cattle barrier. Each prime mover drags three, or four, trailers. The massive weight each loaded wheel carries drums in the space separating the steel bars.  All through an otherwise silent night  the drums roll and echo as each vehicle continues on its relentless journey.
A visit to the outback is refreshing. Listening is improved when common daily sounds can no longer be heard.  
Ps. The Elegant Acacia is not only a musical tree it is also a food source. The seeds can be cooked in a naked flame. Once peeled, eat the kernel. It’s resin is also edible as are its grubs.

It is written


It is written in the language

Pirlirrpa pirrjirti
Ltherrk narlkwelwelhem 
These words are not spelling mistakes they are words from our first people’s language. The first line is in the Warlipri language. The second line says the same in the language of the Anmatyerr. 
In a tiny township about half a tank full of fuel north of Alice Springs most families speak one, as a first language, and the other as a second. Children grow up hearing these languages and by the time they start school they are multi lingual. The words can be written, as you see, but it is unusual for the language to appear in print as it does here. Each language has a printed dictionary, but first people native to the language do not need them. 
This is a township in Australia so it is natural for the children to see written signs, labels, packaging, logos in English, as we all do, but generally books and newsprint are seldom seen. In time, when these children start school they do not have the years of familiar reading experience most southern Australian families provide. For these children English is their third language. Some people fluently speak three or more languages, but the majority of us only speak one language at home so we have little idea how clever these children are to grasp even a smattering of English. I dare say most of us would struggle to read fluently with this as our background. 
It is for this reason a rolling pair of grandparents visit the school in the cooler months for a month at a time to help the kids learn to read. All we do is all many parents and grandparents do, we take every opportunity to listen to each child in the school read each day. It is not onerous and it is effective in relieving busy teachers, however its effectiveness in assisting children read is marginal. Oral reading does assist children reach fluency and it is commonly practiced until children reach competency for silent reading, but to be effective it is necessary to have daily practice. 
We know, from our previous visit, last year’s eager readers are not alway the same children this year. Family, cultural, sporting, or just life style choices interfere with a teacher’s daily program. It really doesn’t matter which school a child attends it is just as true here as it is there. Regular school attendance helps with development especially reading. Our tiny sample illustrates the dangers of absenteeism. 
This neatly brings us back to the Anmatyerr and Warlipri words at the beginning. This school, like most, has a school motto. Strong heart, Strong head, Strong spirit. The school is specialising in literacy, numeracy, and culture. The children are taught about their motto in the two aboriginal languages and in English. At my school we learned about our school motto in English and Latin. I think this learning is more appropriate. 

A few thoughts from up North

A few thoughts from up North

Here are a few thoughts I committed to word when the moment allowed.  Due to the poor Internet I lost two articles before they were published and became further dispirited when a most horrible form of flu took over my body. Three weeks after it started I am feeling less than brilliant and I find myself unwilling to rewrite that which I have lost.  Anyway I have nothing to complain about except those that condemned me for writing prose in Facebook. You know who you are.