Human relationships are vast as deserts: they demand all daring.
In 2008, with my friend Jono Wright, I visited the village known both as Lake Nash and it’s aboriginal name of Alpurrurulam. Lake Nash is an enormous cattle property, just inside the Northern Territory border with Queensland, on the Sandover Highway leading to Alice Springs. Photos show some of the people who I met there and something of the local environment.
Gary and Jono enjoying breakfast at White Dam, close to the Lake Nash community. In the background are some of Lake Nash’s cattle.
For generations, aboriginals largely staffed stations like this. The men worked as drovers with the cattle, while women and young people worked as gardeners and housekeepers. Unlike white workers they were paid in rations of food, clothing and accommodation – they received no wages directly – sometimes money was kept “in trust” for them by the government but they had no access to it. The reason for this policy was to “protect” the indigenous people, who were considered not sophisticated enough to handle their own affairs.It also had enormous economic advantages for the property owners, who had a cheap labour force with no rights to move jobs or control their own futures.
A campaign for equal wages in the 1960s contributed to a 1968 decision by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission ruling on equal wages in the cattle industry. The achievement of equal wages in the pastoral industry, however was a hollow victory as ‘families and whole communities were turned off properties where they had worked for generations. People drifted into towns and were given ‘sit down’ money (unemployment benefits). They were no longer able to fulfil obligations to their country.’
The reaction of the owners of Lake Nash and many other stations was to lock the aboriginal workers off the properties and to refuse to employ them. They moved down the road to one of their traditional places at Lake Nash waterhole and camped there.
They were later given title over this land, and houses and facilities were provided for them to continue to stay there. More than 400 people are still there more than 40 years later.
The problems of living in Lake Nash relate to its isolation and how that impacts on employment, education and health. It is 170 km over unsealed roads to Mount Isa, the closest large country town.
Lake Nash is a voluntarily dry (alcohol free) community with houses and buildings that look well cared for. There is a Primary School, Police Station, General Store, and Medical Centre with a Community Nurse. There is an airstrip allowing daily contact with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. There is little work for adults and no schooling for teenagers. Many adults do volunteer community work to satisfy Government policy and receive unemployment benefits. If children are to continue to secondary school they must move to hostels in faraway places like Mount Isa or Darwin or do correspondence lessons that are difficult without support.
In Northern Australia, even if a building is available, many aboriginal people choose to meet outdoors. It suits the climate and they way they live
Why do people choose to live in isolated places like this, in hostile environments and why do governments support them in this decision?
Firstly, for the people, this is their land, their place, where they feel at home. Here they have access to traditional foods and cultural practices and are in contact with their wider families and groups.
Secondly, they feel safe here. Many have tried living in townships and have seen the effect of alcohol and drugs on their friends and the young people. Anyone who has traveled through Western NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory, or watched documentaries on TV will have seen the aspects of modern Australian these people have voluntarily withdrawn themselves from.
Governments since the 1970’s have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into such communities, supporting the people who live here in their right to live a more traditional lifestyle. Despite the money spent on housing, education and health, the distances involved still mean that people living in Lake Nash have less access to employment, and education and much poorer health than the average Australian.
This is a situation as complicated as the desert that Patrick White described and needs more wisdom and goodwill than money to deal with it satisfactorily.