In 1980, my second son was born in Melbourne. Until then our family consisted of my husband (at the time) and my first-born son, who was four years old. We saw an advertisement for a Storeman in a remote Aboriginal Community in the Northern Territory. We were a bit restless at the time and decided to put in an application. The employer was Church Missionary Society (CMS). We had to jump a few hurdles with interviews to convince them we were up to the task.
So, in July 1980 we flew from Melbourne to Darwin with the two small children. We were met at Darwin airport by some representatives from CMS. They transported us to another, much smaller plane to do the next leg of the journey to Roper River and then to Numbulwar (in earlier times it was known as Rose River Mission). It was an amazing adventure. We didn’t have much idea what we were in for.
The Anglican minister met us at the air strip (note – no airport) at Numbulwar and collected us and our belongings then took us to our new home. It was a fully furnished 3 bedroom home up on stilts. It was very close to the ocean with only a passage of jungle like plants and mangroves separating us. July is the dry season and the weather was really pleasant. Prior to leaving Melbourne we gave away most of what we owned then, knowing we couldn’t take it with us.
The community consisted of around five hundred Indigenous people who lived in fairly basic accommodation. They still lived off the land and sea to some extent but had become accustomed to having the provisions available at the community store. Many of their customs and beliefs were those held by their ancestors for thousands of years. However the church had made some inroads and the church services and activities were well supported. The non Indigenous people (about 12-15) lived in western style accommodation.
My four-year old son attended the school in Numbulwar. His Indigenous teacher mostly spoke in her traditional language, the language of most of the students. There were only 4-5 non-Indigenous students in the school and they struggled to learn in such a culturally different environment. It was an amazing experience to live as a minority group and it gave me a greater understanding for minority groups in the wider community.
It was a ‘dry’ community, meaning that no alcohol was allowed in. Some teachers were forced to leave when it was discovered that they had alcohol in their house. There was zero tolerance and they acted on it immediately. The Indigenous people had strong views on what was acceptable or culturally right.
I saw lots of snakes in the 12 months we lived there. I found one in my pantry, one on the front steps plus there were always snake tracks visible in the sand. I had great confidence that my children were safe – perhaps they were just lucky!
I learnt to tell the time by looking at the sun. No-one relied on watches. I also learnt how to be very patient. Things happened at their own pace, when the people were ready. I also learnt a lot from the people and their family values. They taught me a lot more than I could ever teach them.
We had the most majestic summer (wet season) storms with thunder and lightning like I had never seen before or since. It was awesome and very scary at times :-). The time we spent there was a life changing experience for all of us. Going back to Melbourne after 12 months was even a bigger shock to us all. We were only in Melbourne for a short time before another opportunity arose to go to Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. We stayed for about three years and my third son was born there in 1983, but that is another story 🙂