Sunday 21 April 1974. Four Aboriginals and I, a 23-year-old white woman with long blond hair and blue eyes, are making our way along a bumpy red dirt road on the Cape York Peninsula. My work has led me here. I am researching the effects of mining company, government and Church on Aboriginal people on behalf of a Melbourne-based Australian research and action organization with a Christian orientation called International Development Action (IDA). I am working almost voluntarily for them, with a very small wage and minimal expenses because of my belief in the project. My companions are Mrs Jean Jimmy, Jerry and Ina Hudson and Dusty Miller.
Mrs Jimmy is a beautiful 62-year-old with jet black skin and a shock of white wavy hair. I had met her and her husband, Gilbert, in Aurukun. While he is frail, Mrs Jimmy, as she is always called, is sprightly, a fireball in fact. A stately, dignified woman, Mrs Jimmy always dresses with care, whereas Jerry Hudson dresses casually. At 58, Jerry has the wiry frame and walk of someone comfortable in the saddle. He is head stockman at the nearby Presbyterian mission of Aurukun but he has dropped everything to show me his old home. His wife, Ina, is 48 years old, a shy, slim, gentle woman with brown curly hair. Dusty also has the look of a stockman with his bush hat, check shirt, jeans and stockman’s boots.
Jean Jimmy photo by Marjorie Broadbent, Collaborating for Indigenous Rights, National Museum of Australia
We are on Tjungundji country. Last night, we set off from Weipa, headed through the bush for 90 kilometres – there were night hawks, snakes, wallabies and joeys – then over-nighted at Batavia Outstation. Camping in this part of the Australian outback is new. The ground is hard; my small tent has a mosquito net, a necessity. Jerry collected wood and got a campfire going; Ina made billy tea, using an old, fire-blackened Sunshine milk tin with a wire through it. I am learning to drink from a pannikin, an enamel mug whose rim is hot when you drink from it. I am getting used to the taste of powdered milk and damper cooked in a camp oven and spread with golden syrup. This is the food Mum used to tell me about – ‘cocky’s delight’, cocky being Australian idiom for a farmer.
Impassable during the wet, today the dirt road is good. This part of the journey takes only an hour. Our two vehicles – a truck and a Land Rover – pass two everlasting creeks and then we are there. Mapoon. Or, at least, the sad traces of it. The former home of my travelling companions.
Two coconut trees tower over the vestiges of the township, sentinels guarding the burnt-out buildings as they continue to decay. The few small palm fronds sprouting from the top of each seem like lonely reminders of what had once been; of what could have been. Their shadow falls over the ruins of a home – Jack Callope’s, I would later find out. The right-hand wall is caved in and leans to the centre, sheets of corrugated iron that are rusted but intact. The left wall of the home, once proudly built by its long-absent owner, is still standing but the roof it has held up is broken into half a dozen pieces of corrugated iron. Charred timber and rubble are all that remain of the front and middle of the house.
Jack Callope’s house photo by Barbara Miller, IDA
We clamber out of the vehicles. Jerry clears his throat as he surveys the scene. Ina wipes away a tear, trying to stay strong. Jerry puts his arm around her. ‘It’s been a long time.’
‘I can’t bear to see it like this,’ says Ina, her hand covering her eyes.
Although I am here to learn, I know that Ina must be haunted by memories of growing up here. In its heyday, Mapoon had been a thriving Aboriginal community. There had been a school, boys’ and girls’ dormitories, a dispensary, a hospital, a store, a butchery, gardens and wells, a mission house and the J. G. Ward Memorial Church. The founders of the mission in 1891 were James Gibson Ward and John Nicholas Hey.
Yet even the name of the town had meaning: ‘Mapoon’ is an Anglicised form of a word in the Tjungundji language for ‘place where people fight on the sand-hills’. It strikes me that there are layers of absence in this place, that the abundant nearby trees once provided shade to the ancient people who walked here.
Dusty’s words snap me back to the present moment. ‘The government! The police! They destroyed our lives! Destroyed our homes! Destroyed everything we worked for!’ Frustratedly, he kicks a stone out of his way.
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