Is justice a precursor to healing, or can a connection to the land be used to overcome trauma?
Back in 2000, the millennium full of promise and prophecies, heralded by the likes of the artist formerly known as Prince partying like it was 1999, I decided to leave my rented room in a Melbourne share house, get on a train and head for the desert where I’d heard there was a walk going on.
Since I was seven years old my mother and I used to ‘go bush’. When I was a child, the desert was a place of adventure. Speeding down the Silver City Highway the twang of Slim Dusty would sound from the tape deck.
As a young woman I was moved as much by that sense of adventure as a troubled spirit. I lived with a certain rootless feverishness. I remember a character of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet commenting on the city of Alexandria. He said, ‘those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets…all those who have been deeply wounded in their sex.’ This last sentence always held a particular resonance for me. Though I hadn’t emerged from Alexandria but from my childhood.
I began to visit the desert by myself as it became a counterpoint of stillness, a soul-remedy that I self-medicated. So The Walk was as good an excuse as any to head for the peace of the horizon.
I convinced a housemate to come with me and before we knew it my mum was seeing us off at Spencer Street station, pressing bags of dried fruit and nuts into our laps that she had bought from the former Ayoubi Brothers Nut Shop in Brunswick.
Only if you have taken the Melbourne to Adelaide train can you really appreciate that fairly depressing Tom Waits song. It describes an excruciatingly slow train, with poor bar service, passing through equally excruciatingly boring towns in the dead of night. We edged through the dark, better prepared than the unfortunate Tom Waits, glugging furtively at our whisky bottle, which was an essential ingredient for a 20-year-old on a long train journey.
When we finally made it to Lake Eyre in central South Australia, where Arabunna elder Uncle Kevin Buzzacott and 30 or so others had started The Walk, we were running late and had to make up for lost time by catching lifts to their next resting point. We met up with them just over the border.
Rocking up, bleary eyed and with the last of the whisky still aching in our muscles, the desert was a magnificent spectacle of blue, sage and ochre horizons. The walkers were all up preparing breakfast or huddling around the Sacred Fire.
The aim of The Walk, as Uncle Kevin told us that morning and many after, was for the peace and healing of the land and its original people. Only by walking could we come to know the land as the ancestors did.
We would walk for some three months, covering three thousand kilometres, and terminate at Sydney where the Olympic Games were being held. There we would camp at the temporary tent embassy and draw the attention of the world to the issues facing Aboriginal Australia.
It was organised as a relay where one would walk as little or as much as one wanted, averaging twenty kilometres a day. If you didn’t walk you were helping to set up or pack down camp, giving supplies to the walkers and checking up on them on the road, or cooking, or scouting for the next spot.
The first day I walked, still hungover, I felt in no shape to do so, but my housemate and I, being new arrivals, felt it was upon us to prove our mettle. I told the group I would try five kilometres to start.
I remember the way my legs took on the rhythm of the land, the way my gait and stride lengthened, the way my joints oiled and rolled with the vast sweeping plains that bore me along.
I walked 20 kilometres that day. Utterly transfixed, I watched as various flowers and vegetation slowly appeared then disappeared, the way the plains rolled into small hills and rises before undulating back again to flatness. The way the colours shifted and changed, almost imperceptibly. I felt the land begin to work its medicine as I walked. Its spaciousness came to inhabit me.
Our walk that day culminated at the Tilpa pub, which seemed to be built entirely of corrugated iron and stickers. The song ‘Great Southern Land’ was pouring from the jukebox as the other walkers played pool with a dented white ball and cues with no chalk tips.
Over the months we passed through many places. Brewarrina, Walgett, Bourke, Wilcannia, Broken Hill, Dubbo and all across the vast outback of New South Wales. We also stopped in Canberra for a week at the Tent Embassy.
I had been to Wilcannia as a child and camped in riverbeds out of town with my mother, but seeing it through the eyes of an adult was confronting. The majority of windows were smashed and barred over. A reflection of the women, many of whom it seemed, black or white, had a black eye or missing teeth. The pub also had black times and white times.
Once I encountered a little Aboriginal girl in the queue at a petrol station. She was buying an ice cream and was short. I offered to pay the difference, which was only 50 cents, and the greasy, swollen man behind the counter said, ‘Don’t worry, she’ll pay for it later.’ He smirked as he spoke and a sick feeling washed through me as I wrestled with my thoughts. Was I overreacting? I gave him the 50 cents, but would it have made any difference?
We walked through Bourke, soon after Wilcannia. Within moments of arriving a boy of no more than nine or ten years old approached me on the street.
‘Want some yandi, sis?’
Yandi was marijuana.
‘No thanks,’ I said. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Oh.’ He was nonplussed. ‘You want heroin then?’
From where and how, out here in the middle of sweet nowhere, did a little boy get a gig peddling hard drugs?
Somehow later that afternoon I ended up in town alone. Dusk was approaching and back then, when only drug dealers had mobile phones, I was stuck. Which way was it back to camp? I looked over at the pub with budding panic. I could hear it from where I stood a block away. Out of the lengthening gloom came an Aboriginal man dressed in women’s clothing.
He was calm and gentle. Appearing out of nowhere like an angel, he took it upon himself to guide me back to camp. We didn’t talk much. It wasn’t necessary. I just remember feeling a sense of awe. This was an incredibly brave person, such courage as I had not encountered before. An outback town, a Friday night, everyone on the grog. Him dressed to the nines and carrying himself with such peace and dignity as he walked me home through the bush.
Our camp was on the banks of the Darling. The land sloped steeply down to an almost sheer muddy drop where the water began. We were about 40 people and had spread ourselves out among the trees.
One afternoon, a month or so earlier, under some river gums a young walker called Tom had courted me with oranges, a rare currency in the desert. We became a couple and stayed together for three years.
That first evening on the Darling he and I threw our swags down in a secluded spot. We sat up eating chocolate, drinking Stones, looking at the stars and talking. Around us the camp swung back and forth to the sound of country music – guitars strumming, singing, laughter, then rumbling shouting and fighting, then back to singing. All night.
The next day we walked through town. Looking back now I could blush for our idealism and hope. Waving Aboriginal flags, banging tambourines, blowing tin whistles, we followed Uncle Kevin to the town centre. He stood beneath a memorial statue, no doubt made for some white explorer, to address a crowd of locals and talk about reconciliation.
The second night at camp there was no moon, and rather than eating all together as we often had on the plains of the desert we ‘d scattered into separate camps, each with a fire burning.
I sat with Tom, my housemate and a few New Zealander friends at their fire. I gazed into the flames as we all listened to the stories of an Aboriginal man, Froggo, who’d come from town. He’d recently got out of jail. He’d been inside for 15 years. I never found out what for.
But he was a reasonable guy. Someone who had done his time and was now full of hard-earned wisdom. I sat between him and his friend, a young man with blue eyes and blond hair. He was intoxicated and seemed volatile. At one point he looked me straight in the eye and told me he’d burned his own house down. Somehow I understood this wasn’t literal. He warned me not to do the same thing. In the flicker of the fire, he bore an uncanny resemblance to someone I once knew.
I grew up in Brunswick, Melbourne. A Brunswick very different to the one that exists now. It was one where the Italian, Lebanese and Turkish Mafioso ruled the streets. Where underground dog fights were regular, and the local police had been known to do lines of coke in the male toilets at the strip club on Sydney road, Crystal T’s.
Not many people that lived outside the area ventured to go there. Only two sets of close neighbours in my street spoke English; one an Irish family of nine who bred vicious dogs and was regularly visited by the police. We didn’t have much to say to each other.
The other family were our next-door neighbours, a single mum with a bikie boyfriend who periodically came and went. It was her son who Froggo’s friend reminded me of. He was perhaps eight years older than me and from the time I was in kindergarten to grade four or five he raped and sexually abused me.
It was a difficult time at our house. My father was violent, psychotic and unpredictable. I was sent to the neighbours to be somewhere safe. It was anything but. Since then I’ve never been able to find blonde hair and blue eyes attractive in a man.
By the fire, Froggo’s friend assured me drunkenly that he understood me, even if I didn’t myself, and then before I knew it he’d collapsed in on himself, snoring like the Melbourne to Adelaide train.
At that point a car rocked up a few metres away. It was a fastback from the 1980s and around 10 young guys piled out of it. I could feel them immediately. Messy, scrambled aggressive energy. Probably dirty amphetamines.
Taking that as my cue to leave, I took the two empty longneck bottles beside me and rose to bid goodnight. Tom smiled and said he’d be right behind me; he was just finishing a conversation with Froggo.
I walked down the slopes of the Darling. The little light there was played tricks with my eyes and the sounds of all the campfires came to me jumbled on the silvery leaves and eddies of air.
The ground got steeper and I was nearly back at camp when all of a sudden the guys who had arrived moments ago surrounded me. Leering and off their faces, they encircled me. There was not a point in their circle with a break in it. I was completely enclosed.
They jeered and snickered and glinted like knives. One grabbed me from behind and squeezed, and laughed while others began to grab at my breasts and sides.
For what was probably only five seconds but felt like a lifetime I stood there frozen. All that we had been talking about the past month or so on the walk – peace, healing, ancient Aboriginal rights of passage – rushed through my mind as an absurd diplomatic negotiator’s voice said, ‘Come now, they’ve probably had difficult lives, surely we could just talk this through.’
But there was another grab at me from behind and in that instant something snapped. ‘I don’t care what colour they are,’ I thought, ‘or what kind of life they’ve had!’
Suddenly animated, I channelled a furious power that could only arise in such circumstances of fight or flight. To this day I still thank God for my props, two empty longneck bottles that I rose above my head, screaming at the top of my lungs like the goddess Kali: ‘If any one of you motherfuckers touch me again I’m gonna drink your fucking blood!’
I was deadly serious now and much crazier than them. Always a good defence. Perhaps they saw that in my eyes as I raised up the bottles and thrust, shoved and smashed them every which way through the moonless dark.
The circle ruptured. The boys dispersed. I fled. The camp was full of shouts and hollering. I reached my swag and Tom turned up minutes later. He’d fought his way through the scree and described hell breaking loose all over camp as the boys ran amok.
I buried down in the blankets that night and huddled into the safe body beside me. We were woken in the morning by the figures of two portly, blazing-faced cops standing with the tips of their shiny shoes on the edge of the swag.
‘We know who those boys are,’ they growled. ‘Come down to the station and you can pick ‘em out in a line up.’
I thanked them and declined. They must’ve thought I was crazy. I was barely awake. Still they gave me their card and told me to come down when I had got up properly.
I had never reported the years of sexual abuse and rape of my childhood. By the time I was talking about it as a young teenager, the prospect of reporting it was just too intimidating. As the years passed I gradually found other ways to process the experience and heal myself.
Standing in front of a group of men to be judged right or wrong, true or false, seems an absurd thing even now. And I like to comfort myself with a belief in some higher kind of justice, one where I know the perpetrator has to live with the ugly reality of his actions every day until the grave. I like to think of my perpetrator suffering as Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov did.
That morning, as we did every few mornings, we had a circle meeting around the Sacred Fire. Convened by Uncle Kevin, we’d air our grievances about salty porridge, the itinerary or, as was the case that morning, the bedlam of the night before.
This time Froggo was there too. He told us how he was a respected elder in the community and wanted to put everything right because he respected Uncle Kevin and he respected us, and what’d happened wasn’t okay.
Almost everyone had a story: some had been locked up in the boot of their cars, others beaten up, things had been stolen, people intimidated.
Everyone sat around the fire looking rattled and pale. When it was my turn I mumbled through what had happened, how I had fought them off and run away, how the police woke me up and what they’d said.
But, I told the group, I didn’t want to go to the police. It wouldn’t help me heal and I doubted it would be beneficial for those boys.
Everyday on the walk we’d talked of reconciliation, peace and healing. Who was I, I asked myself, to send those boys into a legal system that could potentially mess up their lives forever?
On the other hand, was I choosing to be some sort of sacrifice, allowing them to evade the consequences of their behaviour, thereby condoning it, which could in turn lead to them repeating it? My own past came swimming back, threatening to pull me under as I stumbled through these equally difficult scenarios.
Then Froggo piped up. ‘I’ll deal with them,’ he said. ‘Black Law. The old way.’
We all turned to listen.
‘I’ll tie their feet with rocks and sink ’em in the river, I will.’
I looked to Uncle Kevin then back at Froggo.
‘Ah no, that’s not—’ I began.
‘Don’t worry,’ he dismissed my concern with a wave of his hand. ‘I know who they are. I’ll deal with them our way. They won’t be hurt too bad – but they’ll learn.’
He nodded at Uncle Kevin.
I didn’t argue. It was more bark than bite. Just to assure us he had the situation under control. I don’t think any of us believed he would actually carry out his threat.
I have to admit, though: it did comfort me. No one had protected me as a child and with him volunteering to take control of the situation he was protecting me from having to confront it all again.
Besides, I knew about institutionalised racism, and wrongly or rightly I felt that if those boys went into the white system they might never come out. Froggo’s law might’ve been harsh, but perhaps it offered a better chance of rehabilitation. They’d be learning from someone within their own culture, their own community. So I made no further protest and that was that.
If I wasn’t going to go down to the police station then we had to be making tracks. We still had more than a thousand kilometres to cover before we got to Sydney for the Olympics and there was work to be done packing down camp, organising the walkers and scouting for the next spot.
What happened that night brought up many confronting dilemmas and difficult questions; questions of sexual violence, responsibility, cultural and gender identity, law, crime and punishment. It also raised the issue of forgiveness.
I have asked myself myriad times throughout my life what forgiveness actually is. And the work I’ve done to heal myself over the years has led me to this: forgiveness is a journey, a long walk of the soul. It is a way of plateaux and peaks. A way of moving beyond the boundaries of the ego into the territory of the spirit. It takes courage, grit and determination. Acceptance and non-judgment. But most of all it takes love, for oneself and the other.
And now, all these years later, when I look back on that night on the banks of the Darling, I only hope that after Froggo’s justice those boys, like me, were able to start their own long walks of the soul, for peace, healing and forgiveness.