Excerpt for Arnhem's Kaleidoscope Children by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Memoir by

Graham Wilson


Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope Children

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2018

Published by BeyondBeyond Books

ISBN 9780648311201

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without prior approval of the author. For permission to use contact Graham Wilson by email at

Book Cover designed by Nada Backovic


I wish to thank many people who have contributed to this book.

First, thank you to those people who prompted me to write out my story telling of my distant and fading childhood memories.

It sits alongside my parents’ story of coming to the remote Top End of the Northern Territory of Australia and living in a series of aboriginal communities soon after the Second World War. This was a time when there was massive development of northern Australia which changed it forever. It changed the lives of these places as a new world order of technology and modern communications came to exist, giving people undreamed of mobility and connection to the outside world.

But alongside all this change these long standing communities still continued with their own ways of living handed down over millennia.

In the mix of the old and new many painful conflicts and transitions have played out over decades and successive generations. These are the conflicts inherent when two different worlds and their systems collide and struggle to coincide

I also wish to thank the many people who have contributed to this story through lives lived in these places, particularly my extended family and the friends from these places; missionaries who worked at Oenpelli, people who worked for the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry, many station people and people from the small towns and communities from across the NT and, most especially, the aboriginal peoples of western Arnhem Land.

Collectively you have given me the rich experiences which make this story live in my mind, and give the myriad colours to the telling.

A vital contributor to this revised edition has been Nada Backovic, the book cover designer. She took old and damaged photos taken by my father many decades ago of this place and its people, transforming these into a cover which, to me, wonderfully captures the light, colour and essence of this time and place.



Yesterday I drove to Oenpelli, my home, an aboriginal town in Arnhem Land.

It was two days after my father was buried next to my mother in Darwin.

A memorial service was held, recounting his pioneering exploits. The most beautiful part was a gathering of aboriginal women standing in a semicircle around his grave. They sang a hymn in their Kunwinjku language. It was a hauntingly lyrical melody, an expression of their private affection. Then people threw handfuls of dirt into the grave.

Other people at Oenpelli could not make the 150 mile journey to be there at the grave, but wanted to say their sorry’s too. So I went and walked around the town, amongst these people, enveloped in a steamy wet season build up day. Many, who knew him, came up and murmured regrets at my Dad’s passing.

Later I walked out across the town’s fringing floodplains, where the first water of the wet season was spilling from the end of the billabong; just myself and a hundred squawking waterbirds feasting on natures first wet season flush.

The afternoon sky turned purple, then olive-black, above the sunlit sandstone hills, as a storm built. Flashes and rumbles increased. I walked back to Oenpelli as the sweep of rain blotted out my view of the hills. A blast of cold air at the storm’s leading edge swept me with its fresh rain smell. At the church, on the edge of the plains, I took shelter. The storm lashed out its brief fury, then was gone. Rising steam and a few puddles were all that remained. I was filled with an aching familiarity for a life long gone.

I said farewell to Oenpelli: time to begin my return to Sydney. Impulse led me to drive back to Darwin another way, following the old Jim Jim Road, an early road to Oenpelli. I would camp out on the plains of the mighty South Alligator River. Here, in my childhood, buffalo by thousands and more, were seen.

Another bigger storm was brewing. I crossed the South Alligator River, driving through only a few inches of water and thought, The big river is behind me, the road is clear ahead to Darwin.

Soon tropical sheets of rain began to fall. I pulled onto a gravel ridge on the side of the road to sit the storm out. After half an hour, it eased to a drizzle, which continued into the night. I slept in the car, thinking morning would be a better time to travel.

Grey dawn light showed wisps of high cloud, but the rain was gone. I drove on, cautiously at first, but the gullies were dry except one or two with a trickle of water. My mind was on the events of the last few days, but all seemed well.

I swept around a bend. There was a gully with water flowing through it, about a foot deep, I thought. In the split second before I was into it, I had the chance to brake to a stop. But my instant decision was; it's fine, keep going.

Suddenly one foot of water was three. Before I knew it the current picked up the light four-wheel-drive up. I was floating in the creek, with no engine and water bubbling inside. As the car drifted downstream, away from the road, the water outside was deeper, coming up over the dash.

I thought; Time to get out of here! But with no engine and no electricity, the windows and doors were securely locked. I crawled into the back and tried to unlock the tail gate. No luck there either. Here I was, in a glass encased bubble, slowly flowing down an ever-increasing river towards the sea, while the car slowly settled ever deeper into the water.

After a short long time the car seemed to catch something on the bottom and movement stopped. My bubble still held me trapped. It really was time to get out, while my head was above the water. Two or three kicks at the window made no impression on the hardened glass. Not good, I thought.

I looked up. There was a skylight above. I couldn't open it either so it was time to kick in earnest, two hard kicks and suddenly the glass shattered.

I retrieved what I could find of my possessions, floating in the cabin, and scrambled to shore, no worse for wear, except for a few glass cuts to my feet. Two hours of trudging up the dirt road found a road train. I got a lift to Darwin. Then came the unpleasantness of dealing with destroying a rental car, expensive and embarrassing, when you have to explain your stupidity.

It was a lesson in two parts, how quickly security can turn to tragedy and that I should never have underestimated the fickle power of the Northern Territory. The rain, a moderate tropical storm where I was, had barely run water. Far upstream 84 millimetres came from this storm, focused in one narrow river channel. I tasted its power in my moment of inattention. I don't know why my hands and voice were shaking that afternoon, I was in one piece. Cars can be replaced, people can't.

Back to the first beginning: it’s over six years since the fateful phone call that began the writing of this story.

My sister in New Zealand rings occasionally, at night or the weekend. So a phone call in mid-afternoon is unusual; “Have you heard what happened to Mum?”

“No!” (I think did she win a prize or something?).

“There’s been a car accident and she’s been killed”. … Silence!

All the urgent, routine arrangements take place; book a flight to Darwin, deal with a lot of other shocked family and friends, make funeral arrangements; it’s a bit of a blur now.

The morning of the funeral I have a memory of standing and looking at Mum’s face; still, peaceful, lined with seventy five years of living.

Listening to an Irish song, one line brings that image back to my mind.

her face is a well worn page, and time all alone is the pen’

It captures a bit of my mother’s passing and the rich life she lived, reflected in her final face; kind, dignified and written with its own history.

This book is my attempt to share this history and leave a record of the life of her and my father, a richness in which our whole family was part. It was a family where all five of us children grew up in this place largely forgotten by time.

As a child it did not occur to me that my parents were different from an average suburban Mum and Dad. I accepted as normal living in Arnhem Land; where the aeroplane came now and then, or sometimes a boat came up the river. Most of my playmates were black; for four or five months of each year it was a world cut off by water and, at opposite times, it was a world of smoke, fire and bulldust, punctuated by intense black thunderheads and lightning.

My earliest childhood memories, from when I was two years old, sit in that blur between babyhood and remembering.

The first is an Oenpelli visitor taking me to the back paddock behind our house, to see a new calf; walking through tall brown grass, above my head, a clear blue sky above, expecting to see a soft baby animal of the story books, small and cuddly. Instead this giant creature, taller than I, on wobbly legs, with brown and white patches on half wet skin. It jumped and frightened me when I went to touch it and we both ran opposite ways.

The next memory is crossing the river (East Alligator) with my father; sliding down a silty river bank to a huge brown-yellow channel, with green overhanging trees; being lifted into a dugout canoe, rough-carved, sculpted from one huge tree. In the bottom was grey mud, dried grass and pool of muddy water; me, looking out over sides as high as myself to the huge muddy river swirling beyond. My father with an aboriginal man of black shiny skin, push off. The current takes us and they slowly paddle across the running tide towards the green distant bank. My memory fades; no crocodiles though certainly they were there, no birds though probably screeching overhead, nothing but wonder and bright colours seen through childhood eyes.

Partial memories drift across the next two years; on a trailer behind a tractor with my mother, sisters and a tribe of aboriginal ladies and children. Past red-yellow sandstone hills, towards a billabong, gritty bulldust in our eyes and mouths. We bounce across washouts, dodge branches, pandanus prickles whip past us. We live in a tin house with ant-bed floors. Sometimes snakes and rats come in. There is a black lady my mother calls the house-girl.

My final memory is of flying to Darwin just before my fourth birthday. It is in a small plane. I look out the window and see black dots of buffalo and brown dots of ant-beds go by, interspersed amongst a mosaic of trees and floodplains. This was the end of the first great adventure of my life, as an Oenpelli child. It remains forever burnt into my mind, a child amongst children, amidst the myriad colours of Arnhem Land.

As an adult reflecting back I realise, not only was I a child of Arnhem Land, but so too were my parents; coming to this unknown land, full of strange places and unfamiliar people which they discovered for the first time. While knowing Sydney society and its ways, and with much practical common sense, they knew little of the land to which they came. This is also their story of discovery.


It is now ten years since I first started writing this book and over five years since the first edition was published. I am older, the age my father was when he left Oenpelli. No longer can I do all the things I tell of in this story.

I have a wonderful home in Sydney, my wife and children give me great joy, and every time I gaze out the window I marvel at the beauty of Sydney Harbour.

But a part of me will always remain in that place of bright memories, the place of a magical childhood amongst the colours and people of Arnhem Land.


What is it about the Northern Territory that fascinates? If I mention its name in conversation people turn to listen. Why, for over 180 years, has it drawn people from all over to come, stay longer than they imagined and often never leave?

Here I give you a history galloping wild for a century over half a million square miles, the life story of a colony in quicksand…. A nameless land, a land without flag, a vague earth bordered by the meridians of God….

Black men wandering and white men riding in a world without time where sons do not inherit, and money goes mouldy in the pocket, where ambition is wax melted in the sun, and those who sow may not reap.

I write of the Northern Territory of Australia … land of an ever-shadowed past and an ever-shining future, of eternal promise that never comes true…

From tropic seas a thousand mile south to salt lakes, between desert and desert five hundred and sixty miles wide, here is the strangest country of white men in the world, where they rode for a lifetime without a home, without a wife, safe from yesterday and tomorrow….

Here is a passionate and prolific earth never tamed and trimmed…. A sixth of Australia…. a State, and one of the greatest in its own geographical right - 523,620 square miles from under Capricorn to the Timor Sea ….

Nameless, it is still a Northern Territory, as once it was of South Australia, though it has been separated from South Australia for 40 years. Never yet has it been fully surveyed or explored. You can draw a map of England to scale in the map of the Territory without a single name in it, not even a native well....

The bad and beautiful Territory is not the youngest of the Australian family, as many believe, but third eldest. It was founded in 1824, following New South Wales and Tasmania…

Someone is always discovering the Territory, its colour and beauty, infinite resources, boundless wealth, ‘forever piping songs forever new’.

What is the truth of this changeling child of ours?...

Rich to rottenness!” cried Boyle Travers Finniss, first Administrator, in 1864, yet few save the cattle-men, remote in so many thousands of miles of wilderness, have wrested from it even a poor living. Its goldmines and its gardens are all graveyards. Until twenty years ago it was so far away from the rest of Australia that it was a land of legend – two thousand miles of desert tracks, two thousand miles by sea. Only a pilgrim could reach it….

The bagmen of today, the “old death adders Major Mitchelling around”, they were the young men of yesterday, with all the energy and dreams of youth. Forgotten men, they failed but they believe. So hope withers away and springs eternal in a pattern of nature too vast for human vision, a power too insensitive to human hands.”

Ernestine Hill put down these lines in the first chapter of her famous book ‘The Territory’ published in 1951. That year my parents came to Arnhem Land.

Is the Territory still the place of Ernestine Hill’s imagination? Was it ever so? Truth is rarely simple and trying to understand the multilayered dimensions of the Territory is its own challenge: - a timeless land, wet and dry, a black and white land, a land of opportunity and development, gateway to Asia, natural wilderness, cattle and buffalo ranging over endless grass plains and impenetrable scrub, land of deserts, waterfalls and sparkling ocean sunsets. It is a place both of the exotic and quixotic!

Much has changed in the Territory over the last seven decades, since the end of the Second World War, mostly wrought by human hands. And for millennia before other hands too were using and slowly making their changes to this land. Yet, as it changes, the essential essence of the Territory, ‘a pattern of nature too vast for human vision’, stays the same.

In coming to a limited understanding of my parents’ lives, and the contribution they made to these changes, I have come to realise that they came as children to a land in which other, black hands had greater mastery, and in which all human efforts were little more than fleabites on the vastness. As Paul Hogan remarks in Crocodile Dundee; arguing about who owns the land is a bit like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog.

The Northern Territory is one of the last frontiers of Australia. To this day it is not an easy place for those from kinder climates to live. Early explorers found it hard, as attested by the history of European settlement; more a tale of failure than success. However many who persevered came to love it and never leave.

For Europeans the NT Top End is characterised by two seasons, wet and dry. The wet has drenching humidity, tropical storms and mountains of water, while the dry is the place to escape southern winter, with cool nights, bush fires, and ever increasing aridity as everything slowly desiccates in the relentless NT sun.

Aboriginals and other long term inhabitants recognise a greater subtlety in the seasons, the build up with towering thunderstorms, the continuous rain of the monsoons, the final showers flattening the drying grass in March, the early dry season as humidity falls and drenched country leaks its moisture, the mid dry season of cold nights and bushfires, and the final dry blast of baked countryside, stagnant shrinking pools of water, and rising humidity, finally broken by the blessed relief of first storms.

Geography makes it a difficult place to traverse. The western wall of the Arnhem Land escarpment is an almost continuous, impenetrable barrier. It begins near Oenpelli, then runs 200 kilometres south to behind Pine Creek before curving around into Katherine Gorge and heading east. East of Oenpelli these towering sandstone ramparts continue for a couple hundred kilometres until they subside into the sandy plains and low hills of eastern Arnhem Land. Emerging from this massif are major rivers with gorges carving down through the sandstone, the Liverpool, East and South Alligator Rivers running north, the Katherine River running south then west, becoming the Daly River, the Roper River running south then east to the Gulf and the Victoria River, cutting through other rugged country west of Katherine. These rivers each discharge incredible volumes of water, flooding vast areas as monsoonal depressions and cyclones dump hundreds of millimetres of rain. Large areas become inaccessible for months, roads wash out and aquatic life on floodplains flourish.

As the country cools and dries each year, after the annual wet season ends, a period of concentrated frenetic work and travel begins about April-May to get everything done before the next rains come in November-December.

Since our family first came in the 1950s; roads have been built, rivers tamed with bridges, the population has consumer comforts. But nature remains untamed. Mighty waterfalls still crash off the escarpment after a monsoon month and show that the raw power of this world remains almost untouched.

As a child of Arnhem Land some of my strongest memories are about the capacity of the land for change and regeneration. The parched black soil plains of October, with little muddy remnants of waterholes, dust eddies and dying fish became, in January, an inland sea of water so vast that its edges were lost in a distant low horizon. In March it was a sea of waist high green grass and reeds, with the endless honking of nesting magpie geese. As the dry season broke billabongs covered in red lilies emerged, along with fruiting plants of the woodlands. Aboriginal families with digging sticks moved back onto the plains to catch buried turtles and file snakes. So the seasons continued, the people endlessly following their cues.

This is a story about the Top End of the Northern Territory and of one special place in it. To me it was called Oenpelli, now it is named Gunbalanya to approximate its aboriginal name. Oenpelli is a small town on the western edge of Arnhem Land near Kakadu National Park. Visitors remark on its natural beauty. Many hold an enduring memory of this scenery decades later.

Oenpelli is on the eastern margin of a pocket of the East Alligator floodplains. The town is about fifteen kilometres from the main river channel and five kilometres north of the sandstone escarpment of the Arnhem Land plateau. It sits on a low gravel ridge with a large billabong immediately to its south. Floodplains encircle the town on three sides, giving expansive views with abundant bird and animal life. It sits at the centre of semicircle of three hills, Arrkuluk, Injalak and Nimbabirr, each about 200 metres high and a kilometre away, arranged like wheel spokes at right angles from the town centre.

The dominant view is the towering cliffs of the Arnhem Land escarpment, seen across the billabong, rising sheer from the floodplains and woodlands to 1000 foot heights, and forming a ring around the southern side of the town. Afternoon sun reflects its myriad colours; red, brown, gold and orange hues; as the late light bounces back from these hills and forms a glowing wall.

In the wet season this is overlaid with towering black and purple storms. They form above these cliffs, then sweep across the iridescent green plains in a wall of rain, obscuring sight of the hills behind. In the centre of this escarpment sits the local waterfall, falling 100 metres. Its creek joins two other escarpment creeks to flow into the billabong before flooding out across the floodplains. In monsoon season these floodplains form a sea of water reaching towards the horizon, an expanse of thirty kilometres across before the next high ground rises on the western side of the East Alligator River.

This is also a story about aboriginal society’s adaptation to and co-existence with western civilisation in the second half of the 20th century. Living within this time and place gave me insights into this process, often painful, with difficulties on both sides. However, as an ongoing, albeit occasional, visitor to this place, I never cease to be amazed by the warmth and generosity of its people. They first welcomed our family to their land more than 60 years ago and continue to welcome us as the years go by. In 2002, a few months after Mum died, I took my children to visit. My fondest memories are walking down the main streets of Oenpelli with my three children then aged 7-12. Many aboriginal people welcomed us with their broad smiles, and happy calls, using the skin name I had been given almost 50 years earlier, along with my new slang name, ‘Ngaginga’ (crocodile leg), and now assigning to each child their own new skin name. Some came to share their sorrow about Mum, others to welcome and greet my children, shaking hands, touching faces and saying a few words about some event of many years ago. Their generosity of spirit sits warmly with me to today.

As well as a story of two cultures Aboriginal and European existing alongside each other and dealing with each other in various ways, it is a story about the Christian values of my parents which motivated their life and the ways in which they communicated these.

It is also a story of our family coming to know and love this beautiful, sometimes hostile place, which still feels like home.

It was to this Arnhem Land that my parents came; just moving beyond the war, with missionary society aspirations for a new aboriginal role in their own communities’ management but with few resources and little wider support. Their story is one of living inside this change over the next 50 years.

The story from here is in two parallel parts, the first is my parents’ story, which is mainly described by my father but with some information from others.

The second part is my memories, growing up then living as an adult in the Northern Territory. I have called this Graham’s Story and it runs alongside with detail increasing as I move from childhood to adult life. For those who want to know more about Oenpelli and NT history I have put a more complete account in Appendix 1. In Appendix 2 I have included supplementary information about Leichhardt’s first European exploration of this land, based on extracts of his journal where, each day, he recorded a wealth of detail about his trip and the people, places and hardships he encountered.

My parents’ story begins with them, as a newly married couple, coming to two small aboriginal missions in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

They went first at Groote Island and then Rose River. In 1953 they moved to Oenpelli, which is where my own memories begin.

They were Sydney children of the Depression and War, though my mother grew up in country NSW. It seems these times and families created resilient children with a can do attitude. Even though my father’s first job at Oenpelli was to work in the garden, he soon took initiative. He saw a need for a road to transport stores. He bought a truck, found a road route and began the delivery of mission stores from Darwin.

Soon his role was to get a new central base for all the far flung missions in Darwin. This he did, land and buildings followed. As is often the case, opportunity favours the brave, he knew of heavy rock (manganese) from work at Groote Island. So he and another missionary acquired a miner’s right to the prospective site. When he heard BHP was to mine there, he told them he held this right. It was passed to the missionary society for use on behalf of this community. A first aboriginal mining royalty agreement followed, a minor piece of history in his eyes, it was a model for other mines with far reaching effects.

Life continued on this pattern. At Oenpelli, when uranium was found, he sat behind aboriginal leaders in negotiations with the government and the Mine. What ultimately flowed was the formation of Kakadu National Park.

Seeing a need for air transport, he got a pilot’s license then his own plane. He saw a desire of aboriginal clans to return to their own country and used this aeroplane to support and supply new outstations; the list goes on. And, wherever my father went, there was my mother, standing alongside him too.

The love of my parents for this NT place was passed on to me. Before long, as an adult, it drew me back too. For me the NT canvas was wider, I came when there was work was to be done on cattle stations across the length and breadth of the NT, from the deserts of the Alice to the vast grass plains of the Barkly Tableland and VRD, and on into the rough and broken lands of the Gulf and the buffalo country of the Top End. It was a fascinating time, a wonderful way to see it all and get to know its many peoples and places.

For us, children of these parents, ‘can’t do’ was not in the lexicon, the question was how? We each tried to make our own contributions, driven by this example, if not on such a grand scale. But each of us carries a piece of this legacy forward. We hope it is passed on to our own children. It seems to me that doing something with whatever we are given is what life is mainly about.

Part 1 – Arnhem Land’s Children

Mum and Dad’s Story

Missionaries to the NT

Mum’s early life

How to tell my mother’s story? When I started this account, I thought it would be as simple as taking excerpts from letters she wrote. However, as I read a selection I realised the letters describe many things that happened around her but tell almost nothing of her. Her experiences are conspicuously absent. The letters tell about other people, who went where or said what, but not what she thought and felt. Self-description was not her nature. So I have used other sources to construct a sense of my Mum’s life; her younger sister Edith, her brother, Peter, memories from us children, and other people who knew her.

Mum was born Helen Trindall Smith, in July 1926, the oldest of three children to Peter (PA) Smith (Grandfather), and Ida Trindall (Ma). PA was the Presbyterian Minister in Warialda, a small country town in North Western NSW He was frequently on the road covering his large parish, first using a horse and buggy then a Model T Ford. Ma was a country nurse, married in her 30s with a career as a hospital matron before then. The eldest daughter of a Wee Waw grazier, with a property on the Namoi River, she took a large role in caring for seven younger brothers and sisters. As the Minsters wife she cared for her family, provided hospitality to the Parish and during the Depression fed many hungry men of the road coming to her door.

Sunday services were spread across the large parish requiring many trips where Grandfather would leave Friday morning and not return until late Sunday afternoon. In school holidays one of the children would be taken as gate opener, and receive dissertations on the way about the landforms; basalt country, granite country, what grew where, the weather, explaining things like that you would get general rain when the clouds built up in the north-west and the wind was from the west.

The children slept on the house verandah, open apart from a trellis around one corner. For a warm bed in winter they had a house brick, heated in the fire and wrapped in the Sydney Morning Herald. Ma made their clothes, except for winter things which Grandfather bought in Sydney.

When Helen was twelve she went to school in Sydney, living with two maiden aunts. Edith followed the next year. Church, even in summer, required wearing gloves, a hat, an edge to edge coat, and walking the three kilometres each way. After school was embroidery or knitting, then homework after tea.

One day the two girls found their Aunt Agnes lying in the garden, dead from a stroke. After this they went to school in Inverell, a town near Warialda, for a year and then for Helen’s final year the two girls went to Presbyterian Ladies College in Croydon, Sydney.

After leaving school Mum got a job at Gillespie’s Flour Mill in Pyrmont. Here she met Dad’s sister Jude and her friend Amy, sister of Jude’s future husband, George. The three girls got on really well. Jude remembers Mum’s bubbly happiness and quoting poetry such as:

A mother was bathing her boiby one night,

the youngest of ten and a delicate white

The mother was fat and the boiby was thin,

it was nought but a skeleton covered in skin

The mother turned round for the soap of the rack,

she was only a moment but when she turned back

…… and in anguish she cried,

Oh where has my child gone and the angels replied

You’re boiby has gone done the plug hole,

Your boiby has gone done the plug

The poor little thing was so skinny and thin,

It should have been washed in a jug,


One day Jude went to visit her brother Alf in hospital, and Mum went along. So she met Dad, and began the five decades of their life together.

Mum’s Character from her Upbringing

Mum grew up in a family that was both moral and free thinking, and which got on with things with a minimum of fuss. Her father was a Presbyterian Minister in a conservative rural society but was also someone who rubbed shoulders with people from all walks of life on a frequent basis. He had a high regard for learning, and a strong interest in the world around. He could survive with a minimum of life’s necessities, spending days on the road in the mud and dust of western NSW, but appreciated the comforts of station hospitality. He learned to be frugal living on a meagre stipend but his lifestyle was also helped by the generosity of the community with gifts like a car given to him and his new wife by a parishioner friend on his marriage.

Her mother was of a similar culture to her father but more practical. Ma was the one who milked the cows, rode the horses, treated injuries of her family and others and fed innumerable visitors. She supported her husband’s moral values in a genteel manner. She had a similar level of education; boarding school in Newcastle, then nursing training in Sydney, before becoming Matron in a remote country hospital. When she and Grandfather married, both had lived lives as adults on their own for more than a decade, going about their business without fuss. It is no surprise these attitudes were seen in Mum’s character; mixed parts of stoicism, practicality, gentility and interest in the wider world.

Dad’s Early Life

My father’s name was Alfred Forbes Wilson. He was a child of the Depression and grew up being adaptable and managing with little. He wrote his memoir about 18 months before he died in 2007, and I have used extracts to tell his story. I have made some word changes to make the story easier to read.

My father recalls his early life:

I was born on 6th May 1926 at Henderson a town out of Auckland in New Zealand. My sister was two years older. We lived with our mother and father on a five acre rural block in a rural fruit growing area called Oratea. With the onset of the Depression my father lost his job with the Colonial Sugar Refinery in Auckland. Eventually he decided to sell up everything and travel to Sydney where he was told he would find employment at CSR.

In 1935 my parents rented a house in Canterbury, Sydney, and my father got a job but the wages made it very difficult to pay rent and buy food. In 1937 I got a job selling papers at the tram terminus at Canterbury Station. I was not supposed to have this job until I turned 12, but I went ahead with it. Each week I earned twelve and a half shillings, which gave me between nine and eleven shillings to take home. My parents put this into my bank account and said I could buy school clothes from the tips I earned.

I was always looking for extra work and got a small amount answering the telephone at the taxi rank next to the station. There was only one taxi and the phone had an amplifier, so I could hear it on the other side of Canterbury Road. My job was to write the address of where the taxi was wanted on a pad. One evening the phone was ringing and a lot of traffic was on the road. I ran across the road and answered the phone then raced back to the paper stand. There was a screech of brakes as I went straight in front of a car. A lot of people looked in horror at what happened. People gathered around me saying they did not see how I could walk away. One elderly man said. “There’s only one reason. God has something for you to do!” It did not mean a lot to me.

I finished high school in 1943, joined the Air Force in 1944 and was discharged in April 1946. I enrolled to do Engineering at Sydney University. It was hopeless. I had missed 2 months of lectures and had been leading an idle life for two years. The following year I enrolled at Sydney Tech in Ultimo to do Engineering and persevered until the middle of 1948.

In September 1947 I met a local man, Ted Buckle, who had been in the Air Force. He was at Moore Theological College in Newtown and we often travelled to Engadine on the same train. Ted tried to interest me in joining with a group of young people going to a weekend camp. At first I wasn’t interested but then I thought it would be worth going. So I went – and it was there I was converted. My whole life changed. I remember the minister of the Sutherland Church of England saying to me “Your whole face lit up”. I remember that later night going into a sort of trance and dreaming I was moving above the ground over large areas of plains with water and grass and in the distance rocky hills and timbered country. It was a very vivid dream and remained with me. Even today I still remember it.

At this stage I had a girl-friend, Helen Smith, who was living with an aunt at Penshurst. I told her what had happened. Helen’s father was a Presbyterian Minister and lived at Warialda. At Christmas 1947 Helen invited me to go to her home for two weeks and meet her parents, and we became engaged.

The following year, I became aware that God was calling me to do some special work and spoke to Ted Buckle about it. He offered to find out what work was available with the Church Missionary Society. A few days later he caught up with a Mr Montgomerie, whom he knew, and was greeted with, “Ha! Mr Buckle, have you a young man who can do pioneering work in North Australia” Ted replied that he did know a person who was interested in missionary work. “Send him in.” was the reply.

So I went in to see Mr Montgomerie and made application to missionary work in North Australia. Helen also had to make an application. She stated that she did not wish to go to North Australia as a missionary but as a missionary’s wife. She also made an application at Crown Street Women’s Hospital to do an 18 month course in obstetrics from July 1949.

In 1949 I was told that I would have to spend three years at Moore College from 1950. This seemed an exceptionally long time. We could not get married over this time without permission, although we had been engaged for 18 months. Helen and I very much wanted to get married so, in the third term, I wrote to CMS seeking permission. During September I was told we could marry at the end of the year on the condition that we proceeded to North Australia in the New Year. I made a beeline to tell Helen. We were married on 5th January 1951, and were assigned to work amongst the people of Angurugu, Groote Eylandt.

Missionaries to Groote Eylandt

On the 21st February, 1951, we left Sydney flying to Adelaide. It was a big adventure and in Adelaide we were booked into a hotel. Two days later we flew to the Northern Territory on a DC3. At lunch break at Alice Springs the hostess had a palm branch, waving it around to chase the flies away. We arrived at Katherine late in the afternoon. Our accommodation was in the only hotel; we occupied a small shed at the rear. Next morning we assembled at the airstrip and met George the pilot. There was a fog and George commented this was a sign that the wet weather had finished.

We arrived at Roper River Mission about midday. We were to travel on to Groote Eylandt by boat and set out about 4 pm anchoring at the river mouth about midnight. With a spotlight, we saw a number of large crocodiles. I heard stories about how rough seas could be in the Gulf of Carpentaria, but next morning was dead calm. Joe Wurramurra, the skipper, took us by Low Rock, where we could see large fish in the rock pools.

At Groote we met two people who were a great help to me over the years. The first was Gerry Blitner who knew the aboriginal people at Groote very well. The other was Dick Harris, who had been in the North since 1929 and was deeply respected by both the staff and people. He spoke to me about the need to work with smaller groups of people. At Angurugu there were over 400 people and he pointed out the need for another centre to reduce that number. He took me to Emerald River, ten miles south, where he thought the remains of the Air Force wartime camp and parts of an old mission were a logical starting point for the new community. It had an abundance of fresh water, jungle type vegetation and remnants of an old banana plantation.

My first job was winding up miles of fencing wire used during the war as a telephone line from the Emerald RAAF base to the Flying Boat base at the other end of the island. Gerry organised this and I had a good team of men. Other work was to bring cypress logs to the sawmill. Men cut the logs with axes for carting and loaded the truck, a 1938, Maple leaf, three tonner. It had a twisted chassis which caused it to travel like a giant crab. The fuel pump didn’t work so a petrol tank sat on the cab roof to gravity feed petrol to the engine. Once I backed into the jungle to collect a load of very heavy rocks. It was difficult to see the way through the overhanging branches. When I pulled up a man was carrying the fuel tank along the road, swept off the roof by a branch. This rock was for the causeway on the Angurugu River. We later found out the rock was manganese and it was a very valuable mineral.

Supplies were delivered by the “Cora” from Thursday Island twice a year. The ship would anchor off the reef and a bomb scow took the loading to shore. In 1952 the shipping service increased to three trips a year but our Sydney office requested we not use the extra service as there were insufficient funds.

There were frequent tribal fights. The men were not supposed to have fighting spears, known as shovel spears, in camp. They could have fishing spears, with wooden or wire tips fastened to the spear shaft. Towards the end of 1951 there was a tribal fight out bush. Word came that afternoon that two people had been speared. Gerry drove the Blitz to the scene. One woman had been speared in the chest. The spear penetrated below her throat and came out near her left breast. A man had a wooden pointed spear in his back near his kidneys. Both spear shafts were cut off for ease of transport on the back of the truck.

We had a doctor on the mission at that time. On examining both patients he decided that the man should be flown to Darwin next morning – a flight of 4 ½ hours in the Dragon Rapide. He attended to the woman at the mission about 8 o’clock in the evening. A large sheet was spread over the table and 4 of us, Tilley lamps on our heads, stood around the table to supply light. Eventually the spear was removed and the woman stitched up. Next morning she was running around with a large waddy trying to get even. The man was flown to Darwin Hospital and eventually recovered.

Late in 1951 I went to Emerald River with six men to commence clearing for an outstation. The men worked very well and when they knocked off each day they went hunting, mostly for fish in the saltwater part of the river. Once the wet season came we returned to Angurugu.

In February 1952 Helen went to Darwin for our first child. Our daughter, Robin, was born on the 1st March and they returned on the medical plane three weeks later.

At the beginning of April a cyclone formed in the Gulf of Carpentaria, crossed the western coast of Groote and continued to the mainland. All night, heavy squalls of rain and strong winds lashed the mission. A constant spray of rain came over the house walls into our bedroom. So we put Robin’s cot under the table which at least shielded her from the spray of water.

Transfer to Numbulwar

Having worked at Groote Eylandt for 18 months, in 1952 Mum and Dad were transferred to a new mission being established on the inlet of a river called the Rose River, (now known as Numbulwar), opposite Groote Eylandt. They lived here among the sand hills in a grass and bark covered hut, in a similar manner to the aboriginal people.

This move must have been challenging with a baby of less than six months. The community was just a group of aboriginal people living in simple shelters. There was no airstrip and no regular supplies. Nearest communities were Groote Eylandt, 100 kilometres and a several hour boat trip away across the Gulf of Carpentaria; or Roper River, a similar direct distance but a full day’s drive across primitive bush tracks only accessible in the dry season, or almost twice that far by boat around the coast then up the river. They were many hours from simple nursing help, let alone medical evacuation to Darwin. In the wet season the only way out was a boat trip if the weather permitted passage. Few women with a baby would have lived like this, but Mum described it as if she was happy. They continued here over the next wet season, and it was not until the second half of 1953 that an airstrip was built.

My father describes this time as follows:

The Nunggubuyu people were scattered around Roper River and it was necessary to find another place with a good water supply. Coupled with this was a search for areas of cypress pine suitable for milling for building timber. The leader of the Nunggubuyu people was a man named Mardi. He was interested in his people settling on the country around Rose River. The cyclone brought heavy rains so there was an adequate supply of water.

Dick Harris set out in the ‘Faith’ from Groote Eylandt in the dry season of 1952 in search of a suitable place for another mission. Apart from Rose River there was little to support such a gathering of people. Thought was given to Bennet Bay, but Rose River was more accessible and was inside Nunggubuyu land. This confirmed Mardi’s desire for his people to make this area their home.

In August 1952 many Nunggubuyu people left Roper, some by canoe and some to walk overland, with the women and children to travel by boat to Rose River. At Groote I was preparing to work at Emerald River when we were asked to transfer to Rose River to assist John Mercer to set up this new mission. So, with our six month old daughter, we made our camp in a shade house on the sand hills of Rose River.

The Nunggubuyu were marine hunters and the afternoons were set aside to hunt. Basic rations were issued to family groups each morning. The main work was the erection of temporary housing built of bush timber, binday grass walls and with paper bark rooves. A store was built in the same way. The next project was to clear land for an airstrip. Mardi had shown John a suitable area about two miles from the camp at the beginning of the gravel country. John paced out the airstrip area.

In June 1953 we returned from leave and John Mercer went off to get married. The work on the airstrip continued on until John came back in October.

I was expecting to go back to Angurugu to continue the Emerald River project, but I received a letter from Kevin Hoffman, the Groote Superintendent, advising me I would be welcome to return to Groote providing I did nothing further with the outstation at Emerald River. This was a blow and I pondered for a few days. The mission launch, Curtis, went round to Roper Mission and came back with the mail from Sydney. A letter came from Mr Montgomerie asking me to give serious thought to being relocated to Oenpelli. Having received the letter from Groote this seemed to be the right way to go.

Oenpelli for the first time

So, after just over a year at Numbulwar, Mum and Dad packed their meagre possessions for a move to a third mission within 3years, Oenpelli. Here they found a real home and sense of belonging.

Mum was in advanced pregnancy with a second child, me. While Dad went to Oenpelli, with toddler Robin, now 18 months, Mum travelled to Darwin to have her baby. I presume she flew from Roper River to Darwin, via Katherine. There was no CMS base in Darwin, so it is not known how she got from the airport to the hospital, where she stayed before or after hospital, or how she got to the airport with a new baby. This time she had been to Darwin before and knew some people there. There was no money in a meagre missionary salary for hotels or taxis so, perhaps, kindly people in the community assisted with a bed and transport, as they did in her childhood living in country NSW.

Dad recounts their move thus:

Helen was expecting our second child in November and went ahead of me to Darwin. Robin came with me on the ‘Curtis’ to Roper. From there we flew to Katherine and on to Darwin. On 10th November 1953 I flew to Oenpelli with Robin in a chartered Auster aircraft. We stayed in one room of the concrete brick house while our future home at the back of the old store was being renovated. When Helen arrived at the end of November with Graham, we moved there. This became our house for the next four years. All our personal boxes, sent from Rose River, and our stores order, placed for our start at Oenpelli had arrived, except two boxes of groceries. I had heard of the difficulty getting supplies and it was not unusual for cargo to be stacked in Darwin for a year or more.

Grahams Story

When it Began

I don’t remember, but I am told my Mum travelled to Darwin Hospital from Numbulwar and was there for three weeks before catching the mail plane to Oenpelli with a small me in her arms. My father meanwhile went directly to Oenpelli, with toddler, Robin, in tow. As I was born on the 22nd of November my mother’s late pregnancy occurred in the build-up months in the NT Top End. To understand what this must have been like I give the insight I gained from the birth of my daughter.

My daughter, Zara, was born on November 28th, also in Darwin. The final three months of my wife, Mary’s, pregnancy in the Top End were unpleasant for her. In these build up months Zara’s rapidly growing body pumped out heat which added to the superheated NT. Mary often said “I don’t think I will ever feel cool again”. When all else failed she could retreat to an air-conditioned room, sit under a ceiling fan, go to an air-conditioned shopping centre or go for a swim in one of the many swimming pools around Darwin.

In the late September, two months before Zara’s birth, we made a two day camping trip to Douglas Hot Springs, with our two boys, Darragh, five years, and Dylan, three years. Located two hours drive south of Darwin, the Hot Springs is an idyllic crystal clear river flowing under shady paperbark trees, where the hot water from the springs meets the cool water from the river, a pleasant place to relax in ordinary circumstances. In the NT Top End build up, with a growing baby generating still more heat, it rapidly became intolerable and, after one night, we beat a hasty retreat back to our air-conditioned Darwin house

Remembering this gives me an appreciation of my mother’s experience; in an isolated location, heavily pregnant, an 18 month old toddler between her feet, in a house without insect screens, no electricity, fans, or air-conditioner, certainly no swimming pool or local shops. Mum never complained but she must have experienced the same heat and suffocating humidity as Mary did.

When Mum left hospital with me and flew to Oenpelli it was as new for her as it was for me. No doubt she marvelled at the mosaic of floodplains, fringing forests, ant-beds and buffalo she saw from the aeroplane window. Then the crossing of the broad snakelike South Alligator River and watching the distant sandstone pillars of Kakadu come into view, looming up as towering red-orange ramparts of the Arnhem Land escarpment. The plane would have made a sweep low over the East Alligator River, its iridescent green floodplains, muddy channels and black buffalo wallows, then done a lazy circuit above the three hills of Oenpelli, with a quick sight of a handful of tin roofed houses nestled around the billabong, before an final approach over plains covered with the countless thousands of magpie geese, ducks and myriad other waterbirds, gathered around diminishing waterholes; touching down and bouncing along a dusty grass airstrip, dodging graded ant-beds, and finally coming to rest as the propeller slowly wound down, surrounded by a cluster of people, miraculously gathered in the five minutes from when the plane was first heard until it rolled to a stop. All this I do not recall, but doubtless it happened like many other homecomings that I do remember.

There were perhaps ten white and one hundred black people gathered at the aeroplane, shy giggling black children holding the skirts of their mothers, men in loincloths, their glistening purple-black arms, with raised initiation welts, and the occasional fishing spear or digging stick. Perhaps there was a tractor and trailer to carry the luggage, mailbags and few groceries. Of course my father was there, hanging on tightly to his toddler daughter. A handful of other missionaries of the tiny white community would have been there to welcome us too.

Everyone would have been keen to see this new missionary woman and her baby, the story having run around the community like wildfire, since the new man and his daughter arrived.

To all accounts I was a cranky baby. Mum said, in her understated way, that I was a bit difficult. Dad told stories of having to take me for long walks along the Oenpelli airstrip to get me to sleep at night. Apparently I talked in profusion as a toddler, saying in a clear high voice, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”

My own memories take a couple years to emerge, the first baby calf, the river crossing, visits to the billabong, riding on a tractor and trailer, our coal black house-girl who helped my mother with the domestic chores, and from whom our family gained our aboriginal skin names, ‘Nagamarrang’ for me, derived from my mother’s ‘Ngalngarridj’, as adopted sister to our house girl.

My first four years of memories are little more than a blur of bright images, interspersed with other memory fragments, and a pervading sense of the joy of life, which permeated my whole world. From this warmth of memory I don’t doubt that my parents loved this simple life, notwithstanding its hardships.

Mixed with my first memories of Oenpelli is my first memory of being shown a kaleidoscope as a small child, it’s flashing hues of coloured glass were a source of great wonder. These two images from my early mind have flowed through one another and the colours of Oenpelli have now taken, in my mind, hues of kaleidoscopic colour. So I think of my earliest childhood in Arnhem Land as akin to a child viewing life through a multi-coloured kaleidoscope.

Mum and Dad’s Story continues

Oenpelli in the 1950s

During 1953 to 1957 when we lived at Oenpelli, Dad was often absent, camping in the bush, surveying routes for a road or locations for a Darwin base and then with a Blitz truck coming from Sydney and setting up a road transport system.

Did it bother Mum, I don’t know, but she never complained.

I think she treated these things as challenges to be overcome and, once dealt with, confined to the dustbin of history. Mum had the assistance of an aboriginal house girl, Dorcas, who came for several hours each morning, but she still had three small children, a house to manage, guests to entertain and, in the absence of a nursing sister, medical emergencies, including delivering babies, using skills from midwifery training. Their house was at the back of a shop selling groceries, with packed earth (ant bed) floors, mosquito nets and a variety of wildlife including snakes, native cats and bush rats.

Dad describes their life at Oenpelli as follows:

There were a little under 200 people at Oenpelli when we arrived in 1953. Only about 50 proper Mengerr people were allowed to camp in Banyan or Arrkuluk villages. Others were allowed to camp on the saddle at the base of Arrkuluk or on the other side of the billabong. Most of these people stayed for a few months and moved on to Liverpool River or to Pine Creek. Helen kept a record of the people who came to Oenpelli. Her house girl, Dorcas, advised of movements. Dorcas’s husband, Joshua was a working man. From them we were given our skin names; Joshua and I were Nakangila, Dorcas and Helen were Ngalngarridj. This skin name gave a relationship with other people. Over these four years we were at Oenpelli Helen recorded over 600 people, but at no time were there more than 200 people living there. All travel was done by foot and belongings were carried by the wife, often on the head.

Apart from the back of the store, which became our residence, there was a concrete block house which was poorly designed and became very hot in the wet season and an old iron house where the single ladies lived. At the side of the store there were two single men’s rooms. A builder had been sent up but found it was impossible to build anything as there was no timber, so he went back south at the end of 1953. A small stack of timber had been put together for a house but was insufficient for the job. He set the stumps into the ground for the new place, but until some materials were delivered by boat from Darwin nothing further was done.

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