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Wanderings in a desert

By Donna Jacobs Sife - posted Friday, 9 June 2006

I have returned from the desert. I drove from Adelaide to Alice Springs in a campervan, stopping at schools to tell stories along the way, in towns such as Woomera, Port Augusta and Coober Pedy. At night, I settled down in camping grounds to gaze at the immense canopy of stars and listen to the desert dogs howl. As an Australian Jew, I have two spiritual homes. I was on a heart quest to the centre, to another Jerusalem - Uluru.

The landscape along the Stuart Highway in South Australia was sometimes so flat, so bleak, so barren that it was quite sickening to drive through. At one stage I stopped the van and stood at the side of the road and turned 360 degrees to see the entire curve of the world. No hills, no trees, nothing - just a slightly sour breeze, shiny black crows and huge wedge-tailed eagles picking at the bones of the kangaroos left to rot by the side of the road.

But the Northern Territory was like Eden. It was abundant with life, laid out by a master landscaper. With bush melons by the thousand lining the road to Uluru - deep blood red soil, grasses, trees, sweet breezes and birds of every colour and song.


The rock does not reveal itself until you are ready to receive her. She graces you with a glimpse here and there until you have passed the sign that announces Aboriginal land, that you have entered the national park, and then, around a corner - there it is - magnificent, elegant, mythical. It teaches us something about the nature of the custodians of the land. You do not ask direct questions of Aborigines. Their way is to offer glimpses of themselves, of their knowledge, until they deem you ready to receive it.

I knew there was a school at Uluru. My agent had suggested I ring when I got there if I wanted to perform. They invited me to come immediately, and I followed the directions, driving passed the sign that said "Restricted Area - Aboriginal Community". Storytelling is a passport to the world.

It was there that I lost my innocence.

It was there that I saw the shocking condition of a people so removed from my own experience. There was malnourishment and disease. Some children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome so they are brain-damaged before they enter the world. Here was a nation caught between two cultures - one imposed, unexplained and inappropriate, the other raped and mutilated.

Damaged by the fenced areas of crown land so that they cannot roam as they should: through the theft of ceremonies, languages and the loss of a way of being, that has now seeped back into the red earth, and is crying out in the whispers of the dust, the murmurs of the rocks, the sobbing in the wind.

The housing, the electricity, the education - much of what we give, often with the best of intention, seemed misplaced and foolish there, robbing them of their traditional life and coming with an expectation that they become like us.


What I saw was heart-breaking and completely unacceptable. I became increasingly aware of the assumptions I was making regarding this community. Do I know what the Aborigines feel or need? We don't really understand. Our own white consciousness just gets in the way.

It was a sobering and sad experience. I cried much of the way to Alice Springs. I have read of the deplorable health and living conditions, but seeing them was different. To think that Governor Arthur Phillip, seeing the Aborigines from his long ship, named that land Manly, because of the marvellous specimens of humankind he saw.

"What have we done" was the lament that accompanied the rumble of the engine as I drove away. It was easy to see only a bleak and barren road ahead.

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About the Author

Donna Jacobs Sife is an award winning storyteller, educator and writer. She is skilled in drama, creative writing and does a lot of inter-religious work - interpreting ancient ideas into a relevant shape for a contemporary world.

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