A week in Areyonga

Red Dust

Inspiring, strong and resilient. These are just some of the many qualities displayed by the children of Areyonga, NT. Our week spent in the remote Indigenous community, three hours’ drive from Alice Springs, was not only an expedition to bring a message of healthy living to the students of Areyonga Primary School, but also an opportunity to learn about a rich and complex culture in our own backyard. Proudly wearing our red t-shirts, we were welcomed by the community with open arms, a result of the strong relationships built by the many Red Dust Role Models that visited before us.

The majority of our stay in Areyonga was spent actively involved in the classroom, working one-on-one with the children. The classroom was completely bilingual, regularly moving between English and their native language, Pitjantjatjara. With many students not exposed to English until starting school, their vocabulary at such a young age was impressive. It was clear however that the daily Pitjantjatjara class run by the elders was the students’ favourite. The children particularly enjoyed turning the power on the Red Dust team, teaching us Pitjantjatjara while laughing at our poor pronunciation.

The school was split into two classrooms – the junior school (prep to year 3) and the senior school (year 4 to 6). Having such a breadth of ages in one classroom brought a challenge unique from what we had previously been exposed to growing up in Sydney and Melbourne. Keeping all ages engaged was a balancing act, a challenge, faced, and a skill developed by the teachers of Areyonga Primary.

Our overarching goal for the week was to deliver a healthy living programme focused on the importance of water to all facets of life – for our bodies, our world and for fun. As a Red Dust team, we focused on the importance of drinking water to help our bodies grow. We encouraged the children to drink plenty of water throughout the day, and rewarded those who did through our “rain drop” points scoring system – because everyone loves a bit of competition. We examined how rain feeds our planet, helping to nurture the trees and animals. We explored how too much rain causes flooding, demonstrated by the annual flood of the Areyonga consistently barren river. Finally, we discussed the many ways the kids use water for fun including for swimming in the local pool, playing in the flooded river or swimming in the local waterhole Munta Munta. This framework was inbuilt into all activities throughout the week which we reinforced through interactive and fun sessions.

Being our first experience living in an Indigenous community such as Areyonga, we were keen to be exposed to as much of the community’s culture as possible. We were incredibly fortunate to share a meal of Kangaroo tail and damper with several of the community’s elders. After a day’s preparation involving a lawn mower, two whipper snippers and a trusty square mouth shovel, the pit was ready for the Roo tail to be cooked.

With two of the elders at the helm, our supper was in good hands. We also managed to speak with Tarna who is an incredibly impressive woman. She told us about her Great Grandfather’s dreaming story and her life journey from Papunya, to University in South Australia and now teaching Pitjantjatjara in Areyonga. Hearing Tarna speak of her hopes for the Areyonga community was very inspiring and highlighted to us how much work is required for these communities not to change, but to continue with their culture and their way of life.

Once the food was served – we all tried the Roo tail which was quite gelatinous and garnered some interesting assessments with regard to its stickiness –Tarna’s penchant for adding chicken salt to hers was also discussed. The damper was delicious and it didn’t take long for the kids to catch wind (literally) of what was cooking when they all jumped the barb-wired fence to polish off the rest of the Roo tail. All in all it was thoroughly enjoyable experience.

On Wednesday afternoon we all gathered in the playground as we prepared to scale the lofty heights of Helicopter Hill. We were split into groups, with the kids given the challenge to drink an entire water bottle and return it back to school to earn two droplets.

Red Dust

With the kids donning their school bucket hats, and their Red Dust Role Models suitably lathered in sunblock, we began our ascent. Helicopter Hill is part of the mountain range which forms the Areyonga Valley in which the community is situated. The group thinned out, as we wound our way around the mountain, taking in the amazing views from around the valley and as much water as we could. The kids were amazing at how quick they were up the mountain, taking short cuts and doing it all barefoot.

Once at the summit, we looked down on the Areyonga community, where we took in the breathtaking views and could further appreciate its remoteness. Following the valley as far as the eye could see, you could definitely appreciate the importance “country” has for the Indigenous people, and the people of Areyonga. It was obvious to us that despite the largely nomadic lifestyle of Aboriginal culture, this was the place that offered the community water, protection, food and considerable respite from the searing heat.

It was such a nice experience a few of the Red Dust Role Models decided to climb it twice, once more for the sunrise on the Friday morning. The sun lighting up the valley around us was an image that was truly breathtaking.

We were fortunate enough to incorporate into our healthy wellbeing programme the school’s swimming carnival. The kids were separated into three teams: Waru, Kalaya and Tinka. We painted posters for each team and made the short walk over to the community pool for the events.

There were some extremely impressive efforts in the pool by many of the kids, with events being split up between freestyle, backstroke and the very entertaining “find the sinking rings”. There was also a Red Dust Role \Model freestyle race – where Jordan was fortunate to scrape through for the win despite being held back by Jon, serving as a good warm up for the Special Olympics Relay later in the year.

Both the kids and teachers thoroughly enjoyed the day by the pool. The Red Dust Role Models continued to provide as much assistance as possible, whether that was by being human springboards with which the kids performed flips, or Frances doing her best to keep the peace over at the trampoline – to not nearly as much success.

Ultimately, the week spent in Areyonga came to an end. Although our mission was to deliver a message of healthy living, the overwhelming sense that we as individuals had received so much more from the people of Areyonga than we had given was a feeling shared by the entire Red Dust team. We thank Red Dust and McGrathNicol for allowing us to participate in such a fulfilling and life changing experience!