In 2009, I was on the Australian leg of my year-long world tour. By about March our time in Australia was coming to an end and The Boy and I had nearly journeyed around the entire country by train and camper van. In the two months we’d been travelling around, we never felt we’d got a proper grasp of attitudes towards and relationships with Aborigines.
The media tells you Aborigines and “white Australians” now co-exist in harmony after land rights were recognised back in 1976 and the original act was amended some thirty years later. Driving through smaller “townships” along the west and north coast it is clear this is not the reality. The reality is complex and hard to understand purely by distanced observation.
Our first Aussie trip back in 2005 along the well-travelled East Coast did little to challenge this well publicised misconception. It wasn’t until we moved away from popular tourist destinations that we actually started to see Aboriginal people and it wasn’t until we hit the Northern Territory that we had our first somewhat mixed interactions. First impressions were far from flattering.
Camping in the grounds of a plush-looking hotel in Fitzroy we were disturbed in the middle of the night by a drunken figure tapping on the side of the van. In the middle of no-where, exhausted from the oppressive humidity and disturbed from my naked slumber, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the attentions of this stranger and actually felt quite threatened.
First arriving into Darwin, we stayed on the city’s outskirts in a campsite with friendly full-time residents, both Kiwis and Aussies. Here we once again witnessed overt racism from people who were otherwise well-balanced, educated and welcoming. It wasn’t until our second night that we finally gained some genuine insight into the Aboriginal culture and clashes between Australia’s people.
In the bar of our city centre hostel, The Boy met Andrew McMillan. We’d actually argued that day but as soon as The Boy discovered Andrew was a writer, he suggested I come to meet him. After our initial encounter, we ended up spending our last two nights in Darwin going over to Andrew’s house, the affectionately named “bunker”.
Having received the Northern Territory Book Of The Year Award for his non-fiction novel, An Intruder's Guide to East Arnhem Land, Andrew was invaluable in explaining hostilities between Australian “whites” and Aborigines. He was a fascinating man who had truly lived to the max and I’m sad to say is no longer alive.
Following on from our days in Darwin, we witnessed yet more drunken Aborigines in Katherine and also met an elderly Aboriginal artist who dramatically contrasted with previous negative images we'd been confronted with. When we left Australia, we planned to stay in contact with Andrew and often talked of arranging a meet-up if he ever re-visited the Hay Literary Festival.
Unfortunately words were merely words and time flew by. We never got in contact with him again. It is only in the last few days that I have discovered Andrew died battling bowel cancer in February this year. Hearing of his death left me with a feeling of profound sadness. I didn’t know Andrew very well but he made such an impact, I doubt I will ever forget him. I am just relieved to hear that he spent his last days and final moments as he always wanted to. The Boy clearly remembers Andrew saying he'd like to be carried out of “the bunker” in a box and that is exactly what happened. But only after he'd formed a last minute band...
R.I.P. Andrew – wherever you are, I bet you’re creatively busy!