Kathleen Epelde

Learning to Read

by Kathleen Epelde, Winner, 2010 Northern Territory Literary Awards

Turning onto the Stuart Highway, I press down on the accelerator and don’t let up until the needle reaches 130, arriving at Erldunda in record time an hour and a half later. Tourists sit on picnic tables in front of the roadhouse, dazed by all the space. There are Indian women in bright pink saris, looking like exotic lotus flowers that got blown off course. There are Japanese couples in khaki outfits, regarding the world at arm’s length through cameras. There are Germans sporting brand new Akubras and grey nomads comparing mileage. A few people are clustered near a fence at the edge of the parking lot, looking at emus that turn their flat heads on long, skinny necks, first one way and then the other to stare back with each uncomprehending glassy brown eye.

Nearby is another fence, this one enclosing faux fauna—gigantic wooden carvings of an echidna and a frilled lizard. Well, Goulburn has the Big Merino, I think. I guess Erldunda is entitled to an echidna.

Road to Papunya I walk into the roadhouse, past shelves laden with bush souvenirs. They’ve got everything in here, from tea towels to condoms stamped with kangaroos. Normally, I like to browse, buy at least a few postcards. My favourite are the kind with cartoonish figures of a scantily clad, buxom woman and a skinny man holding a beer, with arrows out from them identifying essential Aussie lexicon: a woman is a sheila, a man is a bloke, a beer is a stubby, etc. Those are about as low as I go.

But it’s caffeine I’m after today. I buy a can of Coke and hurry back out to the Troopie, eager to beat all of the vehicles jammed into this parking lot onto the road.

Out on the Lasseter Highway, there’s a holiday feeling in the air. Almost every approaching driver gives me the Outback Wave--a couple of fingers or sometimes an entire hand lifted off the steering wheel--a sign of solidarity among us hardy folks out here braving the bush. Just about everyone on this road is on the tourist pilgrimage to Uluru, going or returning, pulling wobbly caravans or in well-equipped looking Brits camper vans. There’s usually at least one of those Wicked vans too, the kind favoured by backpackers, covered in random text ranging from the philosophical (‘Age is a very high price to pay for maturity’) to the randy. I get stuck behind one for a few miles that reads simply: ‘Inspect her gadget.’

An hour later, just past the Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse, I spot the sign I’m looking for. It’s not big and brown like those that announce Uluru and Watarrka, but small, like a street sign, a piece of metal stuck on a pole that says ‘Imanpa.’ One end of it points at a dirt track on the opposite side of the highway. I turn onto it and, fifteen minutes later, enter another world.

Mangy dogs roam the dirt roads that criss-cross through the place, or lie in front of concrete houses that are dark inside with broken windows and rubbish strewn all over the dirt around them. There’s everything from old refrigerators and car parts to nappies, bottles, and cans lying around. On the verandas of many of the houses are dirty mattresses and blankets. Looking around, you get the feeling that domesticity does not agree with these people. They seem to have no regard for material objects, those things we whitefellas spend all our lives accumulating.

Every Aboriginal community I’ve been to in Central Australia looks more or less like this, though Imanpa is one of the worst. The sense of hopelessness pervading the place is almost palpable.

But bathing this squalid scene is a dazzling light, like pure liquid grace pouring out of the sky, suffusing everything - the rusty old cars, the peeling yellow and turquoise paint on the houses, the brown skin of the people - with radiance. Even the rubbish lying in the soft red dirt looks almost luminous.

I pull up to the corrugated iron building that is the training centre and park the Troopie next to another white landcruiser. These are the signifiers of whitefellas out bush. Like vultures, we drive around in them, from one community to the next, bearing papers. This one is Phil’s; it says ‘Anangu Jobs’ on the side. I still haven’t figured out exactly what jobs that refers to—ones they are supposedly training people to do or all the jobs the Anangu represent for us. In most organisations set up to serve the needs of Aboriginal people, the bureaucracy soon takes on a life of its own and whitefellas end up being the only ones employed out here.

Phil looks up from his computer as I enter.

‘You should have rung before you left,’ he says. ‘No one’s here. Tuesday is casino day.’

‘What, they’re all in Alice?’ I wail, visions of Lasseter’s casino dancing through my head. There go my ACH—‘Actual Countable Hours’—or bums on seats that justify my position.

‘No!’ he laughs. ‘Tuesday is the day they get their Centrelink money, so there are a couple of big card games going on. They’ll be over in a while. I’ve got to finish this report,’ he says, turning back to a pile of papers on his desk.

I unpack the Troopie, making several trips back and forth bearing boxes of books, papers, pencils, and laptops for the literacy workshop I’m here to deliver. The classroom is a hot, windowless space with a sink in the corner, next to it, a kettle, jars of tea and sugar, and a few chipped cups. There is a CD player and a few ancient computers against one wall, collecting a film of red dust. In the middle of the room is a table covered in graffiti. Featuring prominently are ‘Demons—# 1’ and various girls’ names linked to those of boys by a plus sign, with ‘OTBL’ in firm capital letters below (short for ‘only two best lovers’). The first student to arrive is Freddy. He is a tall, thin man in his twenties, who is mute. It was never clear to me whether Freddy couldn’t speak or simply wouldn’t. No one seemed to know.

‘He’s seen some horrific things,’ Phil told me on my first visit to Imanpa. ‘And he sniffed for a while too, which didn’t help. I’ll tell you about it sometime.’

He never did.

Freddy could hear, though, or maybe he was just proficient at reading lips. And he could read and write at a low level. He always worked diligently, filling in workbook after workbook. But no matter how well he did, I could never pass him on to the next level because he couldn’t do the speaking part of the assessments.

Once, Freddy tried to say something. I was working with another student across the room when a low, wounded sound came from where he was sitting. I looked up, every nerve in my body tensed, poised to rush over and encourage him to say more—a word, maybe, or even a whole sentence.

But he seemed alarmed by all the attention and quickly retreated back into silence. Head down, he doggedly kept filling in blanks with symbols for sounds he would never utter. I gesticulate a lot with Freddy, provide more than enough animation for two people in our interactions. Sometimes I get carried away. One day, when I was rattling papers over my head with a wild look in my eyes in protest at all the paperwork I had to do, he broke into a big smile. It was like a silent laugh. His brown eyes looked light and happy for several seconds. Mostly they look like those of an old man who has seen too much. Samuel was the next student to drift in that day. The day I met Samuel, I walked into the classroom after morning tea to find him dancing to some rock music he’d put in the CD player, tossing aside what was in there—(‘How to Ask for Directions’)—and cranking up the volume.

He was full of confidence. After he told me his name, he asked me mine. And he always called me by my first name, the only student who did.

Samuel had a sensitive side, too. Once there was an awkward moment in class when Freddy had to be passed over as the students played a game that required speaking.

‘This guy’s good with cars,’ Samuel announced, patting Freddy on the shoulder. ‘Anything broken, he can fix it!’

And I wrote the word ‘mechanic’ up on the board as Freddy smiled weakly.


I am walking around the classroom, helping the students with today’s lesson, and when I get to Samuel, I see that he is drawing.

‘What’s this, Samuel?’

‘A snake!’ he says, flashing a smile full of beautiful white teeth.

‘Yes, I see that. But what about the lesson?’

‘This one, Kuniya. From Uluru,’ he says, ignoring my question. I don’t care. I like the way he says ‘Uluru.’ It sounds strong.

‘She been away from her country long time. Goin’ back there to have her babies.’

‘How far will she go?’ I ask in my best teacher voice, trying to get him back on task.

‘Long way.’

‘How many miles?’

Silence. More drawing. I try again.

‘Where is she starting from?’

‘Over there by Erldunda…’ he says, stretching out his arm toward the southeast and shaking his hand in the sideways wave--palm down and fingers together—that Aboriginal people around here use when indicating direction. They never point. It’s always this sideways wave.

‘…And she gotta go all the way to Uluru,’ he says, tracing an arc in the air from the southeast to the southwest.

Once again, I am amazed at the sense of direction these people have. Every time any of my students ever mention a place to me, they always gesture in its direction, and they are never wrong. They read this country like a map.

Later that morning, Phil comes into the classroom with another young man.

‘Andrew wants to enrol in the class,’ he says.

Andrew doesn’t look like he wants to enrol. He’s glowering at me. I am pretty sure that this has more to do with Phil’s numbers than anything Andrew wants to do. But when I ask the young man if he wants to take the placement test, he says yes.

During the speaking and listening part of the test, he responds to my questions about his favourite TV programs and sport teams with mono-syllabic answers, a scornful look in his eyes. When I try to get him to elaborate, he just says, ‘yeah,’ and I feel like one more in a long line of missionaries and anthropologists, whitefellas always asking questions, always wanting more.

I see from his application form that he has completed tenth grade, an incredible achievement out here. There are no secondary schools on any of the communities in the Central Desert, except for the one college near Uluru that he attended. He’s obviously bright, so I move on to the written part of the test, asking him to write about his goals after he finishes the literacy class. He takes the paper and pencil I give him and moves to the other end of the table. A few minutes later, he hands the paper back:

I want to be a rubbish collector because I like places to be clean. I like picking up rubbish. Better than just walk around, doing nothing. No jobs, nothing here. Some people goes to the highway, stop cars and ask tourists for money.

There are a couple of blank lines and then this:

I feel sick think. I think too much. I always cry to sleep.

Later, Phil tells me that the boy’s father was murdered in Alice Springs last year.


In the afternoon, I work with two young women, Linda and Mabel. They are busy reading when the silence is interrupted by the sound of someone running across the tin roof. The footsteps stop directly above us and then we hear a woman yelling and stomping her feet.

Neither of the girls looks up, so I decide to ignore it too. I remind myself that what white people consider shouting is just the way Aboriginal people often communicate with one another. Still, a part of me is wondering why all of this is happening on the roof. After a few minutes, Linda looks up and says in the whisper she always uses when speaking to me, ‘You better go out there. That woman say she gonna hang herself.’

Hang herself?!’

‘Yeah,’ she says in the same flat tone, and goes back to her book.

I walk outside and look up to see a young woman on the roof struggling with a rope, trying to tie it onto a piece of steel sticking out from the corner. An old woman is shouting up at her in language.

I join in.

‘Come on, you don’t want to do this,’ I say, sounding ridiculous to myself. The girl looks at me in disgust and jerks on the rope, pulling the knot tighter.

I look around. The Council office across the street is closed for the day—all the landcruisers that were parked out front are gone. Phil has left too—back to the caravan at the Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse that he calls home. And the nearest police station is in Alice Springs.

I give the old woman a beseeching look. She just smiles at me and waves her hand, as though to say not to worry. Then she shouts up at the girl again, who unleashes a stream of invective back.

The old woman picks up a rock and tosses it up toward the girl. It bounces to the ground with a thud and she walks away. A few people who had gathered for a while to watch also leave.

Taking my cue from them, I go back inside. Neither Linda nor Mabel looks up.

Mercifully, a few minutes later, I hear the sound of footsteps receding in the direction from where they came.

It’s time to call it a day. I am carrying things out to the Troopie, shoving a box of books into the back when I feel someone behind me. I turn around and there is Freddy, holding out my plastic file box he thought I’d forgotten.

I thank him and he pats my arm lightly as I take it. Then he lifts his hands up in a sweeping gesture that takes in everything—the broken-down houses, the rubbish, the mangy dogs, the murders, the suicides—and, bringing his hands down in front of him, he pats the air a couple of times, as though to say it’s all good.

And I drive off, feeling blessed.

When I get to the road that leads back to the highway, my foot goes heavy on the accelerator. It’s an involuntary reaction. I’m always relieved to leave this place, flee the sadness. These people have trauma fatigue. In the words of a nun I know who lived at Santa Teresa for fifteen years: ‘If we whitefellas had to go through a quarter of what Aboriginal people suffer every year, we wouldn’t be left standing.’

So I’m going at a pretty good clip when I hear a popping sound and then the car suddenly goes wobbly.

I get out and look at the flat tyre. Then I look up at the spare on the roof. I climb up onto the roof and look at the spare tyre some more. Then I climb back down, wishing I had paid more attention in the Four Wheel Drive Training course on the day we learned how to change a tyre. I’ve never changed a tyre in my life. Even if I could figure out how the jack works and get the flat off, I’d never be able to get that behemoth spare on.

I sit down on the side of the road. It’s hot. And quiet. I look at the dusty mulgas and think, There’s absolutely nothing out here but dirt and rocks and bushes and flies and…suddenly I remember snakes. I jump up and go back inside the car to wait.

Then my thoughts drift onto the subject of mythical snakes. This is where Kuniya travelled, slithering over the earth with her eggs, leaving a dreaming track in the sand all the way to Uluru.

I’d heard about Kuniya before. Her story is told at Uluru. There are marks like gashes on one side of the rock that are said to be where she struck Liru, a poisonous snake, in a great battle. Near them is a bigger gash, where she threw a handful of sand to contain the forces of her anger, so it would not harm others.

And suddenly, I get a glimpse of what the Dreaming might be about. Or think I do, anyway. Aboriginal people read this country like a map because it is a map for them. It’s one big text, inscribed by the Ancestors in the Dreamtime. They always say that the Ancestors walked across a featurelessland--a blank page--writing themselves into it as they went by leaving the vast web of dreaming stories that criss-cross this country. It’s full of writing we can’t read.

And the Dreaming is not over. It’s still going on. I think of how immediate and alive that story of Kuniya was to Samuel. The Dreaming is a way of seeing, of knowing, of reading—reading country.

In the rear view mirror, I see a cloud of dust appear on the horizon and I jump out to wave down the approaching car. As it slows, a brown arm waves back at me and then a head leans out the window.

It’s Samuel. And Freddy, driving.

‘Hullo Kathleen!’ Samuel calls out. ‘What happened?’

I walk over to explain and he tells me he’s on his way to Curtain Springs.

‘I’m gonna learn how to ride a camel. Take them tourists around Uluru!’

Freddy is already out of the car, surveying the situation. I point up to the spare and back to him, looking helpless. He grins and springs into action, as fast as those Warlpiri guys in Bush Mechanics. He has the tyre changed in fifteen minutes flat.

I try to give him some money but he shakes his head, so I put it away. Then he sweeps his hands out to take it all in—the dry earth, the relentless sun, the blank, blue dome of sky—and he pats the air a couple of times, as though to say that God is in the heavens, the Dreaming is alive, and everything is going to be all right.

Or maybe he’s just telling me to slow down.

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More in this category: « Alumni Feature June 2010

1 comment

  • Beautifully written from the heart, thank you.

    June Monday, 26 January 2015 21:34 Comment Link

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