Hitchhiking the Outback: part 1

Australia, Hitchhiking

“If you were a woman I’d give you a lift,” a sleazy truck driver says to Chris. It’s late afternoon in Charters Towers in eastern Australia. We’re excited and nervous as we stick our thumbs out and wait for our first car to take us into Australia’s Outback. A billboard poster behind us advertises how to make ‘fuller cattle’.

The sky turns pink as the sun goes down. Miners drive past us on their way to one of Australia’s many mines. Road trains (giant four-carriage trucks) speed past us,  full of cows who have been transported through the 40°C heat.

It’s immediately obvious that the Outback is going to be frustrating for two vegan activists who have just come from protests on the east coast against coal mining.

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A road train carries cargo through the Outback

We finally get picked up by a young couple who manage a cattle station (farming meat) of half a million acres. “That’s a small farm compared to others,” they tell us.

‘GREENIES PISS OFF: I SUPPORT LIVE ANIMAL EXPORTS’, says a sticker on the car in front. The couple love it. I’m quietly offended.

“Be careful of Aboriginal people in Mt Isa,” they tell us. Oh, shit, they’re racists. “They get all the benefits and don’t want to work. And only get in a car with Aboriginal people as a last resort.”

It’s dark, and we don’t feel safe enough to challenge their racist views as much as we’d like.

We pull up at a dried riverbed and the couple give us their swag (an Australian heavy-duty sleeping bag/tarp combination). We sleep on the very dusty ground under the stars whilst they sleep in their horse box.

The following morning we’re dropped off in Mount Isa, a town with an enormous mine in the centre, and a population employed by the mining industry. People from the east coast fly in to make money working on the mines, then fly home again. Locals tell us not to drink the tap water: it’s too contaminated by the mining industry.

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Mount Isa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Kalkadoon First Nations people are the true custodians of the land of Mount Isa. In the late 1800s almost a thousand Kalkadoon locals lost their lives when fighting to stop their homeland being colonised by the white Europeans.

We try to hitchhike out of Mount Isa for hours, but most vehicles going past belong to mine workers, who either can’t or don’t want to take us. We wild camp on the outskirts of the town.

**
“Don’t hitchhike the Outback! Cars break down and you’ll run out of water!” people on the east coast had told us in fear when we had told them of our plans.

Anthony and Bec, on holiday from the east coast, pick us up next, and their car continually breaks down as we attempt to make it through the Outback. They’re completely relaxed, though, and are stocked up with plenty of water.

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The Outback, as seen from a car window

And in reality, this part of the Outback isn’t really the middle of nowhere. If you run into car trouble, there’s always people (or should I say, men) to help you out. As men stand around the car bonnet, trying to fathom out what’s wrong, I wish that I gave a crap about cars and knew how to fix them. I imagine the looks on the men’s faces if I were to fix the car!

That night we camp with Anthony and Bec, and they bake us scones under the stars. Scones whilst wild camping! They were worth the 24 hour wait for a lift!

The next day we hitch through small Aboriginal towns – Tennants Creek, Ti Tree and Aileron – and find ourselves in the city of Alice Springs.

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Alice is the colonisers’ name for Mparntwe. It’s bang-smack in the middle of Australia, and is a pleasant city, with cockatoos squawking in the trees. But Mparntwe has its problems. We see the police harassing Aboriginal people daily, preventing them from basic rights and dignity.

The racist Northern Territory laws mean that Australians on benefits are forced to receive their state welfare money on a ‘Basics Card’, where they can only buy items that are approved by the government, and only in approved shops. This card ensures that white Australians in authority remain an oppressive force over First Nations Australians, dictating to them what they buy and where they can buy it.

On top of this, the alcohol shop in Mparntwe constantly has a police officer sitting at the door, profiling Aboriginal customers, demanding their names and addresses, and even preventing them from buying alcohol.

We go to a Shut Youth Prisons demonstration, joining both First Nations and white activists in blocking the entrance of the highway to protest against Aboriginal youth incarceration, the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody, and racial profiling by the police.

I’m shocked by the violence of the police, who brandish their bottles of pepper spray and wrestle people to the ground. They arrest a number of people, including an Aboriginal activist called Dylan Voller who has already been tortured, tear gassed and stripped naked whilst incarcerated. Footage of him shackled and hooded whilst in youth detention made international news in 2016.

Mparntwe is typical of many Outback towns that we visit, in that white people are making masses of money through working in Aboriginal communities.

Whilst hitchhiking through the country,  some white Australians have complained to us about the millions of dollars being spent on services to Aboriginal communities: “The government keeps throwing money at the problem and nothing changes,” people moan. These people don’t want to reflect on the land theft that has given them their own comfortable lives.

And I have to wonder whether the state really wants to solve inequality between non-indigenous and First Nations Australians when it’s such a big money-earner for all the (white) doctors, teachers, social workers, counsellors, handymen and charity workers, who get paid a lot extra to move to ‘remote communities’.

Of course, there are decent people doing these jobs. But many don’t look at the bigger picture: the need for complete system change to abolish white supremacy and white saviourism. I would urge more of  these decent teachers, doctors and counsellors to protest on the frontlines and actively stand up against the state’s systematic racism.

The extreme disparity seems to suit white Australia’s economy very nicely: “a parasitic white industry of civil servants, contractors, lawyers and consultants that controls and often profits from Aboriginal Australia,” says journalist John Pilger.

But to me, Mparntwe is a city of hope. Despite the attempts to wipe out Aboriginal cultures, we hear a number of languages spoken on the streets. The Australian government continues in its attempts to assimilate First Nations people, but will not succeed. After all, their connection to their land dates back over 50,000 years.

**
I’d like to acknowledge that the First Nations peoples of Australia, their elders and their ancestors, are the custodians of the land that I have been travelling through. We hitchhiked through the Australian Outback in late 2017.  I’ve used my diary to jog my memory when writing this blog.

Confused about the terms ‘First Nations’ and ‘Aboriginal’? Read here.

Read part 2 of Hitchhiking The Outback here.

Read my post, Learning About Australia, here.

And read my post about hitchhiking Australia’s east coast here.

 

 

 

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