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Highway One – Katherine



The Katherine region is, quite simply, one of the most stunningly beautiful places on Earth.

The largest region in the NT it covers most of the Top End and what is sometimes called the lower top end.

The stunning Katherine Gorge is so breath-taking that it would rate as a natural wonder. It is a sacred site, a world heritage listed site, it is a national park and for that matter it is also a national treasure.


The town of Katherine is a sleepy town baked in heat. People walk slow, they talk slow, the pace of life isn’t really a pace, it’s more like a dance rhythm. The roads between Katherine and Darwin are the first major, busy roads for thousands of kilometers in all directions.

There are problems of course and they are the same problems seen all over the Western side of the North. What we call itinerancy, homelessness or living on the street, is called ‘living in the long grass’ at the Top End. The long grass is a great metaphor, it is a place where you can feel hidden, it is a place without a shelter, it is a place where you can get easily lost. Poverty is a place in the long grass, where people are trapped, stuck in a vicious cycle of a hand to mouth existence, caught in a bad repeating loop, living between Centrelink payments and forced by the ridiculous cost of living in Australia (and especially in remote areas) to be begging for basics like food but also street commodities with real street vale: cigarettes and (of course) grog.

IMG_3116Handing out smokes is a very easy way to meet people in the Top End. Cigarettes are a currency on the street and in much the same way that handing out bags of rice helps you to meet people in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, cigarettes are now about a dollar for a dart, for the cost of a dollar you make someone smile, you can hear a bit of their story, they take a moment to get to know you. I have been thanked that many times, thanked in a great display, handshaking, back patting, huge smiles, all for what is really a small gesture of good will, one smoke is enough to open a lot of doors here. Not only is it a street currency, it is a mechanism for meeting people, street smoking is accepted whereas street drinking is illegal so that smoking with strangers is the single best way I know of to get started in any new place.

Smoking with a bloke named Justin I learned a bit of local lore and history, I asked him what he would say to a politician if they were standing in front of him, what is Darwin’s biggest problem. He immediately replied cost of living. The evidence for it is everywhere, most obviously, there are quite a lot of people living in the long grass. Justin explained that this major and very serious problem has become steadily worse over the years. There seems nothing at all slowing the trend down, to the contrary, there are instead major factors speeding up the rate of homelessness and the biggest single factor is what Justin put his finger on.

IMG_3394A fascinating man from Katherine named Aaron, who was only visiting Darwin to buy a car, talked to me at length about the grog problem. It has hit his own extended family. His auntie has just started dialysis treatment, so has one of his cousins and an uncle. All from grog. He wanted to bring his auntie back to Katherine, there is a remote community there near Nitmiluk, the Katherine Gorges, where Aaron was born and raised. It is a grog free community. They serve only bush tucker.  He hoped to have her stay there but said that it was too serious now and clean living was not enough for her, she would need the dialysis and would depend on that for the rest of her life.

His father, he said, had never touched tobacco or booze. He himself was a smoker and not a drinker and had only just started smoking. He was kicking himself, ‘only been on these a month.’ he said, ‘dunno what I was thinking.’ I admitted that as a smoker with over two decades smoking experience, I don’t know what I was thinking when I took it up. That said, without these cigarettes, without being forced outside into a small communal area to have a smoke, I’d have had no reason to speak to Aaron.  The guy was a veritable mine of information and seemed to enjoy telling me about his family and his life growing up.

He loved the entire Katherine region and seemed very pleased that I had seen a bit of it and Nitmiluk especially. He is a proud man, a warm and kind Australian. He was as dark skinned as I am white and pale skinned but we both share these values of speaking our mind and treating people as individuals, not as members of a race. I asked him if he thought the alcohol policy of the Top End was worth anything at all. He could not say yes. You could see it breaking his heart. He has family dying from the problem.

AaronIMG_3339 talked at length about why Katherine made him so proud, ‘You ever been to Port Augusta?’ he asked me. I knew only that it was near Adelaide and close to the Eastern end of the Great Australian Bite. He explained that there were two townships separated by a highway. A segregated community. ‘Blacks this side of the highway, whites that side,’ he was clearly as angry as he might get about such things. Aaron is one of those guys who seems stuck on cruise control but he was agitated when talking about segregation and the terrible history of our country. What was so lovely for me was meeting such a like-minded soul and we reminded each other that so long as there were people of integrity left to do the work needing to be done, there was always cause for hope.

IMG_3379I told him what I made of the grog problem here: Everyone can see it, everyone can understand the problem of the booze and it’s so clear that the complications it causes are really bad, it keeps us more segregated than ever. This is a real problem and nobody knows how to solve it but we all tend to tip toe around it for fear of causing offence or for fear of even engaging in an issue where race is such a significant factor. People are so scared of being called racists they won’t even talk about what everyone can see. That has to change. The attempted solutions we have at present are based entirely on minute but real biological differences in race, diabetes susceptibility is real, alcoholism is real but worst of all the grog problem enables a policy of segregation and division, it empowers bigotry and that is one of Australia’s great national disgraces. It is a disgrace dating back centuries.

We can do better. We must do better. To not even try means another generation will come and go and the problem will become more deeply embedded.

I cannot help but feel that a solution, a partial solution must exist, we must be looking for such a solution as a national agenda. It is a matter of some national urgency that we eradicate the disease of the grog and not treat the symptoms, not fear the issues of racial differences and notice instead our common plight, our great and wonderful country and what the needs of our indigenous peoples really are.

To purloin and modify a phrase due to Abraham Lincoln, a divided community cannot stand.

IMG_3413If we are ever to stand as a nation and not stand up as two divided nations, divided between North and South by geography, economy, population and population growth, divided by race, with different sets of laws, with different notions of culture and integration, if we are to ever become a single country, if we are to ever have a past we are proud of, we have to make a lot of changes and the greatest changes will be noticed here in the Top End but the real changes would have to happen where the policy is set, where all the money is concentrated. To change the Top End would require a change to how Canberra works, a change to how mining companies operate in WA.

We would need to rethink everything from the economy which sucks cash from the North into the cities of the South, to the laws of the North which really have the effect of segregation of people based skin pigments and not common human struggles. As a recovering alcoholic I well know that alcoholism doesn’t care what colour you are. But the laws do seem to care what colour you are, or what colour you aren’t.

If Australia has pretensions of being a democratic country, it would probably be a good idea to rethink booze laws which can only ever segregate people while helping nobody at all, we cannot afford to have communities which live without any integration. We will need to fundamentally change our society by looking at ourselves, if we are to ever be as democratic and egalitarian as we claim to be, we need to start with the person in the mirror.

IMG_3445Australia once used to be a land of hundreds of nations.  If we are to build one nation out of hundreds, if we are to walk the democratic values we talk about, if this really is a nation of everyone having a fair go (that is simply a stupid white man’s myth) then it would be an Australia where being born black or white would make no difference.   That’s an Australia I could be proud of.

Unfortunately we don’t have that Australia, we have this one instead and we’re going to have to work on it before we can truly say we are the lucky country.

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