ONE day, while I was staying in Yuendumu, I took a trip to the Laramba Sports Weekend. My friends collected me in their troopy and we drove east for two hours on dirt roads.
Teams and onlookers from four remote communities showed up and camped out for a few days. The women played softball and the men, football. The night before we arrived, there’d been a song contest. Sports weekends are a regular, lively fixture in desert life.
Yuendumu is about 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs. Laramba is a smaller settlement, on Anmatjere land, closer to the Stuart Highway. On the way, we drove through a community called Mt Allen (or Yuelamu) and past a few outstations – clusters of houses where families live out of town.
There are several hundred remote communities in the Territory, most of them very small, and all of them profoundly different to mainstream Australia. Visiting Yuendumu and Laramba, I realised I was travelling to different countries. I spent three years taking Indigenous studies subjects at Monash University, but strangely, I hadn’t grasped this reality. The land is still occupied; the spoken languages are not English.
When we arrived at Laramba, a lengthy debate was underway in the timekeepers’ stand about which sides would play each other. We waited, lathering sunscreen and looking at the red dirt oval, its boundaries marked by lime dust.
On the Mt Allen team there was a big lump of a lad, a little chubby, with a plaited rats tail. My friend pointed him out: “I’ve heard he’s the one to watch,” he said.
The games were relaxed affairs. Play was skilful, but not physical. There was little chasing and few tackles – you wouldn’t want to risk your skin on the raspy surface. The big lad positioned himself at centre half back, intercepted several balls and cruised through the middle. It was a fun afternoon.
A couple of weeks later, back in Alice Springs, I watched the inaugural game of the Central Australian Redtails in the NTFL, which is the competition held in Darwin over the wet season. I noticed the big lad playing at full-forward, and found out his name is Daniel Stafford. He’s only 18.
He kicked four goals as the Redtails surged in the last quarter to win by five points and, later, was named the competition’s rising star for the round. The team did a long, raucous lap of honour while the crowd cheered and whistled. The newspaper reported effusively:“Pandemonium struck the ground as the final siren sounded, with emotional scenes of jubilation and local pride”.
The day before, one of the new club’s founders, Rob Clarke, said the Redtails were about more than sport. “This football team is about changing people’s lives here in town and in communities.” He’d decided to start the club two years ago, after a promising young player died in the summer off-season. The Redtails are playing a four-game trial, and seeking to join for the full competition next year.
The first Clontarf program was started in Perth in 2000, and it now operates in nearly 50 schools all across the country, with thousands of students enrolled. It uses football – Australian rules or rugby league – as a drawcard to keep Indigenous boys in school. The website explains: “Clontarf is a sophisticated behavioural change program, not a sporting program”. Many schools have set up similar incentive-based sports schemes for girls, such as Katherine High’s Stronger Smarter Sisters.
For now, school retention rates are low among Indigenous students. Less than half make it to year 12, compared with nearly four out of five non-Indigenous students.
I visited the Clontarf common room one morning before school started. About 30 teenagers were in there early, playing table tennis, pool and video games. On the walls were photos of the camps they’d been on. The staff run footy training sessions twice a week, among other things.
The build-up to the wet season has begun, so the weather is hot and steamy. It’s the witching hour, the time when tempers fray. Later that day, Charlie told me, there was a nasty fight. For many of the students, there are no easy answers. But the programs boost attendance and retention rates and support school-leavers to find work or more training. The boys have a place to be, somewhere on campus where they belong.
When he lived in Katherine, Charlie helped start the Big River Hawks, a new team in the Darwin under-18 competition. To get a game, you’ve got to be attending school or work.
Players travel to Katherine from communities spread across an area the size of Victoria: south-west as far as Lajamanu, east to Ngukkurr and north-east to Numbulwar on the Gulf of Carpentaria.
I saw them play one week in Darwin. Gosh, can they play. At half-time, up by nine goals, the young men ran off the field whooping and cheering. After the break, they emerged from their rooms whooping again and jumping with joy, literally. They won by 128 points in the fierce midday sun.
I’ve watched local football nearly every weekend I’ve been in the Territory. In part it’s because I like footy. It’s something here I understand. But it also feels like I’m witnessing something constructive, both on the field and in the crowd. The players are talented and determined. Among supporters, the game is a shared language.
So, of course, I went to the footy another weekend in Darwin too. There was an NTFL triple-header on at Marrara Stadium. The Central Australian Redtails were playing the reigning premiers, the Tiwi Bombers. They were behind all day, but late in the last quarter Stafford, that big lad with a rats tail, kicked a goal that put them within reach.
The sun had set and the grass was luminous beneath the lights of the stadium. I glanced up and saw a skein of geese flying in formation across the purple sky. This week, it wasn’t to be: the Tiwi Bombers kicked away again. There will be another week.