Icey poles and Carlton Cold: the hospitality of a Wiligi Swan

The Poms think Australia has no culture. They conveniently ignore the 40,000 years of Aboriginal heritage and the 118 years of my beloved St Kilda Football Club. Okay, so maybe they are half right. Either way, my English wife and her Melbourne-born/Ballarat-raised husband are determined to show our 10 and 12 year old English-born daughters some Aussie culture on our five week holiday downunder.

Wiligi outstation is on the Coburg Peninsula, deep into Aboriginal Arnhemland. To get there you need a sturdy 4WD – it is three hot, dusty, bone-shaking hours beyond the edge of Kakadu, via numerous croc-infested creek crossings. It is hostile country. In contrast, on our arrival we are greeted warmly by our Aboriginal host, Reuben Cooper, and his convivial Anglo wife, Dawn, who immediately invite us into their home for icy poles and an ice cold beer. We stumble out three drinks later to face the origami challenge of erecting our 6-man tent – not easy at the best of times. Inevitably, we snap a pole in the process! Later our hosts unexpectedly furnish us with two freshly caught barramundi for our dinner and a few niblets of the most gorgeous battered Spanish mackerel I have ever tasted – just to tide us over until we get our camp fire going. There are other campers/fishermen at Wiligi but for some reason Reuben and Dawn have taken a shine to us – perhaps because we have children of similar age to their grandchildren.

We awake to another typically gorgeous dry season day in the Top End. It is a million miles from where we live in leafy Buckinghamshire in the UK (and Ballarat). For starters, it’s gorgeously hot every day. It’s also tinder dry and teeming with overly friendly flies, voracious mosquitoes and angry green ants. On the plus side, we are camped beside the most beautiful beach you have ever seen. Unfortunately you cannot swim in the water. We figured it must be off limits due to crocs – we were wrong; sharks pose the greater threat apparently. Either way, we ain’t goin’ in! Despite that, we spend an enjoyable day fishing, eating and generally relaxing.

During the afternoon Reuben delivers wood for our campfire. We chew the fat for a while. Reuben is an Aboriginal elder/traditional owner. He was born around here but spent most of his life with his mother in Darwin. As the eldest son, he returned to Wiligi when his father died. When I ask him how much land he owns, he replies that he merely takes care of it for future generations and that the land owns us. He cares for a great swathe of Arnhemland. We are amongst Aboriginal royalty.

In the evening, we are again invited into Reuben and Dawn’s home for icy poles and Carlton Colds. With the footy on the telly in the background, talk turns to favourite teams, playing histories etc. My hotchpotch career with St Pat’s, Springbank and the North London Lions is totally eclipsed as Reuben quietly reveals that he played for Darwin Buffaloes and South Melbourne! He’s not that keen to blow his own trumpet, but Dawn shows us a few photos and tells us that Reuben was the first Aboriginal player from the NT to play in the VFL. We are also amongst Aussie Rules royalty!

Slowly Reuben opens up about his days at SMFC, revealing how daunting it was as a 17 year old Aboriginal in Melbourne in the 1960’s . Reuben was regularly racially abused – both on the field and in the street. He was even booed by the crowd when he got his hands on the pill. Utterly shameful. Thankfully we have come a long way since then, but not far enough yet. Reuben bristles as he speaks of the past, but it passes quickly and he does not seem to bear any ill feeling towards white fellas. From what we saw he takes each person as he finds them – not the slightest regard to the colour of their skin, despite his history. Mandela-esque. It’s humbling.

At Wiligi I had hoped to introduce our girls to Aboriginal culture and later in our trip to Aussie Rules culture in Melbourne. In Reuben Cooper we found both and a whole lot more.


South Melbourne fans (and Swans fans) will be interested to know that Peter Bedford is our guest at the Almanac lunch Aug 29 at the Waterside Hotel in Melbourne. more details in the Calendar of Events.

About Brian Corcoran

Melbourne born and Ballarat raised, I have spent almost half of my nearly 50 years on this planet in the Old Dart. As a result I have no idea who's who in the AFL these days but am pleased to occasionally hear that Ablett, Watson et al are still running around. However, I am disappointed that Fitzroy have been so shunned by the AFL that they do not even publish their scores any more.


  1. I loved the way you drew out the contrasts. England and Arnhem Land. Glorious scenery with sharks and crocs. Human cruelty with generosity of spirit. Financial riches with emotional and spiritual riches.
    What a journey – for you and your family – and for Reuben and Dawn. Thanks Brian.
    Can any Almanackers shed light on Reuben Cooper as a footballer with the Swans in the 60’s. He must have been a hell of a player, to have been judged worthy of a VFL spot in those days. When distance; primitive communications and racial prejudice counted against him.

  2. Dave Brown says

    Seems like quite a remarkable family. A quick search on google provides that Reuben played 2 senior games with South Melbourne in 1969 as a 17 year old. It also points to a Reuben Cooper Senior who was the first Aboriginal player in Darwin and is a member of the AFL NT Hall of Fame.

  3. Peter Flynn says

    Great job Old Mucker.

    A terrific trip by the sounds of it.


  4. Thanks for you kind comments, Peter. When Reuben got down to Melbourne there was some sort of hold up with his transfer for some reason, so he played a season with a suburban club, I think. He did only play 2 senior game at SMFC, but I don’t know how many games he may have played for the reserves. He told me he was coached by both Alan Miller and Norm Smith.

  5. Loved the yarn Brian. I am sure the kids came back with a whole different view on life and the world and certainly more than they will ever learn in 12 years at school

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