FOOTY: Diesel and dust, and desert footy

By Sue Currie

I hear it before I can see it. A rowdy mob of wild-looking Aborigines surges into the clinic a minute after I open the door.

I could be scared of them if I did not know them all as individuals and families. Men of all ages with red headbands; handsome, husky youths bouncing footballs; women in dresses streaked permanently red by desert mud, and chubby, naked kids are all noisily demanding instant attention.

Yesterday was pay day when everyone sat in circles in the dust, gambling their ‘sit-down’ pay with awesome concentration and ferocity till late into the night. Pay day means an empty clinic.

By sunset a fight had developed over cheating at cards. A hugely obese woman, a visitor from another community, dressed only in a tight black skirt, went storming and roaring through the camp for an hour, a lethal-looking quandong stick over her shoulder. Her adversary was circling her with a wheelbrace in his hand. Like everyone else, I watched this confrontation from a safe distance.

I had a vested interest in the outcome of this battle. It would be me who would have to repair the damage.

The community was also concerned. An Aboriginal man should never strike a woman, no matter what the provocation.

During this fracas a father came into the clinic with his small daughter who was covered in suppurating sores. Her glands were so hot and swollen that she was limping and crying with pain. Her fever suggested that septicaemia was threatening. Why do parents wait so long? An hour of cool bathing, Panadol, needles and applying dressings distracted me from the fight. I spent a nervous evening waiting for its casualties, but valour must have prevailed.

Today this mob of modern-day, motorised nomads is leaving for a football carnival in another community. Three hours away, our nearest desert neighbours are staging the grand opening of their grassed Aussie rules oval. Every community of the tribal grouping within a radius of 400 kilometres will attend. The football season out here seems to go on forever. I’ve never heard mention of a draw or a finals series. Every community has its turn as host, but it’s all very impromptu in the style of Aboriginal planning since time immemorial.

This morning they are excited and in a hurry. Everyone wants sores, headaches, guts-aches and snotty noses treated at once. Traditional people are often subdued in the presence of non-Aboriginal strangers, but not once they know you. They laugh and chatter and shout at full volume. They can sound angry when they yell at their kids, but they’re not. It’s just their style. I’ve never seen an Aboriginal child smacked, though one woman told me they get a ‘good hiding’ when they really play up.

Despite my resolve not to be pressured by their pushiness, I hurry from patient to patient, tripping over camp dogs and yelling, “Shut-up and wait your turn. One sister, one guts-ache!”

It makes no difference; six arms, feet or eyes are shoved under my nose at once.

Ancient trucks and beat-up sedans of indeterminate make and age are gunning their unmuffled engines all around the clinic and the store, and jolly people are tumbling in and out of them. Almost everyone is going, from babes in arms to the late middle-aged. Only the oldies, who still clearly remember a life wandering from one waterhole to the next in small family groups, will stay behind.

The store siren hoots over the camp. Miraculously the clinic clears as people rush out as energetically as they barged in. I’ve seen only half of them, but suddenly more pressing matters have arisen. These people live in the ‘right now’ where priorities switch as opportunities present. Survival practices, learned over 40,000 years in a harsh land where scarcity is the norm, are not readily abandoned just because they are no longer necessary. This whimsical switching between energy-preserving stillness and focused activity nearly drove me to despair until I began to understand where it was coming from. (It still drives me to despair at times.)

After plundering the store, the convoy roars off down the red dirt road. A glance at their bright new clothes will tell you who won at cards yesterday.

Suddenly, all is quiet and still except for the old ladies who are meandering around the camp dragging green garbage bags behind them and collecting the cool drink cans and food wrappers which they and everyone else have been chucking around the place for the last week. Hygiene and civic pride are not the motivating forces behind this endeavour where all ‘household’ rubbish till modern times was biodegradable. They are doing it for cash.


Now it is Tuesday and the footy mob is dribbling back into camp. One by one, our heroes troop disconsolately into the clinic, wincing from scrapes and bruises sustained on the grassy battlefield. An Aussie rules fan myself, I am avid for details.

It seems that a shemozzle developed before the ball was even bounced. A miffed petrol-sniffer who’d been banned from playing had taken his revenge with a bit of lateral thinking. After a brief retreat he’d returned with a rifle and shot the football. General consternation reigned until somebody produced another.

The game eventually got under way and by half-time our mob was giving the opposition a thrashing.

“Well, did we win?” I ask Sammy.

“No,” he says, “they cheated.”

“How? What did they do?”

“After half-time they started chuckin’ boomerangs at the ball,” he says dejectedly.

“But what about the umpire? What did he do?”

“He was the other mob’s coach; he gave ’em the boomerangs.”

About Sue Currie

A devoted Magpie since my father took me to my first game at Victoria Park when I was five years old. That was nearly 70 years ago. Even when I was a nurse on a remote Aboriginal desert community I managed to see most Pies' games on Imparja TV. When I went to work up Cape York and found that the only way to find out what was happening to my Pies was to sit in my FWD and listen to HF radio I quit my job and came back to where they play civilised footy, ie., Aussie Rules.


  1. Sue – what a plce to be. I have an uncle in Darwin who works for a small airline service which flies in and out of remote Aboriginal communities keeping them supplied. He used to play football with them when he was younger. He reckons the best talent in the country resides in the north of Australia in these Aboriginal communities. He was saying that in the 70s way before Kevin (Guru) Sheedy.

    Maybe you’ve crossed paths with Frank O’Donnell?

  2. Sue,
    Where is this locale?

  3. Wonderful story, Sue.

    You describe the switch from inactivity to pandemonium perfectly. I’d never actually thought of it that way, but it’s exactly what happens in Aboriginal communities.

    The buzz when everyone is up and about is invigorating.

    Never heard of a footy match being decided by boomerangs, though.

  4. Sue

    Superb. Can I put this on the Manning Clark House website as well?

    Where are you based?

    I went to the carnival at Wanarn in 2006 (from memory). Terrific footy.


  5. Thank you for sharing your story Sue. Wonderful.

  6. Sue, this is a fantastic piece – especially loved the bit about the boomerangs. It’s amazing what kinds of stories arrive from these communities, you’d never get such a unique yarn from anywhere else in Australia, I dare say.

    p.s. John or Paul – this story has been accidentally filed under my name – I’ve been getting messages in my email account about it. Just thought I’d let you know.

  7. Sorry, Susie.

    My mistake. Will make the change.

  8. Thanks for the tip, Susie. I’ve re-posted under Sue’s name and will be having stern words to Paul about this malfeasance… :-)

  9. Gigs,

    Put your dictionary away.

  10. Daff, I’ll put my dictionary away if you’ll stop being so elegiac…

  11. John Butler says

    I think that’s touche.

  12. John Butler says

    Terrific piece Sue.

  13. Richard Naco says

    Outstanding prose, Sue.

    I could almost smell the red dust, & I definitely can hear the laughter.

  14. Thank you to all the people who commented on my story about desert footy. I agree with Dips’s uncle that some of the best footy is played out on these communities. I was aware of this when I was working out there but the desert people are mostly still very traditional with their lives centred around ‘business’ of one sort or another and most of them are very reluctant to leave their mob and go to the big cities.

    Liam Jurrah from Yuendumu seems to be an exception to this and I’m watching the development of his career, and his life in Melbourne, with interest. He started out on my Pies’ list but to my regret, we let him go. Nevertheless, I wish him luck with the Dees.

    A couple of people have asked where my story came from. I am happy to tell you that it is a desert community in WA but I’d rather not be more specific than that. When I was there, which is some years ago now, it was a very peaceful, very traditional and completely grog-free community with no drugs or petrol-sniffers (yes, they do exist) and I’ve always felt a responsibility to maintain their privacy and keep them off the map.



  15. Thanks for a wonderful slice of life Sue, a really eye-opening read.

Leave a Comment