A group of students from St Clare’s College in Waverley and Rosebank College Five Dock have just returned from a life-changing volunteer experience of the hospitality of two remote Northern Territory communities.
Twenty eight students from Years 9-11 travelled to Kakadu and Arnhem Land, camping in tents, preparing their own food and staying with communities who are thriving in some of the country’s most beautiful and harshest locations.
St Clare’s Year 11 students Lara Kerslake and Grace McDonald said they loved the experience which took them to fellow Australians living a very different lifestyle from theirs more than 4000kms away from home and made them so much more grateful for all the opportunities and comforts they enjoy.
“It was very special for us to be able to stay with the local people and learn about their traditions and how they live, spending time with the kids – we played a lot of footy with them,” said Lara.
The immersion experience from 26 September to 6 October included a community service aspect, with the students set to work digging and preparing a vegetable patch in the communal garden with the local children belonging to the Murdudjurl homelands deep in Kakadu National Park.
After five nights learning about their stories, culture and traditions the students then travelled deep into Arnhem Land and spent four nights in Mikginj Valley, leaning how to collect and weave pandanus reeds to make baskets and avoiding crocodiles in the otherwise pristine waters of the local creek.
“The people living in these beautiful but very remote places don’t have access to many things we have in Sydney, such as shopping centres and health services. They live simply and prepare their own food from the land,” Lara said.
Helping to pluck, debowel and cook a magpie goose, a common native waterbird, over a fire for a family dinner was “a bit gross but still interesting” for the city-slicker guests.
Another highlight was a boat ride in the Yellow Waters wetlands in Kakadu spotting buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles and kangaroos against the background of a stunning sunset.
As for the less popular species of wildlife, the students said they only encountered one snake, a couple of cane toads and, in the camp bathrooms, quite a few spiders.
Grace said a night spent camping outside under the stars “was a fantastic experience” and that she is grateful for the opportunity to have made seven new friends, the students who joined the group from the Five Dock school.
The only major challenge for all was coping with the incredible dry heat of the country’s central north – up to 46 degrees this springtime – but even then they were helped by their generous hosts who sent them to the coolest spots in the shade along a nearby river or creek.
St Clare’s College teacher Thomas Cooper, one of the staff members who travelled with the students, said he was proud of the “very resilient group”.
“The whole experience was spectacular and really challenging for the students but they were fantastic, they stepped up and did really well,” he said.
“You can teach geography and culture in the classroom as much as you want, but to go out there to these extremely remote locations and spend time with people who live and breathe Indigenous culture–that experience surpasses classroom learning so much.”