Something that has been awesome is the Trek being the subject of a fair few university assessments around the country. Recently, Hannah Moore interviewed me about the Trek for an assessment via email (an interview medium that I really like, I have decided). The questions were good ones, and I think I answered them fairly comprehensively, so I thought it would be worth sharing the [slightly edited] interview here. I share a lot about the Trek and my experience of it. Enjoy.
HANNAH: You started your trek with Michael Doyle, but it now appears as though he is no longer with you. Where is he?
COEN: Michael is back in Sydney and has been since Christmas Eve 2013. Michael was going to attend his aunt’s wedding on the 3rd of January and we had been scheduled to arrive in Bathurst on the 2nd so he could catch a bus we had booked back to Sydney for the wedding, and then meet me back at Bathurst on the 4th to continue. However, due to a detour through the Blue Mountains that we were forced to take (which, oddly enough, ended up being quicker), by the time we got to Lithgow, we were a week ahead of schedule. We were going to meander around the mountains north of Lithgow to kill the time, but Michael decided he would go home for Christmas with his family and meet me at Bathurst after the wedding. So after meandering around Lithgow for a while (including sharing Christmas and Boxing Day celebrations with a family I met at the Anglican church on Christmas Day), I made my way to Bathurst, where I then stayed with a family I met at the Presbyterian church there. The morning of the wedding, Michael called telling me he wouldn’t be able to complete the walk, as there had been a family emergency. From that point, I continued on my own.
H: Why have you extended the length of your trip back to Sydney?
C: “And when people asked me why I’m doing it, my usual answer is, “why not?” – Robyn DavidsonThere are some good reasons though. But the heart of it is, why not? That’s my favourite response to the all too common question, “why?” So the walk from Sydney to Uluru and back was originally a total of 6000 kilometres (3000 kilometres each way). At Parkes, I revamped the route, but it wasn’t took much of difference in terms of kilometres. Now, I’ve added 2000 kilometres to the return walk, making it 5000 kilometres, a grand total of 8000 kilometres. The reasons being that I will be visiting a bunch of different Indigenous organisations, including various Tent Embassies and Republics. I’ll be visiting my father’s side of the family in Adelaide, as well as some friends down there; I’ll be learning about my mother’s side of the family at Broken Hill, and also more about Barkindji culture there. In Brisbane I’ll be with the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy for their G20 protests during November. And, as usual, travelling the greater distance that I will be just means more opportunity to raise awareness about Indigenous issues around Australia, not to mention the fundraising. That’s the plan anyway, but I’m not counting on it all working out the way I imagine it.
H: You’ve been in Mutitjulu for a while now, why? What have you been doing?
C: That’s an interesting story actually. So when I got to Erldunda (which is at a T section of the Stuart Highway – 200kms north is Alice Springs, and Uluru is 250kms west), I hitchhiked to Alice Springs, as it was way off my route, and I needed to go there to print off a permit to get into Mutitjulu, as it is a closed community (plus I had no money, which made for some interesting adventures in Alice Springs). Whilst in Alice, I realised I didn’t have enough money to walk back to Sydney, so I decided that I would stay in Alice to work for a few months to save money to walk back. I wanted to get to Uluru first, of course. So when I was finished in Alice, I tried to hitchhike back down to Erldunda to finish walking to Uluru. It took all day, but I finally got a lift. Fortuitously, the person who picked me up was working for the Mutitjulu Council. So when I made it to Uluru, I was able to get a job at the community store. I’m now working in the Aboriginal health clinic and for Maruku, an Anangu (the Anangu are the people of Pitjantjatjara Country up here) owned arts co-operative.
H: On your walk to Uluru, you were raising money for Oxfam and Recognise. How much did you manage to raise?
C: Originally, we were raising money for Oxfam’s Close the Gap campaign and raising awareness about Recognise. We dropped the idea of raising awareness about Recognise early on, deeming it a bad campaign (which is a separate and more complicated issue). We raised around $3000 for Oxfam’s Close the Gap campaign though. Not much, but not nothing. And not too bad an amount considering how little the Trek was promoted.
H: What will you be fundraising for and promoting on your walk back?
C: We will be fundraising for the health clinic here in Mutitjulu. As with a lot of remote health services, especially those in Indigenous communities, lack of funding often leads to outdated and old equipment. Primarily we are aiming to purchase a new emergency bed for the community, which costs about $12,000, and additional funds raised will go to other equipment and community projects.
H: You mentioned in your videos that you have a strong affinity with the Blue Mountains. Why is this?
C: The Blue Mountains is Dharug Country. I am a very nature centred person. When I lived in the suburbs, I would need to go out into the bush for a couple of days every few weeks to recharge and reenergise. I used to live in Katoomba, near the Three Sisters, and I often spent days at a time out in the bush of the Mountains south of there. I think the amount of time I spent relishing the beauty of Dharug Country there has instilled in me a small connection to that Land. And I’m honoured to know Dharug people there who are still caring for Country up there. It’s a powerful place, as is the case all over this continent across the many Countries.
H: What has been the most rewarding part of your trip thus far?
C: I can’t answer that question really. Being out on Country across this continent has been very rewarding. Cultivating relationships with Indigenous people all over the traps has been incredible too. But I can’t say what has definitively been the most rewarding part of the trip.
H: What has been the most confronting part of your trip thus far?
C: The overt racism that I have seen. It’s everywhere. On top of that, I’ve been spat at, laughed at, etc. for doing what I have done. “I wouldn’t do it for them,” is something I heard often. I know a fella back in Sydney, American immigrant who has never left Sydney, and he reckons that there is no racism in Australia. My arse.
H: Do you think your trip has achieved your goal of increasing understanding of Indigenous issues?
C: In many ways, yes. The purpose of the awareness raising is well articulated by Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) in the last stanza of her poem “An Appeal”:“All white well-wishers, in the endOn you our chiefest hopes depend;Public opinion’s our best friendTo beat the foe.”So a shift in public opinion and perspective is the idea. I’ve had heaps of great conversations with people along the way, but I was particularly concerned that people in Sydney and surrounds who I knew would grow in their understanding, as it has been my experience that most people live in the bubble of cities and don’t see the issues facing Indigenous people in Australia other than stereotypes and outdated fears of places like Redfern (don’t even get me started about that). The discussions that have occurred on Facebook, on my personal page and also on the Trek page, have been effective in educating some people. It’s always been encouraging, amongst the shit I get about some of the things I post, to receive messages from people saying that they are learning things. From the start I’ve said to myself that changing one person’s opinion and perspective would make the whole Trek a success.
H: What are the main issues specifically facing Aboriginal people right now that people may not expect? (ie. Indigenous incarceration numbers are commonly reported on. Something you’ve learned about over the course of your trip)
C: There are heaps of issues, like that we still don’t have a treaty/treaties (which is not mere symbolism, it’s a proven effective method to establish self-determination and sovereignty to bring positive results in indigenous communities the world over, which you can see fleshed out by the Treaty Project out of UNSW), the continuing but subtle (well, it’s subtle to most of the Australian population) policy of assimilation (for example, the Reconciliation movement, which is horridly complex but effective form of assimilation, and Recognise, which is the government funded campaign to “recognise” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constistution), interventionary/reactionary measures like the Northern Territory Emergency Response (which lead to a huge jump in Indigenous suicide in the NT – http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/aboriginal-suicide-rates and http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/northern-territory-emergency-response-intervention – the legislation is still in play), the erosion of culture (various factors, such as the homogenisation of Indigenous cultures) – in short, there are a lot of issues.
H: Is there anything else you would like to add?
C: Language is so important. It carries ideas, societal consensus, etc.. I’d like to see a revolution in the way people use language about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. And there’s a prime example: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are often referred to as “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” and our cultures referred to as “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.” This is one of those subtle instances of assimilation, and the homogenisation of our cultures. Notice the lack of plurals in those common phrases. We are not all one people, we are many people. We are not a monoculture, we are many cultures.