‘Desert Wisdom: The Alyawarra of Lake Nash’

photo of the cover of Desert Wisdom book

By Ian Tarrant

Zeus Publications 2014

‘Desert Wisdom: The Alyawarra of Lake Nash’ is a memoir written by former teacher and social worker, Ian Tarrant.

In 1970 New Zealand-born Tarrant moved to the remote Lake Nash Station, on the Northern Territory-Queensland border, with his then-wife Tessa and their first child, Miriam, a four-month-old baby. For eighteen months they worked as teachers educating the children of the Alyawarra people indigenous to the area.

Tarrant’s story is a fascinating first-hand account of the hardships faced by all those living and working in this inhospitable environment. Isolation, extreme climate, and cultural intolerances underpinned life for everyone.

The strength of the book lies in Tarrant’s clear insights into the inequality and racism he witnessed at this time. A major point he makes is that the Alyawarra are not backward people. They are misunderstood and discriminated against. Evidently “… in terms of the continued survival of the human race we had more … to learn from them than they did from us.”

It quickly becomes apparent that the whites’ opinions of the Alyawarra are very different to Tarrant’s. He relays many anecdotes that support his views, and his conclusions are written thoughtfully and clearly. For example:

“Ignorance that is truly based on lack of knowledge is excusable but ignorance which becomes enshrined as knowledge because the real truth can’t be faced is inexcusable.”

Tarrant details the difficult living circumstances of the Alyawarra. Their poverty, lack of basic hygiene facilities, fresh food and medicine, and only intermittent education all contribute to their disadvantage. He does not hold back in his criticism of the white-fellas’ racism, reluctance to engage with traditional owners, and mismanagement of the community.

Early on, Tarrant is told the people are “inbred, incapable of learning, dirty, and ‘not like us’.” He is left wondering, “Was this task hopeless? Were these people unteachable?” He continually questions the white-fellas’ belief system and decides to pointedly stand up for the Alyawarra. He tries to engage with them by learning some of their language and about bush tucker. He rides with the stockmen in the musters (the only white-fella to do so). All this doesn’t make him popular among the whites but earns him respect and friendship from the Alyawarra.

Throughout the book there are many enjoyable encounters and expeditions to the desert. The writing is pacy but detailed, funny but poignant, self-examining and humble. The structure of chapters is not strictly chronological, instead telling individual stories and linking occurrences back to the main theme.

For anyone interested in indigenous Australians and life in the outback, this book is an entertaining and enlightening read. Tarrant is a knowledgeable writer and the forty or so intervening years have honed his perceptions to a fine clarity in this moving memoir.

(Disclaimer: Ian Tarrant is an acquaintance of mine who asked me to review his book for the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival in July 2014.)

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Venita is a Melbourne writer, editor and doctor. She loves Australian landscape, music, food and greyhounds. She has completed her first novel titled 'Lonesome Haul'.

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