I've spent conversations pulling states and cities from memory shelves, trying to piece together the puzzle of my life’s narrative.
"Was it Thursday Island or Noosa when I was five?"
Somewhere along the lines I stopped giving a polished answer.
Like most of us I've grown up being told longevity in a place equals home. Everything in between is temporary: Places you've been, not where you're from.
But the brain has neat tricks for holding onto early days, playing them out until you could swear you lived there in another life.
"Among my transient homes I will always remember Lajamanu"
Early trips up north are vivid memories; you only need to produce a Paul's iced coffee for me to trace the trail to the Northern Territory’s heart.
Travelling for hours in a beat-up Toyota Land Cruiser, to me Lajamanu was Australia’s best-kept secret. To find it you had to know how to navigate stretches of red hard dirt, spinfex and the occasional kangaroo.
Lajamanu is around 500 kilometres southwest of Katherine, located in what Google Maps calls the Tanami Desert, a harsh land where the blistering sun is only matched by its freezing nights. To the locals this is Warlpiri country.
There's this great photo of my siblings and me down at Hooker Creek. I don’t know how old we are, but it must’ve been the wet season because the usually dry bed is full to the brim, orange murky water spilling around acacia trees and spiky shrubs.
We’re with our cousins and friends — in Warlpiri way, our brothers and sisters. Their heritage shows a lot stronger on their skin than ours
Little black dots paint the water, and specks of white where wide mouths have been captured mid grin—a natural moment before the word "cheese!" can escape cracked lips. If you look a little longer you can make out Matt, Jas and me. Together with our darker relatives we look like a modern day Brady Brunch.
People usually chuckle when I show them these photos. Sure, our paler skin made us sticks in mud, but we danced, laughed and tumbled in the universal language of children.
"I smile back because I don’t remember feeling any different; we're nungarrayis and jungarrayis, jangalas and nangalas"
Last Summer my aunty and cousins came down to Melbourne to stay for Christmas. Aunty told stories of living in Lajamanu as kids. She says we spoke Warlpiri fluently; a language that is among the most complex in the world.
The last time we went back to the top end was 2006, during a three-week road trip through Uluru, Tennant Creek and Lajamanu, before stopping in Darwin and turning back to do it all again.
It was different, the last time I breathed in Lajamanu dirt. Not because I wasn't a kid anymore and couldn't run and jump and hit it off with my family like I once had. It was different because in so few years, a lifetime had passed. Because I'd forgotten what my skin name was, how the women painted using the pointy side of a paintbrush and what blue tongue lizard tasted like. I'd forgotten about the dogs — scruffy and skinny —roaming everywhere. About the humpies, made from rusty tin roof flaps and turned over mattresses.
The red dirt stains on my skin have faded.
Sometimes after sitting in the sun for a while, my hair gets those bleached streaks I had as a kid. My freckles return.
"Sometimes the smell of Dilma tea and kangaroo on the barbecue takes me back. But only for a second"
Home for many Aboriginal people is not the house they've lived in the longest. For others, a house is what you'd imagine it to be: a space of pride. I spent last summer with my aunty flicking through iKEA catalogues and picking out her favourite couches, cabinets and bookshelves.
But home is also country and the connection you have with it. Home is where some aspects of our lore can still be executed, where language is still spoken.
Whatever the disadvantage my people face, please do not assume there are those of us who would not rather live there than in big cities.
I’m not going back expecting a cultural revolution; a transformation of self that'll leave me endowed with understanding and love because I've found my Warlpiri spirit.
I’m going back because I want to, because I have some fond memories in a swamp of murky details. I want to learn more, but far simpler, I want to be with my grandmother’s family.
In the same way you flick through old photo albums with your nan and pop, I'll watch my elders paint their dreaming. In the same way you play hide-and-seek with your cousins, I’ll run on hard dirt with my Warlpiri brothers and sisters.
I will also work a day job, go home at night and eat dinner. Our worlds are not so different, now.
Rachael Hocking @r_nungarrayi
This article was originally published in RMIT’s student magazine, Catalyst.