“Everyone I met – everywhere I left I left with a sense of hope, either vast or personal for particular people. It was five months ago now and I have thought about every single person every day since.”
These are the words of Nicki Wendt, an Australian actress who featured in the popular TV show Neighbours. Now she’s back on the screen but in a very different type of program. An immersive documentary titled First Contact.
At the beginning of the show she had a very different attitude.
“If pushed I would have to say I’ve had racist thoughts about Aboriginal people, I don’t hate them, I don’t love them but maybe I don’t care or think enough about them.”
She was expecting nothing more than a depressing journey.
“I was expecting I guess the stereotype…People in need, and I was expecting to leave with a sense of hopelessness and I think I was preparing myself to feel quite dejected and depressed.”
The reason Nicki got involved in the series was because she wanted to learn about what she considered, the unknown.
“I realised I knew absolutely nothing about Aboriginal issues besides stereotypes. I had been spoon-fed or witnessed – I had never paid Indigenous Australia the respect of finding out the truth so I agreed to do it,” she said.
As soon as she agreed to go on the show she was petrified.
“I figured if I didn’t tell the truth there was no point doing it. I am starting to regret being quite so honest but I am glad I was. No one is more shocked by I am than how I came out of that month. I did a complete about faith and my life is all the richer for having done it”
Fear soon started to turn into faith, as she went deeper into the heart of Australia to places she’s never seen before and interacting with the First peoples of Australia.
“Everyone I met, everywhere I went, I left with a sense of hope; either vast or personal for particular people. It was five months ago, but I have thought about every single person every day since,” she said.
Nicki was so touched by one person in particular that she ended up tracking them down because she felt an urge to do so.
“I have called one of them up and I took my time to do so. I Googled their phone number a million times, which is probably not fair as showed up with a TV crew. But I just had to touch base.”
That person was Elaine from Kununurra.
“I don’t think she was even meant to be on the show, but we got chatting, worked at the alcohol rehab place where she told me her story and I was in awe on the first night, she was so dignified and gracious and I just adored her,” she said.
“I had a story like that everywhere we went, I would lie in bed at night and weep and sometimes they were sad tears, sometimes attached to hopelessness, other times attached to… I was very moved by – and I am careful how I say this, don’t want to be condescending - The innocence of the culture. Not complicated but incredibly complex. Sometimes words and thoughts aren’t enough. So I would just weep. I cried a lot. I don’t know why, just full of tears.”
Nicki doesn’t identify herself as a political person. She had a loving family and a safe childhood where she didn’t go without anything. As for education, she doesn’t remember being taught anything about Indigenous Australia.
“I was really shocked that I can give you facts about WWI and WWII and the holocaust and yet I don’t know about the war that started our country. I am sure that’s different now but in the 80s, if it was taught, it was only touched on. “
The thing that shocked Nicki most was something that all Australians should be scared by.
"I was judgemental at first, seeing kids going to school having coco pops, but there is no option 12 hours from Darwin."
“I was very shocked to learn that east Kimberly region has highest suicide rate in the world.”
There were plenty of other shocks she encountered on the way.
“There is one drink that is only sold in the east Kimberly region of Australia - this horrible ‘wine’ which is $8 a bottle. Smells like lighter fluid and called poker face. Picture on the label of a joker and that’s what they all drink. Sold in plastic bottle and targeted to Aboriginal people. The fact that is even allowed to exist shocked me,” she said.
“I was also shocked by how hard it is in remote areas to feed yourself properly. I was judgemental at first, seeing kids going to school having coco pops, but there is no option 12 hours from Darwin. It’s not like they can race down and get a bag of broccoli. I was also shocked by how remote, ‘remote’ is.”
The most moving moment was when Nicki met the girls of the Stolen Generation.
“That was bordering on unbearable. So sad, such extraordinary women and to hear their story was so agonising. I am so thrilled I met them, I adore each and every one of them and they, in the strangest way, were the most uplifting. To see where they have been and where they have got to and found their own paths to recovery and kind of forgiveness and trying to make a peace of what happened to them”.
“All I could think of was Auschwitz. It was our own little holocaust. Trains stations are melancholy at the best of times and this was a pretty country railway. Then they unleashed this really ugly horrendous story. Yeah that was harrowing. But again it was strangely the most hopeful I felt the whole journey. I felt a hope everywhere though. Everywhere had a beacon, even if it was just one person. I was shocked by how many people were doing good.
When Nicki returned home she was hit hard.
“I went into a real hole when I got back, I couldn’t speak to family and friends about it,” she said.
“I can’t even say I want to help – I want to be involved. Not in taking care way, it is reciprocal. They do so much for me. There are people out there who donate money and are wonderful but if you want to feed your soul go and get amongst it and get your hands dirty.”
But she took home a very powerful lesson.
“We know what we hear and what we see footage. But when you sit and listen to people, that’s all people want. To be heard and acknowledged. When you sit down you get the best version of themselves. Everyone has a story but you have to take your best self out and that’s how you make the best for everyone else.”
And overall it has had a huge impact on who and where she is today.
“It has affected every area of my life. Changed the way I eat. Quit sugar after that because I suddenly realised – reminded how lucky I was that broccoli is only five minutes away.”
“I am a much more patient driver now which sounds dumb but I used to be a racist driver. It’s a massive reminder, everyone has a story and everyone is doing their best. I feel like I have softened, I came across as tough but I’m pathetic.”
“And I finally understand why people in Australian Idol say ‘journey’. Other things don’t cut it. I really gave it a shot at finding another word but journey is the only one. It was a journey, it was personal and we shared with six of us and fantastic crew. So profound and private and that’s scary. The taxpayer has a right to see it. Just please don’t judge us.”