What’s in a Name?
I’d been in Karratha several times before I undertook consultancy work there. All but one of those trips were as District Director of Education for the Kimberley. But I hadn’t been there for six years leading up to 1995. In that year, I was appointed to try and develop a project to assist Aboriginal students to complete secondary education at the local Senior High School. I was told on my appointment that the percentage of Aboriginal students who had ever completed year 12 at the school was zero.
I’d forgotten the stark and startling nature of the country. As the plane crossed the Hamersley Ranges, I looked down on gnarled, rugged country, with red peaks and deep gorges carved between them, some seemingly impenetrable by vehicle or on foot.
And then we descended towards harsh, flat redness, with an occasional low hill and several startlingly broad river beds filled with white sand. Coming in to land, we crossed salt ponds, beyond which lay the sparkle of the Indian Ocean and what appeared to be ridges of boulders looking as if they’d been graded into piles. One ridge was a range of piles that ran the length of the town, like a fortress keeping invaders from the south-east at bay.
Very early in my role, I drove to Roebourne. It had historically been the centre of the shire, but latterly was a town of mainly Aboriginal people surrounded by towns of industry based on mining. The remains of the heyday of white settlement, from the 1860s, was and is still visible in many older stone buildings, including the historical jail, one of the town’s original reasons for being.
While not a large town, I had no idea where any organizations I had to visit were. I left Karratha very early to drive the forty kilometres to Roebourne. My plan was to make sure I could find the places where my meetings would be. The first was at an entity called Yirramagardu Employment Services and try as I might, I couldn’t find the place. After driving in circles for fifteen minutes, I headed back to the main road. As luck would have it, two older Aboriginal men were seated on the concrete veranda of the general store.
I parked and walked up the concrete stairs to see them. Both sat with their backs resting against the stone facade with legs splayed. Both were dressed like stockmen: high boots, jeans, check shirts, and dusty old hats. I suspected their horses were tethered around the corner. Even though it was still only about 7.30 am, it was already very hot and I guessed they were cooling off. The store wasn’t open yet, so I decided to see if they could help me.
“Good morning,” I greeted them.
One glanced briefly, the other flicked a couple of fingers in my direction but neither spoke.
“I’m new to town and I’m a bit lost.”
Silence prevailed without any glances.
“I’m wondering if you could tell me where a place called Yirramagardu is?”
This time there was a quick glance between the two men before the one who’d initially looked at me reached out and pointed at the concrete veranda they sat on.
I turned and scanned the general store signage, but there was no indication anywhere of the word Yirramagardu.
These blokes are having me on, I thought.
I thanked them and headed back to my car, continuing to drive streets for what seemed eternity, until suddenly, there it was: a sign over a wooden door in a tin shed stating Yirramagardu Employment Services. After profound apologies to the three women I was supposed to interview, we got under way.
After we’d concluded the business, I apologised again for being late and mentioned having asked two men at the store for directions. The women all looked at me quizzically, so I chuckled.
“They weren’t much help,” I added. “The only one who did anything pointed at the veranda they were sitting on.”
“What did you arks them ?” one of the women questioned.
“I asked them where this place, this Yirramagardu, was?” I countered
The women laughed uproariously for a long time, before one of them told me, “Yirramagardu bin traditional Ngarluma name for dis whole place: dis country. That what he bin telling you.”