Alice Springs celebrates South Sudan’s first anniversary

On the right is Clement Gatkuoth, Chairperson of the South Sudanese Community of Central Australia

Until recently I knew barely anything about Sudan, despite there being a relatively large Sudanese population in Alice. On the eve of Sunday July 8 I attended a celebration in a high school hall for the first anniversary of the Republic of South Sudan. My Mum had been asked to speak on behalf of her friend Marguerite Baptiste Rourke, a vivacious local woman originally from the Seychelles who’s worked tirelessly for 23 years helping migrants settle in Alice. Mum’s husband Richard, who was born in Croatia, was also a guest; he’s on the board of Multicultural Community Services of Central Australia, which Marguerite is Coordinator of. I thought the night would be a stand ‘round and clap affair so I was surprised when Mum, Richard and I were seated at a table at the front of the hall alongside the smartly suited South Sudanese dignitaries.

The South Sudan anthem was played by Mr DJ, and then we remained standing for a minute’s silence to, as the South Sudanese Community Elder Jiak Puot  said in a rousing speech, “remember the sacrifice which our sisters and brothers had to offer to achieve this victory.”

The figure of “two million deaths” in the fight for political independence was mentioned by every South Sudanese speaker that evening, but the graveness of the number, decades of civil war and the fact that South Sudan is currently facing economic disaster could not penetrate their jubilation. Only Puot, who I reckon has delivered hundreds of equally stirring speeches in his time, touched on the reality of the situation. In his booming baritone which frequently paused for applause he shouted, “The Republic of South Sudan is developing, but it is developing slowly. No country can develop without resources, and resources have been slow. We need the international community to assist with resources, and not just provide arms… We need peace. Without peace there is no development.” Stereotype I know, but Jiak Puot had the Martin Luther King Jr thing goin’ on. I could barely believe I was in a high school hall in the centre of Australia.

I’ve since learned that peace for South Sudan, despite its long and bloody struggle for secession from the North, is a very, very long way off. But Alice is a very long way from South Sudan. If these South Sudanese Australians were never accepted into this country I doubt their dancing would’ve been as spirited.


Over the years the town’s last bastion of independent journalism, The Alice Springs News, has run articles on immigrants who’ve settled here. In 2001 they interviewed South Sudanese man Robben Yak. Here are some of his words: “We are lucky to be in Australia and even luckier to be in Alice Springs… When we came to Australia there were about a dozen of us from East Africa. The US and Canada took hundreds. I wonder why Australia can’t take more. There are thousands and thousands who need a chance. It’s just luck that we were picked. We do appreciate our luck.” Eleven years on and we’re still wondering the same thing.

Head to Aljazeera for a discussion about whether the split has brought progess or regression.


Ayepe-arenye / Yeperenye / Yipirinya / Itchy Grub Dreaming

For the next six months I’m working as Personal Assistant to the Principal of Yipirinya School, an independent Aboriginal school nestled amongst desert oak and spinifex covered hills towards the western edge of town. Yipirinya is the Arrernte word for caterpillar, and it’s a special word for many people in Alice Springs as it’s the name of the dreaming given to those that were born here, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Aboriginal kids and white kids are taught Yipirinya dreaming when they’re very young. It’s the story of how the MacDonnell Ranges that border the southern end of town were formed.

In preschool we learned to keep clear of ‘itchy grubs’, the furry caterpillars that once in a while marched single file across the courtyard, nose to tail. If you touched one its hairs would break off on your skin and make it itch like crazy, and they were used as weapons because of this. Kids would lift one on a stick and chase someone around shouting “Itchy grub itchy grub!” It was always an intriguing sight when the itchy grubs were on the move. Where are they going? Where did they come from? Why are they in one long line? I’d gaze at them, puzzled, half listening to the teacher’s orders of “Two straight lines!” before returning to class after lunch.

The itchy grubs are processionary caterpillars, the larvae of the bag shelter moth Ochrogaster lunifer. When they’re hungry they leave their nest in a procession, with each caterpillar leaving a strand of silk for the next one to follow. Their nests look like a bulbous bag of cloth hanging from or wedged between branches, hence the name of the moth the caterpillar becomes. (To this day when I see one of these nests I feel a strange cerebral itchiness.)

The MacDonnell Ranges are a 644km long series of red ridges stretching to the east and west of Alice, and are separated by spectacular gorges and chasms. Since I returned to Alice I’ve been cycling around awe struck by their beauty; when they glow deep red at sunset and fade to mauve and blue oh, how I swoon! The Ranges, just like the processionary caterpillars, follow each other head to tail. The mountain range that borders our town was once a mob of giant itchy grubs marching across the desert. This was the Yipirinya dreaming I was taught when I was young.

The caterpillar Yipirinya School has on its logo however is a very different beast. It’s long and green and slender with a small spike on its end, and looks as though it’s got an orange and black dot painting down its back. Since starting work at the school I’ve learnt a different Yipirinya story. This long, green and definitely not furry species (Hyles livornicoides) is called ayepe-arenye by the Arrernte, because its favourite food is the ayepe, the tar vine plant.

Yipirinya is another spelling, just as Arrernte is sometimes simplified to Aranda. Here’s a very different version of the story taken from the book The Town Grew Up Dancing by Arrernte man Wenten Rubuntja. Furry caterpillars don’t feature at all, and this makes me wonder where the version of the story I grew up with came from.

I guess that’s the beauty of oral traditions. The search continues.

The Alice Springs Beanie Festival

The Alice Springs Beanie Festival is the biggest beanie festival in the world. Each year around 6,000 handmade beanies go on sale, and beanies from all over the world are entered into the competition exhibition. Understandably photography isn’t allowed in the exhibition, but my favourite this year was a salmon and silver felted creation that looked like an ethereal jellyfish. Little out of my price range at 300 clams though.

I’ve become known as a bit of a beanie addict, but after attending countless Beanie Fests naturally the collection is going to be rather burgeoning. My fondest beanie memory is of the first party Ali Fleming, Mark Lavis and I had at our first sharehouse on Williams Street in Watson in the winter of ’08. With my collection I managed to warm every head:

I recently learned the origin of the word beanie. The original model always had a small button on the crown the size of a bean. So there you have it, old bean. Simple as that.

This year’s Beanie Fest (June 22-25) was as hectic and colourful as ever. It’s not just a giant hat sale, but four days of workshops, food and music, and the heady aroma of campfire smoke (my favourite smell), damper and kangaroo tail permeates the vibrant atmosphere. There’s even The Beanie Olympics! A circle of meteoric knitters and crocheters race to create a beanie that must cover the ears; the winner usually averages around five to seven minutes.  It’s riveting stuff alright.

This year I was extremely proud of myself for limiting my purchases to two, one of which is an Ernabella beanie. Ernabella is about 400ks south west of Alice, and Ernabella Arts Inc. is Australia’s oldest Indigenous arts centre, established in 1948. The women always come into town for the fest to conduct spinifex weaving workshops. I always try and nab one of their beanies as they tend to be the sturdiest and warmest. To the left is my beautiful new Ernabella beanie, made by Tjunkaya Tapuya.

Chances are I’ll be here for the 2013 Alice Springs Beanie Festival so if you’d like one sent your way, be sure to let me know!