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  • Reconciliation story

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    He’s only deadly if you frighten him,” Kath explained. “He’s one of the most deadly snakes in the world.”

    I had recently arrived at Point Lookout on Stradbroke Island to work as a house-maid/waitress, and at 17, thought I knew everything. Well almost. I had no idea how to frighten a death adder, or more importantly, how not to.


    “Just watch where you put your feet. He’s like a big fat lizard without legs. He hides in the grass and waits for his prey. If you look like you’re going to stand on him, he’ll bite you, and that’s that. There’s no hospital here. The police boat has to be called to come and take you to the mainland. It could be anywhere amongst 100 islands, and wouldn’t get here quick enough to save you.”

    Clayton’s Resort consisted of a central building containing the kitchen, dining room and an activities area. Accommodation for guests was provided in small huts spread around in the surrounding scrub. Staff were housed in the outer huts. There were a few bush toilets scattered around. Most of these had resident eight-legged furry monsters that could pass for monkeys, except for the extra legs and beady little eyes that stared at you until you went away and relieved yourself in the great outdoors.

    Now I find that the area I have to walk through to get to the main building, is littered with fat scaly things that could kill you. Having only recently arrived in Queensland after working in factories down south, fear set in. What had I got myself into?

    Then Kath told me of a related incident. An indigenous man had been recently bitten on the toe by an adder. His quick actions saved his life. He jammed his tomahawk between two stones, and placed the injured toe on it. He then proceeded to bash the toe off with another rock. I shuddered just thinking about it, knowing that I wouldn’t have thought of that or had the courage to do it if I had.

    The deficiencies in my general knowledge were also exposed in a couple of other areas, namely in being a house-maid and in waitressing. I had lied about my experience when applying for the job in Brisbane, being sure I would soon get the hang of it. This was despite my mother’s despair at the state of my room when I was home.

    It wasn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be. The first table I served ordered soup to start. When I reached the kitchen, my mind went blank. What had they ordered? This required an embarrassing trip back to the table to check. When I finally did deliver the orders, the hot contents of one plateful of soup inadvertently landed in a gentleman’s lap. We were both in shock. At least I didn’t offer to mop it up for him.

    Kath gave me a tip. “Don’t look at what you’re carrying, look ahead.”

    This advice markedly improved my waiting skills, so that other diners were out of danger. Luckily, the boss never found out, or I wouldn’t have been around long enough to learn anything. She was, unfortunately, addicted to the local rum, which was the main alcohol available on the island. She would throw me so far off-shore that I would be shark-bait before I made it back to land.

    My housekeeping also hit a rough patch. It was time for the main floor to be polished. This should keep me occupied for a while. The tins of polish were in a storeroom near the back door. As everything was bought in bulk, it was a considerable size. I couldn’t miss it. After lugging the heavy tin back into the dining room, I proceeded to remove the lid, which was firmly in place.

    With a superhuman effort, and the help of a screwdriver, the lid was freed. Unfortunately, the effort involved had its own momentum. This sent me sprawling backward onto the floor, firmly clutching the lid. The tin went the other way, while the contents took the middle path, sloshing dramatically on to the floor.
    The boss arrived, screeching like a wounded cockatoo. She was so incensed that most of what she said was unprintable, and some of the words were new to me. But I got the message, along with the fact that the tin did not contain floor polish. It contained paint stripper. I stared at her blankly as the tirade swept over me. My mind froze. Then Kath arrived on the scene, clutching a mountain of old rags.

    “I’ll fix it,” she said quietly to the boss, who melted away.

    “How did she do that?” I started breathing again. “How did she tame the fiery dragon?”

    Kath handed half the rags to me, then got down on her knees and helped me mop up the mess.

    Kath, was old enough to be my mother, but with her dark curly hair and friendly smile, she seemed younger. I thanked her for helping me clean up, and saving me from being murdered by the boss.
    “I’ve been where you are,’ she said quietly. “The boss doesn’t understand. She’s got different problems.”

    With itinerant work, it eventually becomes time to move on. After leaving Stradbroke Island, I covered the east coast of Australia, from North Queensland to the Southern Ocean at the bottom of Tasmania. Somehow, Kath’s spirit travelled with me. Whenever I met an inexperienced worker, I would hear Kath’s quiet voice saying, “I’ve been where you are,” and would try to give a helping hand.

    Kath and I both started work at 13. Her first job was as a housemaid. Mine was in a cannery. Kath embraced education later in life. Without knowing it, I followed her path. Nearly two decades later, as a single mother, I completed high school then went on to university.

    At the graduation ceremony at Monash, the Occasional Speech was given by Dr Judith Wright. Judith was a close friend of Kath Walker, now known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal. She told me that Kath excelled in everything she touched. She established ‘Moongabba,” a cultural and education centre on Stradbroke Island for both black and white children. As a founding member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) and numerous other activist roles, Kath has received many awards. Amongst them she has four Honorary Doctorates, one of them from Monash.

    As well as being fellow activists, Judith and Kath shared a love of poetry.
    Judith, wrote about the European Invasion in her poem: At Cooloola.

    I know that we are justified only by love,
    But oppressed by arrogant guilt
    Have room for none.

    Kath, as Oodgeroo Noonuccal was also a prolific writer. In All One Race,
    She states that we are all one family, whether we are …


    Black tribe, yellow tribe, red, white or brown
    She ends with
    I’m international, never mind place
    I’m for humanity, all one race.

    I only knew Kath for a short time. I wish I had known then that she was not only a kind soul who rescued an awkward teenager, but that she was also a famous writer and activist. I could have learnt from her vast knowledge of life. A font of wisdom, she could have taught me so much.

    Then I stopped to ponder. In her quiet way, she did.
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