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January 22, 2006
Deborah Mailman and Cathy Freeman in Going Bush.
Neither of them is steeped in traditional Aboriginal culture, but when Cathy Freeman and Deborah Mailman went bush they found themselves feeling right at home. They spoke with Stephanie Bunbury. Not many people would rush to share an enclosure with several metres of thrashing crocodile, but not much seems to deter Cathy Freeman. She's the tough one, I say to Deborah Mailman, who travelled across north-west Australia with Freeman and, as we see in the Lonely Planetproduced travel series about their trip, Going Bush (SBS, over four Wednesdays at 7.30pm from February 1), was more of an outside-the-cage kind of girl. Mailman starts nodding vigorously; Freeman interjects. "I wouldn't say tough," she says. "I'd say crazy. Most people go out of their way to stay away from fire, but you should just throw me in." Going Bush covers a month-long road trip from Broome to Arnhem Land and shows Freeman and Mailman going mustering and mud crabbing, visiting a rodeo, learning to weave baskets
with remote Aboriginal communities and rehearsing with a local rock band in Arnhem Land. Two famous Aboriginal Australians in the backblocks: it's a neat variation on the old city-versusbush theme. It was also the trip of a lifetime; neither had been there before (and they barely knew each other, either). Still, Freeman admits she had her reservations about it. "The way it was pitched to me was, 'OK, you're going to go out there and you're going to be best friends'," she says. "And I said, 'How? We're just not'." She was won over, she says, by her desire to learn more about traditional Aboriginal ways of life. Her own background is a very Australian mix, with German, English and Chinese ancestry as well as Aboriginal. "But I identify most with the Aboriginal, clearly, so I wanted to add to my knowledge. I've been interested in where, as a culture and collectively, we have come from and where we're going. And my place in it all, as to what I can do to help out." That sense of belonging, she says, makes her feel safe. And it is clear meeting them - as well as from watching the upbeat adventuring of Going Bush that she and Mailman bonded hard and fast. This, despite being very different personalities. Freeman, after 20 years of tight discipline as an athlete, describes herself as guarded. Mailman, on the other hand, "has her heart all around her"; she is in the middle of thickets of people, hugging babies, within moments of arrival and in tears when they leave. "Are you right?" says Freeman sharply as she gets behind the wheel after one of these visits, giving her companion a sidelong glance and averting her eyes when she sees the tears. But differences, they agree now, can be complementary. "We just get each other, I think," says Mailman. "And we somehow got each other in a very short time. It naturally unfolded into a beautiful friendship." In fact, there were seven of them on the trip, including the crew. "It sounds a cliche," Mailman says, "but we formed a real sense of family. You had to. If there had been any hiccups or tension, it would have taken away from the experience. And it seemed like everyone wanted that experience; no one wanted to be somewhere else, so it seemed very easy." Even now, three months after returning to the big smoke, she feels some of the calm she took from the bush and the slow pace of life that, she says, soon comes naturally in the heat. "I didn't feel at all foreign. I really mean that. If anything, I felt as if I fitted in naturally. It was the first time I've been this calm and this peaceful and I really loved that about it. That I sheared away all of this clutter. And it was really easy to do, to get rid of all that stuff." Freeman also had plenty of stuff to dump. She retired from running only two years ago. Elite sport is a cut-throat business. "Everybody is a politician," she says. "You can't be too generous or someone else will want more back. Everyone has a hidden agenda. It's just business, just the urban environment, which I've been around most of my life, allowing myself to be exploited, which is something we all need to do to a certain extent. It's just the way it is. "You just have to try not to lose too much romance, because belief is all in the romance. There are some really good people around, fantastic people with great hearts and good souls, so going
back to the bare basics in the bush, where it's all about culture and ancient ways of living, family and land, you sort of take away the meat and you're bone naked. And it's a really good way of being. "All people care about is having some quiet time with you. In some of the languages, there are words that just describe sitting with people. And we don't have enough of that in the city." For her, she says, the bush was a psychological space as much as a physical one. "It is more about how you feel in the vastness, you know? The quietness of the space. I think, for me, that is what it is all about: how it made me feel, as opposed to what I saw." Freeman, 32, spent her early years in Mackay, Queensland; Mailman, 34, comes from near Mt Isa. Both had strong memories of rural life, especially Mailman; as a stockman's daughter, she grew up eager to be a jillaroo. "I have strong memories of the bush," she says. "But I was learning a lot of new things on this trip. Just how to start a fire properly; I don't think I learned that when I was young. Rolling a swag. Pitching a tent." While Freeman says she could never abandon the stimulus and diversity of the city, Mailman says she would move to the bush "in a heartbeat. That's where I feel completely myself". And if she had to give up performing, so be it. "It's not that important to me. Of course it's my life at the moment, but if that changes, well, that's tremendous." Going Bush is clearly an advertisement for the north-west: the unique beauties of its landscapes, its massive sunsets, the friendliness of its largely dry communities, the opportunity it gives to meet Aboriginal people whose lives in the modern world run parallel with traditional beliefs and practices. The message is that our girls loved it and that you will too: even a visit to Wyndham, featured for the crocodile farm where Cathy Freeman shows her appetite for thrill-seeking, is all good news. There is no poverty, no discord, no illness, whatever the statistics might say. Surely this is only part of the picture? "Of course it is," says Mailman. "But otherwise it would become a different story. To focus on those dysfunctional parts of the community would be an episode in itself and the story would then have to go that way. It's so complicated. And it's the expected thing. "What we are showing is the unexpected, which is great. But one of the things that surprised me is - and this is perhaps my ignorance - that I thought there might have been more dysfunction. In fact, I don't think we deliberately hid from it, because there wasn't much." Isolated communities with no paid work find their own ways to live viably, finding food by traditional hunting and gathering while selling their art or craft to bring money in. There is a delicious moment when a group of septuagenarian painters, all of whom took up art only when they were too old for stockriding, ask the girls to dinner and turn up in the middle of nowhere wearing beautiful suits and silk ties. Freeman thinks there could be a future in bush beauty preparations, which she experienced first hand while having a "bush sauna", sandwiched between two pieces of bark over smouldering
charcoal while women rubbed her hands and legs with emollient plant juices and murmured incantations about strength and identity. It was, they agree, a great learning curve; it was also Freeman's particular request at the first Going Bush planning meeting. "I'm a bit of a princess," she says. "I like to have my regular overhaul every six weeks or whatever; I'm a bit spoilt. But it is interesting, too, I think, to women in terms of what traditional Aboriginal women do in terms of rejuvenation." To the Aboriginal communities who welcomed her, Cathy Freeman is certainly a princess. When she was running, she went to great geographical lengths to escape being recognised on holiday. Now she is clearly disquieted to find herself on such a high pedestal among her own people. "Is it because it's on TV, because the Olympics seem so unreachable?" she ponders. "We're all Aboriginal. I would understand if I were in the Andes and people said, 'Oh my God, you're in another country!'" - as did, indeed, happen some years ago in Chile - "but we're in Australia, so you would think people would not feel very far from me at all. But perhaps it's the very similarities that make us seem more estranged, because they feel I would have become lost in it or something. It's hard to know. It makes you think about the different worlds we live in, even though we're in the same country." But for Mailman, who is sunniness itself, seeing whole communities enthralled by her friend's presence was nothing but good. She remembers the two of them jogging along a bush track in Halls Creek that emerged from the bush near the rodeo encampment. Mailman was ahead and turned to watch as Freeman came into view. "When she came round the bend and off the dirt to the bitumen, everyone - everyone! - came forward. All the blackfellas in the camp stood by the side, clapping Cath, and what I saw was that moment when she did the last turn (in the Sydney Olympics race). It was just incredible, seeing the mob clapping and going 'Yay, Cathy!' I just welled up." But that was just one of many moments when Freeman had a heroine's welcome, she says proudly. "Their excitement and joy at seeing her in the flesh was just gorgeous." Obviously no other visitor to the north-west will have quite that experience. But what struck Mailman was that it was so easy to get to know people there, black or white. In the traditional communities, that friendliness spilled into an eagerness to share beliefs, a way of life and the sites of significance they would never otherwise encounter. "I'm hoping whitefellas, whoever, going to these places will have a similar experience and get the same generosity and warmth that these fellas gave us. And I'm sure they will." For Freeman, there was a particular joy that came from learning about her own ancient culture. "You are so happy, you forget about everything." Even the mosquito bites. "You are in the zone." But these places and people, she says, are bound up with every Australian's identity. Being Australian "is not just about being competitive on the world stage, about economics and business," she says. "It's about enjoying ourselves. And enjoying being ourselves."
Going Bush, Wednesday, February 1, 7.30pm, SBS
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