I’ve been thinking a lot about Friendships lately. One of the results of the Social Media revolution is the total physical disconnect occurring between people. I read recently that as many as 50% of people today are lonely and as we get older, this increases dramatically. As the Stoic Marcus said: “Avoid false friendship but true friendship can be therapeutic and deep.” This is the issue. We can place a tick beside a name today and say a person is a “friend” but when push comes to shove who can we call, who can we go out with for a drink, who is prepared to help us in troubled times, who really knows us? These are only our deep friends. We are not islands, we are social animals.

“We are not islands, we are social animals.”

One of the joys of staying connected through my latter years has been the chance of making new friends – not just acquaintances. One of those friends has been Johnny Liddle, an Aboriginal Arrente man from the Central Australian Desert between Alice Springs and Uluru. His family has been based on Tempe Downs Station for generations and are legends in this part of the world. Mention the Liddle’s and you will be regaled with wonderful stories. I met Johnny about 7 years ago. He helped change my life.

Like most non-Aboriginal Australians back in the day – sadly that day still exists for most – I knew nothing about Aboriginal Australians. My first VFL (AFL) Captain when I joined Geelong footy club back in 1965 was a fellow called Graham “Polly” Farmer. I knew he was indigenous at the time but I was oblivious to what that meant; all I thought about was his greatness. Race, colour or creed were not important to the fans – we knew his back story and of his upbringing in Sister Kate’s Children’s Home in Perth from the age of 21 months. But we didn’t think about. I’ve thought about it subsequently as I realised he was a non-person in 1965, only getting the right to vote and become a citizen in 1967. This is only just over 50 years ago.

Perhaps we’ve come a long way since then – perhaps we haven’t. Most of our early historians knew very little about the Australian story post the Cook landing and the prejudice of a young bloke in Geelong towards Aboriginals came purely from ignorance rather than from any level of knowledge. Sadly we were naive.

I haven’t seen Polly for 10 years but I was partly able to redress my ignorance on a number of occasions that I met him around that time. He is now legendary enough to have a freeway named after him in Perth. Linked here is an article I wrote for the Sunday Age in August 2013. It shows the respect I have for a Legend.

Which leads me back to Johnny Liddle. Who was to know that I would meet this man in my mid-sixties and develop a strong friendship and bond? Again, it was a circumstance whereby I had some inclination as to where the Liddle family stood in the scheme of things but it was not until Alexis Wright’s book “Tracker” came out a couple of years ago that I felt like the prospector who’d discovered a gold nugget. A gem perhaps.

“I felt like the prospector who’d discovered a gold nugget.”

Early days Johnny took me to Kurrku on Tempe Downs when he discussed the dream he had for making this barren piece of scrub his home away from Alice. To live again “On Country” and be a place for future generations of Liddle’s to call home. My image was a tap with piped artesian water, an old fridge held together with an occy strap, a kitchen table in need of a kitchen, an old stove, a dangling shower with a dribble of heated water, a dunny, and a bundle of swags to sleep under the stars. I had to trust him.

Johnny knew about Life Again and knew about my plans to bring blokes away from the city to “get away from it.” It was all about Change. Learning about themselves, learning about their Country, and learning about Aboriginal Australians. What better place than Tempe Downs: what better man than Johnny Liddle. I started bringing blokes from the city for the first time. Our stories of ramshackle vehicles, rundown bush buses and the growing pains of Kurrku are part and parcel of our friendship. And the participants loved it. The troopies (bush wagons) are more modern, the buses more reliable, and some trips are almost glamorous – flying planes that the Royal Flying Doctor Service uses. Newington College in Sydney are sending year 11 boys for the fifth year in a row in July. It’s almost part of their curriculum.

Johnny calls me “brother.” I’m proud of that. He trusted me that the people would come: I trusted him that the facilities would improve and grow.

“Johnny calls me “brother.”  I’m proud of that.”

Two weeks ago we ran a special forum where Aborigines from around the Centre and beyond spent 2 days around the campfire discussing our shared humanity. Blackfellas and Whitefellas. All men. We all stand up to piss! It was powerful and moving.

Of course, we saw Uluru. We flew over it at sunset. We flew to the Western Desert communities. Learnt about their special needs.

But most of all it was about Change. “Without Change there will be no Understanding.” I am staggered about how little Urban Australians know about their First Peoples. How proud we should be with having the longest human presence on earth in our Country. We should celebrate it. We celebrate their footballers like I celebrated Polly Farmer but that’s often where it ends.

“Without Change there will be no Understanding.”

Hopefully my friendship with Johnny Liddle can continue to grow so we can learn from each other. One of the loveliest things I’ve heard Johnny say is telling his guests he is “proud to show people my country.” The welcome mat is out at Tempe Downs.


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