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Theory and practice

An account from me, Miles, on the workings of the Northern Territories remote communities and their solar systems.

For me, the arduous slog of university learning had finally come to an end and it was time to step into the world of work, testing some skills that a few years in tertiary education had got me. I had studied Renewable Energy Engineering, and even though my heart was not in it 100% of the time, my interest in self-sufficiency and sustainable design led me to the degree’s completion. At a loss at what to do with these newfound skills, I was drawn to the remote work that Oliver was doing with Saltwater Solar in Arnhem Land, as it seemed as far away from the corporate world as you could get, yet still relevant. I was fortunate enough to be invited up there and to contribute to some projects with him. The thought of life in Outback Oz filled me with excitement and trepidation, but I was absolutely absorbed by the fact that I would get the opportunity to glimpse the lives of the indigenous people living in the homeland communities.

Looking back over my education at uni in Melbourne, I came to realise that it had all been one of a theoretical nature. There were some experiments and simulated scenarios that tried our practical skills, yet they were all done in the classroom and lacked a certain level of engagement and understanding that only real-life experience can bring. This was evident to me upon my arrival in Darwin, feeling underprepared as tasks were carried out in preparation for a departure to Elcho Island, where a new off-grid solar system would be built for the local town of Dhudupu.

Arriving in Galiwin’ku, the main town of Elcho, a week later, I felt as though my life had been thrown into a stark contrast. Observing the abundance of indigenous people around me, I tried to rack my brain and remember the last time I had felt like a minority in my own country. Maybe once or twice it had happened whilst walking down the streets of Box Hill back home, but this was a different feeling entirely. Here, I had arrived into a world of its own. On the surface, some may have seen the rubbish that littered the streets, the dogs running around, or the significant amount of individuals without shoes, but a sense of community and connectedness filled my senses. Here, these people were living on the land that their ancestors had shared thousands of years ago. It felt powerful, and it was opening my eyes to what it really meant to be a white person in Australia.

Amidst the scramble to prepare for the reason that we were there (solar), I had forgotten the inner education that one receives during a culture shock. Learning about indigenous culture was something I had strived to do when back home in Melbourne, going to events, and having these conversations with my friends (who were white). My experience, however, talking to any indigenous people back home was limited, and I was beginning to realise that my education in the culture of this land was, like my solar knowledge, theoretical.

Later on, a tiny little six seater plane was taken to the tiny community of Nyinyikay, where the power had been down for almost a week. This place was beautiful and incredibly picturesque. Nestled on a beautiful corner of the south-western coastline, surround by white sandy beaches and lush forests on all sides, I imagined myself here on holiday. It was a small town with four residential buildings and no more that fifteen people living here. The place was still and full.

Our arrival was received warmly as we heralded the restoration of power, and we were quickly taken to the solar system to get it working again. Fortunately, I was tasked with auditing all the houses here and estimating how much power was being used. This took me into the homes of a lovely elderly couple Heather and Tony. They ushered me in quickly and were keen to tell me all about what sort of electrical appliances they were using and and for how long. Gradually the conversation moved away from power and towards their lives, what they were doing and why it was important to them. They were living rich simple lives, ones that were entwined with the land they stood upon.

Over the next few days, I would see them from time to time, occasionally helping Heather out with some technical difficulties on her computer, or watching Tony making his clap-sticks or hauling in a big catch of barramundi. We would have conversations about the importance of preserving the culture here, talking about the lives of their ancestors who lived on this very same land. I couldn’t escape the feeling that they held something within them that I was seeking, a connection to ancient traditions and cultures. When I reflected upon my own life and history, I saw the way in which it had contributed to the destruction of the beautiful culture of this land.

The house that Heather and Tony were living in had a few broken lights, so with a few spare in tow, we spent half a day fixing all the broken ones. As I’m popping open some light fixtures, Heather approaches me and tells me Tony wants to give me his clap-sticks. I was lost for words, and next moment Tony comes and puts his clap-sticks in my hands, tells me to take these back to Melbourne, and then walks away. I want to say thank you in their language Yolngu, but I know that word doesn’t exist. I simply hold them against my body and feel gratitude.

Our journey continues through the different homelands, assessing the solar systems and fixing some broken lights or fans. We head back to Elcho Island and spend three days building the system that’s going to power the nearby community. This whole time I’m learning and integrating the cultural differences of these people and the sense of community that is so deeply understood among them. Here, the line between what is mine and what’s yours seems blurred, there is no sense of complete individual ownership. This contrast to the western view can be confronting, and challenges our sense of personal status. But underneath it lays a sense of togetherness that seems to be needed more and more, and the mutual understanding that we are all equal pervades every action.

To have been so fortunate to have experience life in these special places is something I am truly grateful for. Now more than ever, the need for a connection to land and culture is apparent and clear, and to witness these people is to witness the history of this country. Whilst I was developing skills in the world of solar and gaining deeper understanding in off-grid systems, it seemed apparent that a greater education was being thrust upon me. One concerning truth and beauty which could not be received in any other place. One day I wish to return...


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