Reigniting Connections in the Red Centre

Mercy Light: Connecting 

If you look at a map of Australia and cast your eyes to the corner where the borders of Western Australia and Northern Territory meet South Australia, you are looking at a geographic location that holds significant meaning to the St Aloysius College community.

This remote corner of Australia is also known as Surveyor General’s Corner. Red desert sand blankets the ground around a small podium, marking the very position at which the three borders meet and the soils blend. Near the podium is a small letterbox, in which is placed a guest book, but there is minimal other evidence of human impact. The land around is rugged and dotted with outback scrub as far as the eye can see. If you are ever so fortunate as to visit this remarkable location and trawl through that guest book, you’ll likely come across the names of many students and staff from St Aloysius College who have been to Surveyor General’s Corner. 

Around 30 kilometres east, blending of a different kind occurs. Blending of cultures, sharing of stories, building of friendships. Pipalyatjara (pronounced Pip-al-yat-jara) is a remote indigenous community that students and staff have been visiting since 2010. Former SAC staff member, Ginny Edgerley, first ventured to Pipalyatjara to teach secondary girls in the school a few years earlier and helped to link SAC with Pipalyatjara Anangu School. The school is a hive of connection and activity, serving 150 members of the community, around one third of whom are children. 

It has been 13 years since six students, one Old Scholar and two intrepid staff first visited Pipalyatjara. Indeed, the inaugural visiting group was lucky to even make it beyond Alice Springs airport. Having flown in from sunny Adelaide one February morning to unseasonal rainfall in the Red Centre, they were told that no light-aircraft would be flying to Pipalyatjara until the end of that week; a Friday, which was supposed to be the final day of their stay in Pipalyatjara! 

However, teachers, Susan Holoubek and Briony Collard swiftly found a work-around: an overnight stay in Alice Springs, followed by a day-trip to Uluru, and some prayers for the rain to cease enough to dry the muddied roads so that the group could catch the Bush Bus – a lengthy passenger journey that winds through many APY Lands communities, and eventually stops in Pipalyatjara. Depending on road and weather conditions, the trip could take up to 16 hours. 

The plan, and prayers, worked, and the 16-hour Bush Bus journey gave students and staff alike the opportunity to reflect on the vastness of our country, and the experiences of First Nations peoples who live in remote communities. The four days that followed the tumultuous arrival, as Susan Holoubek then wrote, “constituted, one of those very special life experiences that are enormously difficult to convey to other people.” 

The group did an exceptional job of conveying those experiences, which have spilled into eight subsequent visits to Pipalyatjara, several visits from their staff and students to SAC, and countless extraordinary tales of immersion, adventure, learning and friendship. Most of the extraordinary memories have been created occurred in the simplest of moments; like, in 2016, when the visiting staff and students were guided by a renowned artist and Elder from the area (name withheld as this person is recently deceased) to Pipalyatjara’s traditional homelands, located just outside of town, to view the sunset and enjoy a cup of tea brewed in a billy over a campfire, and to taste some malu wipu – cooked kangaroo tail! Not one phone in sight, the group spent time engrossed in stories of the Anangu who have called Pipalyatjara ‘home’ for tens of thousands of years. 

Over a decade later, post-pandemic, the story continues, and SAC returns to Pipalyatjara after three long years to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. In November 2023, five staff and nine Year 11 students will travel to Pipalyatjara, via Alice Springs and Uluru, for one week of exchange with First Nations cultures. In the spirit of service and hospitality, the Year 11 participants hosted a barbecue on Wednesday 13 September to fundraise for supplies to gift to the Pipalyatjara community at the end of the year. 

The fundraiser was the first of many opportunities that these Year 11s will have to demonstrate teamwork, leadership, problem solving and effective communication in the coming months, as they prepare for this important experience. 

Especially important is that this visit will begin just over a month after the National Referendum on The Voice to Parliament; it is a significant time in Australia’s history. The trip to Pipalyatjara opens students’ eyes to daily realities for many First Nations peoples living remotely, which is an opportunity that many Australians do not have the chance to experience. 

When our students visit Pipalyatjara, they are engaged in fun activities within the classroom, after school swimming in the community pool, visits to neighbouring community, Kalka, and the nearby indigenous arts centres. And while they participate in these activities, it is imperative that they take time to listen, observe, and later reflect, because there is much to learn from our friends in this faraway corner of this country.

If you would like to learn more about SAC’s long-standing connection with Pipalyatjara Anangu School, please watch ‘Ngapartji Ngapartji’ – a short film made about the exchange by Ninti Media in 2016: Ngapartji Ngapartji – YouTube

Ms Maddie Kelly
Marketing Team & Social Justice Coordinator