She has the red sand under her skin

Donna Giliam wandered Australia for years – from the desert to the Kimberley to the tropics and back to the desert again. During this time, she worked and studied hard with her eldest daughter in tow. After years of travel and immersion in some of Australia’s most remote indigenous communities, Donna finally finished her studies and became a qualified teacher. The allure of a ‘normal’ life in the city satiated her hunger for something more only for a short while. She returned to the desert and till this day, the red sand is under her skin.

1. Why did you choose to live and work in an Aboriginal community?

My grade 4 teacher lived and worked in an Aboriginal community before she taught me. She would tell us stories about the community she taught in and she planted a little seed in me. Later in my third year of university, I spent a month out at Ukaka (near Kings Canyon in the Northern Territory) working on a project called SWIRL (Story Writing in Remote Locations) and I LOVED everything about it. I loved the kids, I loved the music of Luritja (the students’ first language) and the smell of the camp fires. I wept when I left. I got back to Melbourne and hated being in the city, finished my third year of university and took a year off to travel around Australia… I needed to smell the desert again. That year turned into five years. Finally I got back into my studies in Cairns, then moved to a little Aboriginal community in the Kimberly called Jarlmadangah and eventually completed my studies online through Charles Darwin University while living in South Gippsland. The whole time I was driven by this dream to get back out bush and teach. By this time, I was a single mum and my little girl was starting school the same year I started teaching.

For a moment I let go of my dream to teach in the bush. My daughter was settled in Victoria, I had a day a week teaching and heaps of casual teaching work; life was easier after all the years of traveling and I was feeling lighter after a messy marriage breakdown. I did not need to go anywhere.

BUT, winter set in and I found my feet wanting to move. I needed adventure and sun on my back. I put my CV into the Northern Territory job pool in the hope of something for the following year and got a call the next week asking if I would take a ‘teach for a term contract’ in Mutitjulu (right under Uluru). I took it. I packed up my little girl and left my handsome hound with a friend, and off we went. I could do a term and come home. I even kept my rental… I was actually pretty sure I would get this dream out of my system in a term and then come home.

2. Where did you work and what was the community like?

We arrived for term 4. My daughter and I spent a few days re-connecting with ‘our Alice’ (Alice Springs – a town I had always come to and had a massive crush on) and I got in touch with my new boss who picked us up in the school troop carrier and took us out to Mutitjulu. This five hour drive was the beginning of our life long conversation. She is one of the most solid people I know. We arrived in Mutitjulu in the dark. My daughter raced into our ‘teacher house’ and picked out her room. We had two suitcases each and a rag rug for the lounge room floor. Our house was under a massive sandhill and from my washing line, I could see the top of Uluru… It looked close enough to touch.

We lived in ‘Rangerville’ where there were two teacher houses and a heap of housing for the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park staff. Over the other side of the sand hill was Mutitjulu. This is where most of the people in the community lived. There was a shop, school, high school campus, recreation hall, clinic, police station, Ranger’s workshop, and a little op-shop. Over this side of the sand hill, we were in the shadow of Uluru. It did not matter where you were: Uluru was always the back-drop.

I stepped into my classroom on that first day, my belly filled with butterflies and my eyes sparkling. This was my dream come true. This is what all that work was for; to land here in the desert to teach. But then my students arrived and quickly, I learned that this job was not what I dreamed it would be. It was hot, the room felt too small, the kids could not understand me or hear me or did not want to listen to me. Within six weeks, I had decided that I would finish the term and head home to Sandy Point in Victoria where I knew everyone, where I spoke the same language as my students. Where it was safer, easier.

THEN the school was asked to join the community in smoking a house of an old lady who had passed away some time before. When someone dies you see, Anangu (which refers to the traditional Aboriginal owners of Uluru) will not use the house they lived in until they believe the spirit has moved on. The smoking ceremony was to prepare the house for the next people to live in, so I was supposed to take my class (who by the way, didn’t do anything I asked them to) over to this house to walk through with the rest of the community.

I cautiously prepared myself for the kids to be loud and silly while taking part in this ceremony. I explained what we were doing and started to ask the kids questions because I did not understand what was expected of me… the tables had turned. My class explained to me what we needed to do. They lined up respectfully and showed me what to do. As we walked through that house, my class guided me like I was in their care. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I knew that if I was to leave, someone else would come in for a term, have an ‘experience’ and then leave. I knew I needed to do this better and leaving at the end of the term was not the answer. I needed to change the way I did things, so I asked for a job for the follow year. I was going to do this better. I stayed for four and a half years.

3. What were the most beautiful experiences you had while living there?

The desert is raw. Life expects one to be tough. The sand is hot under your feet, the water warm from the taps and that beautiful red sand gets under your skin, in your eyes and between your sheets at night. The days can be unforgivable until the sun touches the horizon and the dome of stars would take my breath away. I could always do another day because the nights were so beautiful. The heat in summer made people cranky and the cold in winter made it hard to get out of bed, but these extremes made the joys just as intense. Let me try and share some of the most beautiful experiences I had:

  • Joy is the roar and rolling laughter in our classroom. I would try so hard to be the serious grown up but the laughter was so contagious and it would fill my belly and my soul and soon tears would be rolling down my aching cheeks as I tried to gather some sort of composure.
  • The times when a child would have a light bulb moment, a penny would drop and their big brown eyes would look at me and we would share in that joy of new knowledge. That is the joy of teaching.
  • The sound of women singing, that deep ancient sound that I would hear coming from the aged care facility next door. Usually right at the moment I needed to hear it.
  • Making scarecrows and building a garden with my class. Digging our fingers in the red sand and harvesting our wild tomato plantations.
  • Walking around the community blindfolded for a maths lesson about direction and rolling about in laughter.
  • Seeing the joy on an old man’s face as he sucked the nectar from a honey grevillea like a child.
  • Visiting the Mala paddock that was build by Anangu and white fellas together to protect the endangered Mala (Rufous Hare Wallaby) and touching a mala.
  • Swimming with the kids in a rock hole under Uluru.
  • Driving with the kids in the troop carrier. The singing, the laughing, the stopping to chase a goanna or roo.
  • The smell of the campfires in the mornings.
  • Sharing this joy with my principal, sending proud kids with new learning down to her and her sending students from her class to me. To share excitement and achievement.
  • My daughter playing on the sand hill with her friends until sunset. The music of their laughter and chatter was the soundtrack to my after-school chores.
  • School trips with ‘all inclusive’ roo tail for lunch cooked on a stinking hot fire.
    Searching for honey ant and witchetty grubs and having the children write about it back at school.
  • The day my most disengaged kid came to me with three pages of writing because he had been inspired. I wept and squeezed him!
    Looking on with deep pride at a classroom of learners. Children who could read and who had filled an entire wall with pieces of writing. Children who decided to come to school because we had made it a good place to come and a place where their learning was celebrated and it had become useful.
  • Driving past a sign and having a child randomly read it out to me and noticing the sparkle in their eye. That child knew that they had worked hard to read that sign.
  • Having a family tree making day on the school lawn (fake grass) seeing all these people sitting, talking and comparing their family trees. It was incredible to learn the connections between my students.
  • Being on maternity leave in the community and getting to be a mum in the community rather than a teacher.
  • Having my students come over the sand hill and visit. They would call my name as they got closer and come in talk and play.

4. How did your perspective on life change while working in the community?


  • Family is everything. One of my students wrote this on his work once and that is what changed in me. People would drive in beat up cars for hundreds of kilometres to get to a funeral, not out of obligation but because family is everything.
  • And rest. I was raised to work hard and identified with this. Turns out it is not always the best thing for us. Stopping the car to smell a flower or having a cup of tea with a friend rather than writing reports for an afternoon – I learned this from my students who would look at me like I was mad rushing around all the time. It is ok to take time out and enjoy nature. Actually, it is essential.
  • I also had major changes happen while I was there. I met a man and we had a baby. I arrived in the community following a dream with my daughter and handsome dog and left five years later three months pregnant with two kids, a dog, two guinea pigs and a boyfriend!
5. What were the most difficult aspects of life there for you?


  • When the kids and their families were having a hard time, I would often feel like I should be doing more but not know what it was, so there was often a sense of helplessness.
  • Mostly I loved being remote but once I moved away, I noticed how much easier things like getting to the doctors, buying food and doing chores was.
  • Being a busy working mum. Working full time and feeling like my job was never done and then getting home drained, with not much left for my own child.
  • Funerals. People dying young and the impact of this on the students I taught. The heartbreak of watching families grieve over deaths that could have been avoided. There are actually no words to make this right.
  • Leaving. Leaving was devastating. My daughter attended a different school to where I taught and she did not have any friends there and school life was lonely. There were some damaging educational practices that she is still recovering from now. After trying to work with her school and learning that things would not change, we left. It was gut-wrenching driving out of the community and knowing my time there was up.
6. How did these difficult times help you to grow?

One day I went into my principal crying. I felt I was failing one of my kids. His home life was pretty hard and he was playing up at school. I desperately wanted him to read or to feel successful, but all I seemed to be doing was growling at him. My boss sat me down and talked about the big picture. She reminded me that each kid is there for a different reason (regardless of national testing and state curriculum), and while she believed in high expectations, she reminded me that that boy needed to feel safe, to feel cared for and to feel loved – all of which I was providing. I learned to take my time; that it is not a race.

I learned that most of the ‘stuff’ I thought I needed, I could do very well without. Being remote enabled me to be creative and make the most out of what we had. We had fun trips collecting resources from the tip and much deeper learning came from that than ordering it online. I guess I arrived with these creative skills, but I embraced the opportunity to use them!

I hated the deaths in community, but I learned about grief. The way Anangu grieved was loud and passionate. The sorry camps would be set up for weeks and the families gave time for the spirit to move on and for the families to feel the open wound of death. There is nothing as powerful as a community protecting a grieving widow or children. I lost my own grandparents after my return to Victoria and I let myself howl and look for them in a wild storm or a kissing butterfly. I gained a more balanced view of death. It still scares me, but not in the same way.

I dream about going back. I have two younger children now and my eldest is in year 9. I need to let her finish school here and then I need to take my little ones out bush. They cannot miss out on campfires, song, desert sunsets and roll-about laughter. My five year old already dreams of the desert and my eldest fondly remembers her afternoons on the sand hill and sleeping out under the stars.

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