Junior Dirdi dreams of becoming a Kakadu ranger, like his grandfather. But to become the strong Aboriginal leader his family sees in him, he’s leaving his beloved homeland behind.
“You see that big rock?” Junior Dirdi points from the 4WD as it makes its way along the rugged dirt road, paving the way through croc-infested wetlands.
“That’s the dog with three legs. There were two dogs, one broke her leg and went back there.”
This majestic escarpment country filled with ancient dreaming stories has the ability to make outsiders feel as if they’re in another world. Or a movie set. Quite literally.
“In Crocodile Dundee, you know when he says ‘you should’ve brought a gun instead of a beer mate’? ” Junior says with a grin.
“And then he says ‘I don’t need a gun, I’ve got a donk’. That’s here at Red Lily.”
The 1986 blockbuster film follows an Australian bushman on a journey to New York, playing on the colossal contrasts between life in the outback and the big smoke.
Junior Dirdi will spend his formative years navigating between these two ways of life.
At just 13, he’s leaving behind his home in this remote community on the border of the Kakadu National Park, in search of a better education on the opposite side of the country.
He’ll board at one of Melbourne’s most elite colleges, 3,800 kilometres from the only life he’s ever known.
Walking between these two worlds will not be easy. It never has been. It’s a path marked with a dark historical strain, and Junior can expect confusion, emotion, sacrifice. After all, this is not a Hollywood movie script.
But Junior’s parents believe school in Melbourne will help him grow into a leader, able to straddle modern Australia while keeping his ancient culture alive.
His mum Darlene Wauchope hopes new horizons will let her boy soar.
When you first meet Junior, he’s quiet and shy. Once he warms up, he’s a little cheeky.
Often he’ll disappear, like the time we chartered a flight to visit him and he was nowhere to be found.
Within half an hour it gets back that he’s at ‘little waterfall’, an idyllic swimming hole just out of town which offers relief from the hot air, so humid that sweat patches quickly fade into head-to-toe dampness.
There are no crocodiles here, he assures. Let’s just pretend one wasn’t found in this exact spot a few weeks later.
The vividness of these burning reds and lush greens set against moody monsoonal storm clouds will stay with you a long time after you leave.
For Junior, the country is imprinted on his soul.
This is Gunbalanya, also known as Oenpelli, a former mission site located in West Arnhem Land.
The settlement is encompassed by the Arnhem plateau, a sandstone refuge for many endangered species.
With a fluctuating population of about 1,200, many different clan groups live in Oenpelli and several nearby outstations.
Visitors are required to apply for permits to cross into this territory. It’s currently wet season, which means residents are pretty much cut off from the outside world.
At the moment the only way into town is via charter flight, which often means a nervous ride cutting through turbulent clouds.
It takes a good couple of days to settle into West Arnhem’s slow pace of life.
As soon as Junior gets out of town, his free spirit shines.
He transforms from a coy teenager into a strong and proud young man.
He and his five brothers and sisters know how to look out for each other as they confidently plunge into waterholes and scramble barefoot up cliffs to search for bush tucker.
Just last year Junior had his first initiation ceremony.
It’s men’s business, so he’s not allowed to talk about it, but it’s a chance for teenagers to prove themselves ready for manhood in front of their fathers and uncles.
“It turns young boys into men,” Junior says.
But fast-forward a couple of weeks, from the banks of the golden billabong where Junior likes to hunt for magpie geese, to Flinders Street Station, one of the busiest spots in Melbourne’s CBD, and it’s like observing a completely different kid.
There’s an obvious nervous edge to his demeanour in the hustle of peak-hour rush.
Less of the man, more of the boy. He’s still finding his place here.
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed on Junior’s behalf.
He’ll spend the next five years at Trinity Grammar boarding school as part of a scholarship.
But his charisma means he’s had no problem making friends.
With the help of Indigenous mentors, he’s starting to settle in to year eight.
“Coming from Darwin myself, I understand the homesickness and being away from family and being away from your community,” his mentor, Kelvin Williams says.
“It’s really impressive to see these boys and the character that they show to come down here and continue to want to improve their education.”
Different is an understatement. To begin with, there are the very obvious adaptations that smack you in the face as hard as a frosty Melbourne chill.
“It’s funny weather; it changes. Like, one day it’ll be hot, the next day it’ll be cold, and then another it’ll be windy, rainy,” Junior says.
“It’s very different. Seeing a whole lot of new people, traffic, lots of cars, lots of big buildings.”
And if those differences aren’t big enough, try transporting a kid from the bush into the almost alien environment of an elite private school, walls clad with accolades from former students turned barristers, prolific authors and sport stars.
There are many nuances that wouldn’t seem like such a big deal without getting an understanding of Junior’s Gunbalanya life.
“Here we have to put on a blazer, grey socks,” Junior says. “It takes a lot longer to get ready to come to school.”
Or getting a detention for not having his diary signed. He didn’t have a diary in the Top End.
But by far, the freedom to roam is his biggest adjustment.
Most of his school holidays in Gunbalanya are spent fixing quad bikes with friends, or splashing around in streams with family.
There are no assigned supervisors, but admired elders and a collective community that helps rear the children.
There are no fences restricting movement, rather an encouragement to explore and respect the land.
And there are very few rules set by institutions, governing things like appearance, dress and curfews.
The same can’t be said for Trinity Grammar.
“Back at home, if we want to swim, we go down to the pool. But at the boarding house we’ve got to have one of the tutors there watching us,” Junior says.
“The bush is like my playground. I miss it. Fishing, hunting.”
There’s a long journey ahead, but Junior is confident the path will lead him back home.
Darlene’s father James Wauchope was one of the first rangers at Kakadu National Park.
His grandfather is now in aged care but has a lasting legacy in the world heritage site, and with his grandson, who shares his connection to country.
“I spent a lot of time with him. He taught me country and lands,” Junior says.
But his family came from around the Alice Springs area, before he was taken as part of the Stolen Generations and put in an orphanage.
“We’re not originally from the countries that we take care of,” Darlene says.
Her brothers are also rangers.
“We’re originally from Alice Springs or part of Croker [Island], but we love being rangers, and this side of NT, north-west Arnhem Land it’s just lovely,” she says.
“It’s a family thing, it’s a tradition that really died out until Junior popped along.
“[So] it’s really awesome.”
When asked where he pictures himself in 15 years, Junior takes time to consider his answer.
“Probably in a chopper, in Kakadu,” he says. “Shooting feral animals.”
As the sun rises over the tranquil wetlands, a quiet morning turns into a sleepy day in Gunbalanya
Many locals load up their cars and head out bush.
Junior’s family packs lunch for a fishing trip, piles into the troop-carrier and makes their way towards looming clouds above Coopers Creek.
English is often a second language here, but when everyone’s together in the Dirdi household that’s how they communicate, because Darlene and Junior’s dad Kingswood, his namesake, speak different languages.
During play, the children speak Kingswood’s tongue Kunwinjku, the main language around here.
Along the bumpy ride, Junior explains how the river divides country governed by traditional owners.
This is knowledge that’s been passed down by his grandfather, and during the ‘Junior Ranger’ bush program, run for young people in the community.
“This is Gumurdul’s country, but at the freeway it cuts off,” he says.
“On the other side of the river, that’s belongs to Nayingul.”
These are powerful families in the community.
It’s respectful for people doing business in the area to visit elders during their stay.
When the 4WD pulls up at Coopers Creek, elder Adrian Gumurdul and his family are already there fishing and cooking a wild pig.
Adrian Gumurdul is proud to hear about Junior’s plans.
“Junior is my grandson, you know,” he says.
Adrian’s a relative on Kingswood’s side of the family, but as part of their kinship system he is considered Junior’s grandfather.
“I’m a bit happy myself, because his mother came down to tell me about Junior going to go and tell a story about being a ranger.”
It’s refreshing for the traditional owner, who’s scared that what is left of their 40,000-year-old culture may soon be completely lost.
“Because older people, they might pass away and we’ve got young people to do the job.
“All the family would be proud for that.”
As he prepares the meat for an earth oven pit beneath the soil, Adrian laments that local young people tend to be more interested in hip hop music than traditional song and dance.
“They want to go to the disco,” he says. “That’s the problem, we want to get young boys involved in culture more.
As close as culture and country may be to his heart, the elder doesn’t want youngsters in the community to close themselves off from the outside world.
In fact, he encourages the opposite.
Junior’s goal to be a park ranger could be pursued through a land management course in Darwin, and through education pathways at the local school.
But Adrian Gumurdul welcomes Junior living down south and returning with new ideas and inspiration.
Junior has mixed emotions as he boards the plane from Darwin, knowing it’ll be a couple of months before he sees his siblings and cousins again.
As hard as it may be to see him venture so far away from home, Darlene and Kingswood have big dreams for their boy.
There are no pressures for him to become a doctor or a lawyer, or to be at the top of his class.
Their wish is that a better education and more diverse social experiences will give him the foundations to walk confidently in both worlds.
“When you’re in a remote community, there’s not much you can do but footy,” Darlene says.
Darlene encourages his dreams to be a park ranger, but believes the opportunity to study in Melbourne means he could choose to move beyond that role one day, maybe even representing the land alongside Kakadu’s traditional owners.
“He doesn’t [just] want to be a ranger, he actually wants to be a part and maybe [help] run the park one day.
And he’s keen for his offspring to step up as advocates for his people and their culture.
After all, the voices of First Australians tend to be silenced by waves of political rhetoric.
“Dealing with funding, budgeting and housing or roads, infrastructure. We’d love to be able to see young kids such as Junior be able to get up there and talk for their home,” Kingswood says.
Junior’s strength of character is the reason he was chosen for a new education program that helps bush kids make the step to big city schools.
MITS (Melbourne Indigenous Transition School) brings 22 Aboriginal students from around Australia to their Melbourne boarding house, and spends 12 months helping to prepare them for mainstream education.
It then helps place them with different private schools that offer scholarships.
Now in its second year, MITS aims to bridge the gap between remote and capital city standards, executive officer Edward Tudor says.
“Often a step from a home community to a big Melbourne school was just too great,” he says.
“Each of the students at MITS has the innate capability to go well at school, but sometimes they haven’t had the opportunity to really soar academically.”
MITS was founded by Edward’s parents, veterinarian Liz Tudor and Rick Tudor, the former headmaster of Trinity where Junior now goes to school.
Both of them have spent a lot of time in Indigenous communities, including Gunbalanya.
Edward says they noticed an increasing demand for greater opportunities.
The high school back in Gunbalanya just celebrated its own success, with the largest number of students having ever graduated from a Northern Territory community school.
But there’s still a long way to go.
According to the latest Closing the Gap report, about 62 per cent of Indigenous students finished year 12 or equivalent. And that figure is just 42 per cent in remote areas, compared with 86 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians.
An extra 31,300 Aboriginal students will need to complete year 12 by 2020 to meet the Government’s own target to halve the gap.
Boarding school is likely to play a large part in that.
Last year about 3,400 Indigenous children attended boarding school around the country.
It’s almost school holidays and like many of the kids boarding around the country, Junior is preparing to return to his family.
He can almost feel the humidity on his skin, the magpie goose melting in his mouth, and the freedom available to the eagle above the billabong.
Darlene and Kingswood hope that over the next few years their boy finds his wings. And one day flies back home.