As our group of amazing young people arrived at the Yuendumu Wanta space ready to head for Melbourne in the depths of winter, most launched enthusiastically into some nice, warm toasties ready to hop on the bus for Alice Springs airport, when…..oh no!….can you believe it?….the bus would not start! It had cranked up the night before, and it had been started up earlier that morning, but at the absolute critical time, it decided it was happy to remain exactly where it was.

Despite some serious efforts to get it going, it remained stubbornly still and increasingly silent! Things were not appearing to go well, and the big, shiny bus remained motionless in the red dust of the Centre’s back yard. Could this derail our beautiful plans? Well, of course not, this is Central Australia after all where innovation and bush mechanics reign supreme, so a bit of tinkering with a second bus had the mob packed in and on the road a bit later than hoped, but on the road nonetheless.

The journey to Alice in this bus, taken at the last minute from the interchange bench, may have been bumpy and breezy, but once on that big steel bird in the sky, the travel was as smooth as the proverbial, and we touched down in Melbourne ready for an amazing adventure.

While we were only going to be in Melbourne for 3 full (plus two part) days, we had an action packed agenda with some wonderful variation in the activities that everyone was keen to jump into boots and all.

Thursday was off to a cold but exciting start with some shopping at the iconic Queen Victoria Markets. In fact, we were staying only a couple of blocks from this little gem, which was both great and, probably, a bit scary if saving money for the entire expedition was seen as a goal. Some crazy (but apparently essential) things were purchased because they seemed like a good idea at the time, but so too was some extremely practical warm clothing (jackets, hoodies, beanies and gloves) for all those that didn’t quite realise what Melbourne cold felt like. In some weird way, which is difficult to understand, this cold was very different to Yuendumu cold and we were needing to adapt quickly.

Our time in the markets, although practical and fun, was really just a ‘stopover’ to the main game for that day….a visit, via our first of many trams, to the impressive Regent Theatre to see ‘Wicked the Musical’. In doing so, we were climbing on the backs of those Wanta giants from Ntaria who had done this only weeks before and who had provided an amazing and positive critique of this theatrical masterpiece. Most of our group, in the lead-in to the show were struggling to gain the concept of what this show was, what the theatre was all about and what did we mean by musical theatre anyway, but it wasn’t long before those confused faces turned into looks of amazement. By the show’s end, the group had loved what they saw. The music was great, the lighting was mesmerising, the movement was never-ending and the storyline was delivered with so much fun, but it was, yet again, that opportunity to experience something never before seen that allowed this ‘event’ to be a hit with the incredibly absorbed Yuendumu mob.

Friday was going to involve us all in something way more familiar than musical theatre….footy! Who in the Red Centre doesn’t love that, but this time it was going to be Yuendumu’s namesakes, and historical providers of Yuendumu’s first jumpers in 1962, the Magpies, better known as Collingwood!

In the morning it was their training facilities, with an absolute highlight of getting to meet the famous Daicos brothers, Nick and Josh. These fellas are legends in the current footy world, and they were amazing with our group, offering time for photos as well as a bit of yarning time.

From there, it was ten pin bowling in the heart of the city. We took up a couple of lanes that soon roared with echoing laughter as these big round bowing balls with strangely sized and placed finger holes, either careered down gutters or bounced off big rubber bands to keep them, to some extent, ‘on track’. Everyone was a winner here, even those that did not initially want to take part but soon jumped in because so much fun was being had.

With a short rest back at the Hostel and the usual truckload of food for fuel, it was finally time to head for ‘The G’ and the big game between Essendon and Collingwood. We had to wait for a few trams to pass by, as they looked remarkably reminiscent of tins of sardines, but we all finally got on one, heading down Flinders St to Jolimont where the lights of this incredible ground lit up the environment with the power of, what seemed like, ten suns. We stood quietly as we were told in both English and Warlpiri to stay together, given there were tens of thousands of people, a crowd none of us had ever experienced, which could easily gobble us up and spit us out in an unfamiliar place that might find us lost for quite some time. None of us wanted that, and so we made it safely, as a group, to our seats way up there in the dizzy heights of this huge stadium.

Some of us were crazy Collingwood supporters, some of us were there to barrack loudly for Essendon, and the remainder were there simply to be mesmerised by the noise, the action, the people and the experience of a lifetime. We were there with over 81,000 others, so there was no shortage of noise and colour, and so we happily added our own bit when and where we felt it was needed….just as we would at the Yuendumu footy oval, but without the car and its horn. All in all, this was a great night. Essendon won, but that really didn’t matter as we pressed our way, on foot, with the tens of thousands of others back into the city and onto our Hostel for another comfortable rest after an action packed day.

Our last full day in Melbourne, Saturday, was focused mainly at the zoo. This gave everyone a chance to explore as they wanted and at the pace they felt comfortable. While it seemed like a relatively lazy day, it was actually perfect following the intensity of a late night with 81,000-plus screaming footy fans. So many animals that had never been seen before, at least not face to face. Gorillas, elephants, giraffes, and the list goes on, and some wide open spaces just to chill and compare stories as to who had seen what and who still needs to go where.

This incredible day was finished off with a tram (not another one!?!) back into the centre of the city where a bit more shopping, prior to heading back to Yuendumu tomorrow, was an essential bookend to a great trip. That being said, we actually finished with a different eating experience. Off to Chinatown for a Chinese bbq, where we got to cook up our own selection of meats right there on the hotplate in the middle of our tables. Some of that meat was spicy, and we mostly avoided that, but they were all different, and it was definitely a change from sausages and kangaroo tail. It was yet another experience that offered something different to what we are used to. We didn’t necessarily like it all, but that wasn’t the point…the point was about being prepared to give something, which we might otherwise see as being scary, a red hot crack and, for the most part, that is what we did.

This trip was made up of some exceptional young people and some truly supportive yapa adults that ensured every experience that was had was had in a safe yet fun way and in a way where the leaning opportunities were maximised.

While the primary reasoning behind such a journey is about rewarding these students for positive attendance and behaviour at school, thereby incentivising such attendance, it also offers an amazing opportunity to view a world outside of Central Australia. What might appear like two completely different worlds, and they are in so many ways, they also have parallels and experiences that these young people can grab tightly to help guide what their respective futures might look like.

Our group genuinely grasped those opportunities and experiences, as limited as they might have been, made the most of them while they had the chance, then waved goodbye to Melbourne and looked forward, just as we all do, to heading home to where we all love…Yuendumu!

Finally, a huge thanks goes to the local Granites Mine Affected Area Aboriginal Corporation (GMAAAC) for funding this amazing experience and hence providing such positive support for the young people of their community here in Yuendumu.

Written by Neil Mackenzie – Wanta Social Enterprise Manager.