“Eeeeh Rub, that doesn’t sound too great, mate!” said the Scotsman as he eased off the accelerator.
No, it sure as hell doesn’t! Pull over.
Steam was coming from the engine now.
We hopped outside and popped the hood. Not good. The cylinders had finally crapped out of the ridiculous car I had purchased in Darwin for about $600.
In 2001, Australia was a popular destination for backpackers and I had been there for about three months. As a backpacker, I found Darwin to be laid-back and welcoming. The city was a melting pot of different cultures, and I had such a good time in this party town that I hadn’t bothered to explore anywhere else in Australia.
Looking back on my decision to drive a beat-up, second-hand car from Darwin to Broome, I can’t help but think it wasn’t the greatest of ideas. The distance between the two cities is roughly 1,860 kilometres (about 1,155 miles), which meant I was in for a long and challenging journey through the rugged, remote Australian Outback.
Our car was an early eighties 4.1 litre Ford Falcon station wagon. It was gold-coloured beast with lots of rust and a history of questionable maintenance. I had paid for it using the tips I earned working at a Portuguese-Sicilian restaurant. The car was adorned with images of Jennifer Lopez on the left door, Kylie Minogue in skimpy swimwear on the right door, and Jennifer Aniston on the back. This resulted in lots of waves and whistles from admirers whenever me and my traveling companions stopped for gas or to set up camp.
The only way to access the interior of the beast was through the boot, as we had to climb over the piles of bags, beer, and backpacks that filled the cramped space. In a way, this made the car somewhat theft-resistant.
Throughout the journey, the car experienced frequent breakdowns, almost every time we turned the engine off. However, our backpacker ingenuity saved us time and time again. We used graphite pencils to fix the distributor cap and changed the fan belt and oil every other day. My Scottish friend became skilled at crafting water bongs out of juice cartons and rubber hoses, which made the entire trip feel like a warm, hazy blur.
Although I never drove under the influence, the monotony of the long, straight road leading south from Darwin had a similar effect on me. There were no left or right turns, and we occasionally played bush cricket with oncoming traffic. In retrospect, relying on this beat-up beast for such a long journey wasn’t the cleverest of ideas. The constant breakdowns and maintenance demands only added to the challenges we faced, but we made the most of it and embraced the adventure.
“Look where we are, man!”
Fitzroy Crossing was six hundred kilometres that way, Halls Creek was about the same that way, and there’s nothing but desert in between. In fact, if it weren’t for this bare stretch of raggedy bitumen, we would be in the middle of the desert.
There were no cars coming.
And it was hot.
The kind of hot that can kill you.
“What are we gonna do?”
“I guess we’ll just have to flag the next car that comes and hope they have enough room to give us all a lift somewhere – maybe to a bus stop.”
“I don’t have enough bloody money for a bus!” yelled the Dutchman – his stoner’s cool well melted by the seriousness of our situation.
Then we saw the road train approaching in the distance.
I knew it would take about a mile for it to come to a complete stop, and I was well aware that they were forbidden to stop and pick up hitchhikers. But the trucker who spotted me and my backpacking friends must have been one of those salt-of-the-earth Darwinian types who couldn’t bear to see a fellow bloke stranded in the unforgiving Outback.
As the massive vehicle slowed down, the dust kicked up in its wake, and I couldn’t help but feel a mixture of gratitude and awe. The trucker defied the rules and pulled over, allowing me to hop aboard for the journey to the nearest town – Broome.
When I say nearest…. It would take us 24 hours to get there.
Little did I know I would end up staying there for almost 2 years.
BROOME: A short history lesson….
Sixty millennia past, humanity’s first footsteps imprinted upon Australia’s soil, likely near the Broome area of North Western Kimberley area. Some believe the multitude of song lines beginning at Minyirr (the Yawuru name for Gantheaume Point) attest to this very reason.
As eons unfurled, Aboriginal kinship flourished, transcending Western perceptions of family. Children, cradled by this intricate web of relations, knew they would never be forsaken, even in the face of parental loss. Family was the axis on which their world turned.
Thus, it remained an Aboriginal obligation to nourish and shelter wayfarers, a practice still honoured today – one I was about to experience first-hand. Captain Cook, too, was embraced by Australian Aboriginal hospitality in 1770.
It was the cattle industry that lured the Whitefella to Broome. European settlers, such as the MacDonalds and the Duracks, arrived in the Kimberley circa 1885, establishing cattle stations after years of cattle droving from the east. As their encroachment continued, the exploitation of Aboriginal labour became an inevitability, alongside the expropriation of their land.
Brutality and enslavement followed suit.
Strange beasts now roamed Aboriginal lands – horses, camels, bovines. Bizarre creatures, laying waste to the terrain in their wake. Yet, the Aboriginal people recognized the value of these foreign animals, accepting their presence as a new reality.
As more pink-skinned people appeared, the black people and their land were torn asunder. Thus, the Aboriginal people evolved into saltwater cowboys.
Their understanding and reverence for the new creatures, coupled with their intimate knowledge of the land, made them unparalleled cowboys in the west, sought after by pastoralists far and wide. Yet, they weren’t quite employed – their status as non-persons prevented them from owning bank accounts, their earnings held in “good keeping” by station bosses.
During the wet season, Aboriginal workers were granted reprieve, as their services were unneeded. This time was devoted to the pursuit of sacred law business, maintaining their ancient culture. Their survival hinged on these moments, allowing for gatherings and corroborees to endure.
In many ways, the Aboriginal involvement in the cattle industry birthed a harmonious post-contact way of life, symbiotic with that of the pastoralist. This system allowed for the preservation of traditional skills, the education of their young, and the continuation of the law through ceremonial and social events.
As the Second World War raged on, Aboriginal stock workers were conscripted into Home Defence. Though not thrust into combat, their vital role in the cattle industry bolstered the war effort, supplying the ANZAC army with sustenance.
In 1967, after nearly two centuries of white occupation and over half a century of Federation, the referendum addressing section 51 acknowledged Aboriginal people as full citizens of Australia. They were finally counted in the national census and subject to Commonwealth laws. To many, amending Sections 51 and 127 of the Federal Constitution validated their existence as a race of people.
However, this recognition bore unforeseen consequences for the saltwater cowboys, who were now legally entitled to wages akin to their white counterparts. In response, black workers were ousted from the stations, their homes and way of life ripped away. This displacement wreaked havoc upon Aboriginal communities, pushing many into towns and the grasp of social welfare dependency. Towns like Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek, Derby, and Broome grappled with the influx of dispossessed individuals.
As idleness and despair festered, the saltwater cowboys sought solace in alcohol, now legally available to them. This dependency heralded the erosion of ancient law and culture and the disintegration of Aboriginal society.
Once boasting a proud, intricate social structure and a profound connection to the land, the Aboriginal people found themselves reduced to caricatures – a nation of inebriates and petrol-sniffers. Not satisfied with pilfering their offspring and land, Australia had now purloined their very souls. The saltwater cowboys faded into obscurity, rendered a non-people once more.
Broome became established as a port in the late nineteenth century when the price of mother of pearl soared, and the town became one of the major sources of this valuable material. This unique history led to Broome evolving into a place quite unlike any other Australian town.
By the time the First World War broke out, there were over three hundred pearling luggers operating in Roebuck Bay and its surrounding waters. Despite facing some challenges after the war, Broome eventually regained its vibrancy in the 1920s. The town was inhabited by a mix of races and faces not found anywhere else, with each group forming its own social class. At the top were the white people, followed by Asians, and finally, the local Indigenous population.
While the white pearling masters kept their gene pool separate, the other races intermarried and interbred, creating the unique Broome “mishmash.” Malays, Japanese, and Manilamen took on the risky jobs of diving on the ocean floors, while Aboriginal people worked on the decks and performed other manual labour tasks. This melting pot of cultures and races made Broome a truly distinctive place in Australia.
Broome developed its own language, which went beyond just slang words. To be indoctrinated into speaking this language was the first step in becoming part of the “real Broome.”
This was something I was going to have to learn quickly.
In 1989, the Broome Aboriginal Media Association was formed, and in 1991, Radio Goolarri broadcast its first radio program from local ABC studios. This new station provided much-needed airplay for musicians like Jimmy Chi and gave the Indigenous community a voice on the airwaves. It was a revolution.
Goolarri Media Enterprises was born in 1996, growing into a multifaceted arts and media centre that provided a place for artists to meet, collaborate, and access training and employment opportunities. The Mary G Show in particular was the culmination of years of evolution, growth, and struggle, and I was fortunate to be part of it for a few years.
Mark Bin Bakar, the son of a Catholic Indigenous mother and a Malay Muslim father from Singapore, created the character Mary Geddardyu as a representation of a Stolen Generations woman, inspired by his own mother’s experience.
Mary G first appeared on Bin Bakar’s radio show at Radio Goolarri in Broome in 1993, where she addressed important issues such as domestic violence, sexual health, and reconciliation. The character quickly gained popularity, particularly among Aboriginal women, as Mary G’s candid and humorous approach to tackling difficult topics resonated with them.
Through Mary G, Bin Bakar provided a platform for open and honest conversations about the challenges faced by Indigenous communities in Australia. By using humour and a relatable character, he was able to connect with audiences and promote greater understanding and empathy among listeners. This approach helped to break down barriers and facilitated more inclusive discussions about the issues faced by Aboriginal people in Australia.
I was sitting outside Fong’s bakery in Chinatown, which is what Broome’s town center is called, scanning the local newspaper. The front page of The Broome Advertiser featured a concerned man holding what looked like a crude Molotov cocktail, with the headline: “Broome Kids Making Explosives From Everyday Household Objects.” Hmm. Where the hell was I?
Broome was an odd place. The town centre was on the outskirts of a dusty, sprawling housing estate, and Chinatown seemed to be where most things happened. But it looked nothing like any Chinatown I’d ever seen before, with tin shed buildings, old men lazing on verandas, and young lads jumping over shopping trolleys on skateboards.
I knew a town like this wouldn’t have much demand for a backpacking Irish television professional. Maybe I could become a pearl diver, but that was a risky proposition considering my history with a collapsed lung. It seemed increasingly likely that I’d have to book a flight to a city. But I loved the outback experience and Broome’s incredible beach; I wasn’t ready to leave just yet.
That’s when I noticed an advertisement for Goolarri Media Enterprises. “Media” – I wondered what they did. The address was on Blackman Street, on the other side of town. I grabbed a few copies of my CV and set off on foot. It was a longer walk than I anticipated, filled with actual dog attacks, wrong turns, and close calls with speeding vehicles.
When I finally reached Broome Aboriginal Media Association, my heart sank. The place looked run-down, in the middle of a half-built industrial area. I doubted they’d have any use for me, but after enduring the journey, I decided to at least say hello. I walked inside and handed the young female black receptionist my CV, making nervous small talk about the heat outside.
I left feeling like it was a pointless endeavour, but later that day, I received a call from someone named Peter Strain, a whitefella working as a TV producer for Broome Aboriginal Media Association. He couldn’t believe my timing, saying they needed me. Once he found out where in Broome I was he jumped into a truck to meet me and meet some of his colleagues.
“So you write comedy?” Dot West asked, looking up from my CV.
Dot West was an Aboriginal Australian playwright, screenwriter, and director. Born in Derby, Western Australia, she is a descendant of the Gooniyandi, Nyikina, and Walmajarri people. She is a highly influential figure in the Australian media industry, particularly in Indigenous media. I didn’t know this at the time of course. All I knew was that she kind of scared me. Dot was giving me a look that could sour milk, like I was a bad fart she couldn’t escape
“Yes,” I replied, trying to maintain a confident demeanour.
“And you’ve directed stuff too?” she continued, her eyes scanning my work experience.
“Yes,” I confirmed, hoping my credentials would be enough to pique their interest.
“And a musician?” she inquired, raising an eyebrow.
She continued to scrutinize my CV, and I could sense the room’s anticipation.
Kevin Fong, the CEO, chimed in, “And you have a showreel?”
“Yes,” I confirmed, grateful I had taken the time to bring the tapes with me. “I have some samples of my work back home in Ireland.”
The room was silent for a moment as everyone exchanged glances. It was clear they were trying to decide whether I was the right fit for their project.
Then Mark Bin Bakar arrived.
Mark was a big man with a goatee, thick glasses, and a shock of curly hair that makes him look like Penn from the American magic duo Penn and Teller.
I admitted that a white Irish newcomer to Australia had no business writing what I now understood would be the first Aboriginal comedy show for a national Australian audience.
As I let go of the idea of being hired I relaxed and we chatted about my adventures in Australia so far.
However somehow I must have said the right combination of words as, Mark Bin Bakar gave me a peculiar look and said, “You know, the Irish and Australian Aboriginal people are of the same kind.”
It became clear that Mark saw something in me that could help bring his vision for an Aboriginal comedy show to life. Despite my initial doubts about my qualifications for the job, Mark believed that my Irish background and experience in comedy and television production could offer a unique perspective and contribute to the success of the project.
So, with an open mind and a willingness to learn from my new Aboriginal colleagues, I accepted the challenge. Together, we embarked on a journey to create a ground-breaking comedy show that would not only entertain but also bridge the gap between cultures and foster understanding and appreciation for Aboriginal Australian stories and humour.
Mark Bin Bakar’s alter ego, Mary, was already a phenomenon when I arrived on the scene. Mark was named Aboriginal Broadcaster of the Year in 1998 and was a member of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Fund and the chairperson of the Kimberley Stolen Generations Committee.
Goolarri was a rare entity—a corporation with a soul, a black soul at that.
Just across a strip of dust, in another shed from our production conferences, work was being done on recording an artist from the remote community of Bidyadanga. Mervyn Mulardy was recording a rock album that fused modern and traditional sensibilities, with songs in both English and Karajarri language.
Storytelling and yarning came naturally to those who passed through Goolarri’s corrugated walls. People were generous with their stories, and Actor and local Aboriginal personality Baamba Albert filled my head with knowledge, hoping to enrich the scripts I was now writing.
One story that gripped my imagination was that of Jandamarra, a Bunuba Aboriginal man who lived in the Napier and Oscar ranges during Broome’s early days. His story was a Blackfella Braveheart, a tale of Hollywood proportions. After being banished from his own Bunuba society, Jandamarra turned against his people by working as a tracker for the local constabulary. He eventually had a spiritual awakening and became a great leader of his people, defending his lands and people against police and white pastoralists. His powers became legendary as he and his people eluded capture while waging a guerrilla war against the invaders. His own people believed him to be an earthly vessel for a powerful spirit that lived near Tunnel Creek. In 1897, Jandamarra was finally tracked down and killed, but only with the assistance of another black tracker who also possessed magical powers.
Jandamarra’s story highlighted the extent to which black blood had been spilled in the Kimberley area, challenging the traditional white view of local history.Top of Form
Mark Bin Bakar, an Aboriginal man from Broome, grew up in a diverse cultural environment, where a blend of English, Asian, and local Aboriginal languages formed a local Kriol dialect. As a child, he learned discipline from his father and humor from his mother Phyllis, who was part of the Stolen Generation. Despite the challenges of growing up mixed-race in a mixed-race community, he believed that racial differences were more tolerated in Broome than in other parts of Australia.
In earlier years – In pursuit of his dream to become a rock star, Mark moved to Perth, where he faced racial discrimination for the first time. Disillusioned, he returned to the Kimberley region to reflect on his life. It was then that he discovered the power of being in the place where he belonged.
Mark, along with other Kimberley musicians, founded “Stompem Ground,” a highly-rated music festival celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts. The festival showcases contemporary and traditional music, dance, art exhibitions, and ancestral storytelling.
Through his experiences, Mark Bin Bakar gained a deeper appreciation for his Aboriginal roots and the importance of embracing one’s cultural identity. As the inspiration for his alter ego, Mary, his mother Phyllis remained an essential figure in his life, teaching him the value of laughter and resilience in the face of adversity.
Mary G’s popularity grew beyond the radio show, eventually leading to the creation of The Mary G Show on television which helped create. The show further expanded the character’s reach and impact. Our TV show continued to address critical social issues while entertaining and educating audiences, solidifying Mary G’s role as an important figure in Indigenous Australian media and culture.
Huh? Say again?
“Somebody’s been telling me something and I don’t know what he been say!”
No, really? My ear was starting to tune in.
Huh? It’s English but it sounds like gobbledegook. The language I was trying to learn to write the show reflected the people. A gobbledegook of races; black, white, Malay, Japanese – mostly due to the isolation of the area, its proximity to Asia and also the pearling industry on which the town was founded.
Brand spanking new edit suites were bought and we, the entire Goolarri organisation, and half the town were drafted into building, painting, booking guests, acting in sketches, and other technical positions. It was utter chaos! Camels, horses, hundreds of screaming kids, Chinese dragons, Roadtrains, Crocodiles, all mixed in with guests like Aboriginal actor David Njoombujarra, Aboriginal politicians and human rights activists Pat Dodson and Peter Yu – names that had meant nothing to me a few months before, but whose every word I now hung on as…Mary…
Yes, there was Mary. Now, Mark claims that he had never worn women’s clothing before the night of the first Mary G shoot, but perhaps his wife Tania might say otherwise. Who knows? Anyway – Mary. What adjectives to describe the visual feast that was Mark Bin Bakar dressed up as Mary Geddardyu?
Pretty? Dainty? Sophisticated? Mhhh! Maybe these words are a little wide of the mark – no bad pun intended there.
Ugly? Monstrous? Awkward? Mhhh! That’s not exactly fair either. Mary has her fair share of male admirers. Her onscreen boyfriend Baamba, for one would get into fits of jealousy every time she had to interview a particularly handsome male guest. Not helped that Mary is a total slut when it comes to men. Inviting footballers to score a behind – her behind – asking actors if it is hard… to act.
Crude, rude, but that was what Mary was about. Innuendo. Slapstick – but while we were busy laughing – she slapped a little message into the mix. Reconciliation, Native Title, Stolen Generation – all of the things the white politicians didn’t want to talk about – here they were ready to go on national television.
For Mary, the comedy was always just the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Black people have a sense of humour too! We’re people after all!
The next year we even got to make season 2 of The Mary G Show. An unforgettable experience and a unique culture I am grateful for experiencing.