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was adopted by Aborigines after earning her trust by catching a python.

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was a globetrotter for many years before finding a second home in New Zealand.

Discover the diversity and its people – a snapshot with Denise

May 2021

 

Denise was "adopted" by Aborigines after she was threatened with prosecution for catching a snake at the request of an elder. As age is relative, she is simply a wise woman in Aboriginal culture. This proud grandmother Denise lives on twenty acres of bushland with her husband and three dogs. A passionate biologist, environmental consultant, author, and tour guide, she also advises television producers on culture and wildlife. In both lines of work, she brings people closer to the cultural and natural richness of the Northern Territory. She also has a PhD (on American birdwatchers) and writes papers and sometimes lectures.)

What were your first encounters with biology?

I spent a few years of my childhood in the Riverland, a rural area in South Australia. As a shy child, I felt more comfortable around wildlife than people. I was fortunate to have an Aboriginal friend, Mrs Knight who took me on long walks through the bush and taught me a lot about nature. I was also a bookworm. My parents taught me to read before I was three and gave me a set of adult encyclopaedias when I was four. There I read a lot about animals, including their ecology, physiology and taxonomy (classification).

 

Was this time very decisive or formative for your future?

Two events in my childhood were very formative for me.

Mrs Knight was a key figure. Although I was still a child, she treated me as an equal. She taught me to perceive nature and its wildlife on an equal footing as well and to treat it accordingly. She, along with others, influenced the way I reared my children and encouraged me to look at other ways of education. This was helpful when Kunwinjku, Aborigines from Western Arnhem Land, asked me to help them start a little tourism project.  

The second experience was no less formative.

As a small child waiting for the school bus, I was often bullied by some boys. One day they hit me with the handle of an axe.  That afternoon, I walked home from the bus stop crying. Suddenly I felt something in my back. I thought it was the boys, but when I turned around, I saw a big black bull standing behind me. For the second time that day I thought I was going to die. But he just wanted me to scratch him between the horns which I did. I then put my arm over his neck, and we walked the rest of the way home together.

When the boys saw this, they could not believe their eyes. From then on, they left me alone. I taught myself self-defence and never again did a boy hit me.

 

Why were you adopted by the Aborigines?

In 1983 when I was an alderman on Darwin City Council. I wanted to represent the interests of the Aboriginal people in my ward.  To test my resolve the president of the Reserve Mrs Thompson, asked me to catch her a snake, to which I agreed. After wading for some hours in a lagoon that was home to at least one large crocodile I caught a water python (strangler snake).  But the Aboriginal women’s attitude towards me really changed when I was threatened with prosecution because I had caught a protected species.  They then saw me as a victim and to protect me Mrs Thompson adopted me, saying that now I was “black” I could hunt wildlife legally.

 

So, you are a very brave woman?

Personally, I wouldn't call myself brave. I am a lateral thinker and have often been in desperate situations that required quick thinking and action. Since I did a lot of research alone in nature, I often encountered potentially dangerous wildlife.  Often, I had to sneak up on one very big bull standing beside my tent and jump up and yell to scare him away.

Even before I was an alderman, I was aware of how the police dealt with Aboriginal people, and I began to intervene.  On one occasion an officer threatened me.  That was scary.  Kunwinjku relatives often ask me to mediate when there is trouble and many years ago elders named me "Lawungkurr", after an ancestral woman still respected for her mediation skills.   I am also known as “old lady”, a term meaning “wise lady”.

 

What were the biggest challenges in your new family?

I fitted in quickly, so I had few problems. Of course, I first had to learn which people I could talk to and which I couldn't (e.g. men I call "brothers-in-law").

It was a challenge when older women, my adopted sisters, decided to separate my now ex-husband and me with "magic". They thought he was "not good enough" for me. On meeting Michael, I sent his photo all over Arnhem Land and invited my sisters to meet him.  They later described him as "the best man, black or white in Arnhem Land"! 

One of my "Dreamings" is estuarine crocodile. If I am attacked by this animal, I can only politely ask it to leave me and my companions alone.  That is a challenge!  "Dreaming animals" must be treated with respect and love.

But one of my biggest challenges has been trying to change western attitudes towards Kunwinjku, particularly of the police. But many ordinary Australians also treat Aboriginal people as if they are ignorant which I find sad. My relatives speak several languages and have amazing bush and social skills. They are educated people.

The Kunwinjku Aborigines are my family. We love, understand, trust and accept each other.  Moreover, they enrich the wider society. I will never stop trying to help them for everyone’s sake.

 

What can we learn from the Aborigines?

There is much that we can learn from each other. 

For example, as toddlers Kunwinjku begin to learn parenting and teaching skills, patience, and self-regulation; these children are known as “little” “mummies and daddies”.  Such roles help them become competent parents and responsible members in the community.  

 

An example: My son Rowan became Ngaba ('little daddy') to his tribal brother's newborn son when he was only three years old.  Expected to help raise this little boy, this experience changed his behaviour for the better.

The words of Colin Turnbull, a British anthropologist who worked in Africa, come to my mind. For hunter-gatherer peoples, he wrote, integrity, kindness, charity, and tolerance are "not virtues" but "necessities for survival".  That is what I found.  But also, I learned that Kunwinjku are also consummate diplomats in times of trouble. 

These are essential skills that we all need particularly in this time of covid.

 

You are also an author, tell me more about your books.

The book "Birds of Australia's Top End" took me over 20 years to produce, mainly because of the artwork. It was the first Australian bird book to use a local Aboriginal language.  My autobiography, “Quiet Snake Dreaming”, I finished within five years. I write because I want to inform people by producing publications they like to read. As well I really enjoy writing. Let's protect nature, protect ourselves, our children and future generations.

 

What makes you happy, what makes you sad?

It saddens me that I spend so much time battling weeds such as the monstrous gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus), a weed imported from Africa to feed cattle.

This grass which grows over four metres in height is crowding out native flora and fauna in the Northern Territory’s Top End.  And it fuels dangerous fire.  It makes me happy that I have found a way to control the weed without glyphosate-based herbicides, and to learn that nature can recover once the grass is removed.

Unfortunately, gamba is now out of control in much of the Top End.  Furthermore, few people are interested in my safe method of removing it.

 

But my family makes me very happy as does living in the bush.  And I’ve just learned that Kunwinjku are now returning to their country, Baby Dreaming, where they will be safe.

 
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Discover the diversity of people – a snapshot with Alwin from New Zealand

September 2021

Alwin (51) spent the first 20 years of his life in Austria before becoming a globetrotter. In 1998, he found a second home in New Zealand. In spring, summer and autumn he works as a beekeeper in Ōkato (Taranaki region), in winter he is moves to one of the ski resorts on the South Island with his spouse, a snowboard trainer, and his 4-year-old son. Alwin is currently completing a training program to work as a ski patroller next winter.

 

Will you give us a little insight into your training?

Last year I successfully completed a basic course and this year I'm joining Ski Patrollers as a "volunteer" to achieve all the necessary qualifications. Among other things, I study how to read snow profiles, or what influences wind and weather have on the snow. Depending on the snow conditions, we warn local authorities or close certain areas. I am currently working at Porters Alpine Resort, which is the closest ski area to Christchurch.

 

What motivated you to become a beekeeper?

Originally, I completed The Modul, a tourism school in Vienna. When I came to New Zealand, I built up a new business with a small café. All those years, day in and day out, I had to be friendly, communicative and stress resistant. No matter if I was doing well or feeling bad. This hustle and bustle and the invisible mask gnawed at my basic substance with the time. I looked for a balance and found it five years ago in bees. I leased out my café and created a small livelihood for myself by extracting honey.

I am fascinated how bees communicate, live and look after themselves. They manage to get along with each other in a small space without conflicts. Despite a superficial busyness, these insects radiate peace and tranquility for me. It makes me internally satisfied to harvest, taste and sell honey.  

 

Why did you decide to leave Austria?

My father was an enthusiastic sailor and so I learned to love the elements wind and water as a child. First, we went to the Attersee, later it was Lake Garda, the island of Elba or Greece.

After graduating from high school (1988) I enjoyed my hobby, windsurfing, in Western Australia, where the passion for surfing was born. I quickly realized that in the future I wanted to live by the sea. Later I was moved to the beaches of Indonesia and then to Sri Lanka, where I built up a small existence on the east coast.

In the meantime, I worked over and over again in the Maldives. I was constantly switching between these two countries. In Sri Lanka I lived at a time when there was civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought in vain for an independent state from 1983 to 2009.

As the years passed, I realized that I would always be the "foreigner" in Sri Lanka, so I moved on to New Zealand. In Taranaki I felt at home from the beginning and my intuition gave me the hint to stay here.

 

What differences between Austria and New Zealand do you experience the most?

In New Zealand, the influence of the Māori and the English is very strong. A mix of cultures enriches the country. Unlike Indonesia or Sri Lanka, the society is westernized and has no significant differences from Europe. 

Although Ōkato has a population below thousand, it is home to people from all over the world. We appreciate living between the coast and the mountains, going swimming in the Stony River or biking to the beach. The nearest city, New Plymouth, is around 25 km away from us.

The area around Ōkato is intensively farmed and is home to many dairy producers.

People here like to spend their free time in nature, whether it is fishing, hiking or doing various water sports. New Zealand is an enthusiastic sailing nation.

I find life more informal then in Austria. For example, it is no problem to take your child out of school for a week to go skiing, as long as the child does well in class. 

When I immigrated, which was not a problem because of my profession in tourism, there was much less bureaucracy. In the meantime, this situation has changed.

 

How many times have you visited Europe since 1998?

The first time I came to Europe was eight years ago. I visited a friend in Innsbruck and there I met and fell in love with my spouse from Holland. She broke her tents in Europe and followed me to New Zealand. Before she met me, she lived, as I did, in a variety of places around the world. The second time we visited Austria and Holland as a family in 2017 with our son who was just six months at this time. On this occasion, I also got to know her family. During our last visit, I realized how populated Europe and the Netherlands are. I missed the "New Zealand quiet."

New Zealand is larger than Great Britain with a population of just under five million people. Holland has over 17 million people. One town follows the next and five-lane highways connect the metropolitan areas.

 

How is climate change affecting New Zealand?

Like everywhere else in the world, New Zealand's glaciers are melting at a rapid tempo and the sea is warming up. Winters are getting warmer, and snow is taking longer to fall. Whereas the first snowfall used to be at the end of May or in June, now it hardly falls before July. On some days it is unusually warm, then again bitterly cold. Weather extremes such as storms, even small tornadoes, or heavy rain increase. Recently we had major flooding (it rained 400 millimeters in two days). Our summers are becoming drier and heat waves are more common.

 

What kind of future do you want for your son?

Like many people, I am unsure about how the world has developed in recent decades and what will be the future with the pandemic. I want to build a connection with nature together with him, to let him feel that he is part of the whole. I wish for him a world in which he can live self-determined. I want him to become a cosmopolitan and positive-thinking person who communicates from heart to heart, and to grow up in a world in which neither the color of one' s skin nor religion play a role, and in which people treat each other honestly.

 
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