Friday 29 July 2005 , 6 pm AEST
Producer and Director: Julie Nimmo
Series Producer: Michelle White
Presenter: Rachael Maza
This two part documentary follows the journey of two film makers, Michael Butler and Michelle White, who travel around Australia in an old ex-army ambulance dubbed the "Message Stick".
MICHAEL BUTLER: We're getting the bull bar put on. And the spotties. We modified the engine and put in a six-cylinder motor, a Nissan five-speed gearbox and a Salisbury diff. New tyres, new suspension. I think she's a bloody beaut for Australia, mate!
MAN: We've put a lovely six-cylinder Holden motor into there. It's very strong, it'll never break down. Very reliable.
MICHELLE WHITE: We're just gonna paint it now. We'll get new tyres on Monday. This is our home.
MICHAEL BUTLER: I bought a 1961 ex-Army ambulance Land Rover. It served in the Vietnam War. And I rebuilt it for a trip of a lifetime with my girlfriend. Well, I'll show my little Shelly this tonight.
MICHELLE WHITE: Well, this where it all began. Bondi.
MICHAEL BUTLER: In Sydney.
MICHELLE WHITE: I was studying at university. And I met this wonderful man.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Where?
MICHELLE WHITE: This one.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Oh.
MICHELLE WHITE: And I fell in love. And had the choice. Uni – education. Or Michael!
MICHAEL BUTLER: Or me!
MICHELLE WHITE: What a choice!
MICHAEL BUTLER: Wrong again, honey!
NARRATOR: To keep them safe on the journey around Australia they have the rainbow serpent painted on the vehicle by famous Aboriginal artist and musician Colin Walangari McCormack.
COLIN WALANGARI McCORMACK: My grandfather, Albert Namatjira, inspired me. I was given a set of paints. And I never used them for a whole year. And then one day it was raining and I had nothing to do, so I bought some canvasses. And once I painted my first painting it was like I caught a bug. And I had to paint every day.
NARRATOR: They feel the vehicle is protected now. After six months of organising the trip, Michael and Michelle are finally on the road. Almost. Except for a minor banking hiccup.
MICHELLE WHITE: I got my PIN number and I left a message but I'm wondering if you could be able to check it for me?
MICHAEL BUTLER: Shelley, we're drivin' out of Sydney. It feels good!
MICHELLE WHITE: How good! (Laughs)
MICHAEL BUTLER: Real good!
MICHELLE WHITE: Yay!
NARRATOR: They have only $300 and a digital camera.
MICHAEL BUTLER: We're out of it! We're on the other side now. We're on the way around Australia.
NARRATOR: They don't know how long the journey will take. Or who they'll meet along the way. They just know they're heading north.
MICHAEL BUTLER: South West Rocks, huh?
MICHELLE WHITE: South West Rocks. I wonder what this area was called. And who the first inhabitants were of this country. This beautiful…listen to me! I look like Rex Hunt! This beautiful…rich land!
MICHAEL BUTLER: It was owned by someone, huh?
MICHELLE WHITE: Yeah.
MICHAEL BUTLER: We found out that the local tribe for this region was Worimi. We settled down on their land for the first night on the road. Simple vegetables are the best, aren't they, Shell?
MICHELLE WHITE: Well, it's a bit cool. Temperature's gone down a bit so…some butter with sweet potato is our dinner tonight. With a bit of gravy on top. Superb.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Sleep well?
MICHELLE WHITE: Yeah. Where to today? (Laughs) Wherever the road takes us.
NARRATOR: Michael and Michelle head north through Gumbainggir land. And learn some of their tragic history.
MICHAEL BUTLER: That's OK. Alright. That's OK.
MICHELLE WHITE: Where are we off to?
MICHAEL BUTLER: Well, there's some sacred sites around here at South Ballina. When the white man started coming through all of this area, he, um…obviously didn't like the Aboriginal tribes being on the land. So what he did is he took them over to one of the sand dunes not far from here and shot them all.
JOHNNY, LOCAL FISHERMAN: There's bones up there which have been covered up. By sand-drift and vegetation. And National Parks and police came to the scene and they examined this area, and found out that it was an Aboriginal campsite. And these stones is what they used here to work with. Potch.
MICHELLE WHITE: Potch?
JOHNNY: It's like glass. And they obviously brought that here and they chip it with the stones. And they'd use that for their carvings and making spears. You can have a look at the midden up here. But most of it's been covered up by vegetation. There's stone axes in this. So you can imagine how far back in history this must be. It would have to be thousands of years. Of course nobody will ever be allowed to excavate to find out. You know, being probably a sacred site. They'd had an abundance of pipis. And wildlife. Wallabies, kangaroos. And a perfect little sheltered area through here. You get a strange feeling if you're here late in the evening. Towards nightfall. It does things to you. That's the site. And it goes way back, way back in time.
MICHELLE WHITE: Oh, it was amazing. Pipi-ing area, where the mullet was running. This land was just plentiful. It was a happening place. It was beautiful.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Well, we're off to go and see Uncle Eric now.
MICHELLE WHITE: Yes.
NARRATOR: They head into Bundjalung country.
UNCLE ERIC WALKER: This was a place, I do believe, that when the Bible speaks of…it's the "land of milk and honey". Fruit. Fresh meat. Fresh tucker every day. When they'd get up in the morning they had a place where they'd meet with the elders. If the elders wanted them they'd come out then they'd stand there. Get up there for their morning drill. "Right. Who goes out for fish this morning?" They had their fishermen's experience. They'd take their bilar, their spears, right? (Speaks in traditional language) A killer boomerang. Just in case they wanted a duck. They supplied the neediest – looked after the needy ones first. Then after they shared them all around… (Speaks traditional language) ..the old elders would get theirs. Then the hunt men would get theirs last. And that was part of our laws, you know? These are laws. It was loving. Giving. Sharing and caring. There's no greed. This is where the spirit used to roam around here with our people. And he's still here today. Here.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Uncle Eric kindly painted his name on my didgeridoo. I'd taken this didgeridoo to Mount Everest. And now, two years later, my goal is to find the traditional master player of this sacred instrument somewhere in Arnhem Land. He gave us a special blessing for our 2,000km journey to the Northern Territory.
MICHELLE WHITE: They welcomed us into their family. And now we're part of the family. It's beautiful.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Well, this is downtown Byron Bay. As quiet and serene as Byron Bay could be.
NARRATOR: A bit further up the road, still in Bundjalung country, they stop at the most easterly point of Australia. And find out that this area has had a land claim placed on it by the traditional owners, the Kay sisters.
LINDA VIDLER: They didn't even know there was any Aboriginals here in Bryon Bay.
WOMAN: They ask, "Where you from, sister girl?" And I'd say, "Here." And they'd go, "Where?" And I'd go, "Here. Byron."
RON HERRON, ANTHROPOLOGIST: We did the genealogy. We went right back. To show that they were here when the first settlers came. It was their family group that lived here. So we've got all that documented. So it's indisputable. You know, that these are the native title holders.
STEPHEN SHINERA: It recognised that there were people here that owned the land before whitefellas came along and stole it.
LORNA KELLY: Some people basically want to own Byron Bay itself. The whole lot. We don't want to do that. Because the people, they're building and coming this way, like, you know, see all those there now, they're coming this way into the town. But they just want to leave Cosy Corner to Broken Head alone. Along the beachside over there. Tallow Beach. That's mine. It should be left alone. That's where our grandparents were buried. And that's the land I'd like to get back to. There's no chance of that. Because they were buried there. And where they were buried, they've got a big swimming pool there. Goodness knows what happened to their, you know, bones and things.
MICHAEL BUTLER: I left with a very heavy heart, knowing what my white ancestors had done. But we're happy to find out that the Arakwal land claim was successful. We travelled on to the Gold Coast to meet my family. My grandfather! Keith Dudman. "This park has been named in honour of Mr Keith Dudman. He was one of the major land developers of the area, and contributed much towards the residential and commercial development of the Miami area." My mother's name, Yvonne. It's only a small street but still a street. This is my mum. And this is where I got my musical talent.
MICHELLE WHITE: That's beautiful!
MICHAEL BUTLER: Come on, Shell. Come and meet my father. You haven't met him yet, have you?
MICHELLE WHITE: No, I haven't.
MICHAEL BUTLER: I was four years old when my parents separated. And 21 when my dad died of cancer.
MICHELLE WHITE: Do you miss him?
MICHAEL BUTLER: I don't know, Shell. It's a strange question. You know, I never had a father to miss. Deep in my heart I would have liked to have known him. Some people get the chance to have a full family. And…some people don't. And I was one of them. We passed by Badtjala and Yuwi country to get to the tropical destination of Nyawaygi. It felt like every kilometre travelled we discovered a little bit more about who we are to ourselves and each other.
NARRATOR: In Townsville they meet a dance troupe, Malu Beizam, that originated in the Torres Strait Islands.
GEORGE WARNU, MALU BEIZAM DANCERS: Here in this dance group we have a mixture of people because of intermarriages. We have Aboriginal blood, we have Torres Strait, we have New Guinea, we have South Sea Islands, we have European. And we try to…tell everybody that it's because everything has changed now. You know, and we can't change it back. So what we do is to learn, everybody, about our culture. Because we're saying, "Hey, we're learning your culture, this is ours, so learn ours so we'll be able to live together." This society is a multicultural society. So, you know, we need to know each other's culture so that I could live next to that person from China, next door.
We're just gonna say a small prayer. For Michelle and for you, Mike. And for this whole project, that the Lord's hand will be upon it. Because what you're doing is really bringing out into the open through our own eyes, and not from the eyes of someone else. Lord, we thank you for our brother and for our sister. Lord, may you just supply all their needs, Lord, whether it be financial or material or physical. Lord, you just come upon them now. Give them the mind and understanding. Give them the love and the joy and the peace, Lord, and you give them that tolerance. Lord, touch their eyes and bless the things that they see. And Lord, touch their hands and bless the things that they touch. Bless their vehicle, Lord, that they have put to this use. That will just extend and promote Indigenous Australia.
NARRATOR: Kuku-yalanji country is where they meet the Gosam family. They're collecting a special didgeridoo for Michael.
MICHELLE WHITE: Ah, beautiful!
NARRATOR: He learns that these little termites eat out the centre of the tree to make the hole for the didgeridoo.
WARWICK GOSAM: You look for the couple of dead branches in between but it's got to have a healthy top. They haven't made it to the top yet. That's why it's still nice and green and flush. Oh sorry, Dad! I forgot. (Breathless) So that's the hollow. We go from the top and he's a little bit bigger down the bottom.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Wow, that's gonna be a good didge.
WARWICK GOSAM: Yeah. You can hear the sound already.
NARRATOR: Warwick and his dad, Michael, have a workshop at home where they carve their totems of crocodile and goanna into the wood.
WARWICK GOSAM: It's brought us closer together. We seem to be like good mates. Because we're usually around each other all day in here doing our work. It's like a hobby and it's creating itself into self-employment. And if we do good, in a few years time we'll be able to open up places for the kids to, you know, take 'em out and teach 'em how to carve didgeridoos. Teach 'em how to go out into the bush and chop didgeridoos. Like, there's a whole world out there to experience. Aboriginal art can take you there.
NARRATOR: Michael and Michelle are lucky enough to take their totems with them. Michael paints the crocodile on the vehicle and Warwick paints the water dragon. They're now starting to feel that the truck is taking on a life of its own. It's starting to look like a traditional Aboriginal message stick moving between the different language groups. They feel very privileged. Michael Gosam sends them to meet David Hudson, who explains the significance of the Aboriginal spirit which they now believe is guiding their journey.
DAVID HUDSON, ARTIST AND MUSICIAN: In this area, we believe that we were here first as human beings. In that form. And when all the things started happening like the floods and the waters and the earthquakes and the fire, we as human beings turned ourselves into trees, water, birds. And that's how come we're here today, because of the giant rainbow serpent. And he created all these little channels here where the water rushes out to the coast.
MICHAEL BUTLER: In the Top End, the didgeridoo is known as the yidaki. I get to play with one of the masters of the Cape York region. There's a didgeridoo just there. Can you see him in the water? Careful, that's a croc and it might bite. (Laughs)
NARRATOR: David's yidaki playing and music has taken him all around the world. And he's also a great artist.
DAVID HUDSON: I want to just do some handprints for you because handprints symbolise good spirits. And my spirit's travelling with you fellas too on your travels.
NARRATOR: The four hands are painted in red, black, white and yellow as a representation of the different colours of people around the world. Michael and Michelle leave David knowing that they're heading into much more traditional land.
MICHAEL BUTLER: It's beautiful.
NARRATOR: Across the Bloomfield River, still in Kuku-yalanji country. As they head into more remote country, Michelle becomes curious about how traditional people survived in the bush. Michelle gets the opportunity to meet Martha. One of a few people who know about traditional bush medicine in this region.
MICHELLE WHITE: Mmm. It tastes like green mango.
MARTHA, TJAPUKAI ABORIGINAL CULTURAL CENTRE: Since I was 16, my parents teach me how to look after myself in the rainforest. Also just learn about bush food as well. Even when you're going out walking in the rainforest, you don't know what you'll come across like snakes, diarrhoea, also a stinging tree. It's the most very deadliest plant in Far North Queensland. If someone gets hurt and they're a member of the family, well, then, there's a plant that can cure it for 'em. If you get bitten by a snake what you do is grab a bunch of cocky apple leaf. You heat two rocks up in a fire and place it on each side of the snake bite. And then place the cocky apple leaf over the snake bite. The heat of the rock and the leaf force out the venom poison. Now, this is a pandanus. So what they do is they cut this up and they paint their totems on it. So once it's dry you can use it as a paintbrush.
MICHELLE WHITE: Who has been your inspiration to learn about bush foods and medicines, Martha?
MARTHA: I forced myself to do bush food with my grandfather because he didn't have long to live. Now, he only died last year. And I'm glad that I picked it up so very quick. And now I'm passing it down by generation to generation.
NARRATOR: They head deeper into Kaantju and Ang-gnarra country, to one of the biggest events in the Cape York region – the Laura Festival. It's a gathering of all the different language groups in the region.
KIDS: We're Aboriginal! And we came for a corroboree.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Who's the deadliest dancer?
KIDS: Me! Me! Me! I'm the deadliest dancer!
MICHELLE WHITE: Can you tell us what your paintings represent on your body?
JOHN COLE, TEACHER, PALM ISLAND: This here, basically, that's the seagull, you know?
MICHELLE WHITE: Is it a totem?
JOHN COLE: It's not my totem but it's like Palm Island.
GIRL: The yellow represents the sun because it's very sunny over on Palm Island. And the dots represent the shells that they have laying around. We just like dancing.
MAN: I just know that we are at a very crucial time in our history because all our old people are dying out. And if we're not sitting down with them and learning language, song, dance, art. And just spending quality time with them, you know. Like when they're gone, they're gone, hey? You know, they gone back to the earth where they come from. So it's really an important time for cultural awareness and revival.
WOMAN: They were superb. And there was a lot of people in the crowd saying afterwards, you know, "I'm from Palm Island too." So, yeah, and they were crying, hey?
MAN: I wish I'd been taught that rich part of our culture just to keep it going, you know? Pass it on and say, "I'm this or that." But to see the kids here today, yeah, I can say that we got a vision for our kids for the future and the restoration of our Aboriginal culture in Australia.
NARRATOR: At the conclusion of this festival after an eight-year land rights struggle, 58,000 hectares are handed back to the elders of the Ang-gnarra language group.
MAN: Trees and rock formations. Ground like this one here. Has meaning. Right down to the last blade or the last leaf or rock there, all has meaning. That's why we know we own this land.
NARRATOR: The young generation do a traditional dance to celebrate the right to follow in their ancestors' footsteps. And to use this land as they wish.
Their next destination is one of the most remote areas of Australia. Tjungundji country. 10 years ago, Catherine Cockatoo built her home 40km from the nearest neighbour. She lives alone.
CATHERINE COCKATOO: There's not very many women that would live in a place like this and put up with something like this for that long. For that amount of time! I mean, you try it! Just to come out with nothing. I believe that the spirits called me back here for something. For a purpose. I had a dream one night that these people were standing along the beach in front of the mission house, and that the mission house was still standing. And calling me back. Just waving. Just waving. And I just gave up all my city life and just moved out here. I feel that I'm a part of the bush. It's a very, very spiritual place. Very strong. You can feel 'em, you can feel 'em around you everywhere. Just laying down at night and just listening. It's beautiful. It's quiet. It's peaceful. You wouldn't think there's anything out there in the other world. It's a part of me. And I think I'm a part of it.
MICHELLE WHITE: We just had a snake jump up at Michael. So we'll see how his leg is!
MICHAEL BUTLER: It almost got me! It was like a lightning snake, it went 'whoosh'!
Some of the most deadly snakes are in this country. And after my close encounter I'm reluctant to take my eyes off the ground.
MICHELLE WHITE: Whoo-hoo! It's such a point here. It's so…like as a kid when you draw a map of Australia and you draw the top and, well, here it is, it comes out and there it is.
NARRATOR: Yadhaigana is a language group at the top of Australia. On the next leg they head inland into the Australian outback. And travel through country that belongs to many different Indigenous groups.
MICHELLE WHITE: We've made it to the Northern Territory!
MICHAEL BUTLER: I say yeah! That's for both of us!
NARRATOR: They pass through Kalkadoon country on the way to the Daly River.
MICHELLE WHITE: You gotta watch out for the crocodiles. They cruise up and down here, as well as the barra. But this is it for a swim! Get out before the crocodiles come! (Laughs)
NARRATOR: Saltwater crocodiles are a powerful Indigenous totem. Local Aborigines claim their ancestors crossed swollen rivers on the back of these man-eaters. Michael and Michelle decide to take a boat.
MICHELLE WHITE: Don't film me. I feel really scared. They're so quick! And we're not in a very safe boat. It's very small. Whose idea was this? I'd rather go on a tour boat. I like being a tourist. Tourist is good.
NARRATOR: This is the biggest breeding ground for saltwater crocodiles.
MICHELLE WHITE: This is really silly.
MICHAEL BUTLER: See if you can get fairly close. Don't speed up and slow down like that, Shelley. It makes it hard for me to film.
MICHELLE WHITE: I panicked a little. I was churning up the mud and Mike was going, "Go that way! Go that way!" And I'm going that way and I can't get out and we're stuck. And the crocodiles are just there going…
MICHAEL BUTLER: You panicked a LITTLE?!
It felt good to get back into the safety or our Landy. We now move on to Larrakia country. We feel that we are nearly halfway around Australia. But we've got a few challenges ahead of us. The pressure's on. We're down to our last $8. It's been difficult to find a place to stay. We've been, uh, sleeping in car parks. But, um…lots of things are falling into place. My main aim is obviously to come up to Darwin and be here with the yidaki, where its birthplace is. It's quite exciting actually. I'd like to sit down and be able to comfortably speak with an elder who is the custodian of the didgeridoo. That really is a big part of my journey. It's an emotional feeling which almost is that 'going home', that going home finally.
MICHELLE WHITE: Bread and water for breakfast…and lunch. And we'll see what we can do for dinner. Maybe two minute noodles again, Michael? (Laughs)
MICHAEL BUTLER: Yes, maybe. Anyway, here's to Arnhem Land.
MICHAEL BUTLER: I've travelled thousands of kilometres to meet the man who inspired me to do this journey. All I know about him is that he lives somewhere here in Arnhem Land and is the master player of the didgeridoo, or 'yidaki', as indigenous people call it.
NARRATOR: They head up towards Gove. To get there, they travel through Jawyon and Yolngu country on roads that are impenetrable during the wet season.
MICHAEL BUTLER: We've been driving along this dirt track since 8:00 this morning. And…it's about a 750km drive…of nothing…except bush.
NARRATOR: There's only one petrol station between Katherine and Gove. To their horror, it's closed, which means they're in deep trouble.
MICHELLE WHITE: We're running on empty and about 60km out of Gove. And, um, we don't know if we're gonna make it.
NARRATOR: With two empty tanks, there's no way they're gonna make the 60km to go.
MICHELLE WHITE: No-one's passed us all day. 750 k's…
NARRATOR: Michael calculates they have fuel for only another 10km.
MICHAEL BUTLER: OK, well, let's just see if we can get there.
MICHELLE WHITE: It's just nervous tension 'cause I don't know if we're gonna get there.
NARRATOR: But as each kilometre ticks over, the truck just keeps going. It seems to take on a life of its own. After fuelling up in Gove, Michael and Michelle head out of town to settle down for the night.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Oh, what a long drive. A Taj Mahal was waiting and we felt blessed by Arnhem Land.
MICHELLE WHITE: Very powerful forces around here. That you just wouldn't know just driving by or flying in and then flying out. But it's here. When you speak with the people. They tell you. They tell you how it is here.
NARRATOR: They check in with the locals to find out if anyone knows the master player of the yidaki. Mundawuy Yunupingu, the lead singer from the famous Australian rock band Yothu Yindi, tells them his name is Djalu Gurruwiwi. Mundawuy directs them to Jalou, who lives just up the road at Ski Beach.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Wanna come and say hello, Djalu? This is Djalu.
DJALU GURRUWIWI: Hello.
MICHAEL BUTLER: The custodian of the yidaki.
DJALU GURRUWIWI: We cut it out of there.
MICHAEL BUTLER: He's a very special man. He is a man that… I've travelled a long way from Mount Everest to come back here to find the custodian of the yidaki. He makes you feel like you're one. There's no skin colour, there's no language that separates this man. So, um, yeah, I feel very blessed that I've met him.
Djalu offers to make me a special yidaki. Choosing the right tree is critical. Only a master maker knows what to look for so that the yidaki has a clear, sharp, resonating sound. Very powerful.
NARRATOR: Djalu is 75 years old and is the elder and spiritual guardian of the yidaki. He supervises the community as they make the new instruments. He also ensures that the knowledge is passed down to the next generation. Djalu's yidakis are highly prized. Owning one of these is like owning a Rolls-Royce or a Stradivarius violin.
MICHAEL BUTLER: The master.
That night is a very special night for me. I'm invited to dance with the local community in a bunggul bunggul or corroboree. I'm definitely not a contender for the 'Strictly Dancing' awards. This is a customary way to receive a yidaki.
MICHELLE WHITE: He's been adopted by Djalu and into the family. He is family now.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Djalu then calls me over and the pressure's on. I'm asked to perform for the whole community. It's showtime for this whitefella.
I feel Djalu and I now have a spiritual connection forever.
NARRATOR: The firesnake and waterlily are Djalu's totems. And Michael is delighted when Djalu paints these spiritual totems on the truck.
MICHAEL BUTLER: The men have come through here to do some hunting for kangaroo. And also honey. That's why they burn off.
NARRATOR: The travel west, to Arnhem Bay, to meet some of Djalu's relatives. Michelle is taken out to learn about traditional hunting and gathering.
MICHELLE WHITE: So, is that cutting? This'll be interesting. Honey hunting.
NARRATOR: She decides that woodchopping is men's business.
MICHELLE WHITE: Well done, Michael, thanks for the help.
MICHAEL BUTLER: No problem.
NARRATOR: Doris is looking for a beehive. She's found a small hole in the branch.
MICHELLE WHITE: Found some… (Speaks traditional language) Some honey in the tree.
NARRATOR: These are native bees that don't sting. And their honey is delicious, with a distinctive, woody taste.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Made a bit of a mess of my shirt.
The beeswax is used for the mouthpiece of the yidaki.
MICHELLE WHITE: That's a feed. Good for Michael's yidaki.
NARRATOR: Towards the end of the day, Doris and Nancy teach Michelle about their traditional bush remedies.
MICHELLE WHITE: Just put it on there. All of that? Can I put them in now, if I don't have a sore tooth? It won't work. Be a bit poisonous. Pandana…language name?
DORIS GANAMBARR: Gunga, gunga.
MICHELLE WHITE: Gunga. Mmm, beautiful. (Speaks traditional language) Rub it on like that? Eucalypt bark. It's beautiful. Smell.
DORIS GANAMBARR: When I was young, my mum said, "My little girl, you've got a promised husband." And I said, "What?" "Promised husband?" "Yes." So… I must marry my promised husband.
MICHELLE WHITE: And you did?
DORIS GANAMBARR: Yeah. And I did. So I lived many, many years with him. 10 years without baby.
MICHELLE WHITE: Hmm?
DORIS GANAMBARR: Yes, 10 years without baby.
MICHELLE WHITE: Long time.
DORIS GANAMBARR: Long time. Now, this time, I've got three kids now. Now he's getting old.
MICHELLE WHITE: With the same promised husband?
DORIS GANAMBARR: Same promised husband. But this is the law for us, you know?
NARRATOR: Doris is the fifth of Muwarra Ganambarr's seven wives. He has a total of 22 children. And some of these kids are extremely talented. The community has no shops and supplies come from 200km away. They hunt traditionally for all their fresh food, as their ancestors did.
MICHELLE WHITE: That large herring there was just waiting in the mangroves and doink – one poke, he's out, there it is. Dinner for the night.
NARRATOR: These are saltwater people and the shark is their totem.
MICHAEL BUTLER: And he's the elder of this area, Dorothy?
DORIS GANAMBARR: Yes. It is his memory.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Yes. Well, his memory stays with us on the vehicle now. Wherever we travel. (Laughs) I'm gonna miss you. I'm gonna miss you very much.
NARRATOR: Michelle and Michael travel thousands of kilometres west, through more than 20 different language groups to reach Miriwoong in Gidja country, an oasis in outback Western Australia. It's time for them to have a bit of R and R.
MICHAEL BUTLER: How'd you sleep, Michelle, darl?
MICHELLE WHITE: Oh, it's just…amazing here. Big bath… and the sun is rising to my left.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Michelle's and my experience of the land has changed during this trip. The elders we've met have helped us to find a deep, spiritual connection that's very special. We'll go and catch some barramundi now. My mate, Adam, took us to a secret, secret fishing hole to catch some barra. This is the first time I've ever been barra fishing.
ADAM: Muscles twitching.
MICHELLE WHITE: There he is! Get a glimpse of him! Oh, he's huge!
ADAM: Keep that tension on when he flicks like that. He's just gone behind that rock there.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Ooh, he's getting round that rock now.
ADAM: Go light.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Here he comes.
ADAM: Get him out. Bring him in. He's tiring, mate, this is your fish.
MICHELLE WHITE: Michael's first barra, woo hoo!
ADAM: I knew this lure was gonna work today.
MICHAEL BUTLER: This is what it's all about. I am…I am just totally exhausted. This is a fight. This is amazing sport, huh?
NARRATOR: They arrive at Nyikina, where they stop at an Indigenous retirement village to say hello to the locals. Some of these elders are the last of Australia's nomads.
MICHELLE WHITE: It's beautiful. 107.
MOLLY PINNABURRA, AGED 107: Yeah.
MICHELLE WHITE: You've seen a lot.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Now, you were 100 years old last Saturday?
AUNT EMILY: Yeah.
MICHAEL BUTLER: And you had all your family give you a big birthday party.
AUNT EMILY: Yeah.
MICHAEL BUTLER: And you've got three sons and one daughter?
AUNT EMILY: Yeah. I've got a big mob.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Big mob. You can take this off now.
MICHELLE WHITE: Beautiful.
NARRATOR: Being with the elders reinforces, for Michelle, how important Indigenous health is.
MICHELLE WHITE: I feel the urgency to study Western medicine, um, basically get it over and done with, so I can then do ophthalmology and operate on some of these old people that need cataract surgery. I feel I'm really suited to do that sort of work.
NARRATOR: They're looking forward to getting out of the truck to set up a new life in the city. So they drive the 400 kilometres or so across the Great Sandy Desert, then around another 500 kilometres across the Little Sandy Desert…and then about 1,000 kilometres to get to Wajuk.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Well, good luck, huh?
MICHELLE WHITE: Thank you. 'Bye.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Michelle hoped to combine her bush medicine knowledge with her medical studies. I edited our documentary and life was good.
MICHELLE WHITE: Oh, it's fantastic. At the moment we're doing the upper limbs and the nerves and the nervous supply to the muscles. So, it's very interesting and I'm actually really enjoying this part of first year medicine.
NARRATOR: Midyear, Michelle is able to go out to Noonkanbah community to do ophthalmological studies with Dr Peter Graham. Along with the late Fred Hollows, Peter has spent four decades dealing with the problems of glaucoma and trachoma in remote communities.
PETER GRAHAM: Two good eyelids. That's the best eyes we've seen all the morning. But there's a little shred of mucous here – and if you just look with your magnifiers, near the bottom turnover.
NARRATOR: The technique that Peter Graham and Fred Hollows devised has been used to save the sight of thousands of Indigenous people.
PETER GRAHAM: Thank you, matey. You were terrific.
MICHELLE WHITE: What's your name? Anthony?
NARRATOR: South of Perth, they escape to the land of the Wardandi, where the Central Australian Land Management and Ken Ikenberg have struck a unique deal for this language group.
KEN IKENBERG: This land was 300 acres in its original form and it was a real strategy plan that the Government had put forth. And we kind of thought, "Well, if there's sort of a deal to be done with CALM, why couldn't it be done with the local Aborigines, who much more deserve the land 'cause there's plenty of national park around here."
GEORGE WEBB: It makes me feel proud of Mr Ikenberg. What he has done for us, to give us back our land. It had to be some bloke from overseas, from America, that had the land and said, "Right, I'll give back the land to the people that owned the land first." That's very good of him.
VILMA WEBB: This is called the Wardan Cultural Centre. 'Wardan' means 'the old man of the sea'. And that's why we put dolphins and things on there.
GEORGE WEBB: 'Cause we are now in a multicultural society, that we are living in. And I reckon that reconciliation is not too far away, if they only learn to believe in the black man's law.
NARRATOR: Vilma Webb adds the family's totems to the truck, which is starting to transform into a message stick for the whole of Indigenous Australia.
GEORGE WEBB: That's why I married her. Because she was a good artist. (Laughs)
NARRATOR: Michelle has worked extremely hard and the end of the year's exams come quickly. She puts on a brave face for her first challenging year of medicine. But they both know the journey is not over. They decide to farewell Perth.
MICHELLE WHITE: When we set out a couple of years ago from Sydney, we sold everything to do the doco. Couple of years later, we're going to probably sell everything again. It's been a great journey, let's continue it.
MICHAEL BUTLER: We head east across the Nullarbor. This is where this car comes onto its own. I love it. We've averaged about a hundred kilometres per 40 litres, so work that out, that's probably about two miles per gallon. I don't know if having my foot flat to the floor has anything to do with my mileage per gallon but…I guess it has a little. Ooh, it's $1.06 per litre, which is the most expensive we've had to pay so far. Cost a hundred dollars just to fill two tanks. Done all that work, I spent all that money rebuilding it and I feel like we've gone backwards.
MICHELLE WHITE: It's just cold and windy and I'm hungry. This is poor man's lunch. Two-minute noodles and vegies.
NARRATOR: Adding insult to injury, at the South Australian border they have to hand over all their fresh fruit to guard against the fruit fly pest.
MICHELLE WHITE: That was five dollars worth of our budget.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Let's go.
MICHELLE WHITE: At least he didn't take our chocolate. (Laughs) No fruit flies in chocolate.
MICHAEL BUTLER: It's such a long drive across the Nullarbor. It just seemed to go on and on and on. Looks a bit looming, doesn't it?
MICHELLE WHITE: Mmm. So, we've pulled off the road early to set up camp, get a fire going and so we can have some tucker.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Yes, we're going to cook a Thai meal, I think. Green curry Thai, with rice. And…I think we're out of gas. (Laughs) Umm…the rice. Did we get any rice?
NARRATOR: With very little food, fuel or money, it was a very quiet meal.
MICHELLE WHITE: We're down to our last $65. So we're on our way from Ceduna. They didn't have a credit union there for us to access some money. So we're off to Port Augusta.
NARRATOR: They withdraw the last of their savings. Michael and Michelle have been invited to the Noosa Film Festival to screen their documentary.
MICHAEL BUTLER: A thousand? That's great.
WOMAN: And I gotta slog you for $5.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Oh, that's OK.
NARRATOR: Savings help them get there and they hope to leave with the first prize of $50,000.
BILLY ZANE: Welcome to the Noosa Film Festival. Um, first year. I wouldn't miss it.
MICHELLE WHITE: Our documentary, that's promoting positive aspects of Indigenous Australians today. And, basically, in our film, you jump in the front seat of our Land Rover, which was home and production vehicle for three years and come around Australia with us.
BILLY ZANE: We're gonna take on some producing responsibilities of the project.
NARRATOR: Actor Billy Zane – better known for his roles in 'The Phantom' and 'Titanic', puts them up in a luxury hotel for the duration of the festival.
BILLY ZANE: I'm flattered to be a part of this.
NARRATOR: The big night arrives. Even though they're up against around 15 documentaries, the media flurry around them lulls them into thinking they're a sure thing.
JACK THOMPSON: There are only good films there. I am very proud to announce that the Golden Boomerang goes to Malcolm Watson, Raymond Steiner, for 'The Cup'.
MICHAEL BUTLER: We couldn't believe it when it wasn't our doco that won. Shelly? You've been upset all night, hey, that we didn't win?
MICHELLE WHITE: No, it's not about winning. You can have all your ideals and everything but is it worth it, you know? I really want to be a doctor, I should just stick to that. This is too fickle and superfluous.
MICHAEL BUTLER: With our naive enthusiasm given a harsh reality check, we focused on the future. But this is different for each of us. We go our separate ways. Michelle goes back to medical school and I will now continue the journey alone to Arrernte country, central Australia.
NARRATOR: The outback is unforgiving.
MICHAEL BUTLER: Phil, do you want to tell us what happened here? Got a flat, huh?
PHIL: Yeah. We're fixing our spare tyres, hey?
MICHAEL BUTLER: Yeah, bush mechanic. Deadly. (Laughs)
NARRATOR: A little further down the track, Michael has his own problems with a broken throttle cable.
MICHAEL BUTLER: We're gonna make do.
NARRATOR: It can be dangerous if you're on your own and not well-equipped. But Michael's ensured he has a good supply of food and water. The truck has not yet been to central Australia. Colin Walangari McCormack, who first painted the original rainbow serpent on the vehicle, has invited Michael to the Yipirinya Festival.
MAN: You are about to witness the biggest demonstration of Indigenous ceremony ever performed in this country. They have come here to dance on our land and represent their nations. They bring their law, their dance, their song and their spirit to share with us all today.
NARRATOR: People are drawn to the vehicle to lend a hand in creating a modern-day Indigenous message stick.
MICHAEL BUTLER: It's all happening. It's one of those occasions which I really wanted this all to happen and it just transpires like this, so… This is a special moment for this car. And now it goes to the National Museum of Australia.
EVELYN SCOTT: I think what's happened here on this weekend is just unbelievable. This event here, in terms of reconciliation. It tells everybody that it's alive and well and how successful it has been with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people coming together with the non-Indigenous people in this country.
NARRATOR: As the festival continues, so do the totems and Dreamtime stories.
MICHAEL BUTLER: What we both really started to do, both black and white, is give the message and this is the message stick.
NARRATOR: Traditionally, this was a stick carried by Aborigines as they travelled across the land. The symbols of different language groups gave them access to country that wasn't their own. The National Museum of Australia is the perfect place to show all of Australia about this rich and colourful culture.
COLIN WALANGARI McCORMACK: Finest ochre in the world. MICHAEL: Where does it come from?
COLIN WALANGARI McCORMACK: Central Australia. Very sacred. So, it's the first time we've used it, on a special occasion. To paint a great icon of our country. Mr Gough Whitlam.
GOUGH WHITLAM: This message stick…this motorised message stick. A 21st-century equivalent of an ancient practice is an important reminder of the significance of communication and understanding between the various groupings of Indigenous and subsequent Australians.
EVONNE GOOLAGONG CAWLEY: It's like a storybook. I'm part of that storybook now.
GOUGH WHITLAM: It's a great initiative.
NARRATOR: Then the vehicle travels back to where it all began. Eora country in Sydney.
JACK THOMPSON: This vehicle is a representative of the attitude of we who have come to live in this land coming to know some things of this Indigenous culture. And its journey around Australia symbolises that and is emblematic of the meeting of the two cultures.
MICHAEL BUTLER: I've come full circle. For me, the journey around Australia is complete. Michelle is now a qualified doctor and my truck is about to be shipped off to America. As a message stick, its journey continues. It's now taken on a life all of its own.