Day 39, Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa)


Anne’s painted seed necklaces

16 September 2013

This morning we discover that the great heavy truck I am using to get to Santa Teresa has a flat tyre. With tyre pressures sitting at around 20 it is little wonder, says the garage. Some great fortune has flattened the tyre before I got on the 100km of unsealed road. Not somewhere I want to break down on my own, with no mobile reception. No wonder the jolly truck has been so hard to handle.

So with tyres pumped up to 40, and a request for an oil and water check too, I head southeast on my adventure to Santa Teresa, in Eastern Arrernte country. I feel pea-sized in such a vehicle, but I get the measure of it and slip into the gentle rhythm of the road.

The road is covered in fine dust that slips and turns with the wheels, and where the wind has blown through, it is ruts and bumps and holes. On the horizon the red rock of the worn old hills is covered with the olive of dusty trees and the combination of the two colours gives a definite ancient painterly purple to their appearance.

From a practical non-driver I am turning into quite a pro, but I still feel a sense of relief to pull safely into the Catholic mission.The first sight is the tall, straight cross on the hill, and the gleaming white of the church, almost Aegean against the stark blue of the sky. But its setting amidst a spread of lightly-coloured, concrete block and tin-roofed bungalows, with that ever-present fine coating of dust, keeps it solidly in Australia. Low wire-mesh fences set out plot boundaries to the street but the red earth continues on both sides of the fence; perhaps some grass struggles to grow on the inside. Lean dogs run excitedly in their packs and bark at the car wheels. A large sign beckons me, “Welcome to Ltyentye Apurte”.

Ltyentye Apurte is a sacred rainmaking site. It is also the site of the Santa Teresa mission, which was built in 1953. It is a community of 600 people, on the western edge of the Simpson Desert.

I have brought lunch with me for the ladies; breads and salads and roasted chicken. I top it up with a bit more ham and cheese from the local shop.

I have been invited to talk with the ladies at the Healing Centre, a beautiful relaxing space hung with bright silk scarves they have painted, and workbenches scattered with trinkets, boxes and crosses, all painted with precision and dexterous skill in traditional designs of vibrant colour.The painting connects the ladies in cultural ways to the land. The artwork can also be bought from the Santa Teresa Spirituality Centre (Facebook page) and from the Ltyentye Apurte Keringke Arts Centre (This site has the Keringke Story about the kangaroo that came in the Dreamtime from the South East).

I am told the room I am in at the Healing Centre used to be a dormitory where the children, who had been taken away from their mothers, slept. One lady tells me she grew up here, crying and crying for her mother. But she’s happy now, she tells me, with new family around her and her painting to do.

I spend a lot of time talking with Mary Therese Mulladad, a Ngangkere (traditional healer).

Mary uses her hands to tell her where healing is needed for patients. She tells me her skills come from the land and her father passed on the knowledge to her.

Mary performs smoking ceremonies at the traditional healing centre using local bush medicine. Houses are also smoked when loved ones are lost to make the spirit rest in peace.

“If a little baby is sleeping and a loud noise happens nearby, the baby’s spirit might hide and make the baby sick”, she tells me. Mary can see if the baby has no spirit and put the spirit back into the body to make the baby well again.

Mary creates a smoking and healing ceremony for me, laying her peaceful hands on my forehead and brushing the smoke from the arrethe medicine plant towards me. She says it will help me be strong in the work I am doing and I am grateful for her counsel.

After lunch and talking with the ladies, I am taken into the church. It is an amazing sight inside. The walls are covered in beautiful murals depicting Aboriginal scenes; Jesus, with his distinctive long hair, as an Aboriginal man rising from the water, or sitting at the corroboree. A traditional Aboriginal carrying bowl, a coolamon, acts as the font in the church.

I am not allowed to take photos inside the church so it is up to your mind’s eye to visualise this scene.

(Some new links are up on the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog relating to Santa Teresa and Australian Aboriginal medicine men and women)

4 thoughts on “Day 39, Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa)

  1. This, like all the diaries, Judy, is so evocative. But this one in particular is heart-breaking and hopeful at the same time. Just the idea of having the Healing Centre in the place where the terrible damage was done could be difficult to accept for those who suffered. But the forgiveness and tolerance of the women who do their healing and artwork there gives a person hope for human nature. I mean, for instance, in the way they have integrated the Aboriginal culture they are re-claiming with the reality of their childhoods in the mission. I think the artwork in the church that you describe illustrates this integration, this acceptance of reality – oppression changes people and cultures and needs to be integrated into the history and stories of future generations . . Jesus at the corroboree, bush medicine at the mission, the traditional coolamon as a font, these are beautiful and hopeful images for the future not just for Australia but for the human race.


    • It is an amazing testament to human resilience to see the two spiritualities blended like this. Not unlike the blend in the Outer Hebrides of ancient Celtic beliefs that still sit alongside Christianity too. It is also a testament to the strength of the original spirituality that it can still shine through.


  2. Judy – you are so brave! – not only a wonderfully evocative writer and an artist and photographer. I’m greatly enjoying your Grounded website – thenk you. Love, Diane


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