Hermannsburg lies on the Finke River within the rolling hills of the MacDonnell Ranges. With a population of around 625, most identify as Aboriginal. It is known in the local Western Arrernte language as Ntaria.
The town was established as an Aboriginal mission in 1877 by two Lutheran missionaries of the Hermannsburg Mission from Germany, who had travelled overland from Bethany in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. They named their mission after Hermannsburg in Germany where they had trained.
Our visit to this community was to be the most confronting experience on our trip. The slightly rundown historic precinct offered a faded insight into early colonial life when the Missionaries arrived to ‘save’ the Aboriginal people.
The photographic displays of these beautiful Aboriginal people dressed in white dresses and pompous suits were bewildering. We felt such an imposition had been made on these people.
However, unlike most other Australian Missions at that time, we read that the Missionaries here in Hermannsberg sought to record and teach in the local Aranda language. Of these, Pastor Carl Strehlow undertook some of the most detailed work translating the Aranda language and culture. The high esteem in which the Aranda held these works resulted in records that still provide baseline documentation for ethnographic research.
Following the self-determination and land rights movement of the 1970’s, the Mission decided after consultation with the Aboriginal residents, to relinquish their official ownership in a hand-over ceremony in 1982.
While here, Ma and I wandered the precinct and looked in on the church, the schoolhouse, the former tannery and some of the accommodation spaces. It was an unnerving experience and we both felt quite uncomfortable. As a result, we took few photos; it didn’t feel right to do so.
Just a few hundred metres across the road and you are in the heart of the small township of Ntaria. In this community we saw some saddening signs of ramshackle and unkempt houses and community buildings; young children wandering the streets aimlessly; and a depressed, empty place. We both felt the air of displacement and hopelessness.
I am hopeful there are wonderful things happening in Ntaria and we know that there is no connection stronger than that which these people have to their country. We are very mindful that we had only been in this small community for less than a day – too short a time to pass any judgement on what had or hadn’t impacted positively. But the contrast of the historical precinct catering mostly for ‘white tourists’ versus the dusty, dry, and basic existence of the remainder of the town, despite – or perhaps because of – the efforts of the Lutheran Mission, cast a long shadow over our hearts and minds.
Next stop: Kings Creek Station