For three weeks in January, 18 young Sydneysiders worked there voluntarily to refurbish some buildings belonging to the local Catholic parish. We also demolished an old shed, which had been used previously as the local casino. We were part of a group organised by Warrane College and Nairana Study Centre in Sydney, which have helped communities throughout the South Pacific region and Outback Australia over the past 20 years.

It was an experience I shall never forget.

First of all, because of the work. It gets hot in Sydney, but not Balgo-hot. Yet it didn’t seem to bother the locals. It was impossible to climb onto tin roofs during the day, so we rose at 5am every morning to make the most of the cooler hours. We cleaned, repaired, sanded and painted several buildings. It was hard yakka – even though we had air-conditioning in the buildings where we stayed.

On the weekends we explored local landmarks, including the waterholes. My impression of central Australia has always been desolation and vast plains of red sand. Yet it wasn’t as barren as I thought it would be. There was plenty of green vegetation and extensive areas of bush land, swarming with snakes and countless mosquitoes.

I’m sure our work has been useful, as teachers can now live in the refurbished buildings. But I feel that I also received a lot from my contact with the locals.

The young children were exceptionally friendly. Just as we arrived a large number of kids came running up to ask for our name, as in Aboriginal culture a person’s name is of fundamental importance. Some of us were even given bush names by the locals, which was symbolic of our acceptance into their extended family. We got to witness Aboriginal traditions such as the “Law”, when young boys go through a painful initiation experience to become a man. The locals have a number of dialects in which they speak, but all of them were also fluent in English. They also had a deep Christian faith. One man in particular would give long, passionate commentaries on the readings, which really demonstrated his love for Christ and his Church.

The effects of drugs, alcohol and family break-up were all too evident. Many of the children I spoke with had relatives in prison. The young kids especially have a terribly rough time, especially when their own parents are heavy alcohol and drug abusers. Family life here is of a very different nature to what we take for granted in Sydney.

I won’t forget one lad. One day we saw him lying on the ground drunk at 6am. At 9am he was walking around in a rage smashing car windows and disturbing the gardens of the parish house. But in the evening I found myself playing basketball with him and he acted as if nothing happened. The next morning the police came and took him to jail in Broome. He was 17, the same age as me.

The work camp in Balgo opened my eyes to the reality of the troubles in these isolated Aboriginal communities. It’s not just something to fill columns in newspapers. Life there for our fellow Australians is poor, uncomfortable and often chaotic. But at the same time, I realised just how wonderful people in these communities are and my stereotyped view of Aboriginals changed completely.

Lending a hand out there for the short time reinforced my belief that man is happiest when he serves and not when he is served.

Greg Morgan has just finished Year 12 in Sydney.