Teacher's epic ride to complete a vision of the Anangu people
Bringing a unique children’s Bible to life
NOTE: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following story contains names and images of deceased people.
Riding for ten hours a day for seven days over seemingly endless red clay, 61-year-old high school teacher Neil Blenkinsop will be powered emotionally by the passion of one remarkable woman.
Not his wife, Sally – although she will act as support crew for the epic 1,400km bike ride from Adelaide up the Stuart Highway to Pukatja (Ernabella) in the APY Lands from August 7-14.
Rather, Neil is driven by the vision of Pitjantjatjara teacher and talented artist Nami Kulyuru, who sadly passed away last year from a brain tumour. Neil had known and worked with Nami since the late 1980s when, as a young teacher, he spent four defining years in the APY Lands learning about the complex and unique Pitjantjatjara culture.
By pushing himself physically “way out of his league”, Neil aims to fulfil Nami’s vision to pass on the stories of the Bible to her children and grandchildren using traditional paintings, by raising $30,000 to finish the Pitjantjatjara Children’s Illustrated Bible project.
Nami – the daughter of one of the original elders who became a Christian in the Presbyterian Church in the 1950s – was strong in her Christian faith and in her Pitjantjatjara culture. She was eager to create a resource to engage Pitjantjatjara children with key Bible stories through the symbols and style they were familiar with – to depict a whole Bible story in one painting, with movement through space and time. With this in mind, Nami launched the Pitjantjatjara Children’s Illustrated Bible project in August 2021 and, with a team of Pitjantjatjara artists and Bible translators, completed 30 paintings before she passed away.
“I’m actually doing this ride for Nami Kulyuru,” says Neil, a history and Aboriginal studies teacher who initiated a relationship with Ernabella Anangu School on the APY Lands 30 years ago, including annual exchange trips between the two schools.
“Nami was teaching at the school when I first went up there in 1988, so I’ve known her that long. This project meant a lot to her because about 18 months before she died, she got diagnosed with this brain tumour, and when it went into remission, she told people how she’d always had this dream of having a children’s Bible, with the stories told through paintings.”
“She’d always had this dream of having a children’s Bible with the stories told through paintings.” – Neil Blenkinsop
Sadly, Nami’s brain tumour returned, and she passed away in mid-2022, after which the project was put on hold.
“Then I went and spoke to some of the Bible translators who are doing the main Pitjantjatjara Bible. I spoke to about seven of them and I told them about this idea of raising money so that the Children’s Bible could actually be finished off, published and distributed. And they said, ‘Yeah, great idea.’ They’re a really dynamic bunch of women.”
With very few Bible resources suitable for engaging Anangu children and teens (Pitjantjatjara speakers), this team of Pitjantjatjara artists and Bible translators are now committed to seeing Nami’s vision come to fruition and to honour her legacy for the next generation. In partnership with Bible Society Australia and with the support of donors like Emmaus Christian College, the paintings will be presented in a book and distributed across the APY Lands, and in other Pitjantjatjara and neighbouring dialect communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. So far, the team has completed 45 paintings.
“We’re going to stop on the side of the road and camp and then just get up and keep riding.”
Speaking to Eternity after completing a four-day training ride of 700 km, Neil said the plan was to ride into Ernabella on Monday morning, 14 August. There he will be greeted by Bible Society’s translator and Bible engagement coordinator, David Barnett, some of the Pitjantjatjara translators and students on the annual Year 11 Lands Trip.
“It’s really mind over matter. It’s just pushing one foot in front of the other,” Neil explains. “It’s all about hours sitting on the bike. It’s not about how fast you go or speeds or anything like that. The idea is to do ten hours a day because I average 20km.
“My mate Phil will be riding with me. Sally, my wife, and Daryl [Porter], the head of PE at school, are the crew, so they’re going to be doing food and camping. We’re going to stop on the side of the road and camp and then just get up and keep riding.”
“I want to give back to the community for what they put into me.”
While Neil said he’s been riding a road bike with his mates since his 40s, he’s never done anything as ambitious as this before.
“This is way out of my league, so I just believe in supporting the Pitjantjatjara women who want to do this. That’s my motivation. The thing is, too, I learned so much in my four years of teaching at Ernabella, both from the Christians there but also from them in terms of their cultural stuff. They would take me out on bush trips and tell me all about the Jukurrpa, the dreaming and how they approach life and what’s important in life and what’s not.
“I was in my mid-20s when I went up there, and it was a really defining four years for me, so in a way, I want to give back to the community for what they put into me.”
Neil said he learned during his time in Ernabella that God is much bigger than his “conservative, narrow, white, Western view of God.”
“People ask me, ‘How can Pitjantjatjara Christians do traditional stuff?’, and I don’t even have an opinion on it. It’s between them and God. The Pitjantjatjara worldview is so different and so unique and so complex that I’m not even going to give an opinion. A lot of Australians don’t appreciate how significant the Aboriginal community is and what they have to offer us as Australians.”
For further information about this project, click here.