Home » Hidden from view, a remarkable football carnival took place near Uluru

Hidden from view, a remarkable football carnival took place near Uluru

In the shadow of Uluru, an unprecedented football carnival was quietly held for young First Nations women from remote communities. More than sport was at play.

On a luminescent green island floating atop a sea of red dirt, a scene replayed itself as if on loop. 

Two young women —  ‘Kungkas’ in Pitjantjatjara — shuffled reluctantly toward a ball-up in the centre of the Yulara football ground. 

Each had travelled hours, in some cases days, to be there.

Yet in that moment, there was a first day of school, don’t-get-caught-trying awkwardness.

Two young women compete for a ball up.()

Then, a ball was hoisted into the still air.

Attempted indifference was quickly betrayed by a piercing focus. 

Two young Aboriginal women wearing football jumpers jump at a football thrown by an umpire
Two young women compete for a ball up.()

Two bodies leapt and collided.

Two young Aboriginal women wearing football jumpers prepare to jump at a football thrown by an umpire
Two young women compete for a ball up.()

Fully present, full-bodied commitment.

Two young Aboriginal women wearing football jumpers prepare to jump at a football thrown by an umpire
Two young women compete for a ball up.()

Determined, uninhibited effort.

Young Aboriginal women jump for a football on a green oval in the late afternoon sun
A ball up in the late afternoon.()

Gravity, time, all suspended in one freeing moment.

The night before, dust-coated vans rattled and bounced to the back of a nearby campground.

One bore a smashed back window, a casualty of a rogue rock from an unsealed road a few hundred kilometres back. 

Young women emerged, nine or so at a time, weary from the drive but alight with the possibility of what was to come.

Baker Boy boomed out a Bluetooth speaker over the hiss of onions and sausages on a trailer barbecue. Uluru stood resolute, watching from the horizon.

An Aboriginal woman stands on grass in front of a small marquee with bags and packs of football gear
Peggy Naylon from Mutitjulu addresses the young women on the opening night.()

“Thank you mob for all coming here. We’ve never had this before,” said Peggy Naylon, a director of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council, who lives nearby in Mutitjulu. 

Gathered before her were groups, soon to become teams, from remote communities stretching across a vast region between the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.  

The following day, they would have the opportunity to play Australian rules football. A totally unremarkable thing, rendered so remarkable by the context.

A young Aboriginal woman throws her fingers in front of her face, sitting on the grass among other young women
Players gathered at the campground the night before the football carnival.()
A barbecue on the back of a blue trailer sits in a campground amid camping equipment and a bus at sunset
A portable barbecue was used each night for dinner.()
Bright coloured t-shirt of footballer Liam Ryan worn by young Aborigina girl holding a plate of food
West Coast champion Liam Ryan was a popular figure.()
Young Aboriginal women kick a football on red dirt in the early evening light
Young women play kick to kick at the campground the night before the carnival

Each team would represent the remote community they call home.

The sort of community that, at that very moment, was being picked apart in national debate by people thousands of kilometres away, who would likely never set foot anywhere near them.

That every player was a young First Nations woman was profound. 

“These young women are trailblazers. They didn’t see their mums play footy. They haven’t seen their older sisters play footy,” said Cassie Nugent from the NPY Women’s Council.

“It’s about footy and that’s important. But it’s about so much more than that.”

Distance, education

For the 120 young women from 17 remote communities, distance was by no means the only barrier to playing, but it was nonetheless significant.

The drive from Kiwirrkurra alone, considered one of Australia’s most remote communities, took around 17 hours.

These are communities where houses are often severely overcrowded; where access to clean water, regular healthy meals, healthcare and mental health support is not guaranteed.

They are also places of deep-rooted connection.

“When I’m out bush, my mind is clear. It’s like you’re free,” said Cecily Luckey from Imanpa, two hours east of Uluru. 

“When you’re in town, it’s like you kind of lose everything.”

Four Aboriginal women and one young man stand smiling beneath pinkish sunset with trees in background
Cecily Luckey, Kiannah Mick, Peter Mick, Shalaylee Coombes, Teniekquah Coombes from Imanpa.()

Sitting under a camp tarp shielded from the heat, the Anangu woman spoke of a beloved home parched of opportunity. 

“Some of these young girls at the moment, they’re not going to school because there’s not much happening. No opportunity, no support,” she said.

The recent youth violence on the streets of Alice Springs and subsequent curfew held a cracked mirror up to decades of failed policy.

Student attendance rates at remote and very remote schools in the Northern Territory are the lowest in the country. 

Aboriginal women wearing team uniforms kick the football in the late afternoon sun on a green football ground amid trees
Young women are beginning to play football in remote communities.()

Something as simple as football can’t fix the underlying causes, but in Luckey’s eyes, it could be enough to tilt some back in the direction of school. 

“In town, a lot of young people start doing things that’s not good, like drinking, stealing, fighting,” she said.

“This could help them maybe get out of town and come back into community… so they can be connected to the land, to the culture and families.”

Chasing the wind

A group of young Aboriginal women look animatedly upward toward an incoming football amid a campground setting with a bus behind
Footballs were kicked about the campground during any downtime.()

On the morning of the first game day, footballs were kicked about the campsite compulsively, ricocheting off vans and swags.

“Normally all the fellas are doing training at the ovals, and the girls don’t have anywhere else to kick around,” said Shalaylee Coombes from Imanpa. 

She said for some women in communities, there can be a sense of shame attached to playing football.

In the face of such rare opportunity, that soon ebbed away. 

A young Aboriginal woman wearing a football jumper smiles, with another player visible in foreground  with hands on head
The end of a match brings smiles from both teams.()
A football ground with young Aboriginal women running viewed through the frame of a white ute truck
Family, friends and community travelled to the ground to watch the young women.()
Shaving cream dotted across a dirt and grass football oval
Shaving cream was used to mark out goal squares and centre circles.()
Young Aboriginal girls wearing football jumpers stand arm in arm on footbal ground
Young players huddle after football match.()

The Yulara football oval might have a claim to be among the most picturesque in the country, but its surface is an unforgiving, uneven patchwork. 

With the carnival favouring an abridged AFL Nines format, shaving cream from the local IGA was used to mark out goal squares and a jaunty centre circle.

None of it mattered.

Once play commenced, a thrilling whirl of spins and turns and nonchalant excellence quickly took over.

Two young Aboriginal women in lime green umpiring uniforms raise their hands in unison above their heads on a football ground
Players from each team volunteered as umpires in other matches. ()
A football match of young Aboriginal women wearing brightly coloured team uniforms on green grass oval with streaks of red dirt
An Aputula (Finke) player runs away from her opponent.()
Young Aboriginal women laugh while playing football in brightly coloured guernseys on a green grassed oval
There was a joyful energy throughout the matches.()
Two Aboriginal women hug while watching an address on a football ground from other Aboriginal women
Players supported one another throughout the week.()
A young Aboriginal woman with a red football wearing a team uniform runs across a green oval
Play was fast and frenetic.()
A young Aboriginal woman wearing football guernsey smiles at team mate on field
Players from Kaltukatjara (Docker River) said they were thrilled to play.()
Young Aboriginal woman throws hand sign while wearing brightly coloured football jumper on football ground
Half-time in the first game of the tournament. ()
An young Aboriginal women's hand is visible through a van door holding a phone for a selfie
Selfies in the van on game day.()
A group of young Aboriginal women wearing football jumpers compete for a ball on the ground in the late afternoon sun
Battles on the field continued late into the afternoon.()
A group of young Aboriginal women look out onto a green football ground where a small match is taking place
Every team got the opportunity to play the other throughout the tournament. ()

Goals were determinedly sought but almost apologetically scored. 

A player from Kaltjiti (Fregon) baulked an opponent, pushed off another, then snapped effortlessly from a makeshift boundary, before collapsing in laughter with a teammate.

Matches were umpired by players from other communities volunteering between their own games.

Someone live-streamed one of the matches to friends on Facebook. 

Young Aboriginal girl smiles in a mirror as she has her hair styled in a tin shed
Hair styling was on offer in between football games for those who wanted it.()
Young Aboriginal girl smiles as she has her hair sprayed yellow and blue by a white woman inside a shed
A young girl from the Docker River community gets her hair sprayed.()
Two young Aboriginal women with died yellow and blue hair stand back to back smiling with football ground in background
Joylean Miama and Cherelynne Smith from Docker River Community.()

Joylean Miama and Cherelynne Smith from Kaltukatjara (Docker River) on the NT/WA border took advantage of a free hair spray colouring station.

The gold and royal blue of the West Coast Eagles pooled in beads of sweat on their foreheads.

A group of young Aboriginal women wearing football jumpers compete for a ball on the ground in the middle of the day
A hard fought contest for the ball.()

“The first time when we played, we had shame. But we did our best,” said Cherylenne Smith.

Young Aboriginal women hold hands and loop a hula hoop over their heads standing on a dusty football oval
A lunchtime hoop game proved chaotic fun.()

“It’s amazing to meet new people from other communities and make friends.”

A group of young Aboriginal women huddle wearing fooball jumpers on a ground with streaks of late sunlight
Every match ended in a huddle involving both teams and the volunteer umpires.()

“We love playing footy. It’s not only a boys’ thing.”

A young Aboriginal woman wearing a football uniform runs holding a ball, with a team mate running in support
A young player from the Imanpa community takes off with the ball.()

“It felt like you were chasing the wind. It felt like you’re happy,” said Joylean Miama.

Old shadow

Yulara is the closest tourist launching pad to Uluru, though it’s all but swallowed by the sprawling Ayers Rock Resort. 

If the setting inspires a certain cross-cultural awe, the surname of an 1860s South Australian premier glaring down from dozens of signs offers an ever-present colonial reminder.

A white hatchback car drives with scrub and red dirt in foreground and Uluru in background beneath blue sky
A car drives through Ayers Rock Resort with Uluru in the background.()
A red sign reading Ayers Rock Resort is visible between bush and trees beneath a blue sky
A sign at the entrance to the vast ‘Ayers Rock Resort’ in Yulara.()

In the town centre, tourists smile gingerly at First Nations women selling artwork on the footpath and move hurriedly past.

Sitting in a café opposite, during the football carnival’s brief midweek exhale, a group of administrators discussed how to be less bureaucratic.

“You can have all the money in the world and still put on a terrible experience for people if it’s not nuanced and it’s not driven by community,” said Sue McGill, director of the participation growth team at the Australian Sports Commission.

A young Aboriginal boy is helped by a woman with his shirt, which reads Kungka's Cheer Squad, while standing on football ground
Family was a big part of the carnival.()
A young Aboriginal boy and girl wearing football colours stand on green football ground
Two young family members watch on ()
A young Aboriginal boy kicks a red football to other young Aboriginal women wearing football guernseys next to a ground
A young family member at the football carnival.()

The carnival might have had a loose and chaotic feel to it, but it was nonetheless years in the making.

“The cultural barriers are breaking down for women and girls to play,” said Cassidy Fitzclarence, the AFL NT’s Indigenous programs and engagement manager.

“I started working about 10 years ago in central Australia and back then, it was like a hard no — ‘we’re not going to play’.

“I think this is the biggest women and girls-only AFL carnival for remote Indigenous women. It’s a significant event.”

A silhouette of Uluru with reddish yellow sky and clouds
Uluru at sunrise.()
A road sign pointing in one direction to Uluru and the other to Yulara
Yulara is roughly 20 minutes from Uluru.()
Uluru under yellow bluish early morning skies with sunrise streaking across surrounding national park scrub and plants
Uluru at sunrise.()

Of the 563 contracted AFLW players in 2023, 27 were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women.

Everyone involved wants that figure to grow, but in the case of remote communities, the mere act of participation means connecting with services that otherwise fail to reach First Nations people.

Alongside new boots and  guernseys— the product of a grassroots fundraising campaign — players at the carnival received personal care and sanitary packs.

An Aboriginal woman holds a baby standing in the shadows of a late afternoon sun.
It’s hoped more players from remote communities will get the opportunity to play professionally.()

The NPY Women’s Council, responsible for wrangling much of the organisational effort, offered connections to mental health and support services.

“People actually want to be involved in it, rather than forcing programs they are not interested in,” said Sophie Perdue from the National Indigenous Australians Agency. 

“People like footy.”

Women’s footy, for everyone

The night before the second game day, a campground manager warned that young women hanging around the camp toilets was disturbing holiday makers. 

A skeleton crew opted for the sand dunes instead.

Fifteen-year-old Kiannah Mick was among them, idly bouncing a football as she walked. 

Five young Aboriginal women are silhouetted against the early evening sky walking across a hill
Young women from Imanpa go for an early evening walk among the sand dunes.()
A young Aboriginal woman holds up a football silhouetted against the early evening sky next to older woman on sand dunes
Kiannah Mick from Imanpa community.()
A young Aboriginal women wearing a dark blue t-shirt stands amid scrub and trees at sunset
Kiannah Mick from the Imanpa community.()
A group of young Aboriginal women wearing casual clothes standing barefoot on red sun dunes in late afternoon sunlight
A young group from Imanpa on a late afternoon walk on the sand dunes.()
Four young Aboriginal women run down a red sand dune barefooted
Players from different communities mixed throughout the carnival.()

“It’s great getting to know other people, different faces from other communities,” she said. 

Her father, Peter Mick, a project officer with the NPY Women’s Council, could be seen below moving about the camp, making sure players were fed. 

The following day he would run water to his daughter and her teammates.

A row of young Aboriginal women line up arm in arm wearing colourful football jumpers on a football ground
The day’s captains line up before the first match of the day.()

“It’s good to see my daughter representing my community and enjoying playing footy. I’m pretty proud,” he said, grinning.

A care for family and community was evident wherever you looked.

A brightly coloured thorny devil insect crawls across a dusty football ground
A Thorny Devil crawls across ground to the field of play.()

During one match, a thorny devil crawled across the oval, threatening to introduce itself to the feet of those playing.

An aunty gestured at her niece to intervene.

A young Aborigina girl wearing red shirt holds a brightly coloured thorny devil insect
The Thorny Devil is captured by a young girl. ()

The young girl crawled over and picked it up without hesitation.

Young Aboriginal girl with died hair and red shirt smiles holding an brightly coloured thorny devil insect
A young girl is delighted to have captured the Thorny Devil.()

She beamed with delight, thrilled to have played her part.

A moment, forever

As the afternoon wore on, newly-acquired boots were discarded in favour of bare feet.

“It felt like playing footy in high heels,” admitted one player from Aputula (Finke).

Ebony West spent two days in a van with her Kiwirrkurra teammates to be there.

The experience was overwhelming and ecstatic. 

“It means a lot to me,” she said. 

Young Aboriginal woman stands looking sideways on red dirt wtih blue sky and scrub behind her
Ebony West from the remote community of Kiwirrkurra.()

Kiwirrkurra weren’t able to record a win in any of their matches, but the team seemed undeterred.

They left the tournament with a quiet hope that one day, someone from their community might get the opportunity to play professionally.

“It would be amazing to see that,” said Ebony.

“It’s some girls’ dream to play footy.”

Young Aboriginal woman stands wearing football clothing and socks on sun drenched football oval
The end of the football carnival brought a more languid pace.()

As long shadows ate up the turf, and medals were handed out to each player, there was determination for this not to be just a one-off.

“There is so much talent that these young women have,”  said Cassie Nugent.

“This is the beginning of something that could be really big for these young women out here in these communities.”

Young Aboriginal woman wearing football uniform walks off sun drenched football oval
A young woman walks off the ground at the end of a busy football day.()

Maybe it was just a moment in time for the players — too removed from the context of home to represent anything more than a celebration of themselves and their own possibilities. That alone was worth something.

But then, news started filtering back from the communities after the carnival.

A white dirty bus drives past a toilet block building with sunset and bush in background
Players head off at the end of the carnival. ()

A big truck on a dirt track had apparently added hours to the long journey home to Kiwirrkurra. By the time the young women arrived in their community, it was past dark but by no means silent.

Mattresses had been dragged outside of homes.

Lying across them were families, a community, waiting with pride for their stars to return.

When the young women dismounted, still wearing their participation medals, cheers rang out in the night.

The moment had been for everyone.

Credits

Reporting, photography and digital production: Jeremy Story Carter