They started out in rain 10 days ago from the place they'd been taken to as children, Melbourne. They drove the day in a convoy to Swan Hill, grabbed some lunch for the babies and drove on, across the river, up into the old country, hot and dry, Balranald, in New South Wales.
Kutcha Edwards, an indigenous singer and songwriter - a Mutti Mutti man - was gathering with his surviving brothers and sisters for a welcome home by clan elders, 46 years in the waiting. The stolen generation taking back some of what was lost.
''I've only come back up here for funerals,'' he says. ''This is different. It isn't just about the elders welcoming us back … this is about the country itself knowing we are here. It might sound a bit off with the fairies … but I've lived in Melbourne nearly all my life and yet always felt in limbo. This is something we have to do … as part of moving on from the negativity.''
Welcome Back to Country
The Old Mission Church at Balranald. Photo: Justin McManus
Kutcha, 48, was one of six Edwards children taken, as wards of the state, to Orana Methodist Children's Home in Burwood in 1967. Their mother had taken them into Victoria thinking she could dodge welfare authorities.
Years later, when Kevin Rudd made his national apology to the stolen generations, the grief-torn faces of Kutcha's older brothers Reg and Mick - as captured in a celebrated series of photographs by The Age's Justin McManus - made plain what a sorry business the family break-up had been.
Reg has since gone to his grave, a victim of ''long-term suicide''.
About a year ago, Mick Edwards - a man both fiery and very funny who works in the conservation and land management program at RMIT - found himself unable to shake off a profound existential unease. He approached Link Up, a Commonwealth funded organisation that helps indigenous families of the stolen generations reconnect with their traditional lands and people, to help with the logistics of a family reunion with their ancient ties.
''I just want to be me, Mick … whoever that is,'' he says.
After the long drive, the Edwards were due to meet on the river at 3pm for a welcome back to country ceremony facilitated by a cousin, Smokey Murray, 68 - called uncle because he's an elder - a man who has worked all over, on the land, but also belonged as a child to the families that once lived on the mission at the edge of town. As a boy, Smokey went on the run with his mother to South Australia.
''The welfare people never caught up with us down there,'' he says.
Smokey has a long beard, a soft voice and a talent for sitting still. He's at the motel when the convoy arrives. Elaborate and excited greetings seem to happen all around him, even when he's central to them. A worker from Link Up asks if the family want to get on with the ceremony - but he virtually goes unheard. Everyone wants to talk. ''In the morning,'' Kutcha says finally.
A couple of hours later, everyone meets at ''the hut on the mish'' - where Maria Edwards, now 50, has made her home. The hut - a small and neatly kept weatherboard house - sits at the end of a cul-de-sac. Neighbouring brick houses have had the windows and walls kicked out ''by idiots''.
Mick Edwards vents his anger that good houses could be destroyed to make a statement - ''especially when you think of what we grew up on''.
There are two fires burning in the backyard, their runaway sparks are feeding the stars. The small children are blowing on their fingertips, passing scorched marshmallows from hand to hand. Fifty strides to the west is a clearing in the trees where Dave and Kutcha Edwards stride back and forth over the old family lounge room floor, a patch of dirt bound by tin walls. Feet, hearts and conversation, going over old ground.
Dave remembers the kids being sent down to the river to fetch water from the Murrumbidgee every evening. It didn't matter if they were home late and darkness had come, the water had to be carried.
They ate a lot of rabbits and whatever they could forage - living the ancient life, which was prohibited. The Edwards children weren't taken away because of abuse, but under a charge of neglect. ''They didn't ask if we were happy,'' says Dave.
Dave Edwards, 54, was in hospital for an eye operation when the welfare people came. For years after, he lived in hiding with his mother. Later, when Kutcha and the others were allowed to visit their mother for a weekend, Dave hid in the ceiling and looked down on them through a little hole.
''We knew he was there, and we knew not to say a word,'' says Kutcha.
Dave Edwards, by way of consolation, immersed himself in learning how to light fires from rubbing sticks together, how to hunt, how to read what the dirt beneath his feet was saying. He would vanish at the whisper of a threat that he, too, might be taken away. ''All through here,'' he says, meaning the bushland where the hut once stood, ''you could hear mothers crying for their children.''
Later on this emotional night we meet, he vanishes into the bush, goes hunting.
There were 12 Edwards children, one of them died as a baby before Kutcha was born. Three came into the world after the six were put into Orana. Kutcha was 18 months old when taken. He remembers only a whitened childhood. He craved for things that he never really knew. He had a close bond with the Orana brothers and sisters. At six, he met his mother, Mary, for the first time since he was a baby. He mainly felt fear and bewilderment.
Some people quibble at the idea of the stolen generations, others deny it, holding to the position that these were children that needed rescuing. Each one of them has their own individual needs, as far as their restoration goes.
The most remote figure at the party is Arthur, the oldest at 59. When his parents were packing the car with kids, attempting to make their escape, they asked if he'd be all right staying with an aunt and uncle. He was 13. ''They said they'd look after me, but they didn't,'' he says. ''They turned me into a thief.''
Arthur ended up in a boy's home in NSW. At 17, he began looking for his parents, everybody. The gathering, the welcome back to country, would have a point for Arthur if there was some resolve, some path opened to getting over the pain, and making something good happen. He lives in hope of this being so. ''I could have been better … and I am.''
The next morning, they gathered under a tree near the river, at a dance circle used for ceremonies, for how many years they can't say. Smokey Murray remembers being told not to play there as a child. The ancestors were buried in a huge mound - like a levee bank - at the back of the tree. Dave Edwards is painted. He begins to paint the others, their children and grandchildren. A fire is burning with a great deal of smoke from the green leaves heaped upon it. The didgeridoo rumbles, and the union dance begins, the welcoming, the family half bowed, walking in a circle, the shouts of Dave Edwards echoing off the mountain of the dead. A complicated elation breaks out when it's over, what Mick Edwards calls ''the happy tears''.