Stories of the outback: Hermannsburg

Over the next few days, I will be sharing stories of the Australian outback, as observed during my trip through Central and South Australia.


While we can only talk about positives of European contact with Aborigines in ‘relative’ terms, Hermannsburg is a powerful reminder of how we can still be humane at times of great inhumanity.

At a time when the West Aranda people were being massacred and driven off their land, Hermannsburg was a ‘safe’ haven.

Built by devout Lutherans in 1877, the German mission of Hermannsburg predates real settlement of the ‘outstation’ of Alice Springs by 10 years. The Lutherans took care of the local people, fed them, taught them skills including sewing, carpentry and painting (the famous watercolour landscape artist Albert Namatjira was born there), defended their rights and protected them against the encroaching European settlers. This was often to their own detriment and at a time of great isolation in the harsh Aussie outback.

Yet the very (active) early attempts to convert Aborigines failed. Because of their puritanical beliefs, rations were used by Lutherans to ‘educate’ Aborigines; whipping and other forms of punishment were also practiced. Children were taught to turn away from their cultural way of life. During a cooroboree (sacred traditional dance), the Lutherans ripped the headdresses off the children’s heads and called them the children of the devil. The Aboriginal elders did not like that their children were learning to ‘talk like crows’ and told them to stop going to church, so they did. Because of the low conversions and the harsh conditions, many of the early Lutherans despaired, leaving the mission in 1891 to go back to Germany.

Conversion to Christianity only became successful once the mission fell under the guidance of Pastor Carl Strehlow in 1894. Pastor Strehlow took the time to understand, learn and respect their culture. He recognised that conversion could only happen once the bible was translated into their native Aranda language, and so this is what he did (it is because of his efforts that the Aranda language and Arrernte culture have been extensively documented, with a Western Arrarnta Picture Dictionary published as recently as 2006). Real growth was experienced when members of the Aboriginal community themselves – such as ‘Moses’ Tjalkabota, the first Aboriginal pastor of Central Australia – interpreted Christian stories in ways that the Aboriginal community could relate to. At its peak, the church at the heart of the mission would be overflowing with over 100 people attending the Sunday services.

Christian Aborigines from the area now believe that the Lutherans showed them stories that they had long forgotten, stories in the landscape that had always been there; that Jesus had visited Ntaria
and left his footprint there (an impression in a rock near the Finke River).

Since 1982, Hermannsburg has been in the hands of the traditional owners and the township remains predominantly Aboriginal.

– Visited: 8/10/2016.
– Distance from Alice Springs: 125km (sealed road)
– Entry cost (historical precinct): 11 AUD (adult)

*For more info, there are plenty of resources available but the best starting point is

Liked this? Check out the rest of this series:



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