Illawarra Aboriginal health worker Dale Wright established the Tour da Country five years ago to pedal his healthy lifestyle message to remote communities. He talks to LISA WACHSMUTH.
A request from his young daughter for help with homework was the wake-up call Dale Wright needed to set his life on the right track.
Until then, the proud Aboriginal man had successfully hidden the fact he was illiterate from everyone around him – including wife Renee.
In his twenties, Dale was also overweight, was drinking and smoking heavily, and had been warned by his GP that he’d likely suffer a heart attack by the age of 40 if he didn’t change his lifestyle.
‘’But it wasn’t until my daughter Rideika, who was eight at the time, asked me to help with her homework and I had to fob her off to her mum, that I swallowed my pride and enrolled in a numeracy and literacy course at TAFE NSW,’’ he said.
‘’Before that I couldn’t read or write, so I’d never read about how harmful the lifestyle I was leading could be. The only reason I’d gone to school was to play sport, so when I passed the TAFE course, it was the first thing I’d passed in my life.
‘’It was hard going back to learning and making changes to my lifestyle – but it wasn’t as hard as not doing it.’’
Ten years on, things couldn’t be more different. Dale has now spent several years as an Aboriginal health worker – first with the Illawarra Aboriginal Medical Service, then Grand Pacific Health and now with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District.
As part of his role he visits indigenous communities as well as schools to promote the importance of education and a healthy lifestyle.
To further that end, the Albion Park resident also established the Tour da Country in 2012 – an annual 900-kilometre bike ride that travels through 15 remote towns to engage and educate indigenous kids.
‘’The aim is to raise awareness about healthy lifestyle choices to help close the gap in indigenous health,’’ Dale said. ‘’Indigenous communities experience far higher than average rates of conditions like diabetes and heart disease; while life expectancy is far lower than the general population.
‘’If, through the Tour, we can reach one or two kids in each town and help them make better choices, then we’re doing alright.’’
Seems the riders on the tour are having a greater impact than that however, with the troupe of up to 25 riders often getting a hero’s welcome as they cycle into town.
‘’In many towns they come out on the streets to see us go past, and when we visit schools the kids line up to have a chat and even get our signature,’’ Dale said.
‘’Some can’t believe we’re crazy enough to ride 120 kilometres in a day, and then go out and play touch footie with them that afternoon. But their enthusiasm gives us energy.’’
The tour also serves another purpose – to promote reconciliation. And that’s another cause close to Dale’s heart.
Born in the Eora nation in Balmain, Dale was raised by his father and grandmother.
His mother lives in Kamilaroi country – Walgett – and gave him his traditional name – Bamba Ngaarr Wurrumay – which means ‘strong son’ and ‘sand goanna’.
The middle child of five children, he described himself as a ‘’typical young Koori kid’’ who loved being outside, running around and spending time in the bush.
He attended St Augustine Catholic Primary School, before his family moved to Batemans Bay when he was 13 where he attended high school. He then left the South Coast to join his mother in Walgett in northern NSW.
‘’Education wasn’t a high priority for me at the time and after school I started drinking and smoking and was going nowhere extremely fast,’’ he said.
‘’Eventually my mum put me back on the bus to Batemans Bay and I did a range of casual jobs before the request from my daughter to help out with homework spurred me into action.’’
After completing his TAFE studies he and wife Renee moved to the Illawarra with their five children. That’s where Dale got in touch with the Illawarra Koori Men’s Group, where the elders helped him reconnect with his culture.
‘’I’ve got back on track for my kids – Rideika, 18; Jayden, 13; Darnell, 11; Sienna, 9 and Germaine, 8 – and my wife Renee,’’ he said.
‘’I’m also doing it for the elders – without their sacrifices, their hardships, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I owe it to them all to live a long and healthy life.’’
Dale said the men’s group was helping him connect further with his culture, though he knew he had much to learn.
‘’It’s hard for young indigenous people to make that connection – it’s not like if you’re a Christian and can go to a church where your religion is practised and shared,’’ he said.
‘’My cultural journey is just beginning, and I’m learning as much as I can from the group so I can share it with my children – and those I meet on my journey.’’
Dale – a first-grade footballer for Batemans Bay Tigers back in the day – remains an avid sports fan. As for cycling – he got into that after picking up a cheap helmet at a garage sale. His friend loaned him an old ‘’pink and white’’ bike and the rest is history.
‘’I was driving home from Walgett with my wife one day and said ‘I should cycle home and promote health and reconciliation along the way’,’’ he said. ‘’That’s when the idea for the Tour da Country was born. Last year was its fifth year and it’s growing each year.’’