In 1990 the Franklin van was re-commissioned to serve a pair of intrepid single missionaries, Jan Mountney and Marie Geytenbeek, working among the Ngaanyatjarra people in the Western Desert. Jan and Marie were newly-commissioned literacy specialists, and the plan was that they would spend 6 months in each community teaching people to read. Literacy was an urgent need, as the Ngaanyatjarra New Testament was just coming to completion and soon to be printed. The maintenance crew at the Berrimah centre took on the task of updating the caravan. They fitted a frame to mount shade sails from the roof. New curtains were made. Jan and Marie also had a second, smaller caravan that they used for a mobile office and teaching area.The team moved both caravans to Jameson WA, which is where Jan and Marie first set up. In Jameson the new recruits were glad for the shade sails as there was no other shade or shelter at the site chosen. But even moderate winds meant that Marie often had to climb up a ladder to fix up the shade sails. The team hooked up power and water for Jan and Marie, but departed rather hurriedly as one of them had a wife back in Darwin about to give birth. So, the ladies had to work out their own solution when the hose soon came unattached. Initially, every one of the caravan’s 22 windows was glass. But over time as they inevitably broke, most were replaced by more durable Perspex, with the result that it was not easy to see clearly out of many of the windows.
As the plan was to be mobile and live in each Ngaanyatjarra community in turn, Jan and Marie relocated to Warburton Ranges in May 1991, 125 km away. The site was chosen by local people. As in Jameson, they got power and water from a neighbour. This time the water came directly from an outside tap to the inlet point via large-diameter garden hose. It was years later that they discovered that the house had only one tap. The man who lived there waited every night until Jan and Marie went to bed, so that he could turn off their water and connect his own hose. During this time, in December 1991, the Ngaanyatjarra New Testament was dedicated at Warburton. Literacy was needed more than ever.
The next move was to Tjirrkarli, another 135km away, in February 1992. This was the year that telephones arrived in the lands. Jan recalls that at Tjirrkarli, there was not much entertainment, so standing by the public phone waiting for it to ring became a common pastime for some younger people. It was wonderful to be able to ring family and friends! Mid-way through 1992 Jan and Marie again moved to another community, this time to Blackstone, WA, staying 6 months. By this stage Jan and Marie had concluded that a longer stay would work better, so on their next move to Warakurna they planned to stay on for at least a year. This was their fifth community location, supporting literacy and encouraging the use of Scripture in the Ngaanyatjarra language.
At this point unexpected events in the personal lives of both women came into the story. At the end of 1993, Jan returned to Queensland to spend the next couple of years caring for her ageing mother. Marie carried on, joined by short term members Anne-Marie Modra and then Alison Meadows, living in the caravan at Tjukurla. It was during this time that Marie became engaged to David Blackman, an SIL worker in another project in Central Australia. Jan returned to the NT in March 1996. David and Marie were married in September 1996 and Marie moved to join him in Epenarra, starting language learning all over again, as Alyawarr and Ngaanyatjarra are not related. David and Marie had two boys. Sadly, Marie died suddenly in 2004, leaving a hole behind her in both family and ministry.
Meanwhile Jan struggled to find a co-worker to join her. SIL’s policy was to not allocate members alone, especially in remote areas. Until the end of 1996, Thelma Roberts joined Jan at Tjukurla. Ev Dickson arrived in 1997. Jan and Ev moved the vans to Wingellina. The metal door on the caravan was prone to electric shocks and one time, after a rain, the metal steps at both exits became electrified. Trapped inside Jan was forced to leap to the concrete below to turn off the connection at the neighbouring church building. The caravan continued to make life interesting, when after years of never being quite cold enough, the fridge suddenly starting freezing everything. In 1998 the caravan and its current occupants, Jan and Ev, moved once again to Jameson, the first location where Jan and Marie had lived in the Ngaanyatjarra lands. On occasion it became clear that the caravan didn’t offer much security. One time a young neighbour, angry at his mother, took an enormous swing at the caravan with an axe, connecting just under the window that Jan was sitting beside working on her computer. Thankfully she was not hurt by the blow of the axe or by the broken glass it caused. Glen Gibbes, a volunteer maintenance person, came out from Alice Springs and Jan and Ev soon had a roof that didn’t leak anymore and a fresh kitchen floor covering to boot. The family of the young man who had broken the window dug the holes for the new clothes line. Ev only stayed on for a year before taking retirement, and with no members available to join Jan it was looking difficult for her to stay on. Eventually it was decided that Jan could continue on in the community where she had the most local support. So, in 1998 the caravan was moved back to Blackstone, where Jan continued to live in it. Gradually, from about 2011, Jan began to spend longer periods of time in Alice Springs, and continued to use the caravan on her frequent visits to the Ngaanyatjarra lands.
Both Jan Mountney and David Blackman still work with SIL from the office in Alice Springs. The Ngaanyatjarra Shorter Bible, containing 18% of the OT as well as the entire NT, was dedicated in Warburton Ranges, WA on Pentecost Sunday 2008. The translation team coordinators, Amee Glass and Dorothy Hackett, worked faithfully on the translation for more than 40 years. These days, when Jan makes a trip to Blackstone, she stays in a small one-roomed house that used to be used mainly as a storage area. She continues to support Ngaanyatjarra literacy, education and scripture engagement. The Alyawarr Mini-Bible was published in 2010 and launched at Irrultja outstation (4 hours’ drive from Alice Springs). David continues to facilitate Bible translation in Alyawarr.
The story of the SIL Franklin caravan ends here. After more than 40 years the oversized, well-used, faithful-to-the-end caravan was relieved of active duty. It was donated to the Ngaanyatjarra Camel project.
The stories surrounding the Franklin van deserve to be told, because they are great stories for remembering the past, remembering the faithfulness of God and the faithfulness of those who have served him in Australian Aboriginal communities. But these stories also deserve to be continued. Just as this van was passed from hand to hand so are the tasks that we are called to do. Each one of these families followed on, picking up from where someone else began. And so do we, each one of us carrying on where others have gone before. Each of the projects in this story have chapters still to be written. The Franklin caravan has seen its last, but there are more stories still to tell. Maybe there are even more caravans to be pressed into service, homes for more families and individuals determined to spread the message of Jesus among the nations.