April 2012

Desert Feet Tour – April 2012

Sunday 8th April 2012
T-minus 1 days to ETD and counting

Every time I step on to the stage, whether it’s in front of 3 people or 3000 people, there is a moment
Similarly, no matter how many times I get the Desert Feet Tour ready to depart, there is always a little voice that says, “Are you sure you can do this?” If I wasn’t sure that I had done it several times before, I am not sure I would go. I have to just remind myself that I have, and it will all be ok. But then that little voice says, “Maybe you just got lucky last time,” and “How long can that old truck keep up the demand?” Someone said to me yesterday, “Damien it’s just amazing what you and Emily are doing,” but I am here to tell you it is just a case of not knowing what we couldn’t do, so we did it anyway!of paralysing fear which says “You can’t do this!” It takes away your breath, it makes you sick and it weakens your knees.
I have been told by many seasoned performers this never goes away, and i have been told by othersĀ that if it does, that is when you need to worry.

The DFT headquarters looks like a bomb hit. My poor neighbours are very tolerant. There’s a truck in the driveway, a sea container in the front yard, trailer on the curb and a cacophony of strange noises emanating from the symphony of my tool shed, interspersed by Ewan’s sound checks and PA trials.
Every kid in the street hasff converged on my yard to watch the show, play on the truck, swing from the trailer, and to throw the Chinese Apples at each other (and us) that rain prolifically from my big shady tree.

 

9th Monday April 2012
T-minus 0 days to ETD and counting.

Ewan and I rolled out the big tarpaulins that cover the stage onto the front lawn. With Jason and Sarah’s help, a few brooms and a big bottle of Morning Fresh we began to scrub them down in the warm morning sun. Within minutes, the Chinese Apple Army attacked us again. This time, they discovered that long white tarps covered in foaming soap make for much greater fun than throwing berries, and a perfect slippery-slide. Cries of laughter filled the blue sky and very soon we were all soaked and covered in suds. My phone got wet but the tarps got clean. Ewan looked like a kid in a bath tub with a bubble beard. We all let our inner child run free. I have to admit I took a few slides on it too, but you might of guessed that by now.
As I watched the team splash around under the hose, I had to reflect on the irony of the contrast. It seems the DFT attracts kids to it everywhere, not just on remote Indigenous communities. Our little ivory audience would be a little ebony audience in a few days and that merger of 1000 odd kilometres will account for a change in conditions from some of the best on earth to those living among some of the worst. These kids on my street obviously want for nothing materially, their health, access to amenities and education is among the best the world can offer, their life trajectory will follow a reasonable average and even incline. They played on that street for over 4 hours without a single sign of parental guidance. The real irony is I could certainly never say that about any remote Indigenous community I have been to?!

 

10th Tuesday April 2012
Day 1 The Road

The Rhino pulled away somewhere around midnight last night. An uncommon fog swallowed the world outside the cab and the road burst into view like puffs of smoke, the visibility at times poor but mostly worse. I don’t remember seeing such a fog as this before. One could be forgiven for thinking themselves on the Thymes River. I was keeping watch for sailing ships and expecting a fog horn to call out any second.
The afternoon found us somewhere north of Meekatharra. Where the flat pan desert is a stunning contrast of deep red earth and assorted greens from the recent rains. This country might be vast and mostly empty but is it never short of spectacular and always I feel so fortunate to come back here.
The rest of the trip to Newman went without incident other than a slight situation approaching Mount Magnet. The Rhino is not renowned for breaking the speed limit and it’s an uncommon occurrence to have to overtake anything other than animals on the roadside, so when the slow down sign indicated 80 I didn’t bother taking my foot off the pedal as that is pretty much our top speed anyway, but as the first houses sprang into sight the speed limit dropped to 50. However, when I went to release the accelerator, the truck decided to ignore me. You can imagine my panic as I stormed past the local police station at nearly twice the speed limit! It was probably only a few seconds but it seemed like eternity, until I had the realisation that I needed to manually pull out the pedal. Upon inspection I discovered the leaver had broken free of the latch on the pedal and somehow hooked on to the outside of it. Nothing a bit of wire can’t fix.
At the Capricorn Roadhouse we ate a huge pan fried fillet of Barramundi to celebrate our arrival in Newman, the first big leg competed. I saw on front page of the West Australian was an aerial photo of Perth covered in Fog. Something about the thickest fog ever and airplanes couldn’t land. I had a text from the other car saying they had just left Paynes Find. It would be a long night for them.

 

11th Wednesday April 2012
Day 2 Nullagine

Little Asha Singh is back as the veteran DFT rep’ for Diabetes WA, the girls arrived this morning by plane to meet us in Newman. Jodie Hurd has taken Helen’s spot who has had to stay in Perth due to health reasons. She will be sorely missed on the team but has still been responsible for making it all happen again. Now formal partners of the Desert Feet Incorporation, the association with Diabetes WA is one we are proud to announce. Jodie maintains the high level of professionalism that seems prolific at DWA. You can always tell you have good upper management if the organisation attracts such skills, but not only is Jodie’s academic record impressive she also manages to work, lecture part time and is a parent of 2 young children. Very pretty but with strength, and intelligent but very quiet and unassuming, which to me is always a sign of confidence. That’s a quality I admire because I don’t have it. Being a person talks too much, as I am.
They also brought the fresh and enthusiastic young Ebony to complete the team. A delightful and gorgeous girl straight out of Uni who has surprised me with her complete and unflinching acceptance of every situation. Generation Z are really miles ahead of us in some areas, and reconciliation might have a better chance during their rule if she is a reflection of their attitude. They will run cooking clinics, art activities and other workshops around education for diabetes issues. Promoting healthy eating, drinking water and exercise as a treatment and prevention for Diabetes. I’m really excited to be working with them, I feel greatly privileged because unfortunately our Indigenous people in Australia are heavily overrepresented in the statistics surrounding diabetes, as high as 64 people a week lose a limb to diabetes! An alarming fact, and Indigenous people are 38 times more likely to have a major lower limb amputation due to diabetes, than non-Aboriginal people.
Most people know that Indigenous Australians have a life span somewhere between 17 to 25 years shorter than non Indigenous Australians, but few people are really aware of why. When the end cause of disease gets listed on the death certificate if it was heart attack or cardiovascular disease, diabetes does not get a mention. However, diabetes is the leading contributor to most health related deaths. In fact, the five leading causes of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are diseases of the circulatory system, diseases that can be caused by Diabetes. People are continuously shocked when I explain this.
The irony of this situation is that diabetes is the killer but it is also very treatable. Diabetes is like the sniper in the grass, deadly but hidden from site. When Indigenous people leave the community and return without a limb, it sets up an inverted problem. Fearing the outcome of diabetes, the disease becomes the target of suspicions and thus the problem is exacerbated. Refusing to go to town for treatment ensures the worst case outcome and thus it is compounded in such a way.
Now perhaps you can understand how important this relationship is to us, DFT is a technology that offers neutral and open collaboration and involvement from communities through the medium of music. I should call this the ironic blog, but the fact is if you don’t get music concerts and workshops on a remote indigenous community you won’t die from it, but if you don’t get information about diabetes and how to treat and prevent it, you will. The question is how do you get people to listen the answer just might be DFT.
Anyway that is the long way of saying welcome Asha, Ebony and Jodie. It is a great pleasure to have you with us and I hope that we fulfil your expectations. I can honestly say that, without you, financially and emotionally we would not be here. Here’s to a long and prosperous relationship.
Now back to the blog. So here we are in Newman. I have to ask the question, would anyone be here if they didn’t have to? A rusty stained town Juxtaposed against the alien landscapes of open cut mines and giant dusty machines. A hub of global industrial superpowers. We are their pawns, being moved by a mysterious invisible force called money. The airport is an ant colony of the new urban army called FIFO. Reflecting the sun with the OHS standard issue High Vis’ clothing, the uniform of the army of the numb. Each man is a little island buffeted by the rising sea of his mortgage, boat, car, wife, kids and the school fees. Marooned into a life of FIFOness. Selling off little chunks of isolated life in return for the better one on the other side. The flip side, millions of little parallel universes travelling between a two way membrane. On one side of the membrane is the fluoro work force clad in its orange uniform and clumsy steel cap boots. Marching to the tune of billions of dollars a day. On the other side is normality of city life back home. But this army is not a battle ready force, they are not fighting fit or examples of Greek statues, Newmanites have eaten to much at the buffet camps and all night cribs. Food and beer, the only distractions during the long hours of removal from their families and the comforts of home. Living in Dongers and Dorms, overindulgence is a normal way of life. King Gee shirts bludge with swollen bellies, arms hang over the side like appendages on a balloon. Men wishing they were “back home,” talking about “back home”. “Just arriving,” “just about to go,” “just got here,” “just finished,” “just waiting to leave again”; is the loud chatter in the queue at Subway.
All the while, just out of sight in the dusty corners of the desert, having now retreated into unwanted, unusable pockets of land, sitting quietly, watching, waiting like they have for 45,000 years, sits the patient and almost silent communities. Living below the poverty line. On one side of the hill is the silver Prado work force, dashing to and fro in the red sand, grabbing at lumps of dirt, drilling in this place, digging in that, consuming all and sundry. On the other side is this idle minority clinging to the remnants of an ancient culture. Talking to each other in an ancient tongue, watching our glorious empire with bemused scepticism, unwilling to participate but unable to escape its roving eye and searching tendrils. Labelled as lazy by swollen Newmanites, but then who’s situation is really worse, is one right and the other wrong? Is it so simply black and white? Or is there just a cultural divide? Why should Indigenous people want to work in a mine? I don’t. Do we expect that they should be willing to dig holes in the very thing that is most sacred to them to receive the reward which is of the very least value to them? It’s impossible for me to be Aboriginal so how could it be possible visa versa. Assimilation was an atrocity of internationally embarrassing proportions. 50 thousand jobs for Indigenous people sounds like a different name for the same thing to me. “If they were only more like us” i heard someone say in the bank, talking about the guys sitting under the tree outside. Would that make us feel better? maybe it’s the reminder of what we did that embarrasses us most?
Is idle the same as being still? It worked for Robert Numengera. Waiting might be the smarter option. I know a lot of people with a boat, a house, two cars and a garage full of sports gear and motorbikes working on the mines one month, indulged in sensory distraction the next. They don’t seem any happier to ones I meet living on remote Indigenous communities, they just have a different set of problems. Its the cultural gulf that is the difference, not our conditions. And a cultural gulf can only be bridged by conversation. We can see our differences, that’s obvious, but in conversation we might just find out how similar we are too. Maybe that is more of a concern for some? After all let’s face it, at least they have culture.
It’s comical in a way. We offer all these opportunities to be like us and wonder why they aren’t. But perhaps what we offer is not as appealing as we think, maybe we will rise and pass away out of existence again and in all the eons of eternity this will be just a tiny fad in a passage of the Dreaming, a dream so short in the measure of things it wont warrant more than a brief mention. A painting on a rock or a short dance. Even our most giant machines of iron ore crushing monstrosity will have rusted back to dust and gold will be a child’s marble. Just one tyre on a Haul Pac is worth more than the CDEP payments for one Indigenous person for the whole year. But the wheels of time will not suffer a puncture from this period, the tyre mark of this age shall only be a short track on the surface of this desert in comparison to the length of the existence of Indigenous occupation. Iron ore shall not always be needed, just like whale blubber.

 

Thursday 12th April 2012
Day 3, Nullagine- Getting ready for the Carnival

The trip from Newman to Nullagine yesterday afternoon was surprising easy. Notoriously one of the worst roads in the Pilbara, the constant heavy traffic to the mines and the seasonal rains trash it into a treacherous war zone of potholes washouts and grooves like small rivers that make it a hazardous to say the least. The State and Federal government fight over its responsibility, it has low priority to the Federal Govt, as it’s out of sight and out of mind, and the Shire are under-resourced already with thousands of miles of its own gravel roads that are under-serviced.
But the scenery is worth every bump and jolt of that dirty old road. The ridges are a painters palette of pastelly greens made from an impossible combination, the brown round boulders that litter the peaks a contrast against the greens like chocolate chip toppings sprinkled on top. The occasional valley speaks of fresh water with its thick foliage of trees. Deep red earth in every direction. We arrived at the old way point called Nullagine in time for a quick dip in the fresh cool waters of the familiar Garden Pool before bunking down for the night.
The Police have put up the whole Carnival team in the lockup at the back of the station, so we are basically behind bars. We have access to the cell block toilet and are sleeping in the caged area. It’s actually pretty cool. There is about 20 people here now. Newcrest’s Community Relations people from Telfer mine have become great friends to us. Steve Anthony, the organiser of their team which includes three girls from the WA Soft Ball Association and The Department of Recreation, plus several staff, some hired hands and two clowns, Derrick and Andy. The logistics of getting 8 remote communities from an area of over 130,000 square miles of desert is a huge mission which involves transport, planes, cars, buses, and several other organisations both NGOs and other mining companies, and several NFPs too.
Then there’s Swan Districts Football Club. The Club has a Pilbara outreach program called the V Swans. Nicole Graves is the manager from the Perth office and when it comes to football, football coaching, rules, and club history there is not a man alive that can match her knowledge. I have seen a room full of men all shut up and let her speak when there is an issue they can’t settle. Her CV is outside the scope of this blog but she has coached and played football internationally and professionally in several states and a few continents too. I saw a meeting of Elders ask her to speak, and for senior men to bring a female into mens business, it’s a big deal. Nic’s team is made up of her regional officers who are mostly ex-school chalkies or retired footballers. It’s a great team. Together we are all behind bars at the Nullagine Police Station. Now thats got to be ironic.
My crew this trip is at a bare minimum. We lost three lots of funding we had applied for and had to cancel the first half to the tour. Diabetes needed a commitment on our departure date and so Em and I made an executive decision to run the tour on what funding we had which was what Diabetes had contributed at the time. Once we had made the decision to go, the doors opened and a few last minute miracles pulled it all together. One such event was the appearance of Callan Date. We were literarily so strapped for cash that we could not even take volunteers because the cost to feed and accommodate them would run us over budget. Enter Officeworks. But in order to tell this story properly, I must first digress a little.
In-between tours, my job is the extreme dichotomy of what I do out here. If you meet me in Perth I’ll more than likely have a tie and slacks on. You would be forgiven if you thought it was a parallel universe or my twin brother. On paper my role is Projects Coordinator. But what I am quite simply is a networker. I met Gaye Hennessey by a pool at the Potato Factory in Bali through mutual friends. I was there setting up a corporate partner for the Bali School project (which you can check out on www.vow.org.au), it turns out Gaye is the national HR manager for Officeworks, and they have been looking for a community program to get involved in. Well as you can imagine, the offer seemed to good to be true and I thought, being in Bali on holiday, it might be just be another castle in the sky. In my position I get lots of people offering to help, but few really come thru with the goods, so to speak. Not because people are bad. I think people really want to, it’s just that when they realise how hard it is, it’s easier to forget it than do anything. Well anyway Gaye is not that type. Sure enough, a few weeks later on a Perth bound duty, I get a call, we meet for lunch, all costs covered thanks to Officeworks, and some promises are made!

Enter Callan Date. The deal is, Officeworks can help us with contributions in kind, and if you’ve looked through an Officeworks catalogue, there’s not much you can’t get there. Anyway we negotiated an in kind package that looks pretty good for us and it all gets agreed on, but at the 11th hour Officeworks pulls out of the deal announcing other community engagements that have taken precedent. Instead, they offer us a helping hand all expenses paid, and several surprise boxes that we can use for merch’. Now that might sound like a good deal, but I don’t know Callan. This sort of work is not for the faint hearted, and once you’re out here you’re out here for the duration. The Desert Feet ship is a vehicle with a very large turning circle. We can’t just run you back a few thousand kilometres down the road if you don’t like it.
I was a little dubious to take someone without meeting them first. But it is day three as I write this and I can confidently proclaim that providence has once again hit me with the lucky stick. Yes, it seems my audacious ability to ‘fluke it’ has prevailed. Callan, it turns out, is not just handy. He is also a journalist with some media skills to boot. He has a keen interest in writing about the trip and doing up some film clips to report back to his superiors of his multi-national conglomerate, and so it seems Officeworks have a double agent in the field. Callan can get some good media, plus decided whether the DFT is in fact a worthwhile investment before making further commitment. I guess they didn’t get to be a multi-national conglomerate by mistake.
Now I should just take a moment to tell you that the Callan is a super guy. Not only is he totally amicable and polite, he is the most versatile and easy going person I have ever met. He has blogged away furiously, snapped a great catalogue of serious good footage and jumps to any task no matter how mundane. He has a real and obvious regard for the Indigenous people and is truly interested in genuine reconciliation and how to get it. It will certainly be a prerequisite of any agreement we make in the future that we have Callan on board.
Most the day was spent meeting with the Elders, community, catching up with the guys and working out the logistics of where and when and how to run the concerts and workshops, and a bit of networking. It was great to see Walter again, last time we played in Nullagine he made us promise to perform on the community if we came back. A great privilege I felt, and so I was out to make good that offer. We chose a sandy patch in the centre of the community under the only two street lights and near the only power supply that didn’t require a prepaid card. It is right next to the community Church hall. Loe, the local Preacher, and Butler, gave us the keys to their hall to use as a green room and to run our workshops in, considering that there is no room for people to sleep as it is this was a real sign of the acceptance of our project by the whole community. That hall would make life a whole lot easier for us over the enxt few days.
Butler has had a triple bypass since we last saw him in May last year, so Ewan and I were even more determined to get as much of his unique County Christian Rock ballads on tape. Seeing Butler play is a piece of history, his music is an irreplaceable record and a narration of immeasurable value. I just want to hug him when I see him, but then I have to remember that Martu are not affectionate like that. Hand shaking is not in Martu custom either, so you’re lucky if you even get acknowledgement sometimes.
Ewan, Em, Callan and I took off around twilight to set up the gear and weed out any hiccups. This year we welcome a new and very essential sponsor, Presonus. Presonus have supplied us with a state of the art, fully digital, front-of-house mixing/recording desk. Ewan made the contact, formed the relationship, set up and organised the whole deal himself. He then spent 3 days locked in the house experimenting with the rig, reading the manual, hooking up the fire wire to his computer, creating all the presets, and building a wireless network centre for it so we can all hook up to it live on our iPhones and iPads! The man is a genius, and I love him like no other. He has taken this tour to a whole new level with his skill set and built in a whole new dimension. We have become a satellite recording station now for these remote musicians, and this is a service and facility that they just don’t get access to. Bringing it to them makes so much more sense than having them go to a studio in Perth. It means we can capture their music on their land. The privilege is defiantly all ours and i know that the catalogue of unique music we are capturing is going to have some real historic value one day.

 

Friday 13th April 2012
Day 4, The Carnival begins

Steve woke me up at about 6am for a run but I realised that I had no shoes. For some reason I had come to a football carnival without a pair of boots or joggers!? Steve just looked at me with disdain, “Why would you do that?” he asked as if I might have done it deliberately. I was too tired to argue and I had nothing funny to say, so I just smiled.
While Callan and Steve went for a run Emily and I set up the Hall for the workshops, then came back for breakfast. After a feed I went to the local store. They had some double plugger thongs and a pair of size 42 jeans. But in the shoe department, I was out of luck. “Would there be any in town?” I asked the lady at the counter. “Only if you steal someone else’s,” she replied with smirk.
The Diabetes WA girls set up a stall outside the hall to run cooking workshops and do their painting activities. Bryte came through with the goods in his workshop as always which was a bit of a relief, so at least we had something recorded. Emily and I did a new song in the arvo about eating healthy, ut with a bit of a Jack Johnson acoustic feel. We had a bunch of kids, but they were a bit too young to really grasp any of the musical information. They sang along well enough, and helped to write verse. I had a couple of verses ready but it was such hard work that I settled for one and made it a wrap. We had 24 kids in all. I know because we took all their names down when we handed out show bags, so we could call them out later at the concert and give them CDs of the song.
Not knowing what to expect, we set up the stage and ran up the PA really early. It would have been about 5:30pm I think, because the football was still going. The noise brought in a host of eager participants and so we played Wipe Out over the speakers till we were ready to kick off.
Butler (aka Billy Landie) had precedence, being the most senior elder, and he played his unique Country and Gospel style tunes to a small but willing audience in the dusty haze of the cool evening. He played a lot of stuff I had not heard before, having had time to practice a few more songs. We very gladly soaked them up like a hungry sponge, grabbing every twang of his guitar and gravelly old voice. I have no doubt that one day, Butlers music will have historic value. The stories of his lyrics tell of the old life and growing up in the harsh red desert, how his parents saw the first white fella’s come out here, and his days at Jigalong Mission back when his people were forbidden to speak their own language or practice ceremony.

Ironically, the Martu have some of the strongest cultural and language retention in all of Australia. Yet, Butler represents something even more important than just that. Butler is the last of an age of men that grew up in the desert, yet were schooled in the Western State Schooling system. They own a piece of time that will never be repeated. They are the guardians of the hand-over, the point of fusion between old and new. He has made some sort of peace with both ways, merged his knowledge of the Dreaming with Christian doctrine; realised the similarities not the differences, and forgiven the mistakes of those with good intentions but misguided righteousness’. Butler is a leader, a scholar and a Lawman. But like all Martu, he will not stand out, you will never hear of him or see him on TV. In fact, unless you read this, you will probably never know anything more about him. His strength is in his anonymity, the might of patient reserve, a total acceptance. I wish I had one fraction of his humility. I can see it, I sort of understand it, but I’m not sure if I can explain it. It’s sort of like silence….. Try to explain silence.
Next up, we had about 45 minutes of Johnny, more Country and Western. But the crowd started to gather and by about 8:30pm, we had what looked like the biggest crowd the DFT had ever seen. When the Jigalong band got up with their 60s surf-rock instrumentals, it took it up a notch, and the traditional ‘run-in, run-out’ dance moves started. The dust stomping, knee jigging, dancing, enthralled the surrounding crowd a little more with each effort. This particular dance seems completely originalto this part of the world, no one can tell me where it cam from or when it started but is a sort of fusion between a corroboree dance, African-American Beyonce, that you might see on MTV and a hip-swinging jig like a Hawaiian Hoola dance.
It’s actually very impressive the way the girls can swing their booty, it sort of looks like it is independent of the rest of the body for a while. The only thing I can compare it to is Polynesian grass skirt dance.
We had never heard the Jigalong band before and where well impressed with them; tight and really well rehearsed. They told us later they had been practising for weeks after I had been to Jigalong for the Western Desert Sports Council meeting! Amazingly they have a really strong 60s surf instrumental feel. Allot like The Shadow and Surfari. Again, no one can tell me where or how this started or even when. Leon Van Erp has been out here 45 years and he said it was here when he got here, it is a mystery that i may never get to solve.
But of course the real show stoppers where the Kiwirrkurra band. The crowd reach epic proportions and there was not a man alive within 100 kilometres that was not at the front of the truck. At one point I looked across the crowd to Ewan at the sound desk. We were both wide eyed with amazement. This was by far the biggest show we had ever hosted, and there we were, the big White Rhino, parked in a bit of dirt on a remote Indigenous community call Irrungadji, just down the hill from the remote rural town of Nullagine. In a place that is basically nowhere, with a feeling of being somewhere really special. Under a solo street light, next to a broken Telstra phone box and a lonely toilet bowl on a concrete slab, in a sandy yard surrounded by the dilapidated old homes of the community, we where unified by the sound of music, and everything was ok. In fact I could not be better.

Saturday 14th April 2012
Day 5, The Battle On Red Dirt

We were so busy yesterday that I had no time to see any footy. Aside from a quick trip over to the field to round up a few kids for the workshops, I didn’t go near the oval all day. Today we wanted to try a new workshop that Bryte had been talking about for a while, a graffiti workshop. The idea is that Bryte teaches the kids about graffiti as art, not as vandalism, and the idea seemed well embraced by the authorities. He uses a whiteboard to teach different styles and fonts, and asks the kids to copy what he draws. The kids are given big scrapbooks for the lesson, and design their tag in crayon or texta instead of spray cans. However, we used a bit of a twist on this occasion by having a healthy food graffiti competition. Bryte got the kids to draw healthy lifestyle tags by copying his art and using the techniques he taught, and then gave out a rip-stick to the winner. The workshop went well and he alternated the class with the girls outside who had devised another workshop to create health food awareness with paper dinner plates, by getting the kids to choose pictures of healthy food to glue onto their plates and make mosaics of healthy food. We ended up with quite a large group, as lots of the kids had gone away with prizes yesterday and told their friends to come today.
After the workshops, I decided to spend some time at the oval. Sport is a great platform to build camaraderie and there is nowhere on earth that you can earn a bit of cred’ with the boys than by having a go on the football field. Always up for challenge, I figured if I hung around I might get offered a jumper. I played a few games for Kiwirrkurra last year and knew the coach and of course all the guys from the band.
I was not on the sideline for long till Coach Simon discovered me. His big head of curly hair added another foot to the extended height contributed by his dusty old Cuban R.M Williams’.
Coach lead me back the Kiwirrkurra camp at the far side of the oval, which consisted of two troopies parked side-by-side and about 20 guys sitting in the sand in what little shade the car had pitched. Some women sat in the car, and I recognised Lorna, Bobby’s wife, in the back. She smiles at me, revealing her wad of chewing tobacco, and I asked if she had brought any of the native stuff that they had showed me how to find last year. Of course, being a delicacy it didn’t last long and her empty palms up indicated nothing. Lorna pointed behind me and indicated that I needed to go and as soon as I turned around a Lions jumper was pushed into my arms. I put it on with pride and an intense feeling of fear exploded in my guts. The nurse told me last night back at camp that there had already been one bad accident resulting in a broken leg, “broken or fractured” i had enquired. “no a clean break thru the tibia and fibula.” She replied.
I’ve never played with bare feet before and being a city slicker, i don’t have the toughest pads. But I had no choice, and I knew I had to play at least one game to earn a bit of respect out here. And so it was, I walked onto the field shoeless in 40-degree sun on hot sand, rocks and prickles. I was the tallest the team and so of course I got the job of ruck, unanimously decided by all. I copped a few smiles here and there; it might have been because I looked concerned. Lazarus was always smiling anyway, his beautiful big white teeth like the keys of a grand piano. Eric was his usual stoic self, and there were a few guys I didn’t recognise but seemed to remember me. The talk in the centre of the gathered team was a mixture of Martu and English, but there was something about “green lights” and don’t wait for the red light which I thought was a unusual metaphor considering most of these guys would never have seen a traffic light. There was lots of “Make sure you win the ruck!” and suggestions on how and which way to knock the ball, which didn’t help to relieve any of the pressure I was starting to feel.
The build up to the first siren was like a heart attack. My chest got so tight I couldn’t breath. But I won the first ruck with ease, which resulted in a fast play down the centre line for a quick goal in the first few seconds. “Here we go” I thought to myself, “I’m going to be rucked to death by the end of this.” The second ball up I was penalised for contact, which surprised me a bit, but the free kick was fouled and resulted in a fierce skirmish in the centre line. I remember the ball hitting me in the chest at one point, a cloud of dust passed over me, I was blinded, then left fighting for air on my back. The combination of a mouthful of sand and the heat made for a very dry mouth that just seemed unquenchable. I just could not seem to get any air in and I’m not sure which was more overwhelming, the desire to breath of the urgent need for water. When someone finally showed up with a water bottle, the combination of trying to gasp for air at the same time as suck down water left me choking and spluttering like a duck drowning in quick sand.
All this is only about 5 minutes into the first quarter. Parts of the oval where so hot I just couldn’t even walk on them now as the midday sun intensified. Somewhere after the third ball up, I was in the forward half of the field when a kick came my way. The mark fell through my arms and the bounce was unfavourable. As I turned back to scoop it up I collided with the ruckman who had come through with a big soccer boot. His foot connected with my left eye. I heard every vertebrae in my neck crack like someone just twisted a roll of bubble wrap. The taste of metal flooded into the back of my mouth like a wave of mercury, and I hear the crowd cry out in sympathy; “OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHH!”
The thought flashed through my mind that I was now dead. But next thing I knew I was being pulled to my feet by my assailant. My face was numb, a veritable sand castle fell off my head down my eyes, the ball was jabbed into my chest and evidently I was awarded the free for ‘soccering in danger.’ I took the kick before I checked to see if my neck still worked, and funnily enough, I think he might have actually adjusted it for me like an accidental chiropractors appointment.
The next play found me in the left wing. All I remember was very intense skirmish that resulted in ball up. I went up for the knock but somehow came down underneath the other guy who bounced off my back. I felt my back crack, and when I got up I heard someone say over the PA, ” Hey, take it easy on the whitie we need him for the music tonight!” I laughed to myself until I realised that underneath me was Eric and he was still down. His right leg was conspicuously twisted outwards and he was not moving. The whistle was blown and the nurse was called. I looked at his tiny frame compressed into the dirt; he was so thin and light that he was hardly above the surface of the soft red sand. There was not more than a few ounces of meat on his little bones. His right knee twitched like the fragile wing of a dove. His footy carnival was over. As he came too he sucked in a lung full of dust and then let out a deep and heart-wrenching moan. I could see the nurse half way across the field now, and Eric was starting to move a bit. Next thing I knew, he jumped to his feet. Took two limped steps and then ran off. I was standing there in shock when the play resumed. I was still grieving over the loss of my teammate when he came past me with the ball. A cloud of dust behind him and his legs moving so fast they looked like the Tasmanian devil on Warner Brother cartoon. When the play passed, I realised my right hand felt warm as if it was gushing fresh hot blood. I looked down at my palm; I had landed in a rather large and very fresh poo. It was still only the first quarter.
When I went home for lunch, my new shiner attracted bit of attention and I wore it like a badge of honour. A trophy wound that says I just played a game on a rocky dirt oval in the scorching desert sun and lived. It roused so much attention that Ewan and Callan started to get all psyched about getting a game. After a shower and some food, a few Panadol and about 4 litres of water, I felt surprisingly refreshed, and so we headed back down for Kiwirrkurra’s next game.
When I showed up with Ewan, Coach’s eyes lit up and he had a jumper pulled over his head faster than you can say, “Can I have a kick?” When I told Coach that Callan was pretty good footballer from Melbourne, shirts were flying in every direction. The idea of having two fresh men was too much to resist, it meant he could rest some of his better guys for the semi’s tomorrow, and so before I knew it, there I was on the field again. The hot sand had blistered my two big toes and running on the rocky ground had bruised my poor soft feet. I had to burst the blood blisters with my Leatherman before taping it up, otherwise the pressure was too much to walk on. When Call saw me sticking a knife into the bottom of my toe he was horrified. “It’s only a bit of dead skin” I informed him. I guess they don’t do that in the eastern states?
They might be a bit faint hearted in the East but they’ve sure got the goods on the football field. It was obvious that Callan was a skilled player. We lacked the agility and speed of these guys but he stuck his man in the back pocket and shut him down completely. He made a good target for them, he broke free for kick-ins and was able to take solid and reliable marks, and put the ball on the mark every time he kicked to his man. With Ewan winning every ruck and Cal in the back-line, the opposition lost their advantage and Kiwirrkurra won a decisive victory. I told Cal he would be welcome in Kiwirrkurra now on any day of the week, he glowed with pride. It’s not just a game of football out here. It’s a game of reconciliation and cultural awareness. It’s a big victory for us win or lose, and a great privilege to be able to mix it up with these guys. Callan really got that, and I was proud to call him part of my team. We need more Australians like him. We really do.
After two games of football in bare feet I was a little bit worse for wear. A combination of the euphoria from the success of two victorious football games and sun stroke from running around in 40 degree heat made me a little light headed. I tried desperately to rehydrate myself but all the dust I had consumed felt like it was sitting on the top of my lungs. It felt like instant bronchitis and I had a big rattly cough. Every breath I took sounded like I was a chain smoker. I just could not shake the feeling of awe I had for these guys out here. How they do this all the time amazes me. They really are built of sterner stuff.

 

Sunday 15th April 2012
Day 6, Walking Wounded

If the night before was the biggest concert ever, then last night was the second biggest. We thought it might grow even larger, but it seems a few injuries and some hard football might have been a little too much to bear. However, not for the Kiwirrkurra boys! No sir! They were there waiting for their turn right from the get go. Impervious to pain, unstoppable by constitution. Kiwirrkurra men are of another substance. One far harder than any we know. I don’t think I have every met anyone like them. It’s not even so much that they just played 4 games of the hardest football I have ever seen, it’s just they take it all in stride. There is no hint of arrogance or even attitude about any of them. It’s as if playing footy all day is the most normal thing to do in the world and, if you did, why would you bother to complain about your injuries?!
Tonight was marked by several notable events, the main one being a performance by Bobby Robertson, one of the foremost Elders for Jigalong and a very senior Law man across the Martu Area. He had a very nice looking Fender Strat’, which would have been worth a fair penny, however it didn’t want to stay in tune for too long, unlike our indestructible Cole Clark. Bobby got up with Butler and Johnny and a couple of others to form a sort of Golden Oldies ensemble. The head of Newcrest Community Liaison department just happen to be there for the reunion, and I am pretty sure that I was party to a rare event. Leon has worked in this area for 45 years, and he was quite sentimental about the whole thing. I stood at his side and I am pretty sure I saw a tear or two escape those eyes. Those eyes of his that had seen some of these men as his students in Port Hedland four decades ago. The dusty air was thick with the dry scent of sand and those heavy old country tunes mixed in the air like a cocktail of senses, music you could smell and dust you could hear. The primal wailing of Bobby’s rusty old voice vibratedĀ into our hearts and heads all the way back to eternity. What a gift to be here. What a privilege.

The other event of note was Andy the Clown. Andy had been employed by Newcrest to occupy the kids during the football carnivals and this was his fifth carnival now. We met a few days back in the camp and I have had the chance to see his skills up at the football carnival. He is actually quite a good musician on the ukulele, but he also does juggling, unicycling, balloon animals, stilt walking, tricks, magic, and everything you might find at a circus but more, and it seems Andy is also a bit of an inventor. He designed a wash basin out of three 20 litre buckets, and some hose that you pump with your foot. Trachoma is a big issue out here and can cause blindness. Simply washing your hands and face several times a day can prevent it. Andy’s invention was a big hit and had the kids cleaning their hands in the bucket like a novelty attraction. So he is a clown with a conscience, he really loves the people out here. He said to me “Damien, the more I come back, the more I feel at home, the better I get to know these people, the more I realise how generous they are.” I liked him from the start.
At one point, Andy climbed onto the roof of our truck and set up a bubble machine. In the dead stillness of the cool, windless desert night, it pumped shiny, sparkling, ephemeral balls of bliss upon our heads and the hands of children reached for the sky, grabbing at the intangible shapes as a child is like to do as if they were so many small miracles, and with the hope of innocence and the promise of much more, the kids, enthralled by the millions of little floating spheres, imbued us all with their virtuousness. While their impervious spirits warmed our cool limbs in the dry and cold desert night, I thanked the powers above, for bringing me here, to see this.
I woke up at 4am; my neck was so sore I couldn’t sleep any more. I got up and had a long hot shower, put some Dencorub on it and took a handful of Panadol, but still couldn’t turn my head from side to side. In fact, I was so sore I couldn’t get back into my swag. So I went and sat in the car, the only seat with a headrest. With the seat reclined on a 45-degree angle I managed to get another hour’s sleep but I woke up feeling pretty wrecked.
My wake up regime consisted of several anti-inflammatories for breakfast, a serious tape and strap session on my feet, some antiseptic treatment on my knees and a very luxurious neck massage with Voltaren cream by the good nurse. Followed by a bowl of cereal and a promise to never play footy again this life.
Somewhere around 9am I started to feel human again and we headed down the hall to see if any kids were around. Most of them had been to at least one of our workshops by now. All of them had been to the concerts and so our audience at the workshops was now a consistent flow of kids coming and going. There was so much happening on the oval and so many different activities for them to do that it was hard to hard to keep their attention for long.
Bryte played musical games for a few hours while the girls did paintings and drawing activities outside. Damian from the School Holiday Program came up to me with a young kid called Alwyn who asked me if I could teach him guitar. When I handed him an axe and said what do you want to learn, he started ripping of licks like Mark Knopfler! I said to him “Mate, I can’t teach you a thing, but I can record you if you have some songs you would like to lay down?” Well he had a few cool ideas and so Bryte and I started knocking them into shape. I told him I would lay the bass part if he could do his own rhythm and lead sections, but while I was setting up the guitar he picked up the bass and starting playing that too! He was only thirteen. I got him to play his song through and I videoed it on my iPhone. When I played it back to him he watched it in silence, no sign of any emotion on his face. When I asked him if he wanted me to put the clip on Youtube he simply asked, “Why?” “Well,” I explained, “then you can show it to your friends and send the link to people and let them see it!” but he stared at me blankly for another few second until he again asked, “Why?” Before I could reply, three or four other boys came into the room and gathered around Alwyn. Our recording session came to an end, as he was unwilling to pursue the activity in front of his peers. Later on tonight he would astound us again by getting up and playing the drums for all of Ewan’s set!
For a moment I understood, a world opened before me like a door into a parallel universe. That’s how it is for the Martu. There are no revolutionaries. No individuals that leave the others behind. The One, does not shine brighter than the rest. The One, enables the rest to shine together, they would rather be a Super Nova than a Super Man. It’s not a law or a code, it’s more like a gene or an instinct. There is only community and family, and to these guys there is nothing the world can offer that is more valuable. This sort of material indifference, the absolute deficit of any individual ambition or desire is a freedom that westerners cannot comprehend. In one conversation that Ewan relayed to us this unconditional filial piety was exemplified. Ewan had indicated to one of the young footy players that his skills would qualify him for selection to the AFL. Without a hint of conceit, in a quiet and unassuming voice he told how he had been offered a house and a number for the Eagles. “What happened?” enquired Ewan, “I wanna been at Jigalong wid-a-mah family.” he offered. I don’t know if you get this? But Ewan and I were in awe of him. The fact is, any one of these guys at the right age is a better footballer than any non-indigenous player. Most of these guys are malnourished, have diabetes in one form or another, smoke, eat bad food and don’t practice much at all, let alone exercise, yet even in that state they can play two or three games a day for four days straight.
Before we went back for lunch, Coach Simon came over to the hall and asked us to play again. They had another injury and Eric would have to sit out the game too. Ewan agreed to show up but I was not so sure. My feet felt like they had been attacked with a baseball bat, and without shoes I just couldn’t do it.
Back at the prison while eating lunch, I noticed that Bryte has sneakers on. “Hey, what size shoe are you?” I asked. “Size 11” he said and so finally I had a pair of sneakers!! Albeit half a size too small and skaters shoes, they would be better than nothing. They would also get destroyed, so I had to promise Bryte a new pair.
Later in the arvo while we where down at the football field, Bryte recorded another song with a small group of kids that Damian brought over from oval. It was very clever and consisted of animal noises that he made or got the kids to do as they called out different animals. He mixed all the noises down into a rap song called The Barnyard.
Meantime back on the battlefield Ewan and I prepared for war. I was a bit touched up now after that kick in the head yesterday, but was actually feeling much better and reckon I could put in a few good stints for the boys as long as I could go off for a quarter or so. Ewan took the ruck this time and I went into the backline. It was a tough game against Punmu and we only lost it by two points. The problem was the huge number 29 they had in their forward pocket. Two or three times he dominated the pack for a great mark and booted a couple of goals from a distance. He just dominated us and no one seemed to be on him. Later that night, Dan, an ex professional footballer for the Swan Districts tells me he used to play professionally. No wonder we were getting munched. But Kiwirrkurra had won by enough points to secure a spot in a semi final tomorrow, depending the outcome of the next game. They would be first off the rank in the morning if they played on.
After the game, Bobby asked me to be boundary umpire and so I donned the yellow shirt and whistle to man the far boundary. In 4 quarters of play, the ball went out 3 times. Not once on the full. You can tell your watching a tight game of footy when the ball never leaves the field. It was then that I realised that in 2 days of football I had only seen one or two ball ups. These guys are just amazing; they never concede the play, never give up the chase, and never ever say die.
We set up for the concert at about 630pm. Again the air was completely still. There was not a breath of wind and the dust rose up from the sandy ground below like a serpent’s head and hung under the canopy of the stage like blanket. So thick it was tangible. Every breath was like taking a bite into gritty food. Later that night when we performed, there was a point in one song where I thought I was going to have to stop singing. I could literally see the dust vacuuming into my lunges in a whirlpool with each inhalation. The lighting that hung above our heads lit up the particles in the night. It was sort of like being underwater during a plankton tide. At one point I thought to myself “At least we don’t need a smoke machine.”
Ewan decided to do something a bit different tonight and had set up a couple of backing tracks of his Still Frame Mind songs. A couple of the kids had been hassling us to have a go at the drums while we were setting up, but every time we offered they would run off, too shy to have a go. When Ewan announced over the PA that he needed a drummer to help him, the other boys offered Alwyn, telling us he could play and pointing at him. With some reluctance he climbed on stage and once there, all the other kids gathered around him, climbing through the back of the stage tarp and onto the stage. Alwyn played Ewan’s whole set with good feel, much to the delight of the community. That kid was amazing, he could play every musical instrument we had, and had never had a single lesson. He couldn’t tell you what notes he is playing but he had feel coming out his pores. And you can’t be taught that in a lifetime.
Butler got up again tonight, but this time as The Butler Family Band. His wife and two daughters got up with him and sang harmonies. He found my old black hat hanging on the drum kit and perched it on his head. With his long flannel shirt and stained slacks he looked just like a drover. The wailing harmonies of his female choir struck out into the desert night like the dry crack of lightening before the rains begin, and we were all, those before the stage, struck with silent awe. Once again I had the feeling that the tape was rolling on a bit of history, and I couldn’t contain the tear that cut a track down my dusty cheek. Or maybe I just had some sand in my eye…
I half expected that we might have a bit of a quiet night tonight after all the football injuries and effort, but it didn’t seem to matter. The kids were on it from the get go as always and as soon as the Kiwirrkurra Band got up, the crowd went wild again. When Eric got off the stage at midnight, he was holding his hand. I asked him what was wrong and he drew away his other had to reveal a completely skinned thumb from the first knuckle to the fleshy heal of the palm. He had played the guitar till he was bleeding; the strings had worn off his skin like a cheese grater.
Ewan had mixed down some of the previous night’s music and after all the audience had left the Kiwirrkurra Band hung around to listen to the new mix. I busted out the camera and they started to pose in front of the sound desk with Ewan. It was really rare footage and I couldn’t believe my luck, so I just went click happy and fired off a bunch of really great shots. With the dark night behind them and their colourful football jumpers, the contrast was incredible. I am sure one day they will be of great historic value. This band is going to be world famous, I believe.
Lazarus, the drummer, is a great looking guy, very athletic and ripped. He played drums all night like a machine. Smashing it out with every fibre of himself. These guys have played about 6 games of really hard football in the last few days, and then staying up all every night playing music. They really are hardcore.

 

 

Monday 16th April 2012
Day 7, Grand Final Day

I woke bolt upright at 430am with less than 3 hours but sleep firing on all cylinders. So excited about grand final day, I couldn’t contain myself. I’m not sure why I don’t even really like football. I don’t watch a single game of AFL and I haven’t played since I was in Grade 7 for the Mount Lawley Inglewood little league.

It’s more about the camaraderie and the spirit of the event I guess. Knowing that the Kiwirrkurra team are down a man and need us now, is exciting and a bit nerve racking. If the tournament games are hard, then a semi final is going to be a fight to the death.

We knew that Kiwirrkurra would be the first game off the mark, but we didn’t know when it would start. There was a meeting of the blue shirts called first thing. A meeting like that could go for 20 minutes or 3 hours. The kids’ footy clinics were cancelled because of the meeting and so kids were all over us by 8am down at the hall. Bryte wasn’t ready to kick off, and it was touch and go. If we started the workshop and the game started we would have to leave, so we decided to just do activities with them after the first game. We needed to get some more songs down today for the reports. It’s been really hard to get he kids to focus, with the sports carnival and all the distractions associated with it, and so far we only have a few songs recorded with them.

I spent the morning drawing healthy fruit pictures and getting the kids to colour them in for me; choosing a colour crayon then asking which fruit are the same colour. This seemed to work well and we had fun till I got the call from Steve saying the game was about to start. I felt instantly sick with nerves, the same feeling I get when the surf is really big just before you paddle out. Adrenalin surging.

At the sideline, Coach Simon with his big dusty Cubans was anxious and pensive. The guys were scattered around in various cars behind the shade tent. Bobby’s old Landcruiser needed to be push started so it was peculiarly parked up an embankment for an easy reverse roll start. At one of the Troopies, someone pushed a sweaty footy jumper into my chest through a small sliding window at the side. I couldn’t see who it was, but when I looked in from the back, several faces stared back at me without a single sign of expression or comment. I smiled broadly at the sight. Eric let the corner of his mouth curl fractionally. Maybe it didn’t, maybe I imagined it, maybe he was just twitching. I pulled the densely odorous shirt over my head, my white skin pinkening in the scorching sun. My chest stretched the shirt past any previous occupant, I was the biggest guy on the team, but the weakest link, my nutrient-dense muscle fibres full and bloated next to their lean, skinny, light and small frames. My size and weight nothing but useless excess in this competition, their speed and dexterity too superior for any real concern. I doubt there is any physical force that would strike fear into any of these men anyway. Most of them live in conditions so adverse it would kill 99% of the rest of the country in a month.

When the bell rang, I found myself deep in the rear pocket. My task; stick to 29 like glue, shut him down at all costs. Looking at him across the line up made me shiver. He was at least 6’5 and 120 kilograms. I drew some comfort from the fact that Callan would be in the back line too. All three of us would be on the field for the full game, as Kiwirrkurra had no reserves.

Determined to give my best to the cause, I had psyched myself into a do or die frenzy, but that is nothing a mouthful of sand can’t fix. It was not till after the second scuffle today that I finally realised you have to breathe through the nose. Keep the mouth shut at all costs. It only takes a short sprint in this heat with the dust in the air, and you’re out of breath with a mouth that feels like you just ate a Weetbix without milk. Suffocation is the best way to describe the feeling. Fortunately, we dominated the first quarter and so I had few skirmishes to speak of. However, for some reason the forward line, although able to get it to there, could not quite convert it to a goal, and so several times it was kicked back in with only a point. The centre line stopped just about every play from Punmu’s best efforts notwithstanding some spectacular play. As I stood my man in the far pocket, I watched Adam (The Bull) charge through a dusty skirmish victoriously like a train, a trail of dirt rising behind his stampede like a steam engine. He had taken two bounces when a full broadside cleaned him up like car crash. I was directly in front of the play and I saw him go down sideways, the ball lodged firmly under his armpit. I couldn’t see who hit him, it just seemed to happen form nowhere. What I did see was an event that defied the laws of physics. Somehow, he completed a full 360 roll that concluded with him back on his feet, still running forward at the same pace. It was as if he had just run around a large drainpipe and come out the right way up only sort of 5 metres to his right. If I had of blinked I could have been certain that he teleported, but having seen it with my own eyes I had to believe it. The problem was that 29 was now directly in his sites and the only option for a forward play as the pack closed in on him like a red dirt tidal wave about to fall from the heavens above. The kick went high and long, a torpedo of immense velocity, only 29 and I were there. He made a sprint and I went in hard behind him. I climbed high for the spoil but someone else made it from the front and there was huge collision. I felt my fist hit the ball and knew the spoil was good but I had run into someone else up there coming from the other direction, together we fell from the sky, our combined weight, a canopy of pain, collapsing on the head of 29. Legs and arms piled up like a Jenga set. There was a rude crack, I wondered if it was me again. The play disappeared and position was back in our forward pocket. When we got up 29 stayed down. The nurse was called. He never returned to the field. The first bell sounded soon after.

Straight after the siren, Punmu made two fast plays from the centre with the help of the fresh and young colt Kerwin that resulted in goals. This brought the score even and that is pretty much where it stayed from then on in. There was very little scoring, but it seemed to go point for point and goal for goal. I saw Callan make some really clean plays, always taking strong marks and making well-aimed kicks. His skills were evident and his presence in the back line was decisive. Being no match for these guys’ speed and skill, there was no point in trying to out-manoeuvre them and he played a smart and tidy game. In this sort of competition, just not giving away frees is the best you can hope for.

I’m not sure if I lapsed into a sort of exhausted trance or if time sped up, but it seemed to me that all of the sudden the final bell was going off. I could see Ewan’s big white head above the crow in the centre, his blond hair shimmering in the sun. He had rucked the whole game! When I got close to him his face was so red he looked like he had fallen into a frying pan. I had no idea who had won and neither team was congratulating the other as we headed to the sideline. It all just seemed surreal to me. Then I caught site of the scoreboard, it was 24 points each. It was a draw!? Overtime was called and I limped back to the rear pocket with little left to offer, my willingness fading rapidly.

Kiwirrkurra had travelled the furthest for this carnival, played so hard, shorthanded and all. With such a tight match against the previous year’s premiers, victory was only 12 minutes away! These games are not filled with many boundary throw-ins or toss-ups. Play is never conceded. These guys never play for the free kick, only for the ball. They do not know the meaning of stop or give in, there is no such thing as concede the point. They will play from the ground on all fours in the blinding dust while being walked on. Their tenacity is without comparison. There is not another human on earth I could have more admiration for in the spirit of competition. These men have no equal that I have seen on this wide earth.

For me, the last 12 minutes of play was about survival. I would have been happy just to not make a mistake that would cost the team. But in the first half of the overtime, I took a loose ball out of the flank for a run. It was the first time ever I was alone in an opening and I even had time for one bounce. But that was my mistake; I should have handballed to my much more agile and speedy teammates. It would of come off fine, except my kick went badly, and landed in the arms of a Punmu youth. Side by side they charged back at me but I made chase. For a second I made some distance, but out of the side I was hit by a kid half my size. It stopped me dead, and as I sat in the sand my worst fear rose as I saw a clean opening for a goal, just as the siren went and my mistake was erased by fortitude.

The second half was a nightmare. My legs felt like lactic fence posts, my hammies tauter than a towrope. Bryte’s shoes were now crushing my two big toes. I had a mental picture of my toenails falling off in a week from now. I failed to spoil a sitter in the goal square and my man kicked a goal. For this offence I was sent to the forward line. Why, I’m not sure but the run across the field from end to end finished me entirety. By the time I reached the other goal posts the bounce down went with only minutes on the clock and me out of breath, my mouth dryer than a snake in the desert. It felt like I had just taken a swig out of clag glue tub and I’m pretty sure I was about 5 minutes from dying when the ball came my way again. Somehow and with no thanks to me, a goal was kicked, and with us only a point behind, the ball went back to the centre. There could not be more than seconds on the clock and the play was intense. Wounded men scrambled like winged birds flapping up dust in the sand, the footy seemed like a cannon ball incapable of anything other than clumsy movement, a loaded dice on a steep incline. It rolled over the rocks and stones this way and that, backwards and forwards like a flightless bird. It broke free of the pack, Lazarus emerged, his neat bundle of curly hair tied up like a samurai. His tight smooth skin shining in the sun, his white teeth flashed a smile as he scooped it up within 40 yards of the goals. He kicked it clean and straight and Jade took it on the chest in the goal square about two seconds after the final bell went. Our team had lost by one point. I wanted to cry. But I had no moisture left in my body. I just sat down in the dirt hoping someone would bring me water.

For some reason, today was the day that every one decided they wanted to sit in on our workshops. Covered in dirt and bleeding from both knees and one elbow as I reached the sideline smelling like a feral cat, the local cop asked me when the next workshop would be on. “Well I’ll head over there now,” I responded. On my way over, the Newcrest media team decided they wanted an interview, then and there. So with my shiner on display and a mouth like the bottom of a cockys cage, I answered a series of questions that I have no memory of now. What my responses were, I can only guess. On the way over I rounded up several kids and was met by the School Holiday Program at the hall with a few more kids. The health services wanted to watch too and so the show went on with Ewan, Callan and I, grubbier than a gravel ditch, burnt, bleeding and broken. Somehow I still managed to bust out my old school break-dance moves for the closing dance competition, and with another successful workshop under our belt, we headed for the Garden Pool to wash away our aches and sorrows.

I wanted to get another recording of the Diabetes motto song I wrote in One Arm Point, and today would be the last chance. So we stuffed some food down quickly and headed back to the hall by about 2pm. As I arrived, Eric and Jade just happened to be passing by the hall. I couldn’t believe my luck. I asked them if they would play on the workshop song for me as role models. Being from the most popular band in the Martu and all, it would be great to feature them on the song. Sure enough they obliged me. I’m not sure what they think of our workshops. They have done a few with me now at several different communities while on tour together last year. Eric is as stoic as a rock, but he and jade jammed with me to my simple four-chord song. We could only round up about 5 kids but we got a good recording of it done. As soon as they left, Graham showed up with his 3 grandchildren. So we got them to overdub the song with percussion instruments while I strummed along again, and we all had a bit of fun being childish.

Now it was time to get back over to the oval for the grand final. The women’s softball final started no less than 5 minutes after we arrived and the timing was perfect, we got to support both games and watch some of the hardest football ever played on earth. The grand final came down to Jigalong and Nullagine. Jigalong beat Punmu in the game after us, and looking at them play now, there is no way we could have stopped them. They are the closest community to Irrungadji, so had the least travelling and had the biggest reserve. In fact, they had a whole spare football team in reserve. Being so close to Newman, the community gets lots of clinics and coaching session all the time, so they were really sharp. They still had fresh players, so they would have slaughtered us. In the first 5 minutes, one kid was knocked out cold, and another broken bone took the final tally to three for the carnival.

It was a great game of football. Nullagine put up a great fight, but there was no way they could compete with the injury free and excessive rotation of Jigalong players. Still true to the spirit, Nullagine threw themselves at the ball like warriors into a lion’s cage, fearless and without question. Time after time their skirmishes were put down, their back line was out manoeuvred, and they had no answer to the tight and long plays from centre to full forward that Jigalong made over and over again. As the injuries compounded towards the overall exhaustion of the team, Jigalong still looked like a fresh team on the field for the first time.

We stuck around for the awards ceremony and then headed home to get ready for the concert tonight. We had no doubt it was going to be a big one! But it started very slow. In fact, even the kids were totally worn out by now. Only a handful of our usual posse showed up and I think a few carloads had made an early track for home.

As we set up for the last show I surveyed the state of the stage. A thick film of fine dust had settled across all the equipment. Everything was a lighter shade of red. The slightest movement made the fine particles sail into in the air in puffs, and within moments a cloud of the abrasive grit hung in the air like sawdust fog. The kids below stirred it up even further with their games. Games of dust, impervious to and completely unconscious of any discomfort it might cause.

I watched one boy scattering sand across the black rubber mat we use to cover the leads and cables, then running up to it and sliding along on it like a dry version of a slippery slide. I told them off as it was kicking up great clouds of dust and in the totally windless air it hung to the stage like a curtain of dirt. I wished I had had a camera on me when two other boys no older than 5 and 6, started picking up handfuls of dirt in cupped hands as if in a bath of bubbles, then launching it into the air over their heads so it would rain down on them. As if it was beautiful fresh water from stream, they repeated this over and over, looking up into the raining sand on their faces as if it was warm sunlight. One of them started to flap his arms like a bird under the falling grit like a bird in a rainstorm. They were in such a state of bliss, I didn’t have the heart to distract them. It probably only lasted two minutes tops, but in the end they both flapped away, alternating between tossing up dirt and flying through it. With their legs sort of crooked and their bodies pulsing up and down in time to the flapping, they really looked like little brown cranes. They carried on until one of the mothers grabbed them by the arms and pulled them from their make believe world, uttering apologies to me for the huge cloud of dust now being vacuumed up my nostrils. But I just laughed at the satire of it all. The dirtiest concert on earth was about to start.

Tonight was probably the least attended by the visiting communities and I am sure some had left, lots were just too sore and many far too tired to do another late night, especially if they were driving home tomorrow. But what was nice was all the Newcrest, V Swans and Softball WA crew showed up. Andy the Clown was in fine form again tonight with his balloon bum and big pants. It was just so funny. He had a hula-hoop lady come out for the day and in the middle of the night she climbed onto the roof of the truck while Andy hurtled hula-hoops at her from below, her gold glittering hoops shining in the night. It was quite spectacular, streamers flew through the air, Andy’s bubble machine pumped out bubbles that the kids chased with innocent amusement and laughter and joviality flowed as thick as the rich red dust that hovered in the air of that dark desert night.

 

Tuesday 17th April 2012
Day 8, Clean Up

Feeling a little sentimental and very sore, we headed to the truck to do the big pack up and clean down. Newcrest were up at a sparrow’s and ready to roll by 7:30am, but my guys didn’t even hit the sack till about 2am so we were taking it easy.

We also received a bit of bad news; unfortunately a very senior Gumala Elder had passed away, which means the second half of our tour has been cancelled altogether for Sorry Business. We are all a bit devastated as we were really excited about visiting the Gumala communities out of Tom Price. It would have been our first time there, and we’ve heard that there are some incredible musicians, old gospel blues singers, there. The loss of another Elder is, of course, a huge irreplaceable loss for us all. The cut means we will lose all the funding for the trip, and will have to head straight home now. Such is the nature of things out here.

It took us all morning to break the stage down. To overcome the dust problem, we employed the help of the Police Station’s vacuum cleaner and an air compressor with a blower attachment. Callan spent nearly 2 hours just coiling up leads and wiping the dirt off them with a damp cloth. Dust was in everything, and on everything, and some of our PA gear will never recover from it. Being full of magnets and the red dirt being full of iron ore, the combination is not good.

By midday we had worked up a well-earned appetite and visited the Conglomerate Hotel for a hearty meal. We ran into Annabelle, Butler’s daughter, and she gave us some really encouraging feedback and lots of praise! We made plans to catch up with them in Perth next week and hand over some of the recording we had done.

The rest of the day went without incident, we spent most of the afternoon cleaning the prison cells and cage area where we stayed. We decided it would be a good idea to do the right thing by the Cops and all, but also they had been so good to us it just felt like the thing to do. It’s been so cool to be a part of this carnival and see all the community and all the agencies work together as one. There has not been a single incident, and the Police, the town, and everyone involved has had to go outside their comfort zone, interact in a way that is not standard procedure and cooperate as equals. Everyone has done their part, the local health service and nurses, the caravan park, the hotel, the store, the Police and the community members and all the visitors. We all feel a real sense of satisfaction.

We ended our visit to Nullagine in traditional Australian style; by dropping off a case of beer for the boys in blue to enjoy in thanks for their hospitality, and then leaving all the leftover food from Newcrest, Diabetes and ourselves with Walter down in the community. There were 4 bags of onions and a sack of rice amongst it all, and it was a well received gift. I reckon we will be forever welcome there any day.

We got to Garden Pool in time to have a quick swim and light a big fire. We were all so shattered that as soon as the sun disappeared we went out like a light.

 

Wednesday 18th April 2012
Day 9, Head Home


As we head home in the Old White Rhino, I congratulate her on another successful trip. She did it again. Back on the long white line once again, her diesel engine purrs with a familiar note as we join the long procession of road trains and oversized vehicles. We even got to overtake someone this trip, which is a first for the old girl. Admittedly, it was a huge backhoe/ dozer thing on the back of a semi’ doing 40 kilometres an hour, but it felt good to
finally overtake something nonetheless. It was so big that they had to stop the oncoming traffic, road trains with 3 and 4 trailers were pulled up for miles ahead. Overtaking it meant driving onto the gravel on the far side of the road, a little bit disconcerting when the embankment was on any sort of an angle. By nightfall we had overtaken it 3 times because we stopped for fuel etc. The novelty wore off pretty fast to say the least. On two occasions, Emily had to drive over the white posts on the far side of the road to get around it. It was pretty scary.

This has been the shortest trip we have ever undertaken. It’s been a whirlwind tour, it feels like we have been gone for a month although only a few days have passed. There’s been so much packed in to such a short period with such a dramatic contrast from normal life, the culture shock and the vast and foreign landscape that is back drop to the whole event makes for a huge impact. One thing is for sure, a day in the life of the Martu leaves more of an impression than a month in the life in the big smoke. These people out here radiate a unique humility, it leaves an imprint on your very being, it makes you question what is important and what you really require. The difference between what I want and what I need become obvious in this landscape. When exposed to the desert, the smell of the primal elements, the sight of an ancient world, unchanged for millennium, one might ask oneself these questions. Maybe that is the difference, the stark reality is a contrast out here, it’s in the hot sun, the dry dust, the lonely landscape, the still and empty country. It speaks of the essentials, an intuitive requirement for an economy of existence. Why do anything you don’t have to, and why have anything you don’t need to live though this day? Why fear anything that is not a reality right now? Maybe this landscape creates the acceptance the Martu seem to have, the ability to believe that everything you need will be provided within your immediate environment. Is that how the Martu lived for forty five thousand years? Some of them, especially the Kiwirrkurra People, right up till 1984, alone amongst the elements.

What I have leant about the Martu is that the family unit is of immeasurable value, all important. The idea of leaving it or losing it is paralysing. I’ve seen a boy with a broken leg refuse to get on a flying doctors plane because the fear of being without his family was more painful to bear than a clean break in his shin. There is no life without family, and the community is dependent on it. It’s ok to have no money, no car, no food and nowhere to live, as long as you don’t have it together. It gives them a strength that is enviable, indestructible. I have no evidence to support it, but I believe that individually, Martu people are among the toughest on earth. I guess they have had to exist in the harshest conditions on earth for the longest time. On average, man for man, they are stronger than us. I don’t mean ‘could bench press more,’ I mean faster, harder, more resilient, more alert, more agile, and more skilled. Any one of these guys in his prime would be a match for any three westerners. If we had come to this country and had to fight for this land hand to hand, man to man, we would not have stood a chance against the hardened warriors of the great Western Desert.

I do not say this for any other reason other than patriotic pride. I don’t say it to create shame or guilt. I too want to be proud of my country, I too want to be proud to say I’m Australian. What we have is something to be proud of, what we have is a wealth of culture. It is of immeasurable value, it shines brighter than our gold, is more valuable than our ore. It is our greatest resource. All we have to do is acknowledge it. The uncut diamond of the desert. Our Martu.

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