Desert Feet Tour – April 2013
T- Minus Zero and Counting
The truck is assembled in the driveway of Krugger Place, like a transformer, the Optimus Prime of Music, a mobile foldout stage and production rig. Sea containers litter my yard, trailers line the verge, cars are lined up along the curb, people whiz in and out with boxes and tubs and my whole street know that it’s that time of the year again. The time the Desert Feet Tour readies to depart into the desert for six weeks. Six weeks of absolute peace for my street, and I’m sure they can’t wait for us to leave, as patient and polite as they all are. However, for the kids of my street it’s a different matter, it’s like the circus come to town. Better still, it’s the circus come to their street. We have become the sole source of amusement for the neighbourhood after-school entertainment, and for that, I think, our neighbours overlook the noise and disturbance we create for the week leading up to T- Minus Zero.
The kids simultaneously become our greatest critics and our greatest admirers as they watch with amused scepticism; helping to sweep this, hold that, run off with my drill, break my bevel, or knock over the frame I spent 20 minutes lining up. Eager to climb on what looks like a giant mechanical play set, but frustrated at our insistence that they stay back from all the tools and dangerous items lying around the yard.These kids are great kids, all kids are. Kids are kids, living life from the moment, reminding us to be patient and caring. Discovering the realms of the practical world because of, or in spite of, their circumstances. When I look at these kids, I am reminded of a certain disparity, one in which I will remain immersed for the coming six weeks and I have to ask myself the question; Both these kids are Australian, both born into a county of prosperity and wealth, both the children of a free country, yet nearly 40% of Aboriginal youth will have been in state facilities or care before the age of 16. (2009 young People in Custody Health Survey Fact Sheet)
Seeing as Australia has an over-representation of Indigenous people in the legal system it seems obvious who would be at the effect of reservations that do not protect children from being held in adult prisons, but believe it or not we are the only first world country that still does this.At its Ninety-fifth session in New York, 16 March- 3 April 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (CCPR) made a recommendation for improved treatment of juveniles in the Australian legal system. (HRC, paragraph 24) A few months later a 12 year old boy was held in an adult prison for 8 hours after missing a court case for allegedly stealing a 70c Freddo Frog from Coles (F. Farouque, 2009) Then, in rapid secession, was the very public case of a 15-year-old boy from Onslow who was held in custody for 10 days and refused bail for attempting to steal a $2.05 ice cream. (ALSWA Dec 2009)Holding children in adult facilities is against just about every convention made since Hitler decided to exterminate children alongside their parents. Especially, The International Convection on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Australia ratified on the 17th December 1990 and many of the articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) also ratified by Australia (13th August 1980).
When one is made aware of such facts about his own country, then the owner of such information is confronted with an overwhelming situation. You can ignore those facts or you can take action. If you decide to take action, the next overwhelming situation you might find yourself in is the; ‘What can I do’ situation. If it helps at all, I might offer some relief in congratulating you. That question is the beginning of a lifetime journey. That question alone has the power to change, and by asking ‘it’ you have been catapulted into the world of Human Rights. You may not have decided to become a community worker or a volunteer or study law, but you are now a humanitarian. Well Done! I might venture to offer (perhaps romantically) that if every human on earth was a humanitarian, (like you) there would be no more disparity, like the one above.
The reason I am opening the first blog of 2013 with such sentiment is simply to explain why I am engaged in the activity that you have decide to follow, called the Desert Feet Tour. The inequality that I mention above exists, but unfortunately those negatives often become the focus of attention, especially in the media. I cannot change the world in which we live, but I can show you the other side of the story. I am the Projects Manager of Desert Feet Incorporated, at least, that’s my title. But my real job is to create cultural awareness (as i see it anyway) and I hope that will be a positive experience for my reader.
For the converted and the liberal, this will only confirm what you know, for those with a desire to have a cultural experience, you are already interested. The real opportunity lies in the chance that someone already shut off, or prejudiced, may accidentally see through a new lens, may get a glimpse of light through the lens of musical language. That light of enquiry, no matter how brief, when discovered with one’s own volition, cannot be compared too. Any debate, forced point of view or argument will never have the impact that the revelation of auto perception can bring. It is the sharpest of all awakenings, and music is one of the greatest vehicles for epiphanies of that sort. Desert Feet is all about music.
Day 1 – Wednesday 17th April
Our original ETA was the 15th but the ship was not making ‘last call for boarding’ until midnight last night. The Troopie headed off earlier like a scout vehicle, loaded with a cut back version of our equipment. Enough to do a small show for John Watson’s book launch in Jarlmadangah, our first stop. However, as I hitched the trailer on I realised the chains were too short. Out came the tools again, power leads and spare parts. Another 20 minutes of racket that ensued, made all the more unruly by the silence of the hour, as if just to make absolutely sure my neighbours would be glad to see the back of us.
The dawn light saw us turning North at Wubin and the desert unfolded before us, to be our uninterrupted companion for the long day at the wheel. These open, flat roads are much easier on the old Rhino than the ascent out of Perth’s basin that ended in the dark back around Dalwallinu. The new stage, 2.4 meters high and 4 meters long, bolted to the side of the truck, folds up like a bird wing down one side, its huge surface area is not very aerodynamic, to say the least, however a favourable wind, from the starboard aft quarter hit us and like a sail, it catapulted us along as if a Gods hand propelled us onward, with the extra speed we landed at Capricorn in time for dinner.
The only event of any interest was when Emily went to gear down into the roadhouse and discovered there was no gears! This created a bit of panic and while I lifted the lid, Emily called the other vehicle back. A missing nut off one of the linkages was enough to ground us until we could locate a replacement. An effort I would have thought little of in a roadhouse full of trucks. However, much to my amazement the elusive nut was all but unavailable. This situation not at all assisted by a fuel tanker that decided we should move out of the way of his filling position. A problem, I indicated, that was hindered by the fact we had broken down. This fact, I offered, in hope of some aid. Instead, our fellow truckie, became irate and suggested we push it out of his way!? Along with other obscenities. Realising there was no help to be had even from our own teammates, I stole the needed nut off my own exhaust manifold until such time as I could replace it. After all, I concluded, it would be better to leak a few exhaust fumes than not be able to change gear!
Day 2 – Thursday 18th April
Emily and I took short shifts through the night to make up for the speed we lacked on the Troopie. When dawn brought the world back, we were just outside of Port Hedland and we pulled into Pardoo about the same time as the other vehicle, where we did a quick exchange, taking only what we needed for 2 days and leaving the truck parked up with the local grader, next to the roadhouse.
In this fashion; a Troopie and a trailer, loaded with five people a dog and a double bass the size of a fridge, we arrived in Broome at 3pm, just in time to spill into the opal blue high tide of Gantheume Point.
A much-needed sit down meal, a few coffees from a barrister and a swim had us ready for the last leg out to Jarlmadangah. We ran into Anthony Watson in the shopping center happy to tell him we were running ahead of time, he also confirmed the books had arrived for the launch. We offered that our part was all ready, and the ABC had offered to cover the CD launch too. As we were leaving town we found Mary G, who made a vague promise to appear at our impromptu concert too. It was all becoming a certainty now, and this, very vague idea, we had conceived back in November last year had manifested into a reality.
Day 3 – Friday 19th April
After 2600 kilometers of continuous driving had transported us deep into the Kimberley, a much-deserved day of rest and reprieve was in order. The last few days are all a blur. Endless hours following a white line in the black night, and hours of contorted sleeps sitting in a seat. It’s taking me a while to accept we really made it here. The stark contrast of the outback Kimberley as opposed to the bustle of the city is a shock, but the heat was a most convincing awakening, as it hit us like a steamroller. No one had much energy for activities, which was just as well because there was no one on the community at all.
We set up in one of rooms and had a practice, other than that we slept most of the heat away, except for lunchtime when Emily made tuna steaks for us all. I was going to say life is tough, sarcastically, but we left the tub with the herbs in it back at the truck and had no salt. God forbid.
Day 4 – Saturday 20th April
Senior Lore Man and Nyikina-Mangala Elder, Darraga’s (John Watson) first book called ‘Never Stand Still’ Stories of Life, Land and Politics in Kimberley will be launched at Jarlmadangah Burru, the remote community on Mount Anderson Station. Darraga witnessed the theft of Aboriginal land, the denial of education and the impoverishment of his people. Jarlmadangah Burru is the result of his life-long struggle to maintain his language, law and culture, and educate new generations.Last night as the sun set I walked up to his camp, as is the custom, with a mug of tea in hand, to ask his permission to stay and introduce my team. As we approached, a line of spears with white rags tied to the end became visible over the shrubs. Darraga was waiting in a sandy field and seeing us he waved us around, indicating to pull up some sand and be quiet.We had stumbled into a welcome ceremony. Painted brown bodies and dust rising from the encircling demonstration coupled with Darraga’s trance like singing intoxicated the atmosphere. His old hunched shoulders hid his instruments from my view and the click of his sticks seemed distant and ageless. It could have been coming from elsewhere, like an echo, and the timelessness of his song sent a chill down the spine.Suddenly, I noticed the line of ridges behind the camp, as if they had not been there ten minutes earlier. The setting sun lit up the vertical cliff faces a fiery red, and they seemed to lean in over the dance like stone giants, watching with approval. I kicked off my shoes so I could feel the dirt, get closer to it, be part of it. Settling in for the ride, I let myself go in the moment, surrounded by such intoxicating beauty I felt a little epiphany, the relief of being immersed in nature, sort of like how breathing pure oxygen makes you a bit high.In the morning, things unfolded in due course. The repatriation of the old man’s bones was first and foremost. Stolen by Swedish anthropologist Mjorberg in a 1910 expedition who used less than credible means to smuggle the remains back to Europe, seeking fame and fortune, like his contemporaries had done earlier in Africa. However, he found something quite different. Upon returning, he was plagued by guilt or riddled with fear from the stories he learned in the Kimberley. He died a deranged lunatic, speaking of visions of Aboriginal spirits from his deathbed. Nearly 100 years later, here we are standing at a graveyard under the impressive guard of Mount Anderson.Old Darraga smoked up the scene with gum leaves while the brilliant sky pelted an intense heat on our heads that threatened to fold your legs up under you like a camp chair. All those present were offered a turn on the shovel, back filling the giant red grave. I guess this time they wanted him safe from poachers, and so he could not finish his eternal rest in the fork of a tree. However Darraga made much ceremony of his homecoming, which would end the restless roaming of his sprit and enabled his final peace.It’s a small victory, but it’s a victory nonetheless. Many burial sites were desiccated like such. Some stories even tell of Mjorberg taking a dead infant from a mother’s arms, to boil down, strip of flesh and pack off for research. Some 200 in all he took from the area in one exhibition. No wonder he went mad.The book launch itself was what we had all come here for and that kicked off at about 12 midday. We are due in Punmu tomorrow, which is back the way we came 1200 km, so this is what you might call, a slight detour. Darraga never learnt to read or write, education was forbidden by his white owners, so this book was compiled and transcribed by Malcolm Allbrook, along with some rare footage from Liz Thompson who has been taking photos out here for a long while.Malcolm and his wife Mary-Anne are two impressive people; they have been here in the Kimberley since the 1970s and have been involved in Aboriginal Affairs for longer, done the hard yards. Real stayers, but also Academics, published authors, and Doctors in their field, they are also historians at the Australian Capital University and now indelibly a part of history themselves. Malcome is doing his second PHD! I mean who does that? I have never heard of anyone doing two PHDs in one life. They are the type of people that can speak very softly and still have the room’s full attention. I could not escape a feeling that something of significance was occurring while in their company. Not sure what I expected to happen, maybe a bomb to go off or a meteor to hit the ground nearby, just something momentous.Liz, Malcolm and Darraga sat behind a trestle loaded with the Book. Some small announcements were made but mostly it was a humble affair. Darraga’s oldest son, Anthony, spoke briefly. He has appeared in the media a lot now with his role as the representative for the Nyikina-Mangala people, stepping into Darraga’s shoes he has taken over his spot on the Kimberley land council, and KALAC. But he is much softer than Darraga, quietly spoken, shy like his people. He speaks with a measured thoughtfulness, which lends its self to humility and calm. But the weight he bears must be a burden. I have seen him attacked in public, and hear of a few rough encounters with TOs on the other side of the fence. It’s a difficult situation and one he seems to be able to shoulder with some balance.Anthony has a father that taught him his Lore, Language and culture along with the work ethic from an era now lost to this world. But unlike Darraga, Anthony also has a Western Education, he has been groomed for a fight that is long overdue. Unlike his father that played the waiting game, the Vincent Lingerie way, Anthony has a strategy, this time he will use the tools used against him. Men like Anthony hold a unique place in this world; they are the fusion of old lore and modern education; able to dance between the corporate world of material demand and the ethereal Dreaming of ancestors. But more importantly, somehow able to find a balance in those dichotomously opposed realities.The example of spiritual devastation is all too prevalent, those devoid of land, forbidden from practicing lore and language, banned from cultural engagement, turned to drugs and alcohol, disenfranchised and broken are all around him. Anthony has taken a middle road, avoiding the patterns that lead to self-destruction, leveraging his culture as an asset, able to move in and out of the encroaching technological word and find a medium of balance for his people. As a diplomat, his value would be immeasurable, if it was a value he wished to seek, but the wealth that Anthony owns cannot be banked, stored or divided. It rests in connection to land, not ownership of land, connection to it. It’s the opposite of ownership, the land owns him.Darraga’s oldest Grandson is named after him. A tall, lean young man, easy to warm to, and full of adventurous smiles. He delighted in offering up his bush knowledge. Tricks of survival used by his ancestors for time ad finitum. He took us to a watering hole, his watering hole, a place used to trap fish and crocs since man first walked these lands. His back yard is the land of a Nyikina Mangala man, his inheritance. A paradoxical wonderland of deadly beauty, secret places, hidden abundance, food that can kill and extreme conditions. A multitude of recourses for the initiated erudite, but a plethora of pitfalls for the inexperienced. But for John Junior, this wide land is a walk in the park. A land to be travelled “Only in bare feet” he informed us, it keeps him in touch with the land you see.We drove over that country for over an hour, with Little John pulling up from time to time to point out landmarks and important scenes. At one stop, he approached us more urgently than usual. “Got any Water!?” he exclaimed. It was then I noticed his car was on fire. We managed to douse the ignited spinifex stuck in his manifold without too much harm.Our little contribution to this event was the unveiling of Darragas song, a bit of background music during the book signing and then a concert that night. In a sequence of events leading up to this launch we constantly amazed ourselves as the project fell into place. No funding, conflicting arrangements, dates that changed several times and vast distance to cover in a few days all made the idea seem a bit ludicrous, but one thing was obvious, we all unanimously felt the need to be here.Of all the things that transpired, like Archie Roach agreeing to sing on the recording, coordinating the logistics of it all, and driving for 48 hours straight the elephant in the room still seemed like the giant double bass we carted around like a fridge on wheels, just to play one song. I was opposed to it and I’m usually the most excessive, yet no one else seemed to question it so I shut up. The purveyor and driver of that elephant is none other than Mr Rob Findlay who aside from playing every instrument under the sun and having a photographic memory for lyrics also coordinated, recorded, mixed and mastered Darraga’s song in the month leading up to the event. when Shane Howard and Lucky Oceans also agreed to a guest appearance, our wish list suddenly became a reality. We had no idea we would pull it off. And Rob was left with little more than 3 days to pull the whole thing together before we where due to leave.The girls were literally folding CD covers in the office at 10pm the night we were going. For us it was a challenge that came to life. And so for the weeks leading up to the event we were telling people of this great event about to take place, with no idea if we could even make it yet. Not only did we make it, CD in hand, but Olive Knight arrived for the concert and now we had a real ridgy-didge show. Just to seal the deal, Darraga got up and opened the concert. Not one for western music, or Gaddiya music, as he calls it, he stuck around right ‘til the end. A sign that we had his approval, and more impressive than that was that he played two traditional songs on the sticks before the signing over of the CD royalties to the school. You can buy the CD hereI guess it was lucky we came or we might have missed a great night. It was an intimate affair, there on the veranda of the school. Our audience formed themselves in a semicircle on the grass between the patio and the basketball court. No more than 50 or 80 people but a quiet and applauding audience. The type that makes you feel appreciated. And there is no better compliment than that, as an artist, a friend and a supporter of the cause. The Kimberley sky was a chandelier of lights. The ridges of Mount Anderson nested us in her bosom, the encroaching native bush swayed to our tunes, and the strings of Rob’s huge big white fridge sang a song that this area had never heard before. And there in secret we played the concert of our lives, a fortune of obscurity, and an anonymous victory.
Day 5 – Sunday 21st April
2400 Kilometre Detour
The open road is like a magnet, drawing you on, the meters like invisible moments, merging into preoccupied hours, the trance of the wheel, the roar of the diesel, a song of contemplation, where ideas are born, lyrics written, and memories relived. Unfortunately, before I had time to have any ideas I found myself changing a tyre in the dirt at 5am. It was caused by a large nail that no longer held two pieces of wood together. Later, when I did a u-turn to go back and get a jerry can on the side of the road, I picked up a second flat in exchange, this time a large tek screw. At Pardoo it was nice to be reunited with the big white Rhino. She was asleep in the shade of the late evening sun, the muggy air a suit of moisture and the mosquitoes a black cloud around your head. I’m pretty sure you could get Ross River Virus, Malaria and Dengue Fever all in one spot if you sat here long enough without Aeroguard. We loaded Rob’s big white fridge onto the truck, fuelled up, took a quick swim in the caravan park pool out the back, fed another few million mosquitoes, then headed for Telfer. The night swallowed us up Jonas into the whales mouth.
Day 6 – Monday 22nd April
Punmu Begins The Rhino came to a standstill around midnight last night, the Troopie followed us into a parking bay about a 100 kilometres short of the Telfer turnoff. By then we had been driving for 19 hours non-stop, no one could drive anymore, and even the most uncomfortable, hot, mosquito ridden sleep seemed inviting. A heavy night was laid across the rolling plains of Ripon Hills Road, the darkness, transparent with a silvery refection of the brilliant stars, was thicker than water. The silence rang out like a giant seashell and the landscape was so still it might have been a picture on a wall, a startling contrast from the numbing roar of the motor.
This morning the lush greens and pastels sprung to life in the dawn. The great Oakover River far to the north, fed by the Isabella and Gregory Ranges, runs south and climaxes in a natural wonder called Carawine Gorge. But beyond the ranges lies the Great Sandy Desert. If you look at a map, the contrast is nearly as astounding as the change in scenery that will begin an hour from here. This area is almost blue with the vein networks of rivers, but past the Rabbit Proof fence it all but turns to brown, a shaded featureless page, sprinkled with obscure names and dotted lines that runs off the page and the page over leaf. An area larger than most countries, of nothing. Nothing but sand and rocks.
The good thing about mining companies is they keep their roads graded; the first few hundred kms of gravel are wider than a 12 lane Highway, until you hit a little sign saying Punmu. From there on in you’re on your own, off the beaten track and out of sight. Pretty much the only ones that use this track are Martu and Pintabi going in and out of Punmu, Kunawarritji or Kiwirrkurra. From here, the road is pretty bad, single lane, twisting and winding its way over the open sparse country, across outcrops of rocks like rusted steel and patches of white limestone.
The dunes are like static ocean swells, of a red sand sea, on the crest of the silicone hills, a view of endless lines running east and west. In the valleys between the ridges, the soft sand tracks are brilliant red, a luminous burgundy, ochre. Like veins of fire, from the heart of the desert. Near Punmu the ridges get up to sixteen foot high. The last two hills are very distinct, and as you come over the last one a giant salt lake bursts into view. Brilliant white, glaring in the sun with eye squinting intensity. A white sea against a red world. Like a snowfield in hell. I came to a stop at the crest because the steering box was making an awful noise and I was losing pressure. One look and I knew it was trouble. Red transmission oil was pouring out of the main seal like a tap. I had dropped all my fluid in less than 20 minutes. We were now stuck, the Rhino could go no further, without risking the pump too. So we literally rolled into Punmu down the hill into town, across the community and upto the basketball court where I manually steered her into position for the concerts. And there she would now stay, indefinitely, it would seem.
Day 7 – Tuesday 23rd April
Football for all The Desert Feet Tour was well anticipated last night. We had a lot of fun catching up, reuniting, and seeing who was in town. The Rhino had her inaugural set up with the new stage. It now looks more like a stage with a truck than a truck being used as a stage. The clincher was Nixy’s black skirting, which velcroed on around the edge. An impressive final touch! It was sort of a last minute addition and an afterthought but one with huge effect, bring the ascetics up to any festival stage i have seen.
A large part of the effect is the transformation, from creaking old truck that limps into town covered in dust and leaking oil, to state of the art festival production, a remarkable juxtaposition against the geographical location. Who would expect to find a festival stage in the red dust of a desert? Except the Desert Feet Tour mob. This initial run was not without some hiccups, and our unfamiliarity with the new arrangement caused some delays. But the end result was well received, and we admired out handiwork with pride. Leon from Newcrest thought it was a new truck altogether. So the Orphans christened the new stage with a few songs before handing over to an eager line-up.
Elliot and his Wild Dingo Band were all there, the Jeffries Brother from the Jigalong band, a huge turn out from Kiwirrkurra and Eric West promised us some new songs and a few new singers for his Band. Clifton for Parnngurr, who we had met two years ago at our first carnival, was here with a new song called Cleared Out, which we are pretty excited about. Even more exciting was the appearance of Matthew Pinta, from Kintore, who we meet at Kiwirrkurra last year. His band had driven all the way from near Alice Springs just to play on the Desert Feet Tour stage.
The basketball court at Punmu is huge, with sail-like awnings stretching overhead at great height. It was a feat of engineering, constructed exclusively for the School here and the result in over a million dollars and 10 years worth of fundraising, grants and research. They needed something that could hold up against the gale force winds of the desert, the searing heat that reaches 50 degrees for months at a time, and the corrosive salt that sweeps off Lake Dora with sandblasting intensity. The outcome is this spectacular dome with its orange and white sails, it looks like a camel train walking along the edge of the salt lake, or a fleet of ships sailing across the desert when you see it from afar. Its probably the largest land mark in a 1000 miles aside from the open pit at Telfer. It definably not something you expect to see between sand dunes after hundreds of miles of empty space and I couldn’t help thinking of how alien Giles’ caravan must have looked to the Martu when he marched 20 horses across the Gibson back in 1876.
Under its roof even the mighty Rhino was a minor fixture in its far corner, but our music could not be contained and those sounds spilled out across the encroaching sands, the threatening dry desert, the wide glassy saltpan of Lake Dora and up to the heavens above. We turned it up loud, as loud as those black boxes could go, because on this night there would be no neighbours that would complain. The nearest one was 700 kilometres away. Having arrived in time, launched the festival, and reached our audience, a large weight was off my shoulders. We could congratulate ourselves on two milestones thus far for this tour, and the rest of the Western Desert Football carnival was now safely in the bag, ticked off the itinerary, our sponsors would be happy. However, the issue of how to get the truck out of here was now my main concern.
By 6am this morning I had the cab up, the bull bar out, and the steering box exposed. By 7am I realised the job was too big. Tracwest told me to leave the Drop Arm on to get the box out and, as I had predicted, a high pressure box like that would need to go on a bench in a equipped workshop. I got lucky, Newcrest had a Mechanic from Telfer looking at one of the buses he agreed to take the box in to the mine site. From there I could pull a few favours with the community development team located on site, this seemed the best option, but I had to make the call then and there, and so I watched the dust rise off the back of the Troopie as it drove off with my steering box wondering if I would ever see that again.The shop ran out of cards for that old lonely Telstra box at the end of the world. I got the last three. One got me a call to the mine site. One got me a call to a friend to make some arrangements and the third cut out just as the spare parts guy in Perth was telling me the exchange box had no drop arm. Mine was now on its way to Telfer. In the mean time the Desert Feet Tour is a permanent feature of the Punmu Basket Ball court. Where she limped over the last sand dune, rolled into the school sounding like a gearless tractor, folded out into a stage and become a grounded ship. ‘Til I can get a new box anyway. A recon’ kit could take a week or two. No one could really say.
A new box was nowhere to be found and a second hand one was my only option if I wanted to be out of here this month. I should probably be panicking, but for some reason the idea of being stuck at Punmu doesn’t seem to worry me too much. We had been super lucky to lose the oil so close to Punmu. It would have been a lot more work if she had gone half way between Marble Bar, and I cant help but feel grateful for that. The truck, stage and Desert Feet Tour has come to a standstill but the show must go on.
Day 8 – Wednesday 24th April
Desert: (noun) a desolate and forbidding area. (Webster Dictionary) Punmu is actually located in the Rudall National Park, named after the Surveyer William Rudall, that searched the river named after him, looking for the last members of the 1896 Calvert Expedition. The Calvert Expedition, was financed by Calvert himself, then a London based mining engineer, and auspiced by the South Australian Branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australia to build on the achievements of the 1891 Elder Expedition, in the largely unknown Great Sandy Desert, as well as the collection of scientific specimens, finding evidence of the fate of the lost Leichhardt expedition of 1848, and opening a stock route between the Northern Territory and the Western Australian goldfields.The expedition departed Mullewa in Western Australia on 13 June 1896, with 20 Camels, heading north towards the Fitzroy River.
By 21 July they had reached the limits of previously explored territory and known water supplies. In early August, they were advancing into the Great Sandy Desert and having problems with the availability of water and with camels falling sick through the consumption of poisonous plants; Charles, Wells and Jones left to make a side journey towards the northwest, intending to rejoin the others later. On 9 November the main party reached the track from Derby to the Fitzroy Crossing. But the mummified bodies of Charles, Wells and Jones, who had perished from extreme heat and lack of water, were not found until May 1897. Jones’ diary, found with his body, indicated that they had died on about 21 November 1896 while following in the tracks of the main party.Rudall never found the missing men; it was Well’s cousin Larry Wells, who made the discovery of the preserved and unmolested bodies. Nine separate attempts were made to try and find them. Although Rudall didn’t locate the explorers, he successfully mapped an area of 23,000 square miles of previously unexplored country during the six months of his search.
The Rudall River National Park, at 1,283,706 hectares, is the largest national park in Western Australia and one of the largest in the world. It is also one of the most remote places in the world. The Rudall River runs north into Lake Dora however even when it does have water in it, it is inconsumable. A salty brine. Prior to Rudall’s exploration the Rudall River was called Waturarra (upper reaches) and Karlamilyi (lower reaches). Whether Punmu is part of the Great Sandy the little Sandy or the Gibson I’m not to sure. In all four maps I’ve looked at there is no border or actual line that defines them. Like all 17 of the recognised Deserts of Australia, they are marked only by the changing landscapes that define them. However they all share that familiar loam which has become known as Pindan (or red sand) and Spinifex. In the desert the atmospheric air pressure gradients cause stronger winds and these form the well know parallel dune systems, with global warming the desert boundaries are constantly moving like their sands, but poor farming and land management has not helped either. Interestingly, rabbits had a huge effect on celebrating the desertification with their grazing habits, which most people would not find hard to believe knowing our history of eradicating rabbits and the lengths we have gone to, like building a Rabbit Prof Fence across the full length of the state! Global Warming has had the opposite effect on The Great Sandy Desert and it is considered to be in a state of un-desertification, due to the vast quantities of water being borough in by cyclones reaching further south. Anyway over one hundred years later and here we are at the North Eastern verge of verge of Rudall, with over 600 Martu, from seven different communities, converged at the most remote location on earth to play a football carnival in some of the harshest, hottest conditions on earth.
The football field is red. Red like the blood it will absorb over the coming days. There is no grass, there is no grass anywhere, not for a 1000 kilometres anyway, just red dirt. Dirty, dusty and hard. Upon which some of the hardest football, that the world will never see, will be played out in the obscurity of the isolation that surrounds us. For my team it is time to get to work, today we ran workshops back-to-back, eager to get some results while we are fresh and the kids are around. The majority of which was done by Bryte MC and assisted by myself Emily and Carlo. Ewan focused on recording with the Wild Dingo Band. Workshops are an item I have discussed at length in other blogs so I wont go into it. You can read more about them on our website or watch the videos on YouTube. The only thing of any note was we had six girls that wanted to write a song about sniffing petrol, which Emily and I made with them. That was cool because they knew what they wanted to say. The songs are on SoundCloud if you want to hear them.
The second night of concerts started slow, I think there was a few sore muscles around the camp. No one even started showing up till 7:30-8pm, so Rob got out the Double Fridge and The Orphans did a set with Bryte MC on the drums. As we stared to play a heap of the Newcrest staff showed and we had our audience. The sound was so good on stage and the guys were playing so well that it all dropped into a slot. I was enjoying myself so much i had one of the best gigs of my whole life, ironically, to nearly no one, but by the time we got off the place was filling up. As an acoustic folk band, we cant compete with the racing beat of Desert Reggae and its the local bands that gets everyone up and dancing, which is just so much fun to be a part of, that its with deep satisfaction, I join in the antics on the floor and become a willing audient, a multi cultural participant and a representative of Non-Indigenous Australia at a Martu event, the Desert Feet Festival. On this stage we broadcast more than just songs, this is no X Factor, shallow pursuit of fame and approval, it’s a special transmission, on a higher frequency, one that transcends language and cultural barriers. We are bringing it to you as a message of reconciliation and hope, but these musicians will never seek your approval, cry if you don’t, sell you a sob story for your vote, or even thank you if you do. They play because they can, not for money or fame, just because there is song and it can be sung.
Music pours from their fingers with the skill of an artist brush, theirs is an ephemeral sculpture, hanging on a moment, they decorate the air with the urgency of fast drying paint, in pictures of time infinitum, about land, love and loss. Music has that power, the power to see things that can’t be explained. The government can measure it, others want to contain it, but they are like the tone death, they know its music but cant appreciate it, because its value is intrinsic, complete and final. All it needs is your attention. The reward is the action, the value is the reception. That’s what I love about the Martu’s way, lore and life; it’s so practical and like the Martu their music is down-to-earth, it comes from the earth and it’s yours to experience. It’s some of the best music i have ever heard!
Day 9 – Thursday 25th April
Grand Final Day
Grand Final business is pretty serious business out here, each Martu community sends a team, and the Pintubi also join in; Warralong (the Karntimarta Bombers)), Nullagine, (the Irrungadji Dockers) Punmu Bulldogs, Parnngurr, Jigalong Eagles, Kunawarritji and Kiwirrkurra Hawks. The community at Marble Bar is also invited but rarely makes it and Jigalong is such a big community it often has two teams.
The fixtures are worked out by V Swans, who run a rural football program for the Pilbara, very effectively from the Swan Districts Football club in Perth by a lady called Nicole Graves. The program is so successful it actually attracts more funding than the West Australian Football League team itself! Considering the Pilbara is a massive region and their program spans an area the size of most countries, their model is one of the most effective I have ever seen. Nicole has developed an NGO that has attracted funding, simultaneously, from competing companies like Rio Tinto and BHP, a feat that very few organisations can boast, and evidence that she has something everyone wants to be part of.
Although I haven’t mentioned it much, the games have been running furiously since we arrived on Monday. It’s not an elimination, the teams score points which add up over the three carnivals for a grand final at the end of the year, which means all the teams play a few games a day and its pretty hectic. By about today, there are some pretty sore looking people walking around. Tape, slings, neck-braces and bandages adorn almost everyone, but limping, patched or bleeding, the footy goes on. Cotton Creek (Parnngurr) came with a small team this carnival and had no interchange other than a few kids. Clifton Girgirba volunteered me for the team and so I booted up, as is my custom for grand final day. As they were short handed and pretty beat up I figured I would get one game, but they won, and so I found myself back out in the dusty field two games back to back. In an unexpected turnaround, we found ourselves needing one more win to go to the semi final.
They had these two huge full forwards that could not be beaten to the mark. In fact, as long as you got the ball anywhere near the forward quarter it seemed like one of them would be there. Time after time they pulled marks out of the pack, appeared from a dusty haze with the ball, kicked seemingly impossible goals, and beat off all the oppositions’ backline with impunity. One skirmish I watched as three of the backline tried to destabilise the big guy for a mark but with one hand he reached out over the pack and clamped the yellow pigskin like toy doll in a set of paws that could squash a melon. Unmoved, unruffled and unassuming, he put the boot to it, moving his massive weight around with ballerina ease, and dropped a goal from 30 yards as if it were par the course. Without the slightest emotion, or even a hint of ego, he lumbered away from the scene before the flag could even wave a goal. There was no self-congratulatory attention-seeking dance or victory run, just a casual walk back to his man. It was some of the best footy i have seen. All we had to do was get the ball out of the centre and half way forward and it would amount to a score. With the giant Clifton in the ruck they won ball after ball and where looking undefeatable. About now I was starting to wonder if i hadn’t picked the wrong team. It was starting to look like i might have bitten of more than i could chew, unfortunately every time i took the side line, they were so short handed i would get called straight back out. I was trying to get a cramp out of my calf, some water into my brain and the dirt out of my eye, when the final bell went, we had won again.
The third game in a row was straight after lunch; victory would put them in the grand final. The guys were pumped but clearly tired. It was the heat of the day, they would play Jigalong now, a very strong team at the worst of times. They had nearly a whole team on the interchange, and had not played a single game that day. Considering I gave away two free kicks in the first game I was not sure if I should play at all, aside from which I was hurting, I had hurt on my hurt. Half pleadingly I asked Clifton if he needed me, to which he replied, “your ruck” I could feel the pain already. I had hoped to get a kick; I thought maybe I’d be lucky to get a full game. I even chose the underdog. Somehow I was now ruck for a semi final, with one leg, a bandage knee and a sprained finger.
My first ball up was lucky, I got a clean tap and Cliff came through within an inch, he plucked the ball from the air like he had a crystal ball, dropped it to his boot and had it to the forward line with one kick, big hands pulled it out of the air uncontested. We had a goal in the first 30 seconds. My mind told me to get off the field while I had not messed up, my heart told me push on. The second ball, Cliff went up. He smashed it so far forward it ended up in no mans land. I ran wide, while the field converged on the ball. At center half forward the ball broke loose from the pack and I was there alone, time dropped into slow motion, the pounding of footsteps like a stampede coming my way, Clifton flying past like a locomotion, a cloud of dust rose up behind a whir of bare feet. People all yelling at me in a foreign language, everyone’s jumper looked the same to me!? Drop it to my boot for a long shot or make a fast handball to Cliff? Think fast. The dust cloud of approaching men was about to hit, I took the handball and got it away as I bit the dust. That knocked most of the remaining steam out of me and I took the sideline hoping to recover but the bell went for the second quarter. I was still trying to suck air into my lungs when Cliff said, “Come on Kumonjay, your ruck”
By the last quarter, it was a point the difference. The boys had played an amazing game, short sided and tired, three games back to back. That would hurt anyone but this is no ordinary game, its in the heat of the Gibson Desert, heat of the day, on a red dirt and hard rock field. About 15 minutes before the last bell Jigalong had the ball in the forward pocket and it wasn’t looking good. Our backline was limping and no one could hold their man, the field seemed to be covered in Jigalong players. So how the ball got loose, I don’t recall, all I remember is a huge, long, high kick was coming, I was open, alone and free and it was my ball. Behind me I heard calls, all foreign, not sure if I was being yelled at or yelled to; but I could sense the impending collision at my back. I had to focus, keep my eye on the ball, it was all coming back to me, the footy coach back in grade Six. I took it clean on the chest but it bounced out of my arms as my knee twisted under me. I got one hand to it in the air and I heard the whistle calling it a mark, so it was a surprise to me when I felt the sand make contact with my face. From there it was mostly a daze, I might have been out for a few seconds. From the bench I got the verbal replay, and it seems I was a hero?! I had taken the mark, then been given a 50m penalty for a high tackle. Obviously I didn’t get to play the penalty but hey, it was a good note to leave on, so I made sure I kept holding my corked calf in case I got asked to go on again. From there I watched the last 10 minutes. But when it came down to the final squirt, the juice was just not there, understandably.
The Parnngurr Swans took it well, there was no ill feeling, the boys seemed really happy with their efforts, and so they should have been. They played a great game. It was a great privilege to play with them. I’m pretty sure, overall, I probably handicapped them, but they congratulated me with warmth and sincerity, asked me to join in the photos, patted me on the back. I felt proud to be a part of it and that is the greatest gift you can give someone, a sense of belonging and words of acceptance. It takes a small effort and has a big effect. It feels good to be made a part of something by your fellows, and I couldn’t help being overwhelmed by an intense feeling of admiration for these guys. For sharing that experience with me. What is the value of a gift like that, of gifts of gold or coin I understand, but they can be just as quickly lost or stolen. I mean a real gift, the ones that have no wrapping or tinsel? The ones given without expectation? I’m a lucky man to be a part of such an event, its not something everyone gets to see let alone experience. My job description on my card says ‘Project Manager’, but i like to see myself as a community worker, working in the area of Reconciliation. Today I played footy for the Martu, but I feel like I kicked a goal for the Non Indigenous community too, I was your representative on the field of cultural awareness. And I thank you, my reader, for the guernsey, for giving me a shot. I hope i have made you proud. We lost the game but we won a small victory and the beautiful thing about the effort of reconciliation is that the payoff is to be reconciled. It might not seem like much but, tiny steps can still make the longest journey too, and as they say, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.
Then there was much debate in front of the judge’s tent. I stayed around to watch for a while, the discussion was intense. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word, but I knew it was important by the intonation and body language. Much debate ensued until at last there seemed to be agreement. The party dispersed Elliott told me that they had decided to delay the grand final ‘til the morning. This was good news for us. It meant it was going to be corker of a night up at the Desert Feet Tour stage!
The last concert climaxed in a veritable furore of festivity, the combined anticipation of the grand final and the musical celebration generated a fervour of merriment. By now all the bands had tightened up and the musical ensemble was a festival of high excitement. The dancing took on an elevated pitch, wounded sports stars, children, old women, Elders and all in attendance took to the court. That familiar and uniquely Martu dance style, a fusion of traditional stomping crossed with contemporary boogie, delighted those not on the floor. If you have never seen such a thing before you will be mesmerised by the quivering energies the women manifest, an unbelievably fast vibrating hip swinging shake, performed in bursts, initiated by sudden appearance from the darkness and bookmarked by a just as sudden and spontaneous disappearance. This style, when enquired upon is generally called “Run-in, run-out.” It is explained with a causal shrug, as if that is the only way it could be and no one seems to really know how or when it started. It’s a phenomenon.
After three nights of finishing at 2am I was starting to slew my words a bit, literally falling asleep on my feet. I snuck off into the back of the truck to get a quick rest. An hour later, I woke up, the truck rocking like a cradle from the pounding of the drummer. The song had seeped into my dreams, or my dreams lingered in my dazed state, like a lucid vision, or a waking reverie. It was the Wild Dingo Band, that familiar song Yangkuwana Malaku (I Want To Go Back), my favourite. Its vibrations surged through me like waves of happiness. It occurred to me, as my first waking thought, that this song is a celebration of life.
Somehow, Elliott had captured a slice of emotional well-being and transposed it into a song. It had brought me out of a deep sleep into a garden of hope, I’m not sure if the song woke me up or if the feeling it invoked aroused me, but it all seemed surreal. When I opened the truck door the dance floor was full, people engrossed in the moment, the rhythm-captivated souls did not even see me, like a ghost I drifted through the crowd in a daze. Elliott’s white smile beamed across the throng like a lighthouse of love and I had to ask Ewan if this was real or had we all died?
Day 10 – Friday 26th April
If you don’t plan, you can’t fail.
At 4:30am I was bolt upright. I’m not sure why, because it was 2am before I was crawling into bed, too stuffed to have a shower or even get my jeans off. I brushed my teeth with three shots of coffee and a combed my hair with a hat, pulled on a clean shirt, and had an English shower from a can of deodorant. It was not until we were on the road that I realised I didn’t know the back road to Telfer from this end. However, I found the turn off easily enough and it was just what I expected, pretty rough! In the back of the Troopie I had a clown, a fairy, a photographer, a classically trained violist, a Hip Hop artist, and a Hippie. I’m not joking, that’s what I had in there. I had to look twice myself. All bouncing along the most remote track in the world, on our way to a gold mine.
At Telfer I unloaded my unlikely cargo into the airport terminal. That’s right, Telfer has its own airport. 300 flights a week! Telfer mine is the third largest Gold mine in the world and have produced over $2 billion worth of gold in a little over two decades. Newcrest Mining Limited, that runs and owns Telfer exclusively, are the largest gold producer listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) and one of the top five gold producers globally by reserves and market capitalisation.
Telfer started operations back in 1975 but shut down between 2000 and 2004 due to falling gold prices. Gold and copper deposits at Telfer are found within a reef in Proterozoic sediments. (Meaning it goes deep.) Mineralisation has been defined in the Main Dome open-pit to a depth of 1.3km below surface level and in the West Dome open-pit to a depth of 1.5km below surface level. (That’s mine-speak for; my mine is bigger than yours) The underground mine is now 12,000 meters below the water table, which means an enormous volume of water has to be pumped out endlessly. Once the mine shuts down, those pumps stop and the whole mine will be under water. A colossal irony, the mine is in constant threat of drowning while the world around it is a parched wasteland of cinder.
I found this on the net for those interested in mine geology:
The reef style of mineralisation present at Telfer is of the Meso-Neoproterozoic age. The marine sedimentary host rocks and this geological setting with in a polymetallic province distinguishes Telfer mineralisation from other major Au deposit of the world.
According to Williams and Myers (1990) this area is called the Paterson Province (which makes up about 36,000 km2) and is part of the Paterson Orogen. This Orogen is either a collision zone between the Western Australian Plate and the Northern Australian Province to the north, or an intracratonic setting with Orogeny related crust mantle delamination and subduction during a period of crustal shortening (Etheridge et al 1987). The Telfer mine lies in a north-eastern tectonic zone of the Paterson Province on a 9km thick Neoproterozoic sequence of weakly metamorphosed marine sedimentary rocks which overlie the complexly deformed Mesorproterozoic basement gneisses of the Rudall Complex. (Williams and Myers 1990) In other words, there is about a 15 km corridor of minerals and formations that are ideal for the procurement of gold. Lots of it.
However, the threat of closure is always a discussion at Telfer. Gold prices fluctuate, but the point at which it is no longer worth mining is the debate, and no one really seems to know. Mr T took me out to the processing plant where the workshop is located. He, like most of the guys here, wonders how long his job will last. He has been here for 10 years but doesn’t work on the mine operations. He works in the Community Development section, which unlike most mines is located onsite. Mr T is old school, a lovable gruff in a permanent state of consternation. Brutish, but in a warm sort of way. I always feel like a scorned child when I ask him for something, but I think he might like me more than he lets on, no matter how much he ribs you, with that huge white beard and a Gandalf like contemptuousness, you can’t help but smile. One thing’s for sure, I would not have got out of the desert without him. He sent my part back to Perth, freighted the exchange part in, and did several trips to the workshop on his own time to fix that dirty old black box.
Mr T’s job is to develop community relations with the Native Title holders that this mine operates on, but he was here before they had to do that, and so his view of Aboriginal People is measured with obligatory acknowledgement and a dab of superciliousness. He has, like most people, the best of intentions, yet his disposition is more like the parent of an impetuous child. I like him, respect his view but do not agree. Fortunately I have learnt that you can still be friends with someone and not have to agree with them, and with people of Mr T’s generation I can gain nothing by arguing; everyone has the right to an opinion. But reconciliation is not about right or wrong, it’s just about acknowledging the past, good and bad, history can be the judge. And that is my job. Mr T has a job to do too. We need each other.
Telfer has a very intimate relation with the Martu People who are close neighbours. (Well the community relations team does anyway, probably the majority of the workers would know as much about the Martu as the rest of Australia.) But in times gone by, community relations was a dirty word, it often meant keeping people out. Now days the Martu have their native title and it’s more of a negotiation, it’s still not ideal, but the main thing is that Telfer is at the Table. Which is more than I can say for other mines in the area like Nifty down the road.
Anyway, what i can see, is that they do a lot of stuff “off the record” to help out in everyday affairs, on the ground, and that is where it really counts. It’s easy to pay lip service but Telfer ‘do’ do it, and personally. And that’s the difference. Most organisations, especially those with much bureaucracy, can’t have that effect because they are limited by processes, policies, arriving in aeroplanes with suits, sweating like a beached whales in the sun, pulling at their collars itchy with dust, pointing and making big talk then flying away, you might as well be an alien.
Telfer have made and forged long-term relationships with the Martu. What I see in the world of Indigenous affairs is that organisations and businesses are often limited in their capacity to be of real service by rules and red tape, they are too far removed. The nature of this limitation is an inability to understand the situation. How can you know something that you haven’t experienced. Like a machine, it has no feelings it just follows rules. The capacity to operate or venture out of that limitation is not possible in the machinery of the structures we have created, capitalism can’t allow it, the apparatus of progress can’t do it, the mechanisms of industry are gears without emotion.
A processing plant can make gold but it can’t make friends with another processing plant. Only the human hand can reach another human, the hand attached to a human heart, it reaches out intuitively. Acting on a feeling. Not on the analytical process, a risk assessment or a check box. You put out the hand and then sit down and see what happens. After all, how can we make friends without a hand shake? And how can we hope to make any difference without being friends first? Who would listen to you if they didn’t like you?
When I was in the Kimberley someone saw our sponsors and handed me a hate forum on Newcrest, digging up the dirt. It’s easy to take sides. I’m sure if you dig far enough you can discredit anyone. But are corporations that much different from people? are they are just an extension of our own nature? Indelibly stamped. Good and bad, capable of both, and because they are built in the duality of this reality; bound to fallibility. There is no such thing as good guy versus bad guy. The good guy has his bad bits and bad guy has his good bits. Corporations seem to have their own life, independent organisms, which are as inexorably linked to our own fate as the environment we have created. Who can say what for?
In the mean time Telfer supply fresh fruit and vegetables to all the Martu Communities as part of their community commitment, have a massive community development program that includes the Western Desert Sports Carnivals, (into which they inject about $1.2 mill a year) employ something like 400 Martu people, and work very closely and personally with The Martu and many individuals. I’m not sticking up for them, just saying what I see.
Anyway I digress, thanks to Mr T, with my new black box I was ready to head back to my marooned Rhino, I had lost most of my crew but Telfer had brought in my exchange too. At this junction we welcome back the lovely and talented Miss Tanya Maxwell, acting in the capacity of cook, workshop facilitator, roadie, driver and performer. Pretty much like all of us.
Emily took the wheel for the return trip, so I took the chance to get some sleep now that the Troopie was empty, and rolled out a swag in the back. With the purr of the motor and the rocking of the vehicle through the sand, I went out like a light. I awoke to the smell of rain, which sobered me from sleep like and a double shot espresso. The sky was fat with water. The idea of rain worried me a bit, we had not prepared for it and the truck was uncovered back at Punmu, plus a day of rain out here would ruin the roads and could even land lock the communities, but hardly a drop of it fell and it passed over. The desert is a strange place, to see that much water but not get it seemed unimaginable.
Day 11 – Saturday 27th April
Into the hands of the Gods
It’s a long way to come to turn around and just go home again but my options are getting fewer by the moment. Most the workshops in Perth are closed until Monday. Hino parts offered some advice but confirmed what I knew, “If your not making pressure, then the pump’s gone.” A new pump ex Sydney is $3000, plus a 4 or 5-day wait. My mechanic in Perth gave me a crash course in pump dismantling over the phone, and then the line went dead again. With no credit left on the phone card, a queue behind me for the only public phone box in 400 kilometres, the store closed, and no one open back in Perth that could help me now ‘til Monday, I decided to take it off and have a look.
There’s a large tree here over the teachers’ visitors house. Someone, long ago had invested many hours into trying to build a garden. The heat and dry wind had burnt out the foliage, and the beds now full of red dirt, merged with the encroaching desert outside. The veranda, like a shoreline, had a rising tide of intruding sand, brilliant red, obnoxiously omnipresent; creeping into the house like a gritty, slow wave. The old gum had dug its roots deep enough to beat the previous summers and now its shade was my desert workshop. I managed to cover myself in large quantities of oil and grease to which the sand on which i worked stuck, add plague level flies and you have comical image, me; black, red and white with a spanner in one hand waving hysterically. I got lots of big white smiles as people arrived to buy CDs and ask Ewan for songs. In hindsight i realised how funny i must have looked. Incredibly, the box powered up late in the afternoon when I got it all back together. However, I was dubious about celebrating because I’m not sure how I fixed it! It was more a case of “Yes we have power steering again….. For now.”
Day 12 – Sunday the 28th April
I spent nearly two days getting the truck going but in the mean time Ewan and Carlo set up a small studio at the Visitors house and recorded an amazing song with Clifton Girgirba about his family being brought in out of the desert, with the Wild Dingo Band backing him. He called it quite appropriately ‘Cleared Out.’ This quirky little number is really a unique masterpiece and features his own falsetto harmonies of haunting overdubs in a unexpected variation of meandering melodic baying that almost gets lost, seem to wander off serpentisuously, then somehow manages to make total sense. I have never seen anyone draw out a note that long, make it amble in such a winding range of notes then reproduce it the same again on the next take. Just his chorus was like a whole song in its self. Sort of like a dreaming story or something. I think he might have had this song stuck in his head for years.
A full moon celebrated Clifton’s achievements too, bursting over the Gibson Desert like a silver storm. So pretty was this shower of light we stood on the veranda to soak in its beauty. With the guys leaning against the veranda posts I got some amazing long exposure shots with the full moon in the background but I had to make the guys stand absolutely still. They got so into posing for the camera that we decided to go do a photo shoot on the salt lake in the moonshine.
Wilarra (Lake Dora) was a glimmering sea of white under the moons rays. Gleaming, beautiful, and useless, a lake of undrinkable brine dried to salty crust. Out upon that shell, like an ice rink of salt, the guys posed with folded arms and imposing stares cast out across the whitened tarn. I froze images into time immortal, against the little sensor of my camera. Reflections of the moon, bouncing off a mirror of salt, captured on a canvas of possibility. That photos like those artistes could go anywhere, if destiny so desires.
The truck is working, the carnival finished and stage two of this trip now complete. We had been invited to stay an extra day to attended today’s service. Quite a sad affair. A young woman, the AEW (Aboriginal Education Worker) for the school here, died in her sleep from internal organ failure caused by advanced diabetes. She was only 33.
It’s almost hard to believe that that sort of thing can happen these days, but in fact, Diabetes is the fastest growing chronic disease on the planet right now. 366 million people have it. It is estimated that it will nearly double over the next 20 years. It is an insidious disease, as it does not get the recognition it deserves. Its complications manifest in heart failure, renal failure and many circulatory diseases and thus the victim’s death certificate rarely names the real culprit. In this manner, Diabetes has been a sniper disease, killing us from hidden angles, out of the view of the public.
A shocking fact I discovered is that 69 people a week in Australia loose a major limb to Diabetes! Realising the magnitude of the endemic we are witnessing it makes it easier to comprehend how Diabetes would affect those at a socio and economic disadvantage. In fact, 80% of people with diabetes live in low and middle-income countries.
The incidence of diabetes in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is 10 times higher than the general population. Diabetes, especially Type 2 diabetes, (which is treatable) is a significant health problem among Indigenous people who are 10.5 to 13 times more likely to die from diabetes than non-Indigenous Australians.
Aboriginal people are also 27 times more likely to have a minor lower limb amputation due to diabetes, than non-Aboriginal people. (Toe or foot amputations were defined as “minor”) and 38 times more likely to have a major lower limb amputation due to diabetes, than non-Aboriginal people. (Amputations below or above the knee as “major”) (Reference: Norman et al, 2010 – High rates of amputation among Indigenous people in Western Australia) so you can do the math as to who is losing all those limbs.
The effect of this death on the community was profound. The sudden and unexpected passing a sharp blade of grief in the side of those that raised her, especial, as you can imagine, for the parents. Very little warning had preceded her leaving; she had complained of a sore on the sole of her foot a few weeks earlier, probably an ulcer, the sign of nerve or vascular (blood vessel) complications of the disease.
Bobby from Kiwirrkurra and Matthew from Kintore stayed to pay their respects. People had come from as far a Balgo and Alice Springs. Mitchell is a Biljabu and very senior out here, he got up and talked about Diabetes, speaking mostly in English, I’m not sure if that was for our benefit but it was a gut-wrenching plea. In desperation he questioned the distressing use of sugar and named it as the killer of his people. Not a people renowned for long vernacular discourses, he cut his colloquial offering off at what seemed like half sentence, with the trademark pithy of the Martu. Leaving the desert rostrum in deathly silence, the hot breeze blew a lonely Spinifex across the red dirt stage, a mournful wail whimpered against the hum of warn wind jostling the dead leaves that roofed the lean-to shelter, until a chorus of wails rang out in distressful harmonies. The song of loss.
Later that night while looking for Elliott, Ewan and I would join Mitchell at a campfire. He would discuss his own battle with Diabetes and show us his legs covered in the telltale ulcers of the onset of peripheral neuropathy. He was born in the desert and lived in the traditional way until he came into Jigalong back in the 60s when it was a mission. That mission called the ‘Aborigines Rescue Mission’ run by the Apolitical Church, used flour to entice Martu People in out of the desert and into church and school. There is a great doco about it called Wangka-lampaju, on film one old lady talks about her experience there, she says “Flour was what trapped us” That trap was much more effective than the church could have ever guessed. The Martu are still clamped by the jaws of sugar and flour, crippled and dying from its effects. What was used as a lifeline has all but turned into the opposite. History will nigh forget, another well-paved road leading from good intentions to hells door. Those poor misguided white fellas hey!? I wonder if any of them ever realised the magnitude of their ignorance?
Day 13 – Monday 29th April
From Punmu, east is no man’s land. I have done this trip three times and still the extent of the vastness of this land surprises me. The idea that you can drive from sun up, to sundown and not see a single thing is hard to explain to someone. Most people from another country would not believe it. You would have crossed three countries in Europe by now. It’s beautiful, but in a deadly sort of way. A temptress, like the Sirens of sand, calling you on. Singing; “Just over this hill it will be an oasis, just over that dune will be a lake,” or “Just over that range, the land will change.” But it never does, for hour after hour. It never changes. Once you step into the desert, you have two voices in your head. One saying, “Go back now,” the other saying, “Just a bit further.” I often wonder how the Giles’, Forrests and Lycharts must have felt heading out here, with their silly horses from England and their skin so white it could burst into flames. I imagine the Martu watching their dying caravans with sceptical disbelief. Marching in the wrong direction from water, dying with in metres of a local spring, and firing on them with magic sticks that make big noise when all they had to do was ask for food and water.
Exactly how big the Gibson Desert is no one really seems to know. Geoscience Australia claims it includes Uluru. It consists mostly of lateralised upland and flat Jurassic and Cretaceous sandstones of the Canning Basin, whatever that means..? (Just that it’s bloody old I think.) And of course the obvious iron rich stones otherwise know as buckshot, that is often so blue it looks like fields of steel. The main flora and fauna is the Spinifex, which has an uncommon habit of igniting under hot car motors, (as all the burnt out chassis of vehicles will attest) however there is Mulga Scrub, Coolabah and a patch of Desert Oaks on the way to Kiwirrkurra that lasts about an hour. It’s really weird because you could be driving over a sand dune near Cottesloe all of a sudden. It’s also the home of a bunch of rare birds, for the avian lovers, and there is even one bird called the Night Parrot that, as the name suggest, is nocturnal. However it has not been sighted since 1993. (But has still managed to cost mining companies millions of dollars in research) So if you wanted to go on a bird hunt you could find that and become famous or rich or something. There are also heaps of animals of all descriptions, especially reptilians ones.
The Gibson is what they class as a Category A desert, meaning you need to take everything with you or you’ll die. What’s more, you have to pass thought at least one other Category A desert to get to it from any direction. So you’d better take twice as much of everything or you might die twice! You would in fact be right in saying that the Gibson is a desert in a desert of deserts! You’ll also be on Native Title most the time out here and will need to be respectful of getting the appropriate permits. You’ll get here on one of Len Beadell’s roads; he opened most of this county up in the 60s. The Gary Junction Road is long, nearly 1000 kilometres long, named after his son, but he also surveyed the Gunbarrell Highway, the Gary Highway and a few others I can’t remember. He sounds like a character, that’s for sure. Apparently he was found boiling the billy on his fire-engulfed truck while he waited for a rescue.
The Gibson remains largely an enigma in more ways than one. It’s a vast and deadly wasteland that can kill a man in two hours without shade or water. It took the life of many explorers during several attempts to concourse its enormous expanse, for fame and recognition, yet ironically, it had been successfully occupied for tens of thousands of years very effectively. A fact that managed to remain completely unrecognised until only very recently. Another mystery of its infinite world is the man it was named after has never been found to this day.
Giles, the man that named it, became a sort of infamous charter. Obsessed with making the crossing, he was beaten to the punch after two disastrous attempts. It would be Sir John Forest later knighted for his many accolades, including this one that would make the crossing from the other side within months of Giles’ last attempt. Desperate to succeed and terrified of the Aboriginal people (whom if he had the foresight to befriend would have probably got him thought the first time) Giles nearly died on more than one occasion. The most famous of which was the incident that gave the said desert its name.
The story goes like this,
The expedition struck west from Oodnadatta in August 1873, reaching the place Giles named Mt Olga on 14 September. (It sounds like he had trouble with the Aboriginal People here but from the extracts of his journals; he sounds fairly ignorant and thus effectively pretty racist, as was the culture of that time.) Finding water was also a constant problem. The cautious Giles would split the party in two, one pair scouting ahead to find the next waterhole before leading the others to it. Progress thus became slow, and some months were spent working through the region of the Cavanagh Ranges.
Lost in the Red Centre
By this time it was midsummer, the horses (we can assume Giles had not worked out that camels could last longer in the desert, probably another one of his oversights contributing to his failure) were beginning to die and the expedition had barely entered Western Australian territory. But rather than turning back as he had done the previous year, the normally prudent Giles was determined to press on, hoping rather than expecting to find water in the mountains ahead. As he considered the implications of once more splitting the group up, Giles agreed to take Gibson with him rather than the more experienced Tietkins. His subsequent record of the experience indicates that Gibson was not up to the job.
As Giles and Gibson travelled across the arid and rocky land, surviving on half rations and with no guarantee of water ahead, they were reduced to one horse between them. Forced to turn back, and now at serious risk of becoming stranded in the desert, Giles decided in accordance with his usual strategy that the pair would split. Gibson would take the horse back along their route to where water was known to be, and come back with fresh supplies to rescue Giles.
The tragic irony would become that Gibson, with horse, water and the advantage, would die in the desert, while Giles, on foot, starving, dying of thirst, and lost, would make it back to base alive. In fact, Giles recounts in his diary that he passed Gibson’s tracks which veered from the path, this mystified him but delirious and near death, he could not follow (so he informs us) he was saved by a sick wallaby which he devoured raw, skin, flesh, scull, guts and all. (According to him that is, he could have ate Gibson for all we know)
Anyway without being to cynical, Gibson would give his life and name to the desert that swallowed him. He would never be seen again, no trace, no bones, no track, no horse, nothing! In Giles’ diary, he recounts his first encounter with Gibson:
“Here a short young man accosted me, and asked me if I did not remember him, saying at the same time that he was ‘Alf’……… and I want to go out with you.” I said, “Well, can you shoe? Can you ride? Can you starve? Can you go without water? And how would you like to be speared by the blacks outside?” He said he could do everything I had mentioned, and he wasn’t afraid of the blacks…”
Perhaps he (Gibson) fell victim to the spears of which he defied. Maybe there’s even a sort of poetic justice to that end, a horse could feed a lot of people, Giles had many encounters with the traditional owners of the area and I’m sure he had a few guns with him. (John Forrest, in his own diary’s, boasted of shooting Aboriginal people at Weld Springs, saying in one account; “On 13 June the party was attacked by a large group of Aborigines, and I was compelled to shoot a number of them” Forrest’s biographer, FK Crowley, claims Forrest had a “benevolent imperialism and racial superiority.” ) In a lawless and isolated world, away from any sort of witness; except his own diary, in an extreme situation, Gibson could have been capable of anything. We will never know the truth, I guess only the desert can know what really happened, however his character was questioned later by his own party and investors, the circumstances of Gibson’s loss, Giles’ own survival, some of his ethics, and later, his behaviour in town would cast a dark shadow over his achievements. A fact that no doubt contributed to his subsequent drinking and gambling issues, or, was the cause of them.
However the mystery of Gibson and of Gibson live on, to this day adventure tours advertise the possibility of finding Gibson’s trail, reliving the expedition and recounting Gile’s steps. 4X4 Companies offer to “Run you through the red centre.” The Canning Stock Route has become a popular track for remote tourism and if you’re willing to tackle the intrepid Stock Route you’ll be passing through the tiny community of Kunawarritji and Kunawarritji is where we are headed.
Kunawarritji would be the most remote caravan park in the world. It’s the one and only fuel stop, shop, accommodation and telephone on the Canning Stock Route. Otherwise know as Well 33, as the name suggests, it’s a watering hole and way point for the drovers of a day now all but forgotten. With the rise of 4×4 enthusiasts, it has become a stopover for adventurers, gold prospectors, and remote tourists. About 1000 Four Wheel drivers do the Canning Stock Route each year
I found this history (below) on a Government Town Planning Scheme. I also found a write up about the place on ExplorOz.com that made it sound more like an outpost in some South African Apartheid town. They called it a “thriving modern aboriginal community… a modern example of the new and growing breed of aboriginal communities run by white management that have embraced tourism.”….!?
The decision to establish a permanent Indigenous settlement at Well 33 dates from the early 1980’s when a group of Martu people from Punmu established itself at Kunawarritji. The name Gunawaggi identifies the area before that time and appears in old aeronautical charts as well early maps of the Western Desert. Punmu (formerly Panaka) and Parnngurr (Cotton Creek) are the other large Western Desert communities sighted 165km west, and 230km southwest of Kunawarritji respectively. Originally established as outstations from Strelley, (near Marble Bar) they now have their own community councils and administration. Both communities are predominantly non-English speaking and have established since 1984, the RAWA co-educational independent schools, which place emphasis on bilingualism and biculturalism. Kunawarritji has its own RAWA primary school. The homelands movement of the 1980s and 1990s led to the establishment of a large number of small communities in the Western Desert like this one, including, Kiwirrkurra, Milyakirri, Wikiri, Bibarr, and Jupiter Well.
At this time of year you’d expect to find a caravan or two, maybe someone waiting for a part, broken down, or lost. So finding Johnny Cash’s long lost younger brother was quite a surprise. Old Tas had such a huge flock of badly died black hair that it resembled a quiff on steroids. It’s just about bigger than him, and if he weren’t such a little guy you’d be jealous of him for it. I had heard from Bill the manager that there was a guy staying in town who could record, play, and do sound, so I wanted to check it out. The prospect of having access to someone with those skills out here was a chance to good to miss.
I’m not sure what Bill had told him about Desert Feet, but when I introduced myself, he immediately started to assemble his karaoke gear. I tried politely to dissuade him, offering that it was not necessary, but he was insistent, excited, and deaf to my pleas. I didn’t have the heart to walk out, and with horror I realised I was trapped until he could prove that his karaoke machine worked. The injury inflicted on me was then naturally medicated when it turned to shock, before I had any chance to protect myself he began to sing to me. The loud, cheap, synthesized jingle of ‘Sing Song Blue’ by Neil Diamond screamed from a distorting pair of over-powered ancient Peaveys, while Tas launched into character, withering in grotesque movements of some scene behind his closed eyes. For a moment, I thought it might be a joke and I was not sure if it was really happening, then I saw the irony of it, so I did the only thing left to do and filmed it on my iPhone. Encouraged by the limelight, he intensified his effort, taking himself pretty seriously which made it all the more tragically comical, and so I had two Johnny Cash songs inflicted on me in the same manner before I could finally escape.
After that, even the hot dry desert seemed inviting and i coulnt get the wheels rolling fast enough. From Kunawatiji it gets pretty bleak out here. The Tali sand dunes are a barren frontier; the twisted and black sticks of naked shrubs reach from the red sand dunes like fields of gnarled claws, planted by some demented wizard, a garden of death. It looks like a post apocalyptic, napalmed war zone, soaked in the blood of the fallen. Then a small range appears on the empty horizon like an oasis, it’s amongst this range that the hidden community of Kiwirrkurra is nestled. It’s still a desert, but by contrast it’s a veritable Oasis.
It was after dark by the time the time we arrived and 12 hours of unsealed road is enough to rattle the nerves off a dead man. We dropped Elliott at his uncle’s house who we couldn’t find but two old ladies watched Blood Sport on a TV dragged out of the house and propped on a chair in the yard. Lying on their beds rugged up in Minke blankets on a street corner under the road light, engrossed in Van Dams mussels, we didn’t get much response but I wish I had got a photo of that scene, it was priceless. Two beds juxtaposed under the most beautiful display of desert stars you can imagine while Van Dams cries of destruction and revenge rang out into the night.
At our camp, the open fire and a billy was a soothing ointment and nothing on earth tastes better than tea brewed on hot coals. Carlo was playing his endless melodies from his bottomless repertoire of musical ability, tonight he must have got in touch with one of his previous lives, because he astounded us by slipping into some sort of Baroque-sounding numbers, playing the guitar more like a harpsichord than a steel string guitar. I thought I was the court of King William the third as I dozed off into dreams of Victorian aristocracy; long tight white socks and cake.
Day 14 – Tuesday the 30th April
The Case of the Disappearing Dingo
A black column of slowly rolling smoke rose high into a windless, bleached blue horizon with the viscosity of a lava lamp, like an oil spill in the sky. “They broken down for sure” Linda said. Not quite sure what we were actually going to find, we just took everything. About 30km up the road we found four boys. They had been walking since the morning, no water, no shoes, no hats; if i had tried to do that i would have died of heat exhaustion, but they giggled like teenagers as they climbed into the back, gulped down a couple of litres of litters of water and ate two packets of dry biscuits. Ewan and i exchanged glances. But what can you say? This desert is their back yard, when you see something like that, you get a different perspective of this land and it people. Its there home, they do not live in fear of it or have to prepare to go into it, they belong to it. Can’t live without it even. If Sir Forest was knighted by the Queen for passing though it once, what do you get if you can live naked in it for 60,000 years?
With our new found guides we reached the bus easily. A line of swags boarded the edge of the track in the shade of the vehicle. The fire still jumped from scrub to scrub, gorging itself on the dry tinder and Spinifex like a angry dragon. Billowing the blackest of smoke, very handy for signalling. “Who needs a phone when you got fire? Hey Matty!” i said jokingly, as he looked into the car. Once he realised it was me his huge white smile flashed a pound of diamonds in my eyes. “Hey Komonjay!” he exclaimened. It was Matty West, i have run into him in Perth, Kiwirrkurra and as far north as Wangkatjungka, we meet again at the sports carnival in Punmu but he lives out in Balgo, so we always laugh when we find each other somewhere. He was covered in grease and the back of his white t-shirt was black with sweat, oil and red sand. Evidently he had been under the bus most the day. He had a broken fan belt, a flat tire and no fuel. “I fixed that pan belt,” he said holding up his swollen and bruised hand to prove it “but got no puel.” Once we had emptied a few jerry cans in we he got us to tow start the old girl and she roared into life like broken steam train. Coughing and billowing more smoke that the fire, after a few revs, it all settled down into a reasonable type of note, there was defiantly a few misses and the odd splutter, but that’s what i love about diesels all they need is a bit of fuel some air and a push. I didn’t know what to do about the flat tyre, but he seemed happy to limp her into town so I didn’t mention it. I figured that if he broke down again we would see him on the way back. With kids Waving out the window and smiles like a birthday party the old bus chugged over the hill and out of sight.
Linda was not far behind us, and seeing that we had the bus under control, they headed on ahead. Apparently there was another bus that hadn’t arrived too, and it had all the old women and adults on it. About another hour up the road we found Linda and Kumonjay pulled up. The fuel tank had fallen out and made quite a mess of itself. So we had to rescue the rescue vehicle. We got it back in using packing straps, wire ties, and the last remaining bolts with any thread left, but in the process of decanting the diesel and then refilling it, I wondered how much sand would be in there. Especially as the tank had rolled along the track a few hundred metres too. They decided to play it safe and head for home, leaving us to find the last bus.
We passed a triple trailer fuel tanker on its way to Kiwirrkurra with the month’s supply, and he pulled us over. It seems he had been towing them, until the dust had become so unbearable they had made him leave them there not far back. When we reached the bus, Ambrose and Neil stuck their head in the window looking for water. They were so dusty they looked like escaped coal miners. As Neil leaned in through the window I noticed his ear was packed full of red sand like someone had neatly screeded a bed off in it for him. When I said, “You OK mate?” he said, “WHAT THAT??”
When we got home we had a flat of our own. Ewan decided to teach Carlo how to change a tyre but he couldn’t break the first stud open. We were laughing at him for his amazing puniness, until I grabbed it off him and couldn’t do it either. I ended up bending the wheel wrench it was so seized up. I had to put a breaker bar and socket on it. Carlo reckons he was not as weak as we made out then, so he decided to go and find a milk crate with which we could jack up the Troopy on. “What will we do with a milk crate there?” Ewan asked rhetorically. “Use it to put the jack on!” Carlo insisted. And that is the story of how he thus became known ever after as Milk Crate Carlo.
He might not lift, but he sure can play. Tonight around the campfire we entertained by jazz modes so radical John Coletrain would have asked for lessons. The hot coals cracked and popped with heat, the flames danced to an infernal heat, while Milk Crate Carlo pulled dissonant licks out of contorted chords, like yogo for the fingers. Augmented F# major 7 /13ths and F neutral zero, the more obscure, the further he reached for them, till there seemed no end to the variations he could find, until he had worked himself into a Jazz trance. Like a Zen monk he lost himself in a meditative search, the Nirvana of musical enlightenment. Once he started to drool, I just went to bed. I’m sure would love to be able to play like that, but you can only watch that sort of thing for so long. So with the sound of harmonic rings, racing scales and popping strings, and a guitar that sounded more like a cat playing a trumpet. I fell into a sleep and dreamt that Sidney Bechet, Stan Getz and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley showed up in Kiwirrkurra to play at the first concert as they had heard the there was some mean Jazz going down. Until I realised (in the dream that is) that they were all dead, and had really come to steal Milk Crate Carlo for the Jazz Hell Ensemble.
Day 15 – Wednesday 1st May
Something Might Never Happen
I noticed Bella was bleeding from one nostril yesterday, but put it down to a grass spur or something. She’s seemed a bit lethargic and has had a few seizures lately too, so I got worried today when I noticed the bleeding seemed worse and was now from both nostrils. I had not seen her eat for a few days too, a sure sign a dog’s sick.
Sometimes vets show up out on communities, I have run into few out here over the years, so I checked with the office, but seems he had just been two weeks ago. “He comes twice a year,” the office staff told me. I found a 24-hour helpline on the Internet, but the office was full and I couldn’t get a phone. I tried the public phone boxes at the far end of the community, one didn’t work and one had a queue. After finally getting to the phone, the number I had didn’t work, and by then the office here had closed too. I used the Wifif to Skype a few numbers, but the line was so bad no one could understand me. So I had to give up for the day and hope for the best. My poor little mate was none to good, and apart from driving 700km into Alice there was naught I could do except keep an eye on her.
In the meantime, Ewan and Carlo set up a makeshift studio at the school, they loaded the truck with every mattress in the workers quarters to dampen the room, and drove it across the community looking like some Beverley Hillbillies moving house. The commotion attracted a few kids, and to keep them out of the studio and utilise the opportunity, Emily, Elliott, Tanya, and I ran a workshop. That’s when we meet Ananda the local youth worker. She seemed surprised hen the kids helped us write a song. i assured her that it was normal and this was the usual result, so she asked if we could do more tomoorw witha bit more planning. Having some support like that makes it even easy for us, so it was a novelty for us, besides she was a really lovey person.
That night Milk Crate Carlo surprised us all with his unlikely camping enthusiasm. The workers quarters has an open yard at the back, and rather than use the kitchen, we have been cooking the roo tails we bought at Kunawarritji on the open fire, real traditional style. Elliott showed us how to do it the first night; burning off the fur, then putting it in a hole and covering it with more hot coals. Carlo took to the whole concept with zeal, chewing at that tail like a toothing baby on a twixt. He loved it. Making the fire, prepping the tail, making the earth oven, cooking it up, cutting up the sections, and then especially gnawing on that bone ‘til it was polished white with chew marks. I never took him for the type, I guess I figured he would be a bit squeamish, but aside from cracking open the bone and grinding out the marrow, even Bella could not compete with him at bone-gnawing, even chewed of the gristly ends with relish.
Day 16 – Thursday 2nd May
Ananda had an idea that some of the girls wanted to form a band. An idea that we were pretty keen to follow up on, as we have no Martu or Pintubi girl bands. Ananda let us use her house to set up the gear in so we wouldn’t get disturbed, knowing how shy the girls are, and we spent the whole afternoon workshopping the song, recording it, and teaching a few of them to play it on instruments. The outcome was a girl band called Desert Pearls and a song called Pintubi Girls (Kiwirrkurra is Our Home), which you can listen to on SoundCloud HERE.
Ewan did not come home from the studio ‘til well after dark, totally excited about the Kiwirrkurra Band’s new stuff. A new member called Lemih had shown up out of the blue, with amazing musical skills. The guys claimed that a lot of the songs were originally his, and so they got to work on some pretty far out new songs. The keyboard riff in one of them in particular is off the Richter. You can listen to it HERE.
Carlo was all over the dinner cooking on a fire thing now. A consummate bushy, and connoisseur of the roo tail delicacy, you’d think he was Pintubi, the way he attacked those joints.
I was listening to Bella chew into a discarded Roo Tail bone, ‘til I realised Bella was actually just laying beside me at the fire. When I put the torch on the sound, a beautiful Dingo appeared in the beam, its red/gold coat was a streak of light as it shot off, faster than puff of smoke. I got a real good look at its bushy tail, and that’s how I knew it was a Dingo and not a camp dog. At first I thought it might be tame to have come so close, but I realised later it was just very hungry, very quiet, and very clever.
Over the course of the night that dingo came into the yard and within arms length three or four times, stealing our scraps. They are so beautiful I wanted to get a photo of one, but try as I might I could never manage to get the light on it and get the shot in time. They were just too fast to do it that way. I was determined to do some animal photography though, and so I set up a trap. I threw the bones and skin over the fence just behind us, and then I made a floodlight out of touches so that the Dingo or Dingoes had to come into the light if they wanted to take the food. In this way I was assured to have enough time to get my shot, and thus my nocturnal wildlife photography career could begin with amazing images of these fabulous creatures hunting in the Tali Sand dunes at the back of Kiwirrkurra in the Gibson Desert. I could see it all now; the fame, the fortune, the amazing photos. However, the trouble was that the Dingoes where so stealthy and so quiet that on the first two occasion they managed to get off with the food before I had time to do anything. I resolved to beat them at this game and stood with the camera waiting, but the next time they came I had the camera settings wrong and procured several photos of nothing. Finally, I had it all right, the money shot was in my within my reach. I stalked my dingo in the Spinifex, watching the torchlight reflect off his retina. He pulled himself along the verge of our camp light like a sniper in the grass, the fuel of his hunger greater than the danger of his enemy. The last remaining pile of roo scraps lay within reach of our campfire, a cyclone fence stood between us. The smell of his favourite game too much to bear, maybe his pups lay in some den not far away, their life and his dependent on the success of his hunt. He came in like a shot, I fired several exposures before he even reached the light, I had time to jump up to the fence and take a shot down from above. Yes! Victory! Now I could prove to my friends that dingoes come into the camp. But when I examined the photos, the best of them revealed some cyclone fence wire and an out-of-focus flash of colour behind it, that resembled a dingo’s behind but could just have easily been a brown dog. So unfortunately there was no National Geographic level stuff in that roll. Every other photo I took that night had nothing in it. I took photos of air, or grass, or over exposed shrubs. And so ended my career as a wildlife photographer.
I guess that is how they have survived for so long in such a harsh environment. By being stealthy and cunning. I don’t ever hear of the Pintubi or Martu talking about hunting them, they are certainly not a culinary delight I have ever heard mentioned. But I’m sure that hunters hunting in a depleted and empty wasteland would follow whatever tracks they found. It stands to reason that in an area of limited food, being wild game would have made you a target. However to look at them, you wouldn’t get much of a feed, they are always stick thin and ribs sticking out. Maybe that is their evolutionary trick, they have mastered looking to skinny to eat while actually remaining healthy.
Anyway they are a bit of an enigma too, like their motherland the Gibson Desert. Another of the Gibson’s mysterious mysteries. They really do seem to be able to appear and disappear in front of your eyes. And when you watch them hunting like this you can understand why the Pintubi were such great huntsmen, learning and observing their prey, and adapting to the environment. The Dingo reminds me of the stories I hear so much about the Featherfoot. A name that will send any man, woman or child into a sudden state of alert out here. A mystical man or part man that travels long distances to carry out acts of retaliation or retribution against those who break the lore or cross cultural boundaries of the moral type.
The Dingo, it seems commonly acknowledged, is not a native to Australia. However some resourses I checked out do call them such. So I’m not sure what the duration of residency is to acquire native status, but estimates of their existence in Australia vary from as little as 200 years to 15,000 years from what I can find, with the most dominant estimation being 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. http://dingoes.org offer one of two options
1. Dingoes were brought to Australia 15,000 years ago by Koori People.
2. Dingoes may be related to wild dogs in South East Asia, and taken to Australia for trade by seafarers.
However almost all references I found seem sure that they are related to, or are a descendant from the Asian wolf. It is also suggested that their colour is determined by the location in which they live, which is pretty cool if it’s true, however mostly they are ginger with white feet. These ones are golden yellow, which is synonymous with desert areas, while in forested areas these dogs can have a darker fur. Apparently they only mate once a year, the puppies are weened after two months, and in an act of some rare kind of adaptation, the mother begins to regurgitate food for them, like a bird! She will do this for another two months, and then after the pups are about four months old, they then begin hunting small game such as rabbits. They also have larger canine teeth compared to all other dogs. Interestingly, they are the only dogs that don’t bark, (Which is great if you’re like me and can’t stand listening to a dog yap on endlessly in someone’s back yard. We could just breed them with a Dingo and have non-barking dogs.) However they do howl, apparently as a way of announcing where their territory is.
But that’s not all! It turns out that Dingoes are, without a doubt, unique among the animal kingdom. Researchers in Melbourne have recently performed some experiments that showed the unbelievable intelligence that dingoes possess. In the experiments, one dingo was filmed moving a table to use as a stepladder to reach food. Another dingo opened a gate latch with his nose to reach a female partner. In a paper published in the journal Behavioural Processes, a team of three researchers said that the dingoes’ feats were evidence of “intelligent” and “high-order” animal behaviour. The paper was written by Robert Appleby, Carla Litchfield, and Bradley Smith, and said, “If indeed these examples can be considered cases of tool-use, they may represent the first documented evidence of such behaviour in a canine, particularly as this behaviour occurred spontaneously.”
The accomplishments of the two dogs, which were untrained, were recorded at the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre near Melbourne, Australia. In one of the videos, the dingo was filmed moving a kennel to use as a lookout. In another video, several dingoes were kept in a small enclosure with an envelope containing food that was strategically placed out of their reach. When the dingoes were left alone, they made several attempts to reach the food until one dog, named Sterling, dragged a table over to use as a stepladder.
Friday 3rd May
The community has been threatening to have a football carnival, but so far there are not many people here. Bobby is great organiser, always up to something, driving around in his big Troopy, with his wolfhound sitting on the roof. He is so big now that he cant get in and out of the car so he just pulls up and waves you over, and when Bobby waves, you come. Sometimes the Troopy won’t start again so you’ll also have to help push start it too, but there is usually a procession of boys in the back that are there for that purpose or are just driving around the community with Bobby, maybe both. There is nowhere to go really, just the shop, the office, and home, which are all within 200 metres of each other. Old Longman is usually in the front, like Bobby’s sidekick. Longman is old, he would be Bobby’s senior but Bobby is the top man out here. Longman has some traditional-looking scars on his wiry chest, and I reckon he would have lived in the bush, probably in the traditional way, but he is hard to understand. The boys say he spent too much time in town drinking and got beat up a few times so bad he was never the same. Talk about a face full of character though, Longman can’t be beaten in that department. A face that speaks of a thousand stories. When Bobby talks, Longman always has something to add, and will often finish Bobby’s comments by repeating the last few words of his sentence, which can be pretty comical. But because he is so senior, no one will laugh and everyone is respectfully quiet. Which is also pretty comical at times, but not to be laughed at in the moment. If Longman isn’t there, Lorna is. Lorna Ellis or Lorna West, or Lorna Brown is a Luritja woman from Nybem. Her paintings are highly prized and fetch big dollars, i think she is signed exclusively to Papunya Tula, which you can probably find on line. She is Bobby’s Nubar (bush wife), maybe his third or fourth, I’m not sure. She is really the cutest lady, with her huge mop of tightly spun curls that spring out in every direction. She always has a huge wad of Minkulpa hanging out of her mouth, which can be pretty off putting the first time you see it, but out here all the women chew it and you get used to it. Minkulpa is a very mildly narcotic plant that grows in the ranges. I have never heard of or seen it anywhere else but here the women prize it. I have seen them stick the wad behind their ear while they eat so as not to lose it. Lorna carries an old capstan tin full of ash, the paste is taken from the mouth and rolled in this ash. This practice seems isolated to the Pintubi and Luritja, I have never seen Martu do it, only some of the old ladies. Perhaps because it does not grow there? i don’t know, but when the women run out of the Minkulpa, they will just use tobacco with the same ash.
Emily did a bit of research on the Minkulpa and it turns out that it is a wild tobacco and well documented. Not only that, it seems some species of Australian native plants have been widely used as a social drug by the Aboriginal People for thousands of years. In fact, there is little doubt that Aboriginal People were using tobacco before it was introduced into Europe! In addition, Aboriginal People could have been the first in the world to become habituated to the drug (Latz, 1995) (Not that is anything to be proud of i guess.) The tobacco (or pituri) was an important trading tool to barter axeheads, softwood shields and red ochre with surrounding tribes.
Latz goes on to explain that the Pituri is mixed with ash as the nicotine is liberated from the acids through the action of the alkaloids present in the ash. (probably a similar action to how Lime is used to chew Beatle Nut in India) The ash promotes the rapid absorption of the nicotine into the bloodstream through the thin tissues of the lips and mouth (and probably through the skin behind the ear too! )(Latz, 1995). There are certain species that are better for this purpose and Latz lists them however probably the most obvious would be A. calcicola (or the Eucalyptus coolabah tree)
So anyway for the botanists among you, the scientific name of the family of Pituri (Minkulpa) plants is Nicotiana spp. Scientific names for the different types of pituri that are most popular in Central Australia are N. ingulba, N. Excelsior and N. Gossei.
“N.gossei (ingulba, mingulba) is restricted to ranges of southern Northern Territory and northwestern South Australia growing in pockets of fertile often sandy soil in shelter of rocks on upper slopes. This species is also considered to be the most potent species in Central Australia with leafs of this plant containing up to 1.1% of nicotine. N.benthamiana (muntju, tangungnu, tjuntiwari) on the other hand only contains 0.3% of nor-nicotine. D.hopwoodii is a rounded shrub 4 metres tall and 3 metres wide. It’s widespread in arid regions of Western Australia, southern Northern Territory, and South Australia extending to central-western Queensland and western New South Wales.”(http://fennerschool-associated.anu.edu.au/fpt/nwfp/pituri/pituri.html)
Minkulpa or not, I’ve grown really fond of Lorna and Bobby; they are always smiling and always happy. A lot of the time I can’t really understand what they are saying to me, but it’s never uncomfortable because Bobby always finishes his sentences with a bouncing laugh that reminds me of Jabba the Hut’s and Lorna, no matter what she says, always places her hand on my forearm and giggles, which reminds me of my mum a lot. She is really the sweetest. Sometimes life offers you these little prizes, little gifts, little moments you can keep, that you never forget, that flood back into your mind and make you smile. The mental picture I have of Bobby and Lorna together in the Troopie is a treasured moment like that.
Bobby will pull up alongside you, his sprigs of wild hair would be the envy of every Ashley and Martin client on earth. His thick accent and course English an un-interpretable spiel of round fat words, delivered with a huge bouncing laugh. Lorna looking at you from the passenger seat, smiling so wide that her wade of Minkulpa is threatening to fall onto her lap, Booby’s wolf hound on the roof, like a Pilipino bus, both of them chirping away, talking over each other, and then just as suddenly, off they race in a cloud of dust and your left with a message, lost in translation, and the negative of jovial smiles burnt against the back of your retina. And you have to smile. You try to explain this stuff to people in the city and they just can’t get it. But i recon you if you could bottle Lorna and Bobby you could make a fortune.
Archie Roach will be performing at Jigalong on the 15th May; it’s the 10 years of native title celebration, WDLAC have asked us to supply the Indigenous performers and musical equipment. (For some reason they used another production company to do the stage and sound?) We have offered the boys a spot as his support act. So we called a big meeting in the studio to make it all official, and drew up a performance agreement for them, a good exercise if we are going to be getting them gigs more often. Some of the boys are too young to sign and need a guardian. So Bobby came, and Longman followed him in. Longman had a brown safari shirt on, open to his navel, revealing his impressive thick scar across his chest, like melted and folded skin. His long white beard and thick mo, a hedge of testament to his worldly seniority, a deeply burrowed brow was partly obscured by a Spinifex entangled old black beanie pulled on with careless attention to hide a great mop of white tangled hair, his gorgeous old face full of expression and time. When we explained the opportunity to the boys they got pretty excited. It’s a paid gig $1200, on a big stage, with a national level act. (Mind you, none of them knew who Archie Roach was). There will be industry people there and the opportunity to play to a new audience, but they had to get themselves there and back. We laid down some ground rules and spelled out the agreement, and some discussion ensued. Bobby had to go to Darwin for a meeting, but he would be back in time he assured us. “Back in time” Longman echoed. The Community CEO had offered to support the opportunity, the elders were enthusiastic, and the shop owners had offered to donate the fuel, and all was looking well. “Well, I will be back on the 12th,” said Bobby, “I will use the community Troopy, and then drive all you mob to Jigalong. We will look after you fellas.” “We’ll look after you fellas!” Put in Longman, waving a long crooked finger in the air. And so it was decided.
Ewan went back to the grindstone, but the rest of the day Milk Crate, Emily, Tanya, and I spent back at Ananda’s. This time another exciting development had occurred. Ananda had managed to round up a bunch of the schoolboys that had a few songs they had been too shy to perform at the concerts. One young fella was so shy, when we turned up at the studio he would not talk or move. We just couldn’t get boo out of him. Finally I realised he didn’t want the girls in the room, or even any photos taken, so we sent them home with the cameras, and Carlo was able to record 5 new songs. They called themselves the School Boys and you can check out one of the songs HERE.
Milk Crate lit the fire again, and I was glad we only had one more roo tail left. It’s a very strong gamey flavour and I couldn’t take too much more of it. When he served up the divided joints tonight, I couldn’t do it. My body rejected roo, and I just went vegetarian with Ewan. But nothing could stop Carlo. Him and Bella hoed down on those joints like hungry Dingoes.
As the night crept across the desert, and the stillness rolled in, we fell back to the campfire and watched the dancing flames consume the darkens with licks of heat. The Billy boiled a smoky brew to remind us of the luxury of simple things, while the Spinifex and red dunes of the Tali looked in upon our campfire like envious spirits, bound to the peripheries of the encroaching desert that lay in the shadows of our light. A presence of infinite weight, stretching out around us, a vast void, with vacuum like heaviness. Out there, somewhere, circling Dingoes, and other timid and hungry animals were scouring in the nocturnal relief of the cooler desert nights.
Then out in the far distance a grumbling roar vibrated through the earth!? As it grew louder, we sat up! A set of lights appeared to the east, it was a vehicle rolling into town. No, it was a few, coming in from the Alice Springs side, along that long and dirty road across the dunes to Kintore. When the convoy passed our camp, the headlights lit up the rising dust, like an earth bound storm and in the gloomy half light of the refracted dust particles, the convoy dove in out of the desert as if a tidal wave of sand was chasing them, silhouetted against the milky way behind, it looked like they were running from a huge black Tsunami.
At the front, a black commodore riding so low its exhaust clanged on the rocks. Then came a Troopy, then another, then another, then a buss! It was the football teams arriving for the carnival. Suddenly, that still and silent old gravel track had become a highway, and for the rest of the night we sat and watched as vehicles rolled in, one after the other. The Carnival had begun in earnest.
Day 18 – Saturday the 4th May
Football and Music, Music and Football.
Tonight began the first night of a series of concerts for the Pintubi/ Luritja football carnival. A mostly impromptu affair, and a pretty vague sort of organisation, if one even exists. I saw some fixtures at the office made up by the staff but I think, unlike the highly organised and planned carnivals of the Martu in the Western Desert, this whole event took place mostly because Bobby is such a great motivator and, more relevantly, because football just seems to be in Aboriginal People’s blood. The combination of football and music, or these types of festivals (sports/music), just work together so organically that all we have to do is get to them (which is a big enough mission alone) It is quite a phenomenon, and being a part of it is probably the most amazing experience I have ever had.
In the Western Desert Sports Carnivals(WDSC), several games are played back to back, every day. This carnival is much more spontaneous, whoever shows up plays, teams form pretty much of their own accord, and the games are full length. That does not sound that impressive until you watch one. Consider this is the Gibson Desert. There is no grass aside from Spinifex, and the field is a cleared area of hard clay, buckshot gravel, sand, and a various scattering of odds and ends and other lethal objects. On the field I have found everything from an open tin can to a missing phone. Of all the games I have seen played out here; these were some of the toughest. True athleticism of the most impressive nature. I am pretty sure a few of these guys have played at a state level or in competitive reserves or something, because the talent here was notable, the skill level of the game intense. The length of these carnivals is mostly an unknown quantity. I have heard of incidences where the grand final has been played and a winner congratulated, only to have a waylaid or lost bus appeared with a whole new football team, in which case the carnival can just start again from scratch. There is no doubt, and I am sure you will agree, that Aboriginal People possess some sort of superiority when it comes to athletics. It is a given at the Olympics that the sprints and most track and field will go to the Black African descendants and this is a well-explained phenomena. I have heard it stated once that because Aboriginal Australians still possess the hunter gather genes, they have a much more highly developed retina than Caucasians, who have lost this over the centuries of inactivity from that dependence. This heightened sense results in a faster and better hand-eye-coordination. Thus at sports like football, boxing etc Aboriginal People have a distinct advantage. However, I can find no evidence or research of this online anywhere, so I can’t quote it.
Whatever, the fusion of music with football was not something we planned. It had just worked out that way. In almost all the bands, we work with; the band members are also in the football team. It seems that all musicians can play football, but not vice versa. Whatever the reason, who cares; the opportunity for the bands to perform in front of a larger audience at a football carnival is ideal! The unique situation that presents itself in an isolated geographical location is made all the more precious by the environment of the festivities of the carnival. What happened entirely by fluke has now grown into a perfect partnership. It is in fact a very organic version of exactly what most sponsors, partners and a huge plethora of health and education organisations would die for. There is no need to coerce anyone, it all just occurs. The whole community is engaged, either as a performer, an audience member, a dancer, or all of the above. The bands performing are occupied in a creative outlet, gain self esteem through performance, and bond through teamwork. They become the role models for the younger kids that dance furiously all night, staying out of trouble whilst being engaged in a healthy activity, and getting 120% more exercise than three workshops back to back. Everyone can enjoy a concert, whether it’s sitting down and seeing your friends and family perform, being the entertainer, or just listening. The old people dance, the community is entertained, and everyone is happy. In the words of a leader in his community, Jeremy (Jayfred) Sammy, “I like this sort of thing, it’s all my People having fun and being happy.”
But something pretty special happened here in Kiwirrkurra tonight, the community organised a band comp’, Matthew Pinta took over the line-up and organised all the sets. Bobby opened the concert and thanked the Desert Feet Tour, and we quickly discovered a deep seeded love of Country Gospel in Kintore, which seemed to go on forever, and ever, and ever. But it was pretty cool, bit quirky, but cool. Some awesome bands were there too though. A great bunch from Mt Liebig that rocked out big time and the most amazing ‘Running Waters Band’ from Kintore that are a signed to Karma Records It was great for Kiwirrkurra boys to see how the these guys played, they had a real impressive stage presence and confidence that only comes from hours and hours of hard work.
Nights like tonight are shared only with those fortunate enough to be here, those willing to make the great intrepid journey over the desert, or those local to this forgotten dry land. You cannot buy a ticket to this show, it does not matter how rich you are or who you know. These events are not advertised, or postered, or promoted. There are no big names here, just old names. Names that belong to the earth and the soil like the songs they sing. For the most part, no one will even know they even happened. But there is nothing else on Earth as special. In a world of false pretence, material desire, and capital pursuit, something this unconceived, undefinable, unmeasurable, and spontaneous, is like the fresh air it dwells in, here in the auditorium of the desert, under the cathedral of the heavens, lit by the million chandlers of the stars, is the cinema of the forgotten. All this happened totally spontaneously in environment of the most natural accord, because it could not have been another way, unless you tried to plan it.
At about midnight a huge wind whipped thought the community, along with the ensuing dust storm, and next thing we knew it was pouring rain. We got very little warning but luckily, Ewan got an awning over the Front of house gear while Emily and I hung the only spare tarp we had from the weather side of the stage. It was actually cold, not something i expected to be in the desert, i was hanging from the gable above the truck securing the tarp, the rain pelting down on me, when I looked down everyone was still dancing, like frolicking children. The band seemed impervious, encouraged by the undaunted audience, and so like the famouse Goo Goo Dolls concert in Buffalo with the water running off everything, the music went on. I was still tying tarps over the front of house speakers when Bobby pulled up in his Troopy and ordered a close down. In the end it was not the rain that stopped the show, it was Bobby telling the band to get to bed ‘cause they had to play football tomorrow. Quick as a flash the whole place was empty. I looked at my watch. It was 2am. I have no idea how the night went so fast.
Day 19 – Sunday the 5th May
The carnival had heated up now and so there was no more interest in our activities during the day. The band was needed on the field the kids were at the oval watching and so was everyone else. There was nothing to do but join in the action at the footy oval. Aside from mixing a few songs down, we spent most of the day in the Troopy watching the footy. After seeing a few games, Ewan and I were pretty clear that we did not need to play. The teams were huge, Kiwirrkurra had a whole side of reserves they didn’t need us and i was glad because the play was heavy. Serious stuff. I saw more than one fisticuff, and at the end of the last game it looked like there might be an all out brawl for a while, it was so intense that all the women got up and left. Which is not a bad idea, because it probably diffused the situation. I mean, what man is going to want to fight if there’s no women to watch them.
Tonight’s concert was a very different affair. In fact, in hindsight, none of us really knew what was happening until the next day. Now that I look back on it I see that a very special event took place. There is a very large group of people here from Kintore. Kintore has its own police station and is quite a large community. It seems the Lutheran Church is very strong there. So the stage became an Alter for the Sunday worship of the Kintore Gospel Community Group. It wasn’t planned that way it just happened, the young bands and kids all took a back seat while all the oldies got up in big ensembles and sung their favourite hymns. Mostly in Pintubi I think, there were a few bibles lying around that said Pintubi so I assumed it was. The thing was that at one stage we had about 20 people on the truck. I was worried it might tip over and was running around checking all the legs, welds, stays, and hydraulic arms, but thankfully a major law suite was avoided. I’m not into gospel and I’m not into country either, or the slow repetitive three-chord cycle, however, you don’t have to be into a genre of music to appreciate its effect on others and enjoy seeing people enjoy themselves. The slow hymn music is not the sort of stuff that gets people dancing, but what the night lacked in front of The stage, it succeeded on the stage. And I think almost everyone got up there and sung in the choir at one stage over the night, which is a new experience for us. The audience become the performers and the bands became the observers. After six years of driving around out here, we still get surprises and are still learning how to interact in a culturally appropriate way, its a perfect example of how diverse and area specific the need and desires of each language and cultural group are and how radically it changes between communities, which is why blanket solution and funding for ‘Aboriginal People’ does not and cannot work. In essence there is no ‘Aboriginal People’ there were about 500-600 language groups all with complex and intricate skin groups and kin ship lore’s that amounted to a multitude of micro colonies. All as anthropologically unique as each other. To an Aboriginal Person another Aboriginal Person is not the same. A Noongar is as foreign to a Martu as a Italian is to a Frenchie.
Day 20 – Monday 6th May
In the morning it started. First one, then two, then an unending tream. The CD machine could not keep up. Everyone wanted a copy of their gospel song, with over 6 hours of live music, there was no way we could mix, master, bounce and burn all that music, it would take months. Let alone have enough CDs for all the requests, so we did the only thing we could do. Ewan and Carlo picked two songs out of every band/choir/group that played and bounced a compilation CD. When i got them to the football oval Mathew Pinta put a call out over the PA and i was swamped. I had to go back and get another load. We sold more of the gospel CDs then we have ever sold of any band. We did three runs and still could not keep up. In the end we ran out of CDs to burn.
Next thing i had old Joe Young the, senior man for the Luritja, asking us to come over to Kintore. He was so desperate to have us come out that he insisted we follow him back after the footy carnival. It took me nearly an hour to explain to him, with the help of Mathew’s interpretation, that we had to go back to Jigalong for a Archie Roach concert and we could not come out there this trip. Anyway, it’s nice to be wanted.
In the mean time the Grand Finals raged on like a desert war, a massive cloud of dust with legs.
Both Ewan and i agreed it was the hardest two games of Football either of us have ever seen. Apparently Kiwirrkurra won, but i would say it was a dubious victory, there was no goal umpires, the ref’ was from Kiwirrkurra and the home side had control of the score sheet. Apparently they won by one point, but it was always so close it was imposable to really know. The only thing i know is that a lot of guys got a lot of exercise and it was an amazing, hard, tough, game of footy with some thrilling moments made all the more inconceivable by the circumstance in which they unfolded.
I have had a few people tell me over the years that Blackfellas invented Footy. But when I heard it again from retired Aboriginal football star Danny Penny, I decided to check it out. It makes a lot of sense once you start to think about it. Officially, the first recorded Australian football game was organised and refereed by a guy called Tom Wills (an interesting character that grew up with the Djab Wurrung people) and contested on 31 July 1858. The oldest surviving set of rules of Australian Rules football was drawn up on 17th May 1859.
One can well imagine the society of Melbourne in the mid 1800s, a major port, a destination for Europeans looking to make a fresh start, settlers taking up land grants, and pastoralist looking to make it in a new countries, Gold prospectors looking to strike it rich, and freed convicts. With colonial dependence upon the British background, the white community would have been made up predominantly of English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and a splattering of convicts from everywhere. In these countries the dominant sports included Soccer, Gaelic football, Rugby Union, Sheffield rules, Cambridge rules, Winchester College football and Harrow football, and all these were apparent in the early games, except none of these rule include dropping the ball to the foot to kick it!
Well before then, the Aboriginal Protector, Mr Thomas, documented his observations of young Aboriginal men playing a game they called Marn Grook, back in 1840. The Wurundjeri people of the Melbourne area played a similar game to rugby and soccer only they used a possum skin made firm in some manner. Thomas recounts in his diary, “The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it, and at the same time kick it with their foot. Leaping up to 5 feet to catch the ball, the person that secures the ball then kicks it, and this continues for hours.”
In the 1980s, some commentators postulated that Tom Wills could have been inspired by Marn Grook because Wills was raised in Victoria’s western districts. As the only white child in the district, it is said that he was fluent in the local dialect and frequently played with local Aboriginal children on his father’s property, Lexington, in outskirts of the town of Moyston. This story has been passed down through the generations of his family.
The theory hinges on evidence that is circumstantial and anecdotal. The tribe was one that is believed to have played Marn Grook, and the relationship of the Wills family with local Djab Wurrung people is well documented. Col Hutchison, former historian for the AFL wrote in support of this theory, and his account appears on an official AFL memorial to Tom Wills in Moyston, erected in 1998. “While playing as a child with Aboriginal children in this area of Moyston, Tom Wills developed a game which he later utilised in the formation of Australian Football.”
An 1857 sketch found in 2007 describes an observation by Victorian scientist William Blandowski, of the Latjilatji people playing a football game near Merbein, on his expedition to the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers. However the Australian Sports Commission considers this sketch to be depicting Woggabaliri, a football game more closely resembling Association Football than Australian Rules Football. The image is inscribed:
“ A group of children is playing with a ball. The ball is made out of typha roots (roots of the bulrush). It is not thrown or hit with a bat, but is kicked up in the air with a foot. The aim of the game – never let the ball touch the ground.”
Historian Greg de Moore comments “What I can say for certain is that it’s the first image of any kind of football that’s been discovered in Australia. It pre-dates the first European images of any kind of football, by almost ten years in Australia. Whether or not there is a link between the two games in some way for me is immaterial because it really highlights that games such as Marn Grook, which is one of the names for Aboriginal football, were played by Aborigines and should be celebrated in their own right.”
The evidence is not substantial enough to have altered the course of history books. However, the more I look, the more I realise there is not much that happened in Australian history that has made into our own history books with regards to colonisation and the mistreatment of Aboriginal People. Those that are interested are left to follow little clues, piece together fiction and non-fiction accounts, filter through Government documents and Church records and decipher the journals of explores and settlers from an era where “aborigines” were not even considered human. Australian Aboriginal people themselves, very conveniently for the colonist, had no other form of record, other than oral transmission, a very slowly released story of the dreaming and lore, imparted in sections, over the course of several initiations into manhood and beyond.
In a world made of the paper and stamps of the bureaucratic powers that came to be, this oral transmission had no value, and even now struggles to impress. Even the well researched and heavily substantiated ‘Bringing them Home Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families’ was mostly ignored on the grounds that most of its evidence was oral testimony. The 680 page report was tabled in Federal Parliament on 26 May 1997, of the 54 recommendations made, very few have been implemented.
I see this sort of national ignorance or denial as “our own loss,” It is a denial of Australians’ right to be Australian. For we have all lost a vital piece of our own history, not only deigned Aboriginal People their rights. So, how does that effect my rights? What are we if we do not know our own past? I am upset because of what has been taken from me, and this is only knowledge of the truth. How must it feel then to have your land and dignity taken too?!
I knew the story of the Colonies of the British Empire overseas, its conquests, exploits, and failings, long before my own country’s. Why was American history and the genocide of Native American Indians taught at school, but not ours? Why did I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in school 20 years before I would find out about the Mowla Bluff massacre in my own state?! How is it that a piece of American history can be more important than our own? At what point does an important piece of history like that book become important for its events and lessons, rather than a shame to the population? I know of several great books like that of equal literary prose, historical importance, and substantiated history, that is just ignored by our curriculum, such as Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance.
But that’s not the point; the point is that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a famous bit of literature, a stirring and invoking read. That is what a good book should do. Make you feel something. Why can Americans stomach their past deeds with sincerity while we seem to struggle with the concept? As a young man I read that novel with wonder and awe. As a man I read Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance with a broken heart. My country had let me down, lied to me, and hidden the truth. How can we learn from our mistakes if we don’t know what they are. The events that made this country are our heritage. If we cant explore them then what does that say about us? These events of our history are not weapons to inflict guilt and suffering on us, they are tools to improve us, for when we diminish the rights of another we diminish our own rights, and none of us are immune.
Day 21 – Tuesday 7th May
Featherfoot and the Howling Dingo
Last night was our last concert before we head back to Jigalong for the final leg of the tour. The last two concerts are contracted services, which means we are being sub contracted by another organisation. This is quite a relief for us, it means we don’t have to organise, promote, or coordinate the event, the services, the staff, or worry about the outcomes and who turns up. The timing of the two events also enabled the opportunity to spend nearly a week with the Jigalong band to record produce and develop their album, a project and objective we have been working towards for over a year!
The first event, on the 15th of May, is the 10-year anniversary of the Martu Native Title claim, and WDLAC (Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation), the governing Aboriginal body, have hired Archie Roach to play at the concert. Unfortunately for WDLAC, they did not know we would be a meagre 700kms up the road, or we could have saved them tens of thousands in production. So they hired a production company to ship Archie’s stage and equipment from Darwin! They only became aware of this tiny oversight when they contacted me to see if we could organise some of the local Martu Bands and get them to the gig. The timing was not good, on our itinerary we were on the way to Balgo. So we had to make a decision; cancel the last outreach of the Tour or turn home and bring a few of the bands back in with us.
The decision was partly made by two factors, firstly the issues with the truck; heading homeward seemed smarter at this stage, and secondly, the bands were super keen to play with a nationally renowned act.
A big meeting ensued at the workers quarters, which turned into a fireside jam and cook up. Carlo and the boys put a couple more roo tails on the fire, and but I had found steak at the local shop so I lit the BBQ. Everything was great until one of the guys got a call from Kintore saying a Featherfoot had been seen heading in this direction. There were probably twelve guys there, but they all went into a deadly silence. I came out of the kitchen at one stage and they were all grouped in a close circle, talking in hushed whispers. Next thing, they all just left. Bang! Like that. It sort of spooked me a bit because they were so spooked. The deathly darkness of the desert outside seemed ever more present, but I was pooped after the three late nights of concerts so I hit the sack, sort of glad for a reprieve.
Day 22 – Wednesday 8th May
A Night In Tunisia
I must have gone to bed pretty early, ‘cause when I woke up it was 11pm. The noise that woke me initially sounded like someone calling out, what ever it was, was close. When I looked around the room I realised Bella was not there, and I had not heard her bark either, which seemed strange. I pulled my door expecting someone to be there. The desert answered with stony silence. The stillness sent a chill down my spine, my hair stood up. There was no one there. Bella shot into the room like a bat from a cave and then there was nothing. No one else had stirred, there was no movement, no lights on, no cars, no sound. So I went back to bed.
Later when I asked Ewan if he had heard anything last night, he told me he had been awoken around midnight, to the sound of what he thought was a Dingo howling, but when he woke the noise had stopped so he couldn’t remember if he’d dreamt it or not. Carlo also claimed to have heard me go into the yard after being woken up by a loud sound. In the end we put it down to a Dingo, but I’ve hear dingos howl before, they usually hold one long note. This sounded more like two words. Hey You!!! Sort of sound.
For the mascot lovers among you, you’ll be glad to know that Bella has made a full recovery now too. I got so desperate for help that I went to the clinic. The very friendly male nurse saved her life. I felt a bit stupid turning up to a nursing clinic; under-staffed and over-worked, in a remote Aboriginal Community where people are suffering from lack of resources, to ask for help for my dog. When I arrived I could see Paul looking me up and down. “Here we go,” he must have been thinking, “What does this whitefella want?” Feeling a bit awkward, I blurted out, “Listen mate, just tell me to bugger off if you like, but my dog is sick!” Paul was around the camp within 20 minutes, with two of the hugest needles I’ve ever seen. The first one had to go into her arse muscle; some sort of poison antidote as that’s what he seemed to think might be the problem. It took three tries to get it all in, Bella kept bucking the needle out which made it all the more painful in the end Em and I both had to sit on the poor dog while he stuck them in. The next was an antibiotic and was to go into the skin of her neck, but the same thing happened. I didn’t know she was so strong, and it’s not easy to hold a dog down. She bent the needle and tried to bite me, it hurt her so bad. However, it seemed to work, she started to get better immediately. Mind you she slept in an air con room for 3 days without moving. I was beginning to think she might be putting it on so she could sleep inside. The only thing was, after the injection her neck filled up with fluid and she looked pretty odd! Like her head was too small for her body. Then it sort of all fell to the front so she was walking around with a big pouch hanging in front of her for a few days like an old Brahman cow. Other than a few side effects she seems ok.
With all the concerts done and the band’s new album finished, my team set about focusing on mixing down the music. Having now been on the road for 22 days, we decided to we needed a few days off; so going back to Punmu early meant we could get the truck out of the desert, and have some rest there.
Day 24 – Friday 10th May
Leaving the Tali
With a full days driving ahead of us, we pulled out at 4am. Also Richard had emailied us asking if we could photograph a solar eclipse scheduled at sunrise. Being a good friend and all we decided to oblige him. there is a huge set of ranges that surround Kiwirrkurra where I knew i could get some elevation for a time lapse photo shoot. It was a beautiful sunrise, but around 630am i was starting to think Richard was playing a trick. The only eclipse i saw was his big smiling face in my mind when i shut my eyes.
In the light I noticed the air intake was hanging off and on inspection I found the mounting bracket had sheared away some time in the night. I spent the best part of an hour wiring that back into position, so i guess in the end i had Richard to thank for that as i might not have stopped in time to fix it if it wasn’t for a false eclipse.
At Kunawarritji, I was accosted by a pair of Grey Nomads on their way to Broome from the eastern states. They had cut through the middle on their way to Broome and were a little shocked by the size of the Gibson. The old gent, obviously just retired and on the first leg of his permanent vacation, was perplexed, struggling with something. He finally turned to me and spurted, “There’s no cattle. There’s not even any cattle out here.” “No,” I said, “Only thing can live out here is camels.” “But what do they do?” he asked incredulously. “Ahh…. well…… Walk around in camel trains I guess,” I said, a bit facetiously. “No, the black fellas,” he said, “What do they do?” My heart sank, another ignoramus. “Well,” I said respectfully, “The same thing you would do with 136,000 square kilometres of land.” “What’s that?” he asked, as if the mystery of life was about to be answered. “Live on it.” I offered.
Day 25 – Saturday 11th May
Back to Punmu
We arrived back in Punmu last night, but are not sure what to do next. The idea had been to pick the Wild Dingo Band on the way back thru. Patrick in Kunawarritji, and Brionel and McKenzie from here. We had deliberately left the Kiwirrkurra Band to make their own way, thinking our Troopy would be full of Wild Dingoes. However, Elliott decided to shoot into Alice at the last moment when one of his Uncles offered to take him in, and meet us back in Punmu the next day. A round trip of some 1900km. So we decide to wait here for him for two days, in which time we hoped the Kiwirrkurra Band could catch us up too. It gave us an opportunity to lay low for a few days without any distractions, however, the kids soon found out we were in town and came over looking for CDs, photos, and music. After exhausting those options, they talked us into taking them up into the sand dunes where we watched them pile up the springs of old mattresses and use them as diving boards to perform back flips off the tops of the dunes into the soft sand below.
With idle time, Ewan mixed away furiously, and Em and I caught up on few emails while Carlo entertained us with various melodies on the guitar, it was better than having a radio. He played, and played and he played, the mellow sounds drifting thru the house from his room. At the end of the first day I went into his room, I wanted to see what someone in a jazz trance looked like. I’ve never heard someone pay the guitar for 8 hours straight before. He was sitting on the bedside reading sheet music off his laptop and he looked up when i entered. I asked, “What are you playing, Carlo?” He showed me the screen, it read, A Night In Tunisia by Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli 1942. “What inspired you to look up the sheet music of now-deceased Jazz musicians from the middle of the century? ” I asked with incredulous admiration. “Oh, I just found it on the net.” He said casually, as if everyone would. I said, “Your the only 21 year old I know that plays jazz sheet music he found on the net from 1942. “Oh,” he sounded surprised, “It’s just pretty cool. Here, check out this riff.” And so he drifted off into jazz land again, I don’t think he even noticed when I left. It was then I realised that Carlo is 98 year-old man trapped in an adolescent body.
By nightfall still no one had showed up. We made a few trips to the local phone box to check around for any sign of the boys, calling the telephone boxes back at Kiwirrkurra, Kunawatiji and any numbers we had, but nothing. The bush telegraph is good out here too so we waited around and talked a few of the crew. Jayfred rolled up in a V8 Ford, all smiles thinking they might be going to get a concert tonight. I told him we are passing thru and asked him to keep an ear out for the Wilind Dingo Boys. i was impressed that he had managed to get a sedan out to Punmu thru all that sand and i asked “How did you get that out here, Jeremy?” with genuine admiration. We had trouble getting here in a four-wheel drive. “I bought it!” He declared, missing the point completely. As he pulled off he dropped the pedal, but the exhaust fell out and dragged along the ground awkwardly. Ewan and I nearly fell over laughing.
Day 26 – Sunday 12th May
At the end of the second day, Carlo had played every scale known to man, learnt the licks to every number-one pop song this decade, and tried out every genre of music for the last 2000 years. After two days of having back ground guitar sounds, we had become accustomed to it, so when it stopped we all looked at each other. All of a sudden, he became conspicuous by his silence, so when the jukebox started up again, we had to laugh. Carlo had finally run out of sounds to make, or had lapsed into some kind of guitar coma, he was playing dissonant, avante garde, atonal, experimental notes like a nutty professor lost in an unconscious guitar-playing fit. I went into his room again with a smile, “What are you doing now?” “Oh, I was just bored.” he said. World; meet the bored, genius musician, Milk Crate Carlo the 1st.
Ewan and I had tried every number we had between us several times to no avail, except I managed to reach Matty West at Balgo, who told me that Elliott’s Dad was with him in Balgo but didn’t know where Elliott was. I was becoming anxious, a good two days of desert, corrugated, ungraded road stood between us and the next gig. I wanted to get the truck across it witha bit of leeway. The decision got made for us. That night I got an email from WDLAC saying the production company for the Archie Roach gig had rolled their trailer just out of Alice Springs. They needed us to do the whole show, and they needed us there ASAP. We packed down that night, ready to leave at dawn, with or without either of the two bands we were heading to Jigalong.
Day 27 – Monday 13th May
Another full day at the wheel put us safely in Nullagine. Last time we came through here, the fuel station was closed down altogether. It pays to be careful passing through small towns; they are not to be relied upon for urgent fuel supplies. This time, the fuel station was open but the pump didn’t work, it spat a few litres of diesel at us then died. The checkout attendant didn’t seem to care too much, and we had enough fuel to get to Newman, so we went to the pub for lunch.
Having had a vegetarian cook for 3 weeks now, and living with a few vego’s, the idea of a steak burger seemed like a novel treat to Carlo, Em, and I. We sort to of felt a bit like guilty children ordering them, but I ate it so fast no one would hae had time to see it! I ate all the chips too, which I would never normally do, but having been exceedingly healthy on top of being normally healthy, I couldn’t resit a cheat. All that junk food went to my head and I ate so much so fast that I felt a bit high. I was drunk on carbs and fat i think but in needed to lie down so I made the call to stay the night at the local caravan park and meet Ewan in Jigalong the next day.
However, I have never had anyone try so hard to talk me out of staying at their establishment. The Park manager was just leaving as I showed up, and was a bit put out to have to alter his schedule. So I offered to wait ‘til he returned, and stayed at the pub. When I came back a few hours later, he was still not back, and desperately needing to lay down I asked if I could use the ablutions and then wait in the truck while they cleaned the rooms. Tracy told me I should just camp, to which I replied, “I’ve been camping for three weeks I just want a room.” “Why don’t you buy one of the pub’s she offered,” “because their rooms are $200 a night and yours are $50, and I run a poor, busted arse not-for-profit, not a mining exploration team.” Still not convinced, Tracy countered, “You’ll have to wait for me to clean the rooms then!?.” In a discourage tone. I said, “You know if you keep this up I might actually think you want me to stay here.” she finally smiled and we parted.
That night the rain kicked in. Ewan called from Newman to say it was pouring, and two days of torrential rain was predicted! Two days of rain would block the boys off, they would be land locked. This changed everything. I had to get us into Jigalong, before we couldn’t.
Day 28 – Tuesday 14th May
We left at first light, but the roads were already melting like sleet in a snowstorm, except red and deadly. About half way in we picked up a pretty bad noise in the front end, and spent some time with the cab up in the rain on the side of the track trying to work it out. After a while I realised the cab had actually started to tear away from the chassis and there was nothing much I could do about it except nurse her in to Jigalong.
We were in Jigalong before dark, but Ewan had waited for some parts and mail in Newman after dropping Tanya at the airport, and didn’t come out ‘til 8pm. By then the road was shot, and he only just made it out, a little frazzled after nearly pooping it a few times with the trailer behind him. It was now dubious if Archie would even be able to make it out here, and if it continued to rain all night there would be no chance. We also now had to start contemplating what to do about the concert if it was raining!
Day 29 – Wednesday 15th May
Archie Roach Concert
I finally got a call from Bobby! He had missed his bus from Darwin to Kintore, leaving all the boys stranded at Kiwirrkurra. As for Elliott, I got several different reports, but what was now clear, was none of them would make it. It might have even turned out for the best that we didn’t bring the Kiwirrkurra Band all the way in, as we might not have been able to get them back out again.
Bobby had not given up yet, and was asking us to chip in a few extra dollars towards a charter plane to get the 8 of them here, but after much to-ing and fro-ing we decided to can it. It was unclear if the concert would even go ahead at this stage, and it just wasn’t worth it.
Funnily enough, I ran into Elliott’s father, Norman Sammy, who had been out a Kiwirrkurra with us. Even he didn’t know where his son was, but he had come all the way from Balgo since I last spoke to him at Matty West’s house. He and Mitchell Biljabu from Punmu had driven up to Halls Creek then all the way around the outside; Broome, Port Hedland, Newman way to get here for the show! All in 24 hours. When I looked in through the window I said, “That’s a hell of a long drive,” but Mitchell just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeh, I lost my bonnet.” I had noticed that was missing, being a fairly integral component of a vehicle and all… I’m not sure how you lose a bonnet, but I didn’t ask.
By mid morning the weather had fined up, the sky started to clear, and the word was that the show would go on. By the time the staff found the keys to let us in and we had the official go-ahead to begin set up, it was a mad dash. We were just setting up the last of it when Archie and his team walked in.
In a bizarre twist of circumstance, it turns out that John Watson was here from Jarlmadangah to celebrate the Martu anniversary too. The world is a crazy small place, but running into Archie Roach after collaborating with him on a song only a few weeks ago, and then the chances of John Watson being there too, the man we made the song for, all in a remote Aboriginal community thousands of miles from either of them just seems a bit too much to comprehend.
Day 30 – Thursday 16th May
Archie’s concert was a real hoot but the highlight for me was getting to meet Robert Tonkinson! After years of reading his papers and books on Martu Culture and referencing him and researching his work, it felt pretty good to meet him in person! If you are not familiar with his work i have copied his Bio off the UWA web page below. But he was the first anthropologist, 50 years ago, to live and study the Martu and in many case was the first white man many of the Martu ever saw. He documented the languages, lived in Jigalong for 20 years and was integral to the native title claim. A very rare and special guy.
“Over the last half-century, Emeritus Professor Robert (Bob) Tonkinson has significantly contributed to revising thinking on a number of focal issues in anthropology. In his article ‘Melanesian Kastom and its transformations’, Lamont Lindstrom (Anthropological Forum 18(2): 161-178) has begun the evaluation of Robert Tonkinson’s work, noting his provocative contributions to the study of the politics of tradition in the Pacific, including such aspects as the ‘symbiotic’ relationship to Christianity, its identity functions, and the convergences and divergences of local and national significance, as well as the larger context of globalisation in which the transformation of tradition into kastom has been taking place. However, Bob Tonkinson’s research in Australia, especially his work among the Mardu of Western Australia, has also exercised a significant impact upon subsequent research among the Indigenous peoples of Australia and the world. For example, his treatment of Mardu in the contact situation in The Jigalong Mob: Aboriginal Victors of the Desert Crusade (Cummings, 1974 (The Kiste and Ogan social change series in anthropology)) presciently explored the dynamics of the intercultural situation with a revealing emphasis upon the workings of Indigenous agency, thus complementing the more encompassing treatment of the Mardu – ‘truly exquisite ethnography’, to quote one Amazon reviewer – in The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology, 1st edition 1974, 2nd edition 2002). This panel invites all interested contributors – former students and colleagues of Bob Tonkinson, as well any other scholars and practitioners who have experienced the impact of his research, teaching and supervision – to present papers on their own work in honour of his influence upon the discipline and beyond.”
For me it was a bit like meeting royalty. When I told him that I had read all of his books and referenced him in several papers and was a huge fan of his work, he grabbed me and hugged me, then kissed both my cheeks. That was a response I was not expecting. As we spoke an older Martu man interrupted us, calling out Nyamu, Nyamu (which means Grandfather) the tears rolling down his face. He was nearly smothering Robert, kissing him and literally crying tears on him. I realised I was witnessing a pretty special moment, and with real envoy I watched Robert and him chat in fluent Mandildjarra. Robert was called off and the old fella turned to me and said, “That’s my Nyamu he brought my Grandfather in from the Desert.”
For us now, we have six days to kill ‘til our last concert, which is also here in Jigalong, for the Pilbara Joblink mob, so we set to work again, recording the long overdue record for the Jigalong Band. We turned our quarters into a studio, however this time it was the apprentice Carlo’s time to have a go, which was a great relief for Ewan.
Day 32 – Saturday 18th May
Emily had to fly home for an orchestra concert yesterday, so I did a trip into Newman to drop her off, and stayed in there half a day to catch up on emails and phone calls. There is another big funeral here on Sunday so a lot of the Martu who had come for the celebration have stayed around for this funeral too.
In the meantime, Carlo has all but finished a 6-song album for the Jigalong Band, so we got them to take us out country somewhere special for a photo shoot for the album cover. Carlo had taken a turn for the worse, so decided to stay home, but the place was awesome. Ewan and I found a cave and went exploring. It opened into three separate chambers the deeper we went, until Ewan got hit in the face by a bat and we sort of chickened out. However, there was definitely more cave left back there. We found a mummified dingo or fox, and evidence of a fireplace in the last chamber, which was really cool. It was like crawling back in time the deeper we went. And it was pitch black.
At the Rock hole the water was fouled up by cattle and had become a stagnant green, but Bella decided it was good enough to swim in and so guaranteed herself not to get a seat in the car on the way back. There might have even been a dead carcass or two in there, because it fairly stank too. She then impressed all the guys further by rolling in cow poo, eating some, and rolling in it again to complete her eau du toilette. So proud of herself was she with this unique and rare concoction of odour / body conditioner that she strutted up and down the rock like a stinking nanny goat. For some reason she seemed shocked that she was thrown on the roof rack on the way back home.
It wasn’t ‘til the CEO came over to see how we were doing and saw me filling the kettle from the tap, that I found out why we all had diarrhoea, it seems there are high levels of calcium and nitrate int he water here. Not only does it cause the drains in the house to block it had us all putting extra pressure on the drains, if you get my drift. In fact, by now both toilets were unusable, and so were all the sinks. I’m afraid the news came a little to late for Carlo, who had turned a strange a light shade of yellow and was making some noises about the lack of ablutions being a fundamental breach of his human rights.
I tried to cheer him up by cooking his favourite meal, and went to the shop and found a fresh meat, to make a beautiful apricot chicken dish. I thought we could all celebrate having recorded the bands first album and so we asked them to stay too. I found a huge baking tray in the kitchen and lit up the oven. The CEO decided to stay too as it looked so good in the preparation, but after some time we started to notice a strange smell in the house, like rat’s piss.
We started looking everywhere, thinking that it was the blocked drain or something like that, but when I opened the oven a hot cloud of burning rat poo came steaming out like a smack in the face. Next thing there was people running every which way. Screaming for the doors and windows. I don’t remember much, I think might have passed out. All I remember I was dry retching in the back yard. It seems I had failed to investigate the oven adequately before I lit it. Apparently several families of rats had taken up residence in there. Not to mention the by-product from the ensuing months of their inhabitancy. Needless to say, apricot chicken was off the menu for the night. We seemed to lose a lot of customers too, and I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for poor Carlo who very politely asked if he could please just go home when I went in to pick up Emily tomorrow. I didn’t have the heart to say no, so I let him go with some misgiving. And then we were three.
Day 33 – Sunday 19th May
Death in the Desert
Sue Peterson delivered the Eulogy on behalf of the white fellas. She had transcribed his words, sort of a mini biography. It fit on one page. A man’s life summarised into five minutes. He left an impressive page, and at the end of the day that’s the most you can hope for. Seeing it so simplified like that made me ask myself ‘the question.’ “How would I stack up on a one-page synopsis?”
There was something very potent in that simplicity. Maybe it was the impact of the man’s humility. Maybe it was the space, the things that he didn’t say, that lent itself to sentimentality. Like a beautiful song, sometimes it’s the spaces that make the sounds brighter. His words were neither boastful nor full of prose; it spoke only of one area, one place, yet it was a worldly and impressive statement. This was a man that had lived through three eras; traditional life pre white fella, white Australian pastoralists and their occupation, and the industrial revolution. From living free on his land, to working as a drover on it, to being a redundant victim of industrialisation. How many people do you know can say that?
He had grown up with the lore of his own land; lost it all to the law of the white man. He became a keeper of the old ways and a student of the new, a diplomat for his people, dancing between the dreaming of his forefathers and the demands of colonization. In recognition of this unlikely position, the Queen, in her infinite wisdom, awarded him the Order of Australia Medal (sort of akin to giving a raincoat to a man you are drowning) but never ordered Australia to give back his land. He saw the change from traditional life, to a life as a sub-human without rights, and then he lived long enough to see his people restored to humans, gain citizenship and live in poverty. At 90 years old he surrendered this life, without being recognised as the sovereign of the land he was born on, by the same lady that gave him a gold badge for it. He took with him a part of our history that we can never reclaim, a piece of time that will probably never be understood or acknowledged. And a knowledge that can never be replaced, a life worth a million of mine. But that’s ok ‘cause all we want to know about is Ned Kelly, a stupid Irish horse thief with a bucket on his head who got hung for killing cops. Yeh! Let’s get that tattooed ourselves Australia……………………….. Such is life.
“I was born in Kinyu. My grand parents are buried at Kinyu, they were murdered by white men.
I met white fellas for the first time on the Canning Stock Route. Wally Dowling was a drover and he gave us sweets, meat and tea and damper at Well 30 Junta Junta. I started working in Anna Plains. We were mustering, I was still a boy when we started to take cattle north to Broome. The older people would take cattle to Meekatharra droving every year and they used to meet us with other drovers from Ethel Creek, Roy Hill, Balfour Downs and Billinooka. We joined up together and drove cattle to Meekatharra. Then we drove cattle to Port Hedland and then it finished no more droving.
Then I went to Warrawagine. I worked there for a very long time. We used to truck cattle up and I worked alongside Billy Dunn who was head stockman, worked and finished up at Warrawagine. Later I went and got work at Ethel Creek for a while, then onto Robinson Ranges. I worked in Carnegie first and came back. I got a letter from my wife and decided to come back and work in Billinooka with all my 3 children. We worked there for a very long time, years and years, then the white fella went from there. The old fella sold it and I stayed on for a while at the station, then I decided to come back to Jigalong started mustering there. I worked there until today.
That’s where my children grew, the older big boys and big girls, there were six children, the deceased man was the father for three, and three belonged to me- but I cared fro all of the kids. I stayed and stayed here and became a pensioner and got the pension. I had an accident with a horse four, five times I was receiving little bit money now still living at Jigalong but I have travelled all over the place. I still travel, never settle down, now I have travel through the desert my country visiting places that I left long time ago, still visit the land in the east desert area. I take whitefella around and show them my country. I still go there and I will keep going there, who knows.”
Sue wept as she finished off his story her grief flowed like an unashamed river from the heart of a mountain of loss, a chunk of history and a link between traditional life and modern life lost forever from our grasps. A story all too often told in the red dirt of the Desert. And while Sue joined the wailing mob, whose cries joined up in a mournful symphony, a ghostly song, like the wind through an empty forest. A feeling of sentimentality descended on me. Today we not only lose a great man, we lose a great part of history, and the connection that he held. At the Rostrum, Piles of new minke blankets stacked up on empty bed frames awaited distribution. Dogs ran in and out of the mourning spectators with oblivious concern, hungry only for a morsel of affection or food. The laughter of children rang out from the flanks, as those with new life, impervious to grief, celebrated the moment in sandy delight, still innocent to the facts of life and death, still unburdened by the privilege of ownership and its sidekick, grief. Still young enough to find a game in every occasion, until the age at which every occasion requires you play the game.
After the funeral the community was a graveyard, quiet, still, and sullen. I took Carlo into Newman and exchanged him for Emily, he is a great guy and will be missed, but we have one more job to do before I can limp the old Rhino home again.
Day 34 – Monday 20th May
We have one day to kill, so Emily and I took a Troopy load of kids out to the Jila Jila. I have been out there before but for some reason I forgot how incredibly beautiful it is. This place is the site of the serpent, Jila Jila. Named thus because it has living water, which means it is never dry, it comes from below. As result it is screamingly cold, even in the hottest of desert days. When one visits these spots you cannot help but be filled with a timeless sense of wonder. The presence of ancientness exudes from the very rock, the song of the dreaming is in every grain of sand. I guess there are far more beautiful places on earth but maybe its just the dichotomy of these rock holes that make them so powerful, the fact that you find them amongst an endless, desiccated and featureless environment, then this ridge opens up like a golden crown on a bald scalp.
I found another cave here. The kids told me it belonged to the old people, they showed us heaps of old paintings and art. There was a lot of soot on the ceiling so it seems it had been lived in a lot. How long ago; I don’t know, but it was easy to see how well you could survive here. Even I could do it I reckon, without anything. The ridge gives you a perfect ambush for animals visiting the waterhole to drink, all you would have to do is drop a rock on them from the great heights of the cliffs on either side. There is shade and trees and wood for fire, and fresh water all year round. There was a huge beehive in one rock ledge and the kids showed me how they make a fire and smoke out the bees, then stick their hands into the honeycomb to get the sweets. All manner of creatures must visit this place from miles around. This side of Jigalong is deep in the desert region, so there is no cattle out here, no stations, no pastoral land, which means no white man. So this area was undisturbed ’til as late as the 50s.
Day 36 Wednesday 22nd May
The expo was a full days work with only three of us left. Ewan, Em, and I had to start the set-up at 7:30am to have the stage live in time. This expo is a collaboration of several services that we work with already, and a lot of organisations I am keen to meet that work in the same space. Newcrest, Indigenous Community Volunteers, BHPBIO, Creating Communities, Pilbara TAFE, SciTech, KJ Rangers, and the list goes on. For all that though, it was a pretty humble affair compared to the numbers we get at the footy carnivals, so I’m pretty sure we are spoilt. The school kids were already there, and a sprinkling of adults came and in, maybe 100 or 200 hundred. As the expo was on the School ground the principal wanted it all finished by 3:30pm and so we packed up, had the house cleaned, Troopy ready, and truck loaded by 6pm, and the Rhino was sounding her farewell horn and heading for Perth. Ewan has a plane to catch at 5pm tomorrow and I leave for Melbourne on Sunday, so we will pull an all-nighter and drive straight home, nonstop.
We caught Ewan again at Capricorn and had dinner together, and it was with a fair amount of sentiment that we parted, congratulating ourselves on another successful tour, without major incident and meeting our deadlines and objectives.
Em took the first watch while I write to you. Outside the windscreen, the night has painted the world in black, but the moon is a white dish, startling and clear, like a hypnotist’s pendulum, falling in slow motion to the western horizon. Wide-eyed and full of emotion, the last five weeks flood our heads and hearts like a whirlpool in a bucket, memories wash over us in the silent light of the moon’s song, the kilometres tick by with the invisible measurement of time, the judge and jury of each elapsing distance, invisible seconds that build real moments into unforgettable memories. We have driven the length of the state in two directions, to the top of the Kimberley, and from the west coast to the NT border. We covered 9000km, made new friends, reconnected with old ones, crossed three deserts, seen the new life the rains have brought, and stood at the services of those that time has laid to rest.
Time: awaiting no one, and claiming all and everything. Time is the keeper, time is the answer, and time is the question, the un-answerable question, “How much of it do we have?” What a shame humans can’t have a collective conscience, or a shared experiential mind. We spend the first 20 years of our lives learning the things our fathers already know. If only we could begin to learn from where they left off. If our memories reached back, back to our fathers and their fathers, fathers. What would we remember? Would we have a King to call upon in the annals of our memory? Perhaps we may all have a slave in there too, a prince and a beggar, a lord and a thief, a priest and a sinner, etc, etc, etc, all the way back to the beginning, when we descended from Africa, were we all black then?
Black or white, we all have two kinds of parents in this life, our biological pair, and the land we fall to from the womb. Both are equally as important. One cannot survive without the nurturing of our mother, and one would also not survive without the environment that accommodates and nurtures us. When we are children we hold our parents in unquestioning esteem, the world as we know it begins and ends with their all-encompassing influence. Then we grow a little older and realise that they are fallible, and have their idiosyncrasies like everyone else. We realise the world is in fact much bigger than them; they are but products of their environment and country, like everyone. Like me. My motherland is a continent called Australia. That makes me Australian. What I did to deserve this privilege, I am not sure, but I don’t have to look to far to see just how fortunate that makes me.
But fortune, unlike time, is an objective thing. Some will spend all their time amassing a fortune, others will spend a fortune in an effort to gain more time. Others still, with their imminent end in site, will see time as their fortune. My education and conditioning told me to hurry up, that I am not “someone” until I have acquired enough to warrant it; enough money, enough super, enough credentials, material goods, securities, and economic accomplishments. All of which would take time. Money I am told with confidence, repeatedly, is just something that, “I have to have” and that, “I can’t live without”, but some has existed, and not just existed but flourished, sustained society and culture for thousand years, without this so-called vital requirements. Then i discovered that all this accumulation i was told to seek has not resulted in the promised outcome, the equation simply did not stack up. The advertising campaign has a glitch. There is a vital component missing, an elusive element. The search for this element raises questions, the age old question, “What is the meaning of life, what am I here for, what is important?
The Martu have been my teacher, it seems to me they are closer to that answer than anyone I have encountered. Where we seek to gain prestige by ownership, accumulation, amassing of material, and are driven by consumption and consumerism, the Martu found it by giving everything away. In an article on Martu culture in the Australian Geographic, Ken Eastwood points out, “In the generous nature of Martu society, prestige is gained not by owning more than others, but by giving away what you have.” In the case of food, “Someone who is able to give away a large quantity of meat to others gains prestige, but usually will retain no more food than anyone else.”
I was told that if I gained enough in the material world, then I would have enough time to do what I wanted. I could, effectively, buy time. Of course this is logically ridiculous. Why would you sell your time doing something you don’t want, in order to be able to do something you want later? Why wouldn’t you just do something you want, at the expense of financial and material gain, because it is better use of your time, and serves the community at large!? A Martu man could hunt for a goanna and feed himself, or take the expending energy-to-risk option and hunt for larger game like Kangaroo. According to Eastwood, “About 60 percent of the time, the men undertook high-risk hunting – with hunting failure rates of about 80 percent,” because they knew, “Kangaroo hunting meant minding the community – an investment in community care, and a willingness to work for the public good.” The Martu had benevolence in every cell of their fibre, philanthropy was their way of life. They didn’t have to build charities to appease a guilty conscience, or ask for donations by promoting service before self. It just was.
One day Ewan and I were driving through a community. We were discussing poverty and its effect on the human spirit. Ewan then made a remark that I will never forget. He said, “I don’t see it as poverty, I just see it as a different value system.” At that point I had to question myself once again. All too often we ask, “How can we change what we see?” but are we reacting from our own fears? The real question becomes “What can I learn here?” Not, “What can I do here?”
Sometimes, I am cast into doubt, doubt of my own ability, doubt of my own efforts, doubt as to the value of that effort, and the motive for it. Is it worth it? Is it making any difference? My sponsors want outcomes, my investors want measurability, others ask for KPIs and long-winded reports. All the while I drive around the desert in a clapped out 20-year-old truck, and i ask myself what is the true measure of our actions? Can they even be calculated in that manner? The law of physics tells me; “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” So then the value of our action could be calculated by deducing the expenditure of the effort to achieve the result. Sometimes the resources consumed to achieve the goal might have even neutralised the outcome, we might find that sometimes, we would have achieved just as much by doing nothing at all. The ironic ‘value of nothing’. I’m not saying do nothing. I’m saying sometimes the value of what we do is heavily offset by the taxes of our effort on the environment. But the Martu know this. They knew this 50,000 years ago. They know the ‘Value Of Nothing’ and that is why whiteman can never understand Aboriginal People without wanting to change them. We evaluate their worth by their productivity, we wish them to be more like us, but that is only ease our own conscience, it does not “help” Aboriginal People. In fact, we have nothing to offer the Martu, we never have, and never will. They already had everything. Iron ore might be redundant someday, the mineral boom can stop, the needs of the world will change eventually and Australia will fall back into the framework of the rising and falling economies of the globe. Our little time in the sunshine will end, and then how we treated others will be remembered, what we did in the humanitarian arena, not how much we had, rights we have denied others will be the right denied to us, and our children, and our children’s children. we will have effectively denied ourselves! this is not about wealth, or land, or security, it is about rights; basic, fundamental, human rights.
At the moment I feel ashamed to call myself Australian, as much as I love the benefits of our health services, clean air, fresh water, free education etc etc, I feel let down by this country, in fact she has broken my heart. I have suffered these before and lived, yet this time it seems our actions belittle us all. As far as I’m concerned I stopped being Australian when this country excised its mainland from the migration zone. (Wilson, L May 16, 2013 The Australian) The idea of working towards walking away from the Refugee Convention puts us in critical danger of repeating the atrocities of the past. A past not so far elapsed for some. We seem to have forgotten we are all the decedents of boat people.
In the words of correspondent and Ex-diplomat Bruce Haigh, “What other conventions might Australia ditch in order to maintain a narrow and ideologically-based social and political agenda? Trashing the Convention on Refugees discards a hard-fought and maintained record on human rights and refugees by many good Australians. It undermines our collective moral fibre; when we trash one convention it will be so much easier to trash another. It is a slippery slide of momentary convenience, a slope descended that will be much harder to climb back up than it was to shoot down. Australia is seeking a non-permanent position on the UN Security Council. The world must be looking askance. The impression is of a state going backwards, not from economic causes or war but from fear, lack of courage and the maintenance of a narrow and bigoted agenda.”
I have to ask myself as a humanitarian, community worker and servant; what chance do we have of getting a treaty for the Aboriginal People of Australia if we are taking such backwards steps in the International arena. Who drives this fear? Only .05 % of all the world’s asylum applications are made to Australia. This ranks Australia 33rd in the list of nations taking in refugees. Less than 2% of all our immigrants arrive by boat, the majority arrive by plane, yet we spend millions to keep them off our shores. Are we really that racist and prejudiced? Are we really that short sighted? Holding onto our slice of cake with fat fingers, while the chocolate runs down our face, like a spoilt child in the sun. Is that what we are, the spoilt child of Britain, gotten too big for its boots?? what would Gandhi do, what would Mother Teresa do, or Nelson Mandela, or Che Guevara, or Buddha do, what would your bigger self do? I guess the only question i can ask with any relevance is ‘what am I willing to do?’