July 2012

Desert Feet Tour – July 2012

Day 1
Saturday, 30th June 
Back on the Road

Some people are showered in accolades for their achievements. Awarded and decorated, applauded and rewarded. Nominated for their deeds, recognised for their skills, esteemed for their knowledge or praised for their talent. Some are celebrated by the media. Some people are just very successful in all that they do.

For some, fortune brings them fame, yet still others are famous for their fortunes.

But they are not my heroes. For there is one other victor, theirs is the anonymous achievement. Their success is a measure called survival, and humility is all they gain. These are the prosaic soldiers of obscurity, fighting on the battlefield of circumstance. They live all around us, they walk among us. You know one, everybody knows one or two. What will amaze you about them is that they can still be positive in spite of their lot.

They are my heroes. It’s what they have had to overcome that makes them successful, not what they did to be acknowledged. The miracle is the odds against, their perseverance is our inspiration. Theirs is a private and silent path though their own adversity.

Let me introduce you to one of my heroes. Mary-Lou. Mary-Lou was widowed recently after an inoperable tumour was discovered on her husband that took him young and suddenly. Mary-Lou’s strength comes from a source beyond my comprehension. The source of that power is something like the closest explanation I have for the consciousness that seems prevalent in this universe, a power greater than, (as Einstein called it) that some choose to call God.

If anyone could be excused for renouncing faithn, it might be Mary-Lou. Several tragedies preceded the loss of her husband, leaving her to bring up two young boys on her own. Yet aside from the occasional tear, never a harsh word have I heard leave her lips.

Ross, her husband, was a long-term friend to me and the night before he died, by his bedside, we shared some steamed chicken rice, which I fed to him in little spoonfuls. What I’ll remember about Ross was that the weaker he got the greater he seemed to shine with another type of strength. That last night was full of his laughter, until our parting embraces when his tone grew deathly serious. “Make sure my boys learn to surf, Damien.” Then with a smile, “and make sure the dog gets the odd walk.” Those were the last words I would ever hear him say.

“What has this got to do with the Desert Feet Tour, Damien?”I hear you ask. Well it sets the scene for day one of our July trip. Out of the windscreen of our purring vehicle, The White Rhino, a black road is swallowed by an equally black night. Black bitumen and pitch black night. There’s poetry in that somewhere. The white lines unfold endlessly darting by on my right like tracer bullets fired from an unknown enemy. Mesmerizing me into a trance; the trance of the tracer bullet show.

Behind me, nuzzled into a sea of feather down sleeping bags, pillows and cushions, the limbs of two young boys and a hairy white dog occupied the warmth of the duel cab. Those arms and legs belong to Ned and Digby Marshall, the 12 and 10-year-old sons of Mary-Lou, and this Tour, the Desert Feet Tour of July 2012, is dedicated to their late father Ross Marshall. RIP my brother, friend and mentor.

Ned and Digby will be our exchange students for the first week of this tour. Creating positive media from remote Indigenous communities for metropolitan kids has always been an ambition. Doing an exchange between two private schools in Perth and the remote schools of Yandeyarra and Warralong is the realisation of a dream. Somewhere, somehow, I see Ross’ hand in this one. The boys will blog their experience online as a school project and you can follow them both:

Digby’s blog

Ned’s blog

 

Day 2
Sunday, 1st July
Capricorn Dancer.

The morning saw us buzzing up the Great Northern Hwy with a fresh cold breeze on or starboard quarter. Michal Jackson’s Number One Hits got high rotation, thanks to Digby’s contribution to the playlist and by Capricorn Roadhouse, DJ Digby had played all 20 songs, 3 times through.

The journey, far too exciting to warrant wasteful moments of sleep, the boys had had the odd nod and nothing much more. We had a sit-down meal at Capricorn. Gangster rappers spat their stuff on a huge screen in the corner while beautiful black African models danced to R&B hits, the videos of pimped out Mercedes Benz’s, bling and big city life, seemed juxtaposed against an environment which could only be described as the furthest thing on earth from that reality, but today, unbeknownst to them they are performing for a Capricorn audience, they are the Capricorn Dancers.

Next objective was to pick up the last member of our team, Helen, from Diabetes WA. We wanted to take a Diabitese Rep’ as a token of our commitment to our Mou and the ongoing partnership and ironicaly Helen was first introduced to us by Ross, Ned and and Digbys Father. It was his foresight that saw the potential of that synergy and when Helen and i first met with Ross as a cafe in Subiaco we both new the fit was right straight away. So it was fitting too, that she should join us now while the boys are with us and a further relief, I am sure, for Mary-Lou to know that another parent would be with us, especially a qualified nurse and mutual friend. However Poor Helen arrived in a bad way. Some food poisoning had kicked in, but being the determined one, she hopped on that plane anyway.

At the airport we ran smack bang into Amber, the project manager for today’s Concert in the Park series, and so we headed over to town to get ready. Bryte would do a concert and a workshop as a sub contractor for the event and we parked the truck under the trees and set up the table for some lunch.

Enter Cassie Rowse. Knowing how demanding the tour can be, I decided we would take a dedicated cook this trip. Cassie and I go back a long way, we first met on the pearling boats doing shell harvest out of Talbot Bay in the deep north eastern Kimberley, over 10 years ago. Later, we sailed a twin masted aluminium staysail catch from Broome to Perth together. I have worked with her several times since. She has been cook or a hand on many a vessel and so I know of her work ethic and lack of any prejudice, two prerequisites for DFTing it. Cassie completes our contingent for the first leg of the trip. With the boys, Cassie, Helen, the amazing Bryte MC (our star and Diva), Ewan, Emily and I, we are now 8. Then there is Bella too, the DFT Mascot.

So it was sandwiches for 8 people, the first prepared meal of the DFT July 2012. Cassie spent 3 years in Japan and so is a great connoisseur of oriental cuisine, and having Ewan on board with all his special vegetarian requirements, Miso Soup is going to be prolific. I would be happy to eat that every day anyway. I also told Cassie I love peanut butter, it’s a whole food and full of essential fats and proteins (get the low fat version though!). It’s great for ‘smashing down a spoonful of’ when you’re flat out, out of energy, and just starving. However, I must admit I have never had it in a cheese and lettuce sandwich before.

We stopped in Newman long enough for Bryte to do his set and a little workshop with the kids that had gathered in the park for the family event. As we went to leave, Helen’s condition worsened, so we decided to leave the Prado in town for the night with Cassie. She would take Helen to the hospital and see how she looked in the morning.

That meant we had six of us packed into the truck for the hike out to Yandeyarra, the last 50km of which would be corrugated dirt road, and the end of our dustless city appearance. Shaken not stirred, like a giant martini, we jiggled our way to Yandeyarra, weary heads lolling and swaying like seagrass in the current, flopping this way then that. At one point, young Digby sitting in the fold up seat between Em and I, had us in hysterics. I was crying tears of laughter watching him nod off into Em’s lap then back over onto mine as the truck swayed around the winding road. Everyone has a turn at playing ‘Mr Noddy’ some time and it’s always funny to watch, but Digby made and art form of it. He refused to take the pillow offered to him several times, insisting he could stay awake, as if being up for 30 hours was not enough, he just didn’t want to miss a thing.

Bryte has become addicted to Game of Thrones and had four more episodes under his belt before we arrived. At one stage I looked back, the light from his screen light up his face in the darkness of the rear cab, his black beanie pulled down low, earphones over his dome, he looked like a sinister pilot. In the shadows of the periphery, two white faces rested on either side of him. Ned had passed out onto his left shoulder and Ewan looked like he was trying to breastfeed. So intensely involved in his movie was Bryte, that he seemed oblivious. After all, it was a cold night so they were probably keeping him warm.

It was nearly dark by the time we left Newman, and so it was not till after 11pm that we pulled into our first remote community of the trip. It’s good to get back countryside, and a bit of off-road work would ensure we looked the part out here. My dog was banished to the back of the truck in the cold night, much to her disgust, and she gave me a look when we arrived like, “What did I do? I haven’t even rolled in anything, it’s not fair!” The excitement had caught up with Digby and Ned who had hardly slept since we left Perth over 32 hours ago, forcing themselves to stay awake in case they should miss anything. So it was with great relief that we rolled out the swags for our first night’s sleep.

 

Day 3
Monday, 2nd July
Yandeyarra kids never quit.

It was great to see Graham and Jess again. It’s always nice to return to a place where you know people. I have stayed in touch with them both but not as much as I would have liked to. However, Simon Phillips was back here teaching music a few times, after he came with us last year. This is a great school with nice people it’s a pleasure to be here.

Our first set of workshops today went down a treat, the kids here are really very switched on. It’s a testament to Graham and his staff. I would have to say they are the most well behaved kids I have ever done workshops with.

Bryte is a star here as he comes out with Ricky Grace’s Role Models team a few times a year, and was just here only a few weeks ago. The girls, all star struck, had made a special welcome picture for him and stuck it to his door. The school was recently involved in a School completion event in Hedland where they performed in front of about 600 people. It’s pretty hard for us to compete with that sort of excitement but it definitely had a big effect on them. It really felt like they absorbed everything we had to give, which for me was very exciting, as it meant I could give much more. Wide eyes and interactive, our little audience of about 16 kids tested our musical skills. In fact, a few of them where probably more skilled than I, and so at that point my job is just to show them where they can go with their talent and what opportunities these talents can open if pursued.

I won’t go into what we do in a workshop, if you have read a previous blog you will have heard enough I’m sure, but if you want to know more you can read the workshop outline on our website, www.desertfeettour.com or watch our workshop overview on our Desert Feet Tour YouTube page.

Graham gave us free range here, and I really appreciate his trust, it meant we could take our time and interact a lot more and when the kids are responding like they did here, it means the workshops can go longer. After we had delivered the structured workshops and handed out the show bags, we opened the music room to those that wanted to just have a play or do some one-on-one stuff, and here again I owe it to Graham and his team who never even flinched at us staying in the schoolrooms until nearly 5pm. We had brought some new band equipment, which included new skins and cymbals for the drums. Four of the kids were pretty keen on that instrument, so we had a bit of a drum maintenance and tuning session. A cacophony of musical experimentation followed, and earplugs was the order of the day. I was having a catering meeting with Graham about the concert and BBQ in the staff room next door when I heard the first semblance of what could be described as something almost musical. We looked at each other with approval. By the time we got back into the music room, Emily and Ewan had 6 of the kids playing a blues song they had written and worked out their own parts for. Digby was on the electric guitar.

Back at the ranch, Cassie had a veritable smorgasbord arranged, and when our hungry team hit the galley, there was sparks flying off the fighting gear. Dinner included miso soup and rice along with a beautiful raw scotch fillet done in a Korean style marinade, and cut in strips then covered with sesame seed and herbs. There was potato salad for the vego’s among us, and a green salad just because we could. Ah, life is good.

Activity does not stop there for the weary DFT travellers, we have become a very efficient little team, and each of us have our extracurricular activities. Cassie is getting food ready for the BBQ tomorrow, Ewan is putting together the artwork for the Kiwirrkurra Band’s first CD (which we will personally deliver in a few days). Emily is writing up performance agreements for the bands that will join us on tour, beginning with Jigalong Band (Hopefully arriving tomorrow in time for the concert). Bryte is mixing down his hip-hop song from the workshop today in the kitchen, and me, well I’m writing to you.

 

Day 4
Tuesday, 3rd July
Jigalong Band no show.

Ned and Digby went to school this morning after being invited by Peter to sit in on his class. I walked them across to the school on the second bell, and we had had a bit of kick of the footy before the last bell then I waved them goodbye for the morning. I thought the experience would be of great value to them.

We came back to the music room at about 10am to work with the kids that formed the “Yande Kids” band yesterday. The formal workshops started after lunch, and it was Emily’s first time running the sight reading workshop by herself. This particular workshop was written by Candice and this is the first time we have done it without her. It’s quite comprehensive, and if the kids are cooperative, they will learn to perform 4 bars of music as an ensemble, each child choosing which instrument they want to learn.
We where all very proud of Emily, she really nailed it with confidence, she is certainly well qualified with a degree in Music and the kids responded to what was obviously a talented teacher. After the introduction to sight reading, I took the guitar section. As most of the kids wanted to be lead guitarists, I had about nine kids and we ran out of guitars, so I sent two back to Ewan to learn bass guitar.

I have never seen kids this hungry for knowledge, they just ate it up, and I was able to leave them to practice the piece as a group on their own while I went and listened to the other groups. When we all came back together, the kids played the piece in time and to perfection on the second try though. I felt like a proud parent, even the local teachers were impressed.

We had our first set up tonight and the gear has not been run-up for a while, so I was keen to start early. As soon as the siren went, we hooked into it. Unfortunately, we got word today that old Bobby Roberts had passed away, and so the Jigalong Band was on Sorry Business. Without them I was predicting a pretty quiet show, so we focused more on having the kids get up and perform the stuff we had developed with them.

I realised tonight when I picked up the guitar, it was the first time we had played in a month. I haven’t so much as looked at my guitar, I’ve been that busy getting ready for this tour, and I’m glad we didn’t have too big an audience at Yandeyarra for my debut return to the stage was a little stale. But tonight was not about us, the highlight of the show was the kids anyway, and they stole the night. Even Bryte MC with his never fail hip-hop couldn’t get near them. The Yande Kids performed the blues song that they wrote yesterday with Ewan and Emily, called “The Sky Is Blue”.

I played rhythm guitar, but apart from that and a little guidance from Ewan and Emily, they really played the whole thing themselves. All of the nine apart from our Drummer Zac (aged 12) had never performed live on an instrument before, and some had never even touched the instrument they were playing before they formed the band! Joneen on the keys and Jess on bass, had never actually played before that day. Even our little debut frontman Derwin did a magnificent job, counting us in with attitude then sung with style, supported by a second upcoming star, Tjikala. Our own Digby loved his job on electric guitar, and talented young drummer, Zac, kept time and filled superbly, backed up by a couple of enthusiastic percussionists. The recording of the song will be available on SoundCloud as soon as Ewan gets time to do some mixing, so keep an eye out for it.

The kids all got up and sang the song they performed at the recent Vibe Alive Festival in Port Hedland, and stayed in the spotlight to sing our diabetes awareness song, Choose Water, Eat Healthy, Keep Fit which they had practiced the day before. They are keen performers here. After all that, 6 boys, and then 6 girls, got up on stage to sing a hit by pop sensations, One Direction. All in all it was a real hoot. We had a blast at Yandeyarra.

 

Day 5
Wednesday, 4th July 
Warralong Community 

Strelley Community School is one of oldest of the Independent Aboriginal Community School (IACS) and one of fourteen other IACS schools currently operating in WA. It had previously supported numerous small out-station schools from Warralong and more recently Warralong Station. Its principles of community control and a strong commitment to cultural maintenance make it a cultural Centre and incorporate Indigenous languages into the school program. These principle are the decision of the community. They made them at the commencement and they still stand today. I have listed them here for those interested. I like the language they have used. Raw and honest. I can hear the accent and the determination.

1.  Teach the kids survival skills;
2.  Keep children in our hands and keep them straight;
3.  Community involvement;
4.  Learn about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures;
5.  Teach in our own language;
6.  Teach our children English;
7.  Take children from school through to work;
8.  Promote self-identity;
9.  Maintenance of Nyangumarta traditions;
10.  Have school near parents and camp ¬ do not send children away;
11.  People outside the school are very important in the learning situation.

Warralong, the community, is 160kms southeast of Port Hedland, between the Shaw and DeGrey Rivers. The original location for Strelley Community was badly damaged by Cyclone George in March 2007 and the families moved to Warralong. Where teh school has remained.

The people are drawn from a language background that is predominantly Nyangumarta, (a desert language used by the Martu) with Warnman, Yindjibamdi, Kariyara and Manyjiljarra spoken by some members of the Community. However, Nyangumarta is the target language of the school’s program and an extensive collection of Nyangumarta resources has been created and developed over the years by community members, Language Specialists and Linquists for the teaching of Nyangumarta. Its all pretty cool!

We only have one day at Warralong. We need to do the workshops, and the concert as well, so I had the team up at 5am and on the road. The Prado had to do a detour into Hedland for supplies, but the truck pulled in with a trail of dust around midday. Janet the acting Principle, has been here for longer than I’ve been visiting, so we have built up some continuity. It seems we really have her to thank for the success of the day too. She did a great job of organising access to the music equipment that we left last year; a band has sprung up, along with several potential drummers and a couple of budding guitarists. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get the kids to play at the workshop.

They were so shy and they would hardly look at me. Young Ned and Digby rose to the occasion by jumping on keys and guitar respectively, and breaking the ice. When I had talked to Mary-Lou about bringing them along, it had not occurred to me that they had musical talent too, but at times like this, I was very grateful for their abilities! It has also enhanced their interaction with the kids and once again i see how music is such a great cultural bridge.

We had been expecting 60 kids but ended up with less than 20. Em and I had reworked the ‘Eat Healthy’ diabetes theme song into a blues tune, (12 bar blues are easy to teach because everyone out here knows ‘Wipe Out’ and most of them can either play it or drum it) but still, I could not get the kids to sing along with it. So we changed tactic, and just passed the mic’ around to let them hear themselves over the PA. That always gets a laugh. I got them to each say their names or make a noise and this created some laughter and seemed to break the tension. Then Digby got on the lead guitar, one of the kids got on the drums and Ned played the keys. I practiced singing just the chorus a few time until they could remember it, because half of them were too young to read the whiteboard. I had some of the best prizes we have ever had, like NBA basketballs, scooters, and show bags full of hats, books and food, but it was still the hardest workshop I have ever run, which was weird because last year the Warralong kids went ballistic on the song writing. I guess you just can’t pick it sometimes. Of course Bryte just killed it as always, and had them singing and screaming within minutes. I could say we warmed them up for him, but I probably should have just let him go first! It’s just if I do that, sometimes they are just too wound up to listen to me after, so I like to do the introduction to music and instruments first.

We had driven into Warralong that morning then set up, run workshops then performed and then packed the truck up again, so the crew were all bugered. We had another show in the morning of the next day and had to leave early to get back to Hedland for that. The whole first week is like that, full with shows and communities and travel, back to back every day, and there are many variables that can be outside of control when at the mercy of machinery, transport, equipment and these sorts of distances, especially off-road. You never really know what sort of conditions you might find them in too. No doubt, we have bitten off a fair chunk but we are close to success, and finding Warralong Willy and his new band have made it all worthwhile for me.

 

Day 6
Thursday, 5th July
Warralong Willy and the Band

If I never did another thing, I could hang my hat on this day and walk away. It was a small victory with a big effect. I felt like we had been a part of history in the making today, maybe only an obscure history of little impact on the world, but a major event in the DFT annals.

Before I talk about it, I have to give you a few background details. Part of our funding last year was to contribute musical equipment to the community. The idea was, the school could use the equipment to improve attendance by giving the kids access on a performance basis. The idea was good, however for us; the outcome was hard to measure. Some of the schools had nowhere for the equipment, or anyone to administrate the concept. Some schools already had music programs, and so were not interested in the idea. The other problem was some schools wanted it for the students, but would not give any access to the community members, and still other schools did not want the responsibility at all, and so the Community took it, and worse still, was some Communities wanted the gear but had nowhere to store it. Last year we delivered about 12 full sets of band equipment to various Communities and their schools.

It’s one year ago exactly that we visited Warralong, we stayed one day only, and we left a full set of band equipment with Janet, who put it in the library.

It was an unknown quantity and we had no idea what would happen to it. Places like these, isolated remote outposts, become worlds unto themselves. There can be complicated dynamics between the staff that go there to work, and the residents. It’s a topic that is outside the scope of this blog. However, the line between people’s jobs, responsibilities and desires to help, can become blurred. It is common to hear CDEP officers and teachers complain of overload, burnout and multitude of issues. Sometimes it seems that roles overlap, or organisations and their tasks, merge. I don’t have an opinion on it myself as I don’t feel qualified to comment, we all try our best.

At Warralong, the school seems very integral to the community, and Janet is no ‘fly-by-night do-gooder’. She has been there many years and has strong relationships with many community members, particularly lots of the well-respected artists. It would be an understatement to say that Janet is doing some extracurricular activities. In fact, thanks to her, the Warralong had formed. Janet had mentioned several times during the course of our communications that Willy had been practicing hard for our arrival, and I vaguely remember meeting him last year somewhere. Imagine our pride when we discovered that since delivering the gear he had put together a band and written several songs. Janet had been giving the guys access to the library and they had practiced every night.

In fact, practicing every night might be an understatement. Willy was shredding. They had a set of about seven songs ready for airing, and when they had finished them the crowd wanted more. Willy sort of looked at me questioningly. “There’s plenty of time!” I yelled up at the stage. “I only practiced those ones.” He said with great concern. “Well play ’em all again!” I yelled, which was backed by a quorum of approving applaud.

After the concert, the guys stood around the mixing desk till late, listening to the recordings of their live performance, with pride and obvious satisfaction. Willy enquired as to how to make his lead break louder on the play back and Ewan pushed up a slider that brought the tarck into the fore, loud and strong. It was a perfect riff, really well executed. He smiled broadly.

All that practice had paid off. They were really smoking and i asked them to come into town with us for the concert in Port Hedland. The Jigalong band had cancelled due to Sorry Business, and the spot was theirs if they could get there. The only problem was none of them had a licence. Tony who played rhythm for Willy had an old Land Cruiser but it was unregistered. The regular bass player had a licence, but was away at Roebourne for the football carnival.

It was a cold desert night, dry and biting, still and windless. The clear sky above was a canopy of diamonds. The boys gathered around in a semicircle. Hands dug deep into pockets, exchanging searching glances with silent questions marks. Willy was obviously in a pain of indecision. The whites of his eyes like torches against his shiny deep black skin, the moon danced on his glossy cheeks and I so badly wanted to help, make it happen, fix it and work out a way, but something told me to me to step back. I wanted it to be my success, a victory for the DFT. But it needed to be his success. So with great restraint I said goodnight. Leaving him with a handshake promise, $1200 in performance fees if they showed up. We had done all we could now, they had to work it out. If they were keen enough, they would be there. We rolled out of the Community at 6am this morn.

In Port Hedland we liaised with Tim Turner, the coordinator of the event. Tim and I had been in discussion about this day for a few weeks before we realised that we knew of each other. He started telling me about a hip-hop project he runs in Hedland before I finally made the correlation. It turns out this is the same Tim that Roz Walker had been talking to me about when we applied for the Social Innovations funding. Roz assisted us in completing research on the outcomes of music as a therapeutic medium. The Telethon Institute of Child Health Research assisted Tim by measuring his project outcomes using Participatory Action Research (PAR). They published a joint paper and were successful in establishing the use of this technique as a research model and accountability tool. It set a precedent, and I referenced that paper myself several times in my own essays, so I was sort of star struck after the realisation, and have been looking forward to meeting him ever since. We have visions of taking his hip-hop dance team on one of the DFTs with us and we could have talked all day, but I had a stage to set up and he had a softball carnival to run.

At 11am I got a call from Warralong Willy saying that they were on their way! They had driven Tony’s old Cruiser along the back roads into South Hedland and parked it in the bush, which conveniently came up behind the high school. When Willy arrived with his boys he apologised for being late, explaining how he had to siphon the fuel out of all the broken down cars to get a jerry can full. I laughed and told him he was not late, handed him a guitar and nodded towards the stage. His face became serious and grave. “I’m feel nervous, my stomach’s got sick.” “Why?” I asked. “It’s ma first time’n front of people.” “Well,” I assured him, “You’re ready, mate.”

It could not have played out more perfectly. When the softball carnival had finished, Tim used the stage to give out the presentations. While the school was gathered in front of the stage Tim introduced The Warralong Band and all of the sudden Willy had an big audience. Without missing a beat, Willy, completely at home in the spot light, called out “1,2,3…” then busted out a great variation of ‘Johnny Be Good’, spiked with ripping licks, lead breaks, and a story about a young guy who is wasting his life smoking ganja, complete with a catchy rhyming verses of cleverly written lyric. And so it came to be that Willy and the Warralong Band got their first ever gig in front of a crowd 300 screaming teenagers.

Willy is a role model of immeasurable value, his songs are all inspiration and transformational. About rediscovering culture and law and recovery from addiction. I’m pretty excited about the prospect of getting funding to develop his stuff, I’m sure this type of message must be in demand for organisations like the Department of Education or health service. Later, Willy told Ewan that this was the realisation of a dream for him, to perform live. Ewan told him to stop and ran off and got a camera and filmed it like an interview. For him it was the result of lots of practice. But for us it was the birth of a DFT child. Ewan, Em and i could not stop smiling, the significance of the day was like a milestone and a victory. BHP had sent down some media crew who had organised them into a picture shoot. We had our own Paparazzi and it made the guys feel pretty special. Bloodwood Association hired the guys on the spot for a festival in August and so they got their first booking too.

Now we were now faced with another situation . With Jigalong Bands cancelation we had could offer the boys a spot on the main stage at Newman tomorrow but that meant a big road which was ok, its just we didn’t know how to get them back to Warralong. There was no way they could risk it in the old unregistered Land cruiser and so the boys sat by the truck for nearly two hours on the phone in discussion with friends and community members. A few even arrived and departed during our pull down and a few time it seems they had sorted it. By the time, we were ready to roll they still had no ride and so we checked bus schedules, brain stormed ideas and even toyed with the idea of hiring a car. The logistics of it just did not work out any way we looked at it. The wilful voice of assertion was a thorn in my pride “you can’t give up Damien, you have to make it happen” but it soon became obvious to me that if i forced it i would end up being responsible for something outside my ability to control. So with great regret we parted ways again, still with the hope that something might come up and an open offer to play if they could get there again. With warm exchanges and smiles we said goodbye, It would only be a few months till we would see them again at Jigalong for the next football carnival.

The big end of NAIDOC final concert is in Newman tomorrow and the Desert Feet Tour had to get back on the road. We turned the wheel back south and the heavy note of diesel engine was a roar of metallic music, miniature explosions of fire inside steel, that familiar hammering tick was the song of travel, a prayer to Deus Ex Machina, or whichever God you chose. It felt like the god of small things was in my heart, but out here it could have been the Dreaming Sprits. Its easier to believe out here, with the desert all around, it has a power. I’m sure many a man has prayed for help when this country has beaten him to his knees. Thirsty and dying. Yet, with life all around. These endless red plains, like planet Mars, it flanks my windows, endlessly, in all directions, as vast as an ocean, caped by ant hills, an artist’s bush has cleverly dabbed Spinifex shrubs evenly like textile Pascal strokes on a red canvas.

As the sun set the darkens spilled out of the sky like hot oil and then a full moon burst the east horizon, its optical illusion more unbelievable than fiction, an illustration in a comic or a child’s dream. Now I know what they mean by ‘The Dreaming’. There is nothing more unreal than this land. It is the Giver and the Taker-away.

 

 

Day 7
Friday, 6th July
NAIDOC concert at Newman

In these towns, you get the feeling that something really big is going on. As if someone owns everything and everyone knows something, but no one can say what. Everyone is racing around for someone, but no one knows who that someone really is, like Big Brother or something.

At the softball carnival yesterday I hung out our sponsorship flags. On a remote community, they stand out, but in Hedland and Newman they are like a price tag on a big toy. BHP is everywhere, on everything and everyone is working for them. The question is, “who is ‘them’?” The answer may well be that there is no singular person, or even a tangible ‘them’. Maybe the corporate entity is the manifestation of human nature, indelibly stamped on the face of the earth, a corporation-organism with its own life. A capitalist dog chasing its own tail, digging huge holes. Or a lion that is consuming itself form the tail up. Is it run by people? Or does it run people? A form or A.I? Try talking to BHP and you’ll know what I mean. There are layers, levels, sections and arms. Services, community programs and associated organisations. That’s not even counting the operations, where there are more CEOs and General Managers, Superintendents, sections and branches. It’s a complex maze of a structure, like an ant hill and like an ant hill it tunnels deep into the earth, yet reaches up into the sky.

BHP, one of the largest corporations in the world. How do corporations get that big? Is it ok? Who is responsible? In some way, we are all responsible, all a part of it’s strength. A power we have created by a capital consciousness, a collective that we have enabled through the manifestation of ourselves, that has become all of the corporate super giants. If you live up here, there is a good chance you work for ‘them’. If you work for any of the community corporations, programs or NFP’s there is a good chance you are funded by ‘them’. If you are Indigenous, it is likely you are in negotiations with ‘them’. If you have debt, are paying off a car, or buying a house, then there is a good chance you are working for ‘them’ too, indirectly, because ‘they’ own money and finance companies. It is a funny thing, they run programs that fund programs that organise programs. They have become a form of governance. A mini independent country, without borders or shores, an international government in the air. They have made mistakes, they have done good things. Whichever way you look at it, you’ll see it. Hi-vis and steel-caps, the Orange Army. Everywhere. What’s the point? This is not meant to make a point; I am just saying what I see.

It was so cold my minus zero sleeping bag was useless. When I folded back the flap of my swag, it cracked like frozen canvas. It was nearly midnight before we arrived last night, I had picked up a big clunk in the steering just as we were leaving Hedland, and when I put the cab up, I discovered the steering pump had come loose off the mounting. It was easy to fix, but took an hour to get sorted. When we arrived, the Prado had taken refuge at the Red Sands. Bryte had found his skin group from Queensland, and was pretty stirred up. Don’t ask me how they worked out they were related. It was just bizarre and emotional.

We started set up at midday for a 4pm start, but four hours later, the generators had not arrived. Then we got news the MC, Mary G, had his bags delayed in transit, and so had no costume. The show finally started about 5pm with Ewan, followed by The Orphans, and just as I walked from the stage, there was Mary G, her big smiling painted face. I had no time to talk to her as she had to introduce the next act, and at the same time, I was called away by a familiar face that dragged me into the darkness behind the stage. There in shadows, faces all aglow, white teeth shining in rich dark faces, stood the Jigalong Band. They had showed up for the concert! It was like the icing on the cake, the perfect final touch to what has been a perfect tour.

They were keen to play and wanted to know if it was still ok, even though they had cancelled. I told them it was not my show and I would talk to the event coordinator, however, I couldn’t see why not. They were on every poster in town and no one else would know they had cancelled except the producer. Fiona was totally cool with it, and so the boys got a half hour slot straight after Bryte MC. I’m probably a bit biased ’cause I love these guys, but I think theirs was the best set of the night.

More than 10 bands played on the line-up, but the timing was perfect for Jigalong Band as the crowd peaked right during their set, as if fate was proving a point. Or perhaps they brought a few of their own fans down too, maybe a bit of both. Either way it was such a great result, to get them the gig then have a good size audience at it too.

After their set, the bitter cold drove the crowd off in droves, this freeze must not have been on the horizon when the event coordinator planned the day. At one stage, at about 8pm, I found Ewan shivering at the sound desk, covered in every piece of clothing he owned. Unable to leave his post, the poor guy was an icicle. I found a beanie for him and brought over a cup of coffee from the stall, then Cassie showed up with some jackets for us. By 9:30pm there was not a soul left on the oval, and so they closed the gates.

We were packed up and high-fiving each other by 11pm, heading back to the caravan park, a great week of uninterrupted successes. A few fortuitous eventuations, the odd spontaneous development and a fair bit of planning, these are the ingredients with which we have baked a unique dish called the Desert Feet Tour. A little bit of luck, a lot of hard work, a sprinkle of audacity. A dollop of intuition (not mine, mind you) and the help and support of good people like you.

The gig marked the end of the first week, several thousand kilometres, 2 remote communities with concerts and workshops on both, and two NAIDOC week concerts. We had made it to every gig without a hitch, and them some! With a feeling of satisfaction, I gave Newman a big air horn as I pulled out.

 

 

Day 8
Saturday, 7th July
End of the first leg.
Newman to Nullagine

Dropping Ned and Digby at the airport meant I had safely fulfilled my obligations as a guardian, and successfully delivered on a promise I had made some time back. The satisfaction of the success of these obligations was quite intoxicating, but what I hadn’t counted on was how much I would miss these guys. At the airport we joked and laughed. We reflected on the past week, but as soon as they boarded I realised it had all been much more. In fact, I think that it has been the most successful week we have ever had as the DFT.

Their leaving marked the completion of the first leg, the end of NAIDOC Week, and the beginning of the long leg out to Kiwirrkurra. It has been a big learning curve for all of us, the boys and the team, and has opened our eyes to other opportunities and potentials for the Desert Feet Tour.

As I drove away from the airport, a heavy sigh escaped me involuntarily, and a week of travel fell off me like a water-logged jacket. I started to recall all the times I could have done better, been a better carer, or put in more of an effort. Yesterday, we had spent five hours setting up the truck, and all that time, I was either involved in some task or distracted by some conversation. The boys had to entertain themselves a lot, and help out where they could. They had been really good sports about it all, but still I wished I had given them more time.

Another lump of emotion still unresolved had gathered underneath all that too, with the news I had received from Perth while setting up. I had been so busy I could not take it in, but now, alone, it all hit me.

I had received word from home that my friend Paul Anthony Green had passed away. We had said our goodbyes before I left, as his condition was rapidly declining. However, I saw that he had tried to call me on the 5th of July, but I had been out of range. The missed call came up on my message bank, but he had left no message. I cannot bring myself to delete it and I have had a few moments of reflection when I wonder what he would have said. It pains me a bit, knowing that is the last call I will ever get. I guess that is life and this is how it goes. I want to mention him here because his life, his sickness, his suffering from Mesotheleoma and his passing, have all had a profound impact on me. It wouldn’t seem right not to mention this to you, as it’s with a compounded sentimentality that I make this blog entry. However, the loss, and his inspiration and friendship only firm my resolve to carry on. He was proud of my work and admired my determination, “Albeit a little audacious at times,” he would say mockingly.

With a sense of fatality, I must now turn my mind towards the next task, another unknown quantity and an undertaking of indefinite result. 1600 kilometres of unsealed, corrugated roads, into the heart of the desert. Our return visit to Kiwirrkurra, one of the most remote communities on Earth, situated in our back yard, amongst the sand dunes of the Gibson Desert near the Northern Territory border. It will be a test for the old White Rhino and I need to get under her hood and get her ready. We roll out at 3pm today.

 

 

Day 9
Sunday, 8th July
Nullagine to Telfer

We got away on the Old Marble Bar Road by 3pm after some running repairs to the truck, a sticking accelerator cable was causing some issues. I governed the revs up a few 100rpm too, so it idled higher. Under a load the hydraulics where having issues.

Ewan is a fully qualified truckie now, and so he took his first shift at the big wheel. We also discovered that Cassie has a truck licence, being an ex-mining girl from the 90s. So we have four potential drivers now for the road. Although, we have lost the invaluable Emily for the next two weeks, which will be interesting for all of us. The DFT has never been on the road without her before. It may be a good test for our continuity. If the DFT is to grow, it needs to be independent of both of us at some stage, and this is an opportunity to see how we manage. It was a tough choice for her, a visit of substantial duration on country at Kiwirrkurra Community or an opportunity to perform in a symphony with Russian conductor Vladimir Verbitsky. I am happy she can broaden her musical resume, and it will be a feather in her cap. It is also great that she can pursue her classical career alongside the folk music of the Orphans and her huge commitment to DFT too. All these experiences only make her more valuable to the project, but anyway, she will be sorely missed.

Our first stop was Nullagine, where we pulled up at Garden Pool to find it was bone dry, much to our surprise. Only 2 months ago at the last WDSC, we had been swinging from the ropes and doing back flips off the trees. I would have thought it held water all year ’round?! We had been excitedly telling Nixy and Cassie about washing in the river and drying off by a hot fire, but we were deprived of our customary dip. Cassie consoled us by making a mad lentil curry in the earth oven, I’m sure everything tastes 100 times better in the open on a hot coal fire. Why did we ever move into houses with electric stoves?

In the morning, we did utilise some modern conveniences though, a hot shower at the Nullagine Caravan Park, thanks to our old acquaintances Tracy and John. We also ran into Annabell, Butlers daughter, who gave us a warm welcome and invited us to go camping on our way back. It was like homecoming for us, it was nice to remembered and recognised.

Up at the store we ran into Bruce, the CEO of the Irrungadji Community. He had a huge bus filled with the Nullagine Football team, supporters and their family. When I looked at the bus, the first thing I thought was, “How the hell is that going to make it to Kiwirrkurra?” But then I remembered, these guys can get a lowered Commodore out to Well 33 in wet season, so I should probably be more worried about myself. Anyway, they left before me, and told me they would drive through the night, straight to Kiwirrkurra. A hell of a mission.

Our plan was to wait for the buses from Jigalong, which were supposed to be coming through at midday. We would drive in convoy with them to a camp out by Telfer, but by 1pm they still hadn’t showed. I left word with the roadhouse owner to tell them we had gone on ahead to the camp spot. I had found out from Bruce where they intended to stay, and I knew the spot well. It is a regular stop for any traffic from Punmu or Telfer, as there is a dam there with a windmill.

It took us the rest of the day to get there, and once again, we found no water. The dam was dry. This road is a major thoroughfare for Telfer Gold Mine trucks, and so the road is wide and mostly well kept. The trucks tend to corrugate it badly though, which makes it hard going in the old Hino. No matter how much I spend on the steering and suspension, she just rattles around like a jackhammer. You feel every bump, and she’s not exactly dust-proof either.

We made camp and watched the sun set over a vast and flat desert, ’til the Milky Way began to appear. At first, in singular twinkling of dots and then more rapidly, like scattered diamonds, until Bryte said, “The Milky Way is more like a Milky Rainbow out here.”

The occasional semi-trailer rolled though the darkness like thunder, their appearances juxtaposed in such a remote location. But the road east of here would have no more semis. Just up ahead, the corrugated track forked, and the northern leg would travel above Telfer to Punmu, past the salt lakes of the Great Sandy Desert, out past Kunawatiji cross the Canning Stock Route at well 33 and take up Gary Junction Road, east across to Kiwirrkurra. That old road was pressed though in the 60s by Len Beadell, and is not usually in the best nick, it’s used only by the Traditional Owners, and the odd adventurous 4X4 tourists.

At about 10pm, only one of the two Jigalong buses pulled up. The boys had had to leave the other one in Nullagine because there was some sort of vacuum in the cab that was sucking the dust the in, there was more dust in the bus than behind it. The trip from Jigalong to Nullagine is about four hours, Murray said he couldn’t see the person in the seat behind him the dust was so thick so everyone had piled into the one bus.

Telfer sent a scout car out with dinner from the mine’s kitchen and set up a lone table, by a dry dam, on cold nigh,t in the pitch black. All of a sudden, we had four trays of roast beef, ten pizzas and two cartons of water! There we were, huddled around a remote table in the desert, under the headlights of a bus in the open cold air, covered in stars, freezing, eating hot pizza with about 200 of the mob from Jigalong.

About 10 minutes later, the Nullagine bus went past, 50 people with their heads out the window yelling and waving with excitement. I do not know how they got so far behind us. We never passed them, nor did we see them at any where? It’s a mystery that I contemplated as I dozed off under the open night sky.

 

Day 10
Monday, 9th July
Telfer to Kunawarritji

In the morning I cranked the fire up and boiled the biggest pot of tea i could find. The Jigalong bus and the Desert Feet Tour took turns at cramming around the fire in the freezing morning until everyone had a cup of tea and some cereal, and then one by one they loaded back onto the bus.

A black Commodore with no back window passed us by, so full it hardly had any clearance. How on Earth it had got out here is a miracle. More than likely it just had an experienced bush driver at its wheel. If you’ve ever seen the TV series Bush Mechanics, you’ll know what I mean. It’s not uncommon to see two-wheel drives on communities, and I find it an impressive feat.

We had planned to rendezvous at Kunawarritji around midday, and set a designated emergency satellite phone connection time if no one had met up by the afternoon, but the road was boggy and had many washouts. I can’t understand how the bus even got through, to be honest, and I expected to see it on the side of the road any minute. It was 3pm before we rolled into Kunawarritji, and there was no way we would make through to Kiwirrkurra tonight. The bus was determined to press on, but I decided to drive ’til dark and stop.

In Kunawarritji, that black Commodore was there at the filler. I got friendly wave from the occupants and I flashed them a smile, it was one that didn’t last long when I realised I had to pay $3.60 a litre for fuel. Between the truck and the Prado, it cost me $1100 to top up. However, I made a small portion of it back on a Rip Stick I found in the store for only $80, which usually sells for $120 at Target. So I bought that for the kids in Kiwirrkurra. There had been one left out on the basketball court at Warralong, and the kids loved it, so I thought I could make a contribution to the Kiwirrkurra court. It’s funny how sometimes you can find really good deals in a remote Indigenous community store of some obscure item that you can’t find anywhere else, but then have to pay $15 for a bag of ice and $5 for liter of milk. I once bought a hat at the Nookanbah store for $160. It’s the beautiful black Statesmen that I wear to this day. Then two years later, I bought another one exactly the same for $80 in the same store. I bought a nice cowboy shirt in one store with no label or tag. Everyone asks me where I got it, and I have never seen another one like it again anywhere, I think I paid like 40 bucks for it or something.

The Prado went up ahead to find a good camp spot, and just on nightfall we saw their fire. Tony bought a new hat at Newman, its a beautiful light cream colour, probably closer to off-white or camel. He broke it out at the campfire this morning, but no one is allowed to touch it. He looks the perfect cowboy in it. Like Marlboro man. We all made jokes about christening it, but no one was game to really do it. He said in all seriousness, “You know what it means if you touch a cowboys hat? It means to want to kiss him,” and so after that we were all too scared to even contemplate it.

Around the fire that night, Richard relayed the story of how Tony had mounted it on the Prado dash to protect it from being crushed, as it didn’t fit on his head inside the car. On the bitumen that was fine, but out here on the dirt, every time they went over a bump it would slide off. Tony spent the whole trip picking it up and putting it back on the dash with tender loving care.

The fire was so warm it mesmerized us into a primal trance. I pulled my swag up close to it and the heat warmed my face like a hot shower. Seen from above, we would have looked like a swag flower, with all our beds radiating outwards like petals. I undid the end of mine so it opened onto the heat, and lay on my belly, looking into the flames that danced a little jig on the Bloodwood, a dance of dry, cold night air. That is the last thing I remember.

 

Day 11
Tuesday, 10th July
Kunawarritji to Kiwirrkurra

The guys told me I fell asleep with my hands under my chin looking into the fire, but I had set my swag east and so my first eyeful of the new world was a slice of orange leaking in over the rim of the desert horizon. Then a yellow hump dissected it’s long and level verge until the orange turned blood red, then blue, and within seconds the urgent disk of heat was upon us.

Blue was named after a desert sky. The atmosphere here is so empty of any form of interruption, and the land is so flat and wide, it seems like the sky is bigger than normal. Like an upside down ocean, the sky sits on the red dirt, a dome of incomprehensible proportions. Dry, blue and endless, except for the occasional bird.

A few Troopies passed us in the night, I guessed they might be Telfer crew on the way to the carnival, but none of them stopped. One bus went back towards Kunawarritji too, so it looks like there must have been trouble back down the road. We had a big pot of porridge on the hot coals from last night, and I boiled a billy for tea. We had driven for over an hour before dusk, east from Kunawarritji, so I figured we had about 2-3 hours left before we would see Kiwirrkurra. It was midday before the ranges of Pollock Hills, where Kiwirrkurra is nestled, came into view.

We passed through the red barren waste that is the Tali Sand Dunes, looking like a nuclear fallout zone. I do not think there is a more ominous looking part of earth. It’s not like the white rolling dunes of the movies, here they are blood red, like ochre. Spotted with the dead, tortured and twisted shapes of old shrubs, their foliage long gone. They are black branches mysteriously reaching up to a waterless hot sky. It seems impossible that they could have ever harboured foliage, it looks more like someone has just planted burnt stick in the ground to create a backdrop for a movie set. Too unrealistic to be real. That’s the desert for you.

I have only been here once before, and came in from the other direction. Some of the landscapes seemed vaguely familiar, but not knowing exactly how far we had travelled in the arvo yesterday, I really had no idea how long it would take us to get there. I knew the carnival would start this morning, but as long as we arrived in time to set up for the concert, that was the main thing. I figured that the first game would kick off about 9 or 10am and hoped to get there by then, but some of the track was pretty boggy and I was forced to sit in third gear for long lengths of road, dropping our speed down to 30 to 40 kilometres an hour. The harder patches of road had severe washouts, and being on the wrong part of the road could mean rolling a vehicle. In the end, we got there at midday. I kept expecting to see the rocky outcrop over the next sand dune or the next rise, for nearly an hour, which became a bit exhausting. At one point Cassie looked at me and said, “You really don’t realise how far away this place is ’til you’ve drive here, do you?!” in a half statement, half question. Three days of solid driving due east, on corrugated and dusty roads will take it out of anyone. In all, I estimate it took four hours to travel the last 200 kilometres. It was well worth it when we arrived. Many familiar faces, the legendary Nicole Graves from V Swans, old friends from the last carnival, and of course our host with the most, Michael Plumb (aka Healthy Mike), who I have run into on country here and there since 2008. Now working for Newcrest in community development, he oversees all the WDSC activities for the Martu and is pretty much the 1IC for this whole massive gathering of organisations, sports associations, services and Martu Communities.

It seems the Nullagine bus had broken down west of Kunawarritji, as I had predicted. The bus we saw last night was heading back to pick up the stranded residents. Oddly, we never passed any broken down vehicle, otherwise obviously, we would have stopped to help. How this occurred again I can’t understand, there is only one road, and we were behind them!? The mystery of the disappearing and reappearing Nullagine bus will never be solved I guess.

This area is under Native Title, which was determined successfully in October 2001. Kiwirrkurra itself is located near the NT border, in the “Tali” (sandhill) country of the Gibson Desert, to the south west of Lake McKay. It is in the Shire of East Pilbara, and within the service area of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands of Western Australia. The Community is approximately 800km west of Alice Springs and 1200km east of Port Hedland.

The community is home to a group of Pintubi that first had contact with Western society in 1984. There are about 150-200 people living at Kiwirrkurra, depending on the time of year. There is strong family connections with Kintore, Papunya, Balgo, Well 33 (Kunawarritji), Punmu, and Tjukurla and thus, lots of cultural activities; hunting, gathering bush products, hosting people from other communities, travelling on culture and lore business, and participating in ceremonies and cultural activities of significance.

Kiwirrkurra (pronounced Kirrkurra, with slightly rolled r’s) people speak Pintupi or Luritja dialects of the Western Desert, mostly used by Papunya and Walungurru comunites but also Ernabella, Kaltukatjarra, Warakurna and Balgo Hills. It is not part of the Martu Native Title but there are strong ties between Punmu, Well 33 and Kiwirrkurra people. It is also a community that sits precariously in a grey area. It has a state school (the most remote school on Earth) funded by the West Australian Education Department, yet it operates on NT time. It sits outside the prosperous Martu area which harbours much resources and so prosper somewhat from mining leases. It’s also too dry and too far away for any cattle or pastoral leases, it is a no-man’s-land. A forgotten and unwanted part of Australia, so remote and so isolated that it inadvertently protected its Traditional Owner until 1984. It’s absolute remoteness and the sandy country that surrounds it has preserved the culture and language like nowhere else in Australia. It is, in fact, one of our greatest resources and an anthropological asset of immeasurable value. If you are lucky enough, like I, to be invited here, it will change your life forever. If you want to come here, you can contact the Lands Council and get permits to pass over native title, they will tell you where you can go and where you can’t drive. Kiwiwrrkurra does sell fuel to 4X4 tourists and has a store you can visit, and by doing so you might get to meet some of the locals. It is also a good thing to do, because the money supports the community. They also have a great women’s centre with some really fine art. The big famous atists out here like Bobby West, and Luna Ellis, are all signed to the art galleries now so you wont get anything like that. However, two of Bobby’s daughters paint, Joanne and Vivian West, and anything you buy of theirs will be an investment. Likewise, anything from Luna Ellis’ daughters Roxxan or Sahra. Also, Denise Reid and her daughter do exquisite work that I predict will seriously increase in value very soon. Having said that, any of this work is genuine and authentic, because of the remoteness of the location and fantastic cultural value of this mob.

If you want to learn more about the Pintubi, they have been the subject of several documentaries, including “Benny and the Dreamers” made by Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, and more recently a BBC documentary. The latter featured some of the community members known as the “1984 mob”. They were a family of 9, who had maintained a nomadic subsistence life in the area around Kiwirrukura until they had their first contact with Western society in 1984.

Walmatjarri, Kukatji and Pintupi Language borders overlap a little, but most Martu will tell you they can understand Pintupi. It’s a beautiful language to listen to, it rolls off the tongue in bouncy popping phrases, accentuated with lots of high exclamations. It’s sort of catchy too, like a song. I often find myself repeating a phrase that I heard, in spite of having no idea what it means. It just feels good to say it. Often this language sounds like a freestyle rapper going so fast you cannot understand the words, a continuous stream of uninterrupted rhyming flow. Colourful vocabulary variations full of primal, earthy sounds. They like a joke too, they will often laugh heartily after their exchanges. It’s really pleasant to be around, and makes one aware of the beauty that we have in our back yard, with their rich and ancient array of languages. Out here a lot of the guys don’t speak any English at all, and I never feel like their conversations are held in language to be exclusive, like I have in other countries. It’s quite the opposite, they always try hard to talk with us, but it can be slow going with that thick rich accent. When I’m taking down the names for the performance details, sometimes I just cannot get it. I’ll be asking one guy his name, and then when I repeat what I thought I heard, I’ll get an explosion of laughter from the others. Then all of them try to tell me at once and I end up so lost I have to give them the pen and let them write it for me. Sometimes they cant write or are too embarrassed, and so I just end of with some version of what it sounded like.

My name out here is Kumanytjay (pronounced kumunjay), which seems to have stuck since last year. In spite of the fact that it’s a Pintupi word, the Martu kids seem to use it too.

Concert in the desert.

As soon as we got to the basketball court, Eric West pulled up in a clapped out old Commodore with no windows. He had the closest thing I have ever seen to a smile on his stoic and deeply grooved face. Eric is a ‘West’, and a very senior young man out here, and he wears that responsibility well. A real sense of privilege comes over me whenever I’m around him, he has the quality of pride without any vanity. Power without physical might. He is tapped into something you and I can’t see. You would never find an Eric West in the City. These polar opposite characteristics cannot exist around ego and desire. He is a tiny little man with limbs like fragile bird wings, yet he plays football like a demon possessed. He seems to feel no pain, and plays whole games without coming off the field where others will interchange three or four times. He gave me a light handshake without making eye contact and then remained silent. We both looked out over the football oval quietly for a while, “Have you got a full team?” I asked suggestively, (Three carnivals in a row now I have played for the Kiwirrkurra team, so I’m pretty keen to play with them again). “You’ll play.” was all he said in response, his tone flat and expressionless. I’m not sure if that was a statement or a question, so I just answer the affirmative. “Band tonight?” he asked, almost too quite to hear. The wind swilled up a small willy willy of dust around us and we waited until it passed. “Every night, if you’re keen?” I challenged him. “Yep, we bin practice.” And with that statement, the whole long journey was worth it.

Lazerous was next to arrive, his mighty grin a beacon of white teeth. He is a beautiful looking man, tall and lean as is their nature. He ties his hair back from an undercut into a high bun on top of his head, which along with his flaring nostrils, gives him the appearance of a fierce warrior. His cheek bones and face structure speak of confidence and strength, if the laws of physiognomy have any truth. His teeth are brilliant white, and his lips seem most comfortable in a wide revealing smile. If even the slightest humour is present, his face smiles involuntarily, uncontrollably. The smile starts in the corner near his eye, erupts across his nose in a flaring of nostril then explodes out of the lighthouse of his mouth. He was very animated and gave me a warm greeting. His eyes lit up at the mention of band tonight, and he raced off to tell his mates.

We spent the rest of the day getting the gear set up, and when the the Kiwirrkurra Band jumped on the stage after our performances, Lazerous, normally on bass, was on keys; Eric, normally on rhythm, was on bass; Gean, the lead singer was nowhere to be seen; and Tristan, normally on keys, was on rhythm?! The only one that hadn’t changed was Adam James on drums. We were perplexed! These guys are so talented, I shouldn’t be surprised, really. When they began to play, they did not sing one song that we knew, they had an entirely new set!

The first night was another memorable concert. It felt good to be back again. Good to be with our Martu friends, good to be on country, good to see it all happen again. Just, good. It’s like watching dolphins, you can’t ever really get sick of it. Once again, the ever-arching dome of stars was the architecture of our homemade desert concert. On the back of an open truck, the sounds of desert reggae, the stomping of bare feet in the dust, the crazy run-in-run out dance style of the Martu, the frantic electric hip-shaking energy. Good times.

The boundary of our limited light cast out upon the open wilderness, and just beyond its veil, as is the custom, the stage was encircled by vehicles whose headlights peered in from the darkness as if they had come to the drive-ins. Others had lit fires around the periphery, and huddled together against the biting cold desert winds. The children, as always, were the first to dance and never left the spotlight in front of the stage. As the night went on, and as others gained confidence, the area in front become gradually occupied and the darkness around less active, until it reached the climax, when it seemed everyone was on the dance floor. The first night went right through until 1:30am.

 

Day 12
Wednesday, 11th July
Day 2 of the Western Desert Sports Carnival (WDSC)

In the morning our team headed straight over to the classroom. Kim, the School Principal that we met here last year, was good enough to offer us the use of the high school room to run the workshops. This is handy for us, not least because he has whiteboards and power and all the necessary commodities to make a workshop effective, but also because we find that if we run them in the classroom, kids will act like they are in school and tend to listen more.

The icing on the cake was when we had the room ready to round up an audience, Sandie the Fairy face painter (out here for Newcrest) walked across the football field with me, and between us we rounded up 21 kids. She set up her little stall in the corner and continued to paint faces through our workshop, which helped to ensure we had a resident audience.

Richard and I tried to do a song writing workshop straight after Bryte’s, but the kids were just too wound up by then, and although we did get something down, we decided to come back tomorrow with a better plan.

For the concert tonight, the community chipped in for the BBQ. The ensuing flavoursome smoke drew a crowd early. However, there is a bug going around the camp, which is taking us out one by one. Miranda, one of the Newcrest girls, got it first and was out for the whole day. Bryte got it yesterday and was so sick today he could not even play at the concert. I had many of the symptoms today, and by the time the concert came around, I had lost my voice altogether. I tried to perform, as two of the Newcrest guys wanted to film the John Watson Song. They had heard Richard and I doing a sound check last night, it was the first time Richard and I had played together since November last year, and he has never played that song before at all. We were just mucking around and could not even remember how we had played it. I should have said no, but my ego said “do it.” It was a mistake right from the start. Ewan had left something in the office and we could not start. While he was gone, the Newcrest guys waited patiently. By the time he got back, a couple of the kids had wound the nuts up so hard on the bass we couldn’t get it back in tune. Then when we finally got going, poor old Bryte, so doped up on antihistamines, missed every stop on the drums and the song fell apart like a loose hessian sack. On the chorus, I lost my voice completely. It was a scary feeling, I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I’m sure the Newcrest guys thought they had found a pack of nuts. They promised me they understood, but the damage was done. I was so demoralised and sick that I fell asleep in the back of the truck with ear plugs cuddled up to the dog. Music is like that. You can be on fire, and you can crash in burn. Tonight I crashed.

Thinking the concert would rage until midnight again, I figured I could get an hour or so sleep, and then help pack up. It must have been the absence of noise that woke me, at 1030pm I woke bolt upright. The night was deathly silent and black. When I flung the door open, only crickets chimed. It was the weirdest feeling. Like being the last man on earth. The place was empty, dead, silent and dark. Not a soul around.

Back at the camp, Ewan informed me that only the Punmu band had played. The Kiwirrkurra boys had got up for a while but could not get it together, a lot of people must have been sore from the football and few boys were missing, so everyone had gone home and they packed at about 10pm. I was so sick, so tired, and so cold, that I went straight to my swag, and with two shirts, my only jumper, and the new jacket and beanie that Cassie had bought me in Newman I jumped straight into both sleeping bags, one pulled inside the other, zipped up the swag right around and within seconds I fell asleep with my hands across my chest, coffin style. That was how I woke up at 5am. Still in the same position, only freezing.

 

Day 13
Thursday, 12th July
Day 3 of the WDSC

Bryte is now so sick we will send him home tomorrow with the Telfer mob. Ewan, Richard, Nixy and I have a plan for a workshop and have a song ready to go. We used the Fairy face painter and the Clown to bring in the kids like a Pied Piper, and had an even bigger audience than yesterday. Nixy read out the Simon Swan book so they had a bit of an idea about healthy food before we wrote the song, which turned out great (you can listen to it on Soundcloud). As sick as Bryte was, he still ran his graffiti workshop.

Footy Time

Now for the serious business. With our workshop commitment fulfilled it was time to get a game. I came back after some lunch and watched the semi finals with the Kiwirrkurra boys from an old truck chassis jacked up on 44 gallon drums. Bobby watched from his Land Cruiser chariot nearby. This game between Punmu and Nullagine, would decide the grand final contestant. The loser would play tomorrow morning before the grand final against the winner of the next game between Kiwirrkurra and Warralong. The boys needed the win to get through, and I was there for the dress down from the coach. His trade mark RM William boots stomping in the dust with determination and his big woolly hair lightly dusted moved to and fro with the exertion. He spotted me in the crowd (I sort of stand out around here) and pointed with a crooked finger, “Ruck.” someone jabbed a sweaty Lions’ jumper into my belly, i heard “Kumunjay, Kumunjay” murmured around the crowd, several big white smiles beamed at me. I’m never sure if they are laughing at how bad a footballer i am or cause they think it’s funny that this white guy keeps coming back for more. Milton patted me affectionately. He made like an imitation of a war dance, evidently to psych me up. He speaks no English at all, but he is the best Full Back I have ever seen in action, we have played together in the backline lotes now. I like it there, I can’t make too many mistakes and if you just stick to your man you can’t go much wrong. We’re are old teammates now.

I was on the field for the first quarter only, but it was time enough for me to take a mark in the centre, off a very clean pass from Sylvester. I took it overhead and when the whistle sounded there was no one around. I started to run, but memories of what happened when I tried to outrun Martu last time flooded back in, and I could hear my bones cracking. Lazarus was on my flank and flapped his arms as if to shepherd me, but I heard coach Simon call out from the sideline, “Kick it long!” That was all the persuasion I needed. Moving forward with all my speed, and on the run I dropped the ball to my boot. I’m not the best kick, I have the power but not the control but the wind got under her, and the ball landed on my foot plum, she went up for what seemed an eternity, long and straight and high. I heard a few Ohhhh’s from the sideline. Then the boys went up in a pack. It was taken solidly in the full forward position by Conway, whom converted it into a goal. I wanted to leave on a high, so I ran off the field then.

I learnt a few lessons last carnival; breathe through the nose so your throat doesn’t clag up with volumes of the red dust, and keep sipping water all day to stay really hydrated. It was not as hot here as it was in Nullagine, which helped a lot too. The other real secret is to keep interchanging regularly, like every 10 minutes for 5 minutes. That way you can really keep going hard. However of course, that is a luxury of a full side. This is a home game for Kiwirrkurra, and so fortunately, that was a luxury we had today.

Ewan did the interchange with me and he ran a great game as always. He got a couple of kicks, some possessions and a few handballs. Ewan is no slouch, tall, lean and fast, but whenever he picked up the ball and started running, from the sideline it just looked like he was in slow motion next to these guys, and being the tallest and only white guy on the field, he stood out. I had never noticed before because I’m usually on the field with him, I was laughing to myself when I realised just how we must look. Still, in spite of his evolutionary handicaps he made a decisive play that won the game! It started off badly, his man had slipped him and taken a mark in the opponents forward quarter. But Ewan caught up in time to stand on the mark. A goal was imminent, it was an easy shot, but in his haste and not calculating Ewan’s height, he made the kick without setting up properly. A loud clap resulted. The ball went through square for a goal but Tony who was goal ump’ tapped the back of his hand and waved one flag only.

At that stage there were about five minutes left and there was only two goals the difference. There was still the chance that Warralong could have won with a few fast plays but instead they chucked a dummy spit.

From that point on, I don’t really know what happened. There was lots of loud talk, then the umpire walked off the field. Threw his shirt and whistle on the ground, and left the oval altogether. So that was the end of the game. I’m not sure if Warralong got disqualified, quit or just had no umpire, but the game was over and Kiwirrkurra had won.

To my understanding, there would be a Preliminary Final in the morning then the Grand Final. It would be the third carnival in a row Kiwirrkurra had got into the Preliminaries or Grand Final, and victory seemed imminent. They are the home side, have the biggest support and are playing well. Maybe they just started the celebrations a little early.

Big concert night

In the meantime, Ewan and I had to get the stage set up for tonight. We predicted, if last carnival was anything to go on, that tonight would be the big one. And we were right.

The crowd peaked at around 10-11pm . The distances that other communities have had to travel had kept a lot of people away, and a death in Jigalong meant lots of people were on Sorry Business, so numbers were down from the Nullagine carnival, but the spirit was there, and a mighty crowd ensued. At one point everyone was up, in a huge group, Circle Dancing. Someone would run in, and loud laughter and applause would ensue. It was a highlight of the trip so far, to be around such unity and enjoyment.

Richard shot a great bit of video from the top of the truck with a fish eye lens that showed the whole scene. Kiwirrkurra Band with their hoods pulled down low against the cold night air, and the encircling dancers keeping warm by moving around in a big circle. Little fires lit up the periphery of basketball court, while the stage lighting burnt a hole in the vacuum of the night. Its luminosity pushed back the curtain of darkness, creating a small pocket of brilliance that shone out into the atmosphere, past the moon and into the airless void above. On our stage before the universe, set up for the stars, the Kiwirrkurra Band sent a message out to the world, encoded in reggae, disguised with music, and spoken in an ancient tongue. “We are still here! After all these millennium, we are still here!”

 

Day 14
Friday, 13th July
Day 4 of the WDSC, Grand Final Day

The tension could blunt a knife. There were some disputes over the elimination system used in the finals. In the Kiwirrkurra camp, the big guns were called in. Longman lit a fire to sit by, and Bobby even got out of his Land Cruiser to sit with him. The players held their silence around such senior men, and at one point one of the coaches started asking me questions in an aggressive way. I had never met him before, and Coach Simon told him quickly, “He band mob, not council.” Bobby laughed and reached out a hand, patting me on the knee. It was a sublime moment, as a small murmur of laughter went round the encircling boys until Bobby began to talk again. Even Jimmy the preacher with his big white hat and cowboy boots showed up, and Ewan was sent off to fetch Healthy Mike. The heavens above were a brilliant blue, a mackerel sky of painted white clouds streaked evenly around the curvature of the Earth, as if someone with an overview of the whole planet had painted it with a steady hand, neat and straight. The fresh air bit at any exposed skin like a puppy with sharp teeth, windless, but dry and cold.

Mike sat in the red sand cross-legged and palmed the dirt level with a callused hand. He respectfully let each of the Elders speak, then broke the issue down into two sections. Using the red dirt as a blackboard, he chalked his answers into the sand with a thick strong finger, like a story board. The Elders watched intensely and when he was finished Bobby gave an asserting grunt. Longman was not so convinced, and asked further questions expressing his disapproval of the outcome. In the end though he consented, and so the game could begin.

I went straight out in a shirt 5 sizes too tight. At first it felt protective, but when I lost my breath my chest couldn’t expand far enough, and so I had to come off after only 10 minutes. I had Ewan prise the jersey off me with a knee and several yanks. Air flooded back into my lungs again. We played well the first three quarters, but in the last quarter Punmu were too good for us and kicked four goals in a row off the bounce down. I was rucking at the time and I won all four ball ups, but it just didn’t matter, there were Punmu men loose everywhere, in fact, it looked like two teams of Punmu and not much else. We had no comeback, and so for a third carnival in a row we had missed out on going into the Grand Final. It will be a good year if we ever win one, that is a day I look forward to.

The game between Punmu and Nullagine was a smoker, but Nullagine were to strong in the end. Not bad considering they nearly didn’t even make it here in their magical disappearing bus. As soon as the trophies had been given out all the communities lined up in the centre of the oval to have a ceremony. Apparently, it was a mourning ceremony, and we all watched in awe as the women wailed their primal song of loss, brushing down each person in the line with a branch of leaves hugging and embracing each other. Cassie got quite emotional and I was oddly affected too. We remained silent, not sure if we should even be watching, but too captivated to leave. Then, all of a sudden it was over, and within seconds Kiwirrkurra was a ghost town. Rolling debris drifted across the football field like tumbleweed, forgotten and discarded shirts and beds lined the camp sites, dust gathered up from the departing vehicles, and silence fell over the land again as the desert closed back in around us. It was literally as fast as that. One minute all a blaze of festivity and sport, the next, deserted!

One funny sight I have to relate was the Punmu bus leaving. Murray had the pedal down as the old bus gathered speed and roared into second gear. Something made him hit the brakes, and in a ball of dust the big old girl pulled up, the air brakes powdered a cloud of silt up high that settled over the whole bus. The door opened with a gaseous release, and someone stepped off, ran back to the camp, picked up some miscellaneous object and ran back. The doors shut with a hiss. Murray wound the old girl up again, got some momentum and shifted her in to second in a groan of black smoke, finally on the road, when suddenly she came to a screaming halt again. Dust flew up, the doors opened, someone jumped out, ran back, picked up a forgotten item, ran back, and jumped back on. The doors hissed shut, the bus roared off again in a cloud of black smoke and, yep you guessed it, someone else had forgotten something. Murray did this little dance about seven times all up before that bus finaly it the road out of Kiwirrkurra.

That night Telfer packed up their camp ready to go early, but there was copious amounts of meat and food left over. We were not going to have a concert but as there was so much food we decided to cook it up and see who came.

At sound check Laz’ got up on bass, and Sylvester hopped on Drums, Ewan ended up playing his whole set that way. He chucked in a few covers and then just jammed out for about half an hour on blues progressions, the boys shredding it up. They never cease to amaze me, they all play every instrument proficiently.

It was a small turn out with a huge feed, and by 8pm everyone had eaten and played, so began the big pack down. By 9:30pm we were back at camp in front of the fire and celebrating the success of the second leg in Kiwirrkurra. Now all we had to do was get back again!

 

Day 15
Saturday, 14th July
Recovery

At 5am I heard the Telfer crew start up. I got up to see them off. It was a bitingly cold morning, the sky was lighting up and the Desert was reappearing from darkness’ curtain. With a fair amount of nostalgia, I said my goodbyes. I feel quite close to some of these guys now after being in three carnivals with them. A few of them, like Plumby, I have known for four or five years. I first met Michael Plumb back in ’09 on our first ever visit to Jigalong, before he worked for Newcrest. He is well known with the Martu, but most impressive is his repertoire of names. I have seen him introduce everyone present at a WDSC meeting by name, there was 50 people in that room. The Martu love him, his quiet and humble manner reflects theirs, and I have seen him called into Council, even with very senior men. He’s just another one of the many nameless heroes trying to patch the misdeeds of our forefathers out here in a forgotten land, an anonymous soldier.

As the Telfer mob rolled out, the camp fell back into it’s eternal silence. The ancient desert’s stillness rolled back in like a vacuum. The clatter and scramble for the vehicles, the last minute jobs, the warm embraces and pleasantries, the beeping reverse sirens of the fully decked out mine spec’ Troopies all climaxed in a whirl of dust, and then were swallowed up by the deathly immobility of a quiet land once again. A strange sentimentality descended on me as another chapter closed in the Desert Feet Tour. New friends made, and old friends lost even if only temporarily. For us, we are only half way through our trip and the most exciting days are yet to come. We have a week before we need to be back in Newman for the Jigalong and Kiwirrkurra Band concert in the park. Hopefully, we will go in convoy with the boys (Kiwirrkurra Band and Bobby), take it slowly and camp out on the way. I have allowed a few day to get back and we will need it all.

 

Day 16

Sunday, 15th July 
Mixing with the boys

When I packed the truck down yesterday, I had to take all the tape off the windows. We had set the truck up before we realised it was parked opposite the softball ground. Ashley and Torri were worried I might cop an unlucky hit and lose a window. Driving 1200km on dirt roads without a front windscreen did not deserve contemplation and as much as it seemed unlikely, I decided to oblige them anyway. I found two great big ply boards over at the dongers, that I taped onto the front windscreen, then Tony made a sort of grill out of gaffer tape for the driver side windows by running it vertically over the side vision mirror. The truck looked like a Roadrunner out of Mad Max. The driver’s side just looked like a prison cell door. Sure enough the first ball of the first game got smashed for a six. (Or a home run I thing they call it in softball.) Anyway, it went high and long, and everyone held their breath as it headed for the truck. The ball hit the right hand driver’s side corner window on the full. It was the only window not taped up, and the smallest of all the windows in the vehicle! It was the only vulnerable place left, and it hit it on the full. By a miracle it didn’t break, but the precedent was set and after that it became a running joke that you had to try and hit the truck for extra points. The big white mark of a round softball is there on my window to prove that life has a sense of humour, and Murphy was laughing at this incident. What are the odds?

We have allocated four or five days to just stay here and work with the Kiwirrkurra Band. Ewan wants to give them a few sessions on the mixing side of things and we need to sit down with them and Bobby together, and work out an arrangement with the music and media so we can try to negotiate a management/promotion, recording and production deals for them. We have three concerts lined up if they can come on the rest of the tour with us, and have now produced a live CD of them. There is much to do. We need to build them a website, get funding to produce a studio CD, get them registered with APRA and shoot a good film clip for them. We can use all this to promote them and we are silently confident we can create a bit of public interest in their music. We are not talking about a Justin Bieber here, some kid singing love songs someone else wrote for him. We are talking about a rich cultural inheritance. These guys sing in an ancient language, they are the last of their kind, this is a truly profound and unique experience you get when you hear these guys. But best of all is they are smoking hot, gun musicians, with great tunes and catchy licks that anyone can enjoy and dance to. We would like to be the ones that bring them into the consciousness of Australia.

It’s not a step we have taken lightly, we have taken advice from APRA/AMCOS and then got a bit of our own legal advice. We spent the whole day storyboarding ideas on a blackboard with Bobby and the band. A few of the Senior men even came and stayed for the whole thing. Even Longman had a bit to say about it. Very enthusiastic also was Mathew Bibul, he is a highly respected musician in these parts, and we have recorded some of his songs too. He is also a total legend out here, he is the guy that found the last nine in 1984.

He tells the story of how the Pintubi 9 came at him with spears, fearing he was about to be stabbed to death, he fired his shotgun into the air. The Pintubi 9 all froze, never having heard a gunshot before or ever seen a gun. He is a real character and worth a good chat if you can catch him up the store some time.

The community has been in quite a buzz. One little fellow, Harold, wrote in Ewan’s diary “So happy for the Kiwirrkurra Band.” It seems they have the support of all, the storeowners told me they sold out of Kiwirrkurra Band CDs in the first 10 minutes. But the real pay-off is some of the senior men getting behind the band. The next thing we need to work out is the logistics of this tour. It’s a long way from home for these guys into Gumala Lands, where they have no family. We have a concert for them in Newman on the 22nd in the park, then we have asked them to perform at the next two communities we will visit out of Tom Price in the West Pilbara, Wakathuni and Youngaleena. All up it is about 3000 km round trip for them. Half the band is underage, and only two of them have a licence. Bobby will have to be their legal guardian and supply the vehicles.

That night as we sat around the campfire, we heard the boys jamming over at the Office. Ewan, Richard and I walked down to make an appearance and hang out. This time Laz was on keys, scissoring it up like a virtuoso pianist, the old key board propped up on a 44-galon drum, his black silhouette framed against the light from the doorway, and there, in the darkness of the veranda, they forged their musical skills, no frills, no airs and no expectations. Just another night of raw Desert Reggae, blasted into obscurity and lost in the outback air. Another night of pounding sounds into shape with miscellaneous instruments of little value, spitting out intuitive riffs and rhythms of unique structure, effortlessly. Adam was doing some reggae chops a beaten old drum kit. Easily rolling through off beats, like a Rastafarian grove master, making it look easy, never missing a hit, never losing tempo. I wondered where he had learnt those chops, or if he had just discovered them. There is a metronome inside all these guys, I’m sure of it.

 

Day 17

Monday, 16th July
Desert Feet Records 

The Kiwirrkurra Band have something unique to offer the Australian music scene, there is no doubt. The question is, how do we offer them access to it yet preserve what makes them so unique, the remoteness and isolation that has preserved a real humility and innocence coupled with a profound and inspirational natural talent.

Someone asked me the other day, had I heard Geoffrey Yunupingu. They had just watched a documentary on him that night. I said “Geoffrey is not an anomaly. He is an example. I know five guys like him on every community.” Lazarus is 17 and can play all the instruments of his band proficiently. Sylvester, 16, can do the same, all with a light hearted smile. They would never tell you how good they are, nor do they even think anything of it, it’s just something to do. No big deal. I watch 4 year old kids on every community I visit play the Wipeout drum roll with a branch on an old pot. There is talent out here in excess, and if anyone has the right to sing the blues, it’s our mob.

The thing is, you will never know about it, because they won’t tell you and most of you won’t come here to see it. For a promoter to hire a band, first it has to have a presence. It has to have a demo they can listen to, a site they can visit and most of all, in order to receive performance royalties and returns, they have to be registered with APRA/AMCOS or a publisher. No one living on a remote community can register their songs or band for copyright (other than the copyright that exists by default) as they do not meet the criteria for registration.

That’s where the Desert Feet Inc can help some of these remote musicians, by administrating copyright for them, developing their web presence, creating a press kit and promoting their music, and of course by registering as a publisher with APRA. We have already recorded and produced lots of their music so this is the natural progression and the beginning of a brave and exciting new development for the DFI. This might be a solution for a lot of the musicians that we seem to be unearthing ‘en masse’ out here. By creating access to the technology and recording equipment, I think more bands will develop rapidly. The talent is there, just not the opportunities, yet.

 

Day 18

Tuesday, 17th July
MTV on the Rock

As our first act of commitment to our first clients under the brand new label born in the desert, we offered to shoot their very first music video clip. It is the first time I have ever seen Eric get animated. When the community found out we were shotting a video clip, we suddenly had a large audience, so we decided we could stage a concert in the desert, and have the community dancing in front of them out in the open desert, a film crew might spend thousands looking for a location shoot like these guys had in their back yard and Richard wanted to try out his hand at making a clip.

In truth i think it was just an excuse for him to finally get out his tri-copter for a serious trial. Bobby decided on the location and even had a few cool ideas for the shoot. He wanted the boys to sit on these huge red boulders that stick out of the desert at a sacred water hole. It was a huge privilege to go there, a special opportunity for us to be here with these guys on country.

Richard shot a heap of cool interviews footage among the rocks with the band while Ewan set up the equipment on top of the boulders. The plan was we would have them lip sync the song and film it from a heap of angles. Then (if we could) get an aerial shot from the Tri-copter, a sweeping overhead view of the boys on a huge red rock, the rolling plains of wide open desert under a setting sun surrounding them, it would be a killer clip.

I have been watching Richard muck around with his tri-copter since he arrived in Newman. I’d become convinced that he just liked toying with it, and that it was not actually capable of real flight, nor would it produce any serious film. So when he offered to use it for the film clip i was sceptical. But after all the filming and then all the community coming out plus setting up for the shot i was getting really anxious.

All that was left was the pass over from Richards’s ingenious toy. The boys were perched up on the rock, singing the song again for the 20th time and were becoming restless. Richard, like a mad professor, had his bag of tricks sprinkled all over the sand, he tinkered away lovingly over the bits of PVC pipe and electrical parts that were crudely taped together in the form of a T shaped helicopter. If you had seen it in action, you would be sceptical that it could really fly, let alone get 100 foot high in this wind to take a sweeping aerial view shot.

Finally, it was ready to go for the big flight. I was cynical but hopeful, after making all these promises to Bobby and the boys, I was anxious for Richard to prove me wrong.

Three carloads of people had come out to watch us, and it took all our persuasion to get the kids off the rock for the final shoot. The set was cleared. The actors in position, the equipment had been tested and the batteries were charged. The sun was in prime position and the lighting was perfect.

Richard started the motor and did a test lift off, all was working. Nixy held the aerial above her head like a microphone assistant to a camera man. Richard assumed his position; my job was to pull his vision goggles down over his eyes once he had the chopper in the air. “Wait till I say now!” He ordered. The tension was killing me. The Elders watched with amused bewilderment. The kids fell silent. The tri-copter lifted off the ground, it was all going well, then Bella pounced on it. In my hast to get her away I pulled Richards goggles down to early, blinding him. Three things happened at once. The prop hit Bella, Richard lost control of the chopper and one of the motors stopped. The chopper got no more than six foot high then crashed violently into the ground. An entourage of kids ran to the scene, the shattered Tri-copter lay scattered in the red sand. One of the propellers lay some distance away, the SD card had popped out of the Go Pro, which lay separated from the housing. My dreams lay shattered, everyone was silent. We had blown it.

I felt terrible. The inaugural flight and I had messed it all up. Blinded the pilot in my haste, while my dog attacked the valuable technology like it was an interesting insect. I was apologising profusely when Richard appeared with his bag of tricks and a big smile. “Don’t worry I’ll fix it” he said. Could I dare to hope?

Now my anticipation was threefold. I had watched it crash several times before during his previous test flights. Normally, I would walk off, disinterested and to busy to pay it any mind. But this time I watched him intently. He changed the prop from a spare in his pack, lubricated the sticking motor with a bit of spit, adjusted this screw there, added something else here, tied a few cable ties somewhere else, taped something up, and then declared it ready to try again.

The band resumed their lip syncing, we spent another ten minutes finding all the kids hiding behind rocks that wanted to be in the film, and then we were ready. This time, I could not look; I had to turn my back. I refused to be the one to pull his goggles down and made Cassie do it. I just wanted it to be over. I heard the motors start, heard it take off then heard it soar out of hearing range. A loud cheer went up. When I turned around it was soaring high, hanging on a wind drift. Maybe a few hundred feet up! He drove it like a fighter plane, swooping down on the boys perched high upon the rock, overlooking the amphitheatre of the desert below.

Today The Kiwirrkurra Band were superstars, fused over by the film crew and surrounded by their fans. The bare foot rock stars of the Martu. More famous than Elton John, amongst the Pintubi and bigger than John Butler in Kintore. It was their day but i think we had just as much fun.

Getting filmed by a remote-control tri-copter, in one of the most remote location on earth, with picture perfect conditions, on sacred ground at a water hole in the middle of Australia, does not happen every day for most people! But just like any day, they took it all in stride, no fancy outfits or special treatment, just their standard old clothes and their same old instruments. You could spend a year planning a shoot like that, hiring a film crew, a location adviser a lighting assistant. Getting the permits, flying everyone there and organising the whole deal, spend $100,000 and still end up nothing.
But what we got was something organic and real, natural and beautiful. Honest and Invaluable. Not some R&B Hollywood over produced and fake studio shoot with naked women rubbing themselves all over the place that cost Millions. Where is the artistic endeavour in that? Where is there any art at all in that? What are even doing listening to that stuff when we have our own talent like this??!!

 

Day 19

Wednesday, 18th July
Lake McKay

Lazarus pointed out an overgrown track, it was sign posted by an old tractor tyre in the dirt, about fifty yards north of our dongers, on it someone had painted in white house paint;
Lake McKay
Balgo
Halls Creek

After an hour of diving over ridges of red sand dunes covered in sparsely scattered spinifex, we stated to think we might be lost. We passed some suspiciously fresh looking wrecks, a semi trailer hitch deserted in the desert, alien against the landscape. If you told me they had been dropped there by aliens, it might have seemed more likely than the concept that a semi-trailer had driven here.

Laz had told us we would crest a dune peak and have the white lake explode across our horizon. We developed a reticular activating system of anticipation, for the next hour, every sand dune we approached became anguishing expectancy, followed by anticlimax after anticlimax, each dune that failed to relive the suspense, only served to compound our hope in the next one. It became a rolling joke for the next 45 minutes of the trip as we all built up the tension on the approach to each hill, and exaggerated the disappointment in a chorus groans, preceded by breath holding anticipation till the next one. This went on until it seemed unbearable, and then impossible, and then finally doubtful of ever seeing it, I declared that we must have missed the turn. According to the map, we should now be approaching Balgo. When suddenly we gasped as the landscape turned from red to hot white, the glare of the salt sea below snow-blinded us. The vision smacked us like a back hand after finally giving up. Life is often like that, as soon as you realise you might not get what you want, it appears mysteriously. That’s called the irony of acceptance.

I have seen many salt lakes, but this is a salt ocean. The mirage of its horizon extends nearly 180 degrees. Flat, white, uninterrupted, and sizzling in the heat, like a frozen lake in the desert. The contrast of white against red; a brilliant setting, the sizzling haze of its outer edge made its horizon seem in endless motion, disappearing into the distance like ice on fire. So wide it seemed to reveal the curve of the earth, an alien landscape on a sphere without end.

I wanted to run out into its midst and get footage of someone appearing out of the mirage. So I ran out into its centre, heading for the nothingness in its haze. I jogged for 30 minutes, ‘til I could no longer see anyone at its edge. The further out I ran, the softer the mud became beneath the thick crust of salt, and it soon became hard work. In its heart, I found nothing living. Nothing at all. In fact, anything that had ventured onto the lake had died a dry death. Mummified and dehydrated. Birds, reptiles and insects alike. I found petrified birds, still in perfect condition only hard as a rock, preserved like a carved figure. Insects that looked still alive crumbled on touch. It seems that anything that wandered out here had its life sucked from it. Like Medusas lair, all things had turned to stone. The lake of death.

Soon the salt began to burn my bare toes, grating at my skin like sandpaper, and I turned for the shore and headed for the car, a white dot on a red bank sizzling in the haze of the distance. To my sides, the white reached out as far as I could see. In front of me, the deep red pastels of the land fell into its foreshore like the Arctic meets Hell.

Back at the shore, Richard had the tri-copter running and got some amazing footage of the lake from the sky. As we left, he mounted the remote receiver on the roof of the Prado and drove the tri-copter with his view goggles, from the front seat of the car. He has become a professional at driving that thing now. I think we will end up with a masterpiece documentary from this tour.

Day 20
Thursday, 19th July
Goodbye Kiwirrkurra

WARNING; I get a bit heavy in this blog entry for some reason, it must have been a semimetal outburst. If you don’t feel like having your conscience pricked, then don’t read it!

About Kiwirrkurra, much could be said that is outside the scope of this blog. The magical thing about this place is in its dichotomy. It is vast dry and desolate, yet rich and immensely beautiful at the same time. There is a constant sense of something more than us, something unmeasurable and infinite, a knowing that is more intuitive than intellectual, arriving on a vibration rather than one of the five senses. Maybe it’s in the sixth sense , maybe it’s in the silence, like a vague curtain between reality and dream, a blurring of the line between what is actual and what is imagined. Maybe that is what is meant by ‘The Dreaming’. Out here, life is an evolutionary speciality; this environment kills without remorse or judgment, it does not negotiation. Maybe it’s that constant nearness of death that heightens the senses, makes you more aware of your aliveness. Like losing a loved one, one becomes acutely aware of one’s own mortality and thus the preciousness of life. Perhaps living in such a harsh and unforgiving environment creates a gratitude for the simpler things. Out here, the luxuries of life are not a BMW, a five star restaurant or a diamond ring. A Beamer has no place out here. Out here, water and shelter are luxury. A cup of tea by the fire is the pay off. When you understand the desert, you understand Indigenous people because they are one and the same. There is no separation. They do not own it, they belong to it and they believe that all things come from it. All things.

Is that so hard to believe? Did a man walk on water? Did the Buddha become enlightened? Did the prophet speak with angels? Did a car come from the land? Essentially, yes, it literally has. Its metals are mined from the Earth, its fuel is drained from the Earth. The beautiful thing about ‘The Dreaming’ is its simplicity. There’s no moral stand point or dogma. Just the realisation of the connectedness of all things, and the silence that connects it. At its core it is about it is about living in Harmony, or environmental sustainability, if you want a scientific name for it.

We Westerners are a strange lot. We are worried about the environment and are quite unified in this concern, but we are not willing to compromise our individual needs. Like what happened to the leaking oil rig in the Mexican gulf. It just became old news and everyone forgot fast enough. Yet we blame BP for this mistake. Aren’t we all equally responsible? If you drive a car, you have helped to create the demand. People complained, accused BP of a major atrocity, but no one was willing to stop driving their car. Would we rather wage our litigious lament? Do we really think that being right makes us the winner? That sounds like a war of trivia, the war of assigning responsibly. If i can prove that i am not the one to blame does that absolve me of all accountability? Could i dare to suggest that it does not dissolve any liability, we are all inescapably liable, in the court of common sense; ultimately, the jury will be the consequents’ of our combined action.

On the battlefield of blame, every perceived victory only compounds our own fate. The truth is, we have already lost, that mentality is its own reward. Capitalism is unsustainable. Materialism; unquenchable. The question is, when we will change? Can we change? Until we can accept blame as readily as we assign it, we are lost.

In the meantime, we grow fat on a false economy and its artificial sense of security, under which we have become exorbitantly bloated, overindulging on our own significance and consumed by our own success’, as if we created the fortunate circumstances which we enjoy. Looking down on the lowly from our towers of accomplishment we use language like, “How can we help them (to be like us)?” and “What is best for them?”, but the question needs to be “What can we learn?” Until then, blinded by our own glory, how can we see the distant shores of humility? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to have any of that foreign substance, nor do i have any answers. I’m just saying what i see and i hear the language we use.

Our generation has known no real hardships, no invasion or major war, no social upheaval or great depression or crushing economic challenge. We have no idea (other than a Hollywood movie) what a genocideal threat would be like, or political oppression. We are the spoilt child of fortunate circumstances. We have become discontent with expectation, and overindulged on opportunity and prosperity. Yet there is much we could learn from our brothers of the desert, if we had the courage to ask.

As always I leave the desert, once again, inspired. The lesson out here is that there is more to life than material security. But what would i know of economy and financial well being. I have a debt, but its generational and lifelong; how can I apologise for my forefathers behaviour? What amazes me without fail though, is the lack of any resentment or ill will. A total willingness to forgive, yet it’s less than a hundred years ago that we were setting off atomic bombs out here. Some of these people saw the mushroom, many died of radioactive fallout, and that land is still useless. I’ll bet you never learnt that in school, I didn’t!

I found this little extract on the Ngaanyatjarra web page. I love the way it is spoken, and so I have copied it here for your reading pleasure too. Rather than listening to me harp on. It’s quite old now but gives you a sense of just how recently this area was an undiscovered frontier. You can read more on http://www.ngurra.org/

“These are Ngaanyatjarra Lands. Yarnangu been living in this country long before those explorers started walking through to take a look. Then the Missionaries came up and they stayed and started up Warburton Mission. Most of us stayed on living in our country but some went over there.

Giles Weather Station came next and roads got made to help them drop the Blue Streak rockets on our country. We were rounded up and shifted, to Warburton mostly.

One day the Missionaries handed things over to the Government. Then the Government went away and left things up to us and some staff. That was the start of Warburton Community. (Warburton Community is south of Alice Springs).

When everything was all clear, we wanted to go back to our country. Miners were starting to dig around without talking to us. We started up Homelands at Wingellina, Blackstone, Jameson and Warakurna. To help us grow them up from nothing into full communities, we started up the Ngaanyatjarra Council. Tjirrkarli, Patjarr, Wannan and Tjukurla all started up as Outstations too and they’re all full communities now.

A big mob of us went to Perth to tell the Premier to give us our country back. He only gave us Leases for 99 years. That’s nearly 20 years ago now and we’re still pushing for Native Title.

Cosmo started up again soon after that. They’re family to us so they joined our Council. And the Kiwirrkurra mob, they were back in their country and looking for help. Like Wingellina, they were cut off from their own mob by that State border and where Government services come from. They got family this way too. So we invited them to join our Council. That makes 11 Communities all up.

In all that time our Communities have changed a lot. We all have houses, shops, offices, TV and the telephone. There’s schools and Clinics. That’s all really good.

But we’ve got to think about what it’s like for us living there and how to make things better for our kids.”

With the Tali sand hills in my rear vision mirrors, it is with great regret that I say goodbye to this immense and ancient land, for now.

Day 21
Friday, 20th July
Long and dusty road

Newcrest own the Telfer Mine, and I’m pretty sure when they send the Community Development team out to the carnival, they must just take a heap of food from the kitchen that hasn’t been used up, or that is about to go off. Last carnival it was bacon. We ended up with about 7 kilos of it after they had departed. This time it was yogurt. Good yogurt too! In fact, it was my favourite; the big one litre tubs of Browne’s Muesli and Fruit, and lots of Natural yogurt too which is great for salads and side dishes . The fridge in the kitchen was full of it, so I froze down about 10 tubs to use as ice blocks in the esky. Later when we cleaned the dongers, we discovered another two fridges full of them. We gave a lot out and packed as many as we could fit into our portable fridge. I hate wastage so I made it a standing order to have yogurt with every meal possible.

We camped by the road just south of Punmu last night, atop a sand ridge in a natural furrow under the open sky. It was a full day’s driving that got us there. I’m still keen to avoid driving at night, which meant we needed to find a spot by 530pm, leaving us some light to camp down, cook dinner (eat some more yogurt), etc.

After two weeks without mobile reception, the sound of text messages beeping brought the truck to a stop. With surprised glances we all reached for our phones simultaneously. Out of the blue we had picked up reception off Telfer mine site which lay somewhere to our south. We were pulled over in the middle of nowhere answering our long last family’s enquiries, when a car pulled up with East Pilbara Shire written on the side. It was Barney the Grader Driver! He had come into our concert last year at Kiwirrkurra, he still remembered us and recognised the truck. I suppose you don’t happen to run into a touring musical organisation every day while grading roads in the Gibson Desert! He drove over 200kms to watch us that night.

“Any troubles?” he asked, I guess we looked broken down, all the doors open and standing in the middle of a dirt road, miles from anywhere, fidgeting with our phones. “Nah, just making a phone call..” I offered as I realised the comedy of the scene; four people busily texting, like teenagers on a tram.

Making good time yesterday gives us the full day to explore. I figured we could have an easy day’s drive, check out the Carawine Gorges and look for a camp at one of the water springs, I had heard there are hot pools there. That would leave us the whole day to get to Nullagine and make an easy mornings drive to Newman on Sunday before the concert. A fairly relaxed timetable that allowed for any major hiccup and/or a bit of reprieve before the last leg of the tour into unknown territory over on the West Pilbara.

The contrast of Carawine after two weeks in the desert was as bit hard to comprehend at first. The desert sort of just finishes at the end of the Telfer Road. From there, instead of taking the Ripon Hills Road into Marble Bar, we turned south towards Woodie Woodie, where the creeks of the Throssell Ranges turn the land from red sand and Spinifex to River Gum and Paperbark trees.

Somewhere around Eel Pools we found artesian water. The pools were warm and the banks covered in huge old trees whose root systems had seen a thousand floods. From the depth of their pristine waters, I pulled the fattest Catfish I have ever seen, cooked it whole over hot coals and picked the flesh from its bones with our fingers on a plate of gum leaves. It was so big that Tony and I could not finish it between the two of us. We sat cross legged on the smooth pebbles in the light of the fire, contemplating how completely content one could be, with naught other than that provided by our surrounds, till we both got so desperate for a cup of tea that we digressed from our pristine state and boiled a billy, to which we agreed that some things can be slightly enhanced by the wonders of modern technology. In confessing our tea addiction, to our defence I must state for the record, we were hence forth completely satisfied without any further modern intervention (except a swag (oh and a sleeping bag too)).

Day 22
Saturday, 21st July7
The Lost Trailer on Skull Springs Road

Having now pushed our way considerably south of the Telfer Rd in the vast ranges of the Carawine Gorge, we had the option today of backtracking a hundred or so kilometres back up to the bitumen and taking the longer but mostly sealed route back into Nullagine. As the crow flies, Nullagine is less than 150km from where we camped, but the road said 4×4 access only and nothing over 4 tonne. Having pushed down it about 30km, and then talking to a Grey Nomad that came through the other way, I decided to push on west and do a bit of exploring.

Well, I don’t know if exploring is the right word for it, but it was certainly an adventure. About 30km in, just enough to warrant not wanting to go back again, the track turned to hell. Washouts nearly every 100 metres meant I never got out of second gear for over 2 hours.

Then I noticed I could not see the trailer in my side mirror, that’s not uncommon if the sea container is off centre, but i pulled up to check. It was gone. All our food, all our water, the spare tyre for the truck, and all our swags. A cold chill went over me when the realisation of the possibilities flooded in. If it had come off violently and rolled, it could be a mess. If it was around a bend or after a sharp turn, another vehicle might hit it. The draw bar had sheared off at the welds, the hitch, the chains and shackles hung from the tow ball like a dislocated arm. It would not be towable again. How would I get it back to town?

I had plenty of time to think about it, because we had to backtrack a considerable distance ‘til it came into sight. Sure enough there it lay, belly up in the sun like dead turtle.

Amazingly, it was mostly undamaged! The swags strapped to the rack had absorbed most of the impact; consequently, only half the roof top camper was squashed. Thanks to Cassie’s insistence that the fold-up table must stay in the trailer with the food, none of the food crates had moved at all, packed in so tight they just hung upside down like astronaut’s lunch box. However, the esky did not fare so well! The contents were mostly unrecognisable. Pulverised into a kind of soup, in which, thanks to Newcrest’s yogurt contribution, there was plenty of culture.

All up, it took seven hours to do the 130km into Nullagine.

Day 23
Sunday, 22nd July
Concert Series

Who said Newman is boring and has no cultural activities? Well, the Newman Concert Series is well posted around town thanks to Amber and the team at White Room. The event consist of two months of live performances in the park every Sunday afternoon. On the bill this Sunday will be the Kiwirrkurra Band, if they arrive (as yet we have had no word as to their whereabouts.) and the Jigalong Band. Who, we are told, are in town and ready to go. So one out of two is not bad however, I am fretting a bit over where the other guys are.

I have not given up hope that the Kiwirrkurra Band might show up any second, and I have had mixed reports about their location. I rang the store at Kiwirrkurra and old Jimmy the Preacher told me that everyone had left. However, I think he might have meant someone else, because when I rang the Nullagine Roadhouse, they said no one had come through and no one in Punmu had seem them either. I have the whole country on high alert, and the Nullagine Police station agreed to keep an eye out and even went down to the community to ask around for us.

At the concert, Jigalong Band kicked it off, and I still had my fingers crossed but any hope was dying fast. The owner of the bottle shop told me a bunch of Kiwirrkurra men had been in last night bought a carton and headed bush. I found that pretty hard to believe though, because I had been out to Parnpajinya Community and none of the Landy’s had heard anything. Bush telegraph is far more reliable and there is no way they would have got into town without the mob knowing.

Anyway, it remained a mystery and a concern for me. Amber was really cool about it, and we switched Ewan from next week to today to play in their place. She even offered to hold and promote the slot for them next week if they showed up. The Jigalong Boys killed it, Amber clocked 250 people in the park which was the record so far for the concert series, and I think the majority of that was made up by the Jigalong Community that made a special trip in to Newman to support them. There was plenty of Martu style dancing, to which I have become quite partial, and thus I did my part for cultural exchange on the dance floor. I made a few new friends doing my own version of their dance, a sort of fusion jig I have developed, a cross between the Martu foot-stomping style and a Polynesian knee knocking I learnt in the Cook Islands as a kid. All in all, the day was hailed a success by all, and that’s good enough for me.

Day 24
Monday, 23rd July
Auski

Back on the road and today marks the our first ever venture into Innawonga and Bunjima country of the west Pilbara. We had to back track up the Great Northern Hwy heading back towards Hedland. At Auski Road house, we turned left. Away from the desert, directly west into the setting sun. Instantly, the world turned from the familiar red dust and Spinifex of the desert, to the rich hues of the western ranges. Deep blues, clay reds and gravel browns filled our windscreen now as if someone had suddenly changed movies. From the heights of Mount George, the Hamersley Ranges lined the plains below. Like a model landscape for a toy train set, I expected a giant hand to reach down out of the sky and pick up our little toy truck.

Just before Wittenoom the bitumen ended again. A curtain of dust rose high into the air from the road trains, the setting suns light turned it cotton ball white. A light breeze stretched it from the road and hung it on the shoulders of the endless line of ridges like a massive gossamer web. It looked like a foggy evening on an English landscape, only this fog was a choking dry dust and these hills had no rolling green grass. The sides of Hamersley Ranges mount the plains below in a gradual light green ascent on an angle of repose, then suddenly jut upwards in sudden cliff face sections that look more like badly stacked Jenga Blocks than a natural evolution. Then, the architect, not knowing you can’t sit another hill on top of a cliff face, went and did it anyway. So, the long line of hills smile here and there with red outcrops like rows of decaying teeth in straight grimaces that say, “I dare you,” but also awe you.

Wittenoom is a ghost town. Massive signs on the road read “Danger Health Warning. Airborne Particles Can Cause Cancer.” At the junction to Roebourne, the signs to Wittenoom Gorge have either fallen off or been pulled down. An old cafe, rusted and dilapidated, sits alone and naked, like a scene from a spaghetti western. A sign hanging from one chain squeaks in the light breeze, “Welcome to Doc Holiday’s Cafe”

Empty houses and deserted vehicles rust back into the earth from whence they came. An old water tank stands alone, dry and cracked. A Telstra phone box tilts at an awkward angle like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We follow the old bitumen road past the town. Surprisingly there are lights on in town, at least one or two families still live here! Refusing to give up? Or giving up on caring?.

What was once a main thoroughfare for heavy vehicles is now an old and cracked road. Weeds and bushes creeping in from the sides slowly swallowed its width, while the heat above has cracked the black bitumen into chequered squares, some of which have fallen away leaving potholes into the brown gravel below. This road was once a thriving highway, stormed endlessly by triple trailer trucks carting away the deadly asbestos, it was obviously a well built road in its day, for it has seen little traffic since the 60s and yet it is still here, a road to nowhere now. Forgotten and unwanted. Slowly dying like the thousands that travelled it with their toxic harvest. The whole place seemed to speak an ominous warning.

At Wittenoom Gorge a tempting green pool filled the bottom of a red/ blue cliff face, a grassy bank called us to its caressing shore, a pebble beach pleaded with us to love it, and a protective cove of unprecedented beauty mesmerised us into submission. While the silent and still night offered us an uninterrupted and totally deserted camping spot, which bewitched us into agreeance. I was setting up camp when Ewan brought over a rock, blue as the ocean. He tore it open with ease and the fibrous asbestos glowed with the colours of a poison snake, glistening and almost phosphorescent. “We should leave here” he declared, but the charm of Wittenoom’s beauty had hypnotised me. I continued to ready the fire ’til Richard found a section of pebbles where the fibrous strands sat loose in the soil like an Asbestosis garden. Still I wanted to stay, the isolation pleaded with me to trust her, the ridges promised me that something so beautiful could not harm me, and the hills offered me a contentment, like the apple of a forbidden tree. Finally I concede to the majority and we headed back to Auski. I felt like I had lost my house and home, and I grieved the whole trip back. It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Wittenoom Gorge, like a poisonous snake with its bright colours, the venomous serpents are often the most beautiful.

Back at Auski, a deadpan shop assistant obliged us with begrudging indifference, then charged us five-star rates for one-star service. We took two hotel rooms for $180 each, while the lady warned us in a bored monotone that the rooms were expensive. I was going to say Do I look like I couldn’t afford them? Until I looked down and realised I probably did.

To late and too tired to cook, we ordered from a buffet. The choice was overcooked cabbage, some watery looking vegetables and something so deep fried it no longer held any shape, I think it was a crumbed potato but maybe it was chicken, once. I bought the worst coffee I have ever paid $4.50 for, and then sat down to watch the show. The show was Auski Roadhouse dining hall, a strange fusion of commercial, meets tourism. The dining room is like some mismatched club house for lost souls, a melting pot of stereotypes.

Watching Home and Away was a row of toughened truckies, their arteries harder than a drainpipe, fat on fried roadhouse food, iced coffee and beer. Then the Gray Nomads, dressed in Greg Norman polos and stupid hats of all descriptions, driving pimped out Land Cruisers and Patrols, too nice to drive off-road, and towing trailers and caravans worth more than a house. Last and not least were some Swedish backpackers that had run out of money at the end of the world, and taken jobs cleaning toilets at Auski, or serving at the counter, making the really bad coffee and burning my chops. Auski, the gateway to Karijini, heavens paradise. Situated right on death’s door.

As I forced down a bland meal, I contemplated the quirk of fate that took me unexpectedly to Wittenoom. Until we drove to that gorge looking for some where to camp, I had previously never even contemplated the whereabouts of Wittenoom asbestos mine, I did not even know it was in WA. Having just watched a close friend die of Mesothelioma, the facts of his suffering were fresh upon me. He had spoken of the chronic injustices from his hospital bed. I had heard the facts with painful disbelief and found them hard to comprehend. Being a human rights advocate, one cannot help but feel the pricking of conscience. It’s almost like a subtle genocide, if what Paul told me was true. So I did a little internet browsing and this is what I found. You can make up your own mind.

Warning;
If you are easily shocked, already know about the atrocity which is Wittenoom or just want to read about Desert Feet Tour stuff only; you can skip the next few paragraphs to where the Desert Feet Tour resumes its activities at Day 25.

Some Facts;

Asbestos (from the Greek ‘amiantus’, meaning unquenchable), has been known and used for approximately 4500 years.

In Wittenoom, one of the most pure forms is prolific, blue asbestos or Crocidolite.

Asbestos is one of the most useful and versatile minerals known to man, mainly because of its unique properties; flexibility, tensile strength, insulation (from heat and electricity) and chemical inertness. It is the only natural mineral that can be spun and woven, like cotton or wool, into useful fibres and fabrics. It is also cheap, and thus it is the choice building material for project or state housing for the low socioeconomic and poor countries/ areas. It is pronominally the killer of the blue-collar worker and the poor.

As early as the 1900s, doctors in Europe knew that asbestos workers were dying from respiratory ailments. (In about 1900, Dr Montague Murray reported on pulmonary fibrosis (asbestosis) in workers employed in the asbestos industry.)

Each year more than 4,500 people die from asbestos-related diseases, a figure expected to rise to more than 10,000 deaths annually by 2020.

Owing to the long latency period from the exposure to asbestos fibres and manifestation of asbestos disease (often up to 30 years or more.) it is believed that as many as 45,000 persons may die in Australia over the next two decades.

Just after the turn of the century, the first wave of asbestos diseases and deaths occurred in the asbestos mining industry. The second wave attacked workers in the asbestos manufacturing industry. The third wave affected former building and construction workers, and continues to do so. Now, due to decaying asbestos products the fourth wave of asbestos diseases, more subtle and insidious, is stalking a wide range of Australians at work, at school and in the home.

Tests have shown that the prevalence of air born asbestos fibres is higher in Perth City then at Wittenoom.

Many people who are yet to die from Mesothelioma don’t even know they have it yet. Once diagnosed, 95% of victims will be dead within 12 months.

In the early 1930s, James Hardie Industries received evidence that Asbestos was dangerous. In 1939, Hardie made its first compensation pay out. In 1964, the board was advised of evidence proving that “asbestos is the most dangerous of industrial poisons.” From 1973, Hardie had acknowledged asbestos as poisonous, yet continued to produce asbestos ‘til 1987. It is predicted that 53,000 people will die due to exposure through James Hardie Industry alone.

Asbestos is still found in large numbers buildings and houses. It ended up under carpets in houses in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s because hessian bags that had been used to transport asbestos by James Hardie were recycled for use as carpet underlay.

The number of Mesothelioma cases is expected to peak worldwide around 2020.

If you’re like me, then about now you would be asking; if this information is common knowledge, how is it that James Hardie Industries still operates after running Asbestos mines with knowledge of its detriment, and who let them relocate to Amsterdam where they could avoid Australian damage claims!!???

It’s a pretty heavy subject and very involved. There are all sorts of political motives, abuse of corporate law, manipulation, avoidance and denial of facts. It’s about Governments saving money by prolonging a situation that would take 30 years to surface, and Corporations making money by ignoring evidence that they knew would take 30 years to surface. Just another normal day in human behaviour really. We are idiotic most of the time. So idiotic it’s a joke and the joke is us.

This is a rough time line of events as best as I can abridge it without writing a book about it. Sorry if it’s not absolutely spot on, but I’m no journalist.

In 2001 James Hardie moved offshore to the Netherlands for what it claimed were significant tax advantages for the company and its shareholders. And to separate itself from the stigma of the Asbestos mining.

To make this move, the company had to assure Australian courts that it would be able to meet future liabilities and formed a spate corporation/fund called MRCF.

Then CEO of James Hardie, Peter McDonald, made public announcements emphasising that the MRCF had sufficient funds to meet all future claims,then estimated at $286 million in a report commissioned by James Hardie. The courts were assured that more money would be made available to its Australian asbestos victims if it were needed.

Shortly after the move, an actuarial report found that James Hardie asbestos liabilities were likely to reach A$574.3 million. Which was revised to A$751.7 million in 2002, and then A$1.573 billion in 2003.

James Hardie refused to accept further responsibility for the liabilities on the basis that MRCF and James Hardie Industries were separate legal entities now.

After boycotting and embargos, Hardie re-entered negations.
In November 2006, Hardie and the NSW government signed the ‘Amended Final Funding Agreement’. Under the agreement, James Hardie is supposed to contribute a maximum of 35% of its annual free cash flow to the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund.

Free cash flow is the amount of money the company has left over each year. So, if James Hardie decides to make a significant non-annual investment, like spending $85 million on relocating to Ireland, its free cash flow will shrink. Under the terms of the funding agreement, James Hardie aren’t required to pay anything when their free cash flow is ‘negative’ or less than zero.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still make a profit at the same time. In 2007, James Hardie recorded a negative ‘free cash flow’ despite making significant profits, and the same thing happened in 2009.

On Monday 26th October, it was announced that James Hardie’s compensation fund for victims of asbestos related diseases may run out by the middle of 2010.

In December, 2009 Kevin Rudd and Nathan Rees announce $320 million loan to the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund.

Australian Tax payers are now funding the shortfall.

But that’s not all. Below is an abridged extract from the Asbestosis Disease Association if you want to know more check it out at http://www.asbestosdiseases.org.au

Mr Lang Hancock commenced mining blue asbestos at Wittenoom in 1938

The CSR mining and milling of blue asbestos at Wittenoom, Western Australia, is the greatest industrial disaster in Australia.

Conditions were so bad that the men needed flood lights to see through the dust at midday. The men worked in these clouds of asbestos dust for hours on end, when only one minute at such concentrations to blue asbestos fibres would have been enough to cause lung cancer or mesothelioma.

There is absolutely no question that CSR knew that asbestosis and cancer were extremely likely results of working in conditions such as those they permitted in Wittenoom. (CSR’s knowledge was established in the Victorian and Western Australian courts through the judgements of asbestos-caused injury litigation).

During the mining operations, more than 20,000 men, women and children lived at Wittenoom. Some of the workers sent there were part of the Commonwealth Government policy to place new migrants for a period of two years in any work situation.

In 1962 the matters of poor hygiene and excessive dust at the CSR Wittenoom mine and mill were brought to the attention of Premier and Cabinet of the day. Sadly, no action was taken because apparently CSR threatened to close the mine if additional restrictions were to be placed upon their mining and milling of blue asbestos at Wittenoom.

Western Australia in particular has the highest rate of malignant mesothelioma than any State in Australia or elsewhere in the world per capita of population.

I have digressed into a topic that could span seven of these blogs and only touch the surface. People have dedicated their lives to the research, fight and exposure of the truth. Hundreds of thousands have died. I have but skimmed over the surface of the information I found, and that was with only brief research. Inspired by my friend’s passing and witness to his suffering, the sound of his death rattle lingers in my head as my last memory of him coupled with my unexpected visit to Wittenoom seem more than coincidental . It seems life is not these peculiar twists and turn. Of course we must all die. Yet none us can know how or of its date. The universe mocks us with such an incongruity, unpredictability is it’s Brother Grimm. This paradox is not lost on me, I, like everyone, want to experience all life can offer and so this must include acceptance of its ending, yet as I contemplate the way in which Paul died, the tragedy which is Wittenoom looms large and mean and I am reminded of a poem I once read, which goes something like…..

Tis all a checkerboard of nights and days, where destiny for mortal pieces plays, and moves and mates and slays, and one by one back in the cupboard lays.

The 5th wave of victims will be the asbestos removalists. The satire that of human behaviour is not lost on me. What an irony that we have pulled this toxic substance from the Earth, where it lay harmless and dormant, and now in our rush to dig a hole and put it back, we will die in the doing. We have died, digging it up, laying it out, and now laying it to rest, alongside our own graves.

Day 25
Tuesday, 24th July
I Think I Seen Ya, At Youngaleena!

Youngaleena is set in the rolling plains north of the Hamersley Ranges. It is located on a curious mix of freehold and Native Title. I’m not sure of the whole facts, but some few hundred hectares of land was given back, prior to the Native Title claim, by a mining company, as part of negotiations. The people that traditionally inhabited these areas are Innawonga and Bunjima language groups, but not many people live here. The community consists of little more than seven houses and a central common area with playground and BBQ gazebo. However, the land is rich in game and artefacts.

A central Trust, called Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, services about six of the communities that make up the traditional owners; Wakathuni, Ngumee-Ngu, Bellary Springs, Willirriwarra, Youngaleena, and Parabadoo. Rio Tinto has negotiated leases (similar to, or the equivalent of royalties) with the Trust, for the mining operations around Tom Price. I don’t know a lot about the deal or its arrangements, other than 50% of the funds must be used in investment strategies for the futures forum, and so Gumala own some of the local businesses, like earth moving, road grading and some companies that services the mines, which seems pretty clever.

The other 50% is used for community development, individual scholarships, medical services and a bunch of other items that the people have implemented. This also seems pretty cool.

But Rio are not the only ones with their eyes on this land. Both FMG and BHP have an interest in the native title here. FMG especially, as the Fortescue River runs near by. They are currently cutting a major corridor right passes north of Youngaleena. From the community, the lights of exploration sights were visible at night, and I spoke with three of the young guys that were employed as spotters for the corridor, finding ancestral artefacts, paintings and sacred sites which the road must avoid.

Old Rex was bent over a early 80’s model Landcruiser when I arrived, the old Hino came to a halt in a cloud of dust, looking liked it been dragged through a desert, twice. He looked up suspiciously, his grey beard was so long it had dipped in the oil pan. It was perfectly two toned. His strong deeply creased face was silent and intimidating. Tall and well built, he was dressed in the fluoro workwear of the OH&S standard issue. The shirt said something about engineering or maintenance, and he later told me he works a ‘two and one’ swing, down the road.

He was the first person I met, and it turns out he is the most senior man here. His father set up this community and lived out here under a lean-too with the aim of preserving culture and law. Youngaleena is a cultural retention community, it has no school or any real facilities, and quite a transient population, but they run Law camps that last months, for the young men. The guys were really keen to share their experience around this with us, and spoke proudly about the Dreaming and their culture.

Rex gave us the use of the office kitchen, and we rounded up all the kids for some workshops. We had a grand total of six, but one girl, Trea, was only three so mostly just gurgled and burped and made us all laugh with funny little noises. She did manage to make a sound close to “Youngaleena” for the recording of the song, which brought us all to tears of laughter, and from then on in I don’t think she left Cassie’s hip, whom I am sure would have adopted her on the spot. Between the pet Joey and the cute baby with huge brown eyes, I think we all got in touch with our maternal side that day.

Tonight’s concert would be a very personal and intimate show. Emily’s now down with tonsillitis and stuck in bed back at Auski, and my team is down to four. With only three of us being musicians, the variations of performances will be limited. Jigalong didn’t make it despite our offer, and the Kiwirrkurra Band, to the best of my knowledge, still hasn’t left the community due to Bobby being held up in Alice Springs for reasons we don’t know yet.

Our loyal audience of nine adults and six kids sat by the fire and applauded our efforts generously, and so Youngaleena received its first ever live concert. The kids got up and did their song in front of their parents, and even Trea made some noises into the microphone, which entirety stole the show. So, the sweet brown eyed girl was the star of Youngaleena, while Ewan and I were forced to perform in her shadow, such a hard act to follow was the gorgeous Trea Parker. I think we had more fun than the kids, writing the song ‘I Think I Seen Ya, At Youngaleena’ was a blast. It became a sort of parody, sung like a John Williamson satire but with a serious message. You can listen to it on http://snd.sc/Rky8PS . It’s one of my favourites so far. I might even dare to suggest that we are getting good at this.

At the live performance, Jacinta played the bass part after only an hour of lessons. I’ll have to be careful, at this rate we won’t be needed to perform at our own concerts!

When at last our repertoire was exhausted, the line-up having no other participants, no other bands showing up, we called it a night. As Rex walked home with his giant pannikin of tea, he asked me to come and stay next time on the community, and offered to take us out country for a few days. You can keep your awards and trophies, an invitation like that is the smiling Aria of success for me.

I had kept two rooms booked back at Auski, not knowing what the situation would be like here, but before we left, we sat around the fire with four of the young guys discussing language groups, culture and stories. We were sorry to leave in the end, and so Laurissa’s offer of Bush Turkey for lunch tomorrow was to good to pass up, we needed to come back anyway as they all wanted copies of the CD.

Day 26
Wednesday, 25th July
Mt Sheila

Breathtakingly beautiful, the Hamersley Ranges pulled us west as if with a will of its own. Our vehicle seemed drawn, steering itself along the endless line of its ridge bordering the northern end of Karijini National park, where the plains meet the ranges. That magical road winds in the shadow of the red, green and steel blue hills, and we all sat silent as if the vehicle was urged forward by another power. It took us in its hand like a parent guides a child, and showered us in wonders, and like children we at its beauty.

A fork in an the track is sign posted with the choice of right, onto the Wittenoom/Roebourne Rd track, or left to Tom Price, along the Nanutarra road which turns south and heads up into the Hamersley Ranges. Outcrops of sheer cliff hung in the air above us, their blue iron ore rock so metallic that oxidation marks streaked the walls, like the rusty hull of an old ships hanging in the air.

As we drove into its heart the ridges loomed over us, the hillsides like a layer cake of mismatched patisseries, the pastel greens of its heights the icing on a sponge cake, and the steely cliffs a clean slice of marble cake as if some mad chef had tried to bake a gourmands desert.

The ridges of exposed rock was the real show, as if the hills had grown too high, too fast, like the Incredible Hulk exploding his own clothing, whole ranges had fallen away into gullys below, leaving the toothy smile of the red and blue rocks hanging precariously. One cliff leant so far out it seemed to defy gravity, others seemed perfectly organised like the Tetris game of the gods. In places, the rocks are so symmetric they looked like iron plates on a weight stack, perched high in the clouds like a giant’s gym set. The rustic steel blue shining in the sun, heating them until untouchable.

At the peak, the road became a single lane in a narrow corridor, hewed into the red rock like a river bed, sheer cliffs rose out of sight from either window and the stratum of sediment from millions of years ran like thousands of layers of pastry. Its echelon soaring straight up, the marvel of its enormity boasting infinite eons, until the plains below to the south exploded into view, and no words could fill our mouths that hung open in wonder. For a second I knew what it was to be a bird soaring over the land.

Hamersley Gorge is a freezing cold pool of crystal clear water, the walls of the gorge are veined with lateral layers of the most profound colours. Deep purples to bright reds, that serpentine along the open cliffs for hundreds of metres, following some unseen route millions of years old, as if molten steel was poured down the hill in one inch layers then dissected in one massive clean vertical cut by a diamond saw, to expose the pattern. Like a mighty stonemason had created his masterpiece, polished the walls to a sheen with proud craftsmanship, then finally varnished them with a lacquer of loving completion, for all to see, for all time.

Day 27
Thursday, 26th July
Tom Price

Last night, keen to avoid the inflated rates that mining companies can afford to pay for accommodation, we tried to stay out of Tom Price, and Ewan guided us to Mt Sheila. At the summit, the wind was so strong and cold it chilled us to the bone. We stayed long enough to watch the sun set from the peak, Richard flew his tri-copter several times successfully off the summit, capturing some pretty amazing footage of the surrounding landscape that sprawled under our lofty perch in every direction back to the beginning of time.

We set up camp at the base in a windless valley, and I threw the huge Bush Turkey, that Laurissa and Jamal had given us at Youngaleena, into the camp oven. I dug a hole as best I could into the stoney earth and built a fire in it. When it was a bowl of coals I dug it out and lay the earth oven in, covering the pot with coals. The hard bit was waiting, the smell of a roasting poultry tortured us for an hour, that bird made our mouths water the whole time. When it finally hit our taste buds, there was silence in the camp, the only sound to be heard was the exertion of mastication.

So inspired were we all by the sunset, that we got up at 5:30am to drive up to the summit and watch it rise too. As the light hit the clouds, the split in the horizon bled a red stain into the long lines of stratus, and for nearly an hour, the dawn haemorrhaged until the whole sky was a vessel of rose coloured wine; “Red sky in the morn, sailor be warn,” as the saying goes.

I needed to catch up on emails, make some calls and organise things for the last and final community of our prolonged tour, so I headed into the expensive town of Tom Price. The others stayed to spend the day exploring Karijini National Park.

Day 28
Friday, 27th July
Wakathuni

In Tom Price, my persistence payed off. A bit of luck and at an opportune moment combined and I managed to catch the GM of Rio Tinto in town, and secured a meeting after nearly a year of perseverance. When I offered the information that I had been to Youngaleena and was on my way to Wakathuni, there was a moment of silence followed by an offer to meet. I have had letters from the Innawonga and Bunjima People, Gumala AC, and other organisations asking us to perform here for over a year. In that time, we have drafted two proposals to the powers that be, both times without any feedback. In the end, we just decide to come here anyway, pretty much at our own cost. As Bryte has gone home and my crew is down to five, our costs are considerably reduced. We have been getting reports that there are some awesome musicians out here, real Gospel Blues singers, and we desperately want to get it on tape while we can. Often it takes “just doing it”, to prove to these guys that it can be done.

Still, whenever I try to prove a point, I run the risk of making a bigger fool of myself if it doesn’t come off. It can be quite intimidating too, rocking up to a community when you do not know anyone, and in unknown territory. Finding these place is always fun too, some of them are not on any maps, and when you arrive you never know what you’ll find. If there is sorry business, the place could be empty. Wakathuni is not a dry community and my team were all pretty tired, I guess what I’m saying is I was feeling a little nervous and less than confident.

We are at the end of the tour now. This part was not budgeted for, the funding didn’t come. We are on borrowed time and that makes us a bit vulnerable, especially in a 20 year old vehicle that just drove 6000km on corrugated roads. I don’t want any trouble, but I also want to finish the tour on a high, to achieve what we set out to do and open some new ground, make some new friends.

Bruce is a retired builder from NZ with a heavy kiwi accent. He married a Samoan women and they moved to Tom Price. He works for Gumala as a maintenance man, but the communities obviously love him. He can put his hand to anything and loves a good chat. He’s an older guy with adult kids, but a baseball cap tilted at an peculiar angle gave him a sense of style, or maybe it was just on crooked. Bruce is no taller than a parking meter, but his hands could fit around a football. Like leather and rope, the big knotted members hang at his side like sledge hammers, and I reckon in his day he would not have been a man to mess with.

I followed him to Wakathuni on the Paraburdoo Road, he turned his beat up Hilux into the bush about 50km out of town. The community seemed deserted, and looked more like a small rural town than the standear remote community i am used to. Only there was no store, no school and no office, but as always there was the central basketball court where two little kids kicked a football at the hoop trying to score, an interesting version of basketball. “Two people died here in a horrific accident in April,” Bruce explained, “the community has not recovered yet.”

At the Early Learning centre, Bruce opened up the rooms for us, four sea containers with a huge corrugated tin roof over the top on heavy cyclone proof H bar steel piers. The sound of running water brought us to the house next door, water poured out the window, but no one was home. Bruce and I looked at each other, he shrugged.

The kids would arrive back from school soon he promised, and then we would have about 20 students according to Joyce, the CEO. A dog licked at my hand, and I looked down. A beautiful grey-eyed Rhodesian with three legs urged me for attention.

At the CEO’s house a slender and soft-spoken little lady greeted us with the love of a long lost grandmother. Her veins protruded under the taut skin of her thin little arms, arms that spoke of endless embraces, for hundreds of surrogates, and a huge family. Joyce was the head of this community, and not by mistake. She offered the soft strength of a matriarch, the firm love of a mother, and the calm acceptance of many decades. This land was her anchor, and these people her children. When she put her hand on my forearm, I felt accepted and reassured at the same time; it reminded me of how my mother used to wake me for school, resolute but lovingly, for my own good. The arm that reached out was the deepest black and softer than paper bark, as if that skin could last another lifetime without showing a single mark. Not even the hottest sun could harm it, evolution in perfection.

The show here was amazing, the 15 kids that participated in the workshop got up and sang their song that night, and then we had two of the local guys get up and play for a while. Trev insisted that I play drums for him no matter how much I protested that I couldn’t play, but in the end after a few stops and starts and a bit of instruction here and there, I was actually keeping a reasonable beat. After the gig, he gave me a huge bear hug like a long lost son and so apparently, according to Adjaway, I get the job now of being his drummer forever. I have set it as my number one priority when I return to Perth, to start drum lessons straight away.

During the concert, Adjaway told me about his time as a drover out here, “back before us mob had rights” he said. The Smirk family owned one of the biggest cattle stations back then, and so his white fella name is Smirk, like his father before him too, “but them old men……….. they named me ‘Adjaway’, that’s my black fella name” he offered me with a gorgeous accent and a gentle smile. His dull eyes covered in cataracts looked past me into a time long gone as he recounted with a keen mind. He eased himself into a seat. His old knees needed the aid of walking stick, but in his day he was a horse breaker and a cattleman, “I’m a Bunjima man” he said “it was the only way we could stay on our country, to work on it” he explained. The three legged Rhodesian nuzzled his hand. I asked if this was his dog, and Adjaway explained how he had had to pay $1000 to have the hind leg cut off after it was hit by a car. I joked that at least it didn’t have to cock its leg any more, but just as I said it, the dog raised itself into a handstand on its front two paws, lifted its last remaining hind leg into the air like an Olympic gymnast on a pommel horse, with poise, skill and impossible balance. (old habits die hard?) As true as I sat there! I looked at Adjaway with astonishment, he was giggling, but I’m not sure if he could even see that far away or if he was laughing at my joke. Life is like a movie with a script more unbelievable than fiction. The night was fresh and new.

That night, I fell asleep in the cab of the truck trying to update the blog. I remember seeing that Cassie had rolled her swag out in the open, and the last thing I remember thinking was she should go inside with the others. I woke at about 4am, the dogs had started to bark, all of them at once, somewhere just out of sight. I noticed Cassie was gone and I dozed off again, but the dogs barked in union unfalteringly for over an hour, something was really upsetting them. It could not have been game or they would have pursued it, it can’t have been a person or they would have left, and it wasn’t a fight between dogs, they just all seemed distressed. When I got out of the cab to look, Bella refused to get out with me, so I hopped back in.

In the morning, Cassie told me something was tugging at her swag during the night, she had got the heebie jeebies and dragged it into the room with the others. Maybe I was just coincidence, I’m not sure, but I got spooked that night too.

Day 29
Saturday, 28th July
Back to Newman

I pulled into Newman at about 7am, and put nearly 300 litres into the tank. That’s a 1000 kilometres worth of fuel. At the station, I ran into Chris, he had seen the Jigalong band play at last week’s concert and wanted to hire them for a festival he was planning. He took a bite on his cheese sausage and it exploded across my front in a neat line from my left nipple to my right knee, like a spray of machinegun fire, only worse. That’s when I realised I wanted to go home. 29 days on the road, and six thousand kilometres had done for me. When I looked in the mirror of the toilet, I realised the cheese didn’t make much difference. I looked like an oil stained truckie anyway. My old black hat was more greasy than a plate of lamb chops, and my hair was the same shape as its dome when I removed it.

I needed a hotel room. Fast. For lunch I ordered a steak. It said “Harvey Beef” on the menu. I asked for medium rare and no fries, no sauce, just steamed vegetables. When it came, it was covered in gravy and on a bed of fried chips. I could not be bothered making a scene so I just ate it. However, the steak was so hard the serrated knife could not even scar it. Trying not to attract any attention to myself, I asked the waiter to come over, in my quietest voice I complained that the steak was a bit tough. “That’s what happens if you get it medium rare” he screamed at the top of his voice. When I thought about it later I had to laugh, you’d go mad if you didn’t. I am sure that this was the trip of the cursed counter meal! I had ordered a surf and turf here last time and they forgot the surf (how do you do that?) I had ordered lamb chops at Auski and it was raw, when I asked them to cook it longer they burnt it, and the first time I got to Newman I asked for steak and vegetables and got steak and chips then as well, they must have been sure the waiter got it wrong, no one asks for steak with vegetables instead of chips?! But the real doozy was in Tom Price, I had asked for grilled Barramundi with rice, and somehow the order transformed into deep fried shark with chips and white sauce! That cost $29 mind you. Bella got that one.

Day 30
Sunday, 29th July
Final Concert 

At 3pm yesterday, Andrew rang me from Kiwirrkurra saying the boys had left for Newman and asked for a purchase order for fuel at Kunawarritji and Nullagine. Going to bed knowing they had to do 1200 km in 24 hours was not conducive to a good night’s sleep. If they had asked me before they left, I would have told them to cancel it!

When I rang Nullagine at 11am and no one had drawn on the purchase order, there was an hour of anxious contemplation until Andrew finally rang me again from the community saying they had arrived back safe after having problems with the fuel pump, they had turned around just out of Kunawarritji. It was not meant to be this time.

About the same time I got a call from Annabel Landy. She was in town at Parnpajinya Community, asking if the Kiwirrkurra boys had shown up, to which I repeated the above story. She told me all the Jigalong boys were still in town and wanted to play again! So I said “send them down!” I was more than happy to split my performers fee with them, as I was still struggling with my throat. A short set would complete my obligation to the Newman audience, and the Jigalong band would be a value-add for free, to Amber and the concert series. I love it when a plan comes together!

The Road Home

A three quarter moon was thumbtacked against my driver’s side window, so bright the stars had no show. Under the western heavens, a dark horizon of land was silhouetted against an illuminated sky, whose backdrop was my companion for the red eye home. In the silence of the night, I fell into the zone and the wheel, the road, and the white line, became the world, the universe and everything.

Somewhere south of Mount Magnet I pulled up at 5am, spent. Em got out of the back and took the wheel for her second shift while I hot-bunked into the back. She pulled up at Dalwallinu and tried to wake me but I could not rouse, so she came back with a couple of hot coffees, saying something about the tyre on the trailer, “There’s something wrong with one of the wheels on the trailer, there’s metal filings everywhere.” That got me up.

The bearing in the hub had worn out, probably about 100km back. It was gone. The wheel hub was sitting on the axle, spinning free. It had worn a groove into the axle shaft, and had somehow stayed on. If it had come off, we would have pulled the trailer to bits in seconds behind the truck. So the trailer got a lift home on the back of the truck again, craning it on was easier the second time.

As Perth appeared, so too appeared all the concerns I had left here. The rush of city life and all the hustle bustle is intrinsic, in the air, you forget to be stressed if you’re not reminded of how much you should be doing by everyone else rushing around. Once you remember it starts again, plays like a commercial of the mind. “How are you today, Fred?” “Really busy, George” “That’s good, Fred, so am I.” If you’re not busy you can’t be important right?! Like Fred and George are! Everywhere is the marketing campaign of need and desire. If you have a Jeep, you will be happy, like the guy on that billboard. If you have a merc you must be successful, like the guy next to you at the lights. If you don’t, you must be missing out. If you borrow money from this company it will make your life better, if you invest it in that place it will make your future better! “Don’t you want a piece of this land or that estate?” Of course you do! Just ask me, I’m a real-estate agent, trust me, sign here.

As soon as the city appeared, so did the questions. How will I get more funding? What if I lose the sponsors I have now? What if they are not happy? How will I get it all done, and how will I make it all happen again? The Desert Feet Tour has invested in something too; social capital, and each time we go, we deepen the connection, strengthen the relations, gain more respect, and develop more too. Thing like that are free, they are also hard to measured or put a value on. You cant just buy that with some funding. But i could lose it with the lack there of. The biggest sponsor could leave me as fast as they came, and that has happened before. The thought of losing our momentum because a corporate gets bored with our project, or goes looking for something new, that is a risk. How do I assure that no value can dictate what we have earned? What would the cost of not going back be?

But some things are beyond our control and Desert Feet has a life of its own too, it’s own personality, just like those Multi Nationals, except it is built of social enterprise, not capital economics. It is the child of two cultures, a filial conception born in action, not intention. Who said “the best intentions have paved the road to hell.” One cannot die from Piety, but harm is passed from generation to generation. Humility can never be owned, but vanity can. Victory does not go to the winner; it goes to the most persevering. Like those that celebrate to early, clouded by their success, we must never forget that the Imperial Colonization of Australia was not a victory, it was an atrocity. Governor Bourke was a misguided and ignorant man who’s actions dammed us all. Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

Maybe I’m to philosophical, a thousand thoughts is not worth a seconds peace. If I have learnt anything from my friends in the desert, it is patience. These things that seem so important now, they will pass. This whole trip has been an interesting exploration into human nature. When I reflect; Paul’s death, life changing experiences, loss and new relationships, the trials and struggles of others, the injustice and the irony, is it in balance? This whole life, from beginning to end will have been nothing more than a flash of emotions, and me, i’m nothing more than an organic spark plug. Like a spark plug, I do not create the spark, I’m just the conduit. Like the spark plug, I am not the source of the power, I am just a part of the machine.

When everything seems too much, I do the thing I love the most. I take the dog for a run on the beach. From the desert to the ocean in 12 hours, the contrast is like changing channel, SBS to Ten. On the stormy shore, I remember my insignificance easily. The power of the ocean and its ever-transforming stage is my God. When the cold air hits my lungs it made me run all the faster. I crashed into raindrops, like pebbles from a beebee gun, they fell from clouds that darkened the sky to an ominous typhoon shade of grey, it’s a perverse beauty, nature in action, it can be just as destructive as the things that men do. As is the cosmos, so is the microcosm.

Some cultures worship Gods, some worship Demi-Gods, others recognise Demons, often bad Demons are given as much significance as the good ones, shown respect, paid in offerings, so they will leave them alone. There is an intelligence in that, recognising the bad with the good, accepting that there is both sides to us all. That is human nature. Oscar Wilde said, “nothing human is foreign to me.” The only foreign human action I see is the desire to be perfect, for that would make us non-human.

The whole beach was deserted, big storm waves grabbed at the receding beach and dragged away the shore into a steep slope, freezing water slapping at my legs with a bite like a whip.

By the time I got back, exhausted and breathless, everything was perfect. All under God’s heaven was exactly as it should be, and there was not a care that could penetrate my satisfaction. The adrenaline, the cold, the beauty, the fresh air, the exercise. Like a narcotic. Better. Then I realised, “if this is as good as it gets, then that is good enough.” It’s a corny cliché but the best things in life really are free. So, with the memories of my friends in the desert fresh on my mind, I dove into that icy cold sea.

Back to top

Leave a Reply