Desert Feet Tour – October 2011
Tuesday 27th September
Day 1 – The Road to Broome
The road out of Perth is an escalator to a continental flat top. After Dalwallinu, it’s nothing but a level pan forever in every direction, but up till then it’s like a mountainous climb for the poor old White Rhino, her 8 tonne arse grinding to a snail’s pace on every hill, as Mack Trucks and Kenworth, triple trailer road trains, overtake our humble little Hino. Meanwhile, in some low gear, we urge her forward with our wills. We have learnt to leave early in the morning now, to avoid a caravan of angry grey nomads caught behind us in a line trailing all the way back to Perth. I don’t think we have ever actually overtaken another vehicle except for a transportable house on a semi’ once. She runs faster in the cool night air and so it was that we departed the Desert Feet Headquarters at 2am. A little too late to go to bed and a little too early, to be up early. A perfect time to leave. I took the first shift and the morning light saw us out of the crowed suburb’s and onto the long open fields of the Wheatbelt, all green and alive with the last rains of winter.
I cut a plank of timber to fit into the floor recess next to the bench seat in the back, and then I glued a 100mm piece of foam onto it and covered it in nice blue marine grade vinyl, effectively turning the dual cab area into a big bed. After doing it, I also realised if this career doesn’t work out I could seek work as an upholsterer. With another foam mattress, three pillows, a doona and Em with her laptop propped open playing a DVD, it looks more like a hotel room then the back of a truck. I’m looking forward to my turn at testing out that soft mattress soon.
By taking turns at sleeping we have kept the truck on the road all night and all day, back in my commercial fishing days they called that “hot bunking it” because the bed never goes cold. The truck is running like a gem and as we are ahead of schedule. I am keeping her steady, there’s no need to push her, and she runs so much better around 80 kilometres an hour, cooler and better fuel economy. Not that she goes much faster than that anyway.
I wish I had a different story for you this time around, a story other than financial difficulties and sheer determination, but maybe that’s what makes the Desert Feet Tour something different, something human and simple. At least I hope that we might have those qualities in spite of our other shortcomings. For me, I can’t wait to get back to the desert, I can’t wait to see the kids, I can’t wait to play music with the Bayulu Band again and I can’t wait to feel the land breathe beneath my feet, that intensity, that unnameable quality that ‘IS’ the Kimberley’s. Hell, I love it so much I’d do it for free! Funny that. I’d do this job (well it’s really a vocation) for free, forever if I had to, in return for one thing. In fact, I’d give up everything I own for that same thing; that in my time I might see our Indigenous culture get the recognition it deserves. How? Maybe it could start with education? Maybe a humble beginning in our pre-schools, or would teaching Australian Indigenous History as a permanent and compulsory part of our curriculum at all schools make a difference? Would that open a world of infinite possibility, enriching and enlightening? I remember reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” in school. I knew about American Indians before I knew about Australian Indigenous history. But, don’t just take my word for it. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has expressed concern about Australians lack of a ‘Bill of Rights’ since Australia ratified the ICCPR in 1980. But why should we listen to the rest of the world? We are Australia right? Powerful and Industrious?! Hmmmm No Bill of Rights, no Treaty and only 40 years has elapsed since black Australians were Fauna; so how is our Indigenous Culture fairing? Is it regarded as an ancient and richly diverse culture, revered for its anthropological value? Celebrated for its sustainability in the face of ages of adversity? Is its music flooding our airwaves and its art and culture flowing in our streets? I happened to see the ABC news clip the other night about the lock of hair that links the DNA of our Indigenous residents back 75,000 years, and so once again the scientists have had to remodel the course of history. Well I’m not out to rewrite history but I hope to record just a little piece of it, before it slips beyond our site and out of memory forever.
Wednesday 28th September
Day 2 – Broome
After 37 hours on the road, we rolled into Broome at 3pm. The White Rhino, she’s no speeding Cheetah but she stomps away with constant determination. The emerald green beaches of the Kimberley’s sprang up to greet us and first stop was a visit to Gantheaume Point for a run on the beach and a swim in the ocean. A very delighted Bella was pouncing around with joy after being cooped up on the back of the truck for 2 days.
Our old friend and long time tour advisor, cameraman and producer Peter Strain saved us some expenses by housing, feeding and watering us for the night. At this stage ‘us’ consist of (other than Emily and I) only Brian Lloyd, our long serving and loyal Hip Hop star and Ewan Buckley, our now permanent and dedicated Sound Engineer, Recording and Production manager and talented guitarist and performer. The two guys arrived tonight at 9pm in the Prado (supplied by Macmahon). Candice will arrive by plan on Friday and we are excited to have our old friend and previous band member of ‘The Orphans,’ Richard Watson, back this tour too. Richard, an extraordinary musician and multi instrumentalist, will once again double as our photographer and performer.
Thursday 29th September
Day 3 – Broome
After a chance meeting in the shopping centre last night, Emily and I made a trip out to Milliya Rumera, a rehab out of town owned by an Aboriginal Corporation, to catch up with Barry Bartlett first thing this morning. We got lucky and met up with a team of health workers, and chronic disease nurses. The whole team were super keen about our work after we showed them some of our DVD’s, and invited us to go out to One Mile Community with them in the morning to visit one of the local bands that play around here. It seems we might have created some great ground swell for the Cape Leveque Communities part of the Tour between several of the outreach teams here and they are very interested in meeting our Diabetes WA team who arrive on Sunday.
We spent most of the day doing administration tasks, but the big breakthrough was Ewan’s discovery of a Melbourne based youth arts theatre company called Western Edge that have coordinated a visit to Beagle Bay during our time up the Peninsular. The Community got very excited about the potential of us setting up the DFT Stage during the events to create a festival type day with our live music. Since then, we have been approached by several other musicians wanting to play at the concerts. It sounds exciting; running into other travelling organisation in a remote area could result in some interesting outcomes. It was very fortuitous and we are all excited about it.
Tomorrow is our first concert in a Prison. It will fulfil a long-standing desire of mine and hopefully be the first of many more. I hope to impress the Correctional Services and gain their support. So far they have been very accommodating, but so they should be, we are doing it for free! Anyway ever since I saw the Jonny Cash movie I have had the idea and I just had to do it too! They have been asking us to do something for the prisoners for a few years now, but always something happens or it’s cancelled. This year they offered us an audience but told me the funds are very limited. I said, “How limited is limited?” They said, “Well, do up a quote and send it through for your normal day rate and I’ll see what we can do.” I thought that sounded promising, until the reply declined our services? I called back and asked what the problem was. “Well we don’t have those sorts of funds in the budget.” I was told. “Ok”, I said, “Why don’t you just pay a performance fee to my Indigenous performers, that way you are in investing in the social capital and helping my crew? “Ok, how much would that be then?” they asked. “Well, give Candice and Brian $500 each and we will do every thing else for free.” I said. More silence, then a reply, “Sorry Damien, we don’t have those sorts of funds in the budget.” Well ok!” I said “How much do you have in the budget???!!” “Well, about $200.” Comes the reply! “Geez man, why didn’t you just say that in the first place? Did you think we might be cheaper than that or something?” “Ok.” I said, “Don’t worry about it we’ll come for free! Just promise me you won’t cancel and that you’ll let the prisoners play too!” “Deal!” I even got me a letter from the correctional services saying they support the DFT! That’s all I really wanted anyway.
Friday 30th September
Day 4 – Broome Prison (will they let me back out?)
Filled with both anticipation and a bit of trepidation, we drove up to the high gates of the Broome Prison. Would we be accepted, would we be welcomed, what if they didn’t like us? Would they taunt us? Nah, most of the guys in here are Indigenous, they would be from the surrounding communities, and would know people that we had visited or that we are about to visit. We have been told that a few of the guys had been getting their songs ready to play and were keen to get up too.
However, arriving was a bit disconcerting, civilian or not, you get treated with suspicion by the guards, at first anyway. Then after signing in and handing over all your personal items like phone and wallet, as fleeting as it might be, one gets the sense of the isolation and powerlessness that comes with prison. The reality is that the high security part of this jail is only small, and most of these guys have only done petty crime or made silly mistakes like driving without a licence too many times, or getting drunk and hitting the wrong person. We were all issued with a panic button (which doesn’t exactly give you much confidence), but when we had been dressed down and talked up we met a few of the prisoners, called peer support, who had offered to help us load in. Bobby was the first I met; a warm handshake revealed that he was obviously keen on the gym, his forearms rippled with sinew and veins. But his eyes told me a story of loyalty and hardship. We were mates right away and Bobby gave me the guided tour of his cell and introduced me to his cellie’s. It turns out he is from Beagle Bay, is one of the musicians in here, and he was very keen to play! When we told him we would record it and give him a copy he was ecstatic and offered to talk to his cousin in Beagle Bay to make sure we get some mud crabs while up the peninsular. He told me the guys like to play in here but there is no funding for equipment. Some gear had been donated but the guards had glued the volume knobs to low, rendering them useless. I told him “Don’t worry you can let off some steam today.” A bunch of the prisoners jumped into action and our setup was competed in an hour. We had fun working with the guys and of course Emily and Candice were the star attractions. Both the girls impressed me with their courageous and fearless attitudes and twice I caught site of Emily giving directions to the prisoners as to where this goes or that plugs in. And I had to snigger to myself at the irony of it, meek little Emily with her army of loyal convicts, following her instructions. We got them to do a sound check and there were 8 or so guys that made up the three separate bands. None of the bands had a name, and typical of the talent you find amongst the mob, it was nothing for them to change instruments in-between songs and interchange players during the set. It’s a feat that has always amazed me and makes watching Indigenous musicians so entertaining.
Emily and I kicked off the gig with some soulful acoustic tunes and I was inspired by the applause we received after each song. Our stage was located at the back of the basketball court and faced a shaded yard. The cellblocks, with 6 to a cell, surrounded us on all sides, except to our right where the dark steel mesh of the high security block flanked us. These guys are not allowed into the GP and so our location was arranged that they might be entertained too. In there, no movement could be seen and the anonymous residents lurked in obscurity behind the lightless black grill. However, their audience was confirmed by wolf cries and applause that sounded from the faceless prisoners within, and so I felt a great feeling of fulfilment, knowing I reached another, across seemingly impenetrable circumstances, across cultural worlds and from different ends of the spectrum, music was the bridge and I knew “But for that but the grace of God, there go I,” and because I know all things human are in all humans, only our circumstances separated us today. Not the walls, not the tattoos and not the loneliness of solitude, today we are all the same, we are all just emotive creatures enjoying music, and I am the lucky one to be given this opportunity, a day I will not fast forget.
The concert was attended by about 50 prisoners; some stayed in their cells, others loitered around the periphery. I had the chance to talk with a few of the boys after we had played, and having told them we would be visiting the communities, a few of the guys wanted to pass on regards to family and wives. Particularly two guys from Nookanbah, they were cousins of Dicky Cox, the Elder there. I went into their cell and sat on the bunk with them while they wrote a note. The besa block walls sweated nicotine tears in the tropical heat, six men, one toilet, 12 steel bars and no air-con, they spoke of countless nights of longing. A high barred window sold a vague promise of freedom beyond, and the countdown to release was a calendar in every man’s mind. Each repeated his release date with rehearsed contemplation and a sigh of hope. Hope for things to be different this time, next time.
When Bryte MC came on a few young guys got really whooped up. One of them approached me about getting some CD’s and I discovered they where Indonesian. I impressed them with my limited Indo’ slang and so won their friendship instantly. Apparently if I ever go to Sulawesi I will have many wives and much good shabu?? Not sure if any of that would be good for me, but it’s the thought that counts. After we had both exhausted our repertoire of the others native vocabulary, we watched the music in silence. I knew that he could not understand a thing Bryte yelled, but his enjoyment was evident and his whole countenance was enjoyable to witness.
If the measure of success is in being invited back, then I believe we won some ground. Watching the guys get up and have a play was the highlight for me and even the guards admitted that it seemed very cathartic for them. There is a big need in here for more of this stuff and with some funding we could spend a day or two workshopping and recording some songs with the guys. All agreed it would have many benefits, and the demand is self-evident. We were not allowed to take photos, so unfortunately I have no evidence that this ever happened, however I did get one good shot of the truck backing into the compound through the first high gate. Other than that, you’ll have to use your imagination.
Saturday 1st October
Day 5 – Get Ready
Today was about getting ready to go bush for a week. We fuelled the vehicles, readied the truck and gave her the big once over for the next long run. Emily and Candice bought four shopping trolleys full of food; Candice has made a meal plan and organised dinners for every night of the trip. Ewan mixed down the songs from the Prison gig to give to the boys and I picked up Richard from the airport. We went straight home and had a bit of a rehearsal as we have not played together since Richard was on tour with us last year. However, he is a musical virtuoso, Ewan and I both marvelled at his skill on the ‘cello. It was like he had never left and we had a great jam in the hotel apartment at the Grand Mercure. Richard is something of a mastermind. I have met people that are musical virtuoso’s before and they always astound me, but Richard is also mechanically minded, which is very rare. In fact I have never seen that combination before. His back ground is electrical engineering, but he has had training in both classical and jazz music. He can play any instrument on Earth with fluent ease, and build you a website at the same time. He loves gadgets and travels with a giant suitcase, which, upon opening, reveals a mass of half-built mechanisms, loose wires, transistors and various electrical equipment but no clothes. Ewan and I had a good laugh about that, until he proved himself to be the saviour of any situation again by producing a battery powered, shoulder mounted guitar amplifier when I complained that I couldn’t hear my guitar over his ‘cello?! I mean, who even knew one of those existed, let alone has one in his bag? He’s not even the guitarist! And so he has regained his title as the walking kitchen sink, once again this year.
Sunday 2nd October
Day 6 – The Big Gig
The Diabetes WA girls arrived this afternoon in time for our concert tonight at The Divers Tavern. I might take a moment to introduce them; Helen Mitchell is a nurse and well, everyone loves a Nurse, say no more. She has worked for Diabetes WA for 10 years now, and we met through my long term friend Ross. Ross had plans to join us on this inaugural partnership that he helped develop, but being diagnosed with cancer shortly after, now fights for his life back in Perth, his two young boys and wife are there for him and his time with them now more precious than ever, however it is with great regret that I left him this trip. It’s a fact that only strengthens my resolve to create a successful association with such an awesome organisation. Not only is it an amazing Not-For-Profit, its crew are inspirational people. I have had the good pleasure over the preceding months to get to know them, as we developed the funding applications, budget and itinerary towards developing healthy messages in our workshop to form this relationship with the health organisation. Helen saw it straight away, and of course Ross’ foresight and his master networking skill was the amalgam for such a great synergy.
Helens co-worker Asha Singh is not to be judged by her size. She is the tiniest and sweetest little lady I have ever met and she never stops smiling. Her CV is very impressive including a degree in Heath Science at UWA and between the two of them they have more Degrees than a thermometer.
Their arrival completes our tour ensemble now, and so tomorrow we shall head into the red earth of the Western Kimberley. However, one last event needs transpire first. That being a little, under the radar, show that I organised for the guys. My tour team are the nicest people you could wish to meet! They are multi-skilled and talented, but at the end of the day they are musicians. They can do workshops, facilitate learning and teach. They can write songs and record other artists, they are sound engineers, teachers and veteran performers, however, they just want to play music too. The gig tonight is not officially part of the Desert Feet Tour. It’s just a chance for these guys to let off some steam and get some exposure in front of a crowd as performers.
Fortunately, the venue was packed; a hens night and a birthday party filled most of the garden bar, but we are very close to the end of the Tourist season so this is a big crowd for this time of year. The venue really looked after us and laid on a huge feed. Having all the equipment set up was like being in heaven. All we had to do was show up and play. What a night; Resident audience, 1 kilo T-bone steaks and good friends. It was the ideal way for everyone to meet and get to know one another. Being a Sunday, the venue closed at 10pm and so it was not a late night either. Em and i left early and packed the truck ready for an early start.
Monday 3rd October
Day 7 – One Arm Point
The Cape Leveque road would be one of the most dangerous 4 wheel drive tracks I have ever been on. I have seen more rolled cars on that roadside in the 16 years that I have been travelling the peninsular, than in a Blues Brothers movie. I have seen trucks, not bogged, but more like sunk. During the wet, this road is a lake for months. It is old and mean. It’s been graded for years without back fill so parts of the it are so deep they look like they are below sea level. More like a river than a road. The real danger is the rifts; long shallow dips that fill with fine red drift sand. Once you hit them, the car can get airborne. It’s when you get three in a row that people flip their cars; trying to brake coming down out of a bounce leaves the driver with no steering. But these days it only lasts for a few hours. This is also the only dirt roads you will drive on that ends in bitumen, because the back half is sealed. How or why someone drove graders, rollers, bulldozers and bitumen over two hundred kilometres of some of the worst road on Earth to seal the back half is anyone’s guess.
The peninsular is a hive of controversy at the moment, as anyone with a TV or reading glasses would know. James Price Point, the site for the Woodside gas hub, has created a storm amongst the locals, the T.O’s, and greenies. It’s an unusual and complicated protest this time. Not a clear cut ‘good guys versus the corporate machine.’ In this case there are those that ‘have’ and those that ‘have not.’ Fighting each other to. Then there are those that are ‘already there’ and they are wondering why everyone else has an opinion in their future and land all the sudden. As my interest is working towards reconciliation, it’s a debate that I’m going to stay neutral in, but I see that there are internal fractures between many of the once very strong groups, which is a shame. We will work with four communities up here, Djaridjin, Lombadina, One Arm Point and Beagle Bay. Our job is to record music with local bands and run workshops with the kids with a healthy lifestyle focus. We don’t live here, and we don’t need to be involved in or take sides in that debate. However it’s not quite that simple and so one must tread lightly at times.
Tuesday 4th October
Day 8 – One Arm Point big concert day
I have sold the idea that the Desert Feet Tour musicians can improvise and incorporate any message into the songs we write. Thus, Diabetes WA’s very generous involvement. However, as yet we have never actually done that. Upon arriving here yesterday, for the first time this trip, I started to wonder if I had finally bitten off more than I could chew. There were very few kids around at all, and when I called up Djaridjin and Lombadina, neither communities had managed to organise any sort of coordination with One Arm Point about bringing kids across for the DFT workshops. With school holidays on, lots of the kids would be out camping or away on other communities and of course there would be no teachers or support from the school. Going directly into the school is, of course, the best way to reach the bulk of the kids, but that was not an option for us and so I had to try to coordinate things with the community.
In a remote community things run in their own time and you can make plans, but it pays to be open to possibilities. It is also a good idea to be pretty versatile. Delivery of the workshops and what type we do depends on the size of the turnout, the interest we have, and how they respond. All of which can vary greatly. After we set up the truck on the basketball court, it became obvious that it was going to be far too hot to do anything at all up there until after 6pm. The set-up nearly killed Ewan and I, coming from winter in Perth, and Emily, already a bit rundown, got heat stroke and went down entirely. With a man down and a short crew as it was, I had a few little voices in the back of my head starting to tell me I had stuffed up. Candice was a bit concerned about how to deliver the content of Diabetes into our workshops and where to do them.
So last night at dinner we brian stormed some ideas for a few hours. I am really, really anxious to deliver some good outcomes for the Diabetes team and so we worked on some song ideas around their core messages. Choose Water, Eat Healthy, Stay Fit. We had made announcements about the workshops last night and put up posters advertising workshops at 12pm today. Cris the CEO gave us the keys to the hall and told us to work in there out of the sun where the ladies paint. The local artists where happy for us to work in with them and so we had some cool space for starters.
At about 9am, Arlene from Broome Health Service, whom I had met at Millya Rumarra, showed up on the
community with some of her co-workers and a carload of kids, and by 11am we had about 20 more in the hall. All my fears soon vanished. The kids here are super, super cool. Polite, well mannered and actually extraordinarily accommodating. Some of them were so keen to be involved that they asked us how they could help! Their participation made it breezy and we made some lifelong friends, I do imagine. Bryte MC came good once again with his magical powers to create enthusiasm, and produced a fantastic hip hop song, got the kids rapping, beat boxing and writing cool lyrics.
For the song writing, I wanted to try something a bit different. Instead of trying to get the kids to write the lyrics, I wrote open ended verses like;
“If you need to take a drink, choose drinks that don’t make you sick”
Then we got them to list what sort of drinks make them sick. The first boy called out from the back of the room, “Coke!” And from then on, it was all smooth sailing. We had no problems getting them to sing it, and we recorded their little voices yelling to the music. All in all, a great day with some great outcomes for Diabetes WA to report with! And so a great feeling of satisfaction replaced any concerns I might have had.
These kids are something else, I don’t think I have ever met such generous and well mannered kids anywhere in the world. They helped us pack up and clean up the hall and the boys insisted that we go for a “men only” swim, and so our newly made friends took us to their favourite swimming spot. The King Sound is full of islands. Just off the shore of One Arm Point is the group of Sunday Islands. Not more than 500m of water separates the two shores. But they would be 500 of the most dangerous metres I have ever seen. 9m tides will travel in and out between these two shores every day, twice. The sheer volume of water over the centuries has cut a cliff face into the sedimentary foreshore. The current moves so ferociously it had churned itself into whirlpools, the riptides carried chunks of foam, spat out from some vicious confrontation further up stream. The stretch of water ran past like a river. We swam in the pristine green waters around the edges of the cliff, where a small outcrop protected us from her torrent. Imitating their forefathers pearl diving prowess, The boys played diving games, throwing large rocks into the deeper water then swimming down to find it. The bigger the rock and the further out you threw it the greater the reward.
When Bryte MC tried to sneak a cigarette in, thinking himself alone under the rock ledge, several of the boys came around the corner and caught him. one of the boys declared in a loud voice, “You shouldn’t smoke!” Thinking quick Bryte proclaimed, “This is my last one, then I’m giving up”, to which the boy replied, “Why don’t you throw them in the water then?” Bryte feeling caught out agreed that he should and I saw him eye the full packet mournfully, then after a moment he returned with authority, “I can’t, that would be polluting” with an obvious relief in his voice. Till the boy rejoined without a seconds hesitation, “so put it in the bin!” Before Bryte had time to reply again, one of the other boys came up with a novel concept, “you throw it in the water and I will swim out and get it.” Bryte was cornered by logic as and the realisation grew on his face, I could almost hear him thinking, “I’m a role model, these kids look up to me, I’m out here doing health workshops and they have caught me smoking! I have to do it.” He carefully pulled the plastic wrapper off the outside and threw the pack into the ocean from the ledge, but before any of the kids could splash into the water below, Bella the super dog was off to the rescue, and with loud applause she returned to the water’s edge with a soggy pack of cigarettes. Not long afterwards, when a plastic bag floated past out in the current, one of the boys called out, “Hey, rubbish in the water will kill the turtles, if the turtle dies, we die.” I jokingly pointed to it and told Bella, “Go Fetch!” Next thing we know, Bella the super dog is doing her part to save the environment, much to the kids delight. There was loud applause and if i didn’t know that dogs can’t talk, I would have been sure Bella was showing off in response to all the encouragement. A veritable furore of whoops and laughter emerged as it became apparent that Bella had undertaken to protect native wild life from harm by swimming into the dangerous current, when she returned to the rocks with the recovered plastic bag hanging from her mouth, she became the star of the day. One of the kids asked me later how I had trained her to swim out and get stuff. “It’s just all part of the Desert Feet services” I explained. So Bella gained great respect amongst the kids, who all paid her much attention, and fought to sit with her in the back of the car on the way home.
The coastline here is pristine, in fact the Kimberley coast is one on the three last pristine wilderness’ in the world, including Antarctica and the Arctic. There is about 1200km of shoreline like this between Broome and the NT. The people here are Bardi, they are the salt water people. The desert mob call them “fish eaters,” because they don’t eat much roo or goanna at all. They love their turtle, dugong and fish and still hunt in traditional manner, with spear. As a result they look very healthy. The Bardi name for white man is Wharbal and this community is one of the few communities that has capitalised on the Wharbal’s visits, it survives on tourism and some of the locals hire out as cultural guides. One in particular, Bruce Wigger is famous the world over (you can Google him) for his advice to anthologists, scientists and wilderness tours, he has a strong connection to the spirit world and is a well known and celebrated healer, people come from far and wide to have his hands laid upon their head. He has been carving pearl shell and painting for tourists here for nearly 50 years. He is a beautiful looking old man with rich deep lines in his face and long straight white hair which he adorns with a huge bell tower black cowboy hat. I’d say he was a stockman or a drover, as his legs are bowed and he walks with the pendulum swing of a horseman. When he talks, you want to bottle his words, his voice is soft and calm but a storm of energy lives in every word. He did some healing on Emily, which we were very grateful for too, I’ll tell you if it worked tomorrow.
One Arm Point is known as ‘the model community” right now. It has made an incredible transition and with great foresight, into the business of tourism, as I mentioned above, yet maintained a strong connection to land and culture. It is not a dry community (and I had my fears about that before we came, especially with our concerts, which can be a cause for celebration), but they have strong control and respect. The native title here extends up to the peninsular and it is the One Arm Point or Ardyaloon council that owns the Cape Leveque Resort. They even have their own air strip to fly tourists in and out.
This peninsular is a spectacular land mass, as is proven by the demand now placed upon it by visitors. But it was not always like that. The world left this continent alone for centuries after it was discovered simply because it was considered barren. When William Dampier landed in this very area of the King Sound in 1688, he said in his journals “The land is of a dry sandy soil, destitute of water.” He, like the Dutch about a hundred years before him, reported to his King that the country was useless. How wrong they where!
Our concert was well attended because the community put on a beautiful feed for the BBQ; huge beef skewers, crumbed sausages and gourmet style marinated meats! Also, after spending so much time with the kids, the concert was well advertised. The real highlight was when the Seaside Drifters, from One Mile, near Broome, showed up. Arleen and Jules had told us about them and then took us out to meet the guys before we left. I asked if they would play for us and paid for their fuel to come up. They were really keen and so when they showed up it created a bit of a buzz all ’round. They call themselves the Seaside Drifters, but most of them are Shoveller brothers. The Shovellers are traditionally from Bidyadanga, and Frank Shoveller is pretty famous in these parts for his Family Band, which features 3 of his young kids. (The CD is in every store up here, but keep an eye out for these guys as they will be the next Pigram Brothers, I predict). As usual, the local band ripped it up all night, with copious amounts of raw skill, unparalleled improvisations of various radio classics, infused with their original Desert Reggae feel, and (as always) culminating in a 20 minute version of Wipeout, performed with a magic finger-tapping version of the guitar solo.
Wednesday 5th October
Day 9 – One Arm Point workshops
Today’s workshops would be Candice’s domain, we have 2 guitars to give to the community, thanks to donations from our Sponsors. We set up ours as well, along with the bass, and so several of the kids learnt some basic guitar skills at the workshop. It was a very satisfying session, which Candice managed with competent mastery. The group of about 20 children sight-read the 6 bars of music that Candice had prepared for the various instruments. She broke them into relevant groups then had them all come back and perform the piece as an ensemble. I have seen this workshop several times, and I am still always impressed. If you told me you could have a group of kids reading sheet music and then performing the piece inside an hour I would not have believed you.
We made bit of a ceremony by presenting the guitars to Jackie from the One Arm Point Council in front of the class, and then sent them all home with a promise of a concert and free BBQ again tonight. This time, almost all the kids stayed back and so we followed them down to the Round Rocks for a swim, but this time we all went down together, girls and boys, and we rested in the shade under the cliffs while the tide crept up the rocks. Soon enough it was so high the kids jumped from the top ledge, and in this manner the whole afternoon evaporated into the Kimberley sun faster than a water drop on a hot rock. Before we knew it, Ewan was saying, “Hey, c’mon let’s go set up the stage, we’re running late!” and I was roused from a delicious siesta, in the afternoon breeze by an emerald sea, on a smooth rock with cries of laughter and sounds of splashing water that had lulled me to sleep.
Brehanna Green – Fish in the Water by Desert Feet Tour
At about 12pm Ewan, Richard and I sat down to dinner. The concert finished, the truck packed down and ready to leave in the morning and the others all fast asleep, preparing to make for an early departure. I had a coffee and wanted to do some writing but then Ewan said “Let’s drive down to the hatchery, put the headlights on the water, and catch some squid!” I said “Yeh, let’s do that!” Then Richard said “Ok, let’s do it!” Then we sat motionless for a minute, no one spoke. Then I said, “Well, let’s go then!” and Ewan said, “Ok let’s go!” then Richard said “I’ll go, but I have to brush my teeth.” No one said anything for a while or moved, then my head nodded forward, I crawled into bed and dreamed that huge squid were jumping into the car.
Thursday 6th October – Day 10 – Beagle Bay
At 5am I woke the guys up to come fishing. Unfortunately, the fish in my dreams remained there and we came home and ate porridge instead.
Leaving One Arm Point was a bit emotional, it has only been four days but we have made some great friends and some especially strong connections. I was presented with a beautiful Turtle shell by one of the guys and Cris the CEO of the community presented us with a hard cover book about the community, written by the kids and published by the school. She was quite teary as she sung our praises and we were all a bit lost for words. Apparently the Elders had informed her that the Desert Feet Tour was welcome any time, and I always say a return invitation is the best sign of success. A few of the teenage girls had taken a real shine to Asha, she seemed to hit it off, especially with one young girl called Bonny. Candice had spent every spare second over the last two days recording a song with one of the students, Breanna. We left Cris with a CD full of songs the kids had written and we had recorded, and about 4 Gig of photos.
Richard had pretty much left his camera with some of the kids for days on end and they had snapped some absolute gems, especially the stuff jumping off the rock at Round Stone. The only other thing to report is the mysterious reappearance of Emily. This morning during our departure ceremonies, she just walked into the camp like a resurrected ghost. Her absence has been a handicap on every level for all of us. We have had to rearrange the music we played at the concerts, set up and pack down shorthanded and run the workshops without her familiar input. Not to mention the strangeness of her absence, and the concern we have all had for her. After the nurse at the clinic had diagnosed her with a virus, I was preparing myself mentally to send her home with Helen and Asha. If it was anything like the one I’d just got over, she would be bedridden for a week and ill for months. I have had 4 lots of antibiotics and only just recovered from bronchitis. But alas, I have never seen anyone fall so sick, so suddenly and absolutely, then recover so instantaneously?! She slept continuously for 3 days and 3 nights then emerged this morning as if she had never been gone. Her quiet manner, oblivious of the miraculous resurrection she had surprised us with, with blase indifference she only replied to all our enquires in her calm, unexcited, low monotone that she “felt fine”. I don’t think any of us quite believed her at first. It wasn’t till later that I remembered the healing session that Bruce Wigger had performed on her?! I’m not implying anything…………..I’m just saying, is all. You can make your own mind up.
However, Emily was not to be entirely free of pain, within an hour of leaving One Arm Point a phone call came from Perth, but this pain was not a virus or a bruise it was worse, it was the call no one wants to get. The call that says one of your family is sick, and so Emily’s time on the tour once again seemed in jeopardy as she considered the situation. Helen was a big support and i don’t think Emily would mind me saying but she would have been lost without her this last week.
But for now we had to concentrate on the task at hand. Our rendezvous at Beagle Bay, an impromptu arrangement organised by Ewan, looked interesting. Thee ‘Kerri-Anne Cox’, had invited the DFT to perform at her inaugural launch of the Beagle Bay Chronicles. An event she had managed to attract much attention to. NITV were there to film it, and everyone from miles around, was there to see it.
Kerri-Anne Cox is a legend in these parts. The Cox family are massive in the Kimberley. The first son of the Welsh drover who married a full blood Aboriginal lady, was Kerri-Anne’s Great Grandfather. He died recently, but was the very Senior men for the Nyul Nyul people and well respected right across these lands.
Kerri-Anne has eyes that pinch a nerve in your spine, they are beautiful but full of fire, the most remarkable colour, like a hazel ember, like Tigerseye-stone in a furnace. She is both charismatic and enchanting, and once she speaks, you are transfixed. What transpires is the transferral of a profound realisation, “This is a women that will change the world” and all who spoke with her unanimously concurred. The realisation is borne on the strength of the fact that next month she will state her case before the Queen of England, her people’s right to sovereignty and a release from colonial repression. Treaty?! Kerri-Anne Cox, it seems, has done some serious research. Keep an eye out for this little bomb shell. Any Bills at parliament for compulsory Indigenous History in schools, or political movements that finally create a Treaty, might very well have her name written all over it.
The event was the culmination of 3 years of planning and incorporated a Melbourne Youth Theatre group who had travelled all the way over to stage and perform at the event, an eclectic group of thespians, is not what one would expect to find in a remote community, but none the less, so it was. ‘The Chronicles’ so named by Kerri-Anne, documented the first contact with missionaries in the peninsular, and was a artistic mixture of recorded dialogue of the Elders’ personal accounts, Kerri-Anne Cox’s original songs, and the dramatic re-enactment of the religious conversion of the local Indigenous people, by the God-fearing monks. It was performed by a mixture of Asian, Aboriginal and Caucasians actors. After this, we performed a full concert and hosted 3 of the local bands. One of which, ‘The Beagle Bay Band’ featured none other than Francis Cox the legendary country singer of his day. Meeting him was like meeting Royalty and i would never have known who he was if it hadn’t been for the conversation that sprung up over his guitar which he opened in front of me like a Christmas gift! It was a wood finished Telecaster and obviously very old! When i began to drool he proudly lifted his prize into my hands to ease my obvious guitar envy, enjoying my palpable appreciation and with a smile, he informed me that it was an original ’82 Fender and he had had it since new, that guitar was worth well of $20,000 and we both knew it. Watching him play it was even more rewarding, with that Tele in his hand, there was no tomorrow and Frances reminisced us with the spiritual union of a man lost in the moment. In his heyday he preformed all over the world and alongside the greats of County Rock like Willy Nelson and Cash.
The community had been out hunting for the occasion and so we were treated to a massive traditional smorgasbord of turtle, dugong and mud crabs. Two huge barra’ came out of the fire wrapped in alfoil of which i eat a whole wing and other than a few fellows that had had a bit too much to drink, the night was an awesome experience. Unfortunately Ewan copped the brunt of the bad behaviour being out front of the stage all night and so his role as sound guy double as diplomatic domestic disruption avoidance councillor too. The poor guy was exhausted by the nights end and after a full pull down to boot he was looking a bit worse for wear.
Friday 7th October – Day 11 – Leaving Beagle Bay
Ewan was not able to be roused for an early morning fishing trip this morning so i took the girls out to Middle Lagoon for a looksee at 6 am instead. The beach was beautiful and worth the off road trip, However it was full of tourists. It’s sort of wierd but once you spend time in remote community’s with the mob one can feel a little protective?! And seeing a bunch of sunburnt tourists in their flash Landcruisers is almost repulsive. Feeling a little superior, as if we are locals not tourists, is an irony of the highest order, yet i must admit a tinge of judgement crept upon me. However that is ridiculous because this lagoon is managed by the local community that have made a great location for tourism by creating little open chalet’s on the beach front. It is a beautiful location and worth visiting, the mere $8 a night goes to running the generator and fuel for the school bus of the resident community.
The workshops today were the most fun I have ever had. As school is out, we had no teachers to assist us, so it was a bit of an unknown quantity. I drove around the block a few times and told any kids I saw to come down to the basketball court if they wanted to learn music or do some song writing. By the time I got back, several kids had arrived and several more had jumped in the car. I feel a bit conspicuous in this Prado, I don’t like driving round in a flash new car its sort of a bit arrogant and insensitive in a remote and overcrowded Indigenous community where services are limited and commodities are in demand. I think communities have just had enough of Whities showing up in their big expensive cars telling them how they should live, and this thing is a mine spec’ vehicle too, so I must look like a mining company official or something. However, kids don’t see disparity, nor is their happiness contingent on their conditions. One can only describe it as a child like state, because that’s what it is. That is why working with kids is empowering, it’s the indestructibility of the human spirit that is so obvious and always a reminder that we all had and have that quality, it’s a reminder for me that I can be happy with what I have if i focus on the present, not caught in the suffering of need. In this, service is its own reward, the greatest reward, it’s a freedom really. However, It’s a fine line between support and intervention, and it is a question I must always ask of myself. I’m a guest here, a student. I have come here to learn and I am only allowed to offer what I am asked for, any more than that would be patronising. I think that is the difference between good intentions, which can have bad outcomes, and good results which requires acceptance not knowledge.
I was a bit worried how the kids would behave with no teachers or community members present, but it was really relaxed, having Helen and Asha helps too, with their motherly strength and all. I really wanted some outcomes from the workshops that the girls could take home with them, as this was their last day. I wanted the best outcomes I could get for their efforts, and so I hope I haven’t pushed the crew to hard. I know I felt it last night, I had to push myself, doing a set up, concert and pull down in the same night, its hard yakka for anyone. Performing is emotionally draining, setting up is physically hard, the combination is exhausting. It takes a special type of person to be out here, and I am encouraged by the calibre of these guys. Both Ewan and Richard are people that could name their own price in the corporate world. They are both highly intelligent and well educated men, I am, in fact the least qualified of the lot, and funnily enough the least musically talented, too. I am very grateful for their dedication, I can tell you now they are not doing it for the money.
Bryte killed it as usual, his workshop never fails but the interesting occurrence was Richard, conjuring up a little workshop on the spot. After we had made a Healthy Lyric Song and recorded it, he took the lead and started doing demos with all the “other” instruments. Soon he had an orchestra of students playing the percussion, ukulele and harmonica. I sat with the kids and just laced up some of the football boots we had given out, and so I watched Richard, Candice and Emily get creative and spontaneous. It was a great change and really worked well, but overall it showed the diversity of outcomes available and the value of spontaneity. Some good ideas came out of it for future workshops too and Richard suggested he could run workshops on the ukulele and harmonica, instruments that we could buy cheaply, and supply to each of the kids so they all got left with an instrument and some material to develop on it. It’s an idea we are keen to develop, and we’ll have to see if we can source a bulk order of the instruments. ukuleles would be ideal because they are basically a small guitar; the chords can be transposed and it can be a introduction to guitar playing. Blues harps would be great too, because most of the community’s bands construct their song structure around the 12 bar blues, it’s an instrument that doesn’t go out of tune, and it can be bought pretty cheaply.
One of the mothers came down to the basketball court to pick up her kids for a fishing trip, and so the workshop came to an end. Helen and Asha had to head back to Broome early to meet with the Health Services and so our first leg of the tour was coming to a close. It has been 2 years since we visited the Cape because of funding shortages, and it’s the first time we have visited outside of school term, so it was great to build that rapport with the community and council members instead of the teachers, which can be more transient. As soon as the girls left, a sense of loss hit us all, I’m not sure if I’m a bit biased because my own mother was a nurse, but I have never met a nurse I didn’t like. I once saw a sticker that said, “nurses make the world better” and that’s a fact. There was always something comforting about having a nurse/mother, sort of like double the maternal security. Helen has been no exception to the rule. Nurses are built to care and Helen has “I care” written in her eyes. The reason she is so senior in her position, is because she deserves it. She has a strength of character made impressive by her intelligence. I can’t help feeling like she brought a maternal quality to this trip that I didn’t know we didn’t have till she was here. But now that it’s gone, I miss it. She had never been on tour with us before, but she was an instantly the missing matriarch we never had. In hindsight, I realised that it’s the first time in 4 years I have had another organisation invest their personnel into our project, her input had created a sense of shared responsibility that gave me immeasurable support.
In four years of running this project, I have had all sorts of promises thrown at me, for funding, for support and of course those interested in coming along. However not much of it ever eventuates. Everything that Helen and I discussed, at the first meeting over 6 months ago, she has made happen. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I don’t think we would be on this tour without Diabetes WA. They helped us write the grant, they supplied all the merch’, they contributed to the funding and they paid their own way. It’s just been such a pleasure and a privilege. We were not scheduled to be back in Broome tonight, we had the option of staying out bush and some invitations to go hunting that afternoon, but knowing that the girls had the night in Broome and wanting to give the guys a night off in town with a hot shower and a cooked meal seemed like a good option. It meant we could go out for a farewell dinner, do some much needed washing and maybe catch up on some rest.
Our farewell dinner was a celebration of friendships. It was the night when everyone realised that we had shared something together that gives an unspeakable quality of understanding to a relationship. One that can’t be found in an office, one that can’t be arranged or planned. It’s the sort of feeling you have when you know that your life has just changed a bit. That your course has altered slightly, like you just had another piece of the jigsaw popped into place. In a world that often seems to make no sense, there’s a sense of relief in a realization that overrides intellect and can’t be intellectualised, because its prior to all those faculties. It’s a direct injection of intuition on a vertical line. That’s how I feel about Diabetes WA. It was just there waiting to be awakened, and its’ messengers were two of the finest people I have met. I don’t know how I did it without them and I almost don’t want to do it without them now, such is my grief at their departure. Our last supper was a relaxed night of honest conversation. The type you have when you realise you really trust someone. (thank you Ross M)
Saturday 8th October – Day 12 – Jarlmadangah
As we drive out of Broome and into the second leg of our journey, I reflect on the trials ahead. The next week will be spent in the Fitzroy River Valley, the edge of the Gibson Desert and out of range of mobile and internet. The Valley is a predator that can swallow you whole, without a trace, or nurture you in her bosom of eternity, it can be the mother of awakening or the father of harsh discipline. It is a land that is older than time, it transforms lives, it holds secrets more valuable than gems and is the home to the greatest jewel of all, an ancient and profoundly beautiful people.
Sunday 9th October – Day 13 – Jarlmadangah
Late Saturday afternoon found us in Jarlmadangah. However, we didn’t find much of anything else! The community was virtually empty. A huge sports carnival and music festival in Fitzroy had robbed us of any musicians we hoped to find, the school holidays stole all 30 odd kids that live here, and we arrived a bit late to advertise it at the nearest community, which is Looma. However this cloud of discouragement had a silver lining better than anything one might have hoped for! We spent the night, at the invitation of John Watson, sitting around the campfire, singing songs and eating spare ribs. If you read The Australian on Saturday the 1st of October, then on the front page you would have seen John Watson too! Published author, ex stockman, ringer, drover. He is a protester, activist, survivor of displacement/genocide and slave labour. A gentleman and a scholar but most importantly, an Elder. He is, The Elder. John Watson is probably the most senior law man in the Kimberley. He picketed alongside Rob Riley at Nookanbah in the 80′s, and he is the founder of Jarlmadangah Burru, a little utopia that he built for his people in a stunning part of the Valley, surrounded by high ridges and rivers. In beauty, it is richer than King Solomon. Jarlmadangah is a hub of cultural retention, the local school practices culture every Friday, under his care.
John is 71 now but fit as a fiddle. He eats only fish that he catches and vegetables he grows, and so he is in good nick. But he recalls his past with a heavy breath and long pauses, as if the time between sentences is to recover from the recall of such memories. All that sit before him listen with absolute attention, mouths wide open as if each word was a tender morsel to a starving man. For the likes of us, who starve for culture and connection like John Watson has in spades, it was a meal fit for a King, and any time one spends with John will be time you can value for life.
We started the day at 5am with a hike up some of the local ranges. The landscape here is flat shrub and sparse growth, lined by long ridges. The ridges are of a sedimentary rock, stacked in flaky shards that break away at every touch. Here and there, the skyline is breached by corkscrew hills, that look like they have been wound out of the earth by mysterious beings. Perfectly cone shaped, with a ridge that almost looks like a road spiralling around the circumference until it reaches the peak. They are a remarkable visual experience and one can understand the Dreaming that this sort of territory must have invoked.
From the top of the ridge the world was endless, a sea of red land with oil colours posing as Spinifex grass. The view was surreal, like a painting that looked life like. You wanted to reach out and touch the textile surface of the canvas before you, look for the artists name in the bottom right hand corner, ask the attendant “How much?” but only silence replies. A million year echo of emptiness, vast emptiness; then you know, you’re alive.
Later, we drove into Looma to try to drum up some interest for the concert tonight, but the place was mysteriously deserted too. We had been told not to take the first turn left up to New Looma and so we drove around old Looma several times to no avail. We were just about to leave when we found some kids who told us everyone was at the crossing. At the crossing, we found no one either, but the shade was tempting and the heat soaring. On the grassy banks we caught some small bait fish we used to entice a Barra onto a hook, but it seems they had the upper hand on us today because although we saw some and got a few big bites, they managed to keep their skin on their bones, for now anyway. However, Ewan caught a good sized Cherabin and we contemplated a return trip at night to find more of the same.
We stopped in at Camballin on the way back but the same story availed, everyone away for the school holidays, no one in town anywhere to be seen. We decided to make one last effort at Looma and this time we found a bunch of young guys wearing 2 Pac shirts that looked like they could be enticed into a free barbie and some ‘fresh’ rap tunes. They informed us that everyone was at the crossing still and this time they took us.
The following account is amongst the strangest experiences I have ever had. Directed up an inconspicuous track by our new found guides, the bush opened onto a sandy bank and a large clearing, in which a gathering had formed of about a hundred people. By the water, a large congregation made loud celebrative noises which at first, I assumed to be a swimming party, but was soon corrected as to its purpose. Apparently, we had stumbled upon some sort of baptism event. I was approached by several people to whom I explained our purpose; repeating our names and what we do, inviting them to a concert tonight at Jarlmadangah, but each time I was referred to someone else, who then listened all over again, and called for the next person. I felt like a Chinese whispers version of pass-the-parcel. Eventually, I had quite a large audience. Some discussion broke out in language around me, various affirmations, contemplations and delegations seemed to be underway around the group, and then into the clearing appeared a tall white guy. He wore a huge white cowboy hat, bigger than mine, which bore the symbol of small horse shoe. Etched with a pattern and laying on its side like a C, it looked like it had been branded into the hat with precision. His appearance so surprised me that I was a bit lost for words, but his next sentence caught me off guard completely, “We are a bunch of god-fearing, faithful and dedicated, worshipping Christians, and we don’t listen to the Devil’s music. Unless you sing the praise of our Lord, we are not interested.” There was a deadly silence, every eye was upon me, I looked from face to face. The group from Looma stood around us in every direction, I noticed some of the young men had hats on too with the same sideways horseshoe branded into the rabbit fur felt. I realised I was being challenged by the white cowboy. Called out. It was as if I saw myself from a distance, like in a dream or an old black and white movie, it was a standoff, the white hat versus the black hat. It was my move, would I pull the six gun of rebellion and challenge his words, “So you speak for all these people, do you?” or “Would you have one belief die to keep another?” Suddenly, I felt alone, was I the bad guy? My heart dropped, his white hat glowed with purity, my black hat a reflection of my heart. I said the only thing that came to my mind, “Well, maybe you want to get up and play then?” He took a step forward and went for his gun of religious fury, I stepped forward too, my pistol of indignation fully loaded. The faithful white hat would fight for righteousness, the black hat for the right to be different. A black hand appeared in front of my face, it was connected to a tall African who stepped into the space between us. His eyes were soft and his hand fell upon my arm and pulled my hand into his, and with both he shook my hand in the warmest manner. I knew that this was a man that could not be roused. He introduced himself in his full Zimbabwe name, like a diplomat with a long title or a tribal chief, but the words made almost no sense and I could not repeat a single syllable. Seeing my consternation he said simply, “Call me Father Anthony.” His accent incorporated a series of pops and clicks, like a Kalahari Bushman, which was quite mesmerising, and his whole countenance was calming. He explained to me that this was his last night before he continued his travels, and that he had a heavy schedule of ministry prior. Apparently, we were welcome to stay, and so it seemed we had a choice, get baptised and eat at the feast, or leave.
We arrived back at Jarlmadangah with our sins intact, and discussed our options with John Watson. There was still only 5 people in the community, and we could safely assume that no one was coming from Looma. He suggested that we do what we had done last night, and he offered to put some fish on the table too. John had been out hunting and had a couple of the fattest looking cat fish I have ever seen. That night we did a little concert for them around the camp fire, and we ate spare ribs and fish from the hot coals under an open sky. The moon threatened to end the night, the fire danced an ancient jig, and everything under Gods heaven was……… as it should be.
Monday 10th October – Day 14 – Wangkatjunka, The Edge of the Desert
It was with great regret that we left Jarlmadangah. It’s really is a little utopia. We have made a promise to John to return when all the kids are back, and so we have rearranged the schedule a bit in order to come back here after Noonkanbah. The last few days had been a great experience, and meeting John Watson has been a highlight of the tour for me. He has commissioned me to write him a song, and so the challenge is on before we return.
In the meantime, we are scheduled to perform at Wangkatjungka tonight; we are all very excited about it, because it was the very first remote community we ever visited in ’08. The community is really keen for us to come back, and support has been overwhelming. We drove into Fitzroy and fuelled up. The remnants of the huge festival/carnival here, The Garnduwa Festival, ended today and has turned sleepy old Fitzroy Crossing into a hive of activity. I needed to do some banking and send some emails, so we pulled into the Fitzroy River Lodge for lunch, where our long term friend, tour advisor for this area, and well regarded Musician, Patrick Davies, joined us.
Our time was short as Wangkatjungka was expecting us tonight, however, upon arriving late in the afternoon we found the same situation as Jarlmadangah, several of the local musicians had not returned from the Garnduwa Festival, nor had many of the residents. The community bus was doing a run back to Fitzroy in the morning to collect people, and I offered the services of the Prado to help. In the meantime I was directed to DJs house who is the bass player for the Dry Metal Band, who lived up at Ngumpan about 20km back towards the main road. Ngumpan is also the site of the living water, a series of springs that keep full all year round. Two of the girls that remembered us from last year, Breanna and Shannon, jumped in the car to come for a swim and show us where DJ lived. At Ngumpan, DJ was excited to see us, and when I told him that this year we had the equipment to record his band, and if they played we would mix a CD down for them, his eyes lit up. With his help, I was now confident we could find the rest of the boys tomorrow, i was looking forward to the concert.
Tuesday 11th October – Day 15 – Wangkatjunka
In the morning Emily and I took the Prado back into town. It would be a good chance to make a few calls while we waited at the BP, the designated meeting spot for our contingent of passengers. But DJ showed up first with Steve and Jamieson, the Dry Metal band boys, Word had spreads quick. The five of us piled into the Prado to find the last member of the band, the lead singer, Effron, and thus began a hilarious episode of exploration through downtown Fitzroy Crossing. They checked in several of the community housing estates first, all to no avail, then under some trees, there a few people had seen him, and so the trail grew hotter. Em and I taxied the boys in and out of various driveways, performed much honking of horns, and waited by the roadside, while the boys took directions to the next place. So in this manner, I was introduced to most of the Fitzroy locals in search of the elusive lead singer. Finally, a series of finger pointing, waving and calling out from the window, led us to a little shaded area where several ladies sat under a large bush out front an old house. Much commotion erupted and discussion took place in language. It seems we had discovered Effron’s sister and so were very close, in fact his clothes where in the house next door.
The boys urged me out of the car indicating with sign language that I needed to come over. When I approached the group of ladies, I discovered that one of them was none other than Olive Knight. She was very happy to see us and remembered us fondly from our previous three tours. I made a joke about the Desert Feet Tour being the inspiration for her new found talents, but the truth is, she has been singing since she was in a Mission House choir as a child. At 60 plus, Olive Knight is my hero. After living in relative obscurity in a remote community for 40 years, she picked up a guitar and started to sing the blues. Writing a collection of gospel style originals, she had them recorded by ‘Mood of the Blues’ producer Ivan in March this year. Fast forward to 6 months later, and Olive is now an international celebrity!?
Her success is a victory on so many levels, but most inspirational of all, is it has not changed how she lives or who she is. Next week, this little, humble, elderly lady will do 3 months straight under the big lights on Broadway, singing a duet with Hugh Jackman, today she is sleeping on a swag in downtown Fitzroy. This Broadway star needs no dressing room with mirrored lights, no air-conditioned self contained caravan to tow her around, “I’m just going to Broadway, I guess” she explained in the most natural unassuming manner. She reminded me of Ruby Hunter with her deep, deep brown eyes and beautiful pitch black, dark, dark face, from a half century of full desert sun. Her kind features a reservoir of character and wisdom, lined with acceptance and humility. Most people that had lived her life would be bitter or defeated, could be forgiven for being withdrawn or broken, but Olive is full of love and forgiveness. She gave me a warm hug and promised to make every effort to come out to Wangkatjungka tonight to play a few songs for her countrymen, that being her home and all. “I’ll see if I can get a lift out there, Damien” she called out as we left.
So now we had Effron’s clothes but no Effron. At the next house an old lady watering her red dirt yard looked at our car with suspicion, and directed us to another house. Confident of having cornered their target, DJ, Jamieson and Steve ran into the house. They emerged with the evasive lead singer in tow, all talking to him at once, encouraging him to get in the car and come back to the community for a concert in which their band would be recorded live. And so it was that Emily and I were now the most qualified taxi drivers of Fitzroy Crossing.
(Don’t read this paragraph unless you are interested in Australian history and have thick skin)
Wangkatjungka is only about 2 hours west of Fitzroy Crossing, along the Great Northern Hwy, then 20 minutes off road, heading south into the Valley. It is not as remote as some of the communities we visit but is still remote in the sense that it has no mobile or internet range and it is too far to get to without a four wheel drive, and so the population live in relative isolation. In some ways this is probably better for the community as it prevents the likelihood of liquor or other drugs getting out there, and thus Wangkatjungka is a dry community by law and by agreement. The elders are still strong and can enforce the law, their law, which is always a better goverance. This part of the Kimberley’s is commonly referred to as ‘the edge of the desert’, but parts of the Valley are quite rich and fertile. The wide open plains and the lack of much else opened the area to pastoralisation very early in West Australian settlement. The elements that the settlers endured do inspire the imagination and many a good yarn, has been made a novel. However, it has left both a heavy mark on the earth, and irreparable damage to the First Australians that had used these fertile lands to hunt, live, and farm for thousands of years in absolute ecological balance.
As Crown Land was offered to those willing to endure the heat and pioneer the untamed west, outstations appeared on the deserts edge near waterholes, and cattle routes were opened by determined drovers, lead by indigenous guides. The resulting displacement of the indigenous population thus occurred. As the government had given out the land, they needed to respond in kind to the problems that dual occupation created. Pastoralists had their own measures to lesser or greater extents, but needless to say, many tribes in these fertile valley areas became extinct, and many, especially during the pearling boom of the late 19th century, became slaves. The government used its power and knowledge to ‘break the culture’ by deporting Law Men and Elders to Rottnest Island, and forbidding the use of language or ceremony to all and any, on pain of imprisonment. It was a kneejerk reaction to what it saw as a temporary problem. After all the “Aboriginals would soon die off” (Immigration Restriction Act 1901). The above mentioned Bill was one of the first passed by the United Colony’s which became Australia. This act would later morph into and include acts of Parliament like The Assimilation Policy (The Stolen Generation) and the White Australia Policy, not vanquished until 1967!! The Indigenous people having knowledge of country, and being able to survive on very little, made ideal drovers, ringers and station hands, and the pastoralists formed a symbiotic relationship with displaced Indigenous families. The men and women worked on the camps and the families could live on the pastoral lease. Of course, the Indigenous people were not entitled to a wage! Thus, the Stolen Wages Generation was created, those like our friend, John Watson were so employed, in what was basically slave labour. The Government, realising its mistake, took corrective action by creating “fair pay” for all workers, but by this time the pastoralists and the Indigenous people had settled into a type of unwritten and mutual benefiting agreement, to a lesser or greater degrees, varying between stations. The new Bill meant station owners could not afford to (or did not want to) employ all the families (or what the Government now saw as workers) that lived on the land, and thus they became displaced once again. The solution to the resulting homelessness, was another kneejerk reaction; communities.
Thus, the birth of communities like Wangkatjungka came into place. Wangkatjungka is a language group, not really a place. The Wangkatjungka skin group is not even from here, they are from the Western Desert, south of Telfer, recruited and transported as station hands from the desert. If you are thinking it is a victory for Indigenous rights, that they have a community to call their own, think again. They do not own this land, it is a government lease for 99 years. It is a dry and poor little portion of useless land, partitioned out of the surrounding rich valleys and pastoral leases. It was, and is, an ‘under the carpet’ solution to a huge mistake that as yet, has not been rectified.
In the afternoon the boys took us hunting near some ranges. Steve is a young man with a charismatic nature. He is a musician, a council member a staff member at the local school and a role model for the children. He is an educated man, but has done the hard Law too. However his intelligence is a bane, and his conflict between what he knows, is at war with what he knows once was. He works every day in the office and the school with non-Indigenous people, he is reconciled to the facts, however there is a pain in him that cries a silent river.
He explained to us how these ridges formed, 350 million years ago, the Devonian Reef holds fossils and mysteries that unlock the past and all this land was then under water. With ease he articulated how his dreaming explained the formation long before science existed. He expounded the similarities between law and evolution like a college professor. He pointed out the mudlark nest dreaming, and followed the song lines with his fingers across the vast ranges to our left. Ewan, Emily and I held our breath to hear his words over the purr of the engine and the crunching of Spinifex grass, as he guided us through the open plains with casual indifference, fearless of the country and sure of its every undulation. The massive range, like in a prehistoric movie, running against the screen of a bleached blue sky. Still, ancient, watching and waiting; a silent tower of infinite knowledge. We could feel the life he spoke of in them, that breathed us out into existence.
Communities are not a solution, the people still live in envy of their own land. Devoid of the right to hunt upon it, burn off, or even drive across some of it. Charged as burglars if they are caught behind a locked gate, and arson if they burn off. Steve must watch powerless, as thousands of cattle roam free in every direction around him, they trample the growth, foul the waterholes, and erode the soil which then blows away. They destroy the country under his nose and then the owners accuse him of being a nuisance?!
Prohibited from ancient cultural and environmental practice of burning off, under threat of tough arson laws, while all around him pastoralists leave their heavy and destructive ecological footprint with impunity. Do we think that the Steve’s of our modern world, educated under a western ideology, might not see the disparities. Pastoral lease and farming are more detrimental to the environment than mining, you don’t need to be a educated man to know that. We would have Steve conform to our ways, yet turn a blind eye on our folly. We are happy to worship a pagan god, a crucified man in agony on a cross, yet we would prevent him believing in Sprit Beings? Why are we so foolish? What have we lost that has made us so ignorant? Is it too late for us to change?
After the concert that night, the boys came back to our camp to listen to the rough recording of the live tracks, as yet unedited or mastered. Their approval was evident and Ewan’s obvious enjoyment of his contribution, was a lump sum payment into the bank of happiness. However, his workload would now increase tenfold as he will continue on with his usual roles plus find time to mix down the tracks into an audible CD over the next 24 hours before we leave. The Dry Metal Band’s anticipation was almost tangible and I can’t help but feel proud to be a part of this . I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that these five guys will be our friends forever, and any mention of the DFT to any of their friends or family will be received with utmost welcome. We are building a thing of great value out here, a relationship worth far more than the funding that enables it.
It was with great relish that we hit the swags tonight. It’s the first camp we have had with no beds, so we have had to use our own sleeping gear. I had forgotten how hilarious Richards travel bedding is, and we had a good laugh when he blew up his hiking mattress. He is the tallest one in the group and he has the smallest bed. With him laying on it, his legs overhang about three foot. I told him it looks more like an esky lid than a mattress, and Emily called it the ‘Boogie Board Bed’, but he retained his pride by expounding the virtues of economy to weight ratio, which I pointed out is counteracted by the giant bag of electrical equipment he lugs around everywhere. Never-the-less, he assures us that it is most comfortable and he sleeps very well on it.