Mary Lou was an American from Montana she was a juxtaposition of a person, highly educated and competent at her work as a lecturer of Special Education.
At the same time she had the emotional life of an unruly teenager. Her latest foray into the land of marriage was with an alcoholic; this was a short-lived affair that had just finished. Her freshly departed husband had appropriated a good sum of her retirement savings when the marriage finished.
She was newly retired, I guess she must have thought that marriage would keep her off the streets, and when this didn’t happen she had what I thought was a creative solution to her situation. She applied to go to an aboriginal community to teach. This seemed to kill three birds with the one stone. She would be away from her needy, demanding, alcoholic ex-mate; she would top up her retirement fund and also test the techniques that she had been teaching the teachers for all those years. The position was secured and she had a contract to be the primary school teacher for one year at Tjkurla a remote community north of Giles on the Western Australian/Northern Territory borders.
Mary Lou was the mother of Ed my current partner. Ed and I had a tempestuous relationship, I reminded him of what he imagined was his mothers negative qualities a headstrong and wilful career woman.
He in turn reminded me of the worst qualities of my father with a combination of patriarchal beliefs mixed with a very healthy dose of anger. We were soul mates!
When I heard that his mother was being posted to Tjkurla I was delighted and organised for us both to go for a visit. I didn’t kid myself that the visit was to see Mary-Lou for at the time we were too alike to even begin to like each other. I wanted to experience a remote community, and spend time in my souls place – the desert. We hired a four-wheel drive tray Toyota and took off down the Great Northern Highway towards the desert with the dog – named “Ruger” – on the back. Yes, the dog had the name of a GUN, such is the importance of guns to that American culture.
Driving into the desert is a gradual experience, first the suburbs melting away until the house blocks get larger and larger as they become mini farms, with horses and huge vegetable and fruit gardens. Finally we get to the wheat and sheep farmland, with few houses just fields of dry grey grass and the colourful gum trees flowering by the side of the road.
Within four hours we had made it to Wubin a small town perched on the side of the desert, it has a general store, a post office two-road houses and the pub. There is a scattering of houses in the town and at the edge is a small primary school. This town is just this side of the rabbit proof fence and the next town on the Great Northern is 98 miles away. It is called Payne’s Find. I was raised in Wubin a quiet place where children are still free to roam on their own around the bush and town. This town was the last bit of civilization near a railway line from now until Alice Springs which was a weeks drive away through the centre of Australia.
Payne’s Find is not really a town, it is a petrol stop. There is a galvanised iron “pub” with a petrol pump and very little else. Occasionally through the years the gold battery opens and works or a new mine is opened and things happen. The desert constantly reclaims this land as soon as the activity stops again and the hope of prosperity fades yet again…
About 20 minutes driving out of Wubin the desert country starts. The soil initially changes from yellow sand plain where the plants are shrubbier. In the spring the flowers are like a garden from heaven, all the colours that could be imagined peaking from every surface. High above in the trees the flowers of Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie, in white yellow pink and scarlet red. The next stage down are Bottle brushes or Gravillias from pale cream, yellow, orange and through to a pillar box red, the small bushes have the verdacordias, fluffy flowers of cream, lolly pink, and the orange yellow of traffic lights. The Triptomines were tiny flowers the size of a pinhead and they vary in colour from white through to a crimson. Finally the ground is covered in wreaths of yellow and red.
Ed has little regard for this aspect of the trip, so we hurry on, stop for tea & meal breaks and when it is nightfall we camp, we do this for a couple of sleeps until we reach Laverton.
At Laverton the “serious desert” begins. The desert of the Aboriginal Territories, we “non indigenous” are only allowed there with their written permission. We have the permission to visit Mary-Lou and keep this document in the glove box of the Toyota. There is a feeling for me of crossing over to a different country one more vastly different and strange than a trip half way around the world to Europe.
This is a part of our country where the indigenous culture has more opportunity to live on their country. However, there is no such thing as Aboriginal culture as a mainstream, there are many different aboriginal cultures, beliefs and languages. Australia originally was a bit like Europe each part of the land another language and culture.
The desert is where traditional cultures can clash and the same time each culture is melding with the mainstream Australian culture through the government, food, schools, TV, radio and transport.
Some of it gets integrated and some becomes so bizarre that only viewing the results can make it seem real. Welcome to the outback of Australia!
The Gun Barrel Highway has two routes, one that starts at Carnegie station and the other that starts at Laverton; they both go through to Warburton. The Carnegie station route is an ungraded and unkempt track; this is not the route that we take this time. We take the large graded ochre red road from Laverton.
Driving in the desert has a surreal quality for scattered by the road at miniscule distances were the bladders of empty wine casks, all aluminium, space age and shining in the sun. They have been lobbed in to trees and have blown into the distance. To compliment this scene are the various wreckages of vehicles, from the rusted skeleton of ancient jalopies through to the more recent models of station wagons, and sedans. In places there were more than one wreck per kilometre. As we drive the wine cask bladders get less and less but the vehicle bodies remain the same, a material reminder of the millions of people who have travelled this road. As Ed and I travel our chatter and arguing get less and less and we sit quietly in our uncomfortable seats, sweating and just becoming numb to the environment. Zooming along in the desert in a tin box gives it a perspective that makes it seems boring, hot, and still with mile after mile of junk, hour after hour of the sameness.
At our tea stops we get a different perception, there is movement everywhere from the wind playing with the thin dry leaves that make the sound of finger tips rubbing over dry paper.
Then there are the multitudinous insects, clicking, buzzing and swishing, the eddying of the air picking up the dust and puffing it around. Then there is the feeling of the stinging suns rays on my skin as I move around, first they are burning the back on my neck and legs and then as I move around they sting my inner arm and face. The fire starts to spit & crackle with the water in the billy boiling, and of course there are the flies.
Finally we found the Tjkurla turn off and turned left after hundreds of miles of going straight, I felt elated by this simple turn.
The track to Tjkurla was recently graded and not far up the track was a newly abandoned car. It was a Holden station wagon; it still had bits of rope and other odds and ends in it. I it was so recently abandoned that I could feel the energies of the people who had let it be reclaimed by the land or maybe left it there while they thought of another way of getting it back to camp? It was parked on the road just to the left of middle. We stopped for a look, after all this was a bit of variety after the endless bush.
Driving on we finally made it to the actual community of Tjkurla; first the rubbish tip, and then the plastic bags blowing through the bush herald the community. In the distance we can see a huddle of container looking transportable houses. We find the school and thus Mary Lou’s place.
She has one of those crate houses that dot Australia where housing is expensive because of the distances.
It is like a shipping container with windows and a door. There is no veranda or even overhanging gutters, so the house walls are exposed to the elements from all directions. The school has a high fence around with plastic bags caught in the mesh, elsewhere the rubbish is blowing gently in the wind, stuck in the trees and lying on the ground.
The children of the community have hair that is bleached blond at the ends and are friendly, scruffy and have snotty noses and flies at the corners of their eyes and mouths.
They have all the sweetness of any child and give us gifts of empty plastic cool drink bottles with flowers in them and happily pose for photographs.
In the front of the teacher’s house is a humpy made from bits of metal sheeting and tarpaulins it appeared to be someone’s home. Dogs were roaming and my general impression of the place was that it held a placid sleepy energy.
The day after our arrival things were different, there was movement in the camp with cars roaring around, doors slamming and horns blaring. We were told that men’s business was afoot. It appeared to us that all of the community cars were in use and each was stuffed full of men. They had already taken the women and children out to the rubbish tip away from them and they were now getting ready for the business.
The cars need a paragraph of their own for each is such a unique example of mechanical engineering and a statement about the wonderful ingenuity of the owners. It appeared as though each car was individually customised for the desert conditions. Some had a door missing and others didn’t have any doors at all. Others were missing the boot and/or engine covers, giving the car a through flow air conditioning system. Bits of fencing wire could be seen holding the body together or a door on. The really customised ones had the roof smashed in from a roll over and then remodelled upwards again, leaving the rust red creases of the original damage. These new features made driving much more exciting.
We saw a car filled with at least eight men go roaring up the track and take a sharp turn. The drivers door and a couple of other doors were missing, so on the turn the driver fell out on to the track, he had to chase the car a little and jump back in to drive again.
After a morning of cars roaring around peace settled back on the settlement, the men were bush and the women and children wandered back home.
The supermarket in the settlement was a corrugated iron shed, or should I say “goods prison.”
The articles for sale were imprisoned in this ugly concrete and iron structure with bars, gates, dead locks and padlocks. It was open during the day and locked up at night. There was the usual stuff that humans the world over think that they need, Coke, sugar, lollies and sundry stuff to waste money on that don’t in any way contribute to your health or happiness. There was also a freezer for meat that included kangaroo tails with the hair still attached. I bought one and cooked it for dinner for my American hostess as I felt that it was my duty to introduce my American hostess to the wonders of kangaroo tail soup – an infrequent dish from my childhood.
While I was at the shop there was a regal full blood woman in a loose floral dress with her newly killed meat for dinner balanced on her head. She was browsing the freezer and shelves moving around the shop as though this was the most normal thing in the world to have a dead feral cat on ones head.
Mary Lou decided to take us to the local swimming hole, it was back to the main road where a small track comes off at an angle so is difficult to see when just driving past. This is the entrance to a water hole that is nestled in a range of hills. At the end of the track is an area for parking cars and just past is a small dried watercourse.
We walked up the watercourse and found a bit of a cliff that must be a waterfall during the rains. We climbed up the cliff and walked further upstream on the dried river bed. The start of this stream seemed to appear from out of a large cathedral type of cave, and as we ventured into the cave we saw that the bottom of the cave was a huge natural water reservoir, neither a small lake nor a large pond something altogether foreign to an urban dweller. It was an enormous crystal clear pristine desert water source. The roof of the cave swept upwards it seemed three or more stories high, the water was surrounded by the steep walls of the cave, there was a small opening that allowed the morning sun to penetrate and allowed us to go in. At the back of the cave there were markings and a dampness that showed that there was a waterfall that must have streamed down during a rain. Ed and I climbed up the waterfall until we were unable to go further due to the slippery mossy rocks.
After a swim we left Mary Lou and the dog and we both climbed to the top of the hills, it was hot and we were in bathers. I looked a sight in bathers and a fly net contraption on my head. The fly contraption was some army coloured mosquito netting made in to a tube shape that was covered on the top. It had elastic that came around my neck and the idea was to stop the flies getting in to my eyes and mouth. It was very effective however not the sort of thing I would wear in Paris.
We climbed to the top of the cave were we had been swimming and found the opening for the waterfall, further upstream the water had carved a watercourse in the rocks, that had the occasional deep hole that still held some water, we followed this upwards wanting to find the start of the stream.
Finally hot and thirsty we came to a deep pit in the rocks and way down in the shade was another large reservoir.
This was covered in spider’s webs and had an air of foreboding.
I couldn’t work out how the spiders webs were not broken by animals and birds as they came to drink the water.
Something about the place made the skin at the back of my neck prickle, and it didn’t matter that I was thirsty and hot. Nothing on this earth could have made me go down to that water. It spooked us both and we didn’t say a word and retraced our steps back to the happy swimming cave.
After some days with Mary Lu we then travelled on to Ularoo, however, that is another story.