In 1991 I was able to go to Tjukurla because of the Mary Lu who was the mother of my current partner, Ed. Mary Lu had originally arrived in Western Australia from Montana on a teaching exchange.
After one year of exchange I believe that Mary Lu had the idea she would return home to the United States having had an interesting and exciting adventure in the Antipodes. However; for reasons that I am not privy to — Australia became her home.
At the time of her life that I am writing about she was a juxtaposition of a person, highly educated and competent at her work as a lecturer in 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 in the divorce.
I am guessing that she may have thought that marriage would keep her off the streets in her retirement, and when that didn’t happen she had what I thought was a great solution to her situation.
She applied to go to an Aboriginal community to teach. This killed three birds with the one stone. She would be away from her needy, demanding, alcoholic ex-mate; she would top up her retirement fund plus 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 Tjukurla a remote community north of Giles on the Western Australian/Northern Territory borders.
Ed and I had a tempestuous relationship, I may have reminded him of his mothers negative qualities? A headstrong, wilful and successful career woman. He reminded me of the worst qualities of my father with a mix of patriarchal beliefs plus a very healthy dose of anger.
Due to this for the short time we were together we were soul mates.
When I heard that his mother was being posted to Tjukurla 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 like each other.
Back then I couldn’t imagine an era where time in her wisdom would have done her work so that we could enjoy our similarities and find our similarities an advantage. Time did this eventually — yet at the time we were both too obstinate to even attempt such a daunting task.
I wanted to experience a remote community and spend time in my souls place — the desert.
Ed and I hired a four-wheel-drive Toyota and took off down the Great Northern Highway towards the desert with the dog “Ruger” on the back tray.
Driving into the desert is a gradual experience, first the suburbs melt away and the house blocks become larger and larger. Then there are mini farms, with horses and huge vegetable and fruit gardens. Finally there is the farmland, with a widely scattered houses and large paddocks 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. Wubin has a general store, a post office two-road houses and the pub. There is a smattering of houses in the town and at the edge is a small primary school that has now closed due to a lack of students.
This town is “Just this side of the rabbit proof fence,” an expression from my childhood that meant that you were only at the very edge of civilisation. The next town from Wubin on the Great Northern is 98 miles away. (158 Kilometres). This town is Payne’s Find, and it is only a pub-petrol station. Paynes Find is even smaller than Wubin the whole town is — one building.
I was raised in Wubin. A quiet place where children were free to roam the bush and town with no adult company. This town was the last bit of rail connected civilisation until Alice Springs a weeks drive away along first a highway and later on desert tracks.
Once past Wubin the desert country starts and the soil initially changes from yellow sand plain where the plants are shrubbier to the red desert soil where plants are rangier. Many desert plants are lanky things stretching up away from the heat of the land and into the crystal clear sky seeking the energy of the sun, wind and spirit of the land.
In the spring the flowers are like a garden from heaven, all the colours peaking from every surface.
High above in the trees the flowers from the children’s book of Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie, in yellow, pink, scarlet red, blinding white.
All day their petals rain down onto the ground making coloured “snow”. Every colour of the rainbow shows down the different levels of the bush until there are beautiful tiny plants of every colour including blue and purple.
There are areas in the desert where there are carpets of everlasting flowers of white, brilliant yellow, pale yellow and pink. When you pick these flowers they dry and last forever as a living/dead floral arrangement. Throw them in the garden when you are tired to them and they will grow and flower.
Payne’s Find, it not really a town, it is a petrol stop. There is a galvanized iron “pub” with a petrol pump and very little else. Occasionally through the years the gold battery or a new mine would open and things would happen. When the hope for further prosperity fades, the desert again reclaims these mines and Paynes Find goes back to being a petrol stop and a pub.
I found that Ed had little regard for this aspect of the trip, so to my chagrin we hurried on. We stopped for tea & meal breaks and when it is nightfall we camped. After a day we reached Laverton.
At Laverton the “serious desert” begins. This desert is the place of the Aboriginal Territories, We white fellas — This is complicated — I’m not quite white enough to be a deemed a white fella — however not the right darkness to be a part of this area of Australia — such is the madness of a racist government.
Anyway… We couldn’t go there without the written permission of the people of these “territories”.
We have formally applied for 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. Vastly different and strange more contrasting than a trip half way around the world to Europe.
This is a part of our country that the Australian Government has “allowed” the indigenous people to live on their land. Even although maybe most of the day to day original culture of pre 1800’s has been lost due time and change.
Originally within the whole of Australia there were two hundred and fifty different languages and tribes of Aboriginal people. I am guessing that these Territories of today are good for the tribe who came from that area as I have been told that Aboriginal cultures were linked to the land they were conceived and born upon.
Tjukula is a place where the beliefs/culture of the many indigenous people clashes and melds with the Western customs.
The new culture of packaged food, schools, TV, radio, guns, welfare and transport are far removed from the original beliefs and behaviours of the traditional people.
Some of it gets integrated and is amazing. For example; these people have an uncanny knack with motor vehicles that I will let you know more about later. However, some becomes so bizarre that only viewing the results can make it seem real.
We went from Laverton toward the Gun Barrel Highway and met up with that famous highway at Giles.
The Carnegie station route is an ungraded and unkempt track; I take this track without Ed but with our two-year-old daughter Kia in three years time. Kia is not even a dream at this stage so I will stay within this time frame. Ed and I take the large graded ochre red road from Laverton through to Giles.
Driving in the desert had a surreal quality. Scattered by the road were the bladders of empty wine casks — Goon bags — all aluminium, space age and shining in the sun. They have been lobbed into trees and have blown into the distance. To complement this scene were 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 was over 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 people who have travelled this road.
We had to remember that this road is so remote that we would only see one or two moving cars a day as we travelled.
The previous summer a group of Aboriginal people died from lack of water when their vehicle broke down on this road.
I believe that this quote that I read somewhere and rewrote because it used the word MEN instead of people, is true for all Australians.
We are just not as resilient and strong as our ancestors. This is the way of it at this moment in history. Skin colour and culture doesn’t make any difference.
As Ed and I travel our chatter and arguing became less and less and we sat 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 and hour after hour of sameness.
At our tea stops a different perspective opens up. 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. plus the eddying of the air picking up the dust and puffing it around. Then the feeling of the stinging sun rays on 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 spits and crackles as I notice the sound of the bubbling water boiling — and of course — there are the flies.
As I peer in to the distance, I can see the trees and earth stretch away and I feel that any sight mistake on my part and I will be reclaimed and swallowed up and returned to the desert — to all that is.
We found the Tjukurla turn off and turned left after what seemed like hundreds of miles of going straight — the Gun Barrel Highway was called that because it was to be straight like a Gun Barrel.
I felt elated by this simple turn — some action at last. The track to Tjukurla had been graded recently and not far up the track was a newly abandoned car. It was a Holden station wagon that had bits of rope and other odds and ends in it. This car was so recently abandoned that I could feel the energies of the people who had just left it. It was parked on the road to the left — but near the middle. We stopped for a look after all this was variety after the endless bush.
Driving on we finally made it to the actual community of Tjukurla; the rubbish tip, and then the plastic bags blowing through the bush first heralded the community. In the distance we can see a huddle of container looking transportable houses. We found the school and thus Mary Lou’s place.
She had one of those box 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 verandah or even overhanging gutters, so the house walls are exposed to the elements from all directions and an air conditioner pumps cool air in to make it more comfortable.
The school and the school teachers houses are imprisoned with a fence that has captured plastic bags in the mesh. Elsewhere the rubbish is blowing gently in the wind, stuck in the trees and lying on the ground.
Many of the children of the community have bleached blond hair at the ends. These children were friendly, scruffy and had snotty noses and flies at the corners of their eyes and mouths.
Children all over the world have a sweetness and these children were no different. They were different in how they showed absolutely no judgement or fear of strangers.
They gave us gifts of empty plastic cool drink bottles with flowers in them, asked lots of questions and happily posed for photographs.
In the front of the teacher’s house was 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 learned that “men’s business” was afoot. All the community cars were in use and each was stuffed full of men.
The men 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 a unique example of mechanical engineering and a statement about the ingenuity of the owners.
It appeared as though each car had been customised for the desert conditions.
Some had a door missing and others have no doors at all. Others were missing the boot or engine covers or both. These modifications, gave the cars a useful through flow air conditioning system. Bits of fencing wire were holding things together in places.
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. All the 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.
Take a look at these two short videos and be amazed by the ability of these bush mechanics.
After a morning of cars roaring around, peace came. 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. There were articles for sale 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, tomato sauce, sugar, lollies and sundry stuff to clean with.
There was also a freezer for meat and I saw that there were kangaroo tails stiffly frozen with the hair still attached.
I bought one and cooked it for dinner for my American hostess to thank her for her hospitality. You can’t beat a meal of my kangaroo tail soup.
While I was at the shop, there was a regal woman in a loose floral dress with her newly killed meat for dinner balanced on her head. She was browsing the shelves moving around the shop as though this was the most normal thing in the world to have a dead feral cat on one’s head.
Mary Lou took us to the local swimming hole.
It was a difficult place to find as the track from the main road is obscured. We found the track and at the end is an area for parking cars. After that we had to walk along a small dried watercourse to get to the waterhole. We had to walk up the watercourse until we came to a small cliff that must be a waterfall during the rains.
We climbed up the cliff and walked further upstream. The empty stream seemed to appear from a crack in the mountain (hill for anyone not Australian).
We went through this opening to find that the whole of the bottom of the cave was a huge natural water reservoir. Neither a small lake or a large pond something altogether foreign.
It was an enormous crystal clear pristine desert water source of indeterminate depth. The roof of the cave swept upwards about three or more stories high and swept downwards under the water so that the bottom of the water was too deep to imagine.
To be honest, I found it too dark and scary to duck dive and explore and I am usually not fazed by nature.
The only way to get in was a small opening that was the start of the dry water course. This opening 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 where a waterfall must stream down during rain.
Ed and I climbed up the waterfall until we could not go further due to the slippery mossy rocks, we were about two stories high before we had to turn back.
After a swim we left Mary Lou and the dog Ruger and climbed to the top of the hills, it was hot and we were in bathers.
I looked a sight in a pair of bikinis and a fly net contraption on my head. In the bush in summer it is wise to wear these things on one’s head.
These head arrangements are a tube shaped structure of mosquito netting that are covered on the top and they have elastic that tightens around the neck. With this bit of fashion flies can’t get into your eyes, ears and mouth. Flies like to drink the moisture of your body while you are still alive and if they get a chance lay maggots in the moisture.
It is a very effective piece of clothing — but not the sort of thing I would wear in Paris.
Ed and I climbed the desert range and found the top of the cave were we had been swimming and the opening for the waterfall. We followed where the water had carved a course in the rocks and went upstream. There was an occasional deep hole that held water for well after the rains.
The flat ochre rust red desert stretched out in front of us as we climbed. The land was dotted with desert oaks, with their grey green thin needle like leaves that look like fairy floss endings to the branches.
Dull yellow Spinifex grew between the trees dotting the desert floor. The earth seemed to arrange purple shadows here and there perhaps shadows from the clouds maybe the spirits of the land, who knows?
Above it all God in her munificence had created a vast ovoid of light. Vibrant brilliant blue with the occasional child like puffy cotton wool clouds.
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 that indicated that even the animals and birds didn’t drink from this water hole.
This deep spider-webbed pond was the only large exposed water for miles. It had an air of foreboding maybe because the water was in the shade and the pond so deep that it appeared black. The skin at the back of my neck prickled, and it didn’t matter that I was thirsty and hot — nothing on this earth could have made me go down to that water.
This place spooked us both. However, Ed made it clear that he was not interested and not spooked. Ed who at most times was the great white American hunter shooting animals, toppling trees and rocks suddenly lost his adventurous spirit right at this waterhole.
We didn’t say a word about our hasty retreat from the unexplored waterhole and retraced our steps back to the happy swimming cave.
Ed and I moved onto Ullaroo and other places in the “dead centre” after our visit to Tjukurla.
On our way back from other destinations we again came to Tjukurla to say a final farewell to Mary Lou.
We were asked if we could take some passengers to Giles so went to their house to pick them up.
The houses in the community are well constructed for the life style. They were much more practical than the air-conditioned container crate that Mary Lou endured as the teachers house.
These places had a concrete pad and the walls and roofs were unlined tin. The compound of high wire fences that was there for the supporting staff of the community were missing.
There was one or two large airy rooms inside and then an even larger room with no walls but a huge roof as an outside living area. There was a friendly older lady painting a beautiful dot painting on the floor outside in the shade with dogs and children milling around her. It was a content scene of family at home hanging out.
The people who wanted to go to Giles were a couple of indeterminate age, perhaps they were in their twenties or thirties, it was very hard to tell. They were obese and had only a couple of good teeth left between them.
The couple were very upright and centred I felt that they were regal in presence. They may have been physically less adept in their personal care by our standards, yet; I felt that next to them I was somehow spiritually “overweight” and lacking in “teeth”.
I instinctively knew that this was something to do with my busy, inquiring, wanting to know, noisy mind.
The closest I can get in English is that they had a cross between emotional and spiritual intelligence — yet this is not right, it was something different that we “civilized people” are ignorant about.
This couple were just able to “be” whatever that means.
I didn’t feel that they judged me, I felt that they recognised that we were too different to connect beyond the superficial so they didn’t.
Words are so limited sometimes.
This couple took no luggage just themselves and their child who was about 18 months old.
Our four-wheel drive had only two seats in the front and so they travelled in the back for the whole four hours. If you have ever travelled in summer on the back of a truck in the dust, heat and flies, you may understand my dismay. However; for the whole time they sat still and meditative not moving a muscle, nor speaking or even appearing to blink. The child mirrored its parents.
When we stopped at Giles, they regally disembarked and walked away without so much as a stretch of their body, a thank you or even a look.
There was no negative feelings, Maybe sharing was so much a part of their paradigm that saying “thank you” was irrelevant?
Ed and I with our noisy minds then drove back to Perth.
After this experience, I spent many a year working towards achieving that state of grace.
I always feel so grateful towards the community of Tjukula for this deep insight into human nature.