Day 15 - Homeward Bound
Ryder is sleeping in the seat next to me. His new career as a student at Abmusic will begin in the next few days. Ewan is stretched out in the back cuddling my dog. We are about 600 km south of Newman, it is about 11:30 pm. The night is dark, cold with a steady drizzle falling since we left Port Hedland, almost as if the Pilbara weeps at our departure.
This night fell on us while we were passing through the astounding Legoland mountains of the Munjina Ranges. The sections of the hills looked like they had been pulled apart by a baby God who put them back together in the wrong order. A line of giant ridges stacked incorrectly like an ill-fitting lego set. Sections of the ridges seemed to hang out over lower parts, other sections look like they were from a different ridge. In places the open cliff faces looks like bricks without mortar, stacked precariously high, as if the whole range might just collapse any second. The landscape here is almost alien; powerful and vast. It is a forgotten part of the world on a forgotten road with Red rocks and immeasurable green plains hidden behind ranges, spotted with caves and valleys. The beauty is mesmerising.
Reflection is my only companion now as I try to understand what has happened, what really transpired. How has my life come to look like this: driving a dirty, red-mud caked truck down an endless open road, ambitiously determined for a result I cannot even visualise. All I know is it is not a material result.
The white line of the highway is flashing below me like a story-less movie screen, my headlights show the road and its verge which form a tunnel in the night, describing the extent of my visual world. The darkness ahead is a void, drawing me in like a black hole. The purring diesel motor of the vibrating steel chariot has put me into a trance leading me to a moment of clarity. It’s not what I thought it was going to be, the Desert Feet Tour. It has turned a corner and, from this day, it will never look the same again. The real outcome was so near I had missed seeing it. It was not the music or the recordings, or the concerts, or even the workshops. It has not been the lessons or the experience. Most importantly, it was the friendships.
Now I realise I have started something I could never walk away from. I have started friendships that are mine for life, if I choose to grow them.
I guess I have fallen in love with this land and with the salt of its earth, its people. I have fallen because that is my purpose, the purpose of my life. I used to believe life was for living, to live life to the max! Now I doubt that.
Living is the state that occurs, like a present. Life is for loving. Love is our choice; to give it or not to give, to know it or not to allow it, to own it or fear it. To be without love is worse than to be without life, for life will end but love never will.
The measure of your life will be the quantity of your gift.
We had more workshops to do this morning, so I woke the crew up early again. We drove back to Port Hedland last night so it was late by the time we got in. Emily and I had forgotten to include today’s workshops in the itinerary so the crew had all thought they would get a good sleep in before the big show. Rob was anxious to rehearse with Mary G, while Ewan was very distracted, worrying about getting the set up under way as early as possible to out any hitches and do sound checks for all six of the performers. However, today’s workshops are the most important of all as the BHP sponsors will there. Today will be run beside a basketball carnival held at the youth centre in South Hedland. We are expected to run some of the workshops there for kids as an adjunct, over in the hall.
With everybody’s combined effort we had the whole show set up, completed and packed away by 11:30 am. I took everyone down to the hotel restaurant for lunch before the final set-up. It was the first time we have eaten a nice sit down meal together the whole trip, and it was a real panacea to ease the stress that has built up over days of not stopping. Both Em and I ate a huge T-bone so Bella got two huge bones to chew on in the back of the truck. The whole lot came to $450.00! That’s an expensive treat and I was glad we didn’t have to do that too often, but it was well worth it. These guys have been super and I could not have done it without their enthusiasm and extra work that they have all have contributed.
With a belly full of good tucker, we all felt better.
This year we outsourced the publicity and promotion of our major concert to another company. Amber from White Room is a force to be reckoned with. A small petite blond haired, blue eyed bombshell, she has had to excel above the norm to overcome the stereotype of the beauty that might misrepresent her. A lawyer by trade, she drove the Haulpacks for BHP for years before setting up her own business, which has now accommodated some world class acts. The association came about by chance. We saw the promotional work they had done for a previous concert as we left Newman last Tour and we were impressed. The relationship is a blessing and the effort tripled our attendance.
The Kiwirrkurra boys had done their bit to promote the concert too so we had a massive following arrive before sundown. The audience was a cultural fusion and from that point on I was happy. Only one moment during the night did I worry when some people arrived with a few cartons of beer to drink in the park, and I could not get hold of the police. However it turns out that the captain of the Hedland Police was sitting in our audience, so once I pointed out the situation to him it was resolved instantly. Ideally it would be better if it had been prevented rather than stopped, however no further issue resulted. The dancing was orchestrated by Countrymen and Englishmen combined. It was the cherry on the pie for me.
Ewan also had a teary moment when his beloved Kiwirrkurra Band opened the night with their Desert Reggae. The transformation was complete. They got up in their new outfit; white shirts. They played their songs like seasoned professionals, their set list now developed and tweaked under the guiding eye of Ewan, with instructions from Simon and Rob. They had turned up this morning and practiced all day! I cannot describe how proud we were to perform with them. Bobby was at the mixing desk every ten minutes asking Ewan for another CD to hand out to another relative. His pleasure at having his son and the boys up there was obvious, and quite cute.
Bryte MC impressed all with his set sounding full and dramatic, the sound Ewan pulled from the system was perfect. Candice with her huge soul voice and a band behind her is an act worth paying to see, but tonight was free! My band pulled a pretty tight sound too if I do say so myself! In fact, I think we had the most people dancing to our songs ever.
The headline was Mary G and as always she was hilarious. She made me get up and do a duet which was comical, but the real treat was when at the end of the night we asked Mary G to introduce Ryder Loxton onto the stage to play his song ‘Lonely Boy’. The Kiwirrkurra boys got up as his band and the crowd really went wild. In the end these guys had the biggest crowd dancing out of all of the acts and they played the final 3 songs of the night with relaxed ease and grace. I think I was more nervous than them.
Just two weeks ago these guys got up on stage in Kiwirrkurra and played a mostly broken and disjointed set. Tonight they got up and delivered a professional ordered set to an adoring audience. Moreover, the real irony of it is the majority of the crowd were here as a result of their promotion at South Hedland that night. They delivered their set with the same stoic and unaffected impressiveness, in front of the masses, as they did around a campfire. Then all the sudden it hit me! I realised why I love these guys so much. They are just so honest!
They never try to be anything other than what they are. They are incapable of anything else and they are always just that. Just here, as they always have been. Waiting and watching through the eons, through the ages. Like a mountain, like a spirit.
It was a big day for us today; as I wrote this entry i found myself nodding off. The torchlight over my shoulder in the back of the truck lights my mobile desk. Twice I woke with 20 lines if ddddddddddddddddddddddd…. Once I began to drool onto the keypad I called it quits.
The day was a success by all accounts but by no means a normal one. Although my worst fear was realised, its outcome was nothing like I expected. In fact, I would even say it has been positive.
It started at 5am. I woke the crew early to begin the 5 hr drive to the next community via Port Hedland. As we rolled out Bobby stopped the convoy. He told us they would meet us in Warralong so we left without them.
At Warralong we set up on the open basketball court as we had done last time we were here, and once again not having anywhere to stay caused issues for us. We had nowhere to rest in between the workshops and the concert. Tony had to make lunch at the back of the truck, which was not ideal as it meant all 50 of the kids running around wanting to eat too. In the end, after much pleading, the Principal offered us one of the school rooms to make a cup of tea. When asked if they needed help with the BBQ that night we meet with some strange resistance. It seemed there was an issue over who was supplying the food, utensils and so on.
By the time we had started to play we were all pretty stuffed. Soon after Bobby showed up in his Troopy with Eric, Morris and Adam, but the 60 Series with the other boys was nowhere to be seen. Bobby had no idea where they were either and thought they were here already.
It was just as we finished our set when the 60 Series rolled into the community with a few hitch hikers on board that I did not recognise. One of to the boys was asleep in the back, out cold; the others where pickled like an owl. The elder for the community, Clarry, was not impressed, as this was a dry community with kids here for the workshops. He told me categorically they would not be allowed to play. Eric, the lead guitarist and senior man in the group said something to the whole band, then there was a silence until Adam asked me if they could still play.
Bobby spoke to them then, as they all fell silent again. I don’t know what he said but he sounded angry. He turned to me, “Drink grog, no play. No grog tomorrow, then play.” That was the final word, The Law, and nothing more was said about it.
Since I have known Eric I have never seen a single emotion pass his face. He rarely smiles or joins in any conversations, with his impressive countenance; immobile and expressionless. His little wiry goatee is like a traditional sign post pointing to a heart of red sand. He never makes eye contact with me, but tonight I was sure I saw a look of disappointment. Maybe it was me, or maybe I just imagined it. In two weeks we have shared not more than 3 words, but I feel like I would trust him with my life.
He is the most powerfully charismatic person I have ever not spoken with.
Day 12 - Yandeyarra concert
I got a call from Bobby West first thing this morning. He is driving into town from Kiwirrkurra to be with the boys! I was so excited I wanted to yell. Once again my fears where proven pointless. With Bobby here I know the boys will get home safe. More importantly it means I am no longer their ward. He is keen to see his sons play at Port Hedland alongside Mary G just like a proud Dad, and I am really looking forward to seeing him again tonight. He said he will be in Yandeyarra by the time the concert starts, so with a rising sprit I began the final run, and it’s going to be a hard push.
We have a workshop and a concert to perform each day; 3 communities, 3 days. It means full set up and pull-down every day. Yandeyarra is 2 hrs south, and Warralong is 3 hrs north of Port Hedland. There are 17 of us now, in 2 four wheel drives and a truck. To get to Yandeyarra by midday ready for the school assembly at 1 pm we needed to be on the road by 9. I had the crew up with their porridge and coffee by 7am. With Ben and Rob now here we even had a little Yoga session in the dining area at 5:30am. Rob led it, and it was very energising.
I didn’t sleep well last night so I’m pretty stuffed now. I’m a bit run down with a bit of a sore throat, not what you want when you need to sing. Candice and Brian both have bad sounding chest coughs they have brought up from Perth, and Emily has picked up a pretty bad flu from the kids. Both Sean and Chantelle are sick but are still soldiering on. Tony has a bad cut on his foot that won’t heal, looks like blood poisoning again.
All in all though we have done well. We are on the home stretch now, all downhill from here. With fresh reinforcements we will be ok, but the next 3 days will be hard work no matter how you look at it.
Yandeyarra is not far off the Newman road so it is mostly sealed bitumen. It’s absolutely luxurious after what we’ve been through. The last 50 km was into the Pilbara cattle country, back onto the dusty gravel. We crossed the Yule River and pulled into what is quite a big community; Yandeyarra.
We were well received by the school principle Grahame, who had nice quarters for us to bump into straight away. I left Candice to make the lunch sandwiches and the rest of us went over for setup.
It was great to have my full team back again.
I had forgotten how much I missed Bryte, and his new Hip Hop workshop was very cool. He got the kids to write a rap song then recorded it. He had prearranged a funky beat with some hooks for the kids to call out. Then he dubbed them into the song and mixed them up like a master DJ. The result was a catchy song that was as good as any. He is such a pro that guy!
Simon is the man now at the song writing workshops. He is a seasoned performer capable of improvising on the spot. I would even go as far as to call him a virtuoso. In some communities the kids like country music and in others reggae, but Simon can find a chord progression on the spot to fit anything you can think of; rock, folk, reggae, you name it.
For the kids to see that the same chords played with a different feel changes the type of song is impressive stuff. He fearlessly writes the songs on the spot - words, feel and chords - then sings it, plays it and remembers it! All I have to do now is help the kids with ideas and sing along. This is a big help for me.
Before I finish blowing Simon’s horn I just want to add one other thing. A song is only as good as its hook line or melody. Simon never failed in all the workshops to pull a hook line out of the air that had the kids screaming the song at the top of their lungs. After the workshop the kids where still singing that song.
At the concert we got them up again with the Kiwirrkurra band to sing it live on stage. The recording from this song is the one that we will use in the reports. It should be available from the website very soon.
Unfortunately, the community did not have a local band, but with Candice and Bryte both here now, there are five acts; just about enough for a festival, let alone a small concert.
We got a very nice response to our work here. The principal was so happy with us I found a glowing report Cc’d to BHP and several other agencies in my inbox the following morning! I was pretty blown away by that.
The Kiwirrkurra boys pulled into camp before we had even gotten up. They are obviously keen, my concerns were all proven hollow. I woke up to find them happy, joking around the fire while Tony boiled coffee.
The massive pot of porridge went on the hot coals while we woke slowly from a smoky slumber as the fire rekindled our warmth. If I’ve done nothing else in my life I think I can take credit for introducing a healthy breakfast to everyone that comes on tour. Slow cooked oats in the morning is the best way to start the day and everyone seems to love it. Chantelle tells me she is converted now for life. Furthermore both Sean and her have become fans of using honey instead of sugar too, which is what I like to do, on my porridge, in my tea and in my coffee.
I have no idea why I told the guys to get here early. I realised when they pulled up at 7 am that I had jumped the gun. I had figured if I had said 8:30 they would come at 9:30, but I misjudged them once again. I see how fear can be enemy of the peace. I want the tour to be a success; I have a vision of them standing on the stage in Port Hedland in front of hundreds of people, getting their shot in the limelight. However those are my desires and might not be the best outcomes.
This weather is hurting us a bit; my lips are chapped and the cold has exacerbated the flu that a few of the guys have picked up. There are a few rattly chests and all of us have sniffily noses now. Still it was nice to camp out last night without having to set up the truck or having to perform. The excitement of the Kiwirrkurra boys and their obvious enjoyment of being on tour is all the payment I need now. Ever so slowly they let their inhibitions fall away so we are getting to know them a little more each day.
We headed for Port Hedland at a relaxed pace. I’m in no particular rush to get there because I still have a fear (seeded by the conversation with Newcrest earlier) that I might lose the boys to the city lights with its ready availability of grog. It is playing on my mind a bit. I feel a huge inner conflict over these feeling as I am aware they are adults with their own car, capable of doing what they want.
Tony has points out to me there is no changing what the outcome may be, there is simply a willingness to see it through, “You’ve given them a great opportunity Damien, and they realise it.”
However, I can’t help feeling like it is them giving me the opportunity. I feel grateful to be on tour with these countrymen, to be around their unassuming and reserved disposition, their inhibited glances and calm stillness. I feel privileged to hear their quiet discussions in their ancient language, wondering what is lost in translation between us. I would like for the Kiwirrkurra Band to know that I am in awe of their ancestry, their heritage, their language and their lack of material desire. I love how they stick together with the strength of a family bond tying them to each other. I admire their lack of worldly concern, their intrigue with the natural world around them and the way they relate to it. I hate how our world has affected them, how the grog has been a scourge and capitalisation has forced them out of a once forgotten land, a once utterly isolated world. I did not personally do that, and I cannot change it- but I can refuse to be a part of it.
In Port Hedland we met up with Ben Lanzon (drummer), Rob Findlay (guitars), Candice and Brian (Indigenous performers) at the shopping centre. They arrived 20 minutes earlier by plane. We all had lunch at a cafe there, my full contingent now at 17! It cost me $150 just for coffee!
It was great to see Ben and Rob again and I’m looking forward to being able to play as band for the next three concerts. These guys will have their work cut out for them as they both have to play for me and Candice. Also on Saturday night they will have to play with Mary G too. That will be 3 hours of gigging, which is a lot of work if you add set-up and pull-down on top of it.
The question of the budget was still a huge concern. Em and I need to sit down to balance the books, add up our receipts and make a few projections, but the first thing to do was pay everyone!
The accommodation in Port Hedland was luxurious (thanks to BHP). A huge double story set of rooms with shared ablutions blocks right on the waterfront overlooking the ships at sea. There was much for Em and I to do; pick up the keys for the venue on Saturday, load the music equipment on to the truck for the next 3 communities, go to the bank, organise the shopping for the next three days, fuel up the three vehicles, refill the jerry cans and pay a truckload of bills off. That was a big weight of my mind and it felt good to finally refund Ewan and Tony. I was personally in debt for nearly $10,000 by the time we reached Port Hedland.
We got back to the rooms by nightfall where Tony had a huge feed of curry chicken and rice made up. Rob, Ben and Ewan had set up the band equipment in the kitchen to practise and the Kiwirrkurra boys where still hard at it when we walked in. Tristan had his electric key board on the ironing stand while Ewan had a clip board to take notes on their set list, making them play the intro over and over again till they had it tight. The place looked like a recording studio.
After dinner Ryder asked me if he could go into South Hedland. This is exactly what Newcrest had predicted would occur, and fear jumped into my heart. I told him we were leaving early in the morning so it would be best if he stuck with the crew but he persisted, asking me if Tony could take him in. I had another predicament now. Ultimately, I would be looked at for the final decision making the responsibility mine too. I can’t stop Brian going out and I wouldn’t stop Tony, so to say no seemed patronising.
Self-doubt was a stone in my throat. I could not swallow. Ryder is 21, he is a grown man. Fear overcame me again. This decision felt like a double-jointed hinge for the outcome of the tour; which way will this swing? How can one know! Disastrous results flashed like a neon sign; boys getting sucked into the night life beco,ming lost to us. My schedule was so tight I had no time to be driving around looking for anyone. The fact I even had to think like this annoyed me, I felt foolish and condescending.
The Kiwirrkurra boys were sitting on the steps smoking. “Can we go into town Damien, walk around?” they asked.
Then Tony walked up, hands in his pocket, calm and thoughtful. Tony, my friend Tony! Tony has a demure that says i am incapable of lying, but you might not like what you hear. “I’ll go into town with the boys Damo,” he said. The dice were rolled.
I slept in the back of the truck as all the rooms were full. I had been too tired to take a moment to cover the plastic seat with a blanket and I woke in a cold sweat, sticking to the bench. Milton was standing at the end of my bed. He had a spear held high, about to launch it into my thigh. Ryder was in the room but it was his ghost. The ghost was covered in blood and broken glass from a shattered windscreen, saying, “See Damien you let us down, now you get payback!”
I had failed. Newcrest were there too, shaking their heads at me. The tour was over, my luck had finally come to an end.
I jumped out of bed. It was 1:30 am. I walked down the corridor to Tony’s room shining the light in. He turned over and squinted into my torch.
“You’re back?” I asked, sounding surprised.
He got up to fetch me a cup of water, forcing me to drink two more in a row. “Have you slept?” he asked.
“I mean this whole trip?” he asked again.
“Not much,” I answered again.
“Damien, the boys are fine! They just wanted to tell their friends they are playing on Saturday. We did a big poster run and we were all home by midnight. It was fun.”
I’m at a Telstra phone box. Graffiti across the front proclaims “Punmu Boys Rule”. The old, greasy, dirt encrusted cage shelter offers some shade but only at a 45 degree angle. The wind has swept the dusty sand into silty ridges around empty wrappers of phone cards that lay discarded in multitudes. The sun steals my energy like an oxygen thief. I look down at my feet; my RM Williams are caked with red mud and the toes are frayed through to the leather underneath the shoe polish. Desert red sand reaches out past the limits of my eyes – this is the phone box at the end of the world.
Behind me lies Lake Dora, flooded now with her disappointing brine, useless to all she has been a traitor of many a thirsty eye. A glistening illusion on the horizon it has fooled many an explorer, like the aptly named Lake Disappointment further to the south, only a smaller. Its white crust is a glaring reflector like a desert solar panel.
The hand piece of the phone is greasy enough my fingers stick together like spilt coke when I place it back in the rack. The words of my last conversation hang heavy in my mind. I have a decision to make.
I cannot find any further funding at such short notice to take the Kiwirrkurra Band on the rest of the Tour. If I do it, it’s at our own expense. Newcrest have offered to pay some fuel costs, but have indicated that with so little planning the risks are too high for anything more. In fact, I have been advised against it.
“If something happens to the boys while they are on tour with you, Damien, you will be held responsible, and the community will see it that way too. If you take the guys to town and they hit the grog and get in trouble, you’ll be responsible.” Newcrest also pointed out I’ll be expected to get them home too, a cost I had not factored into any budget, and a time issue without a solution.
All of a sudden, the enormity of the cultural gap yawned before me. The void of difference between our worlds was a chasm of fear at my feet. Am I an overzealous do-gooder that would cause harm with his good intention? Am I just jeopardising the wellbeing of others for my own ambitious desire? Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Has my audacious luck finally dried up?
Self-doubt crushed me as I fell back onto the old tractor tyre that served as the Telstra bench for the phone booth at the end of the world. My pride poo-pooed the naysayers, but my fear crippled me. I could drive out of this community with or without the boys.
This is the Desert Feet Tour; our job is to expose Indigenous talent, to create employment and performance opportunities for remote or isolated musicians. If I walked away from this chance, then have I failed to walk my own talk? If I take the chance and fail, will I lose all credibility with my sponsors for good? Would it ruin the Desert Feet Tour full stop? Was it better to just stick to the plan? I needed council.
Tony heard me out in full; the sun beat on my black hat while he listened with squinted eyes. Then he was silent for a while. He looked at me and said, “Damien, if you do not take this opportunity because you are worried about money you will never forgive yourself. Just follow your heart, the rest will manifest.”
Six hours later when we pulled into Marble Bar, the boys were there, waiting for us at the roadhouse, their beat up 60 Series looking worse for wear.
“God, I hope that thing keeps going” I thought to myself.
All smiles as the guys greeted us excitedly. The tour had begun in earnest. They followed us down to Chinaman’s Pool and we pulled out the guitars, threw two huge roasts into a camp oven and filled the billy with coffee. The rainbow serpent lives here so if the wind changes the snake would smell them and take them while they slept. They refused to stay, but agreed to rest a while with the roast having some influence on the decision.
Ryder had an uncle here and two of the boys disappeared for a while to seek accommodation. I unpacked the guitars from the cases and song burst out like fire. Soon the flames danced in time to our joviality and as I searched the fire lit faces, framed against the blackness of the night, I realised we had stumbled into a situation of great significance. We were not just on tour with a bunch of able musicians, we were the participants to the birth of something else. A friendship built on common interests of music and discovery, culture and respect.
I asked myself where this little impromptu journey would lead. What would this spontaneous association and quirk of fate result in for each of us around this fire? Where would we all be 5 yrs from now, this group of eclectics that providence has cast together? Each of my crew here on the Desert Feet Tour has a different reason to be here; some of us are seeking adventure, some a lucky break, for some it is about healing, for me its reconciliation, but for the Kiwirrkurra boys it’s about music. After all is done and said, when the curtain comes down and the ashes of this fire grow cold and blow away, it is only the friendships we have built that will remain, that are of any value. To form long-lasting and meaningful relationships; is that not what life is for? It is a path that can be veiled, obstructed and hindered but never broken, like a bridge that passes over our limited and finite humanness, a bridge across worlds. The bridge of love.
The Kiwirrkurra boys are in need of nothing, their bond is filial, therefore they have all that life can give in each other this is the law and the land made it this way. We may seem like the bearers of gifts, the bringers of technology, industry and might, of information and law - but the real gift was here already, waiting for thousands of years. It can’t be learnt by a western mind, it can only be unlearnt.
Ultimately, I do not presume to understand what is happening here. I have some ideas but I don’t trust them. I feel the guys see the skill and ability of the Desert Feet Musicians as an opportunity to expand their knowledge and the idea of playing concerts defiantly excites them too. Their skill set is stand alone, something to be admired. They play by ear, have no theory, nor could they tell you what they are playing. They simply strike up a feel, search for the key and go at it. This is how they did it around that campfire; exactly as they did it live in front of an audience on the stage. Fearless musical energy from the heart, without self-consciousness or ego, like leaves falling to the earth, their music is an autumn song. A note to fit here, a word there, a rhythm that simply comes from within. I almost fear to teach them anything lest we destroy the beauty that exists.
I search the sky for answers. The fire burns bright. There are big white smiles in the dark night, wild frizzy hair and thickly accented words of economy. This is offset by pink faces reflected in the flames, the chatter of western extroversion and comical pursuit.
Our intellect hides our ignorance, we assume we know........but it’s what we don’t know that is the problem. These guys don’t talk much, but when they do it has meaning. We talk all the time saying nothing most of the time. We feel obliged to respond. These guys feel no need to respond, often not even facing the person they are talking to. There is great economy in this. They never waste energy, there is great strength in the way they treat each other. They are my heroes.
Musically, this could be the birth of a new and popular band. This could be the beginning of a career for these guys. But is there advantage in that, I have to question. Would that even be of benefit? And who am I to judge anyway?
When the roast was retrieved from the hot coals a feast fit for Kings was dished out on paper plates. A shortage of cups meant jam jars and plastic containers were being filled with tea from the black charred billy. In the flickering light 13 of us shared the hungry complement of silent mastication while the cows called out somewhere beyond the shadows and the cold night closed in on our circle of warmth.
Afterwards, as the boys walked off into the darkness, I wondered if I would see them tomorrow. Travelling on tour together through remote dry communities was worlds apart from hanging out in town.
As an afterthought I yelled out, “hey guys we roll out at 9 so be here early”. I heard a vague acknowledgement from the darkness drowned out by the wind before the old Landcrusier croaked into life to limp up the track, its headlights the only measure of a world beyond our camp fire until they took the bend, turning out of view to be swallowed by the desert from which they came.
Something has begun out here in the desert. Truth be known, I don’t know what, but time will tell.
A good sleep in was needed, so with nothing on the agenda except some recording workshops and a trip out country at some stage of the day the crew roused slowly. I made the porridge and coffee but left it to simmer on the stove, letting them wake up as they needed to. I sat out the back writing the blog for some time until Kerwin showed up in an old Land Cruiser. He wanted to take us on a guided tour so we all piled in to the two cars.
I wondered how this trip would turn out, as his car had no windscreen, amongst other things, but Kerwin didn’t seem to be concerned, so I thought it best just to trust. However, as we went to leave a very suspicious sound emerged from the gearbox and although the motor continued to run, the car would move no further.
So far, we had gotten to the front driveway so that was a good start I suppose. The issues caused a small commotion as some other locals had a lengthy discussion that I could not understand. But the outcome resulted in several men pushing the car back to its original and probably final resting spot at the front of the house next door.
Our options being considerably reduced, we piled into the Patrol, all 9 of us. It was a little squashy, further exacerbated by the discovery about a mile out of camp that Bella was running behind the car. So we let her in too. A fine sight we must have made; a carload of whities packed to bursting, hanging out the windows with their dog and swags, driving around a Remote Aboriginal Community. You’ve got to wonder about irony some times.
Kerwin was a good tour guide. It was really interesting to hear about law and dreamtime from the younger guys this time. Kerwin and Ryder both talked a lot about law and their initiation. Soon they would both partake in what they call the ‘hard law’. They spoke of it with pride but also with hesitation. Hard law involves excommunication from the community for a period of time. They would have to survive in the desert for 6 months on their own with no help from the camp.
“With no shoes,” added Ryder proudly.
Kerwin took us to the sacred brine pools. He explained that these little rock holes (about 4 in all) held water all year, “They are magical,” he explained, “because they can heal.”
The site has been used for healing for as long as can be remembered. Often those with wounds would soak in the briny solution to aid healing. A mixture of the ash from a small group of trees that borders the lake is often used to form a paste with the brine. The concoction is known to have powerful healing powers and is used for ceremony and medicine.
The guys showed us several of the 15 water holes of the area. They are remarkable in the sense that each one was an oasis unto itself in a sea of endless desert and white, crusted salt lakes. They all emerge from the earth’s ground water but are practically invisible until you are right upon them.
In some cases they are so small they could only afford access to a single mouth, but one was like a miniature haven with a grassy verge and trees. All it needed was a date palm to make it a scene from a movie. The lake here is the site of a huge battle between a goanna and a snake. The dreaming beings died locked in battle, and so the shape of this massive rock formation is explained, in the centre of Punmu’s salt lake.
This salt lake looks like a snowfield, only it is literally its polar opposite. It is pure white and caked with a hard crust of salt, which once broken exposes a deep red mud. It’s beautiful in a barren and foreboding sort of way, but it’s amazing to think that this salty land of brine is home to life-giving fresh water if you know where to look.
The highlight for me was the discussion on kinship. I remember a lecture once about how anthropologists were very impressed with Australian Aboriginal matrimony systems. What they call kinship lines is a system of marriage that keeps the skin groups clean to prevent interbreeding for thousands of years.
The lines move in a basic box shape arrangement but are highly complex on a larger scale. The fundamentals of it are that one skin can move laterally along this pattern but not horizontally and vice versa for the opposing skin group. Kerwin explained that the skin groups for this area are Karimauda – Jungula and Burungu – Milanka. So in this case Karimauda can marry Jungula but not any other way across the grid.
What is really interesting is that the Burungu skin group is then a maternal relationship, (all Burugu are parents to any Karimanuda child and vis vera), and the Karimulda – Milanka relationship is then an uncle/aunty paternal relationship, regardless of the directness of the blood. In this manner a boy has many fathers from which he can learn the law and must be respectful of and many mothers which can tell him what to do (the women bring up the children). An uncle or an aunty is always obliged to provide shelter and food to ensure a child is always cared for. (It is common to hear a boy here call several women Mum.) It is an ancient and intricate system of balance that has held a people in perfect harmony with their surrounds and environment for 45,000 years.
When anthropologists discovered the Balinese irrigation systems they marvelled at the complexity of the engineering. It was considered a feat of mathematical genius making it one of the wonders of the world. The same can be said for our indigenous inheritance. From an anthropological point of view our Indigenous people’s kinship laws are among the wonders of the ancient world too. It is something we can be proud to know about and it still lives very strongly out here.
Considering that there were as many as 500 skin groups you can imagine how complex this system must have been. Each skin group held its own language and each corresponding skin group had to know the language of at least the other four that surrounded it. Some early counts of indigenous people accredited aboriginal men with speaking up to 7 different languages.
Kerwin is also a super football player. He has played two seasons with the colts and is seriously being looked at for league selection. I watched him play at the Western Derby earlier this season at the Subiaco grounds. He is also next in line for the Law. Now he is torn between two worlds; the call of a professional football career and his place as the next Elder for Punmu.
His English is exceptionally good and he is the perfect gentleman. When he speaks his eyes are always cast downwards but his manner is never submissive, just respectful. He has a wiry little frame but takes a wide stance with his hands crossed behind his back, he looks like the quintessential footballer but he is a true Martu man, from a long line of desert People, his ancestry is old and strong. As he speaks, Ryder listens intently.
Ryder was in the same position as Kerwin about 3 years ago, but a tragic car accident stole his fine motor skills. Kerwin spoke briefly of this incident. It was a family member that was driving drunk while Ryder was in the back. The uncle was punished by law for causing the accident. They both called it ‘pay back’ as if it was the obvious, but neither of them could be drawn into the discussion on how it is executed, no matter how hard we pressed for an answer. The subject was taboo and both the boys looked blankly out across the lake. The conversation was finished. As was the incident, done and forgotten, resolved without regret, blame or resentment.
That’s just how it is. That’s the law. The incident is followed by the punishment, then its finished with and life goes on.