Beware of Big Rock Crossing

On Sunday morn I made a thermos of English Brekkie, threw some cheese, crackers and leftover soup in the Esky, and set off with Dad on a day trip to Rainbow Valley, 90 ks south. It was one of those magic Alice winter days which are many residents’ main reason for living here: not a cloud, light breeze, about 22 degrees. Perfect.

Dad and I had been to Rainbow Valley though not since I was very young. I had no memory of it and all he remembered was it was a sweltering summer’s day and everyone was sour, so really we were heading out unaware of what we’d find, except typical Central Australian geological grandeur.

Rainbow Valley is spectacular.


Heading out bush with Dad is always educational. He’s long been interested in geology, particularly since receiving a piece of the Henbury Meteorite from a patient in the late ‘80s (in ’84 NT legislation declared all meteorites belong to the Territory, so Dad’s bit was safe). Rainbow Valley is like nothing I’ve seen in Central Australia, however, because of the clay pan at its base; a unique occurrence in my experience which instils it with a somewhat Martian mood. (I must admit my first thought when looking at the flat expanse at the base of those breathtaking sandstone cliffs was what a great place for a doof!).

Julz shot lake frame
Dad and I spent a good while contemplating that wondrous question, how? How those razored points, those sheer vertical faces, those rich reds, that white limestone (which, Dad informed me, is calcium from the skeletons of ancient sea creatures). He never reads the information panels before pondering, for that would be cheating before his geology test!

Western-MacDonnell-Ranges-Map-595 Instead of heading back the way we came we decided to take an alternative route along a 50km 4WD track across Owen Springs Reserve, which runs along and through the Hugh River and connects with Larapinta Drive 45ks west of Alice. Dad said he’d done the track once before and there were only a few stretches that required some serious four-wheel driving. What this should have translated to was: there were only a few stretches that required high clearance. We did not have high clearance in his Suzuki Vitara, the car he bought in August last year which I mentioned in my post The ghostly lights of Black Snake Crossing. But that wasn’t gonna stop us.

After ten ks of corrugated red dirt road stretching across plains dotted with sheoaks (a beautiful and fragrant member of the casuarina family named for the sound they make as the wind whips through their needled leaves: shee, shee), Dad stopped. ‘I just have to take a photo of these flowers,’ he grinned. The plains were carpeted with little yellow flowers; against the red dirt beneath the cloudless cerulean sky, the primary palette was enchanting. ‘There’s a skeleton over here Pet.’ The ‘eyes’ of the cow’s pelvis stared back at me. ‘Flowers on my grave,’ sang Dad. Our day trip was turning into a photography expedition. We snapped away merrily.

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We spotted the Hugh soon after getting back on the road – the long line of river gums were welcome relief for my hungry tum. We turned right off the track and ambled over river rocks searching for a flat stretch of shaded sand. After wolfing down some carrot and ginger soup I raced up the range. The view, as ever, made my heart sing and I reckon I got at least five echoes on my cooee.

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When we set off we didn’t go back the way we’d entered the river but followed some tracks in the sand. When you’re out bush – or in any natural environment – there’s always the uncontrollable urge to explore just a little bit further; to see what’s around the bend, or over the hill, or down the white sand riverbed. And when you’re four-wheel driving, clearance is crucial for exploring.

CRUNCH

We jumped out, bent down to look. There was a hefty rock flush up against the chassis near the rear right wheel. Dad got back in and accelerated but the wheels just spun and sank. The same thing happened in reverse. After accelerating and reversing resulted in further sinking, Dad stopped. ‘Reckon we could dig the rock out?’ I asked hopefully.
‘I reckon that rock’s been there forever,’ he replied.

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Bogged: every camping enthusiast’s most reviled word. More correctly, we were speared by a hidden river rock and then bogged. ‘We’ll be right Dad,’ I said with a smile, which widened when I spotted a rocky outcrop about 15 metres away. ‘You’ve even got a red bucket in the car!’ I grabbed it and raced off to fill the first of what would be about ten 15 litre buckets of smooth grey river rocks to be poured under the wheels. As I squatted and filled the bucket I thought of those who cart rocks for a living. When it was full I concentrated on lifting correctly and relished the pull in my calves and quads.

IMG_5006We didn’t have a sturdy base on which to place the jack, so I improvised with the Esky lid. I’d bought the Esky the day before for my old friend Morgan. He’d departed early on Sunday morn to the NPY Lands for some school holiday program work. I’d filled it with food for the ten hour drive but there was no room for it in the Troupie heaving with sports gear, so its contents was consolidated with a bigger one’s and luckily it was left with me. Thanks Morgs, I thought, as Dad cranked the jack.

Dad hadn’t used the little scissor jack that came with the Suzuki and it soon became apparent it might not be up to the job. The rock was well and truly wedged in the undercarriage, so what we figured we needed was a tow to get us up and over. In The ghostly lights of Black Snake Crossing I wrote with a laugh about Dad being a gadgets man who brings all manner of electronics camping. This time around amusement turned to appreciation as he called my brother on his satellite phone – no mobile reception out here. ‘We’re stuck on a rock and we need a tow. We are in the Hugh River, parallel to the Owen Springs Reserve track. We are 19 kilometres south of Larapinta Drive.’ Dad knew how far we’d come because he hardly goes anywhere without his GPS and always sets a trip metre. My brother Hugh, named after the river in which we were bogged, would come straight out in his Land Rover, the car Dad owned before the little Suzuki. The car that would’ve sailed right over this rock.

With Hughie on the way we realised we’d need to identify where he needed to leave the track and enter the river. Gadget Dad had the perfect thing: a spool of fluorescent yellow tape, which Hugh would recognise as Dad frequently ties it to the tip of his various radio antennae. We walked the k or so back to the track and tied the tape, Hansel and Gretel style, to a series of rivergums that would lead him to us. But if the light was fading by the time Hugh arrived there’d be a chance he’d miss it, so I thought it safest to meet him on the track. Just as I was about to set off Dad exclaimed, ‘Ah! I’ve got just the thing!’ Walkie talkies. ‘Testing testing one two three do you read me, over.’
‘Testing testing one two three, loud and clear, over and out.’

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Yellow tape on loopy log

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I read you loud and clear, over.

Dad advised leaving them off when not in use to conserve battery, and that if we needed to use them cooee was the signal to switch on. I put my water bottle in a back pocket, my walkie talkie in a front, tied my cardi tight ‘round my hips, slung my camera across my chest and strode off through the river bristling with excitement. Instead of waiting at the point where we’d left the track I’d walk along it to meet my brother; a spontaneous walk in the beautiful bush on a golden afternoon. Swoon! When I heard the rattle and roar of the Landie I’d stop and stand with my thumb out. I sang The Beatles’ Day Tripper loudly as I strode along, loving every second.

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I’d been walking for 20 minutes or so when I heard a faint cooee. I switched on the walkie talkie. ‘You there Julz? Do you read me, over?’
‘Loud and clear, over.’
‘I just spotted a dingo, a very fine one. He had a good look at me but remained wary. He’s on the move again, heading north your way, over.’
‘Thanks Dad, I’ll keep an eye out. Over and out.’ I hoped I’d see it. My brother has a pet dingo and if he knew there was one roaming out here he’d be wrapt.

Dingo peeking

Havin’ a peek

Dingo nice shot

Dad’s dingo

The track wended its way beneath glowing orange ranges then through the river, where a fire had recently blackened a sizeable section. Some logs were still smoking, their embers glowing. The smoke refracted the setting sun filling the river with golden mist, and this desert girl clutched her chest, breathed in deep the heady, sweet scent and sighed, deliriously happy.

Gorgeous light smoke walk
The track left the river and rose up onto a red plane. Giant dingo tracks padded out before me. The light was fading fast. I was well out of cooee range but thought I’d give the walkie talkie a go anyway. Dad answered immediately; he’d set up his CB radio and was using it to receive me. There was disappointment in his voice. ‘I thought you were checking in to tell me you were with Hugh. It shouldn’t have taken this long.’
‘Nope. Just letting you know I’m heading back.’
‘Alright Pet.’
‘Love you Dad, over and out.’

By the time I’d made it back the pink dusk light was dwindling and the cold was setting in quick. I was in a t-shirt, shorts and cardi, and was very grateful for my woollen beanie as I pulled it over my ears. It may have been the perfect temp during the day but at night the desert can get very chilly. It had been three hours since we’d called Hugh. It should only have taken him two. I began to worry he’d gotten bogged, but quashed that thought pretty quick. My bro is resilient, and he knows how to handle the Landie.

I suggested we call Roy, an old friend of Dad’s. When I was a kid our families went camping together a few times; we once spent a week at Quandong Beach, 50 ks north of Broome. It was a quick call on the sat phone. He knew the track and would come right away. Roy is a good bloke all round. Dad called Hugh’s wife Kelly to say Roy was coming and Hugh shouldn’t worry. Kelly told him Hugh had found a bar of reception at the Owen Springs Reserve Ranger Station and texted to say he couldn’t find us and was heading home. I was warmed with relief to hear he was ok. Dad also called his practice manager to say he wouldn’t be at work in the morning. ‘I’m bogged in the Hugh River!’ Pretty good excuse.

In the fading pink light I set off for firewood, and had dragged a heavy log about 20 metres when Dad said with a tremble, ‘Pet, I don’t have any matches.’ I didn’t have a lighter. We had a sat phone, walkie talkies, CB radio, fluorescent tape, Dad had set up a yellow strobe in the off-chance it could be seen from the road, but nothing to start a fire. ‘I’ve got plenty of petrol. I could cut some wire and make a spark with something, but that’s likely to go voomph.’ It was now dark and with Roy on the way I didn’t think it was worth it, however it was worth waiting for Roy on the track. With a small torch we picked our way across the river rocks. ‘Lucky I had that carrot soup for lunch!’ I said gleefully. Dad chuckled.

When we found the track we were in complete darkness, and looked up at the same time. ‘I have never seen a sky like that,’ I said softly. When we camp we always have a fire, but this time we were engulfed in black. The stars were extremely dense and intensely bright; cloud-like. More stars than sky. The black bush silhouettes flickered in the twinkling light, the rivergums shimmered with silver. It was time for an astronomy lesson; something I always look forward to when camping with Dad. We searched first for the planets and found them within seconds. ‘What are those mini-Milky Way type clusters?’ I asked.
‘The Magellanic Clouds,’ he replied. ‘They’re small galaxies.’

Wiki image

Wiki image

‘So they’re separate galaxies from the Milky Way?’
‘Yep.’
My mind spun and I smiled in awe; I’d never seen them before. I was getting quite cold, so in-between star gazing I did star jumps while singing Moby’s We Are All Made of Stars in my head. Sitting down hugging my knees next to Dad I was overwhelmed by a renewed appreciation for how Aboriginal people survived in this environment for so long.

It had been an hour and 45 since we’d called Roy. After contemplating how long it would take to travel 19 ks along a bush track in the dark (about an hour), Dad and I agreed he should be here any minute. We were both silent by this stage, our ears straining for the low growl of an engine. We were teased a few times by two helicopters and a plane. I heard a distant rumble quite different to the whirr of the flying machines but ignored it – I didn’t want to get my hopes up. But when I stood I knew I’d see headlights. I did. Our spirits soared! We cheered. We were filled with warmth. Roy to the rescue!

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Roy’s big red Land Cruiser, the same one he had when we’d camped at Quandong, was so full of BushWok stuff he didn’t have room for passengers. Previously a nutritionist at NT Health, Roy now travels to communities, his Toyota loaded with meat, veggies, trestle tables and kitchen gear, to run healthy cooking competitions called BushWok Cooking Parties. The BushWok, Roy’s invention, is an old flour drum with a window cut in it to insert wood and vents up top and bottom for air circulation. A traditional wok is placed on top. His cooking comps are a massive hit on communities and everyone gets involved. ‘Fancy seeing you here!’ he said smiling as he climbed out of that big beautiful tomato red Toyota. Dad and I lead the way back, our torch searching for each rivergum adorned with yellow ribbon. Tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old gumtree… Once Roy spotted the yellow strobe he drove on ahead.

IMG_5074While Dad and Roy sussed out the sitch I raced around collecting kindling and dragged logs with the torch in my mouth. Roy did, of course, have matches. In between building the fire (‘What a bushie,’ he remarked as I squatted close to my little pile of leaves and twigs and gently arranged small sticks on top), I also filled a couple buckets with river rocks, again with the torch in my mouth. Lucky we were bogged so close to an outcrop and thank goodness for that bucket; it made being rock wallah a hell of a lot easier!

While he managed to tow Dad up and over the rock (which was basalt, Dad told me) the Suzuki sank straight into the sand after that and the Toyota, which was so weighed down, sank too. Bogged car wrangling is difficult enough in daylight, but in the dark it’s far worse. The fear the Toyota would suffer the same fate as the Suzuki was never far away either. Roy suggested we stop and wait till daylight. It didn’t take long for Dad and I to agree. My fire was a good one, and by now it was burning low. We sat close to it and Roy told me all about BushWok, and the joy of giving people an afterglow. I learnt a lot from him that night. I reckon his work’s inspiring. Around 11.30 I got into the Suzuki, which was actually pretty toasty as Dad had blasted the heater for a bit. It would be a different story at 4am, and though I knew it’d be a fitful, freezing night, I still got a kick out of falling asleep with my hiking boots on, still filled with red sand from Rainbow Valley.

I slept in one hour bursts as the car dash’s red LCD informed me. I’d wake up clutching my knees to my chest, rubbing my cool bare calves. I’m never normally cold when camping in Alice as years ago Dad invested in sleeping bags intended for -15 degrees. Throw one of those in a swag and you’re warm till dawn. At 6.30 I was woken by a dingo’s howl. I looked out the back window and saw it about ten metres away; a beautiful, healthy golden dog with a feathery white tail. It howled again and disappeared into the bush. Pretty cool alarm clock. Outside it wasn’t the clear bright dawn I was expecting, but shadowy and overcast. The sky was still special though.

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I jumped out of the car and ran to the fire. Yep, embers still red. I placed a few handfuls of leaves on them and blew and they ignited immediately. There were two big logs leftover from the night before so all I needed was sticks. It was roaring in no time – gotta love that dry river wood. Dad and Roy were IMG_5088kneeling by the Suzuki discussing the best way to tackle it. Despite last night’s jump the rock was still hard up against the undercarriage, so the Suzuki would need to be jacked up high enough to allow enough small rocks to form a ‘road’ up and around the big one. ‘You need rocks? It’s rocks I got! Big red buckets o’ rocks comin’ right up!’ I bellowed, racing off to the outcrop.  ‘Rock on!’ yelled Roy.

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After an hour of digging and pouring rocks either side of the rear right wheel and in front of the front wheels, the moment finally came: time to test our road. It worked! The Suzuki rolled forward and up and out of the sand. Dad stopped after a couple of metres, jumped out of the car and hugged Roy. IMG_5103‘Twas a magic moment indeed, but it wasn’t over yet. I covered the fire with sand, packed up the Esky and Dad’s various gadget boxes and waited with bated breath to see how the Suzuki would fare in the chopped up sand. Nope. No good. It struggled after a few metres, sinking with each acceleration. Roy’s Toyota laboured at first too, but after he let some air out of its tyres it cruised impressively through the riverbed and back onto the track. It was magnificent to watch. ‘Why does that work?’ I asked Dad. He drew a round pumped up tyre in the sand and a slightly deflated tyre. ‘This one has a bigger foot,’ he said, pointing at the second one. After letting the air out of the Suzuki’s tyres we had more luck. We were away!

When both cars had made it to the Owen Springs track we stopped to reinflate the tyres. I ran back into the river to collect the fluro tape from the Hansel and Gretel gums. Leave no trace. When I returned the last tyre was just finished. It was big hugs and smiles all round. Roy Price: what a champion. On the way back Dad and I discussed what to get him, and Dad suggested a little trophy engraved with ‘Roy, a Top Bloke All Round. July 7 – 8, 2013.’ I would make him a huge batch of spice mix to throw into a curry at a BushWok Cooking Party.

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When we arrived at Dad’s it was 10.30, exactly when we left on our day trip the day before. It was raining and cold, opposite conditions to the glorious sun of Sunday. ‘Imagine if we’d been stuck in this weather!’ I exclaimed. This story could have been quite different, yet I get the feeling it would still have a happy ending.

I’m glad we hit that rock. I learnt more than I ever have about four-wheel driving and how to get out of a bog. I had a beautiful bush walk, played with walkie talkies, gazed in wonder at a blinding canopy of stars, got some damn good exercise and enjoyed enlightening conversation. I even came home with an excellent collection of specimens.

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Dad reckons the left one is fossilised tube worms, I like the middle one cos it looks like Jupiter and the third cos it contains a little cave!

I’m glad we hit that rock (though, granted, it wasn’t my car!).

Dad and I had intended to go camping while I was home for the uni hols, but we’ve already done that. Today we’re going on a day trip to Palm Valley, and yes, the matches are packed.

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The Real Priscilla

All press images courtesy of 360 Degree Films

Last night I attended the Alice Springs premiere of Queen of the Desert at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. It’s a half-hour doco directed by Alex Kelly and produced by Josephine Wright about Starlady Nungarai, a renowned and well loved ‘translady’ whose weapons of choice in the ubiquitous and wearisome battle to break down barriers between Aboriginal kids and community workers are hair dye, curling wands, straightening irons and makeup.

Utju lies in a beautiful valley

After many years of social work and hairdressing in remote communities, Starlady sets up a hair salon in Utju (Areyonga), a Pitjantjatjara community of about 300, a couple hundred ks west of Alice. She is accepted immediately by young and old, women and men alike. Starlady gets the girls on board as enthusiastic trainee hairdressers while the boys can barely keep away; in her superhero image they all get lightning bolts shaved into their bleached hair.

Busy day at the salon

Never before has a Central Australian community seen a youth worker so colourful and unconventional, and through her truly unique personality and the transformative power of a makeover, Starlady makes a palpably positive impact on the young people’s lives. Resplendent in her infamous giant pink platforms, silver sequined shorts and pink tulle boa, she said after the screening, ‘Utju you’re my family and I love you.’ It was evident throughout the film and from the enormous turnout of Utju community members Starlady’s words were heartfelt and true.

Mary and Starlady

Her fascinating story was exceptional doco fodder, the editing, lively pace and short format pitch perfect, and the juxtaposition of kaleidoscopic costumes with deep desert reds and cerulean skies, dazzling. But the most remarkable element is amidst unrelenting damning news reports of Central Australian Aboriginal communities, Queen of the Desert is the exact opposite. In February Alex Kelly told Matthew Worboys of if.com.au, “Central Australia is often misunderstood and misrepresented, and seen as dysfunctional. The idea that there is a vibrant, creative youth culture in remote Australia is not something that would occur to most people and I wanted to showcase that.” She did so in spectacular fashion.

Director Alex Kelly with Mary and Olivia

The red carpet was replaced with a hot pink one at last night’s premiere. Clad in glitzy op shop finery the film crew and Utju girls sashayed down it arm in arm and struck poses for the hoards of cameras. I’ve never seen an Alice crowd so sparkling, proud and triumphant. Everyone laughed heartily throughout the film, there were screams of delight from the Utju kids whenever one of them did something cheeky, and sighs of bliss whenever an overwhelmingly beautiful desert vista filled the outdoor screen.

Queen of the Desert is precisely what Central Australia needs more of; an expertly executed positive, pro-active story of an extraordinary character engaging wholeheartedly with young people, being accepted as family, and making a genuine, lasting difference, all the while doing it with a wink and a smile. We could all learn a lot from Starlady Nungari, and Alex Kelly and the entire crew should be congratulated for their astonishing achievement which is undoubtedly destined for film festival success.

I implore you to tune in to ABC2 on Sunday November 25 at 9.30pm for its television premiere. Never before has Central Australia looked so fabulous, and never before has a story been told about this complex, confronting and magnificent part of the country that is so incredibly uplifting.

Five starladies from me.

Waiting for rain

Photo by Peter Carroll

I returned to Alice almost five months ago. Today we had the first real rain since I’ve been home. I’ve smelled it, god how I’ve smelled it, breathed it in deep through my nose and filled my lungs with it, but today is the first day I’ve felt it.

On September 27 it rained at my brother’s wedding reception, breaking Alice’s longest dry spell on record of 157 days. A fine mist refracted the red lights on Soma rooftop. We threw our arms in the air, spun around and cheered when the tiny cool drops drifted down. We rain danced, in raptures the heavens had finally opened on Hugh and Kelly’s wedding day. It was a surreal pleasure to rejoice in rain at a wedding. Three millilitres fell that night and the longest dry spell was broken, but it wasn’t real rain. The real rain came today.

Is the smell before rain the same the world over?

A couple of weeks ago when storm clouds were building but only taunting and teasing, I sniffed a cool breeze coming through the bathroom window. It made my head spin. Never before had the smell before rain been so strong! Today I learned from Wiki that this smell has a name: Petrichor. It’s a combination of petra, the Greek word for stone, and ichor, the fluid that flows through the veins of gods in Greek mythology. Coooool. A couple of Aussie scientists coined the term in 1964 for an article in Nature. The smell is also a combination of two things; oil exuded by plants during dry spells which is absorbed by soil and rocks and released when it rains, and a bacteria called geosmin which is exuded by damp soil. So perhaps the smell before rain is not the same the world over, as there aren’t many plants exuding oil in the Simpson Desert or the Sahara.

When I went outside to jump on my bike and head to work this morning I was shocked to feel rain, even if it had been forecast. I reckon rain’s been forecast for Alice at least ten times in the past couple of months but the clouds only taunted and teased. Cruel clouds. In Canberra I would’ve pulled on my gummies, opened my umbrella and wandered to work, but here the prospect of riding to work in the rain was thrilling! I wrapped my gear in a plastic bag and Dad tucked in a little towel. I set off wishing it was heavier. When I was halfway to work it had stopped. But when I was tearing down the final stretch on Lovegrove Drive big fat drops were soaking my skin. It’s raining! Finally, it’s raining.

I’ve a mottled history with rain. I’ve never hated it more than when I was checking bom.gov.au every few hours during the week before my 22nd birthday. I turned 21 overseas so I made my 22nd my 21st birthday bash. I’d organised a festival in my backyard, but what was Canberra’s forecast for Saturday Feb 13, 2010? Flash floods. I hardly slept the night before for fear I’d have to pull the whole thing. It turned out to be Canberra’s wettest weekend on record. But some dear old friends covered the yard in tarpaulins and I had the best day of my life. The relentless rain made it much more special, and the patch of grass danced into a mud pit regrew. Yet I’m still often on bom.gov.au before big events in fear of rain. Even a week out from this year’s Art, Not Apart in Canberra I was checking BOM daily, and I wasn’t even going. My last boss would shake his head every time he saw me staring with furrowed brow at the Courier New forecasts. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it,’ he’d laugh.

‘I know, but I’m a Winterflood,’ I’d say defiantly. ‘Everywhere I go, I always take the weather with me.’

There’s a gusty storm forecast for tonight, and storms for the next three days, but I’m staring out the window at blue sky.

Local hip hop crew Catch the Fly have a magic track about waiting for rain in Alice Springs. Listen to it here.

Apology

When I wrote ‘Solid Rock: Solid white out’ I was still reeling with sadness and heartache and when I’m upset I write, so that’s what I did.

On Wednesday I received a call from one of the production team. He was deeply upset and offended by my article, said the rest of the production team were hurt and offended too, and that members of the Mutitjulu community would feel the same.

It was a mistake publishing the piece on my blog and sending it to Crikey. It was a mistake because it was filled with assumptions. I should have spoken to more people first.

I only asked Anangu “Where is everybody?”

I didn’t ask “Are you having a good time?”

I believe the worst thing you can do to a person is make them feel like a stranger in their own land. I thought the massive influx of whitefellas would have made Anangu feel like strangers in their own community. That was an assumption I made, and it was wrong to make this assumption without speaking to anybody first.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is never make assumptions about how people feel, and never assume all Aboriginal people will feel the same way. Of course they won’t. Perhaps there were Anangu who did feel strange on Saturday, and perhaps there were Anangu who had a ball.

I wrote my piece from the perspective of a whitefella who was deeply distressed by the sea of white faces when she expected to be in the minority. But I failed to consider that perhaps Anangu were not distressed at all. For this assumption I am deeply, deeply sorry. I offer a bottom-of-my-heart-and-soul apology to Shane Howard and the entire crew, but most of all to the community of Mutitjulu.

However, I still believe my blog post offered a valuable perspective because it is a different perspective. It made people think. This apology should also make people think.

I did not and do not claim to speak on behalf of Anangu, but I did fail to get anyone’s opinion on the concert before I wrote my piece, and for this I am sorry.

Is it better to write something, make a mistake and rethink your methods, than never say anything contentious at all? I could have written just another gig review, but I chose to write from the gut. I felt sick, sad and strange, so that’s what I wrote about. But I did not ask the Anangu sitting next to me, “Do you feel sick, sad and strange?” This was my mistake, and for this I am sorry, but I am not sorry for provoking thought.

Solid Rock: Solid white out

30 years ago Shane Howard, frontman of the band Goanna, was walking around Uluru. Not long before a big mob from Amata, a community in the North West corner of South Australia, had set up a tent at the base of Uluru to sell wood carvings to tourists. When Shane was walking the Amata mob were performing inma at Mutitjulu, the community at the eastern edge of the Rock. Inma is community ceremony; they were celebrating the wood carvings tent. Shane wandered over and was invited to sit down. The experience moved him. In 2002 he told Goldmine Magazine it made him realise “this country that I grew up in, that I thought was my country, wasn’t. I had to reassess my whole relationship with the land and the landscape, and understand that we had come from somewhere else, and we had disempowered a whole race of people when we arrived.”

He wrote a song about it, Solid Rock. 30 years ago a bunch of whitefellas singing about the dispossession of Aboriginal people would’ve been a big deal even if The Oils had been around for five years by ’82. Solid Rock was probably the first Australian rock song containing ‘genocide’ in its lyrics. Goanna’s label were reluctant to release it as a single because of its weighty content, but they did and it was a hit, peaking at number two and hanging around the Top 50 for 26 weeks. Solid Rock became an iconic Australian protest song and yesterday at Mutitjulu, Shane Howard, along with Archie Roach, Dan Sultan, Neil Murray, Bart Willoughby, Warren H Williams, Natalie Pa‘apa’a, didg virtuoso William Barton, Emma Donovan and John Butler celebrated its 30th anniversary by recreating it in three versions and singing songs of their own. Other Side of The Rock was free and despite it being held in a community usually closed to unrelated outsiders, everyone was welcome.

On Friday afternoon I read an article on The Monthly website called Desert Songs: Thirty years of Australia’s hidden hit parade by Paul Kelly. It concluded with a mention of Solid Rock and the concert. “Also singing it with Shane Howard will be Archie Roach, Dan Sultan, Bart Willoughby and others, in English and Pitjantjatjara.” How had I not heard about this!? Excited, I called Mum and asked if she knew about it. She did, but didn’t have the energy for the 500k drive. I rang a friend whom I had an inkling would be going and he was, but wasn’t returning until late on Monday – no good for me to grab a lift because of work. I figured I’d make it out somehow though and we joked about how it was gonna be dead easy to spot each other as we’d be in the minority. I then got a text from Mum: “We should go. X”

Whitefellas in the minority? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When Mum and I wandered in at 5pm there was a sea of white faces and hundreds of cameras and iPhones in the air. It looked like almost every other festival I’ve been to. White girls in singlets with severe sunburn, white girls in tiny frayed denim shorts. I couldn’t spot my friend anywhere. I couldn’t see any Aboriginal people anywhere, except for a bunch of kids playing in the portaloo truck. We were standing on red dirt in Mutitjulu, but where were the locals, where were the Anangu? It looked like every other festival I’ve been to apart from the fact I was standing on red dirt next to a vast red field at the base of Uluru.

The sea of white faces made me feel sick and strange.  This was a concert to celebrate 30 years of an iconic song about Aboriginal dispossession, yet the only Aboriginal people I could see without scouring the peripheries were the old painted up women performing a ceremonial dance in the centre of the white sea. A dance so sacred the MC wasn’t able to give any explanation of its meaning because of the whitefellas present. The cameras snapped away, including mine.

I figured everyone who was staying at Yulara, the tourist resort at Uluru, was at Mutitjulu that afternoon. There was a free bus and the National Park fee of $25 per person was waived so of course every tourist would’ve jumped at the chance to catch a free concert at a community they would never normally be allowed to see. What a shock they would’ve got, travelling from one side of The Rock to the other. But I don’t know why I got such a shock at the number of whitefellas compared to Anangu – hadn’t I jumped at the chance too?

Other Side of The Rock

I was shocked because my expectations of a community concert were quashed. I’ve been to community concerts and whitefellas were few and far between. But even though Other Side of the Rock was being held as part of the weekend long Mutitjulu Community Carnival, which according to the poster is “a family celebration of our culture, sports, dance and music”, it wasn’t really a community gig. It was a white man’s gig. It was a celebration of a song written by a white man, and even though Shane Howard shared the stage with Aboriginal music luminaries Archie Roach, Bart Willoughby and Warren H Williams, as well as the incredible voices of Emma Donovan and Dan Sultan who could give Aretha and Elvis a run for their money, there was no Mutitjulu representation whatsoever. Do people at Mutitjulu listen to John Butler? Nup.

John Butler’s song towards the end of the night was the most cringe-worthy moment I think I’ve ever felt in my life. I’d already shed a few sad tears to Dan Sultan’s achingly beautiful black-timbered voice while I was standing on the far left boundary where a small group of Anangu had gathered (Dan started off by saying “I’ve been laughing and I’ve been crying, I’ve been crying while I’ve been laughing.” Did he feel the same?), but John Butler made me feel toxic. The irony broke my heart and scratched and clawed at my guts. He performed Kimberley, a cowboy tale in which the Kimberleys are anthropomorphised into a girl who was a “special, rare and wild soul / Nearly every man who met her, their hearts she always stole”. Even though it was a song about a sacred land grab its trite narrative was entirely untranslatable. I had to look up to the stars to stop my tears as Butler got the white sea to sing the chorus with him:

I said yes I am and I belong
‘Cause I got my land and I got my song
Yes I am and I am strong
‘Cause I got my land and I got my song

Every now and then Shane Howard would say “Nyuntu palya?” Are you ok? in Pitjantjatjara. There were some barely audible replies.

The only musically redeeming moment for me was the little choir of kids from Pukutja (Ernabella), which is in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia. They joined everyone on stage for the big finale of Solid Rock and sang the chorus in Pitjantjatjara. Their high-pitched voices pierced the pomp and polish and they had a great time while they were at it, singing at the top of their lungs through big smiles.

Why wasn’t there more of this?

Why wasn’t Iwantja Band from Indulkana in the APY Lands, who are enormously popular in Mutitjulu, on the bill?

Why were the Anangu sticking to the shadows when the concert was meant for them?

It was the Anangu who invited Shane to sit down and share their ceremony 30 years ago, but he didn’t exactly invite them to share his ceremony, at least not in an effective way, not in their way. He invited all the tourists at Yulara though, and readers of The Monthly like me. What, then, was the point?

Irony was everywhere

This afternoon I called a friend who lives and works at Mutitjulu to ask her what she thought. “We were just talking about it,” she said. She agreed there was something sad and strange about tourists pushing the Anangu out. “The Anangu don’t rush the stage like that, they have protocols for these things. They always stay a bit back and leave a space up front for the kids to dance. Everyone loves to dance, young and old, but they always leave a space so the kids can see the band and have room to move. So when all the whitefellas got up to dance and filled the entire area, that was it. It was an invasion.”

Natalie Pa‘apa’a of Blue King Brown was the only one who thanked the Mutitjulu community at length. All night props were almost entirely going to Shane. Natalie was also the only one to acknowledge the fact she was singing to a sea of white faces, and told the audience to “take this feeling of unity and disperse it across the nation.” But how could anyone feel unity with the Anangu when they were barely anywhere to be seen but on the boundaries? When I was standing on the left boundary wiping a tear away while watching Dan Sultan I asked an old man in a wheelchair where everyone was. He shook his head and gestured towards the crowd. “We just bin keepin’ away.”

The moment the concert was over Mum and I walked in the opposite direction to the crowd. We hadn’t parked with everyone else but driven through Mutitjulu and stopped at a different gate where there were far fewer cars. The majority of the tourists wouldn’t have seen what I did during that short drive. I’ve been to communities and town camps before but that doesn’t mean the dilapidation and detritus is any less confronting. It was made even more so having just driven through pristine Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park and past Yulara, immaculate tourist town. As we walked away from the site dozens of Aboriginal people walked towards it; women pushing prams, women with babies on their hips, men in wheelchairs, kids and dogs. Once the concert was over and the whitefellas were on their way out the Anangu came streaming in. Hopeful, I asked my friend living at Mutitjulu whether there was an after party purely for locals. “No, the after party was at Yulara.”

Of course Shane Howard and everyone involved didn’t intend for Other Side of The Rock to go down this sad, strange path. Naturally everyone had the best of intentions. But perhaps if Anangu protocols were followed, rather than Anglo protocols of sunburn, strapless dresses and space invasion, the transcendent power of music may have lifted us all that night, together.

Goanna – Solid Rock:

Out here nothin’ changes, not in a hurry anyway
You feel the endlessness with the comin’ of the light o’ day
We’re talkin’ about a chosen place
You wouldn’t sell it in a marketplace, well
Well just a minute now

Standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line
Right down the line

Round about the dawn o’ time, when dreamin’ all began
A crowd o’ people came
Well they were looking for their promised land
Were running from the heart of darkness
Searching for the heart o’ light
Well it was their paradise

But they were standin’ on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change were blowing cold that night

They were standin’ on the shore one day, saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting, white man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified, ’cause somewhere, someone lied
Yeah well someone lied, someone lied, genocide
Well someone lied

And now you’re standing on solid rock
Standing on a sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line

Solid rock, standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowing down the line
Solid rock, standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line

The ghostly lights of Black Snake Crossing

Dad and I went camping a couple of weekends back. The Tuesday before he’d bought a new little 4WD so he wanted to break it in on a ‘shake down’ trip. Dad started packing the car on the Wednesday. There’s an art to it; obviously everything’s got to fit but you also don’t want rattles or squeaks. It was always going to be a challenge as his last 4WD was a Land Rover Defender, about twice the size of the shiny little Suzuki Voltara. He did of course make it all fit and it was smooth and silent on the way out. Dad’s a pro when it comes to packing the car; we went camping every other weekend when my brother and I were kids.

A face in the fire. Every bush kid is a pyro at heart.

Dad took forever to get ready. I laughed and laughed when he said, “I don’t think I’ll take a computer.” He’s a gadgets man you see. While everyone else goes camping to escape technology and enjoy the serenity, Dad’s throwing a wire tied to a rock over a tree branch to set up an antenna for his ham radio, or calling his brother on his satellite phone, or dictating a list on his recording device of what to bring next time: “camera tripod, telescope, mantles for gas lamp, EPIRB…” (That’s emergency position indicating radio beacon to all you non-gadget kids like me.)

We sped out west to Ellery Creek in record time. The Suzuki’s so smooth and silent and the bitumen with a bit of sun on it so velvety it’s easy to creep up to 130 without realising. We spent the entire leg comparing it to the big, boxy Land Rover which rattled and roared and whistled and squeaked so much conversation was impossible. Sitting in climate controlled comfort and listening to Vivaldi and Handel while tearing down Larapinta Drive was a pretty surreal experience. I missed the rust and red earth smell of the Landy and the feeling of tank-like invincibility, but sitting back in a comfy seat with ample legroom while gazing awe-struck at the magnificent West MacDonnell Ranges was pretty magic.

As was the spot we found at the base of a valley in a stretch of white sand encircled by eucalypt saplings. As we got out of the car Dad exclaimed, “I’ve camped here before!” With heavy rains in summer and resulting growth riverbeds often change to the point where they’re unrecognisable. But Dad certainly knew this spot. “This is Black Snake Crossing,” he announced, ominously dropping his voice an octave. “I saw a two metre long black snake in this very spot.” Gulp. “How long ago?” I asked. “Oh, about 20 years.” I smiled a wry smile and set off for firewood.

The night we were camping was three nights after a full moon, but by the time the sky was awash with stars there was no sign of her. An hour passed. Still nothing. It was slightly unnerving, the absence of la luna. And then the riverbed changed. The great red rock face we were camped beneath began to glow ghostly white, transforming into a dramatic backdrop for the silhouettes of tall, spindly rivergums. I tried in vain to photograph the ethereal bush shadow puppet show and it was here Dad added “camera tripod” to his list, explaining that only through long exposure could I capture it. It was eerie, being in complete darkness bar the golden glow of the fire, and then slowly bathed in silvery light.

Moon rise. We were in a valley. “Hello moon!” Dad and I said together as it peeked over the range. “So glad you could finally join us! It sure is nice to have you here!”

Hello moon!

In the morning I mountain goated up to the point where the moon appeared. The view was breathtaking. I love this country. It makes my heart sing.

Dad and I are heading back to the same spot on Friday, and I reckon we’ll keep going back. Until we see another black snake.

It made for stimulating television, but could the attack on the Dumb, Drunk and Racist crew have been avoided?

On Wednesday night the fourth episode of Dumb, Drunk and Racist presented by Daily Telegraph reporter Joe Hildebrand aired on ABC 2. I’d tuned in for the segment on Yipirinya School, which is where I’m working as PA to the Principal. This episode also contained the heavily publicised attack on the Cordell Jigsaw film crew by two Aboriginal women, which occured during filming of DDR in February this year on the banks of the Todd River, the dry riverbed that runs through town and in which Aboriginal people often gather.

A wry, sad half-smile spread across my cheek when I heard the news of the attack back in Feb. Not out of amusement, but because I was unsurprised. In the words of Keven Everett, Head of Ranger Services at Alice Springs Town Council, “A lot of [Aboriginal people believe] that it’s a shame job to be photographed and they just don’t like it, and that should be respected.” ‘Shame job’ is a phrase kids in Alice grow up with; we’d hear it in any situation where an Aboriginal kid was embarrassed or ashamed. They’re a complicated couple of words and embody more than playground banter, but in this context Keven Everett is referring to the fact Indigenous culture and cameras often don’t mix.

You know how at the beginning of most TV programs or films featuring Indigenous people there’s a warning “that the following program may contain images and voices of deceased persons”? When an Indigenous person dies their name becomes taboo, and anyone in their language group with the same first name will change theirs to Kumuntjayi or Kwementyaye out of respect for the deceased and their family. Similarly images of deceased people can also be taboo – hence the warning – and I reckon an uneasy relationship with being filmed has developed because of this. That many Aboriginal people are frequently filmed in Alice without their consent for damning news reports should not be ignored either. Understandably, they’d be sick of it.

Considering this, a film crew on the banks of the Todd River which almost always has Aboriginal people gathered in it would arguably be an antagonistic presence for some Aboriginal people. I am not in any way justifying the attack but the DDR crew would have been highly aware of their potential for antagonism had they contacted the Town Council and applied for a filming permit. This is because the filming permit application process involves educating applicants about some of the things Aboriginal people are averse to.

Penelope McDonald, the director of Screen Territory, is quoted saying the following in an ABC Alice Springs article: “It’s unfortunate they didn’t [contact Screen Territory] in a way because… we have not only the advice of going to council and getting a permit but also just in terms of filming, talking to local people about filming beforehand… I think that that may have been helpful and it may have averted the drama that unfolded.”

Nick Murray, the executive director of Cordell Jigsaw, said they didn’t feel the need to apply for a permit because they were “effectively a news crew with a host and some people standing on the footpath… it’s not the kind of shoot that you would normally get a permit for.” A news crew? DDR is a documentary, not a news program. And that footpath isn’t just any footpath; it’s on the banks of the Todd, a notorious drinking and often grief-stricken area. In their defence Joe Hildebrand said, “Like any self respecting news crew we didn’t want to be told where we could or couldn’t shoot by the council.” The Alice Springs Town Council would not have told Cordell Jigsaw not to film there, but they would have told them to be careful, and to inform anyone in the river or nearby what they were doing.

I can understand their reasons for wanting to avoid a “sanitised version of Alice Springs”, but one would think the same company behind SBS’ exceptional series Go Back To Where You Came From would be slightly more culturally sensitive.