Day 32, Culture under Pressure

Jim at the fish hole where the Serpent, Kunmurri, from Thutirla Pula story lives


28 August 2013

This morning we have spent time in the relative cool of Don’s National Parks office; and been catapulted from here to a high-speed car chase.

A call comes in about some cars suspected of filling up for their desert journey without registering and purchasing desert passes. We move at a pace I am no longer accustomed to, dropping everything and jumping into the 4WD, ripping around the corner to the garage where we give chase to five 4WDs. I am handed the notepad and paper to take down the registration numbers, but as one after another vehicle is without a number plate, we overtake the convoy, bouncing along on the wrong side of the corrugated road, the speedometer clicking up and up.

Don gets onto the 2-way radio to listen into their conversations and I start to feel I am in some surreal television drama, shaken abruptly out of the sleepy Birdsville day. The decision in the end is that they are not heading for Munga-Thirri, and we pull off the road and head back to town.

Don takes me to meet Jim Crombie this afternoon, another Elder of the Wangkangurru. Jim shuffles out from the shade of his carport to lean on the open window of Don’s 4WD; his tall Akubra high on his head, beaten and twisted, caked in dust; a sign of a well loved hat. A short conversation in language takes place and Jim comes around the vehicle to climb in. At this stage I still don’t know where we are going or what we are doing. I just know we are “Going on a Journey”.

The journey takes us to the gibber plain and some sand dunes where Jim grew up. There is a line of gibber marked out on the plain. “It is where our ancestors played”, Jim tells me. “The stones were put like this by Aboriginal people. We need to protect them from the diggers.” He tells me how he played in the sand dunes, and of the foods he gathered from the dunes; of sleeping round the fire under the stars; and I can picture the little boy when he talks of not listening to the old people and their stories, just wanting to run off and be free. “I was born at the fish hole where the Serpent, Kunmurri, from Thutirla Pula story lives. It is a special place”, he says, “I was born in the story”.

We go to the fish hole later this afternoon; just Jim and me, shuddering across the sand tracks in his old brown Holden, his dingo-looking dog (mudla) panting in the back seat. His father’s totem was the dingo, he says, and I cast a glance at the dog at his side. He worries about the tree where he was born being washed away where the banks of the river are receding with each flood. He worries at the people who camp in this sacred spot to fish, quite unaware of where they are.

The day is not quite over and I have one last surprise in store. Don has organized a helicopter ride for me with a local pilot.

We sweep up into the late afternoon air and around the town, giving me a good idea of how Birdsville sits in the red sea of gibber. It is distressing to see so many dirt roads graded through the plain just outside town; dirty brown scars. I suppose, like the moorlands of The Outer Hebrides, it might be seen by a stranger as a great expanse of nothing. How very far from the truth this is!

This evening over dinner with Don and Lyn, I feel a mixture of gratitude for the generosity and sharing, sadness at the stories of loss, and exhaustion for myself and for everyone here.

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