Back to the Tanami, with Engineer Jack



Budgerigars at Curlew Waterhole on the Lander River. Photo by Peter Latz, July 1989.

Late in 1988 Ken Johnson and I decided to survey some interesting sand dunes to the north-east of Lake Surprise. The lake itself is an interesting place, and even though it is located at the bottom of the Lander River, it is usually dry, only filling up occasionally. With an immense sand dune bordering its northern shore, the full lake is most impressive when viewed from the dune. It is an important dreaming site for Budgerigars and it also contains a mythological Rainbow Serpent (who goes underground when the lake dries). The sand dunes themselves are generally so big that it is impossible to get a vehicle over most of them, and one must use air-photos to be able to plan one’s route between them.
Dave Nash, a linguist who has a long history of working with Warlpiri people, also accompanied us. His translating ability was most useful, as we were also fortunate to be able to have six Yapa guides with us on this trip. (Yapa is the Warlpiri term for ‘us people’.) Two of these I had not met before, although I was to have a lot to do with them in the future.
p2209-Latz-Charlie-CharlesThe first person, Engineer Jack Japaljarri was a senior elder of the Warlpiri tribe, of equal or greater status to the other senior elder, Abie Johnson Jangala , whom I was only to meet several years later. Engineer Jack got his first name when he worked as an engineer for the army, during the Second World War. A Warlpiri equivalent of Nosepeg, his knowledge of Warlpiri country was only surpassed by his knowledge of Warlpiri culture, which was even greater than that of Abie, who was his main rival. As much as I admired Engineer, my favourite Warlpiri person was Charlie Charles Jakamarra (left, July 1989), my tribal ‘father’. Although Charlie’s knowledge of tribal matters was considerable, I admired him most for his ability to play the role of the local ‘clown’.
On our first night out bush we camped next to an important soakage, and Charlie made sure to incinerate the country surrounding it. I was soon to learn that Charlie was a pyromaniac of the first degree, even better than Darby at setting the country alight. (Some people consider that I am nearly as good as my tribal father at starting fires – this is of course a false rumour.)
After supper several Aborigines stepped apart from us and ‘talked to the country’– this involved them spreading their arms and loudly exclaiming with statements like, “Hullo country – sorry we have been away so long – it’s so good to be back” and so on. A most enlightening custom, which I was soon to see more of, and one I have since taken up myself.
The next day we fought our way through the dunes, finding several salt lakes on the way. We were heading for an important place called Katiji-katiji, which is a ceremonial site with both cheeky snake and sugar-bag dreamings. (Sugar-bag is the honey hive made by stingless native bees, which is usually found in hollows in trees. The snake is one of the poisonous species found in the area.)
None of our guides had been to this site for many years and because it was located right in the middle of a large and complex dune system it was going to be hard to find. While we were having lunch, Engineer Jack (who had a heart problem) had a quick nap, and when he woke up he came to us and said, “I remember now, we have to find some River Red Gums before we get to Katiji-katiji.” At this time I didn’t know him very well, and I thought the silly old bugger was losing his mind. In central Australia these gums are only found in substantial creek beds and there were certainly no creeks here.
So we got back into our vehicles, and lo and behold, just around the next dune there was a stand of River Red Gums! Not long after this humbling experience for me, we arrived at our destination, and an interesting place it proved to be. The focus of Katiji-katiji is a permanent soakage found at the lowest point of a jumbled complex of large dunes.
Although there were ample signs of previous occupation, namely stone chippings, broken grinding stones and so forth, the object that got the most attention was a large old rusty tin, which had previously held army rations. The last people to visit this site almost certainly would have left this object there, and they would have walked in, as we were the first to get to this place by vehicle. (It is sad to realise that the people in our party will probably be the last to have both walked and driven to this place, as all of them have now passed away, or are too old to make the trip again.)
Although Katiji-katiji has a certain charm, it is a wild and rugged place, and I felt that it contained an element of both isolation and emptiness. This is a place where Warlpiri initiation ceremonies were mostly carried out, and the seriousness of this ceremony was obvious to me when the men showed us where the initiates spent most of their time. This was the most open and exposed area in the vicinity, with no protection from either hot winds or the blazing sun.
“Our elders made us stay there all day without any water to drink,” they explained. “It made us real tough.”
Looking at the place in front of us (aerial view above), I could only thank God that I was not born into the Warlpiri nation.
When we returned to our vehicles, native bees besieged our bodies (below right), crawling all over our exposed skin, sucking up our sweat. The Aborigines were chuffed by their appearance, as this was the bee’s dreaming place, and their presence was seen as an indication of their pleasure at our visit. When we found an old scar on a nearby tree – where someone had cut out a sugar-bag – the traditional owners were even more pleased, and got us to photograph them next to it.
On our way out the next day I was in the lead vehicle and was just about to lead the convoy down a steep dune into a low-lying area, when I only just stopped in time. Looking around I realised that I was about to lead the others into a dead end, and it would have taken us a great deal of time, if ever, to have got our vehicles out of that sandhill trap.
That afternoon we discovered both a spectacular waterbird dreaming site, and also sign of the presence of a nice Bilby population. On the next day, soon after we had exited the worst of the dunes, Sandy Japangardi took me to a spot in a monotonous dune swale, which looked similar to the surrounding area. He told me that we only had to dig there to find water – but how in the hell he was able to locate that spot, was beyond me.
On our way home the next day, Sandy and I were well behind the others when we came across a father emu and his flock of young chicks. Sandy wanted to shoot the adult bird, but knowing his chicks were probably too young to survive by themselves, I pleaded for its life. He reluctantly allowed the emus to escape unharmed, but regretted it later, when the other Aborigines severely abused him for passing up the chance of a good feed for all of them.
This survey of a small portion of the Lake Surprise sand dune system suggested to me that it was unique in Australia and that further survey was warranted. The traditional owners were also very keen to get back in there, as there were further important sites that most of them had not seen since they were living a traditional lifestyle as teenagers.
p2209-Latz-native-beesSo, in July of 1989, Dave Nash and I decided to have another go at exploring this northern Tanami dune system. Several Yapa who were keen to come along, were away at a meeting when Dave and I turned up at Willowra, so we started without them, knowing that they would eventually find us by following our tracks. Dave and I each had a 4×4 vehicle, and were accompanied by five Aborigines, including Engineer Jack and Charlie Charles.
After we had got into the first of the sand dunes, we came across fresh tracks of an echidna, and our guides soon tracked it down and killed it. Continuing on we had reached the first of the bigger dunes when the third 4×4 vehicle caught up with us. Loaded down with six other Aborigines, it struggled up the dune in a cloud of smoke only to stall near the top. The six newcomers had brought little food and water, which was a problem because we had a long hard trip ahead of us. Their vehicle had long reached its use-by-date, and when I checked the engine oil, it was obvious that it had not been renewed for God only knows how long.
Worried about the safety of the cream of the Warlpiri elder statesmen, I questioned the suitability of the vehicle for the hard task ahead of it. The owner, Jimmy Jungarrayi Kitson, was most offended.
“This is a number one motor car!” he exclaimed. “It’s been to Broome twice, no trouble at all.”
Well I couldn’t argue with that but I was very apprehensive all the same.
“We haven’t got enough water for thirteen people,” I grumbled.
“We can find plenty of water,” Engineer Jack replied. ‘”The main place we are going to, Ngurratiji, is a big spring, it’s even got a Rainbow Snake living in it.”
“Not enough food,” I suggested.
“We can get plenty bush tucker” was the refrain. So suitably humbled, I jumped into my vehicle and we set off (for the adventure of my life).
MORE next week (apologies for the delay this week).
Tomcat and Turpentine Bush: adventures in the Tanami
Being a cowboy: not all it’s made out to be
Close shaves in the Top End
Dining like kings with a bushman of high degree
Learning from the hunter-gatherers
Changes in the air: landrights
Time in the Gulf country



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