By PETER LATZ
At the end of a day’s drive en route to Ngurratiji we made the mistake of camping in a spot that had little substantial firewood, and because it was a cold night and our guides had thin swags they complained bitterly the next morning. (No doubt the absence of their wives and/or dogs also contributed to their discomfort.) From then on we chose our campsites with greater care, ensuring that the firewood supply was adequate.
The next day the uncomfortable night was soon forgotten, when we found a site called Tipirinpa. Excitement reigned, but I was less impressed, as all I could see was a flat slab of ground-level rock with a few stunted bean trees growing around it. Our guides soon put me in my place.
Firstly they showed me the water source, a seemingly insignificant hole in the rock, which on closer examination, showed that it had an urn-shaped hollow below it that would store a considerable amount of water. (It was presently dry, but we were there in a dry period with near-drought conditions prevailing.)
Secondly, my ‘father’ (Charlie Charles) quickly lit up the surrounding spinifex to produce impressive clouds of black smoke. Thirdly, the other Aborigines showed me a large well-used grinding stone and many other stone implements, previously used by their relations. Fourthly, they showed me some interesting bush-tucker plants that were growing nearby. And fifthly, and most important of all, Engineer Jack (photo above right) explained the dreaming stories connected with the site.
He told us the two main dreamings for the site involved both the Mala wallaby and sugar-bag bees. He showed us a small but impressive paperbark tree and told us that it represented the Mala, and that its spirit resided in the tree’s roots. He then took us over to a heap of unusually shaped rocks that he told us were the dreamtime remains of the bee’s hive. (After supper that night we heard the songs connected with this site.)
Continuing on our way, we came across two dry lakes, but we got two flat tyres, so we decided to stop for lunch. After eating our lunch and changing the tyres we drove to the end of the bigger lake, where we found an even more important site, Ngarrkawarnu. The excitement in our group was palpable, as this is an important water-bird dreaming site, a place that our guides had either only last seen when they were naked teenagers, or only knew about from hearsay.
They ordered Dave Nash to get out his video camera and record all aspects of the place, so that they could show this to their people back home.
“We will get plenty of drinking water here,” they assured me, and “all we need to do is dig a hole next to this rock”.
I was rather sceptical as the area looked just like many other dry areas I had seen in the Tanami and besides the soil appeared to be salty. Wisely however, I kept my doubts to myself. And of course they were proved right, because soon after digging into the area next to the rock, water gushed into the hole, making a gurgling sound as it came out from under the rock.
Engineer Jack, being a wise old man, had sensed my scepticism, and exclaimed proudly, “Hear that sound – that is the Rainbow Serpent which lives under the rock, spitting out the water for us.”
Ngarrkawarnu spring. Photo taken in August 1991 by Peter Latz.
Extremely proud of their bountiful country, the Aborigines made sure that Dave videoed the whole procedure, and the water quest was forgotten as they proceed to sing the appropriate songs for this special place. Respecting the importance of the occasion, and the fact that this was not my home country, I left them to it and wandered up the adjacent sand dune, inspecting the plants growing there. Not long after however, I was surprised to hear a car horn, and hurrying back to the vehicles, I was told we had to leave. And leave we did, with not an extra drop of water added to our dwindling supply!
I was aware that something was wrong, but I said nothing and waited till our next stop before I took Dave aside to find out what had gone on during my absence. Apparently, not long after I left the scene there was a wind change, at the same time as the water ceased its flow. These two signs were considered to be important enough to indicate that the Rainbow Serpent was upset with us, and wanted us out of there.
When I later complained about our shortage of water, several of the group indicated that it was probably my fault, as I was not a local and should not have witnessed the “breaking of the waters”. Engineer Jack, bless his soul, quickly came to my defence, ensuring the sceptics that the Serpent was annoyed with all of us for having stayed away so long, and not having carried out the relevant rituals.
Heading deeper into the dune field, I was trundling along, when Dave caught up with me to inform us that Jimmy’s vehicle had blown its motor, and had come to a complete standstill. On close examination we found that it had burst a radiator hose and had overheated to the extent that the motor had seized.
Luckily Dave had a spare hose, but then we found that the radiator was totally clogged with grass seeds, and needed cleaning to prevent a re-occurrence of the problem. The only way to do this, well away from any garage, was to take the radiator out and burn the seeds away. Needless to say, while Dave and I were so occupied, my pyromaniac ‘father’ was busy lighting up the surrounding countryside.
Just as I was about to question his needless ‘destruction’ of the vegetation, he put me into my place by getting a shovel from the vehicle and shovelling a fire break, to protect the one big tree in the area. (He knew quite well that most of the other vegetation was well used to fire, and would soon spring back.)
After his safety mission was complete, Charlie lay down under the shade of the tree, to “do some number four”. He used this expression to describe his method of taking a nap, because when he lay down he put one foot on his knee, making a configuration that resembled the figure four.
Eventually we got the cleaned radiator back into our sick vehicle, but we had to use a considerable amount of our remaining water to refill it. The big question then was, would the motor start, or had the poor old thing been cooked beyond repair? No problem, a few puffs of smoke, and it was soon running well. Thank God for good old, almost indestructible, diesel Toyota motors!
When we pulled up to camp that night, Tommy Jupurrula, the driver of Jimmy’s vehicle, complained about a failing clutch. Examination of the system showed that the wrong placement of the speedo cable had allowed it, over time, to rub a small hole in the high-pressure line that worked the clutch, allowing the vital hydraulic fluid to escape. It was essential that we plug the hole.
Over the next day we tried every conceivable method to plug the hole, all to no avail. Although I consider myself to be a passable bush mechanic, it was Tommy who eventually came up with a unique solution to our problem, one I would never have thought of. All he did was cut off a piece of the black plastic on the bottom of a soft drink bottle and melt it around the hole with a heated knife. This plastic cooled to be a strong plug, preventing any further leakage. Unfortunately however, we had run out of the special fluid required, but Tommy’s substitute, soapy water, worked nearly as well. All the same, I have no idea how my tribal brother managed to get the ailing vehicle over the tricky terrain we struggled through, over the next four days.
The next day we got out of the worst of the dunes into reasonably open country. Luckily we came across several kangaroos, but we only managed to wound one of them. As we were starting to run short of food, I was determined to get the animal and we risked our lives chasing it through the scrub, dodging trees and bouncing over fallen logs. The two following vehicles were unaware of what was going on and could not understand why I had suddenly taken off in such a rush, and obviously in the wrong direction. Nevertheless we got the animal and subsequently cooked it in an earth oven, over lunch. While we were waiting for the roo to finish cooking, the crew taught me some bushcraft. Toby found a nice big fat witchetty grub in a tree branch, Johnny found me some edible gum and Sandy showed me how to prepare a thermoplastic, used as a type of glue.
The day ended badly however. We were running desperately short of water and the pressure of trying to get our travelling menagerie around the dunes and towards the next possible water source was telling on me. Tired towards the end of the day I managed to get completely lost, and pulled up at our camp stop at dusk disgruntled and anxious.
Assessing our water stocks, Dave and I realised that we only had enough for reduced rations that night and the next morning. If we didn’t get to water the next day we would be in deep shit. It didn’t help that I discovered that towards the end of the day I had been holding the air-photo that I was navigating with, upside down, and we were way off course. Our guides had tried to tell me earlier that this was the case, but I just hadn’t listened to them. After supper, when I confessed my sins to Engineer and told him of our water predicament, he told me not to worry.
“Tomorrow we will get to Ngurratiji,” he said, “it’s a big spring with lots of water and the biggest Rainbow Serpent.”
Refreshed by a good night’s sleep, even if a little thirsty, we took off next morning full of high hopes. We soon came across some nice open country and then fresh emu tracks (a good sign for a possible water source) and then lots of Aboriginal stone chippings. Around the corner and there was Paliji, a rockhole with a spring in the bottom of it. When we dug it out, the spring turned out to only produce a trickle of water, nowhere near enough for our needs.
Nevertheless, most of the group were excited to be back at an important site, and Dave was kept busy recording the site and the stories connected to it, on his video machine. Charlie Charles had only been here as a child and he wandered around, complaining that Engineer was wrong, this wasn’t Paliji, he remembered it having a bigger rockhole and a larger nearby hill, and so on. I also was not impressed with the place, but only because of its lack of water.
Bloody big snake!
Engineer registered our unrest and told us to go on ahead to the east, where I would find lots of water, and Charlie would get his bearings sorted out. So off we went, and after passing a stone-knife quarry, we at last got to Ngurratiji, the most important water source in the sand dune country. Highly excited, Charlie led the way into the thick scrub that hid the spring, only to jump back suddenly, nearly knocking me over in his haste to retreat from the spot.
“What’s wrong!” I exclaimed.
“Bloody big snake!” was his frightened reply, as he hastily retired to the safety of our truck.
“Oh no,” I thought, “the rainbow snake is annoyed with us – again! We’re not going to get any water here, and our bones will end up adorning the desert … What the hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained!” and I went to confront the snake.
On finding it, I immediately realised it was just a harmless Black-headed Python – a bloody big one but harmless all the same. So I grabbed it and went back to my ‘father’ and said, “Look Charlie, he’s a harmless one, and he’s quite happy to have us here.”
I must admit that Charlie took some convincing because at this stage the snake had wrapped itself around my neck and was busily trying to choke me! Nevertheless, I eventually managed to both untangle the snake and convince Charlie that all was well. So he went off to get some water to boil the billy for his lunch. By this time the others had turned up, and after guardedly admiring the snake, they too disappeared into the thicket surrounding the spring.
Suffering from both hunger and thirst, I decided to leave them to it and proceeded to dig out my secret stash of emergency water that I had hidden away, and use it to boil the billy. At the same time silently congratulating myself, because my love of reptiles had contributed to the fact that we probably weren’t going to die in the desert after all. I was so engrossed in my task that it took me a while to realise that the others had returned, and were complaining about the fact that I had some water and they had none!
“What the hell has happened to this marvellous spring?” I queried.
“It’s dry,” came the curt reply.
“Damn you lot!” I said, “you promised me we’d find lots of water!” And I rudely proceeded to eat my lunch and drink my tea, leaving them to stew in their own juice.
If only! Instead I hid my annoyance and went to have a look at the spring, only to find that it had been completely covered over by thirsty tree roots, which were sucking up any available water. Returning to the group I asked Engineer Jack if the Rainbow Snake would be annoyed if I attacked this sacred spring with an axe.
“Go ahead,” he said, “you and Charlie are the right ‘skin’ to do the job. In fact you should have done it years ago.”
So I violently removed the offending tree roots, and eventually we got some water. Meanwhile my ‘father’ had the effrontery to tell me that he wanted to eat our captured snake!
“No way,” I said, “if we eat him I reckon the Rainbow Serpent will stop the water.” And so the beautiful Black-headed Python regained his freedom.
After our late lunch, I asked EngineerJack if it would be okay for me to go off down to the south, to check up on some interesting sand dunes, which I could see on the air-photos. He told me that would be okay and also said that I should take with me the only young member of our group, Gerard Driver.
I didn’t question his choice of my companion, but I found it puzzling, because up to this point he had been adamant that I had an experienced elder with me at all times, for two main reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it was essential that we should approach any sacred sites in the right manner, thereby not offending the resident spirits. Secondly, my guide would know the country, and would be able to help me navigate to our next point.
Gerard was totally inexperienced in both of these respects, being a town-reared boy, who had never been anywhere near our present location. In fact, up to this point, I was aware of the fact that he was only really interested in being a hunter, and appeared to find all the traditional dreaming stuff to be old-fashioned humbug.
On our way to the south, Gerard impressed on me that he was worldly wise, not like the old ‘fuddy-duddies’ we had left behind.
“I used to sleep around, before,” he said, “but now I am aware of AIDS and I make sure I use a condom.” And so on.
Unfortunately, the dunes turned out to be little different from those we had already traversed. Nevertheless, from the top of them we sighted an interesting rock formation next to a small salt lake in the distance. Our location was directly below the commercial flight path between Alice and Darwin, and I realised that several times in the past I had seen this very spot out of the window of one of the jet planes flying overhead. I had thought that it looked like it was an interesting spot, worth visiting, but I never thought I would ever get the opportunity. Gerard also liked the look of the place, and like me, was eager to go and check it out.
So down we went, and immediately found a quarry site, where Gerard’s ancestors had been digging out rocks. And all around the quarry was the evidence of them having shaped their mined material to make stone axes and knives. Suddenly Gerard’s whole attitude changed, as he realised that this was his country and that his ancestors had lived their life out here.
He was adamant that we had to bring the old men out there next day, to show them the site he had discovered. And the talk on our way back to camp had changed, now he was telling me what good country it was, and that he wanted to bring the rest of his family out to experience it.
I’m sure that wise old Engineer Jack knew that site was down there, and the best way to get the young man to connect with his country was to let him go down and discover the place by himself. Which is just what happened. The next day we all visited the site; it turned out to be called Yinjingurrpu, a place that is connected with Mala dreaming.
The remainder of the trip, although still hard going, passed without any further adventures, and we all arrived safely back to Willowra two days later. Given the age of some of our personnel, and the age of one of our vehicles, it was a minor miracle that we all got back in one piece. Being bounced around in the rough (but tough) trucks is extremely tiring, and Dave and I were amazed at the resilience of these tough old bushmen.
Engineer Jack, with his heart problem, was our biggest risk, but his health actually improved the longer we spent out bush. When we questioned him on this fact, he said, “Getting back into my country makes me strong. I’m only sick because I can’t spend all my time out there.”
We also managed to get through the difficult times with very few disagreements or bad feelings. Charlie Charles played an important role, being an expert at dissipating any bad feelings by his ‘clowning’ talents. In fact, at crucial times, he managed to get us laughing instead of crying.
Looking back from a distance, I now realise that we were a nicely balanced crew. The Aborigines with their knowledge of the country and their superb survival skills, and us whities with our superior means of transport and use of advanced technology. Nevertheless, although the two groups revelled in each other’s company, at the end of the trip we were both only too glad to separate and return to our own, very different, societies.
MORE next 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
Back to the Tanami, with Engineer Jack