Burning a fire break in thick spinifex in the Tanami. Photo by Peter Latz.
By PETER LATZ
A permanent water source in the middle of what is probably one of the most remote areas left on our continent – that is Kurlpulunu, unvisited for decades now. Because it is surrounded by large sand dunes to the south and thick tyre-puncturing scrub to the north, it is probably also likely to stay this way for some time into the future. Nevertheless, it could probably be considered the Mecca of the Warlpiri nation.
Just why it is so important I don’t know, but it is. For sure, I know that one can always find water here (even if you must dig for it), and the only other nearest permanent water source (Ngurratiji) is about 130 kilometres distant. I also know that it is an extremely important water-dreaming site. But almost certainly the main reason for its importance is to do with secret-sacred business, and one must be a fully initiated Warlpiri man to gain access to this information.
Our next trip into the Tanami Desert, in July of 1990, was taken in the hope of getting to this important site. The main traditional ‘owner’ of Kurlpulunu is Abie Johnson Jangala. He is considered to be one of the best Warlpiri artists, and Kurlpulunu often features in his paintings. Both he and Engineer Jack had last visited Kurlpulunu about 40 years before, when they were still naked teenagers. The only major feature they could remember about the site was the presence of several large Desert Walnut trees on the summit of a sand dune, which overlooked the hollow in which the water source was situated. This is very little to go on if one is searching for the place, as Desert Walnut trees can be burnt away by one severe bushfire, and even sand dunes can change their form, when that kind of fire is followed by a drought (as probably happened in 1969-70).
Dave Nash picked up Engineer Jack from Ali Curung and I then joined him to pick up Abie from Lajamanu. We then proceeded down to the search area from the north, to be later joined by Ken Johnson and the Willowra crew, coming up from the south.
Dave and I had a difficult task ahead of us. As far as we knew, we were going to be the first group to get our two vehicles the 400 kilometres south-east from Lajamanu to Willowra, with half of the distance being along rough bush tracks and the other half involving some of the most treacherous scrub-dashing in central Australia. This was brought home strongly to us when we had to fix nine flat tyres, after only the first half-day of scrub-dashing!
By this time Dave and I were becoming experts at this tedious and time consuming job, and we found that we could almost do it in our sleep. There were two extremely annoying aspects to this necessary task. The first was to sometimes work on until till midnight fixing all our flats, only to wake up next morning to find our vehicle on a lean, indicating that another tyre had gone down overnight (sometimes even two!) The second annoyance was the need to run our noisy diesel engines while pumping up the tyres; you have no idea how disturbing it was to disrupt the beautiful silence of the desert atmosphere. Our Aboriginal guides quickly learnt to set up their swags a reasonable distance from the vehicles, so as to get a good night’s sleep.
The second day was a little better, as we travelled into sandy country, which meant a slight reduction in our puncture score. As soon as we got into the sandy country, our Aboriginal guides quickly became alert to possibility of obtaining game. Even though most of them had various eye diseases, they never ceased to amaze me with their ability to pick up animal tracks, from a moving (or should I say, bouncing) vehicle. To catch a goanna, for example, they had to be able to ascertain that its track was only about five minutes old. If its track had been any older, it would have meant that the animal would have had time to move far enough away, to make its capture difficult.
Later that day Engineer Jack and Abie expertly managed to guide us to a rockhole that had no distinguishing features to indicate its presence, but unfortunately there was a large rotten kangaroo floating on its surface, making the water therein undrinkable. The rockhole had such steep sides that the poor old thirsty roo could not get back out, once it had had a drink.
Later we found a soakage that the two old men had visited in the past, but over the next four days, try as we might to find it, Kurlpulunu evaded us. Even though we had the two most knowledgeable members of the Warlpiri nation to guide us, and also the aid of air-photos and maps, we just could not find the bloody place. And believe me, both elders were desperate to be the one to get us there. Although they both wanted to find the place for the good of the Warlpiri nation they also had their own reasons for being the one to get us there. Abie, because he was the chief traditional owner of this most important site, and Engineer because his political power would have increased considerably if he had been the one to find Kurlpulunu.
I believe there are three main reasons for the fact that this important place has still not been rediscovered. Firstly, the landscape is probably now different to what it was in the time that these Aborigines last visited it. As I indicated above, changes in fire regimes, combined with a general increase in rainfall, would have produced a quite different landscape than that of the past. Secondly, 40 years is a long time, and retaining a sharp memory of essential features over this time period is difficult, especially when you would have just been following your elders, who knew where they were going. Thirdly, I’m quite sure that the old men had a great deal of trouble adjusting to the different modes of travel, now as compared to the past. The old men rightly knew that, as a general rule, you could cover much more ground in a given time in a Toyota than you could on foot. But what I think they didn’t realise, is that a scrub-dashing Toyota probably travels slower than they could have, as fit young men, on foot. And this fact led them to overestimating the distance we could travel in a given time in a scrub-dashing Toyota.
Eventually, we reluctantly gave up our search, turned back towards civilisation. By this time I was completely exhausted, having had to push both my vehicle and myself to our limits, all to no avail. On the last evening out bush, we at last reached Lake Surprise, where we had decided to camp for the night, and from where, at last, we had a relatively easy run back home.
The western side of Lake Surprise in the Tanami, showing a stand of Acacia torulosa. Photo by Peter Latz, October 1988.
Abie, another Aborigine and I were in the last vehicle, and we happened to spot a kangaroo just before our camp spot. We only had an ancient old rifle, and our first shot missed the roo, which then hopped off.
“Chase the bastard!” said Abie, so I did just that.
Reluctantly however, because the light was failing, and I was afraid of doing damage to our tired old vehicle. Eventually the roo halted, totally exhausted. It stood there pitifully licking its wrists, in an effort to cool down, while our hunters wrestled with a jammed rifle. Then it took off again.
“We better let him go, poor bugger,” I suggested.
“No way, we got to get him,” Abie replied angrily.
And get him we eventually did, but not before nearly wrecking the Toyota.
Soon after at our camp spot it was clear that Engineer Jack was miffed that his rival Abie had got himself a kangaroo, while he had none. When he demanded that I go back out and get him one too, I hate to admit that I lost my cool, and told Engineer Jack what he could do with his bloody kangaroo. Luckily, I was in the right skin relationship to deny his request, and the incident was soon forgotten.
A year later we conducted our last search for Kurlpulunu, although the predominant purpose for the trip was to search for possible Mala populations. On earlier trips we had come across significant populations of an interesting poisonous shrub with the glorious scientific name of Gastrolobium grandifolium (at right, photo by Peter Latz).
We were however not the first to come across this plant in this area. Nearly 100 years before, in 1909, Dr Charles Chewings was commissioned to open a stock route from the Victoria River District (to the north-west of the Tanami) to the proposed railhead at Alice Springs. His route passed through both Ngurratiji and Paliji, water points that were shown to him by his Aboriginal guides.
As he approached the sandhill system Chewings said of his Aboriginal guide: “Paddy warned us that the poison bush grew in the sandhills a short distance north, a fact we verified next day … I found that the bushes grew on the sandstone hills, on the sandhills, and all over the sandplains as well, and very thickly too in places. A few mouthfuls of this bush and a camel is settled, unless an antidote is administered quickly, and even then it sometimes takes weeks, or even months, before the animal gets well. We had to be most careful of the camels while travelling through the Gastrolobium country, and where it grew thickly we tied their jaws together to prevent them snatching bites from the bushes as we travelled along, and we shepherded them very closely while they grazed. I was surprised to find that the natives knew the deadly nature of the plant so well. They will not camp under the bushes, and say that if they did, harm would come to them. It is evident that the emu can eat the pods with impunity, for the seeds may often be seen in their droppings.”
When Nash and I discussed this plant with Engineer Jack he told us that it played a big part in Yapa mythology and that the dreaming connected to it involved a big bird (“as big as an aeroplane”) that caused the death of dingoes. On further questioning he suggested that the dingoes usually only died after they had eaten native animals from the area. We know that the poison contained in Gastrolobium is called 1080, a chemical which is highly toxic to dingoes, foxes and cats, but has little effect on native animals. When these predators eat animals that have consumed parts of the poisonous shrub, the 1080 in their prey can then poison them. Aware of this fact, I proposed that predator numbers may have been reduced in areas where this plant occurs. And being aware that considerable suitable habitat for the Mala could be found in the sand dune system, I came to the conclusion that we would still be able to find remnant populations of this endangered animal in this area.
Well, after that long roundabout explanation of the justification for our trip, let us get on to the matter at hand. Our previous trips were men-only affairs, a situation I found limiting, as female Yapa have a lot of important skills lacking in their male counterparts. Traditional desert etiquette, or custom, insists that one can only have a mixed Yapa presence, if there is a corresponding mixed whitefellow component. So for this expedition, I managed to persuade the white anthropologist Petronella Wafer (Vaarzon-Morel), to accompany us. Her presence was fortunate, because it not only allowed for the presence of six Yapa women, but her knowledge of the Warlpiri language also enabled her to act as a translator. Two Yapa men were included in the party, and of them, Sandy was our chief guide. Dave Gibson was the zoologist on this trip.
We struck very good seasonal conditions on this trip – the bush was bursting with life. There was so much honey in the profusely flowering honey-suckle flowers, that our vehicle’s windscreens often became covered with the sticky honey, as we scrub-dashed through their stands. The Yapa women soon proved their worth, taking every opportunity to gather the bountiful harvest their country was providing. At our first camp spot Dave put out a series of mammal traps, while Sandy proceeded to burn the nearby spinifex. My first impression was that he was just doing it out of habit, but when I inspected the resultant burn next morning, I realised that he had created a nice fire break around the fire-sensitive mulga that we had camped next to.
Later during our trip we got into country Sandy was not particularly familiar with, and when we sighted a small lake in the distance, he decided that only us men should go to investigate it, as it might be a “dangerous” place for women. So he told the women to stay behind and wait for us to check the place out. I was not at all impressed with the spot that they had to occupy while we were away. To my eyes it was the most infertile area we had seen all day, just consisting of a small tree in the middle of a spinifex-dominated, featureless sand-plain.
How wrong I was. On our return, Petronella told me that the women had thoroughly enjoyed the break in their journey. As soon as we departed they had gone off in every direction and within half an hour or so, had managed between them, to capture five goannas and one blue-tongue lizard. They then sat down in the shade of the tree and proceeded to cook and eat their game, while enjoying a spell from being bumped around in our scrub-dashing vehicles.
On the first three evenings of our expedition, Dave had laboriously set out his mammal traps, only to gather them up next morning, with negative results. When the women questioned me on what he was on about, I told them that he was trying to catch some mice.
“Why doesn’t he ask us to get him some?” they asked.
Off they went with their digging sticks, to come back half an hour later with two different kinds of native mice, which they presented to him. I have never let Dave live down this little episode, telling him to get rid of his expensive traps and get himself a digging stick instead.
By this time I was fairly sure that I knew where Kurlpurlu was located, as I had studied the relevant air-photos and had located a promising looking spot in an area that we had missed in our previous explorations. When I wanted to go to this spot Sandy denied me permission, giving the feeble excuse that women were not allowed in that area. I was most annoyed at the time, but in hindsight I realise that both Engineer Jack and Abie would have been extremely annoyed if we had found this important site, without them being present, and that Sandy was well aware of this fact.
Unfortunately, we also discovered that Mala predators were common in the area, and therefore we found no sign of this rare wallaby. The only highlight of this trip was our eventual return to Ngarrkawarnu, from where we were able to easily refill four of our water jerry-cans, without inciting the wrath of the Rainbow Serpent.
As for Kurpulunu (at the time of my writing), it is still sitting out there undiscovered. Engineer was able to wrangle the use a helicopter to look for it, but he couldn’t find it and he therefore decided that it was so angry with Yapa for neglecting it, that it had removed itself from the face of the earth. He is probably right, in the sense that nasty fires may have led it to being covered with sand. Nevertheless, I’m still pretty well certain I know where it is, and if anyone wants to wrangle up a helicopter for me, I’ll take them to this spot.
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
The adventure of my life