My boyfriend at the time, Dave, worked for the local Aboriginal-owned arts co-operative at Uluru, based in Mutitjulu where we lived together. Part of his job was to drive the co-op’s bush truck on regular trips to remote Aboriginal communities, only accessible by air or four-wheel drive, to procure art direct from the artists. The painted canvasses, punu (decorated wood carvings), tjanpi (colourful grass and raffia weavings) and inintis (seed jewellery) that Dave brought back were then sold through the co-op’s retail gallery to tourists at Uluru’s Cultural Centre. In this way, the co-op supported eighteen communities throughout the Western Desert, a handful of which were visited on each procurement trip. I had stood at our fence gate numerous times waving Dave off in the bush truck, every time thinking of him driving into the void of Western Australia and worrying I’d never see him again.
One spring afternoon Dave came home from work to tell me a procurement trip was coming up to visit communities in the west.
‘Come along,’ he said.
Curiosity seized me. I took time off work, organised entry permits to travel through Aboriginal land, stocked the first-aid kit and gathered my things.
‘No showers, no reception,’ Dave reminded me as I packed toiletries and my phone charger. Feeling like Peter Pan’s Wendy, about to step off the balcony into thin air, I left luxury and technology behind, stuffing my bag instead with clean knickers and deodorant.
FOR A WEEK we would live out of the bush truck, camp in swags and eat tinned food while we travelled in a westward loop to communities who had been painting, carving and weaving in preparation for our visit. The back of the truck was stacked with empty red tubs tied down by thick ropes in complex knots, all secured under a large tarp. By the time we returned those tubs would be full. On the morning of our departure we left before sunrise. The co-op’s newest employee, Em, came with us.
We set off on Uluru Road, with all its bends and grooves that we knew by heart – there’s only one public route in and out of the national park. At the intersection of Lasseter Highway, with Uluru behind us, we headed west towards Kata Tjuta, waiting for the moment when the dunes dipped and the tips of the tallest rusty-red domes appeared. Rolling sand hills covered in golden spinifex and gullies of skinny and fat desert oaks sped past. Dave flicked the left indicator on and angled us onto Docker River Road. The tyres took traction on the dirt and Dave put his foot down; the slower you drive on graded roads the rougher the ride. As we clattered past the road sign signalling the end of Docker River Road my stomach erupted in nervous pinwheels. I turned to look back through the cab window at Kata Tjuta shrinking into the distance. Red dust floated through the air-conditioning vents. Soon a fine, rosy film covered my skin.
For a long time we didn’t speak. The noise of driving the graded road didn’t allow for chatter. As the truck rattled along my stomach was in spasms. Would I be able to make do with the little Pitjantjatjara I knew? Why hadn’t I learned more language? Why wasn’t I fluent? What if we got lost? Ran out of water? Got bitten by a king brown? Got a flat tyre? Sitting between Em and Dave in the broiling cab, hurtling towards the Western Australia border, I wondered what I would do if something happened to them and I was left alone in the nothingness of the desert.
AFTER A FEW hours of driving the landscape began to change. The deep, rusted-red colour of the earth lightened to paler sand and the rolling dune country turned rockier.
‘Let’s have a quick stop here before we get to Docker River.’ Dave pulled off Tjukaruru Road into an empty square of dirt that appeared to be a car park. I didn’t understand where ‘here’ was, until I noticed a small wooden archway to our right, the top of which was etched with the words: tjunti – lasseter’s cave. In my life, I’d only known Lasseter to be the name of the highway we’d just travelled and a ride at Sea World on the Gold Coast inspired by an old outback myth.
Em, Dave and I climbed stiffly out of the truck and stomped feeling back into our legs. We walked under the archway and up the skinny path through low shrubbery. Ahead on our left appeared the small cave where, in 1931, Lewis Lasseter camped for twenty-five days, waiting to reunite with the expedition party he’d previously separated from in his search for a reef of gold. He had eventually set off in the direction we had just come from in the hope of rejoining his team along the way, but perished before he got to Kata Tjuta.
Lasseter’s Cave was a quiet and peaceful place. I stood in the cool darkness with Em and Dave, the three of us gazing out at the sunny view of trees swaying in the breeze. A year later I would remember standing there in that small rocky space as I travelled with a different companion to a different community to attend the funeral of a senior lawman who, when talking about his life and country, was known for saying, ‘that Lasseter, that’s not his cave, my name should be on that sign, that’s my cave, I was the one born in there!’
Back in the truck, the metal roofs of Docker River shimmered in the distance like a mirage. The community ran alongside Docker Creek, under the shelter of the western end of the Petermann Ranges. Wildflowers sprung from rocky crags, dotting the landscape with pastel colours. We parked by the community aged-care centre. Mangy camp dogs chewed on their legs beside a gaggle of children playing in the dirt under the shade of towering gums.
Health-care workers led us inside the aged-care centre. There were fire pits along the veranda for resident use and though only mid-morning, groups sat gathered around small fires. With my limited grasp of Pitjantjatjara I was able to chat to some of the elderly, but there was a distinct lack of younger artists. As Dave and Em started working I kept my distance, until the gestures of a lady with tufts of white hair poking out of a colourful beanie caught my eye. She motioned for me to join her, which I did. From behind her back she revealed a rolled up canvas in one hand, her other was closed in a fist.
‘Punu kungka, you see?’ she asked. I nodded.
She opened her fist to reveal a necklace of brilliant red ininti seeds. Through each seed a hole had been burned, as I’d seen some of the ladies in Mutitjulu do with end of a wire coat hanger heated by fire. The string of seeds smelled of smoke and shone in the sun, blood red and glistening darkly. When the old woman pooled them in my hand they sounded like rain. Next, she unrolled her canvas. My whole body contracted in a rush of goose bumps. Swirls and streams and waves and dots: all the colours of the rainbow. Her painting assaulted my senses.
‘Big story,’ she said.
‘Oh, I can see that. Must be a good one.’
‘Uwa. Walking country with my ancestors,’ she said, sweeping her arm through the air around us. ‘Ikari pulka.’ Big smile.
I had thought Mutitjulu was remote until we drove to Docker River, where I began to understand; I was blind to the ageless narratives embedded in the landscape, but for an artist like the woman I was talking to the land inspired astonishing, colourful creativity and a sense of happiness in spite of the isolation and chronic adversity.
‘Palya, I’m shy.’ She nodded, nudging me to give her artworks to Dave.
‘Palya,’ I replied, deeply grateful for having had the sense to hang back from the crowd. I called out to Dave, signalling for him to join us. A year later I would learn from late-night news that another elderly lady in Docker River who had brought us paintings that day, one of Australia’s last nomads, had fallen into a firepit on the aged-care centre’s veranda and died. The news had revealed the aged-care centre had been regularly unsupervised from six at night to six in the morning.
WE LEFT DOCKER River at lunchtime, crossing the Western Australian border shortly after. By late afternoon we had arrived in Wingellina. It was immediately obvious that something wasn’t right. The community’s few streets were empty, the brightly coloured doors of the local store were closed and there was a clear and thick plume of campfire smoke burning from a ramshackle house nearby. We approached in the truck at a crawl. All three of us heard the wailing before we saw the sorry camp. Em and I stayed in the truck, our heads down and eyes averted. Dave got out and spoke to a young man who stood to greet him. Some people had punu and they met with Dave, but sorry business had just started and others were too distraught. The outpouring of grief was visceral.
Em and I got out of the truck to work silently alongside Dave, gathering and sorting what little punu and art the bereaved had brought forward. Ngaltutjara. We collectively murmured our condolences, shaking some hands, occasionally meeting teary eyes. I’m so sorry for your loss. As soon as our work was done, we left. I was grateful not to intrude for longer than we had to.
Just after sunset, when the dusk light softened the harsh edges of the day, we reached Blackstone where we would stop for the night. Before making camp we popped into the art centre. Jean, the co-ordinator, was waiting for us. We were still shaken; the wailing tolled loudly in my mind.
‘You fellas have seen that sorry business in Wingellina,’ Jean stated. That she knew of it in spite of the long drive between the two communities shocked me until, feeling ridiculous in my naivety, I remembered that one thing I knew firsthand about remote living was how much time you spent on a landline telephone.
‘Come on, I’ve got coffee and sweet biscuits.’
We followed Jean’s offer, nearly turning in circles with salivating anticipation. As she led us through the art centre, and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I began to think we were inside some kind of Aladdin’s cave. Around us whispered stories woven into tjanpi, painted in colourful layers and textures on stacked canvasses and burned into punu shapes of snakes, lizards, shields and birds. I paused, holding up the group.
‘They can’t be stopped,’ Jean said, seeing the awe on my face. ‘The ladies have been on a creative high since they won the Telstra award last year with their tjanpi Toyota.’
We chuckled appreciatively. News of the 2005-winning spinifex truck was still a hot topic of conversation in Mutitjulu.
Through the treasure trove Jean took us into another menagerie – her house, haphazardly filled with books, art, pot plants, dogs and dirty dishes. The scent of pipe tobacco was pungent. Jean rinsed a few cups in the sink, spooned instant coffee into them and tugged a tray of Iced VoVos out of their packet. Both the coffee and the biscuits were stale, but they still made for one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. While we sat together Em and Dave talked art-centre business with Jean, who was in the process of filling her pipe from the pouch in her lap, while I cradled my coffee mug and reached for another biscuit. On the facing wall there was a cluster of dusty frames holding faded wedding photos of a young couple in distinct ’70s fashion. They looked exuberant; the girl had the same one-dimpled smile as Jean, though it was now deeply tanned and lined. I wondered where her husband was. I wondered how Jean had ended up in Blackstone alone. I remembered the saying I learned from locals when I first got to Uluru: whitefellas end up in the desert because they’re either hiding from the law or themselves. I had been twenty-three when I arrived in the desert and had committed no crime. Still, I was no exception to the rule.
We left Jean, agreeing we’d return in the morning to do business with the artists, and drove out of town to make camp closer to the Blackstone Ranges. Our headlights cut through spinifex and mulga, searching for a patch of clear ground to set our swags on. I wound down the window and looked up, the cool air rushing at my face. Somehow the night sky seemed even more spectacular there than it was in my backyard at Uluru. The stars were inseparable, pulsing and glittering. I found the Emu lying in the formation I’d grown up knowing as the Southern Cross, and the Seven Sisters in what I’d learned at school was Pleiades.
‘Isn’t it unfathomable to think we’re looking up at the same sky that people have used for thousands and thousands of years as maps to travel this land?’ Em pondered, leaning on my shoulder to look up at the stars with me.
The next morning, after tea and a breakfast of bruised pears and salted crackers, we drove back to Blackstone Art Centre. From poverty-stricken living conditions, the likes of which I had never experienced in my Gold Coast upbringing, Blackstone’s artists emerged with colourful, intricate, laborious and vibrant art. Dave and Em exchanged a knowing smile.
In the coming days we continued west to visit impoverished communities, which continually yielded a thriving collection of inspired art. The red tubs in the back of the bush truck were nearly full.
As we continued on the rough, dusty journey, I slept leant against whoever wasn’t driving. We stopped at roadhouses that popped up out of nowhere, as wildflowers do in the desert after rain, and drank endless cups of sugary, powdered-milk tea. Canned tuna on flat bread had become a banquet. Occasionally, we peeled open a tin of peaches and passed it around, syrupy juice dribbling down our chins while we rested against the thick trunks of roadside gums.
The last community we stopped at was Tjukurla. We’d been on the road for a week; I thought all I wanted was a shower and my own bed.
We unloaded the truck for the umpteenth time and laid out the red tubs. Word of the bush truck’s arrival spread instantaneously, there was a festive energy in the air. People emerged from their houses with carved birds, lizards, snakes and rolled canvasses under their arms. It had become a familiar sight; the anticipation of seeing the artwork felt something similar to Christmas morning.
It was Rebecka’s smile I noticed first, under her crop of silver curls. She sat beside me and unrolled her canvas. The ladies sitting around her collectively nodded their approval. Rebecka’s canvas was tri-coloured in undulating red, white and black curves leading to a centerpiece, which consisted of two U-shapes sitting either side of a symbol, somewhat like a horizontal ladder.
‘Beautiful painting, Rebecka,’ Dave said. ‘What story is it?’
As Ben Genocchio noted in Dollar Dreaming (Hardie Grant, 2008), it is common knowledge among communities that, when selling art to tourists, the painting without the story is nothing.
‘Kungka one. Hair belt time,’ Rebecka answered softly. She explained it was a girl’s story: the ladder-like symbol at the centre was the hair belt Ngaanyatjarra girls traditionally wore for modesty during puberty. The two U-shapes on either side were female weavers and the colourful arcs surrounding the centrepiece were the journey from girl to woman. More appreciative nods came from the ladies gathered around Rebecka. Later, back in Mutitjulu, I would learn Rebecka was a senior law artist, a guardian of Ngaanyatjarra cultural heritage and custodian of sacred women’s business and ceremonies in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands.
Em labelled Rebecka’s canvas. She and Dave turned to meet the next artist.
‘Kungka,’ Rebecka whispered conspirationally to me once the others were busy. She pointed at her canvas again.
‘Canvas wiru,’ I complimented her. Rebecka shook her head, looking mischievous.
‘Might be old story.’ She pointed to the arcs in her painting. ‘But. Might be rainbows.’ She nudged me, giggling like a young girl.
I laughed along, incredulous at her playfulness, but mostly at my own ignorance. Despite living in Mutitjulu and knowing otherwise, cultural stereotypes I had grown up with still stubbornly lingered within me: Aboriginal communities were only filled with elders who gazed mystically into the distance and painted mysterious, traditional stories. I traced the edge of Rebecka’s canvas with my fingertips; sometimes, it might just be rainbows. Rebecka and I caught each other’s eye and started chuckling again. It seemed we both understood the joke was on me.
‘Ngayulu mukaringanyi nyuntu rainbows.’ I smiled, trying to express what I was feeling using my pinch of language. For many reasons, my love of Rebecka’s painting was instant.
THE DRIVE HOME was long and we were quiet. Em closed her eyes while a small triangle of sunlight played across her face. Eventually, our wheels crawled off the dirt road onto sealed highway again. I turned to look back through the cab window at Docker River Road, that red ribbon into the west. The dust plume we left behind rose and billowed before it slowly vanished into the molten afternoon.
We arrived back at our house in Mutitjulu. Dave turned the engine off and the three of us sat listening to it tick and cool. We smiled at each other – one last unloading of the truck to go.
As we unpacked the tubs full of art in the fiery sunset light, I had no way of knowing what turmoil lay ahead. I couldn’t have guessed my relationship with Dave would end in just a few months, or that I would move into a house on my own – my first experience of living alone. I was oblivious to the actions of key whitefellas in the community, which would result in the Howard government’s 2007 Northern Territory intervention and alter Mutitjulu irrevocably. I didn’t imagine then that I would start another relationship in the desert, or the role that domestic violence would play in it. Standing there, unpacking the dust-covered truck and mucking about with Em as we did so, the two of us were high on our budding friendship. Six years later she would die in a car accident, seven months pregnant with her first child, a daughter.
That afternoon none of those things existed. The future was unwritten. Uluru blazed alongside us. The sunset was shot through with golden and silver threads. We are suspended in that light, in that moment.
As I finish writing this I’m sitting in Copenhagen, overlooking white swans gliding across the surface of Sortedams Sø while clouds of red dirt fill my mind. I’ve just gone through the image library on my laptop and realised I don’t have one single photograph from my trip west with Em and Dave. This causes mild panic to flare in my chest, until I remember where my memories linger: my home is peppered with the tjanpi, punu, ininti and canvasses I collected during the time I lived in the desert, in particular one treasured painting full of stereotype-razing rainbows.
The trajectory that our trip to Western Australia set my life on contributed to reforming my identity, not just as an Australian but also as a global citizen. That night we returned home, the shower I had that I’d been coveting all week didn’t satisfy my expectations. Nor did my fresh stir-fry dinner. I hankered after our campfire, our tinned food and our swags, and silent stories passing overhead among stars. Still now I cling to the feeling of that evening, when the trip technically hadn’t ended yet and the lights in Em’s house glowed softly across the dirt road that separated our houses. I’m happy to stay there in that suspended moment, when we could rise once more and head west on adventures into an Australia I had never known.
All names in this memoir have been changed to protect privacy.