76. What the Yagga Yagga mob saw
"A funny thing I can tell you now. There was Toyota going backward and forward during the night, if you want to know.That's all my children are grown up now. That's why I'm gonna tell you because me and my family was on there…”
Mark Moora, Yagga Yagga
Balgo locals take every opportunity to be outside. You can find old people lying on the ground under a tarp in the rain, next to a warm dry house. And why waste the cool early hours asleep when you can be alive to the world? Or miss the cool evening breeze cooped up in a hotbox of a government house? And it wasn’t so late on that fateful December evening in 1986. The hum of the power station was masking the sounds of the earth, but the eerie street lights still left enough darkness for the beam of a vehicle on the bi-pass road to light up the sky. The locals were pretty sure it wasn’t the two gudia boys blasting through; hadn’t they gone through when the sun was high, and stopped for shopping?
Locals claimed when the police asked they were told, quietly, on the sly: the boys had gone south. Few wanted to become involved with the police, but some had a public conscience, even to the invaders.
Word quickly filtered down to Sturt Creek homestead, that the jackeroos had been seen near Balgo. Jim Guy didn’t welcome the news. He was ready to pack up anyway, when John Boland mentioned the sighting:
“They brought beer out, and chickens and all that sort from the pub and there was a relieving Sergeant [Jim Guy] there and he had a report they were seen going past Balgo and I said, what were they doing down there and he said, 'That's what I thought,' so no one bothered – That’s where it went wrong.”
A Kukatja mob had been camped at their broken down vehicle on the road to Yagga Yagga. They were perplexed upon arriving at Balgo, to find the police asking questions about the boys. They’d seen them the previous day, in good health, not agitated, not asking directions.
Down at Yagga Yagga, Mark Moora was expecting the Telecom helicopter to land near their two-way radio tower. Eleven-year-old Ronald Mosquito was with future chairman, George Lee, 10, the latter banished to Yagga Yagga after running wild in Balgo. Ronald had seen James and Simon drive through earlier in the day, but didn’t see them stop. Ronald said the helicopter “wasn’t a fancy one”, but used for “mustering”.
Mark claims he saw it land near the water tank. He says it was a simple machine. There was a rifle between the seats. It wasn’t from Telecom.
Dates and times become confused, but Mark remembers going for a drive south of Yagga Yagga into the desert, where he came across three white fellas in a station vehicle, who said they were looking for drums. There weren’t any stations in the vicinity so Mark wondered why they would travel such a long distance over difficult tracks looking for relatively inexpensive empty fuel drums. He told them there weren't any drums, and they were on private property, and they left. But there were drums. Mark knew that. He later said men from Billiluna had dropped drums of aviation fuel, one spot including a patch of clay north of Yagga Yagga. This would have provided enough fuel for a mustering chopper to make a return journey to the seismic maze near Lake Hevern. Mark wondered who would go to the trouble of laying down fuel drums by vehicle then send a short range mustering chopper into the summer desert after the seismic crews had left.
Ronald said a helicopter had landed at Balgo, where the new store is now located, to re-fuel from an underground tank. That was when the community owned Kingerfisher Airlines. The kids had seen planes, but never before a helicopter.
Aircraft and other objects had been seen in the desert for at least a generation. The Nippon Empire had sent its fast reconnaissance planes down the coast. The Australians and Americans had built hidden airstrips and arms caches in the Great Sandy Desert, in expectation of a Japanese invasion.
Other events were more difficult to rationalise. Bai Bai Sunfly said she’d been abducted in a UFO. Monty Barr and Wayne Trembath were followed by strange lights for forty kilometres, along the track between Lake Gregory and Balgo, in March 1987, when they were delivering a portable building. "First of all it looked like a convoy of trucks, but there are no roads there," Barr said. They weren’t the only ones to see unusual lights. Oil rig supervisor Doug Hodgekiss saw unusual lights earlier in the year, and heard loud thuds, and found saucer-shaped burns on the ground.
More explicable movements were the scheduled flights between the east coast and Singapore. Geoff Taylor was awakened by his phone one night, by someone asking him to drive to the Balgo communications tower, and reboot the computer. Geoff got out of bed and looked into the sky, and saw a passenger airliner circling the community. He rebooted the computer, and the plane continued its journey, and he went back to bed.
Harry Mason told me a friend of his in the Australian Army was sent with his platoon into the Great Sandy Desert, to guard an isolated airstrip. The infrastructure consisted of a single house at one end of the runway. The bemused soldiers stood around until two Australian fighter planes appeared in the sky, escorting a cargo plane that landed on the strip. The fighter planes withdrew, while the platoon surrounded the stationary plane, whose occupants remained inside. The soldiers listened for three days to the frenetic activity inside the plane, during which time an Australian cargo plane also landed. The occupants of the first plane then quietly transferred to the Australian plane. The platoon was ordered to leave the area.
Then there were the two worried souls who graced Yagga Yagga on their final journey to eternity. The plastic playground hadn’t yet arrived, nor had the electricity generator, so the nights were quiet and dark at the four tin shacks. An approaching vehicle could be detected twenty kilometres away. Mark Moora had had the exploration company bulldoze a track to skirt the community, to prevent the seismic survey vehicles covering the shacks with dust, and to discourage snoops. But the new track was still close enough to prevent anyone sneaking by without being noticed.
Not that many got that far south, due to the heat. Occasional vehicles from the Pintupi lands came through on tracks you wouldn’t find on maps. Gudia tourists preferred the Tanami Track, or the rugged but more defined Canning Stock Route. Even the more adventurous travelers were too smart to enter the desert during the heat, so the two unexpected white boys surprised the dozen inhabitants.
Most of Yagga Yagga’s residents were still in Alice Springs partying and fulfilling social obligations, following the Pope’s visit. White fellas rarely stopped at the tin shacks, and these lads were neither hardened jackeroos, nor mineral explorers. Inexperienced gudia like them quickly became dehydrated and disoriented. If they were physically active in direct sunlight, or cooped up in a hot vehicle, they could lose more moisture than could be absorbed from drinking even unlimited water.
Eric Moora, then eleven, saw the gudias from a distance filling “blue and white” water containers. They looked "sort of like school boys."
His sister, Andrea, two years younger, remembered them dressed like ringers.
“My grandmother gave them tucker and my Mum, but when they was eating, I'm not sure those two young fellas, they was shaking so frightened of something my Mum asked them what's happening to you two. They didn't told my Mum what's happening, yeah. My mum told them to stay for a little while. Mark will be here soon. And I saw them rushing around putting things back in the vehicle.”
Mark Moora was born in Old Balgo in 1945, "when no white people here". The country of his mother and father is the Yagga Yagga area, rich with unexploited diamonds, uranium, oil and water. Like other children he was put into a church dormitory and discouraged from spending time with his parents. There was a school, hospital, church and convent, and despite the harsh regime many parents volunteered their children as boarders, to remove them from the clutches of opportunists and carpetbaggers, and from what to some appeared their ‘slow march towards extinction’. Mark remembers the kindly German priests with favour, but describes their successors as “Australians”, and crazy.
Mark had gone north the day when James and Simon came south. He would have stopped the boys. The desert was certain death in their clapped out Datsun, and anyway, they were trespassing on his land. He would have told them this.
But the track between Balgo and Yagga Yagga divides into a loop, then reforms to a single road fifteen kilometres later. Mark drove north on the west track, while the doomed travelers went south on the east track.
"It was pity for me I just missed them by an inch. If they could've wait for about another twenty minutes, another hour I could've saved them," Mark said later in a rare moment of sentimentality.
He says his wife later told him these strangers kept looking back anxiously in the direction they’d come. He was perplexed and maintained a vigil that night: “I don't have to go to sleep like a dead horse.”
Around midnight the beam of the second vehicle appeared, far off in the distance, moving south, long before its sounds reached Mark’s ears. The driver stopped for an hour north of the community, then continued his journey and passed Yagga Yagga on the bi-pass road, with his lights off.
“Yeah, he's the one who was following them. He thought I was sleep, but everything was dark. I could hear that Toyota going past, white Toyota, moonlight, I could see that Toyota going past…He came through 12 o'clock, midnight (…) all I can tell you is he must have got rid of them. He went past [then returned] next night (…) he was a cunning old fella. He was a cunning fox (…) He must have planned it all. Bloody bastards they can get away with this sorts of things. “
After what must have been a grueling day in the summer desert, the same vehicle returned about 1:00am the following night, again with its lights off.
Mark told his people what he and his family had seen, but said nothing to the police for fear of retribution. To this day he lives in fear of Giles Loder. Why he does hasn’t been revealed. “If we were to tell the truth what really happened [then] that bloody fucking mongrel manager would have come and finished us up."
So when John Drummond and Jungarri T. Bradshaw visited Balgo during the search, no one was talking, except to Bradshaw in a language not understood by Drummond. And Bradshaw subsequently went around saying the boys had been murdered.
Mark grew up immersed in stories of frontier justice, when the death of a white man or even a prized beast, could result in lethal collective punishment, or the wrong person being blamed and hanged.
But white police officers from the 1980’s scoff at Mark's fears, particularly his belief that Giles Loder killed James and Simon. Bruce Farrands knows the Walpiri, Kookatja, Ngarti and Pintupi, tough people that he respects. But he doubts Mark’s fears are relevant today: “I accept that quite a few terrible things happened on the frontier [but]…to think that that bloke [Giles Loder] was going to come down and shoot their kids, I mean, that’s a bullshit story.”
I went to Derby in 2012 to visit respected Nookambah tribal elder, Mickey Michael, just before he passed away. Sitting behind his Land Cruiser, on the concrete of his carport, he looked at me through watery green eyes while naming half a dozen white pastoralists. “Gone,” he said, gloatingly, after each name. With his eyes not leaving mine he said men with rifles had killed his mother and father. “What for?” he asked, and then looked at the ground while his wife, Joy Cooper, and her daughter, Tula, and the rest of his family, turned their backs to me.
Brian Charlie said Mark thought his people could be in trouble for not telling the police they’d seen James and Simon. Brian justified Mark’s reticence:
“… they say the only time police want information is when they thinking, when they go into town the police don't treat them too good, so they don't communicate too well with the police so they don't tell them nothing. They said, no, they didn't see 'em.”
But Brian was speaking about Mark and those at Yagga Yagga. The locals at Balgo had already told others they saw the boys stop at the Balgo store. This reached John Boland and Jim Guy, but the latter wouldn’t contemplate searching south of Balgo.
Collective punishment also discouraged Aboriginals from helping the authorities. Being the vicinity of a white death could be lethal. Marten Ynema, a white man of Dutch Frisian descent, spent three years as a “black fella”. He told me about
“...them crazy white troopers and police killing the two black fellas at Hangman’s Creek for killing the boys that had the Golden Hole and Baxter’s Hole [gold mines]. The black fellas speared them down the hole for not feeding them, but they were feeding the gins and screwing their gins so they ended up dead.
“What happened is they [the troopers] grabbed the two wrong black fellas and hung them at Hangman’s Creek...and the bloke that done it lived to die of old age at Louisa homestead, only another 20km’s away.”
Balgo had been an unruly place in 1986, twenty years after citizenship and equal wages resulted in mass layoffs from the cattle stations. Pallottine Father Ray Hevern ended the segregation of boys and girls, and their tribal parents were no longer discouraged from visiting their children.
“We were suddenly treated as human beings,” George Lee’s father said, and Ray was dubbed "Father Heaven". He was honoured with a desert clay pan named, Lake Hevern, and the abandoned oil well, Lake Hevern No 1, within walking distance of where the remains of James and Simon were discovered.
But the law and order gap, that widened when the government replaced the Pallottine administration with departmental advisors and an Aboriginal Council, was not compensated by a police presence. Nor was the Council strengthened when ATSIC moved the white administrator’s office to Kununurra. The ever present grog runners exploited this chink in governmental rule, and brought in ever larger loads of alcohol, and cannabis crops began appearing in the bush.
“Keep talking,” a woman in the background orders as Robert Taylor, in a deep interrogatory voice, fires questions at me over the phone. He camped in Yagga Yagga in 1969, and wants to allay Mark Moora’s concerns about whose interests I’m representing.
Robert interrupts my litany of massacre acknowledgement, saying the “atrocities were more recent and widespread than known.” He mocks the theory of the boys getting lost, then one shooting the other, saying anyone who believes that is a fool. He says the secrecy of the Aboriginals isn’t over money or mineral rights: “That’s bullshit.” He says the “boys were going to a designated spot that coincidently had a nearby large runway” and the location was “extremely unique to the desert area.” He says those involved in the mystery are “dangerous wealthy people” and intimates they are prepared to kill. And “if you got close to the facts the media would pour in” and life would become a misery for the Aboriginals. Robert says that as an outsider I wouldn’t understand the disastrous consequences I’d set in motion.
Brian Charlie's theory of the gudia deaths echoes those of Les Annetts, Russell Tremlett, Les Verdon, Mark Moora and others. Brian wonders:
“Why would the boys go off-road, right? If they wanted to take off somewhere they would have headed on the Tanami Road, but obviously they didn't want to be found by somebody. They were avoiding somebody.
“They must have known something that the station manager didn't want to get out, and that's the only reason something would happen to them. They would have had information…[that others]…didn't want anyone else to know about, that they had to silence them.”
But the boys were alive when the occupants of a Land Cruiser followed them into the desert.
In Aboriginal payback justice, when a killer can’t be located then another person from the offending tribe becomes a legitimate target for punishment, usually, the next closest kin.
This method of justice had a white perspective, when white authorities made multiple people pay the price for a crime committed by one person in their tribe.
Giles Loder offended the Aboriginals at Gordon Downs; he mistreated the teenage jackeroos; he hit James with a spanner, so what happened to the kids fell on his shoulders, whether he killed them directly or not. But the sighting of James and Simon at Yagga Yagga by the Moora family was real.
The case was unusual because there weren’t witnesses who saw or could explain why they left. Kendall and Loder were in prime positions to shed light on the mystery, but developed their ridiculous amnesia, that covered the crucial 72 hours after they saw the boys alive. They’re both haunted by the deaths, but despite being in a position to clarify the mystery, they act as if they’ve taken a vow of silence.
The muted half-hearted search seemed more caused by obstruction, from multiple levels within the police hierarchy. They refused to search south of Balgo. They discouraged local help. They promoted the erroneous idea the boys had stolen the Datsun to return home for Christmas, when it was clear they’d left behind their valuables. They appear to have had a hidden imperative to avoid finding the boys.
The Coroner failed, by not requiring Loder and Kendall to verify their alibis, hour by hour, for those 72 hours, and this left a terminal hole in the integrity of the Inquest.
Not only Kendall and Loder’s silences shout loud, but also the silence of the police who closed ranks, when a number of officers felt the possibility that James and Simon had been murdered.
James and Simon’s blood and soft flesh has merged into the animal/plant cycle, but do their spirits live amongst the howling animals and the night winds of Aboriginal cosmology? And what secrets did they take to their deaths? And did those long gone nomads see them in the seismic maze?
“Dead and Gone. Buried. Forgotten." Julie Kendall’s words swirl like debris on a sandleback dune.
Out there in the land of anomalous airstrips, potable water near the surface, untapped aquifers, fertile virgin soil, diamonds, secret Aboriginal business sites, military intrigue, lays the ideal terrain for mysteries to brew, both real and imagined. And the subtle world of mind control that discouraged both searchers, and subsequent researchers, from delving into the mysterious deaths of two unwitting teenage boys.
On a vigil that will end with her death, Sandra Annetts watches beyond her thriving grandchildren, and her room of teddy bears, and the words echo through her mind: “Someone saw something; someone knows what happened.” The secret still awaits discovery.
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