41. On the Tanami
The broad orange strip lined with formidable windrows on each side stretches into the distance as if endless, as if leading to each individual’s destiny within the national consciousness.
I wind out the little Excel as it glides across the silk smooth powdery surface that quietens the tyres until the thump of the front wheels slamming into an erosion crevice crossing the track wakes me from my dream. The momentum bounces the car back onto the road with a thud that snaps the exhaust pipe and a throaty roar penetrates the cabin.
Some call the Tanami Road the Tragedy Track, from the 1890’s when hundreds of would-be millionaires trekked out from Alice Springs, seeking their share of the mother lode in the district called ‘The Granites’. But what awaited most were sickness, dehydration and supplying the dingoes with their mortal remains.
The modern Tanami Road runs 900 kilometres of graded dirt, from the highway west of Halls Creek then south to Billiluna where it turns eastward towards Balgo, The Granites mine, Rabbit Flat Roadhouse, then southeast to the Walpiri town of Yuendumu. At Tilmouth Roadhouse it becomes a thin strip of bitumen that continues another 150 kilometres to Alice Springs.
The Northern Territory section got its first official grade in 1968, when previously it had been hopscotch of tracks that changed direction depending on who was using it. It passed through Balgo until 1967, when Father McQuire and the Aboriginal residents graded a new stretch, to discourage travelers visiting their community. McQuire tried to push it through Mongrel Downs, until Joe Mahood stopped that: he didn’t want to be plagued by tourists, escaped criminals and assorted riffraff.
One hundred and twenty-five kilometres south of Halls Creek, near Wolfe Creek Road, an exhaust system including the catalytic converter and sub-resonator lies on the road still in one piece, like a body laid out for a funeral. This was where James and Simon were thought to have entered the Tamami Road then gone south to Balgo.
Alongside the road lies the savage scrub that tribal hunters and gatherers used like a supermarket for products such as tobacco, glue, preservatives, lerp sugars, native fruit and vegetables, anti-bacterial lotions, poisons, weapons, clothing and housing materials, rope, native truffle, nuts and narcotics.
After a bone jarring 250kms the Excel reaches the community of Wirrimanu that isn't quite willing to throw off its colonial name of Balgo.
42. The Pallottines
Balgo doubles its population of five hundred during the wet season. Its attractions are good water, the store, medical clinic, ATM, the phone tower, the weekly mail plane that accepts passengers and the Flying Doctor who can transplant bewildered patients from the desert to a Perth hospital in half a day.
The town is located in the midst of Kukatja, Ngarti and Djaru Country, but includes the Walmatjarri, Warlpiri, Pintupi, and those ever present colonists, the Pitjantjatjara. Throw in a mix of blow-in white and mixed-race bureaucrats, drug dealers, grog runners, priests and nuns, perverts, and white men and women who have joined the Aboriginal culture, and you’ve got the combative mix of cultures and ideologies that make Balgo the home of unparalleled Byzantine intrigue. And many wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Pallottine brothers and monks arrived from Germany in 1901, and staffed most Kimberley parishes. They ran a leprosarium from 1934 on the Rockhole cattle station west of Halls Creek, after Chinese, Malay and Fillipino immigrants introduced the disease in the late 1800’s. The first registered Aboriginal death was in 1908.
An expedition left Rock Hole for the desert just before World War 2, and the mission at Old Balgo was subsequently formed out on the Mulan Road. But the water supply was no good, so the community moved in 1965 to the artesian aquifers at its present site.
The early missionaries faced life and death hardships, to Christianise and rush the Aboriginals, with a race genome honed for desert survival, from the stone age to the modern age in four or five generations, a process that took Europeans twenty-thousand years.
The Pallottines discouraged corroborees in preference to Catholic services, and secluded children from their parents, in dormitories. An elite few were groomed as future leaders, but most were schooled towards farming, domestic skills and commerce jobs that meant sending them two-thousand kilometres south, where they missed, or had delayed, crucial Aboriginal cultural and coming of age ceremonies. Yet neither were they Australian citizens, but wards of the state, like mental patients and juvenile delinquents.
The 1967 referendum that gave citizenship to Aboriginals, which the locals called “drinking rights”, signaled the end of Pallottine dominance. By 1983 white bureaucrats were arriving in droves, and offering the community money, to replace the Pallottine administration with an Aboriginal council, run by white bureaucrats.
Father Ray Hevern was the administrator: "...when they came down and publicly told the community that if they kicked the church out, they would give them millions of dollars to run their own show and they didn't have to listen to us priests any more." The locals took the money in 1983, and changed the community’s name to the Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation.
But the religious Orders stayed. There was a genuine affection and gratitude by some who recognised the kindness of the brothers and nuns. The pragmatic tribes also realised that being Catholic, albeit thin-layered Catholics, over hearts of Aboriginality, opened doors otherwise closed. The church institutions offered escape doors from destructive social environments. It counterbalanced the black magic that locals believed manifested as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and end-stage renal failure. In white fella talk these symptoms are called “X-syndrome”.
Kidney failure rates in communities often reach ten times the national average, and elders find their blood streams merged with dialysis machines while they’re stranded in sterile medicals units in Perth, Broome or Alice Springs. They call it the "living death”, and compare it with the Biblical fires of hell.
"X-syndrome" is a symptom of lost mastery. Survival sensibilities are reduced to thumping the scratched display of the ATM machine pumping out daily rations of worn out money. Even the rhythm of nature is masked by the roar of the electricity generator, and the confiscation of hunting rifles that discourages hunting.
But strange things happen, like the de-criminalising of tribal initiation ceremonies involving cutting and scarring, after it became obvious that those enforcing the bans were themselves increasingly covered in tattoos and body piercings.
The Halls Creek hospital and indigenous medical clinics, if only to halt the spread of Hepatitis C, began offering sterile cutting instruments and swabs for coming of age ceremonies.
The days of black fellas with nulla nullas standing over an ashen faced tribal surgeon, working with a broken beer bottle, who knows he’ll be clubbed to death if he botches the circumcision, may be over, but the careful cuts signifying manhood, giving birth, meeting the ancestors and other milestones, are being revived.
Even thigh spearing is tolerated at some remote communities, as an alternative to the lethal risk of death in custody. And the clever black fellas at Bidyadanga thwarted one investigation of a tribal execution, by declaring the area a sacred site. Entry prohibited for the uninitiated.
Geoff Taylor lived at Balgo for nine years and married a local woman. The black fellas entrusted him to protect their artifacts and tools for the secret men's business. He thought this showed the deterioration of Kukatja culture, but they recognized his integrity, and the white man’s propensity to care for objects.
43. The Byzantine republic of Balgo
The bulldozed area amidst prickly scrub near the Balgo turn-off road looks ideal to throw up the tent. Discarded truck tyres and oil stains usually indicate a good camping spot. It’s far enough into the bush for privacy, but close enough to watch the road. I’ll relax the evening away, then awaken refreshed for my meeting with Yagga Yagga elder, Mark Moora.
But I’m sick, and spend part of the night lying outside my tent, vomiting on the ground. It’s like gastric waterboarding, and even the deadly mosquitoes lose their appetite for my blood. By dawn I’m cleaned out and so exhausted, it takes four hours to pack up the tent, leaving no time for proper ablutions.
"No grog, no gunja, no humbug," warns a sign on Balgo's lockable entry gates. It should also warn: No carpetbaggers. Of the bureaucratic variety, or those who entice top class artists to churn out high quantities of second rate paintings, in exchange for alcohol, drugs, food and clapped out Land Cruisers.
A seige mentality permates the town, starting with the police station near the front gate. Near midday patrol vehicles remain hidden within a high panel compound. Behind the locked front door, officers spy on the community through an array of flat screens connected to visible and hidden cameras.
A dozen adults outside the Catholic school respond to my wave with unblinking stares. A snow-haired black woman on an invalid electric scooter captures my attention with her glare. Not a glimmer of cordiality flickers between us.
Fifty people of all ages ignore me, as I park in front of the unmarked store. They sit under a slatted awning that flashes dark and bright stripes into the eyes of anyone moving underneath, like strobe lights jolting an epileptic into seizure. Unsmiling twelve-year-old children run back and forth under the strobe slats, throwing twenty-cent pieces across the brick pavers, lifting them from the ground when the coins slip between the cracks, while dingo-like dogs interweave amongst them as if in a separate dimension. They don’t beg or sniff crotches like city dogs, and are as much symbiotic as subservient. But when a bulldog bares its teeth at a Chihuahua, a chunky girl pulls up a paving brick and throws a warning shot that thumps into the store's already dented corrugated iron cladding.
Panic floods my mind as I realise they're consciously ostracising me. I rush the kiosk for a sports drink, then retreat to the shaded porch of the administrative building at the other side of the courtyard.
Balgo was where doctors administered Depo-provera, a long lasting contraception injection to reduce the birthrate from teenage mothers. The drug has some nasty side-effects and is also used as chemical castration for male sex offenders.
"Are you here for the meeting? a plump, white woman asks me. She’s the sandwich making teacher. Her eyes focus on the patch of blue ink leaked onto my business shirt during the shaky road trip. Relief floods my body. In a euphoric moment I fantasise that I’ve flown in for some innocuous meeting, will be given a room for the night, then take the next flight out. And get paid handsomely for my trouble.
Her safe-haven smile fades upon discovering my business is with Mark Moora.
"Is he a friend?" she asks. I tell her I’m here to investigate the deaths of two white boys. She says he’s sitting in the crowd, but won’t point him out. A heavy door slams and she’s gone.
City folk say Aboriginals are indifferent to time, but arriving ninety minutes late, and stinking of gastric juices isn’t the best way to impress an elder with a phenomenal sense of smell and a reputation for not suffering gudia fools gladly.
Mark is easy to find. He sits alone where seating is at a premium. He’s been watching me. I bow in supplication, holding out my hand. He gruffly gestures me take a seat. "Where your Toyota?" he asks, the alpha male staying in charge by keeping others explaining their positions. We'd already agreed by phone that I'd arrive in a sedan and he’d provide a Land Cruiser for Yagga Yagga, provided by the government as compensation for maltreatment in the dormitory school.
Without a drink or exchange of pleasantries, we drive two-hundred metres to his daughter’s house, to borrow her Nissan Patrol. Sophia is a stout woman of thirty with a soft gaze and feminine voice, and obviously takes after her mother. Her husband, Greg, isn’t wildly enthusiastic about lending his Patrol, but Mark is family.
Still in shock from the bad night and lack of sustenance, I find myself at the store paying $150 for petrol. Payment is made before the fuel is pumped. I tell the cashier it's for Mark, hoping to trigger a spark of conversation. She turns and smiles at the other checkout operator then, unsmiling, hands me the receipt.
The pumps are encased in an iron mesh cage covered with scrambling children surveying the landscape and breathing the fumes. The petrol costs $2.30 a litre.
We end up in front of another house, where Mark's sister Bai Bai Sunfly lies slumped on the ground, as if waiting for an ambulance, a sharpened stick protruding from underneath her body. It resembles the short broken branches carried by homeless men in Adelaide. For Bai Bai it’s more than a handy weapon; it’s a digging stick and a symbol of her womanhood.
She jumps up, laughing, while a smiling Bonnie James rises like a movie actor. Others run from the house. They’re laughing wildly, watching me load a suitcase, a jerry can of water, and groceries into the Patrol. They scream when Bonnie runs back to the house and returns with a twenty-litre can of water. “Are you going for a week?” someone mocks. Barefooted Mark growls that he's taking nothing.
Where to leave my car? Outside the house? "No, those crazy kids," says Mark. Outside the famous art gallery, where they sell paintings by Balgo artists, who fly around the world with their exhibitions, then return to their busted window houses, and sleep on the floor or in their back yard? No, it isn’t safe after closing time. We leave it inside the unlocked gate of the hideously expensive, invitation-only, three room motel without a reception, where the police find it thirty minutes later.
44. Yagga Yagga
Mark slams the Patrol into the rutted track to Yagga Yagga, as if trying to sabotage our trip by wrecking his son-in-law's vehicle. He's journeyed this track many times, but the strangest was with two middle-aged white men, on 2 February 1988:
“They just came in ... and took me out there and asked me a couple of questions out there and I knew straight away this might be Giles Loder's people so I didn't wanna talk to them so I had to make it up to them to tell them that Giles Loder was good and everything. I didn't want to tell them that he was no good; he was bad. I didn't trust them so I said, ah, Giles Loder is good and all that. I just made it up. Yeah. So I came back and they dropped me in Balgo.”
They were Coroner David McCann, and Sergeant John Kermode, who had hitched a lift on a charter flight with Broome magistrate John Howard, for his monthly court sitting in Balgo.
McCann and Kermode wanted to question Mark in an informal setting. Their four-page report states that:
“Moora states that at no time did he see any vehicle or sign of a vehicle on the road nor was he aware of anyone in the area of Yagga Yagga or in that area which he regards as his.”
How could Mark have made such an error? He speaks twelve indigenous dialects and is the custodian over a huge tract of land? Perhaps McCann couldn’t escape the imperious manner of a man usually addressed as, "Your Worship", and didn't adequately explain the purpose for taking Mark to Yagga Yagga.
Mark justified deceiving McCann because:
“I didn't trust them people because I didn't want to get shot in the middle of nowhere and be dumped somewhere in the middle of nowhere.”
Few understand this sentiment, not even younger Aboriginals living in the towns, but Mark remembered campfire stories of the ‘killing times’, and when his brother Thomas was marched barefoot to Halls Creek for stealing a goat. And in 1986 there were still retired police officers alive who had put Aboriginals in neck chains.
McCann’s failure to gain Mark’s confidence was a missed opportunity to uncover what else the Moora clan saw that fateful week fourteen months previously.
I apologise to Bonnie for stinking. He laughs that he's been rolling around in the muck. Mark remains grim. He knew this day would finally come: “I knew someone would come looking. White men never forget.” He makes it clear this trip is a distasteful duty. He doesn’t mention a duty of revenge.
He points to our left, saying that’s where his people, including one of the Mosquito men, were camping around their broken Land Cruiser. They saw the gudia boys.
A tinge of regret enters Mark's voice when we reach a divide in the road, and he explains its significance, not that anything could have shifted the cruel hand of fate.
He doesn’t reduce speed when the rocky strata changes to soft sand. Tree-like bushes slap the windows on both sides, and Mark raises his hand instinctively as branches hit the windscreen from both sides of the track. The high-clearance Patrol fishtails on the verge of rolling.
Exploration crews maintained the track to the standard of an arterial road during the 1980’s, to get their drilling rigs, bulldozers and tankers through to the seismic lines. Government contractors built a dozen air strips long enough for cargo planes that settlements like Yagga Yagga would never require. When the survey work was finished negotiations stalled. The oil and water wells were capped and nature reclaimed what was hers.
Mark stops on a dune, near a collapsed boundary fence half buried in sand, and points to a spot where he found a two-way radio amongst the vegetation.
Yagga Yagga is a slap in the face. A faded plastic playground glowers in the distance like an insult. Sagging power lines link two dozen widely spaced empty houses. The site might have been in use prior to white settlement of Britain, when the two cultures lived not dissimilar lives, but it's now a failed transplant of modern civilization onto an indigenous people.
Occasional hunting and secret business groups visit the area. Pintupi travelers drive up north from Kiwirrkurra through unmapped country. Rare convoys of aging adventurers sneak through, and by day document the locations of springs and by night repair tyres spiked by mulga stalks.
Yagga Yagga was what cynics called a boomerang experiment. The government pulled nomads from the deserts up until the mid 1980’s, then seeing how they fell to temptations of modern town life, decided to send them back. The Bal Bal and Sandfly clans had hardly come in from the desert, when they found themselves encouraged to return, not to the old ways, but to transplanted settlements with plastic playgrounds. Then the money ran out and it was back to the towns.
Conspiracy seekers had their own theories: the government wanted to clear the remote areas, so they could practice their own secret business. The tropical McLarty Ranges northeast of Derby were declared a prohibited zone, but this didn’t stop those across King Sound on the Cape Leveque Peninsula from seeing electronic green snakes creep across the sky at night over Oobagooma station. One exploratory party got an extremely hostile reaction from a military officer when they went to investigate.
With more conventional armaments from an earlier era, Battlemount Rock in the McLarty Hills region of the Great Sandy Desert had been used as an weapons dump during World War 2. Military gardeners bulldozed dirt over the weapons, then replanted the mound with non-local flora to disguise the burial, which gave the tribal people a good laugh.
Mark jumped at the chance to establish Yagga Yagga. He brought young men and women down from Balgo, to have children and thus strengthen their ownership of the land through birth. He wanted his people away from the alcohol and violence at Balgo, and had plans for more communities further into the desert.
An older Mark reads the graffiti covered door of his old house, posing like a consummate professional for my camera. But it’s not an act. He simmers with regret and anger: his wife dying, his neglect of her; his years of blindness until cataract surgery returned the sight in one eye. And in the end, his dream bankrupt and abandoned, and his mob returned to Balgo.
Bonnie sits glumly in the Patrol. He backs it behind a house when I ask to photograph the empty road, then when I’m distracted for three minutes he rolls it back onto the track, and sits in the front passenger seat, the picture of innocence.
Mark seethes, his jaw clenched.
Mark’s rising anger, and my exhaustion, weakens my resolve and in a passive half-sleep dream I realise we’re returning to Balgo. Back on the sand Mark hits a wheel on the track and the Patrol nearly rolls, but even this fails to spark a glimmer of humour, and we return to Balgo in silence. They drop me off at sunset at the motel and with gruff nods take off without looking back.
"No," shouts an older man locking up the store, when I ask him if he runs the motel. He walks away as if brushing a dung-laden insect from his arm. A dozen twelve and thirteen-year-olds sit on the tables outside the deserted courtyard, their snarls decidedly unfriendly. There’s a branch on my car. Constable Dave Risdale visits Mark an hour later, and they talk on his front lawn for thirty minutes.
45. The Balgo/Yagga Yagga struggle
Vickneswaran Kandiah’s first visit to Australia was to interview for the position of Manager of Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation. He came in second, but when the man who got the job didn’t turn up, Vick got the position.
Vick brought his wife to Balgo. She was white, and had run safari tours in Africa. Vick was a Tamil from Malaysia, whose parents sent him to England to study accountancy. He was stone cold broke, and went to a restaurant offering to wash dishes in exchange for food. That’s where he met his future wife. The Balgo mob was impressed, seeing dark skinned Vick with his fair skinned missus.
It was a strange job. Vick’s office had disappeared prior to their arrival, when two semi-trailer trucks with a police escort had arrived early one morning. Furniture, computers, filing cabinets, fridges, decorations and pot plants were swiftly loaded onto the trucks, then hurriedly driven up the Tanami Road. The drivers didn’t stop at Halls Creek for fear of attack. They emptied their load at Kununurra, and thus Vick found his desert community office six-hundred kilometres north, in the tropics.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) had fled Balgo after threats and attacks against staff. The police were no help because by the time a patrol trundled down from Halls Creek the suspects had disappeared into the desert. Kununurra had plenty of police and less Balgo folk.
Vick found himself flying 1200 kilometre return trips once or even twice a week, frequently with other staff. The cost became obscene, considering Balgo's fourth world living conditions despite the community owning Kingfisher airlines. White pilots flew rented aircraft doing government contract work. They also returned at no charge the bodies of locals who had died in the Derby hospital. Their search and rescue work rarely made a profit. When locals without money wanted a flight they simply lined up across the runway stopping the plane from taking off.
The other problem was paying bills. Unsigned payment cheques were delivered on the weekly mail plane, signed by the appointed elders, then returned on the following week's plane. The previous manager had improvised, by sending books of blank cheques for bulk signing, making a mockery of the elders’ role in managing the community.
Vick's first priorities were building a store, an ablution block for older women and installing mains powered airport lights, so the Flying Doctor could easily land at night. He also wanted a small administration building, and to return the office from Kununurra.
ATSIC wouldn't cough up the money so he convinced the elected Aboriginal council to adopt a 'no work, no pay’ welfare policy. Most residents lived on a form of unemployment payments, with a training component that was administered by the council. The council could legally enforce the 'no work, no pay' rule, so Vick’s proposal produced a small army of workers. The half-million dollars they saved from not paying those who didn't work, was spent on building materials. There was a lot of anger, and Vick began taking precautions for his personal safety.
When Yagga Yagga’s official population reached 120, Mark demanded a respective proportion of Balgo's medical and educational funding. Vick was against it.
He was a centrist and wanted Balgo the hub, with outlying tribal groups forming satellite communities five or ten kilometres out of town. They’d be separate entities, but still have easy access to the clinic, the store and government programs, especially during the Wet.
Transport and road maintenance costs to outlying communities soaked up most of their budgets, and left little for the actual services. Better to centralise the school and medical clinic, Vick reasoned. But he didn’t fully understand the strength of tribal loyalties, and attachment to ancestral lands. Vick’s projects were derailed from what he saw as bickering factions.
"That Balgo bookkeeper," Graham Bloodworth complained of Vick in his English working class/Aboriginal accent to me, over a fading satellite phone. Graham married Nancy Lee, the daughter of nomads, and backed Mark as they wrestled government funding from Balgo.
Mark also infuriated the state and federal governments, by negotiating the sale of oil and mineral rights. The government wanted singular deals between petroleum companies and large aboriginal corporate entities, rather than with Mark's small mob, that nevertheless controlled a big enough chunk of desert to make each of them multi-millionaires. The black fella who claimed not to read or write English was sending shivers up the spines of both white and black powerbrokers.
But Yagga Yagga collapsed. What good was a plastic playground for kids who could dig up hibernating frogs with skins bulging with water, squeeze the contents into their mouths then cook the carcasses over a campfire for a decent feed? They utilised modern devices that complemented their proven culture, like metal attached to the end of spears, and guns; but ironing boards, annual reports and concepts like vehicle registration never quite gelled.
Yagga Yagga found itself sucked dry by instances, like when they bought a Toyota troop carrier, then converted it into an ambulance. The Institute of Sisters of Mercy was contracted by the government to provide nursing, but as Graham Bloodworth remembers:
“We had all the seats taken out the back and we had a partition put in between the driver and the back and they put all medical gear on the partition and [it] was equipped with one stretcher in the back. The only time we saw that ambulance was when… the sisters used to come out on a Friday morning and go back on a Friday afternoon, but they had a…house and a clinic [in Yagga Yagga], but they still lived in Balgo and were out for about two hours a week.”
The fuel truck had difficulty ploughing through the soft sand track from Balgo that deteriorated badly after the mineral explorers left the area. When it could no longer get through the generator shut down, the power lines went dead, and the shop's frozen food thawed out. When the most recent clerk called it quits after three weeks on the job, Graham found himself doing the welfare payroll, plus being the store manager and mechanic. When he burnt out it was Mark's niece, the daughter of Nellie Njamme, who took over the payroll. She’d been schooled in Melbourne, whilst living in the home of anthropologist Scott Cane and his family. But her heart wasn't in the job and she withdrew, and the population drifted back to Balgo.
ATSIC was the main funding body. They’d sunk a cool $5 million into Yagga Yagga, then watched it disappear without a trace. ATSIC was run by white bureaucrats under policies determined by Aboriginal elected representatives. It was a government within a government, and its billion dollar budgets gave it plenty of wallop. But the cruel truth was that no government could fund hundreds of isolated communities with minimal populations that required separate schools, clinics and power stations.
And anyway, ATSIC was a ship floundering in the sea of nepotism, and hardly a month passed without another corruption scandal hitting the media. When the increasingly paranoid bureaucrats heard whispers that those registered as Yagga Yagga residents actually lived in Balgo, they sent a team south. But the investigators were so out of touch, that cheeky Mark fooled them by trucking people south for the day.
Mark returned the favour by taking his stormtroopers north. They crossed the Sturt Creek in flood, and reached Kununurra in the early morning hours. They waited until lunch, when the ATSIC office would be quiet, then barged in and kicked over furniture, ripped up papers and threw computers from the windows. Mark calmly led his group to the police station, where they turned themselves in. Mark knew ATSIC feared adverse publicity. They wouldn't lodge a complaint even when a white bureaucrat in the office went into shock, and died from a heart attack a few days later.
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