46. A weekend in paradise
Left alone in the silent street, with eyes peering from every window, I scout a group of stone buildings on the Mulan side of town. The doors and window frames have been hacked out with sledge hammers, but are too close to town and maybe inhabited, definitely claimed. The dirt road east runs to Lake Gregory homestead, renamed Mulan when the Aboriginals regained ownership. Five kilometres out a bulldozer gouge and a cleared space amidst prickly bushes looks a good camp to contemplate the day’s events.
Mark had phoned me when I reached Halls Creek. He urged me to visit earlier than we’d planned, as he expected to be in the desert with a mining company. But his reaction when I arrived felt like a friend breaking a relationship with blows. You feel them, but it takes awhile to realise what is happening.
A camel munches vegetation the next morning, outside an earth-coloured building, surrounded by a barbed wire topped cyclone fence. It’s the health clinic. I’m waiting to see a nurse. Mark appears from nowhere, and says the police are looking for me. Constable Dave Risdale and another offficer find me at the store. Mark hovers in the background.
Before moving west, Dave guarded a secret military facility in Adelaide, where they develop algorithms to decipher coded radio signals, sent by who knows.
He says police have received four complaints about me. Why am I in town? He doesn’t tell me to leave, but says the Department of Aboriginal Affairs has been known to prosecute people visiting Balgo without a permit. Mark's permission for Yagga Yagga isn't enough; Balgo requires separate permission, and Mark hasn’t that authority.
Mark appears unabashed, and inside the administration centre we sit next to two dirty wheelie bins kept inside, otherwise they’d be burnt during the night. A grill covers the post office counter, while Centrelink gets its own door. A sign advises that no one will be served if a dog is in the building: collective punishment. When the health clinic was broken into, it stayed closed for a few days. The store doesn’t open until attendance at the Catholic school reaches fifty-percent.
Mark knocks on another door. Chief Executive Officer Matt Jennings peers around while holding the door as if bracing himself for a rush. He watches me through chilly surgical eyes, while telling Mark that only a Council member can issue permits. The door slams shut.
We sit silently. The door opens. Another white fella enters the reception area with his upraised arm holding a phone on video mode. His name is Brian. "Closing time, closing time, Mark. We have to let the girls do the cleaning," he shouts, while his eyes scuttle about the room to escape mine.
Outside, Mark flags down Chairman George Lee in his 4WD. George can sign permits, but says he can't stop, and has to be in Halls Creek that afternoon. He wants me out of town. Mark turns from the speeding vehicle with a "can you believe that?" written on his face. Something doesn’t ring true. George and Mark's clans are close. George is Nancy Lee's son. His grandparents were nomads, who settled at Old Balgo. George is part of the ruling elite, while Mark is a desert law man.
Mark was once the voice of Balgo, the cheeky black fella who stood up to the white fellas. Outsiders thought he was the Chairman, but now a newly arrived gudia bureaucrat kicks him out of the building, as if he were a vagrant. But appearances can be deceiving.
Mark will see me after lunch, but doesn’t appear. From the front door of his house a young man points to him, asleep on the hallway floor, the man who on his first flight into Perth thought the street lights were stars, and the plane was flying upside down.
The camel calf chomps grass across the road. "Will you eat it?" I ask the young man, trying to make conversation. He ignores me, then walks across the road and takes a blade of grass from behind the camel, and puts it in his mouth. The animal shows no fear.
The Excel slides back and forth across the Mulan road, as my energy drains away through my solar plexus. The locals have formed ranks. They aren’t going to say anything about James and Simon. The stream alongside the road takes an hour to drop, before it’s safe to plough through to my campsite.
A faint padding within the prickly waist high scrub becomes louder, and a stocky shepherd/dingo pup emerges, then jumps into the billabong and swims across and continues its journey. It seeks no favour as I’m irrelevant to its life.
Saturday morning is a uniquely bleak event. Mark isn't at the store, but a man watches me with a snarl. A teenage boy knocks into me without acknowledgement. The kiosk attendant passes me a dripping mess of ice-cream from a faulty freezer. No one sits under the verandah at the administration building. Mustering as much dignity as possible I walk the path of shame to my car, and retreat to the airport, where Les Annetts and his lawyer were exiled one night – for their own safety.
A white council worker checks the runway. He stares through my wave. Through the haze a woman and four kids emerge from the bushes, and cross the runway. "Snake," the kids screech near the one room terminal. They burst into laughter when a goanna tail disappears into a chink in the stonework.
Back at the billabong, a wall of grey sky rolls across the desert like an aerial tsunami, nature telling us mortals we’re mere pinpricks in a larger tapestry. Leaves flutter delicately on the stunted eucalypts, then within three minutes the windy torrent snaps the fiberglass poles of my tent, yanks the pegs from the ground and the canopy rises like a hang glider held to earth by my hand hanging from my car window. The stream bulges, and yesterday’s buried rubbish rises from its grave in shame and rushes into the billabong that rises four metres in twenty minutes. Within an hour its rage has moved south into the desert, and a warm wind rises in the blue sky, and the water sinks through the porous ground and into the ancient aquifers below.
With a sense of bravado I walk through the solid wooden door of the store on Monday morning. The crowd ostensibly ignores me, like a dream; and they’re my forebears from previous millennia, and being a dream I can be no more than a spectator.
In a flat voice leaving no chink of kindness to hook onto, a white woman barks the store is closed. Her breath is on the back of my neck as she follows me to the door. She shouts to the crowd whether staff are available, then feeling their active indifference slams the door shut.
Mark appears as a hypnotic blur. His family will talk to me. They’re across the road. Bai Bai Sunfly sits on the ground with her digging stick, while Mark’s other sister, months from her final heart attack, masks her distaste with a strained smile. Sophia and her sister Andrea stand together. Sophia says her three-year-old hasn’t yet been to Yagga Yagga. Andrea carries her month old baby.
I hold the camera high over Bai Bai then lie on the ground for Andrea. Amongst laughter someone kicks a flattened bong out of the frame. A white priest from Boys Town joins our group, introducing himself to each person except me. Andrea flinches when he pokes her baby, then masks her reaction with a smile.
Andrea and Sophia's eyes flicker in disbelief, when I tell them Simon's Mum gave his car to Giles Loder before her son’s bones were found. But their arms swing across their bodies and Andrea's eyes flash hungrily, when I say James’ parents want Loder jailed. Revenge they understand. Payback and honour, yes. And did they meet James and Simon?
Andrea’s husband laughs and says James and Simon died near water. He has no ill will, but like others finds it difficult to understand how white folk can be so ignorant of basic living skills. Everyone knows you follow the bird that flies a straight line to water each mid-afternoon.
Rabbits, donkey and kangaroo tracks also lead to water, and where an animal has dug into the ground this usually indicates a soak, where with luck water can be recovered at half a metre. But don‘t follow camel tracks, because they go days without water, he advises.
He’d have excavated sand frogs for water and meat, and eaten the edible sap inside the nuts hanging from the stunted gum trees.
There were also nomads in the area. Johnny Brown found fresh tracks made by bare feet that appeared around their machines in both 1986 and 1987. A fire of tyres and diesel might have attracted rescuers.
My brain switches to the brink of seizure mode. Time stands still. Bai Bai drops her movie actress persona, and peers up through shrewd, half-closed eyes. Nellie Njamme is grim. And why has Mark staged our meeting in front of the store audience, when a stranger favoured by one Balgo faction becomes automatically the enemy of the others. This can mean a smashed car, and broken bones.
The movie reel of my mind starts rolling, and I hear Mark’s final advice, not to speak to anyone else. “They’ll only muddle your mind,” he says.
Andrea's husband suggests I wait around another day, to let the boggy track dry from the weekend rain. But I'm not leaving. I want to speak to Pauline Sandfly. "No," says Bai Bai, dropping any pretense of joviality.
A fog descends, and my mind is blank, and I find myself sitting across a store table from a sly-faced Mark. I ask Bai Bai two tables over if she wants a drink. “Food,” she says with an ambiguous smile. I return with bread and bottles of sugar-rich Coke that I put in front of her and Nellie. They ignore me. A white nun raises her eyes, sending a shiver up my spine. Mark will accept a Zero Coke, and a packet of Marlboro Red. Andrea and Sophia have disappeared. Mark tilts his head sideways, calls me friend, and says he wants the case re-opened and Giles Loder prosecuted. He mentions no further meetings, no invitation to drop around, but gives a clear implication to leave.
My default refuge becomes the cemetery, near the airport. You can’t wrong step the dead. The locals resisted Christian burial traditions, finding repulsive the concept of being buried, then eaten by worms. They preferred to expose the corpses to birds of prey, then store the bones in caves, and erase the dead from their memories.
Few of the pebble strewn graves are marked. Anyone living with a name of the recently deceased must change it. If an Alice or Katherine dies then those towns can’t be named, and are referred to indirectly. That’s why Aboriginals invent such unique names.
It was the coffin fire that broke Vickneswaran Kandiah's spirit to continue.
Funerals sourced from Derby had become an extravagant waste of money, so he arranged the bulk purchase of coffins, and had the ceremonies performed at Balgo. The twisted wreckage of the burnt shed where the caskets were stored remains untouched. It was the straw that broke the camel's back, and Vick’s six years at Balgo were over. He didn’t understand.
But the building program he inspired stands today, while a dozen subsequent managers and CEO's have come and gone without leaving a trace.
48. Retreat from Balgo
An unwelcome gudia can hang around an Aboriginal community only so long, without incurring someone's wrath. So by late afternoon I return to the administration office to obtain a permit. The ‘girls’ hadn’t cleaned the reception area the previous Friday, nor for the last ten Fridays by the look of it.
After a twenty minute wait, Matt Jennings invites me into his office. His surgical eyes are neither sparkling with humour, nor laced with malevolence. We sit on plastic chairs, while George Lee sits behind a large desk. George’s ‘Stone Age’ grandparents would have been proud to see their son commanding white bureaucrats who stand when he enters the room.
Jennings says my presence has caused friction in the community, and that Mark told the police he was afraid, and didn't want anything to do with me.
"But I spent an hour with him this morning taking photos of his family," my voice rings plaintively.
"That wouldn't surprise me in the least with Mark," Jennings replies. George closes his eyes when I turn to him, and sits passively while I describe my research and hope to speak to Pauline Sandfly, Linda Daniels and Cathy Lee. He visibly jumps at the last name, and momentarily opens his eyes.
"Okay, I'll camp out of town tonight then fuel up in the morning and leave," I concede. George with his eyes still closed, tells the wall that the store is still open. He doesn’t say he saw James and Simon 48 hours before their deaths.
Mark smiles slyly, sitting on the ground with his tribal brothers, blocking the store gate. We don’t have to say a word to each other. The fellow pumping fuel says Tianna Sansbury from the Rabbit Proof Fence movie is his cousin.
The black pools covering the road reflect the moon in optical perfection that turns to agitation as I aim the Excel through the gravelly middle, to avoid the sticky clay lining the sides. The surging water vibrates through the metal body, and reconciles my mind that all is as it should be, and that worries are reflections from the past long gone.
Out on the Tanami Road the Excel emerges from more pools covering the road without missing a beat. Drivers returning from Halls Creek stop and exchange greetings.
Five hours later my world changes, at the New Caranya store, with its front door clattering in the night wind. The smashed display cases and ripped wiring inside the big tin shed tell of gudia hope and heartbreak, and by its ephemeral passing, forgotten in history except by the few who stopped here during its short history.
Caranya was a battlers' station of 880,000 acres developed by Bill and Jose Moyle in 1965, then by the Walton family, and finally by Reg and Heather Snelling who bought it in 1984. They trucked down a building from the Wyndham meat works, and ran the old store at the homestead, seven kilometres from Wolfe Creek crater. In 1991, the year of the floods, they moved the store to the new site.
The Snellings sold their lease in 1992, and returned to South Australia and ownership went to the S.K. Kidman Estate. The once green homestead with hedges and grass and laughing children, lies abandoned and pillaged and serves as a little used outcamp of Ruby Plains, the last fully functioning Kidman station in the Kimberley, managed by the indomitable "Small Merv" Wortley.
I awaken in my tent outside the New Store, as if recovered from a cyclic nightmare where you rise from the horror then fall back into it. Morning has brought a safer, less exciting world. The ‘No Trespassing’ sign is a reassuring reminder of a place where the rules are clear: such signs are to be ignored.
But the Balgo trip has crept into my subconscious, where it will be manufactured into ever changing mythologies, that I'll repeat for the rest of my life.
I pour my woes onto a truck driver hauling machinery from a Tanami mine, who stopped to check his load. He absorbs my tribulations and theories with rapt attention, like a starving man who knows he'll develop them into hours of improbable yarns that he’ll share across the radio waves. When his train disappears in a plume of dust, I soak up the atmosphere of the New Store, assuming wrongly that this was where Simon stocked up on confectionary.
As the sun turns nasty, I continue towards Halls Creek and find my truck driver parked with two road trains destined for Ruby Plains to pick up cattle. "Paranoid," one driver shouts, not smiling.
49. Halls Creek
The fat guy at the Shell station doesn't know the location of the Simon and James monument. "Ask at the visitors' centre," he says.
Mark Nicholls runs the Shire tourist office, and speaks in a buoyant German-American accent, and uses his lower notes selectively like a game show host. He earns his keep from selling stunningly expensive helicopter and plane tours to the Bungle Bungles and other geographical wonders. He’s friendly to everyone on their first visit. "How can I help you?" he asks, even to down and out travelers, but if you don't purchase anything then on your next visit he asks, "What's up?"
Mark points me to Russian Jack's larger than life statue, that sits between the visitors’ centre and the filthy toilets. Jack, whose real name was Ivan Fredericks, earned his place in history for the singular act of finding a sick man in the bush, then pushing him fifty kilometres by wheelbarrow to a doctor.
Further down the generous lawns a metal plaque bolted onto a waist high lump of stone memorialises two other historical characters: “Simon Amos and James Annetts who tragically died on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert south of Halls Creek in Nov.−Dec. 1986.” The indeterminate date hasn’t been changed, despite both Giles Loder and Shane Kendall swearing they'd each seen one of the boys alive on 1 December of that year.
I ask Daniel Milkins at the Council office if the plague can be cleaned of mineral encrustation from the bore water sprinklers. Nothing happens, but on my second visit another man carrying a sponge and bucket of soapy water springs from a side door like an actor stepping onto the stage. Andrew Vonarx had a safe job in the east, but retrained as an engineer, and moved west to become the shire’s Works Manager. But for all his engineering skills the encrustation won’t budge. Then he offers me a job. "I'm not good at anything," I profess.
"We'll find something for you," he says, optimistically.
With a population hovering around 1500, Halls Creek consists of a series of tribal and bureaucratic ghettos, similar to what Vickneswaran Kandiah was trying to achieve at Balgo. The mining boom hasn’t yet reached the town, and tourists who stock up on supplies in Broome and Kununurra stop only briefly, for fuel and water and to complain about prices and being stared at. But anyone scratching below the surface is likely to fall into subterranean pathways from which they will emerge from the ultimate unforgettable tourist trip.
Despite Halls Creek being in an economic depression, caused by a ban on most take-away alcohol, cheapo motel rooms start at a hundred and twenty dollars a night. Even those taking more expensive units are blessed by the nightly chorus of "long grass" dwellers in the creek bed, drinking as much medium strength beer as their kidneys can process.
"What's up?" Mark asks when I return, then takes pity and mutters something about the caravan park, but doesn’t add his mantra about not recommending it. He knows my other option is the long grass.
"Ten dollars a night: one person, one tent, no power," Jacqueline, a straight backed thirty-five-year old says, while writing my camping receipt.
The caravan park doubles as a maintenance and salvage depot, and alongside a human-proof fence are racks of pipes, wood, corrugated iron and fibro sheeting, some covered by an open shed, in front of which are two battered rubbish trucks of uncertain vintage. Amongst a row of long term tenants is a 1950's bus with its windows covered in plywood and mould growing on its body. Two huge caravans near the ablution block each have three air conditioners that guzzle electricity 24/7 and are occupied by snarling road workers, who race their trucks through the encampment each afternoon, leaving a thick layer of scratchy dust on the proudly washed rigs of the grey nomads.
The park boasts three camp kitchens. The good one has an operable gas stove covered in grease and mould, and an overhead light, but no roof. The other two are used as storage shelters for tables and chairs.
A one-armed man named Ross bounds over to me and in a rat-tat-tat voice says the owner, Roland Nanani, is letting the place fall apart because his first wife is taking him to the cleaners. Jacki is his second wife. Lucky him.
A grizzled Terry Gunn in his troop-carrier deftly backs his caravan alongside a retaining wall, a polite distance from my tent, unlike Europeans who park two metres from strangers then grimly ignore them. He begins assembling a canvas annex, then finishes it four hours later, and relaxes next to an esky of beer.
He sits under his annex reading a book about Russian Jack. He says yesterday was his first attempt at the annex. Next time it might take just two hours. He’s a fitter and turner from Melbourne, testing a new career as gold prospector with his $7000 Mine Lab detector. He found three nuggets near Meekatharra and picked up a hitchhiker two days previously, and gave him food and drink, upon which the fellow tried to steal his nuggets. "I hope you're not another one," he says, adding that the hitchhiker missed $500 he keeps in the pouch behind the passenger seat.
You can see the amateurs streaming in from three-day trips with busted springs and spiked tyres and tales of confrontation with irate miners and occasionally a nugget or two. They lie in their rigs at night being guided to the mother lode by the souls of speared miners.
A French man from Broome says the surface gold is finished, and he might have to go south. No one believes him. Why do he and his thin French wife spend three months a year here? They sneak out during the night to beat a cavalcade of goldfever tailgaters.
More experienced prospectors finance their holidays with their discoveries. They torch swathes of spinifex then drink beer while the flames race over the horizon. When the ground has cooled, they return as innocent aged pensioners to scan the flat sooty surface. Others obtain mineral leases, then using rented front-end loaders and ‘dry processing’ equipment create mountains of dirt resembling housing developments in the bush.
I sneak into town and eat chips under the verandah at the Poinciana Take Away. The swimming pool is empty as usual, but the perimetre fence is well utilised, and serves as a backrest for a hundred proprietary black fellas, who jealously guard their country while watching the passing parade of humanity. One is a tribal executioner looking for a certain man from the desert, whose body will soon be found in the long grass, his throat slashed. Others watch for a tribal woman who lives with a white man. When they get her alone she will be pack raped, ‘gently’, purposefully.
A dozen laughing teenage girls with broad shoulders dance the dance of a thousand years, their outstretched arms landing punches to each other’s faces, then jumping back to avoid the returning fists. Seven-year-olds copy their big sisters and collapse shrieking with laughter.
50. The Bottle Tree bore hanging
My car won’t make it across the sandy creek bed, so I walk across to the sediment encrusted troughs, and frighten two calves that bawl amongst the bottle trees. The windmill feeding the trough is small, hardly big enough for man to hang himself.
Alice Downs Station Manager Don McKay saw two young men walking along the highway north of Halls Creek a few days before Easter 1984, while he was returning to the homestead. One wore jeans and a black tee shirt, while the other had a distinctive green and red checked shirt. They waved, but didn’t try to flag him down.
While checking Bottle Tree Bore after Easter, Don found the man in the checked shirt hanging from inside the windmill box. He radioed his wife, who called the police. Don helped Constable Kevin Roberts haul the body down.
The police deemed it ‘suicide’, and through an administrative inquest the Coroner determined the date of death as 16 April 1984. The report was not made public, nor is available today.
Don didn’t believe it was ‘suicide’. He says the body had hung for four or five days, yet hadn't fallen apart, as it would have if the neck had been broken from the snap of a taut rope. Nor would strangulation have killed the young man, because his hands and feet weren't bound. A choking human, no matter how filled with despair, would have involuntarily grabbed any of the bars and platforms within the windmill frame. The dead man’s feet were level with a cross bar. There was a lump on the back of his head.
Don believes the man was killed, then hung from the windmill to feign a suicide. He says this was feasible, as a strong assailant could have climbed the windmill with the body on his shoulder.
The dead man’s companion never came forward. Don believes he was also killed.
After helping haul the body down, Don asked Constable Roberts for his opinion. Roberts said that as a police officer he wasn’t allowed to have an opinion. “You can have your views, but we can’t.”
Kevin Roberts left the Western Australia police in 1994, after twenty-four years on the job, and now works in the mines. From his hometown of Kalgoorlie he told me that hanging bodies don't necessarily fall apart, and that he'd seen one that had been hanging:
“…11 days and his neck was definitely broken. I can guarantee it 'cause the muscles and shit take a long time to deteriorate before they start falling apart. Some of the strongest muscles in the body are the neck muscles that hold your head so tell Mr McKay to stick to cutting up cattle and not to worry what the Coroner finds.”
Kevin said the dead man had personal problems, and had left his Land Cruiser thirty metres from the bottom of the windmill. But Kevin’s former commanding officer at Halls Creek, Allan George Hogarth told me that: “You could probably write a book on the lies that Kevin Roberts has told. Whatever you get from Kevin take it with a grain of salt.” ,
Twenty-six years after the death, Don McKay stands behind the counter of his shop, ‘D and T Hardware’, in Halls Creek. He’s a short stocky man with chronically red and watery eyes, who with the presence of a stage performer, tells me in his weakened half-cry voice: “There was no Land Cruiser at Bottle Tree Bore.”
Another ex-cop, Miklo Corpus, speaks softly with downcast eyes, like a man who rations his memories. He agrees with Don there wasn’t a vehicle at Bottle Tree Bore, and tells me the strange thing about the maggot infested body was the rope around the man’s neck. It had been cut short, so there was no piece dangling. They searched the vicinity for a sharp object that could have cut the rope, but found nothing. Nor could identification be found with the body, so it was taken to Perth and put in an anonymous grave.
Miklo disagreed with the suicide verdict. He said his colleagues in Halls Creek showed little interest in investigating the case.
A wallet later found elsewhere, helped identify the dead man, as Fabian Rupert Butcher. His sister had been looking for him.
The story pieced together from various sources was that he and a mate left employment from either Flora Valley or Sturt Creek station, but didn’t stop at Halls Creek for fear of their lives. They got a lift with the “Winton boys” to the Springvale station turn-off, about ten kilometres south of Bottle Tree Bore. Miklo questioned why two men leaving a station would be carrying a length of rope yet no water, money, food or personal possessions such as clothing.
Fabian’s companion was never located. Older locals in Halls Creek agree with Don McKay, and believe he was also killed.
Fabian died two years before James and Simon arrived in the Kimberley. Local folklore says that Giles Loder hung a boy on Alice Downs station. Was Loder involved with this death? Most assuredly not. He was working in the Birrindudu area, but hadn’t yet taken over management of Flora Valley and Sturt Creek stations. But with so few police resources, and so many unexplained deaths, how hard would it have been to fake a suicide in the Kimberley?
Go to chapters 51 -55
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