51. The Tanami Track disappearance
Four men were travelling in the Yagga Yagga community store Toyota trayback in about 1994. It had been giving them trouble since Balgo, and finally broke down on the Tanami Track near the turn-off to Lajmanu, about forty kilometres west of Rabbit Flat Roadhouse.
Stephen “Flatty” Biebre, 45, and David Bumblebee, 26, went for assistance, while Ralph Nagomara, 45, and his nephew, Malcolm Kalion, 22, protected the vehicle.
The men had family and tribal ties. David had a Kukatja father and Warlpiri mother, and was married to Angela Lee. He spoke English well, and through his family became part owner of Mongrel Downs Station, renamed ‘Mangkururrpa’. Malcolm was Ralph’s nephew. Flatty had gone to school with Ralph, whose younger sister is Cissy Nagomara, whose country is at Lumbunya, near Walgari and Yagga Yagga – Kukatja country. They were related to Mark Moora.
David and Flatty walked forty kilometres to a mine site, then got a lift with locals to Rabbit Flat, where they camped the night.
When they returned to the vehicle, Ralph and Malcolm were gone. David and Flatty had seen a troop carrier and the fuel truck, and assumed they’d caught a ride in one of those vehicles. David and Flatty then hitched a ride with a gudia driving west from Alice Springs, but when they reached Balgo, they found that Ralph and Malcolm had not arrived. A larger group, including Cissy Nagomara, drove back to the vehicle and found it dragged into the bush, and its contents and wheels missing.
Old man Chooga and other experienced trackers followed Ralph and Malcolm’s footprints 200 metres down the road, until the prints disappeared into the bush. What was strange was that Ralph and Malcolm had a gun and water, and were familiar with the desert. David said they “knew everything about it”, so getting lost and dying like a couple of gudias was out of the question. Some drunks from Yuendumu said they saw the missing men get into a vehicle.
Ralph’s Mum went to the police, crying. They showed little interest and the search became a low-key affair.
Two officers eventually arrived, but there weren’t any helicopters or airplanes. Blame for such a minimal search is difficult to apportion, as the locals mistrusted the police and didn’t want them snooping around their country. They would resolve the matter themselves, no matter how long it took.
Mick Shoemaker from Yuendumu police station and Bruce Farrands spent a day cutting trenches through old campfires. Murderers often buried bodies then built a campfire above to disguise the reason for the footprint activity.
In 2011 I visit police officer Shane Williams at his house in Halls Creek. He directs me to Sadie’s camp on Blueberry Hill, on the northeast side of town. She knew Ralph. Her camp is a mattress on the ground with furniture and personal belongings set around like in a house. She isn’t home, so I leave a photograph of Bai Bai Sunfly on a table.
The following day I wait on the highway, mustering the courage to return up the hill. A gudia man doesn’t just drive into a woman’s camp. It must be done with finesse. While I prevaricate, a driver edges a Catholic parish Land Cruiser carefully down the hill. Sadie hops out and with dazzling vitality runs across the road and tells me to follow them into town.
She introduces me to Simon Nagomara, who is leaning against the swimming pool fence. He evaluates me then says Ralph was his older brother. He dreams of Ralph near a tree in the desert. Their sister Cissy lives on Mardiwah Loop.
In this world, Cissy and her church pastor husband occupy a large house with generous verandahs, on a large block of land with a clear view of everyone travelling down the road. In the other world she sees Ralph and Malcolm in a tunnel: they might have been hit with a shovel. Others see them underground. One clairvoyant from Balgo saw an arm sticking from the ground where cars had been raced. Bruce Farrands believed the bodies were put in a stony crevice, to stop birds from drawing the attention of searchers.
Cissy tells me there were stories that Ralph’s death was payback, as he had been in a vehicle that had crashed, in which a man from another tribe had died. Ralph wasn’t driving, but tribal understanding meant everyone in the vehicle carried guilt. She doesn’t share this sentiment, nor does David Bumblebee.
Speaking to me from Balgo on his mobile phone, David says he “don’t like people talking about wrong ideas.” Mark Moora agrees, and says they don’t know who “finished” Ralph, and that is why there was never any payback.
Cissy says her Mum and Dad died of worry and heartbreak. Her mother said there would be payback and that: “You’ll see; someone will fall over.” Cissy dislikes black magic. Black magic practitioners obtain strands of hair or clothing, then perform magical ceremonies until the offender “falls over”. She says many women at Mulan are without men because one-by-one they fall over.
“From diabetes and kidney disease?” I ask.
“No,” she replies, “No one knows what was wrong with them.” Before she says anything more Simon arrives, and makes it plain I should leave while I can.
The explanations and responsibilities for events in life take different forms in different cultures. In October 1995 Holliman and Mandijerry were driving along the Tanami Road between Ruby Plains and Billiluna. They were “brother cousins”: tribal brothers, but cousins in white fella talk. Holliman fell asleep and as the vehicle skid sideways, Mandijerry grabbed the steering wheel, and in the confusion the vehicle overturned. Holliman suffered heart and lung lacerations, and died. Mandijerry crawled from the vehicle as it burst into flames, and incinerated Holliman’s body.
Mandijerry later gave contradictory recollections of the accident. In one he said his friend Holliman had escaped the vehicle, and was given a lift to town by tourists. But, more importantly, from his cultural perspective, he said, “In Aboriginal way there might have been a dog that cross that road, but I didn’t see it. My cousin didn’t see it.” And therein lays the explanation: a dog crossed the road. Neither of them saw it, but it was real; it was the truth and it caused the driver and passenger to lose control of the vehicle.
Similarly, the use of metaphor and analogy is a valid Aboriginal description of truth while not being literally descriptive. So when Tomato Gordon says the Datsun ute was taken into the desert on the back of an F100, and that Giles Loder killed the two gudia boys, he was telling his truth. Loder’s harsh discipline provided the impetus for the boys to flee into the desert, where they died. Loder’s treatment of the boys had the same effect as if he’d killed them, and dumped their bodies in the seismic maze. The F100 and the dog serve the same purpose.
Back in town I spend the next two days questioning people about Aboriginal justice. One initiated man was executed, after getting drunk then divulging secret knowledge to uninitiated young men and women. Younger men are occasionally ordered to deliver this deadly justice, against offenders who might have been their childhood friends. This is why the Assembly of God church has been welcomed by some, despite it being the religion of the invader.
A woman who asks not to be identified, told me she was rid of a bad spirit implanted when she was fifteen. She awoke one night and found herself paralysed. An older man was clipping the hair around her right ear. She felt something placed in her head behind her ear. She suffered from this until the age of 25, when a Pastor at the Halls Creek Assembly of God church discovered the psychic implant and with God’s help expelled it, and it flew away. “It’s gone sister; you set free,” he told her.
“Aboriginals take six-months to sum a person up. They don’t look at you, then every so often take this darkened glance, and in that darkened glance seem to be able to sum so much up.”
"This isn't Balgo," the stern Teutonic voice of Trudy Rosenwald tells me, when I confess to my expulsion from Balgo. She asks the chairperson if I can visit Billiluna. "Permission granted," she says ten seconds later.
Two hundred and twenty people live at Mindibungu or, Billiluna, as it is still called, 170 kilometres south of Halls Creek. It’s where the Tanami Road meets the northern end of the Canning Stock Route. Despite not having an art gallery, police station or mobile phone tower, it’s a friendly cosmopolitan town, popular for convoys of bush bashers charging up from Wiluna, who stop for fuel, ice-cream and a thirty-minute gawk they remember for the rest of their lives.
Bill and Lorna Wilson ran Billiluna cattle station, when the locals occupied a few tin shacks across the track. It’s where Bill shot Jamba Jinba Yupupu-Ross on 6 January 1976.
Jamba and five other men stole the school teacher’s car at Papunya, south of Yuendumu, and 246 kilometres west of Alice Springs. They refuelled the V8 at Rabbit Flat then raced west towards Balgo to ambush Father Ray Hevern, who was taking a load of girls to boarding school in Broome.
The story differs depending on who is telling it, but a common factor is: the girls had been promised in marriage to the Papunya men, who believed they would be subjected to abuse in Broome. Jan Verdon was convinced the Papunya men were on a mission to kill Hevern, not simply liberate the girls.
John Kernot, the ubiquitous Broome taxi owner, understood the blacks’ concerns. He used his drivers to monitor the traffic to drug dealers’ addresses, and by chance noticed the strange flow of taxi passengers to and from religious establishments, after dark.
Bruce Farrands radioed a warning to Birrindudu. Bill and Les Verdon went out in a three cylinder Suzuki ute to investigate, and found the men at the airstrip. They were on the wings of Les Verdon’s plane trying to siphon fuel. Les got a little excited and fired shots and at least one man was hit by pellets in the leg.
Some say Les and Bill ran out of bullets, others that they didn’t want to seriously injure the Papunya men, who became enraged. They threw tools at the Suzuki. A wheel brace hit nine-year-old Ashley Verdon in the ribs, but the girl with him in the back of the ute wasn’t injured. Bill retreated towards the homestead, and crashed through the vegetable garden fence to escape the V8.
Jan Verdon handed Les a shotgun as Bill, him and the two kids ran inside. She hid Ashley and his sister Donna Lee in a cupboard. The Papunya men, brandishing tyre levers and spanners, followed them to the house. Les fired a warning shot from his shotgun, which blasted a chunk from a porch post, then as Jamba wound up to throw a tyre lever, Bill put a .22 bullet in his hip.
The southern media went wild, and journalist Margot Lang wrote a series of anti-pastoralist articles over the incident. After a tormenting process, Bill was not committed for trial on grounds of self-defence. Les got a small fine for having an unlicensed firearm. Jamba Jinba lived on, but the bullet was never removed from his hip.
The shacks across the track grew into a town, and the Aboriginals, using government money and government clout, pressured the Wilsons to sell their stations. The white children born and raised on that dirt found themselves exiled from what they believed was their birthright. Ashley Verdon left with Roy Wilson on three horses: Bonza, Ringo and a grey mare, Retania, named after one of Les Verdon’s previous girlfriends. The Billiluna homestead, the product of decades of backbreaking labour, was destroyed by fire soon after.
The locals still ask what happened to their gudia boys, and they remember Jan Verdon sitting up nights waiting for the Flying Doctor for black kids. Ashley Verdon, now in his late forties, remembers:
“All them poor black fellas. They’re my relatives. I might be white; they might be black, but them people taught me to survive the world even before I got sent to fucking boarding school. I love ‘em, mate. I cry, those clean, healthy people with pride who worked at Billiluna station then later seeing them in Halls Creek after the station was taken over by do-gooders”
“...unreal bloke, big black fella, Mum loved him, she was glad she had him around if Dad wasn’t around because he just looked after everyone. I seen him turn into just a poor drunk wandering around, because he had no purpose, the station was handed back, everything was given to them. I look back and I get wild with these do-gooders, what they done. I wish I could get them, eh, and drag them all around Wolfe Creek crater by the ankles [for] what they
The Sturt Creek crosses the Tanami Road five kilometres south of Billiluna, and appears during the dry season a series of water holes spaced between parched flood plains, the only hint of its strength being overhead debris caught in trees and crevices of the elevated causeway.
Sturt Creek begins as an anonymous waterway in the Northern Territory, where the Kimberley gorge country meets the Tanami Desert, then moving north incorporates numerous other creeks and swings south west at Inverway Station near the Buntine Highway, then fills waterholes all the way to Wolfe Creek, that enters from the north near Skeen Waterhole.
During the Wet season Sturt Creek becomes a kilometre wide wall of water that sometimes puts sections of Birrindudu, Sturt Creek and other homesteads under water. It roars across the elevated causeway on the Tanami Road and fills the lagoons and water holes and Lake Gregory, then sinks into the Great Sandy Desert to replenish the aquifers and wells along the Canning Stock Route past Lake Disappointment.
A baby pram lies partially immersed in the water hole near the causeway, where a dozen grazing horses watch me warily. I chart a meandering pathway, then collapse against an ant-free tree. Metre by metre the horses edge closer three abreast, while others keep their eyes on retreat. They sniff my face and exhale their hot breath on my skin while I gaze into the pools of their huge eyes. Some say they’re descendants of Irish thoroughbred racehorses. Arab and Persian horses introduced by a Catholic priest in the 1930's, then crossed with the tough mustering horses brought over from Queensland by the early drovers. These powerful creatures with their scarred legs and chipped hooves flourish in the creek beds between the deserts, and despite being regularly faced with their own starvation they offer no threat to humans. And, luckily, they’re oblivious to the order from the Pastoral Lands Board ordering the superbly recalcitrant Aboriginal leaseholders to shoot them.
Five garden workers watch me warily as I park in front of the Billiluna administration centre next to the single generator power station. A thickset man fixes his eyes onto me, then taps his empty Coke bottle on a wooden bench. A man behind the counter inside the office ignores my presence for five minutes, until I ask for Mary Darkie. A European-accented man emerges from an inner office and introduces himself as Arthur Rosenwald, husband of Manager Trudy. She’s a thin slightly wrinkled blond woman only recently arrived, but wears the relaxed manner of an outback veteran. She greets me in passing, as she enters with Mary Darkie, a plump thirty-five year old with a guileless expression and pearl white teeth and nails, and described by others as being as much white as black. She treads both worlds with aplomb. She was ten when the boys disappeared.
"When we heard they worked for Loder, we knew it was murder," Mary says, guiding me across the road, where three retired stockman sit under the store verandah like statues, their dazzling white hair contrasts with jet black skins. They lower their gaze to the blind stare of the ridiculous hatless man in a long-sleeved white business shirt.
They ignore my barrage of questions, and mutter short responses to Mary. The man with a huge scar down the side of his face, and who worked for Sherwin and Loder, looks up with uncharacteristic directness. He appraises me for one long second then smacks one huge fist into the palm of his other hand and says: "When you finish up with Loder, you go for a smack-up in the round yard." He returns his gaze to the ground.
Three women playing cards on a blanket next to the road stop their game and sit still when we approach. One of them is Lucy Darkie, in her fifties, Mary's mother. She married Ronnie Tilbrook, while her sister married Ron's brother. John Kernot was there with Warlpiri woman Jeannie Daniels, when it happened.
A mob had gone to Rabbit Flat, ostensibly for ice, but things turned strange the next day east of Balgo, when the beer ran out. "Everyone was acting crazy. They'd been drinking spirits," Kernot said. He wanted to clear out, but Jeannie was familiar with such behaviour, and wanted to stay. The men were butchering a "killer" with long knives, while the traditional women stood round with cupped hands, soon filled with warm chunks of bloody meat. Lucy’s sister wasn't interested, and walked away, ignoring Ronnie Tilbrook’s brother’s shouts to return. “Fuck you," she shouted. He chased her retreating figure and plunged his knife into her back. The point came out the other side. She expired twenty minutes later.
With minimal introductions, the women on the blanket passively reject my presence, like they would any bureaucrat sniffing around. I stand over them rudely, while Mary says her mother saw a helicopter circle Balgo twice, then head south towards Yagga Yagga, about the time the boys disappeared. Thinking Lucy doesn't speak English I ask Mary if her mother saw it land. One of the women shouts at me, but offers nothing in answer to my question. Mary says Sam Yamba of Mulan might have information, but I should get Julie Ann Johns to translate. Also Bobby Sealer at Madalla Block in Halls Creek, he worked for Loder.
I ask if the rumour that Loder went into an Aboriginal camp at Red Rock waterhole and shot the dogs is true. Mary says, no, it happened at Gordon Downs. She recounts Loder buzzing the camp with his plane. She smiles:"The boys tried to hit it with their shanghais."
A small boy climbs onto Mary, who loosens her buttons and takes the child to her breast. I turn my back pretending to be speaking to someone else across the road, occasionally turning my head around to respond to Mary. Her husband Robert Mckay suppresses a twinkle in his eyes. The jet black women on the blanket look at me with incredulity.
Mary suggests I visit Tomato Gordon at Gordon Downs. "Is that his real name?" I ask. Mary tells me the white men gave Aboriginals silly names like Mosquito, Breakfast, Sugar Sugar. "Larrikin", a voice from the blanket adds, emphasising each syllable. I laugh loudly, alone. "And Darkie," Mary says, her voice quieter. "Rosie La La and Bai Bai Sunfly" I add, to silence. Other surnames are Chatterbox, Tin Fish, Billycan, Lemon, Orange, Killer and Dreamer.
Mary says Eric Moora is in Billiluna, "at the Farmer girl's house." Robert will take me there. Mary says she'll stay with the women.
"How did you find me?" Eric asks, his displeasure evident. He moves me back towards the street, as Robert makes a discreet exit. A white woman walking by asks, "Are you alright?"
"Yes," I answer then realise she's asking Eric. He says nothing so I explain my presence. She ignores me, but consoles Eric then leaves.
At Balgo Eric asked to see the photos I took of him and his family, but this time his enthusiasm is qualified. And he’s rusty with dates. He remembers as an eleven-year-old at the four tin shacks, seeing from a distance some “blue and white” containers on the back of a Datsun ute, details that weren’t published except as an obscure sentence in a confidential police report. Then he walks back into his house and closes the door.
The street phone rings. It's the sledge hammer-resistant model, without card or coin slots or display panel, and is activated by a password that comes with special phone cards. Two women across the street show no interest, so I lift the receiver. A recorded voice from a Brisbane prison announces the call is being recorded, then a human voice asks me to bring a certain woman to the phone. I haven’t a clue who she is, so try to pass the buck to the women across the street, while two stick-thin twelve-year-olds take the handset, and talk to the prisoner for a couple of minutes, then hang up. Problem solved, that is, until six snarling dogs with bared teeth snap at my Achilles tendons. The biggest one clamps its jaws onto my trousers. One of the women cracks a heavy branch over its spine. It yelps in pain, but the rest of the pack holds its ground, still snarling, while I beat a hasty retreat.
Lucy and the other women have disappeared with their blanket and cards, as have Mary and Robert, and the stockmen under the store verandah. Black smoke belches from the power station, then its motor chokes into silence, leaving only the blaring music belting out of a derelict 4WD, strewn with celebrity gossip magazines. The street is abandoned, except for the Coke bottle man staring from the space in his mind, that no longer exists.
53. Back at Halls Creek
The gossip network springs into action with a vengeance manufacturing reasons for my inglorious exit from Balgo. An Aboriginal cashier's glare follows me along the aisles of the Halls Creek IGA Express. A white woman wearing plastic flowers in her hair shakes her head when I try to pay with Balgo money. My wallet bulges with torn and taped notes with chunks missing and so worn out that Banjo Patterson's mother wouldn't have recognised her son's face on the ten-dollar bill.
Money gets trapped in the closed circuit of Balgo commerce until it breaks the loop when gullible tourists and contractors tender fresh notes and accept Balgo money as change.
Roland Nanani sympathises with me at the caravan park, saying the Kimberley Hotel unloads damaged notes onto drunks who try to use them to buy smokes from him. He'll accept worn money providing chunks aren’t missing, but when I pay the rent he returns Balgo-style notes in the change. I’ll unload them back as rent next week.
Terry Gunn rolls in from his three-day prospecting trip, during which he spent half that time digging his Land Cruiser from a dry creek bed, and the other half chased by irate “gold miners”. Ross jaunts over and hands me a plastic container. "To save your tea bags after you dry them out". He'll soak them in fuel to make fire lighters. "As soon as I can source some diesel," he says, enigmatically.
Two streets across town, a powerfully built black man at the Kimberley Interpretive Service brushes his hand dismissively as if batting away a fly, when I ask about the Sturt Creek station massacre. He calls a woman who says their archivist probably won’t know anything of the massacre, and anyway, she’s looking after her children today. They know.
The massacre at Sturt Creek station resonates through the gudia boys’ deaths like an undertow pulling witnesses into communal silence. It’s hard to prove because the settlers’ diaries didn’t say: “We killed a bunch of myalls last week and threw them into a well”.
Nor do surviving relatives broadcast the incident. It’s their story; they own it and to share it would weaken it. Like a genealogical website that gives access to births and deaths databases, and allows relatives to build their family tree. These searchers then discover the program has built a Facebook-style page, which the website owner then sells to others as a marketable product. Similarly, tribal elders have been aghast when they’ve walked into libraries and seen picture books about their ancestors, when naming their dead is taboo.
And the double kick they feel is when well meaning scholars like Keith Windschuttle, who work from written archives, doubt that such fragments of massacre history ever happened.
Russell Tremlett lives in his parents’ old Council house on Roberta Avenue, across from the caravan park entrance. The Shire Council is trying to kick him out despite his living there for over 45 years. They’re going to include it as part of a salary package to attract “skilled” workers from outside the Shire.
A cyclone fence covered by trees and creepers gives the house a leafy front yard refuge from the hot sun, and from the moonlight parade of drinkers streaming home from the airport long grass. Jim Ghilotti kept his clapped out Valiant Charger here before selling it to Simon. Russell works in his garden while he tells me that one of the boys was killed before they were taken into the desert where the other was murdered. It was not an accident.
Russell’s sister, Robyn Long from the Better Life Project suppresses her enthusiasm to my visit as impeccably as she is groomed. Her face wears the haunted look of a prisoner awaiting the hangman. She can't tell me much because by 1986 she was down south working as a nurse. And her memory is in decline, she says. She has trouble remembering her parents, but she’ll search for their photos. I write this on a piece of paper to jog her memory, but expect her to politely forget. Why should she share her private life with some stranger?
I ask how her bags of groceries have appeared next to us when they weren't there previously. She says that during our conversation she got up and brought them out as she is shortly leaving for home. Our eyes bulge at each other across the table. As to why they didn't want me in Balgo, she says perhaps they thought I was a drug addict. Or that speaking to me might cause trouble for Aboriginals. "Could do," I reply.
Josie Farrer stands outside her house on Welman Road like an unmovable sentinel. She is a mixed-race traditional Kija woman brought up by parents who spoke little English. She was born on Moola Bulla station, a disciplinary institution near Halls Creek for half-caste children and delinquents. When the government sold the station the kids were loaded onto trucks without warning and trundled down the dirt road to Fitzroy Crossing, a world away.
Josie says blacks know the sorrow of losing children, of old people still travelling the country, to Oldea, to Wiluna, up to Balgo looking for relatives separated during the Maralinga atomic tests, searching for children without birth documentation who were given Christian names.
She had been driving to Adelaide with her family days before James and Simon were reported lost. In her sleep the faces of two gudia boys appeared a handwidth in front of her, calling for help. But who were these boys? They weren’t from her culture; she couldn’t warn their relatives. Her dream at Marla Bore especially bothered her. The boys stopped calling for help. “There was a lot of crying in Halls Creek,” she remembers, looking into the distance.
She says the earth and spirits deal with miscreants in their own way. Like the helicopter that crashed over the forbidden area of the Bungle Bungles killing three women passengers.
Josie seethes at gudia laws that criminalise traditional marital discipline. Men are locked up, and women left without husbands, and children without fathers. Even verbal assault is a crime, she says, almost laughing.
Her culture forbids the naming of the recently deceased, Josie says, as this disturbs their living relatives and friends, who want to forget the hurt. She says Malcolm Kalion shouldn’t be named, but he can be described as the son of “Big Red”, who was so named because he was often coloured with desert dust or painted with ochre. “Uh oh,” Josie stops herself in mid-sentence. “Big Red” can’t be named because he also died, but his name could be written within quotation marks.
“Tough, tasteless, fatty meat at City Prices plus freight,” reads the plywood sign hanging on chains outside Lorraine and Jamie Savage’s Halls Creek meat store. Inside, the bloody flesh is transformed into the aroma of seasoned and preserved meats powerful enough to convert a vegetarian. The Savages’ free range beasts slaughtered locally produce arguably the safest and highest quality meat in the world.
Grey haired Jamie grew up on the stations, and his aged parents still manage Supplejack station south of Wave Hill. Mark Moora wanted Jamie to partner a joint venture near Yagga Yagga funded from a government start-up grant. But the land was too marginal, too far into the desert.
The wiry and small statured butcher is from a culture where men work until they drop or are carried off injured. He speaks of Giles Loder in the past tense: "If you did the right thing by Giles, he'd do the right thing by you."
Lenin Christie thought the same. He owned the abattoir and meat shop prior to selling it to Jamie, and from there he lent his 4WD to Loder, who flew in to round up new employees. Loder always returned the vehicle full of fuel, and on just one occasion Jamie needed to “sort out the man”.
Constable Murray Cowper, now Minister of Corrections in the Western Australia government, thought "Loder was a hard man, made from a hard life on a harsh country. But he was no killer as some ridiculous comments were made."
John Drummond agreed: “I think Giles was a very tough man like all station stockmen, managers and overseers were in those days. I don’t think he was a cruel man though people depicted him as being cruel, didn’t they?”
Don McKay rings a similar tone from his hardware shop, but condemns Sherwin’s long distance helicopter musters that left a trail of dead calves.
Graham Macarthur felt the same distaste. He’s now a station and stock agent with Elders in Broome, but worked with Loder while managing Gordon Downs. He resigned for various reasons including the rough treatment of beasts, particularly the mustering of shags with calves during the summer heat. John Davis also quit Flora Valley in part due to animal deaths in the mustering yards, some two hundred. When Des Peterson managed Gordon Downs he was offended by Loder’s rough treatment of the Aboriginal stockmen. Others say Sherwin bought healthy properties then bled them dry through overgrazing, not maintaining fence and bore infrastructure, and that he abused both staff and cattle.
Aboriginals recount his buzzing their camps with his plane, and shooting their dogs, as if he's a direct descendant of Nat Buchanan and the early myall exterminators of the 1890's. Everyone has a Giles Loder story. Even a bus driver who drives crews to the Argyle diamond mine told me at a roadside stop, that while working at the Halls Creek supermarket she always got someone else to serve Loder. "He was too arrogant," she said.
54. In the footsteps of James Annetts
In contrast to the haughty tones of welfare bureaucrats, billionaire Paul Holmes à Court talks like an average man receiving a call at home. But like a scrub bull jumping from a clump of thorny bushes he soon has me on the defensive.
"What bores do you want to see?" he asks, but James’ bore map is temporarily lost amongst the mess of my car, so I ramble on to obfuscate my unpreparedness. He ends my flailing saying he'll tell Laurie Curtain to expect me at Flora Valley. He also wants a signed copy of the book.
Like a dumb tourist, I camp that night at Cattle Creek amongst dung pats and hoof prints, while thirsty beasts nervously skirt my tent, waiting for me to leave so they can get to water.
Four vehicles stream from the Flora Valley homestead the next morning in the predawn darkness for the dry season muster, while I quietly peer inside the brightly lit house where Giles Loder once ruled supreme. A lean jackeroo stands in profile as if an actor posing for the camera. A fresh faced woman moves silently about the room while an unseen baby opens the sliding screen door.
"Did you have any trouble getting here?" Laurie asks, when I walk through the outer gate. He laughs when I say none. He speaks into a microphone and his voice booms through loudspeakers at the other end of the homestead. "Ben is down there. He's fixing a tyre," he tells me, his face showing no chink of weakness, no wasted emotion. His business with me is over. He takes a second glance then turns away.
Ben is the 20th direct descendent of James Annetts in ‘bore runner’ genealogy. He's a shy man, not huge, about thirty with a guru-like luminosity. Unlike James who needed people around him, Ben likes the privacy and seclusion of his job. No one bothers him providing he keeps the troughs and ‘turkey nests’ full. Heytesbury pay him one hundred and forty dollars a day plus board. His day ends when he finishes the job. We race through the homestead gates as if late for a plane.
Ben was born in Tasmania, then taken to France with his missionary parents, whose church funded them to spread their message. He had difficulty incorporating the opposing doctrines of the church and the secular French education system. It left him “confused”, as he puts it, but there’s no doubting his distaste for missionary zeal. What he describes as "Shoving religion down others' throats," he has one word: "Ugly."
He relaxes his grip from the shaking steering wheel to stop the vibrations pulsing through his body as the Land Cruiser bounces over ruts crossing the grass track. The trayback is one year old, and will be replaced in another twelve months. "You'd be crazy to buy a used station vehicle," he says.
He charges a herd of Brahmans, carefully judging each beast's projected movement and drives where they won’t be when he reaches that spot.
Brahmans arrived in Indonesia from Spain and Portugal centuries ago and then bred with a tough Asian beast called Zebu. Brahmans have supplanted most breeds in the Kimberley, due to their resistance to cattle tick. They’ll eat almost anything, but their disadvantage is a low breeding rate of 50% per annum. They rarely fatten on south Kimberley grasslands, but that is fine because small beasts are required by the main export market in Indonesia. Once there the animals are generously fed in a sedentary environment to produce the fat laden meat loved by many Indonesians.
Our first stop is Calico Bore, surrounded by a decrepit barbed wire fence and cluttered with bushes, except where spilt diesel has sterilised the ground. Motors have come and gone, but the Comet pump from James’ era still pumps underground water into Calico Creek. The beasts are attracted by the scent of water then graze and browse the surrounding land.
Ben flicks on the electric pump attached to the diesel tank on the back of the Land Cruiser, and adds ten litres to the 200 litre drum raised above the bore motor. He bleeds the fuel line of air until diesel pours out one end, then vigorously hand cranks the motor that roars into action in a plume of black smoke. He washes away the spilt diesel with pressurised water and cleans his hands, then leans against the vehicle nonchalantly chewing a half cooked slab of pink beast.
After another bone jarring twenty minute drive through three gates that need to be opened and closed, we reach the next bore, where Ben replaces the metre and a half belt that connects the pump and the motor. This bore fills an above ground dam called a ‘turkey nest’ that gravity feeds a series of split-down-the-middle two-hundred litre fuel drums welded onto twenty-metre long frames. The nest leaks badly and has created an oasis, surrounded by lush vegetation and thousands of squawking birds.
Any beast found dead near the troughs is chained around the neck and dragged behind the Land Cruiser into the barbed wire enclosure, preventing other beasts sucking the marrow from its bones. They seek sustenance not available in the water or vegetation, Ben says, but the unspoken reason for enclosing the carcass is to minimise the risk of endemic prion infection. These abnormal proteins are present in the bone marrow and brains of a tiny percentage of most mammals including humans and could evolve into the virulent Mad Cow Disease.
"How do the families feel about you writing this book?" Ben asks. The Annetts are 100% for it and Simon's family is dead against it, I reply. "Some things should be left alone and forgotten," he says, adding the word "Ugly."
After twenty minutes of uncomfortable silence we emerge from a bush track into the steel yard at Flora Valley homestead. Ben turns to me with pride and says: "This is what you've been waiting for,"
In the distance, amongst pigeon splattered hulks of discarded machinery, lies a low slung, scarlet Valiant Charger: Simon's dream machine in which he would return triumphantly to Adelaide.
Rust has eaten through the roof, and its body has absorbed the obligatory outback bullet holes. The bonnet is raised and the motor and wheels have gone.
It was already a clapped-out bomb with serious oil leaks when Simon bought it from Jim Ghilotti for five hundred dollars. Simon told Debbie Davis it would be on the cover of ‘Wheels’ magazine, but now grass grows through the floorboards and the wind rustles through its body as if the dead boy sits behind the wheel and re-lives his adventures in the world beyond.
It was kept undercover like a shrine to the fallen, but as the years passed was moved behind a shed then finally to the steel yard. "The manager was told by the previous manager that no one is to touch the car," Ben says.
At the homestead kitchen Ben introduces me to helicopter pilot Nathan Covey, who transferred his jackeroo skills to the sky. Pilots are the gladiators of the muster and an hour of flight costs the equivalent as three days wages for Ben. The two-person machine guzzles fuel like a road train, and the rotor blade costs as much as a new car, and must be replaced every two-thousand hours of flight time. As with Roman gladiators you see very few white-haired mustering pilots, because they either die in crashes or wisen up and find a safer occupation.
Nathan seethes against Sherwin and Loder for not protecting James and Simon. He says the manager must ensure staff safety: "Loder failed miserably," Nathan says, adding that the Datsun ute retrieved from the desert is still parked at Birrindudu Station due to the curse that will fall upon anyone who tries to move it. Then he jumps up shouting, “The girls have arrived,” as three powerful blond women return from the yards for lunch.
55. Birrindudu oasis
The fine gravel of the Buntine highway rattling the undercarriage punctuates the creeping realization my Excel hasn’t enough fuel to return to Halls Creek.
But research is a linear roulette wheel for an addict, praying that another bet will trigger the ever delayed windfall. The track south at Inverway station turns to grey dirt and the vibrations pulsing through the car are like massage strokes, and clumps of grass roots that escaped the grader’s blade are the masseur’s gentle taps.
The grader driver waves a friendly hand. His silver caravan and diesel tanker sit on a dune where soil turns to sand. The narrow Excel lurches from one 4WD tyre rut to the other, bouncing across water soft sand like a boat tossed about by waves. The low slung muffler ploughs the centre ridge like a child playing in the sand pit. The sandy track turns to the hard clay surface of the Tanami and after three sets of gates, Birrindudu homestead appears, an oasis of green on the edge of the desert.
Janet Holmes à Court poured money in Birrindudu after her husband’s death, and built a workshop that enabled major equipment repairs on the station.
Sprinklers tick over an oval-sized expanse of grass within a circle of buildings. A man and woman wearing beatific smiles wave from the other side and quickly walk towards me. "We thought you were Peter," the woman says when we’re close. "We're expecting him." They point to the yards where I might find station manager, Lance Hutley, to ask about the ute.
A blond woman with blue eyes and creamy white skin splashed scarlet with blood gazes up at me while holding a writhing weaner in the crush. The bolt cutter device slices through a horn and the writhing animal creates a fresh spray of colour then is released to join the other beasts standing mournfully in groups, the sides of their heads a lively red.
"Peter?" asks a genial seventeen-year-old man, disappointed when I’m not, but he's still friendly. "I'd shake hands with you, but my hands are bloody," he says, and adds that Lance will return from the bore run in about an hour.
Ignoring pastoral ethics I sneak into the steel yard where it appears the homestead has had a bad run with washing machines, these being the most popular item. The cursed 1983-era Datsun ute lies without fanfare amongst the other wrecks. The roof is crushed, the wheels are gone and its rusted body is pocked with bullet holes. I take twenty photographs in fading light, then realise the number plates are HC 573 and not HC 529. Is this James’ Datsun? It was a common practice during that era to leave station vehicles unregistered then when needed for a town trip to screw on plates from the homestead’s only registered vehicle.
Peter arrives, and we drink tea with his brother and sister in-law in the kitchen overlooking the waterhole. She offers chocolate balls from a Tupperware container then carefully seals the lid. Peter ran a backpacker joint at Wentworth on the Murray River, but had to get away. He starts his new life tomorrow as the ‘bore runner’. I tell Peter the other two were overjoyed to see me, because they thought I was him. The tough man gulps back a sob.
Lance returns and says he knows nothing of the curse. He dragged the Datsun from the homestead compound, "To get it out of the way." And Simon, another Simon, the Birrindudu jackeroo killed in a rollover while returning from Katherine? That was months before he moved the vehicle.
He urges me to camp for the night, but the drops of rain patting the ground are the warning drums of doom. Fifteen millimeters can transform the grey dirt into a black glue that takes days to dry.
Lance’s smile dies when he realises I’m another fader, here today, gone today.
The station runs on diesel, but they keep a tank of petrol for the quad bikes near the big shed that he sells to me at city prices.
I race into the distance in a cloud of dust, noticing from the corner of my eye Lance and the jackeroos returning from the yards waving their hands over their heads. A locked gate looms. I’ve driven back into the inner homestead. Their grim stares follow me as I return―no waving this time.
Twenty-kilometres down the track the muffler plows a wet ridge of sand and in a series of thumps and bumps is ripped from under the vehicle, then two-minutes later the steaming metal lies in the passenger well.
I camp the night at an overgrown rest area on the Buntine highway, then at daybreak during a gossamer rain, re-attach the muffler using an empty salmon can, circular clamps and barbed wire from a fallen fence.
Over twelve hours just three vehicles pass, two of them road maintenance trucks, on what is the main gravel highway across the northern Tanami desert during the peak tourist season.
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