Red Sand and Bush Reggae
Seatbelt nyunlumpa tanpala…
The multilingual ‘fasten your seat belt’ road sign is zoomed into sharp focus for a brief moment as we rocket past in a 4WD heavily packed with Tetris precision. An interesting mix of choir songs and local bush reggae bounces and resonates through the car and I feel as though we could be part of some post-colonial exodus through the red sea (or sea of red sand). In the absence of lyrics I find myself humming Bob Marley… “Two thousand years of history, Could not be wiped so easily… Oh, children, Zion train is comin our way”. This landscape beats ancient. And as with many aged and antique treasures, it calls from within you a deep sense of respect and sensitivity. A longing to tip-toe lightly across its dunes, leaving only the tiny tracks of a spinifex hopping-mouse.
I am travelling with a group of Aboriginal women for a big ‘Government Mob’ meeting to be held in a small community nestled between two mountain ranges close to the WA border. The country is mostly flat and sprawls out like a vast patterned rug. It is intricately spattered with low shrubbery, dry river beds that burrow and curl and weathered rocky formations looming up from beds of shifting sand. It is a whole day’s drive from Alice Springs but always seems to pass quickly - perhaps aided by the fact that there are only four roadside petrol stations along the 800km stretch. These eagerly anticipated wee stops are always filled with an eclectic mix of highway nomads.
“Big air-conditioned buses choof in carrying tourists; red faced and slowly melting under the sun like the Magnum ice creams they slurp at.”
Some don’t stray from the bus and plaster themselves against windows taking photos of remarkably ordinary rocks or shrubs at the side of the road. They are all too often dressed in amusedly stereotyped bum bag/camel toe/Koala T-shirt attire. Locals re-fuel and pass through quickly in a cloud of thick dust and Paul Kelly, well supplied with their own food and not tempted by limp fries and $6 coffee. The women I’m travelling with will seem to know all the Aboriginal people who are also passing through and will quickly engage in catch up over news of a mother’s sister’s husband’s brother’s…
The car trip is filled with the hum of conversation as the women chat in Pitjantjatjara, occasionally erupting into heavy waves of laughter. Often (I am told) it is a funny story about a mutual family member who is somehow connected to an area of country we have just passed through. One of the ladies plays a CD of Christian choir songs. The disc is well loved and grimey, with many of the tracks jumping - angelic praise to Jesus now stuttered and almost remixed into something that resembles contemporary cool. My understanding of Pitjantjatjara is minimal but I feel the hint of approval in her eye that I know all of the words to the English choir songs (thankyou compulsory carols rehearsals at high school). For a good 100km stretch we sing along together, equally out of tune.
As we let down the tyres for the last stretch of the trip on unsealed and heavily corrugated road, there is a slight sense of urgency- we are eager to arrive before nightfall. After dark it becomes very difficult to see any of the thousands of camels who wreak havoc across the desert and will, on impact, often damage the car more than themselves. For this reason there is slight concern from the driver when we have trouble getting started. After some time we can only manage to get going with the engine shuddering and sending us jerking and bunny-hopping towards the distant ranges.
“We’re dancing all the way home!' one of the ladies shrieks with laughter from the back; like me, somewhat entertained by the situation.”
We arrive at dusk amongst a flotilla of camp dogs, bedraggled and hungry, and fading away into their own (furless) skin and bone. A boot is thrown and they scatter into rapidly darkening pockets of night. Everyone slinks out of the car, a trail of swags and blankets in tow, and we wander towards open fires that lap and beckon at the entrances to houses. There is talk of the meeting tomorrow- news that the recently appointed GBM has quit, that the latest government policy jingle has changed; that the minister will be late as she is traveling by private plane... Another roo tail is tossed amongst the coals and children half cocooned in blankets draw a collection of goannas in the sand. On the other side of camp, speakers spit and fizz briefly as electric guitars are fired up and bush reggae carries on into the night.
Photographs: Julia Grieves