Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Drowned Man in a Dry Creekbed - Happy New Year 1993

Since it's the 6th, I thought I'd reprint this story which I first published this time last year.

My friends, Neil and David Bell, and I were out on the path of the Kungka kutjara, a Central Australian travelling songline  – one of those epic Central Australian chants that are meant to have come into being in the Tjukurpa (eternity), or Altjira as the Aranda call it. We were hoping, perhaps too blithely, to make a radio program about it for ABC Classic FM.

We had got some recordings down at Mutitjulu, had just dropped N and B off at the Loritja camp at Hermannsburg and were heading back towards Alice Springs. We sang some of the chant as we rattled over the corrugations of the dirt road, a bit of the song that stuck in our memories – ‘Yulatji luma, Kunpatji luma...’ – not so much as to ‘bring the country up’ as Bruce Chatwin observed aboriginal travellers doing, as to make the time go faster.

As we turned a corner near Ellery Creek we came across a burning car. A Western Desert man was standing beside the car trying to beat out the flames which had already spread, quickly in this heat, to the grass by the side of the road.

Ellery Gorge, photograph: courtesy Andrew Schultz
Neil pulled up and spoke to him. ‘Nyaa palyanin?’ and they had a conversation. As we pulled away, David, Neil’s son, said, ‘Did he say someone’s dead down there?’

We descended to the creek and saw two women stripped to their waists, wailing and hurling dirt in the air. In the dry creek bed we saw a man cradling another in his arms.

A carload of people had been driving from Alice Springs to Kaltukatjara (Docker River). They’d been drinking. At Ellery Creek they jumped into a waterhole and this fellow hadn’t come up.

‘How long has he been like this?’ we asked.

‘Half an hour’.

Back at Hermannsburg the police looked as if they’d hurriedly thrown their khaki uniform shirts over shorts and thongs. It was New Year’s holiday. We took the man’s body inside the station. Then there were a series of interviews. Neil translated, but there were still misunderstandings. ‘Name?’ the police asked one interviewee. ‘Stephen Bradshaw,’ he said (I use a fake name). ‘Well, if you’re Stephen Bradshaw, who’s he?’ they indicated the body bag and opened it. They had identified the deceased by the cicatrice scars on his shoulder. But distinguishing Central Australian aboriginal people by scarification on their shoulders will not get you far.

The police had to go back out to Ellery Creek and gave David and me a choice: sit outside in the 50 degree (122F) heat, or in here with the body. We chose the air-conditioning.

We sat in silence. But I was coming to understand what T.G.H. Strehlow had meant when he said that nowhere else in the world are death and eternity bound together so tightly as in Central Australia. The eternal myths, such as Kungka kutjara, are present in the daily lives of living people; death is out-in-the-open and an all-too-frequent occurrence.

At the end of the day, after five or six hours of witness statements, I was standing outside watching the sun set, waiting to finally get back on the road to Alice Springs. The driver of the Docker River people’s car came over, the car that I later learnt had been burnt in grief. I said, ‘Not a good way to spend New Year’s Day.’ He said, ‘Bad day for me.’ I wondered why him in particular, but was told later that as the driver of the car he could pay for this in a big way. In the past he might have been speared. How was it his fault? When the drowned man’s mother had been dropped off at the Loritja camp, the women had come over and struck her. I don’t know how they’d have known what happened. Something specific in the way she was wailing? But why strike her? These were graphic illustrations of the Central Australian concept of ‘duty of care’ and ‘tribal responsibility’. Awesome obligations of reciprocity necessary I suppose in an environment which will kill an isolated human if they’re not paying attention.

And all we had wanted to do really was make a radio program about an Australian form of music. To help Australians gain a bit more insight into the cultural riches of our land. ABC Classic FM never got that radio program on the Kungka kutjara, but we certainly got more than we had bargained for.

If you liked this blog, others of mine touching on Central Australia are:

Journey to Horseshoe Bend - ten years on, published 28 May 2013


Carving up the pie, 17 December 2012
Life-changing statements, 16 December 2012
Ah, Nathanael, 29 November 2012

Victory over death and despair in a bygone age (thoughts on John Strehlow's The Tale of Frieda Keysser), 5 Nov 2012
@  http://gordonkaltonwilliams.blogspot.com/2012/11/victory-over-death-and-despair-in.html

Virginia in the Desert, 10 Sep 2012
Opera in a land of Song, 29 July 2012
Conocotarius, George Washington, 5 July 2012

Considering the aboriginal land of Altjira, 20 May 2012
@ http://gordonkaltonwilliams.blogspot.com/2012/05/considering-land-of-altjira.html

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