Greetings From Beyond the Pale: The Tanami Track
Time to bid a fond farewell to Nyiripi and continue my lonely quest. The Kimberley beckons with the allure of the exotic and the unknown. The bitumen road from Alice Springs to Kununarra is a giant dog-leg via Katherine, but there is a short cut straight through the Tanami desert, for anyone willing to put up with a thousand kays of bone-jarring corrugations, the occasional flash-flood, the remote possibility of dying of thirst in the searing heat and the ever-present threat of attack from the last of the ‘wild blacks’ still roaming the hills. For domesticated blackfellas it is a vital artery, connecting the far-flung outposts of the Warlpiri Empire.
Word has it that the Mayor of nearby Yuendumu is heading north to Balgo, on the other side of the uninhabited regions of the Tanami desert. Someone laconically points the way to his humble ‘abode’. I am deeply shocked to end up outside a humpy of corrugated iron. Loud snoring rattles the tin. I am forced to wake the titular head of local government from his mid-day nap. He is not amused and he is not planning on going anywhere near Balgo in the foreseeable future. He returns to his slumber.
As luck would have it, a tribal elder has passed away in Balgo. A funeral entourage from Nyiripi is quickly assembled. As highlighted in my previous episode, funerals are taken very seriously around these parts. The genuinely remorseful are joined by all those eager to escape the ennui of small town life.
Yoshi and his indispensable Ford station wagon are summoned to escort us to our destination. The stragglers are left behind as we can only cram 10 people into the vehicle. It is a 2-day trip, with a break at Rabbit Flat, the most remote roadhouse in the world.
I receive a running cultural commentary as we pass through rarely visited ‘mother country’ and ‘father country’. Memories are rekindled, tears are shed. Bush honey is spied and devoured. A hapless goanna is added to the larder. The arrival at Rabbit Flat is anticipated with unconcealed glee.
Behind reinforced steel grill stands a lone white man sporting a Ned Kelly beard and a double-barrelled shotgun that is leaning on the wall for all to see. Behind him is a fridge stocked with cold beer.
I am soon to receive a thorough education in the effect of alcohol on naturally uninhibited people with nothing to lose and everything to gain from achieving a state of oblivion. Several members of the entourage set out to achieve liberation from the worries of this world, myself included.
At this juncture it is germane to point out that indigenous Australians are, by and large, teetotaling Christians, mortified by the antics of a small coterie of their brethren who show no qualms about flouting the norms of ‘civilised’ behaviour when intoxicated.
Upon our departure from Rabbit Flat, an atmosphere of gay abandon soon permeates the entire vehicle. There are four of us squeezed into the front seat. Yoshi keeps a cool head as he negotiates the bulldust holes. My neighbour opens a beer in my ear, warm froth runs down my cheek and drips into my mouth. My other neighbour soon loses his scant grasp of the English language and reverts to loud and rapid Warlpiri while he takes potshots at the odd bush turkey. The gun is old, the man is drunk, the road is bumpy, but the turkey is a slow and stupid bird. Miraculously, our dinner is secured. In a jiffy a fire is lit, the foul is roasted, and the bounty is shared out according to time-honoured protocol. Stray whitefellas with tenuous kinship links must make-do with the chewy extremities: turkey head, goanna feet, skin and bones.
Alas, the moment approaches when our amicable little road trip begins to go awry. The few members of the entourage, who have guzzled all the grog, soon move beyond the jocular hilarity phase and into unbridled aggression.
A young couple that seemed to be getting along famously are now shouting at each other. He picks up his gun and waves it in her direction whilst claiming proudly that he has a gun license. She assumes the form of Jesus on the cross and cries plaintively, “shoot me, shoot me”.
l overcome my reluctance to get involved in what is obviously a personal matter and suggest we intervene to avoid imminent bloodshed. My companions, who seem to have been enjoying the entertainment, simply say, “ah, dey in love”.
At this point the young lady takes up a burning log and hurls it at her lover.
He hurls it straight back at her head. Red hot coals fall down her dress so she rips it off and goes wailing off into the night stark naked.
In The Next Episode:
Balgo: the second most dangerous remote community in Australia.
Ben Laycock grew up in the country on the outskirts of Melbourne, surrounded by bush. He began drawing the natural world around him from a very early age. He has travelled extensively throughout Australia, seeking to capture the essence of this vast empty land. In between journeys he lives in a hand-made house in the bush at Barkers Creek in central Victoria – benlaycock.com.au
Want more? See all of the Greetings From we’ve run to date.