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troublemag | September 18, 2021

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Greetings From Beyond the Pale: A Gathering of the Clans

Greetings From Beyond the Pale: A Gathering of the Clans

Ben Laycock



What have l stumbled upon here? Part conference, part corroboree. There are mobs from Beagle Bay and one Arm Point, Kolumbaru on the Timor Sea, Oombulgari, Yakanarra, Jigalong, Lajamanu. Turns out l am an uninvited guest to The Kimberley Land Council A.G.M. Yet again l find myself an interloper, a leper, even, a foreigner in my own land. There are other Gudia (whitefellas) sprinkled about; lawyers, bureaucrats and rousabouts, so it takes a while for the blackfellas to figure out where l don’t fit in, but where you fit in being central to their way of life, it is not a long while.

I huddle inconspicuously under a shady gum tree sketching the goings on: proud young men, fat old aunties speaking their mind on behalf of their mob; in language, in English, in pidgin. An old fella points his nose at me and says, “who dat spy fella, write everyting down?”

l turn my pad around to show my scratchings.

“Oh he just an artist, let him be.”

The talk goes on all day at a steady pace. There are many issues to be dealt with as you can well imagine. Big issues. Far to the south sit the powers that be, plotting and scheming in their glass towers. To them The Kimberley is a semi-mythical playground for their infantile dreams of glory. A treasure chest to be prized open, literally, with dynamite! Up here the locals sit and wait patiently for the next crazy idea to be visited upon them: Flood the Ord, dam the Fitzroy, dig a canal all the way to Perth. When their sacred mountain is ground to dust in search of diamond wedding rings, the compensation payout buys the cattle station they once ran for tea and damper. Slowly, quietly, gradually, the K.L.C. is buying back their own country.

The gathering is meant to last two days but everyone demands a say, so it drags on for another day or two. Unthinkable in the minutely timed existence of the corporate world, where hotels are booked and meetings are planned months in advance. One day dilly-dallying is one rung lower on the golden ladder.

For blackfellas one place to be is the same as another. The cycle of life has no deadlines. As the sun sets the fires are lit, a cow is shot and roughly butchered. Great hunks of meat are placed on a bed of leaves. Each mob grabs a slab. l am agog as a white haired old lady – bent nearly double – slings an entire leg over her shoulder and scampers off, a grin from ear to ear like she just won the lottery. Once the meat is sufficiently blackened it is smothered with salt and devoured ravenously (the ritual ‘charring of the meat’ is one aspect of aboriginal culture we Gudia have adopted with relish – or tomato sauce).

When all the bellies are full the fires are stoked and the dancing begins. Black feet kicking up dust, sticks clacking, ancient voices chanting in a ceaseless nasal drone, hypnotizing, mesmerrizing, taking us far, far away into the deepest recesses of our being. That place where we turn to dust and are gone with the wind.

The fires are burning all up and down the river just as they have always done. l feel l am part of something that has been going on for a long, long time.

Next STOP: Fitzroy Crossing


Rangers and coordinators enjoy the sunset at the 2014 Smackdown © 2014 Kimberley Land Council

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 –


For more on Land Councils in Australia see Every hill got a story: We grew up in country (SBS, August 2015), about the Men and Women of Central Australia and the Central Land Council. The CLC has protected the interests of Aboriginal people in the southern half of the Northern Territory since 1975. In Every hill got a story 127 eminent men and women remember surviving first contact, massacres and forced removals, and resisting more than a century of top-down government policies. Their testimonies paint an unflinchingly honest picture of life and work on the missions, cattle stations and fringes of towns. They speak eloquently of their struggle for self-determination and basic human rights. The storytellers also celebrate winning back ownership of more than 40,000 square kilometres of their ancestral lands.