The Road to Darwin
Chapter 4 – The Alice
Rolled into Alice Springs, literally: a strong head wind burnt up all the petrol. As the sun set in the west (I presume it was the west because that’s where the sun sets where I come from), we set about looking for a campsite. A blackfella aproached me, opening his overcoat to reveal a couple of rather nice little dot paintings. They seem to be all the rage up this way. Albert Namatjira must be turning in his grave. The man enquired politely if I would like to buy one of his original, hand made, authentic aboriginal works of art for a modest sum, but I explained I was an artist myself and could paint my own for free.
I asked him if he knew of a good place to camp. He looked at me like I was a half-wit as he spread his arms expansively, taking in the length and breadth of the Todd River, and said: “Anywhere you like, mate.”
We were tempted to take up his generous offer of free accommodation, but mother’s wise words whispered in my head: “Never sleep in a dry river bed son, you could be washed away in a flash flood.” We settled for the Four Seasons Caravan Park, along with every second bogan in the country, here for the Desert Nats. (Not to be confused with the dessert gnats, that get stuck in your custard on hot summer nights, or the Summer Nats, which are held in The Bogan Capital of Australia.)
Bumped into an old swaggy (homeless person) rummaging in the bins. I offered him a glass of milk but he explained he was collecting bottles and cans. When he cashed them in for cash he gave it to The Royal Flying Doctor Service, as he was a ‘good Samaritan’. (Not like those Bad Samaritans.) He turned out to be quite a loquacious fellow (we couldn’t shut him up), waffling on about the last iteration of The Desert Nats, when a car exhaust incinerated some of the spectators. They were burnt to a crisp and could only be identified by their dental records, except for one old digger who had dentures, but they found a bullet in his leg from the first world war, so it could be no one else, as he was the last surviving survivor of that particular war.
Turns out it was the good old Flying Doctor that whisked them all off to Adelaide to be saved (or identified). Which brings me, by a round about route, to the kernel of this shaggy dog story: John Flynn’s grave.
As you are all no doubt aware, The Very Reverend John Flynn was buried at Mt. Gilen, some fifteen kilometres west of Alice Springs, in The Year of Our Lord 1955 (approximately). Being a devout member of the Presbyterian faith he asked on his death bed that a large rock be placed on his grave. A rock so large it would remind the faithful of the very rock that sealed the tomb of Jesus Christ himself. An unusual request, maybe a little presumptuous, even, but who could refuse the last wishes of a man who had devoted his entire life to good works in the service of that very same man/God. A suitable rock was procured, and not just any old rock. An exquisitely beautiful rock, an eight tonne monolith, as round and smooth as a baby’s bottom. This rock was taken from a place we have all come to know as The Devil’s Marbles. Maybe that is where the trouble began. The real name of the place is Karlu Karlu in Alyawarre.
The reverend seemed to rest in peace for quite some time under his chosen rock. Being the 1950s the local Alyawarre people were not consulted or even told about the theft of what was definitely not your average common or garden rock. It was actually a very powerful and sacred rock. Of course the original owners of the rock were completely mortified once they discovered it missing. There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and waling inconsolably. But, being the 1950s, it all fell on deaf ears. The Alyawarre endured their humiliation and degradation and hurt and anger in abject silence, as was befitting their station. But they did not forget.
As the years went by, the world at large became a little more civilized, and the non-black people of Alice Springs gradually came to see that the black people bore certain similarities with themselves, and could no longer be lumped in with the cows and sheep in the animal kingdom, but must be grudgingly accepted as members of the human family. They realised that the black people had feelings just like they did, and in these nascent stirrings they could not help but notice that those very same black people were not happy, so they asked their newfound kin, what was the matter?
The non-black people were shocked to hear the outpourings of pent up anguish from the Alyawarre people, in answer to their question, over the theft of their sacred rock, and deep down inside the long dormant hearts of the non-black people a germ of empathy was sparked to life. For had they not, also, imbued that very rock with sacred meaning of their own?
So began the long and tortuous negotiations to right the wrong that had been done. These negotiations began in 1980 and continued intermittently and sporadically and spasmodically and interminably until 1996. Sixteen long years of toing and froing. But the Alyawarre people have been around for a long time. They didn’t come down in the last shower, and they had the patience of Job, as the Presbyterians like to say.
The problem was finding a replacement rock of equal grandeur, befitting a man of such stature as was the very Rev. John Flynn. In the spirit of accommodation that had began to permeate relations between the two tribes, Presbyterian and Alyawarre, the blackfellas went out and found a rock as round and smooth and perfect as the first. A rock that had been lying around the desert for God knows how long, without accumulating a skeric of sacred meaning: a tabula rasa.
All the stakeholders came to inspect the new rock: The Presbitarians, The Alyawarre, the Warrumungu, the Kaytetye, The Central Land Council, Parks and Wildlife, The Royal Flying Doctor Service, the local council, the dog catcher, the lady across the road. They were all immensely pleased with the new rock. Everything was going swimmingly until the Alyawarre saw the parlous state of their special rock: it was covered with graffiti, some of it quite lewd. Although the non-black people claimed this was their version of ‘rock art’, the black people were not fooled for a minute. The rock was cleaned, and popped right back where it belonged, in Karlu Karlu. It is now gleaming white, a palimpsest. Sticks out like a dog’s ball, actually, but that odd and fateful rock is cherished just as much as all the other rocks.
Maybe there is a lesson in there somewhere?
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[The Marbles is not just significant to Alyawarre people. It’s the meeting place of four different language groups: Alyawarre, Kayteye, Warumunga and Warlpiri people. To learn more on the significance of Karlu Karlu in Aboriginal Culture, we recommend this article on traveloutbackaustralia.com – ed]