Roads: the S- Bends

Roads: the S-bends

I was nervous. Smithy Zimran had stopped by. He’d quietly appeared next to me in that disconcerting Pintupi way, standing as a Pintupi man does, hands behind his back, one hand clasping the wrist of the other. 

I was back in Alice Springs and outside the motel, loading the Toyota Troop Carrier.  

‘Heading back to Walungurru?’ He said, pointing with his lips at the Toyota.

I took a break and we stood there in the late afternoon sun, looking out at the Todd River, baked dry and pale. Small groups of men and women sat in the coarse sand of the riverbed, drinking and playing cards. A man stood drunk and wobbling on the bank, urinating against a giant Eucalyptus, one hand propped against the trunk for stability.

‘Yep, I’m planning to head off early in the morning.’

‘Mind if I get a lift?’ He said.

‘No worries, of course.’

I’d been living at Walungurru for about 12 months. It was a Pintupi/Luritja community way out near the border of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, 525km into the western desert, one of the remotest in Australia. 

I’d spoken with Smithy a number of times but he remained aloof and cryptic, a slightly intimidating character. He was tall with skinny legs, a large round belly and a fine intelligence. He’d grown up being educated by the missionaries at Hermannsburg when it was still a mission. As a boy, he’d been identified as having exceptional intellectual ability and been trained as a pastor. Now in his mid-forties, he was a community leader at Walungurru. 

The Pintupi were last Indigenous people in Australia to have ‘first contact’ with westerners. They were regarded as very traditional. Smithy was viewed as one of the few Pintupi men who successfully managed the transition between the two cultures. He was in high demand as an Indigenous advocate, representative and board member for various Indigenous organisations. He was a voracious traveller, forever on the move through the constellation of communities and outstations in the western and Gibson deserts then further afield to Alice Springs and Darwin and capital cities around the country.  

Mapping traditional ecological knowledge, Gibson Desert, 1999.

Mapping traditional ecological knowledge, Gibson Desert, 1999.

The next morning I rose early and picked up Smithy on the way out of town. It was a six to ten hour drive depending on road conditions, two hours of bitumen then corrugated dirt for the remainder. We drove in silence through the west MacDonnell Ranges to Glen Helen Gorge, the turning off point and the end of the sealed road. We stopped for a break to refuel and stock up on tea and cigarettes. 

We pushed on, leaving behind the ranges. The western desert opened out before us, an unending sweep of undulating red dunes and spinifex sand plains. We passed through the small community of Papunya and through the craggy ranges of Amunturrngu. 

The road was long and straight as though someone had simply ruled a line on a map. At times its ochre colour seemed impossibly red. It had recently been graded and was mercifully free of the normally bone jarring corrugations. I was sitting on a steady 110 kmph and we were making good time.  Smithy was silent in the passenger seat, a cultural trait I still found a disconcerting. 

Ilpillyi, a set of low jagged hills and the halfway mark to Walungurru, appeared in the distance. It was a stretch of road I always looked forward to. There was a set of seven, long sinuous S-bends through the ranges that, if you set your line correctly at the beginning, could be dissected in a perfect straight line. I’d taken to having a secret competition with myself, to see how fast and how perfectly, I could navigate them. The game with the S-bends was a welcome break from the unending monotony of the ruler edged journey.

We entered the ranges. I adjusted myself in my seat and wiped my sweaty hands on my trousers. The Toyota hummed. I heard a slight tick in the engine. I could feel the rear end swaying slightly. One of the tyres was a little soft. This worried me. It was often the prelude to a blow out. I checked the mirrors. Behind us, a giant cloud of red dust billowed and folded in on itself us like the plume of a jet engine. The Toyota seemed to hover. We were flying across the landscape. Smithy remained wordless and stared at the horizon.

We sped past the first outcrops of craggy rock and moved deeper into the range. The S-bends were just ahead and coming up quickly. I’d found if I didn’t get it just right on the first time, I’d have to slow and the line would be ruined. I kept my speed, adjusted then committed.

The Troop Carrier whipped through the first bend just to the inside of the road curve. I’d done well, it was near perfect and geometrical, a line against a parabola. I kept my speed and in quick succession dissected the remaining S-bends with little correction. It felt good.

Smithy was sitting in stony silence opposite me. He had leant forward. Both hands were gripping the safety handle over the glove box. I realised I may have freaked him out. This could be trouble. The Pintupi were renowned for their strict adherence to tradition. It was sometimes hard to pick how this boundary was interpreted. 

Smithy sat back in his seat and turned slightly towards me. The air between us was heavy with anticipation. After some moments, he lifted his arm and looked at his wristwatch.

‘25 seconds,’ he said.

‘Not bad.’  

He turned and set his gaze back to the horizon the faintest of smiles on his face.