Roads: when the way is obscured
I was back on the road to Walungurru heading into the deep west, to a place called Kiwirrkura. Time had passed and not much had changed. The road remained long and straight. The red, spinifex covered dunes continued their imperceptible march. The winding S-Bends of past journeys had been erased, the Department of Main Roads removing and replacing them with a simpler ‘safer’ straight line.
Christmas was approaching and we were entering the peak of summer. Normally, I’d avoid travelling at this time of year. The ‘field season’ was in winter and summer was regarded as too dangerous for extended travel. Outside the vehicle, the ambient temperature was well into the mid-40’s Celsius. The sky arched above me, a dome of pale blue, the sun so bright it bleached the colour from the sky and burnt through the windscreen. I zipped and swayed along the track, the Toyota Troop Carrier leaving the usual plume of swirling dust in its wake, my vehicle science fiction-like and alien as it flew across the landscape.
I was on my way to a funeral. Yet another of the old, ‘pre-contact’ Pintupi men had died in tragic circumstances. Tjupurrula had been beaten to death by a wheel brace in the back of a ute then thrown from the moving vehicle, the victim of an alcohol fuelled rage by a younger man. Tjupurrula had been one of the most senior knowledge holders in the Pintupi nation, a veritable encyclopaedia of songs, dances, stories, and cultural and ecological knowledge, his depth, nuance and sophistication astounding. Now, here he was, discarded on the side of the road.
I drove on. We had been close, and I saw him, standing on a dune gently holding a shield beetle and excitedly half-singing and orating its complex mythology, a story of love and movement through the landscape, just one piece of the rich mosaic, the literature of his traditional lands. He had smiled and hopped slightly from one foot to the other, unable to contain the joy for his country and his desire to share the understanding.
‘When you come back Tjangala, I’ll teach’em you this one, this song cycle, really number one that one.’
I drove on. The road seemed unending. Time slowed and moved into another sphere. The car felt sticky on the road, the tyres beginning to overheat. I’d been living and working in the desert for nearly ten years. I felt caught by where I was. I felt time passing. I felt jaded. I felt exhausted by the exquisite paradox, the privilege of working in a profoundly beautiful landscape with extraordinary people yet powerless to halt the unending procession of tragedy that befell them. My work felt pointless. All I seemed to be doing was bearing witness to loss as I saw my society squander and ignore what were Australia’s crown jewels of cultural knowledge and heritage and the opportunity for a deeper and richer future. We still didn’t see and hear the first people of this country.
I drove on. Grief sat beside me. Up ahead a large dark cloud had moved over the horizon from the west. I watched as it grew, an ugly, swirling mottle of black, grey and purple. It churned and turned in on itself. The squalling winds had whipped up an intense dust storm before it. Its path would dissect the road. I was surprised at the suddenness. There was no way around it. The sun disappeared and everything went dark. The horizon became a black wall. The Toyota was stung by a wave of dust. I slowed as large pellets of rain the size of golf balls, splatted the windscreen.
I drove on and into the grey storm, the rain sheeted around me like a waterfall and wild squalls gripped and shook the Toyota. The road flooded and I lost visibility. I was in a river and water ebbed at the doorframe. The Toyota lifted slightly in the rush of water. I was familiar with desert squalls. If I didn’t panic, just kept moving and kept my course I’d be okay. I crawled forward uncertain. The wind whipped and rocked and banged against the vehicle.
And then it was over.
I emerged from the greyness into a blue and cloudless sky as the squall swept away to the east. I stopped and stepped out into the day to gather myself. I was standing on dry road as though nothing had happened. Behind me the swirling water sank into the rich, red sand. Flocks of green budgerigars swooped and chattered. The landscape felt alive. I was engulfed by the smells of the desert after rain, the sweetest of all fragrances. I felt renewed by the coolness. The stillness and the hum of the country coursed through me.
I turned back to the west and before me the unblemished road pointed the way ahead.