Roads: sometimes you gotta go 'round.

‘Sometimes you gotta go ‘round,’ said old Mick, leaning over from back of the Toyota to whisper in my ear as I sat in the Driver’s seat. 

 We were way south of Walungurru on Mick’s country, stopped on the edge of a craggy, outcrop of red rocks. It was an important place-his birth country. Mick had asked me to take him back there. A few months previously, he’d been in hospital in Alice Springs, quite sick, with complications from a diabetes related illness. 

I’d gone in to visit him. He was lying in the open ward deeply humiliated as a nurse fiddled with a catheter in his penis, blissfully unaware of the enormous cultural transgression she was committing. Mick lay there powerless unable to move. I approached his bed and he looked up at me with tears in his eyes. He uttered a deep, otherworldly keening sound, somewhere between a moan and a cry. He looked tiny and frail. I leaned in as he spoke to me quietly in language. I quickly explained the situation to the nurse. She was insistent, ‘I’m trying to do my job,’ and kept stubbornly at her fiddling. I explained the situation to her again and insisted she go and find a male nurse. I managed to shoo her away and she left the room in a huff.

I sat down next to Mick. He held my hand and sank back into the pillows exhausted. He made a gesture with his face in that Pintupi way, expressing relief and thanks and that it was okay now. We sat there together in silence for some time listening to the bustling noises of the hospital. Mick turned to me and whispered with his croaky voice, ‘when I go back, back to Walungurru, you ‘gotta take me. Take me to my country. We can go, you and me, in that Toyota.’ 

In the Pintupi/Luritja language there was no literal word for ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ or ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’. Because of this, when the Pintupi spoke in English their phrasing could sound very direct, blunt or rude to some. Paradoxically, the language also had a tendency to be elliptical and indirect, the meaning of a statement masked in analogy or a vague reference.  There was a whole set of subtle non-verbal gestures. There were certain words and gestures that could mean all of the above but everything was context dependent. A Pintupi would just turn up or walk off, or say what translated as ‘bring me this’ or ‘give me that’ or just point with their lips. The desert landscape imbued people with a preternatural quietness and this with the cultural and language difference, was disconcerting. It was why many whitefellas often characterised the Pintupi as either too shy or gruff and unhelpful.

Then there was reciprocation. Mick was thanking me in his elliptical way, through the gesture of wanting to show me his birth country and the significant places there. Places normally strictly off limits, to the non-Indigenous.

So here we were months later. Mick had recovered and was in good health. Again as with all things in Pintupi country, nothing was planned or if it was, it never went according to. I’d been asked to catch up with Mick at Walungurru on my way through to Kiwirrkura and get some signatures on paper work. We’d been unable to contact him so I headed out and if I saw him in my travels, I would get the thing done.

After the long hot drive, I’d turned onto the short track into Walungurru. Mick was standing outside his house on the edge of the track on the outskirts of the community waiting for me. I pulled up and wound down the window. He leant in to the vehicle standing sideways and not looking directly at me.

‘Yuwa?’ he said quietly, jutting his chin slightly and pursing his lips.

What this meant was, ‘Hello I hear you are looking for me, what do you want?’

I had no idea how he knew I would be at Walungurru at that precise time but that was the Pintupi way. It was mysterious, energising, frustrating and baffling.  I’d learnt to be open, accepting and non-judgemental to it, like a sort of crazy Buddhism. By doing this I found I could tap into the subterranean flow of the unconscious and illogical logic that seemed to pulse through desert life.

I told him about the paper work then said, ‘Ngayalu ananyi Kiwirrikura lakutu, kawarripa’  (I’m heading to Kiwirrkura later)

‘Kiwirrkurala?’ said Mick. 

I laughed and saw his mischievous sideways smile. Old Mick was a stickler for good grammar. Pintupi/Luritja was a suffixing language. I’d been sloppy, he’d corrected me by adding the correct suffix ‘la’ to ‘Kiwirrkura’ to make it a proper noun. It was an ongoing game between us. 

‘Yuwa, Kiwirrkurala,’ I repeated.

He asked about going back to his country and the timing was good. It would only be a day trip. We made arrangements for when I passed back through in a few days time, on the return to Alice Springs. 

Some days later, I pulled up at Mick’s dilapidated house. He emerged in his leisurely way with rifle in hand.

‘Lotta malu there,’ he said hoisting himself into the passenger seat. 

I pulled the keys from my pocket and motioned to start the Toyota.

Wanyu,’ he said staring straight ahead.

We sat in silence and waited. After some time had passed, three other old men wandered out, rifles in hand. In the distance, I saw two others, hobbling at speed across the bare red earth, picking their way between the wrecked and overturned vehicles strewn throughout the community.. They also had rifles.

‘Yuwa, lotta malu there,’ said Mick watching the uneven gait of the converging men.

I got out and helped as they clambered into the back of the Troop Carrier, a Dad’s army of old Pintupi. Out of habit, I checked the chamber of each rifle was clear.  Their guns were a hotchpotch of .22 calibre in various states of repair and damaged sighting. Old Tjungarrayi stood there in dusty old suit pants and checked shirt, a single thong on one foot, the other bare. He handed me his ‘rifle’. It was just a barrel with no stock.

‘Tjungarrayi, you can’t hunt with this! Its too dangerous.’ I laughed admiring his optimism.

‘No worries, Tjangala!’ he said and hoisted himself into the back.

 We set off heading south, the road a bush track that wound its way past the sharp and high, jagged ranges of the Ngingtaka, the Perentie lizard dreaming and out in the rolling dune system. The sun lit the spinifex in a golden light. We drove for some hours shaking and rattling through the corrugations until Mick raised his right hand and gestured with his forefinger, wriggling it up and down slightly. He pointed with his lips.

‘You gotta take this one Tjangala’.

I slowed, saw a barely discernable set of wheel tracks and turned in. The track hadn’t been driven on for some time and a recent storm had washed out sections. I picked my way around these, the men laughing and making jokes about my driving as they were jumbled about in the back of the vehicle. Mick sat in the front directing with his forefinger and periodically pulled on his straggly beard. 

We made our way along a flat, simple sand plain between two dunes. We were approaching a breakaway, a set of small craggy ranges embedded in low-rise hills a strange anomaly in the landscape.  Old Mick started singing the traditional song for the area and became increasingly animated as we drew closer. All the men had changed and were now chatting, laughing, singing and talking over the top of each other, the travel animating their behaviour. As we reached the base of the breakaways the track had disappeared and they all gave instructions on direction and argued with each other about the best course.

I pulled up and we all got out. Old Mick narrated the story of the landscape in half song, half speech. His hands and arms followed the story in sweeping gestures as he turned and moved telling how the Tingaridreaming ancestors had travelled through the area and their exploits had formed the landscape, how you could see it, the evidence written in the shape of the stones and misshapen rock, in the scrapes and dents and cracks, the bends of the land. The other men listened, using a form of call and response, reiterating, paraphrasing and repeating, to support and underline elements of Mick’s story. 

 We stood, a ramshackle group on the loose stones and red sand, listening to Mick as he pointed out the soakage off in the distance between the dunes.

‘That there, my borning place,’ he said simply. 

For the Pintupi, conception is the site where the spirit ancestor of the landscape enters the woman to create a child, a crucial part of the ‘recipe’ in a relationship between man and woman in the procreation process.  The place of birth can be different from the conception site, just one element in the complex interweaving of relationships and land custodianship and one of the reasons why government and resource companies often struggles to decipher traditional ownership for land claims.

Tjungarrayi was staring off into the distance. He let out a long hiss and crouched slightly. He’d seen a kangaroo - a malu up high, in the breakaway. The men moved quickly, bumping into each other to get back in the vehicle.

‘We gotta get ‘im that one,’ said Tjungarrayi pointing, ‘in that Toyota,’ 

There was less chance of the malu fleeing if we approached by vehicle.

With a lifetime spent in the sweeping landscapes of the desert, the men had extraordinary eyesight and ability at picking out far distant detail. Sometimes it seemed akin to over the horizon radar. I strained to see the malu and Tjungarrayi grew impatient. 

‘Ears,’ he said pointing with his lips and then I could just make out the faint shape and form of the head and ears in the crag of two rocks, the tan hair of the animal a perfect blend with the sandy orange of the rocks. The malu was already alert that something was up.

I eased the vehicle over the stony ground. The excitement was palpable. The men’s demeanour had switched to hunting mode. They whispered on the in-breath and hissed through their teeth and gave me contradictory directions. They had all moved over to one side of the vehicle. Rifle barrels pointed out from every window as we bumped and crept, edging closer. Given the state of the guns I didn’t like their chances. Tjungarrayi optimistically held the bare steel of his barrel in the direction of the animal.

The malu moved slightly out from the rocks onto the lee of the slope. The side of the vehicle was now facing uphill, all their rifles awkwardly pointing, a crazy, Toyota gunship. The men let loose with a volley of fire. The sound of rifle cracks echoed inside the vehicle and out and around the breakaways and across the desert. My ears rang.

The malu stood peacefully leaning back on its hind legs and tail. Bullets pinged and popped around it like raindrops in tiny explosions of dust and rock chip. The malu looked around, leant forward and nonchalantly hopped away. I felt a secret relief it was able to live another day.

 The men pulled their rifles back in through the windows with a mix of resignation and humour, making fun of each other’s aim and lack of skill. My driving was called into question. The view was I’d taken too direct an approach. ‘You know,’ said Tjungarrayi smiling and emphatic. 

What were they to do with this young whitefella? After all this time and mentoring effort, their great patience with my ignorance, I still hadn’t met the men’s expectation of being able to go left, right and straight ahead simultaneously, of weighing the variety of opinions and views, of grasping the spoken and unspoken context, of achieving the mediated decision, of being elliptical like them, the Pintupi.

‘Sometimes you gotta go ‘round,’ said old Mick, leaning over from back of the Toyota to whisper in my ear as I sat in the Driver’s seat.