Saturday, November 28, 2015

BLINDED BY THE NIGHT

Thank you all for the outpouring of love, support and flowers during my recent stay at the Royal Darwin Hospital for eye treatment. It is much appreciated and I am truly humbled. I am on the mend and feel that I turned a corner last night. In fact, I turned several, after missing my stop on the Darwin bus and spending the better part of the next hour wandering the streets of Tiwi, blindly searching for the smoke stack and familiar tungsten glow of the hospital car park, unable to read Goggle maps and forced to navigate by dead reckoning and a rising yellow moon in the east, being barked at relentlessly by dogs from the safety of their steel-fenced yards like the gutless overfed four-legged suburban cowards that they are.

Where are all the blind dogs when you need them? Sitting in bloody shopping malls with coin slots cut in their skulls, that's where, as if that were of any practical use to anyone. Help Train A Guide Dog, they whine. Well let me tell you, I have, on more than one inebriated occasion. Sit! Stay! i cry -- and they do, without the need to be further anchored in place by the weight of my hard-earned spare change thank you very much.

So after a spiralling nocturnal tour of the football ovals, suburban driveways and rollershuttered supermarkets of Tiwi, I stumbled across the glowing blue sign that marks the way to the hospital, and was once again on the long, poorly signposted road to recovery.

Any further donations of cash and cigarettes can be forwarded to me care of the Jabiru Post Office. All such donations are fully tax deductible, depending on the courage of your accountant. Thank you all once again for your support.  I would be lost without you.

Photo: News Limited

Saturday, September 20, 2014

SANDSTONE

Driving back along dusty outback Arnhem roads tonight, through sacred country, around this solemn sandstone scarp, I sync the bluetooth on the troopy and tame impala and radiohead blast as animals and plants in this strange burnt place loom in the headlights and I realise I've always done this.

Even as a kid, getting on my bicycle and just riding, far as I could, anywhere, away. New places. To the other side of the lake. Then further afield. Up into the hills, wagging a day in my first year of high school to escape claustrophobia and boredom, all the way up into the hills to find the railway tunnel that cuts stone black and dark through the rock, where a runaway train once failed and sailed spectacularly backwards down through the Darling Range.

Even before I got my first car, wild and lost missions to Wungong Dam to find huge, mythical concrete pipes to skate. And even when I did get a car, just heading out on mad, hashish-driven treks to Kalbarri, Margaret River, anywhere. Away. New places.

One new year, taking a clapped-out Lite Stout to a place on the west Australian map simply because it had nothing marked on it. Just another one of those big, blank white spaces that marked the whitefella's idea of country. Wondering what was there, wandering out along some thin track northwest of Kalgoorlie, to Lake Giles, finding that explorer's cairn atop a lonely granite ridge. Repairing the radiator at an empty fossicker's shack to sail on past the shimmering flat salt of Lake Barlee, along the back tracks thinly disguised by my large-scale paper maps. Before Google of course. Even now, even with Google maps, I can barely trace this road on the satellite. Reaching a place called Sandstone, I place I never knew existed, to be welcomed by country people there with beer and rum counting down to the pointless celebrations of the early morn.

Shooting ceremony on country today. Amazing. Just amazing. Devil dancing in the twilight against the sacred stone sites of this oldest living culture. Yidaki and clapsticks from Elcho Island echo fresh in my memory with such foreign singing I can't begin to describe.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

THERE'S NEVER A TRANSMAT BEAM AROUND WHEN YOU NEED ONE

It's been a long ride in this heat. I've clocked up somewhere north of three thousand kilometres since leaving the old mudbrick hut west of Ballarat. I can't give a precise figure, because the speedo cable let go somewhere south of Woomera. I've been guesstimating my velocities and perambulations ever since. I know it's 673km from Tennant Creek to Katherine. And I know 4000rpm in sixth gear means 100km/h. But beyond that is pure speculation.

But before I can even begin to think about being in Katherine, I run into a bit of bother with the fuzz. Halfway to the horizon on the road ahead, red and blue lights atop a bacon machine start flashing. I watch with dismay as the Landcruiser grows larger, then slows and swings around behind me. I wind down through the gears, pull over, and hit the kill switch. Cops. Always looking for trouble.

I pull off my helmet. The leather jacket too. It's far too hot to be standing around in the desert in a leather jacket. The walloper slams the door and stomps over.

Any idea how fast you were going.
No.
149, he says.
Uh huh.
Can I see your drivers licence.

I peel my plastic smiling face out of my wallet and hand it to him.

Where are you going.
Just going to work.
Where do you work.
Starting a job in Jabiru.
So you've got a WA drivers' licence, a Queensland registered bike, and you work in the Northern Territory.
Looks like.

The tyre biter stomps off, boots crunching on the roadside gravel. I crouch against the slim shade of the bike as he checks my record on the radio. It must be extensive. He is gone a while. When he comes back, he hands me a ticket for a month's wages.

I'll spare you the lecture.
Thanks.
About how far it is to get help out here.
Mmm.
You're old enough to understand.
Uh huh.

He returns to the 'bruiser, fires it up, and continues south. I pocket the fine and ride off. A few clicks down the highway I'm sitting on the same speed as before. I know now, at least, how fast I am going.

I pull in at a place called Mataranka, intrigued by a series of colourful statues standing, staring, in the park. At the far end, under a huge strangler fig, a group of Aborigines sit in a circle, talking and drinking. One or two will occasionally get up and cross the searing bitumen to the general store. The women wear colourful print dresses. The thin brown men, wide-brimmed Akubras, boots, jeans and long-sleeved cowboy shirts.

Here is one now, sitting on a horse, staring down at me.

'Aboriginal Stockman', the plaque reads. And here, this Chinaman, in his tight-fitting blue skivvy, standing beneath a saucer-shaped water tower, looking like a long-lost George Takei twin. The plaque identifies him as Cheon, the Chinese cook. And over here, 'The Black Princess and her Dog'. A little Aboriginal girl. Someone has thrown a bucket of whitewash over her. I'm not sure why people do this, but the psychologist in me offers a theory. It's most likely because they are fuckwits.


It is when I find Mrs Aeneas Gunn and her husband, staring out across the road with a look of mild bemusement at the paddy wagons outside the Mataranka Police Station, that I realise this is no surreal outback parody of Star Trek. Not at all. These are but statues of the characters from Mrs Aeneas Gunn's 1908 classic bible of Australiana, We of the Never Never. Back in the day, Mrs Aeneas Gunn was at Elsey Station with her husband, Mr Aeneas Gunn. For a few months. Before Mr Aeneas Gunn died of malarial dysentery. Or maybe it was the chop suey.

The name 'Mataranka' begins to set bells ringing. I vaguely recall seeing a photo in a tourist brochure in a motel south of Alice, showing some bright young things swimming in a pool fringed with pandanus and paperbark. It said something about a thermal spring. There was a sign a back on the highway that said something about a thermal spring. I fire up the bike.

I could use a thermal spring about now.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

THE DEVIL PLAYS MARBLES

I awake before dawn, and pack my few belongings into the motorcycle panniers. It is cool outside under the poincianas, but a familiar red demon is rising in the east. It will be hot again today. The last three days have been north of 40 degrees, since heading out from my underground digs at Coober Pedy. Pushing on through the baked red heat.

Today's dawn start from Alice means I will beat the heat, but only to a degree. I will have to go slow and watch for animals. They've all got the same idea – early bird, worm – and recent rains means feed along the edges of the highway. I tootle along in the low, early morning light at around 80, slowing when I see roadkill or movement in my peripheral vision. Here are wallabies, looking just like anthills – until they move. There go some crows, feeding on carrion. You couldn't hit a crow if you tried,  but an eagle is a bird of a different feather. From a distance, an eagle feeding on roadkill looks very much like a crow, until you're way too close. I learned that driving lesson near Exmouth in '88. A wedge-tail, its wingspan almost as wide as the 'screen of my Phoenix, brushed my roof as I sped under it. Gawping at each other in mutual surprise.

It's the wrong time of year for this desert run. As the sun climbs, I lose fluids fast, and the familiar fatigue sets in. These long, straight distances have me shaking my head to stay alert, stretching limbs against the frame, deep breathing and playing mind games to stay focused on the road's grey nothingness. I stop about once every hour, leaving the hot bitumen for the shade of some spartan steel shelter to peel off my jacket and helmet to stretch or down cold electrolytes from the pack. There is usually a rainwater tank at the roadside stop, sometimes with water, sometimes not. I wet down the stretch-fabric tube around my neck. The evaporation will keep me cool for a while. Occasionally, if I'm starting to flag, I percolate some coffee, setting the stainless steel device over a small fire, or grab a nap on the swag, the wet fabric tube pulled up over my face against the flies.

Back on the road, the government puts the hex on me with its road signs. 'Drowsie Drivers DIE' they bark at me, suddenly, randomly. Oh, come on, I mutter into my helmet. There's no need for that. I'm doing my best out here.  I shake my head clear and focus on that distant grey-and-white point, that thin unfolding ribbon to the north.

The next stop is Wycliffe Well, the self-proclaimed UFO capital of Australia. A group of Aboriginal men sit under the bridge yonder. I buy a few mls of fuel, enough to get me to the Creek. One of the men is walking towards me. I hope he's not going to start humbugging me. I'm on a tight budget.


Merry Christmas my friend, he says, and shakes my hand.

Back on the road, I'm just settling into a routine when the Devil's Marbles loom like an hallucination. Rising out of the heat as if from an unearthly cauldron, these huge hot blistering boulders burst upon the flat red landscape like a curse. I feel compelled to stop. Drawn in by a strangely gravitational pull, I ride towards the stones along an elliptical gravel track, orbiting around these huge round boulders, eventually pulling right up tight against a brutal concrete table set under a steel square of shade cut from the sky. I kill the motor. Hooking my jacket and helmet onto the swag, I let the sweat and shade cool my core as I cast about the campsite. The large rainwater tank here is empty, and I'm getting low. I take my remaining small bottle of water and the Nikon and walk out among the boulders. The Karlu Karlu.

The sun hits me like a ball hammer beating a relentless noonday rhythm upon this strangely sculpted landscape. A huge rounded rock lies split asunder in the scorching heat. Nearby, another boulder looks ready to roll, poised precariously upon the shoulder of its big brother. In the near distance, an eerie, repetitive wail echoes off the stones. Must be some kind of bird. Surely.

I crouch in the sparse shade of one of the massive stones. The Aboriginal traditional owners, the Kaytetye, have their own myths about how they were formed. But I keep First Peoples' myths at arm's length. This is not my story, this is not my dreaming. Of course there is a lot to be learned from hearing these mythical yarns, from reading them. They are moral, and even plausible, up until the point where someone or something turns into a rock. But here, dwarfed into silent stillness by this inscrutable granite splendour, I can almost fathom the arcane logic.

I have about a hundred kilometres to go the nearest town: Tennant Creek. From there I was hoping to push on to Katherine. Now I'm having my doubts. I've clocked up 400 k's since leaving the Alice: I'm hot, I'm tired – and what on Earth is that weird, strangled cry? Can that really be a bird?

It sounds like a ghost. I'm beginning to feel like a character in a quintessential Australian outback novel, the one that goes quietly mad in an ancient, eerie landscape. But the heat. The heat!

I tramp back through the red dust to the motorcycle. Again I pull on the leathers, the helmet, and the ever-reliable Kwaka rattles back to life. UFOs, stones strewn by magic men, empty and alien landscapes … I'll be glad to reach Tennant Creek. Or Katherine. Or Darwin. Anywhere I can down a rum, and once again draw a veil across this brutal, indifferent reality.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

SOME OF THEM ARE CHRISTIANS, SOME OF THEM ARE CLOTHESLINES




It is dark by the time I reach the island of Samosir. Not so dark that I cannot be spotted as easy prey by the touts languishing along the pier where the ferry docks. But dark all the same.

I am ill and feverish, coming down with some swine of a flu. After a seven-hour bus trip from the hell-hole of Medan, all I need is a bed so I can die peacefully in my sleep. It's not much to ask. I nod to one of the ojeks.

Sir where you go?
Libertas. Or Lindas. Anywhere with cheap clean rooms.
Ah, sorry sir, all cheap clean rooms booked now. Is Christmas.
Take me to Libertas anyway.
Yes sir.

I get on the bike and we wind our way through narrow alleys to a long, low bungalow. It sports a dimly lit bar, from which a smiling Sumatran emerges, sipping on a green tea. He is genuinely pleased to tell me all the rooms are full. Everywhere on the bay booked up, he says, gleefully. Is Christmas.
I thank him for reminding me.
A lone backpacker is sitting in a rattan chair on the verandah, flicking through a trammelled Lonely Planet. His unwashed hair is piled high on his head in the style of a Cambodian laundrywoman. At the opposite end of him is bright yellow rubber, the kind of footwear that flip-flops between being a shoe and a practical joke. He wears loose cotton pants tied with a string, topped by a t-shirt with a design that could bring on a fit of epilepsy in the unwary. He looks up at me and smiles the smug, self-satisfied smile of someone who has just had the last of the cream on his banana pancake.

Hello my brother, he says in an accent I can't quite place, but definitely from somewhere east of the Glastonbury Festival. I can help you with some information, he says. There is Mamas up the hill. It is not as cool as here, of course. And it costs more, but I am thinking you have no choice. He smiles, gets up, and disappears. I do the same, on the back of the ojek's scooter.

I know a place, they have rooms, maybe 80,000 rupiah, my driver says.
OK, fine. Whatever. I'm dog tired and sick and really need somewhere to crash.

This is my first mistake. Never, ever, show signs of weakness. Or the Sumatrans will eat you alive. Quite literally, only a few years ago.
You want nice room? he begins. I can find. Now Christmas. No rooms, everywhere booked, only expensive rooms, you know?  How much you pay?



He turns right and we make our way along a narrow causeway between the rice paddies. A Catholic church looms on our left. Everywhere there seem to be little shrines and crosses. Graves, perhaps. Graves of the people who gave me this flu. I see another tall building with a cross high on the hill.
I can find good room for 200,000, he says. Very big. Very hot water.
Just the 80,000 room is fine, I say.
I take you to Parnas, he says.
OK.

We ride past more crosses. Too many, it seems, for a Muslim country. Back in Jakarta, where the mosques swarm like mosquitoes, the blaring call to the prayer mat is everywhere. But here in the volcanic highlands of Sumatra, we are deep in missionary country.
Those crosses, I say to the ojek, what are they?  Christian graves?
He shrugs. Some of them are Christians, some of them are clotheslines.
What did you say?
Clotheslines.
He points out two wooden crosses standing ten metres or so apart, a faint trace of wire stretched between the two.
You can pay 500,000? he asks.
Oh Jesus. No, I cannot.
Because now is Christmas, he says.
And there's no room at the inn?
Sir?
Just take me to Parnas. 80,000 sounds fine.
Now I think they have only 400,000 rupiah rooms, he says.
Fuck my patron saint.
He slows the bike. To our left, a crater mountain rises high into cloud. To the right, a low building bears a sign, Parnas. The yard rambles down to a gazebo by a lake, where some women are tilling the soil.

Mr Ojek calls out to them: You have room for 400,000?

Not "do you have a room available" but "do you have room for 400,000". Just to let them know in advance that, on the back of his moto, he has the goose that lays the golden eggs. Oh God. It's dark, I'm sick, he knows I'm sick, and he knows I'll take anything just so I can die in peace.

Dear God, please spare me this hell.


I promise I'll hail Mary, my Lord, next time - and not some devil dressed as a motorcycle taxi driver.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN


That was Eddie's place there, she says, pointing to small hollow set back from the beach. It is overgrown with bamboo, and at this hour of the morning is sitting in the shade of a hill rising steeply behind it. Vines run across the yellow sand and down to the beach like cargo cultists. All around, the beach is littered with round, black, basaltic rocks, a kind of volcanic bowling alley. Some have been gathered together into a circle, a rough wire grate above them, cold black ash below, and are surrounded with translucent yellow shapes of turtle shell.

He had a shack there, but it's gone now. Come on kids, you got school.
The boy gets up from where he is playing with a broken life ring, and goes into the corrugated tin shack with his older sister. Their father stands, baby in his arms, looking out to sea.

We moved back up here from Townsville a few years ago, she says. We like it here.
I look around at the large drift logs. Pine pallets embedded upright in the sand. The galvanised iron shack surrounded by fishing nets, lines, lures.

This is our home, she says. She pauses as the kids come out from the shack carrying their school satchels.
Eddie came back too, she says. They dug him up, where he was buried in Townsville, and brought him back here. His tombstone is up there, on top of the hill. This was Uncle Koiki's home. He's very famous here, you know.

It shouldn't surprise me that Eddie Mabo's place on the beach is so humble. The native title case was never about the acquisition of property. At least not from Mabo's point of view. During the High Court case in '92, other Islanders tried to argue the point on who owned what, which piece of land belonged to whom, and challenged Mabo over his land claim. Which only served to bolster his case against the crown. His point was that a system of land ownership existed long before the arrival of the markay, or white man, in Australia. During the final hearings, no-one could argue that the Meriam people did not cultivate the soil, for as Justice Brennan noted, they were devoted gardeners. And it would be hard to argue that the Murray Islanders' relationship to their lands was not proprietary. The evidence showed they owned land as individuals and as families, and had clearly demarcated property boundaries.

She points out the fish traps. Out from the shacks, cutting a swathe through the warm sea, black basalt rocks laid in a long serpentine line.

Those fish traps, they been there a long time, she says. Uncle Koiki showed the justices when they came up here. They looked here, and they looked there – but those? Very important, those stones. They took pictures of my son out there.
Who?
That film crew, they were here a few weeks ago. My son was in it, they filmed him. My daughter, too. My son played Eddie Mabo when he was younger, catching fish out there on those rocks. My daughter played his girlfriend, back when he was younger.

Dang. Missed a scoop there. All I got out of the young kid was a massive fart and some giggles, while the daughter said nothing at all. Ah well, how was I supposed to know they were film stars.

The major victory in the Mabo case was when the High Court agreed that the Common Law of Australia, properly considered, provides for the recognition and protection for the pre-existing land rights of the Indigenous peoples. For Uncle Koiki, this was more important than staking out a piece of real estate on the beach.

And while little remains of Uncle Koiki's place of residence, the principles that guided him - Malo law - remain strong. Tag mauke mauke. Teter mauke mauke. Don't touch or take what isn't yours. Don't set foot on land that isn't yours. Murray Island is no place to be wandering around, markay or not. You don't just head down to the beach for a swim or a spot of fishing and splash about with your floaties doing whatever you want. All parts of these waters belong to someone - a clan, a family - and have for a long time. The locals draw their identity from it. For Torres Strait Islanders, this is not a history lesson, or some abstract concept. This is life.

You see it in the daily ebb and flow of the Torres Strait, the Islanders and their homelands in a symbiosis as natural as drawing air. Islanders not only take their food from the land and sea around them, but their totem animals as well. The deumer, or Torres Strait Pigeon, the beizam, or hammerhead shark, the koedal, or crocodile, and other animals adorn elaborate tombstones laid out across these islands, tombstones that may often stand in a family's front yard. Fishermen and cray divers will talk about this or that patch of reef like I might talk about a vege patch in my back yard.

Commercial cray divers fishing the reefs of the Torres Strait have, in the recent past, had their catch seized and been driven off by the point of a spear or the blade of a machete. Benjamin Ali Nona's infamous incident with the spear occurred at the end of the last millenium, after which Mr Nona took the name Maluwap, meaning 'sea spear'. More recently, a cray diver was (allegedly) pulled up by his air hose and smacked about the head with a machete on Number One Reef north of Keriri, or Hammond Island. I say 'allegedly' because that case is still before the courts. Maluwap won a significant victory when he was acquitted of the charges he faced – charges that were the equivalent of armed robbery – on the grounds that he was simply taking back what he justifiably believed to be his property.

Former Indigenous federal senator Aden Ridgway noted similar incidents of commercial fishermen breaching a 'gentlemen's agreement' to refrain from taking catch within a 10-mile zone of each island had gone unchecked by the government authorities who were supposed to enforce the Torres Strait Treaty, a law legislated to protect the fishing rights and way of life of the Islanders.

"… the real victims of the law were the Islanders and the commercial fishermen, one because they held a real expectation that government would honour the treaty, and the others because of the failings of government to enforce the meaning of the treaty so that they understood what they could do," Ridgway said in his maiden speech to parliament in 1999.

In July, 2010, Maluwap Nona won a landmark native title sea rights case for Torres Strait Islanders as a whole. But our Australian government is currently appealing the decision. Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us, et cetera. With his solid build and dreadlocks, Maluwap drops into the offices of the paper from time to time. When he has something to say, I tend to pay attention.

But the long and short of it, in a practical sense, is that you don't go traipsing about willy nilly across these islands. Especially on Mer. Here, you don't even go in to someone's yard to knock on their door. You stand on the edge of the property, call out, and wait.

I sit on a sunbleached log and gaze down the beach. The film crew who were out here a few weeks back were producing a movie simply called Mabo. They were chased off the island. I heard rumours they were woken in the early hours by a wild man wielding a machete, but the Thursday Island police played down that version, saying it was more likely a length of pipe. In the morning, the Mer community convinced the nervous ABC crew to stay on, but after their vehicle sustained what the senior sergeant described as 'wilful damage', they upped sticks and left.

Of course I ran the story on the front page. And of course the Mer community wanted to talk to me about that. It was blown out of proportion, they said. We are not violent people, they said. Come visit us, they said. So I did.

Only a couple of generations ago, Murray Islanders were headhunters. I was advised that I would be sleeping on a verandah next to the 'grandfather drum', or Malo drum. And to be very careful of how I treated it. Because the grandfather drum has 23 notches. Each notch represents the head of a victim who walked on the wrong side of the Malo drum, who disrespected it by walking behind it. 23 is a nice number, I said. A magic number. And I have no intention of changing it to 24. The other half of this pigeon pair, the grandmother drum, was commandeered by a visiting ship some centuries ago, around the time Fernando Torres navigated these treacherous straits.

As it transpired, my hosts could not have been more hospitable, inviting me to join a charter flight with a few others – Ed from Health, Michelle from Indigenous TV, and Nancy from local radio – to fly up and cover a weekend of dancing and festivities. They were just digging up the kup muri turtle when we arrived, right on sunset, and it was quite something to watch bronze whaler sharks thrashing about on the shoreline in a fight for the scraps. Didn't stop Ed and I taking a quick dip the next morning. It is shark mating season, and i figured the bronze whalers would be too preoccupied to bother with a couple of crazy white markay. We could see them, going hard at it just a couple of metres from the coconut palms lining the beach. But it didn't seem right to stare.

The kids come out of the shack with their school satchels, and head off up the steep embankment, through the undergrowth. The sun is well and truly up now and the sweat trickles down my front like the first drips of an espresso. Which reminds me. I need a coffee. Four hours sleep last night, two the night before. Usually I sleep half the day after deadline, but I wasn't going to miss Mer. Not for squids. I look down the beach. The indigenous TV presenter is getting some shots, pictures of our Islander guide talking to the turtle tracks that sweep the beach everywhere here. It's laying season, and they're on the move. We don't have to hunt them, our guide says, they just come right up on the beach for us. If you see one set of tracks going in to the bush, and no tracks coming out, you know she's still in there. You just go pick her up.

I'd heard eating turtle is like chewing on wetsuit, but the kup muri feast they served up last night before the dancing was tender, spicy and delicious. Praise be to God. And the eggs made a really nice breakfast. Needless to say, I didn't get up in the middle of the night to wander around looking for the toilet. 23 notches is fine. It's a nice number.

I catch up with Ed and the TV presenter, and we wind our way up through the jungle, on the heels of our guide.

Eddie Mabo's place back there, I say to Michelle, as she lunks her tripod and camera up the clay track.
What? Where?
Back there.

We trudge on. It's hellish hot and humid, and now there are sharp stones on the track. I've left my thongs way back on the beach. I thought we'd gotten up at 5.30 to go watch turtles laying eggs. Nobody said anything about a jungle trek. My feet aren't made for this. I'm not sure what they were made for, but it certainly wasn't walking. We reach Uncle Koiki's headstone. It is more impressive than his beach home. We sit amongst the banana grove as the stringy wisps of the kapok tree stream down around us in the hot, still air.