The pilot had left strict instructions that I was to bring my lunch with me and plenty of water to drink. I’d been up since dawn in order to get everything ready before being driven to the airport by my son-in-law. After being weighed in (at 75 kilos) with my pack, I was taken out to the plane.
“Rohana, this is my mother-in-law, Jean,” Zak introduced us and we nodded and smiled at each other, “I didn’t like to mention this before, Jean, but this is Rohana’s first time flying this run solo. Not that I want to worry you or anything.”
I shot a quick glance at the other womyn, hoping that my face didn’t betray the alarm I felt at this unexpected piece of news.
“Thanks for mentioning it,” Rohana muttered dryly. Working in a male dominated industry she was obviously used to being teased and worse by the males on the job and took most of their comments with a grain of salt.
“I requested a womyn pilot actually,” I joked quickly, to counterbalance his comment. I’d been told to take the seat directly behind the pilot on the left hand side of the plane and duly squeezed my way down the narrow aisle towards the front. Rohana made sure the plane was balanced by staggering the other passengers in separate seats towards the back and instructed them all on safety measures before making sure they fastened their seat belts.
We taxied down the runway with grassy paddocks either side, full speed down the tarmac, a slight pause and we were airborne, the shadow of the plane becoming smaller till it was a faded blur tracing the path of the plane on the scrubby bushland far below.
“You can wear these, if you like,” Rohana said, passing a set of head-phones back to me, “Just don’t speak whenever we’re coming into land because I’ll be busy with instructions but any other time feel free to ask questions and I can point out landmarks of interest as we go along.”
I found the ear-phones were heavy and cut out any outside noises but this was more than compensated for by being able to hear what Rohana had to say to the various ground controls.
“Maintaining 6,000, we left Alice Springs at eight, due in at Papunya at eight-forty,” Rohana continued to jot the times down in the logbook as she read them out over the air, “Any change to those times I’ll let you know as I go along.”
“Copy that,” said another voice.
“One extra passenger,” Rohana went on, “Alice to Alice, one Jean Taylor, Zak’s mother-in-law,” after this had been repeated Rohana added, “Keep it nice, she’s listening,” which made me smile to myself.
Ardy would be well on the way to Sista Jive in New South Wales by now, I mused with a pang. I had already decided that the next time I visited Alice I wanted to be here with Ardy. One of the reasons I was on my own this time was because this trip had been arranged well before she and I had got together and as Ardy had never met my daughter’s family before it had been agreed that so soon into a new relationship was perhaps not the most circumspect time to do so. Besides, Ardy’s preference to be at the womyn’s music festival gave her something to do while I was away.
“That’s Papunya straight ahead,” Rohana cut into my reverie, “On the other side of that rise,” she pointed through the windscreen, “Now where’s the airstrip?” she muttered. Before I could begin to have doubts about her inexperience, she added, “Ah, there it is, I just need to go to the left a little bit more.”
I couldn’t see anything even resembling an airstrip from that height and didn’t dare comment because we’d already started our descent, “It’s amazingly green, isn’t it? Which keeps the dust down. There are usually dust storms at this time of the year,” Rohana said conversationally, as the plane banked sharply to the left causing my stomach to lurch. The strip was rough, red, craggy dirt but it was a relatively smooth landing, “We’ll be here for ten minutes,” Rohana told me as she opened the door, unfolded a ladder from beside her seat and climbed down.
I wasn’t sure of the procedure, “Am I allowed to get out?” I asked. Rohana assured me I could but in the event I decided it was enough to take off my earphones, undo my safety belt, stretch my legs and take a sip of water. It felt far too hot out there to bother and nothing to see anyway.
I watched as Rohana lifted the mail bags plus a couple of parcels out from the undercarriage and handed them to the white bloke who’d arrived in a 4-wheel drive to pick them up and at the same time to drop off the outgoing mail. One of the passengers got off the plane, a young community womyn with two plastic bags of groceries, and settled into the small bus being driven by another white person. Both vehicles headed off back down the road towards the community as soon as they’d finalised their business.
“They should wait for us to depart but they’ve shot through today,” Rohana commented, as she got back on board and began slowly taxiing down the rough runway to do a U-turn at the far end preparatory to take off. “We’re following familiar terrain. And so long as the terrain stays on track we’ll be alright,” she joked, as we made our way due west. I looked down. It wouldn’t be hard to lose your bearings in this landscape. There was nothing but flat, red earth dotted with scrubby, green bush and the odd tree every now and then with the straight line of the dirt track clearly visible.
“The community is directly ahead past the big hill,” Rohana was saying, “The strip is to the right,” I noticed Rohana looking at a book of diagrams, “Just checking to make sure I know where the windsock is located.”
The only thing I could see at this point was the big, rocky outcrop to our left, a distinctively significant feature in this otherwise flat to the horizon landscape. As we drew nearer I could just make out the Mount Liebig community. Then as Rohana announced, “Please make sure your seat belts are fastened for landing,” there were buildings straight ahead with lots of rusty car wrecks and the horizontal windsock.
“Like the veranda, sorry the hat,” was Rohana comment about the white bloke’s very wide brimmed hat, as he stood behind the gate mail-bag in hand.
There were three vehicles including an ambulance being driven by a white womyn driver, a number of community members and a lot of naked children running about. One of the passengers handed a bag of lollies to a child staring solemnly from his father’s arms, two tracks of snot running unheeded from his nostrils, before continuing to chat in language to some of the community men standing around.
Rohana did the business of handing over the mail-bags and medical supplies with unhurried efficiency in the shade of the left-hand wing and duly stowed the out-going mail in the undercarriage and the registered mail in a blue satchel under her seat. One of the men waved as we taxied off down the rough runway and I waved back.
The red earth, always the red earth, contrasted starkly with the green scrubby vegetation. Straight red roads and pale sandy creek beds snaked their way across the endless terrain. What looked to my inexperienced eye like a series of dry waterways ran in long lines to the horizon. Unusual. With vegetation islands in between.
“Sand dunes for miles and miles,” Rohana explained, in answer to my unspoken question, “We’ll actually land among the sand dunes when we get to Kiwirrkurra so you’ll be able to see them up close.”
No wonder those early explorers were looking for an inland sea, I thought to myself. The unending sand dunes were in parallel columns, a fascinating sight.
“Maintaining 6,000. Request permission for descent,” we were approaching Nyirripi, “Kintore is out where those two faint hills are on the horizon,” Rohana explained, pointing, “It’s handy that you have a map. If I can’t figure out where we are you can help me out.”
“Some hope,” I muttered. I couldn’t see anything resembling hills anywhere in amongst the patchwork of red and green. But I was glad of the map and was able to at least follow where we were going.
“The brown bits have been burnt off in the past couple of weeks,” Rohana said, “Started by lightening. Couldn’t see for smoke while that was happening. Next year those bits will be green and the rest burnt off. Makes it hard to know where you are. That’s our excuse anyway,” and she chuckled.
It no longer bothered me when we made the sharp turn to approach the runway. There was only one white bloke with the mail-bag. One of the passengers got off for a toilet break in the bushes. As I took another long sip of water I wondered if we stopped anywhere for a lunch break.
We left Nyirripi with its waving tall yellow grass and scrubby green trees either side of the runway. In the air, I could see the truck leaving just as we passed over the community with its buildings and houses in neat symmetry and a footy oval on the outskirts. Climbing to 8,000, I could make out the irregular patches of bushfire, more rocky outcrops, the blue, hazy, bumpy horizon and even a few clouds close by.
“Just don’t go into any clouds while I’m not looking, okay?” Rohana joked as she put the plane onto automatic pilot while she caught up with her paperwork, “Getting a bit warmer.” The long, narrow sand dunes were running parallel to the horizon now. At this height it looked and felt as if we were not moving.
In between munching on a sandwich, Rohana said, “The car of an Aboriginal family broke down out here some time ago. The bloke went off for water and didn’t make it, the rest of the family were alright. A pretty unforgiving place, this.”
I could well imagine. More than anything the story showed me just how alienated some Aboriginal people had become since the invasion of their land if it wasn’t only whites who couldn’t survive in these harsh conditions. Another cause for shame in an already overcrowded agenda, especially with a prime minister who was as ignorant and and shame-making himself with his racist attitudes.
More distinctive rocky formations as we prepared for landing at Kintore with water pooled between the beautifully green, patterned vegetation on the red earth.
“It’s only in the last eight years that they’ve had telephones out here,” Rohana explained, as we flew over the community, over the dusty red footy oval, over the line of cars that had set out from the community towards the airport as soon as the plane got within hearing distance, “We stop here for half an hour to take on fuel.”
As the plane drew to a halt next to the fuel tank I yawned to clear my ears and got ready to stretch my legs. While Rohana got on with what she had to do, I made my way towards the small, green, round-shaped corrugated iron toilet and was surprised to find that it was shaped like a spiral inside. Once I started pissing I didn’t think I’d be able to stop and because there wasn’t a door I sincerely hoped no-one else wanted to go in a hurry. I ate my sandwiches in between sips of water under the shade of the thatched and iron roof on four upright poles near the gate. One of the young white blokes was rolling a cigarette in the shade, “Have you been here long?” I asked him.
“About five or six months.”
“What do you do, exactly?”
“I provide some of the back-up services for the Papunya Tula artists. That is, I mix paints, stretch canvases on frames, organise payments, that kind of thing, and whatever else comes up, basically.”
I’d been to see the Papunya Tula exhibition at the Araluen Art Gallery a couple of times since arriving in Alice, “You get a sense of why the Aboriginal people are connected to this landscape in such a passionate and life-enhancing way seeing the paintings and then being out here,” I said. I envied him for having job on one of the communities and being able to be a part of such a place for a year or two.
“A pity you’re not here for longer you could stay for a cup of tea, see a bit of the community.” Another time maybe.
“This next community is the most remote community in the whole of Australia,” Rohana was saying, once we were in the air again, “It was cut off for four or five months recently because of the rains. We were flying food in every Saturday out of Alice.”
It was strange to think of this desert area cut off because of rains. Lake Mackay, a salt lake over to our right, which was usually dry and a brilliant white, salt colour had been full of water for the past twelve months and was now a beautiful pale blue.
“You might have heard about this down south,” Rohana went on, “In 1986, about a dozen Aborigines walked out of the desert into Kiwirrkurra and the first contact they’d had with whites. The reason being, apparently, that there were too few womyn left in the tribe for survival.”
What a decision to have to make, I thought to myself. To stay and slowly die out as a people when they’d obviously been at great pains not to compromise their integrity all those long years while their home lands became smaller and smaller, relying on a small soak next to the salt lake where they’d always lived. Or take the risk and make contact with a lifestyle they would know full-well boded ill for their customs and way of life. “We’re actually following this road on our left,” Rohana broke in, “lining it up with the lakes to the right. Kiwirrkurra straight ahead.”
Little boulders stacked one on top of the other to make small hills were a distinguishing feature of the landscape surrounding Kiwirrkurra. Plus the amount of water lying about. Even the footy oval was under water.
There was a long sandhill with vegetation along the top to the left of the runway, “People wanting to standby to Alice by the looks of those bags,” said Rohana, taxiing to a stop not far from the sign on the shade structure that read ‘Kiwirrkurra “Jewel” of the West’.
Ardy would be settling into the festival by now, enjoying the music and making new friends, I was thinking, as I swigged on my water and wished I didn’t miss her quite so much.
The plane got slightly bogged turning back to the runway and Rohana had to rev the engines, “Have to avoid the puddles,” she muttered, “Look for solid ground.”
Sand dunes snaked towards the horizon, clay pans were full of brown water, lots of clouds wisped past making large dark shadows on the flat red earth below as we following the road, a long meandering line dotted with large puddles.
We landed back in Kintore at five to two and were met by six vehicles including a medical van, a whole mob of community members and several whites.
“Are you joy riding?” a big white bloke asked, as everyone was milling beside the plane, loading and off-loading.
I nodded yes and continued eating my apple.
“We’re heading for Haasts Bluff as a sighting position for Alice,” Rohana explained, as we headed off on our last leg.
I was tired, it had been a long day. I positioned the air vent for some fresh breeze on my face. We were going to 10,000 feet to get rid of the bumps, I heard Rohana tell air control in Alice.
“How good are your eyes?” Rohana asked.
“I wear glasses,” I answered, meaning not very.
“Can you make out those bumps on the horizon to our right? Anyway that’s where Uluru and Kata Tjuta are.”
I couldn’t see anything resembling those two very distinctive monoliths but it didn’t matter. It was enough to know they were in the vicinity. The terrain was becoming more rugged as we started to fly back over the MacDonnell Ranges with salt Lake Bennett and then Lake Lewis to our left. And way over beyond the lakes, Yuendumu. Where my panel van had ended up after it had gone missing from a car park in Alice Springs one evening several years ago.
“If you move across to the other side you can get a better view of the meteor crater,” I undid my seat belt and did as I was told, “See down there, the light catching the Spinifex on the folds of the hills so that it looks just like velvet.”
Alice was in sight straight ahead. We made a right hand turn at Heavitree Gap along the wide sandy dry river bed of the Todd which had been flowing with water a couple of weeks ago. My head was ringing from the ear phones, my left ear completely blocked, with the beginnings of a headache hovering round the edges.
“Thank you very much Rohana,” I shook the pilot’s hand with genuine gratitude. “No trouble at all. Glad you enjoyed it.”
I was exhausted on one level and yet so exhilarated on another that as I got into Zak’s car everything faded except for all the vibrant sights that I’d seen that day from a great height. This land, this Aboriginal landscape, was truly magnificent.
Zak said, “Ardy rang. She said she’d ring back again this evening.” And when he added casually, “You’ll have to bring her along with you next time you visit,” my day was made.
© Jean Taylor
Wurundjeri Country 2016