Last weekend I drove to Alice Springs to meet with doctor colleagues, teach and learn. From our home near Uluru, it’s an L-shaped route, down one highway and turn left up another — about 480km, for me five hours drive.
On the way I passed 6 wrecked cars. Two of them were breakdowns that had been looted — they say they take the tyres first once a car’s abandoned out here — efficient recycling. Three of the car wrecks were in our clinic’s range. I knew about two of the accidents. I was there when the nurses brought the passengers in.
Single vehicle accidents are common in the Northern Territory. Car vs cattle is a common cause. Knowledgeable people never drive at night, when you would have no chance of seeing that big black bull on the road.
Another risk for single vehicle accidents on the Lasseter Highway is the edge of the road. It is soft, red sand. If you hit the sand at speed the slowing of the wheel that goes off the road drags your vehicle further off the road and flips it. Staying on the tarmac is vital.
My wife Claudia is an expert driver. She grew up in a car-making village and was able to name cars by the sound of their exhaust when she was only two years old. As an adult, Claudia enjoys driving long distances. But because she is overseas now I drove myself to Alice. I enjoyed looking out over the country and sang songs. By the time I was halfway there I was ready to buy a couple of CDs at the Roadhouse.
I like that half-way road house. I like it that the coffee’s good and that they’ll cook up a dozen boiled eggs so that travellers with only coins to spend can get some protein. In my hat and boots I look like the friendly and practical person I am. The backpackers who man the counters are often keen to hear news of the weather or traffic down the road. My hat is one that I bought in Katherine, a grey felt number with an aqua and yellow scarf tied around it. Gold thread goes through the scarf — a little lurex for luxury. I bought the hat on Claudia’s birthday on our way back to live in Central Australia three years ago. (She got a better present, but I was pleased with mine too).
After a re-fuel and a chat, armed with a collection of Pure Rock Ballads, I headed north up the Stuart Highway. I saw an eagle enjoying fresh meat on the road, a bevy of ravens waiting their turn. Other birds of prey wheeled above. Looking out over the orange and pink sands, patterned by olive and citron greens of recent rains, I thought of our friend who died on that road. He flies with eagles.
The last time I drove this road alone was in 2004, before I met Claudia. I’d come to Central Australia planning to learn from the Ngangkari — the Pitjatjantjara title for the Traditional Aboriginal Healers. (It’s pronounced NUN-kar-ree). Along with other Indigenous doctor and medical student colleagues, I’d met Mr Rupert Peter and Mr Andy Tjilari at one of our conferences earlier that year.
When I came to Alice Springs, hoping to learn from the Ngangkari, I went to the the Women’s Council office to see the Ngangkari Program coordinator. “They’re out at Imanpa,” she said. “You could go pick them up if you like. That’d be a help. Have you got some money to buy food? They’re always really hungry when they come in from Community. They just work and work when they’re out there.”
Imanpa community is 275km southwest of Alice and then some more distance from the Lasseter Highway. It's a community of Anangu people living on their own land -- desert plains sheltered by distant mauve mountains. It was my first visit to a Central desert Aboriginal community. After two hours driving I turned down the unsealed road to the small, peaceful place. The communities are private places. I drove the Toyota as if tiptoeing. Many of the houses there then were nothing but concrete shells with rectangular holes for windows and doorways. One of the community men directed me to a house like that, where I found Rupert and Andy resting on the concrete floor, one blanket each as a cushion.
I don’t think that they remembered meeting me, but were delighted to see me.
At that same halfway roadhouse, about 70km up the road, we stopped for sandwiches for the men. I bought a couple of the famous boiled eggs. We drove on. As I drove I was trying to calm my monkey mind. I felt like these steady old men could read my mind and there seemed to be nothing but rubbish there. These were credible, graceful senior men who told stories of seeing illness in people’s bodies and pulling pathogens out of them to throw away into the bush.
At the shady bed of the ancient Finke River we stopped for smokes so that the former stockmen’s nicotine receptors were satisfied.
Several hours later we arrived in Alice and I took them to the hotel they usually stayed at in town. It was rough like no hotel I had ever seen in Australia, almost as bad as the cheapest places I ever stayed in Indonesia or India. Behind the brick veneer facade of the building, hallways and doors were broken and graffitied, the thin remains of a carpet served only to retain more dirt than the bare concrete underneath. Rupert and Andy had a room booked — it was not cheap — and there were two worn box-springs beds with cheap linen. People were fighting in the hallway.
In the neglected room, Rupert told me that he and Andy had stayed there once when they went out flying in spirit to look after sick people. They took these Shamanistic journeys at night, an important part of their Ngangkari work. That night, according to Rupert, Andy missed his body when he came back into it too abruptly on his return. Andy fell with a thud on the floor between the beds. Rupert thought this was hilarious. He told the story several ways, giggling at the comic spectacle in his mind’s eye. Andy was unimpressed.
During our drive I had explained as best I could that I had studied Chinese acupuncture as a young woman and used needles to help bodies heal. The men were curious about it. At the hotel, they showed me their aches and pains and allowed me to give them acupuncture for their stiff muscles. I knew even then that this was a big deal for Anangu men — blood is private and sacred. They don’t let anyone break their skin. They were adventurous, these old men.
That day’s wondrous discovery was that they knew the points where I used the acupuncture needles. Andy explained that the body has ‘ropes’ with points where the ropes can be manipulated. I thought that mapping these ropes and comparing them to the Chinese meridians — also empirically derived — could be fascinating. The men went to sleep with the needles in and rested well. I slipped the needles out. Passing the people still yelling in the hall, I felt exhilarated by new learning.
On the evening of the day I met Andy Tjilari he danced for us. His dance was from the Mallee Fowl story. It was the dance of a person abandoned. The song he sang said, “Look at all of you. You have families, friends, people who love and care for you! I have no one.” Grief and trauma moved through you. It was like seeing Billy Holiday sing. Instead of Billy’s gardenias, Andy wore a feathered head dress. He channeled, then dispersed the heartbreak. What a dancer!
When I knew him better later, Rupert described himself as like a neurosurgeon. The way he said it was not boastful, just an acknowledgement of the finesse with which he could identify and locate pathology in a body. And take it out.
Over the years it also became clear that they were very proud of young people they initiated as Ngangkari. One young man could “Fly like an eagle, just like us”, Rupert said. If I ever tried to astral travel I took off and landed like a booby bird. “You should be careful. You can hurt yourself,” Rupert said.
In 2007, just a month after our marriage in New Zealand, I brought Claudia to Rupert and Andy’s sometime home at Fregon, the remote community in the northwest corner of South Australia. I wanted her to meet my friends and teachers. On that trip — it was a culturally-guided bus tour for health workers — we first visited Mutitjulu, the Traditional Owners community at Uluru which later became our home.
We came to live at Mutitjulu partly because of these men and their talented caring colleagues. I remain intrigued and impressed by their healing abilities. If you are, too, you can read about them in their book. I think the hands on the cover are Andy's.
Claudia and I were shocked to hear about the accident.
The woman driving Rupert along the Stuart Highway had lost control of the vehicle. It rolled and slammed against a strong, ancient tree. Rupert’s arm, resting outside the cab, was crushed by the weight of the vehicle against the tree. In the split second that he realised his arm would be useless, Rupert left his body. His healing hands were everything to him and his life’s work.
Claudia knew these details because Rupert came to visit her in a vision. We confirmed them with family later. Rupert passed on Claudia’s birthday. She took that personally, too. Even if he was never one to care about dates, it means that we remember each anniversary. Other friends had ‘visits’ from Rupert as well. His curious and affable spirit got around.
Mr Rupert Peter’s funeral was big, even by Anangu standards. Hundreds of people travelled to Fregon, most coming hundreds (and many thousands) of miles to attend. We camped on the cool, stony ground. It was the biggest Sorry Camp I’ve seen. That was in 2012.
Now every time we drove up the Stuart Highway we were conscious of the place of the accident. There is a beautiful spreading tree there, a strong, embracing memorial. The first time we saw it, people had put coloured lights over an iron picket cross. There were mirrors, beads, flowers and ribbons. Someone had left his Buzz Lightyear toy — to Infinity and beyond.
Coming home from Alice Springs last Tuesday morning I looked for that spot, on the left, just south of the Palmer River. There it was — still decorated with plastic flowers. Someone had put a metal ring over the cross, making it look more like a person. Even though I know he’s not there, I stopped to enjoy the tree and think about our friend. I wound the scarf off my hat and wrapped it around the metal ring. I wanted to leave a sign that I’d stopped there again, as Claudia and I have done many times over the years. I wanted people who knew or heard of Mr Peter to see my scarf as they went past — fresh and bright. We all remember.
The metal-crushing and recycling people will come through and collect the broken cars by the road-side before long. The people hurt in the recent rollovers are healing.
If you’d like to know more about Mr Rupert Peter and his work, you can read this short, authoritative biography. You can find out more about the women’s council Ngangkari program and their continuing healing work here. There is a bio of the beautiful Andy Tjilari here, too.