Claudia and I are staying in a converted shipping container on the slope of a sleeping volcano on Hawai’i, the Big Island. The little house is outfitted for living large inside it, with a king-sized bed against one of the walls, a full-sized fridge for all that produce we bought at the twice-weekly market. There’s a big gas stove and oven. The oven is purple enamel inside. A ripe pineapple serves as decoration and perfume.
The container house has a well-furnished lanai—a screened wooden verandah—looking over banana trees and elephant-eared taro plants growing so fast you can see it if you stop to watch.
To my right the many-bosomed papaya trees sway gently in the mild breeze.
It’s rained a lot. Thrumming rain on the metal roof surrounds our sleep.
Our other home is on the other side of the world in the Western Victoria desert in Australia. We’re returning there—it’s work accommodation—next week. It’s utilitarian housing—two containers on a big dusty deck enclosed by a large-gauge cage.
The cage serves as our fence. Unfortunately, security is sometimes needed there.
Here in remote Hawaii you have to close the gate to keep the wild hogs out of the bananas. A cheeky mongoose runs through the fence to steal duck eggs and tease the dog.
Birds and frogs chirrup. Up the green hill, fat sheep and goats bleat.
In the desert, just like here in Hawaii, there’s plenty of life around. Claudia and I like our converted shipping container house. It’s up off the ground, so the insects and snakes don’t bother us. The grille keeps the dogs out.
The community people have plenty of dogs, some of them hunting fit. Even in the summer heat, at the cooler ends of the day, the hounds chased each other around, kicking up dust.
Very early in the heated mornings Claudia went out to photograph birds. Flocks of budgerigars, bright green and chromium yellow, flew by at speed. They were a blur of noisy brilliance, swooping and circling. You’d wiggle your head seeking a glimpse of them.
There were huge flocks of tiny zebra finches, with red-spot cheeks. They murmur their Pitjantjatjara name: Nyii nyii. Eagles and hawks approach and then retreat, circling in the distance, riding the updrafts until they’re too far to see.
The Central Australian heat was extreme this past summer. It was hard work for people to walk outside for even short distances. Sometimes, from the furnace of the pale blue sky, a bird dropped dead. Or I’d see one drunkenly staggering in the dust. Water didn’t help revive them. Claudia put a stick insect in a shallow dish of water. He died anyway.
Then the birds started expiring in great numbers.
A neighbour kept a half-drum of water in the yard for the birds. Our nurse—she was looking after his house while he was away—came in to work one morning with tears in her eyes.
‘All the birds were dead in the tank. Hundreds of them, this deep.’ She showed a foot or so with her hands. ‘I had to shovel them out and bury them.’
The night before the nurse had to do green-feathered mortuary duty, the shower spray on my face tasted of salt and iron.
In the morning word spread that our water was shut off. It was contaminated by another bore and was deadly salty.
Senior men—our tradesmen and coordinator—were in heated overdrive, working day and night to find and treat the cause of the problem. The community coordinator cast about for solutions. A water truck from the south-east would take ten hours to get to the town. From the west, a bigger tanker would take sixteen.
The shop gave out all the boxed drinking water they had—making sure each house had some. Our clinic’s supply was modest. I prayed no one burned themselves. A burn could have needed more water than we had.
More immediately, by afternoon, working adults were holding onto bowel movements because there wasn’t a way to flush the toilet. Digging a hole in the desert dust was the cleanest way to go.
As well as noxious threats to health and existence, the lack of water intruded into small elements of everyday life. We used alcohol hand wash, wondering if our clinic could really stay open. Patients kept coming in.
We encouraged people to come sit in the waiting room under the air-conditioner. Walking from our house to the clinic or the shop took less than ten minutes but needed almost an hour’s recovery after each trip.
I took my lunch to work—to avoid the walk—and then berated myself for bringing a box I couldn’t wash. I wiped it out with paper towel. At home we didn’t cook pumpkin, rice or noodles because that would use too much water. Eggs were fried instead of poached or boiled. Washing of dishes or clothes was paused.
Many communities in remote Australia have poor infrastructure, ours included. But we generally do well—the water at our place passes through a reverse osmosis filter. Getting such clean water was a great achievement of previous community members and workers.
Now, one of the men told us that the filter needed replacing. ‘And the tanker with water is really coming.’
Another man drove to the big town—twelve hours down an unsealed road—to buy us all more boxed water from the supermarkets.
Eventually, maybe three days later, a worker flew in on the mail plane with the replacement filter.
The men kept working, day and night. One of them got sick from the heat. I told them that they were not to work outside between 10am and 4pm, when the temperature was over 35 degrees. Many days it was well over 40.
On the third day without showers, local colleagues reminded me that desert people lived without them for longer periods. Not long ago water was kept for drinking. People drank abstemiously. Many desert people still do.
But when they don’t wash on a journey or in times of water restriction, most desert people smell salty, not rotten. It’s like they evolved (or kept) a physiological deodorant those of us with European ancestry are lacking.
Eventually, the men working on the problem had some success. They were able to pulse through water. Toilets were flushed and dishes washed. But the community used too much water, too fast. Men worked hard in the devilish heat moving unsullied water from one tank to the main tank.
It was another few days before we were able to use water through the day. We use it more carefully now.
Our small, very remote community was established by Traditional Owners who chose the place with the help of non-Aboriginal people who worked to make a bore. Water comes from underground: Australia’s life-blood. The clans were moving on from a place that had run out of water. I wrote about it a little while ago.
One of those non-Aboriginal men, married into the Community, also helped organise the truck that still—twenty-five years later—brings fresh fruit and vegetables to the town’s single shop every fortnight. Outsiders working for the Community helped by organising the reverse osmosis filter that keeps the water clean.
Aboriginal people constitute about three percent of the population in Australia. We need the support of wise non-Aboriginal people, open and compassionate, to survive and flourish.
The tanker with water from town came a couple of days after the water was usable again. In the meantime, we’d had to think about where we would go if the water was not reconnected. It’s a long way to walk anywhere from there.
Local people do walk long distances, though.
When I previously worked in the Community about four years ago, a local woman and family members arrived home after walking about two hundred kilometres over about a week through desert country. Their car broke down up the road. They were all okay.
People recall days when their clan lived from waterhole to waterhole, from trees heavy with fruit to good yam places to hunting.
Nowadays, people still go hunting for devious meat: bush turkey, roo and emu. They drive out to gather fruit, and dig for witchetty grubs and honey ants; all in their seasons.
People chew pitjuri, bush tobacco, which is compatible with long hunting trips. Then they get cranky if they don’t move enough. I’ll bet that woman that walked for a week had some (or found it on the way).
Here in Hawai’i, there is plenty of sweet water. Food is abundant. There’s no need to hunt. The garden is overflowing. Many plants—like the desert plants—contain powerful medicines.
But there is no such place as Paradise. On this island Pele—the goddess of the lava—wiped out seven hundred homes last year. The new crater edge of the volcano is strewn with flowers—as memorials and offerings. I’ll write more about the volcanoes next time.
Everywhere, we humans depend on this beautiful stormy planet; our only home.