It looked like the stony skull of a great beast—a bull or a camel—penetrated by minerals and solidified. The object was lying on a pebbly riverbed in a broad valley between forested red dunes in the South Australian Outback. I broke a piece off and smelled it—unmistakably iron. Could iron ore do that?
Claudia and I were on the fifth and final day of our drive to work from Sydney on the Australian east coast to Tjuntjuntjara, the small community where we live and stay in the Western Victoria Desert. We were travelling through permit-protected country.
The road headed north-west from the South Australian coast.
The night before we slept on and off at a desultory roadhouse. I’d got up to take the contents of the rubbish bin out to the car-park dumpster because there was a mouse in the room. There was an air-conditioner to heat the room—it’s icy winter here now—but it was as loud as a train. From outside the train.
In the pink pre-dawn light, road trains thundered along the road, articulated trucking rigs up to 70 metres long. A couple of them transported shiny enameled mining equipment. I practiced screwing up my courage and overtook them, revving up our trusty four-wheeled drive. ‘Well done. We’re not on holiday,’ Claudia reminded me. ‘We are on our way to work.’
The first part of the road was surprisingly paved. That’s always a sign of development.
We saw markers by the roadside of the mining companies’ exploration: fluorescent ribbons on stakes, coloured squares marking territory, collections of cryptic acronyms on metal signs at newly graded turn-offs.
By the time we approached the river-valley where I found the petrified skull we were well into the country of the Traditional Owners, the Anangu. You need a permit to come in. We climbed steep fifty-metre sandhills of soft pink dust. Gaining elevation we found ourselves surrounded by thick, twisted colourful gums, shimmering desert oaks and grasping acacias. Native grasses grew in every shade of green and russet.
The permit system was developed in the ‘seventies, when Anangu were handed back great tracts of their land in the desert country of South Australia. The APY Lands are mainly in the north west corner of South Australia, but also encompass vast parts of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. State boundaries drawn with a ruler on a map are meaningless on the ground where mountain ranges, rivers and different languages and dances mark changes in peoples and Country.
APY is an abbreviation. A is for Anangu — ‘P’ for Pitjantjatjara and ‘Y’ for Yankunyjatjara—two of the major language groups that live there. (You can see why they abbreviated the name of their Lands and even their name for themselves to cater to Australian English speakers, who generally prefer words of three syllables or less.)
Anangu agree to allow others to visit their lands if they have a good reason. You need to have a permit. It’s not expensive, but it shows who the owners are. And, as an outsider, you have to plan to get there. You’re not just gonna stumble into a thousands-year-old sacred site and set up your caravan as if you own it.
For three days before we came to the APY Lands, we travelled through drought-stricken fields of skeletal sheep and sparsely-vegetated fields of a poor wheat harvest. It was heart-breaking. As we drove on, Claudia and I talked about the challenges of using European agricultural methods in Australia. The emus and ‘roos were doing well, picking at new growth in charred plains devastated by drought and summer fires. People should know that they’re good to eat—almost as delicious as cows.
In a town that was surrounded and partly destroyed by super-heated bushfires in the past few years, I asked the portly middle-aged man at the roadhouse cash register about their recovery. He shook his head. ’Us people in little towns are just screwed,’ he said.
Six hundred kilometres along the road, on the next day, we stopped for fuel at a town I like. The have a giant metal bird there. (Australians are quite good at giant metal and concrete fruit and animals). I bought a piece of lapis lazuli in a roadhouse there last time we went through, about five years ago. ‘We’re getting fuel. You don’t go in to the rock shop,’ said Claudia. She objects to me buying rocks. She likes to find them.
I avoided temptation by going to a different roadhouse. An Indian family runs the place. It’s filled with the warm fragrances of masalas and curries. That town is now in conflict over a proposal to be revitalised as a nuclear dump. There’s the promise of at least five jobs over the next two-hundred years.
The Ngaanyjatjara and Adnyamathyna people in two other remote South Australian locations have already said ’No’ to the nuclear dump on their land—in years-long, hard-fought campaigns. But their towns are also still being considered for the award of the development.
Sometimes Nature makes the changes. In Hawaii earlier this year, Claudia and I drove to the south-east of the Big Island, looking to find a special, black-sand beach. The road to the coast end abruptly in a two-metre high wall of shiny black stone. We’d run into the lava wall from last year’s eruption of Mount Kileuaua.
A Native-Hawaiian man of queenly bearing was sitting in a pick-up truck as a kind of security guard (if he didn’t think much of you) and guide (if perhaps he did).
‘Thank you for keeping this place of power and sadness,’ I said sincerely. I could feel the toll it took on him, his strange surveillance.
We watched tourists climb over the police barrier at the end of the street to take selfies in front of the lava, which was still venting steam. The man was a little older than me, perhaps in his sixties. Or maybe he was younger and had suffered more. His greyed hair was pulled back in an elegant bun. Simple gold earrings accentuated strong cheekbones and brown skin. ‘If you stand over there where the fence is broken,’ he said, ‘You can see where the lava burst out.’
Across the sombre black fields of solidified lava was a stone fountain where flow patterns were preserved—the source of all this.
‘I heard that seven hundred homes were destroyed.’
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Did you travel through the town?’
‘We did. It’s a strange place.’ Claudia and I felt unsettled there. We’d decided not to stop for coffee. The town had a strange vibe of forced gaiety. The streets were decorated with excessive, cheap colour that belied the confused or intoxicated people. ‘Everybody seems to be stoned here,’ I said to Claudia. ’Something feels wrong,’ she said.
My host at the lava wall dead-end explained: ‘The people had a party to say goodbye to the town.’ He had tears in his eyes. ‘The lava stopped the next day.’
What was it like to say goodbye to all the material world you knew, even the land you walked on?
I thought of this on our drive to Tjuntjuntjara as we passed signs to Maralinga, where the land of the families I care for in Tjuntjun was incinerated by nuclear bombs. The blasts were exploded there by the British and Australian governments around the time I was born, back over on the east coast.
The road approached the burnt-out lands and veered away, back into undamaged country, country that had been cared for tens of thousands of years. ‘You can go on a tour up there around the bomb sites now,’ I said. ‘Why would you want to go there?’ Claudia asked, with a shudder.
The land we traveled through was abundantly populated by trees and animals. Soft red sand and hard blue sky enriched the colours. We stopped for a dingo who caught Claudia’s eye and would not let go as he circled the car behind us.
Back at the creek bed I had seen that the iron skull was surrounded by pebbles lit by brilliant white quartz — some milky, some streaked with silver mica or golden pyrites.
‘There’d be gold here,’ I said.
‘Someone else thought so, too,’ Claudia said, pointing to another piece of iron, part of a pulley or a piece of a miner’s cradle, half-buried in the earth.
That’s what my ‘skull’ was, too. I’d been thinking of the opalised bones of dinosaurs and plesiosaurs found not so far away. And then there was the petrified wood we saw on beaches in the rocks of New Zealand’s southern tip last month. But my beast was nothing more than a decaying artefact of humanity’s determination to harvest the planet’s treasures.
Here in Tjuntjuntjara, the icy wind blows across the plains and hills, which seem to vibrate with a different energy as you come into lands that are still cared for ceremonially and physically. Animals here are hunted sustainably and plants harvested in seasons that are not assessed by a calendar.
Nevertheless, there are people, even among the Traditional Owners, who believe the mining companies when they say that what is dug out from under the ground or injected between the rocks doesn’t change what’s on the surface. Indigenous people need solutions to the relentless pressures of poverty. Permitting mining and fracking could lead to wealth for the coming generations, they say. Might be seven jobs for Aboriginal people for ten years.
It’s cold in the breezeway where I sit and write to you. Almost everything here is metal and plastic, including the dust-covered table. Blowing on my hands to warm them, I contemplate my gold wedding ring. It glints with a sea-purple sapphire Claudia bought in Sri Lanka many years ago, when she was diving in the Indian Ocean for a living. And there’s a diamond which is also part of her history. We take pleasure in gems. We’ve been fossicking at Gem Tree for garnets and in Inverell for sapphires. Claudia’s lucky.
I’ve seen some of the big operations, too. I’ve worked hard on trying to help heal the broken backs, amputated digits and shattered nerves of miners. Claudia and I have seen one of Australia’s biggest open-cut gold mines, just down the road from here. In another town we’ve seen the gigantic trucks collect iron ore from earth dug below the water-table, one-hundred stories beneath us, at the world’s biggest single-pit, open-cut iron ore mine. I twist my ring and reflect on what mining has become. And worry for this big, unique island and the splendid life it supports.
Thumbnail photo of the soft dust road ©Claudia Jocher 2019.