Tjuntjuntjara – First week
Less than two weeks ago, out of the blue I was asked if I might want to go work in the WA desert on an aboriginal community. “Tell me more” I said. I don’t get excited easily, but when it was put to me that they wanted me to fly out the following day my heart ran amok for a while. As it turned out, a week later I was on a plane.
The first flight was to Kalgoorlie via Perth and the following morning a 2.5 hr flight from Kalgoorlie to Tjuntjuntjara, in the Victoria Desert, another 700km east of Kalgoorlie. At the Perth airport it’s readily apparent via the advertisements where the money is; mining. There are lots of miners at the airport, many of whom might be fly-ins, two weeks on, one week off, half of them are still or already wearing half their safety gear.
Kalgoorlie airport again is full of miners, gold around there according to the taxi driver.
The next morning, after a spa suite overnight in a hotel, the spa of which I unashamedly used considering that I was facing a few weeks of not much water at all, it’s back to the airport for my flight with the mail plane (single engine, 12 seats) to Tjuntjuntjara, apparently Australia’s most remote community!
I had had a brief look at a couple of websites but confess that I only read the orientation manual while waiting for the fog delayed flight out of Kalgoorlie. Only two aboriginal women, two kids and an electrician were on the flight with me.
Google Tjuntjuntjara and you’ll find two or three sites. Google maps also locates it and you can zoom right in to see the airstrip and cluster of buildings that make up the community.
Eventually, after a couple of hours in the air, I was fascinated to see a straight, bare strip of land came into view ahead, the dirt airstrip of Tjuntjuntjara. A few mail bags and other items were pulled off the plane and onto a 4wd ute, someone brusquely greeted me and the sparky who was being flown in to do a day’s work, and off we drove after watching the plane take off again. We drove into “town”, dropped my stuff at my accommodation, and went straight to the office to drop off the loot, have a cuppa and meet Fiona, the general manager of the community (not sure of the official title, but that’s what the signature on her email says).
Before I knew it we were off in the 4wd to go check out the water bores because something was wrong with the water supply system, it had stopped pumping water into the main holding tank. A serious issue when 150 people are relying on it to survive and the nearest town is hundreds of kilometers away. Fiona said if the issue was not resolved within a couple more days they would have to start planning evacuations!
Enter the engineer :) … that’s me, by the way.
By checking the operation of each bore in turn I found that one of the bores was returning the compressed air used to power the bore pumps rather than the water they are supposed to pump. And since air is easier to push than water, this one faulty bore was overriding all the other bores efforts to push the water back to the main holding tank, a few kms away. So, we isolated that one bore and withing a couple of hours the water was flowing again and had saved a trip from the water service company to find this fault. Of course the faulty bore still needs to be addressed, but in the mean time the community can breathe (drink) easy. The next day I replaced a faulty safety switch which had half the office on power leads, again saving an expensive trip out by an electrician from Kalgoorlie. Chuff.
Part of my role now is the daily operations check of the water and power service. The community is powered by three diesel generators, any or all of them running non-stop according to demand. There are two 27,000 litre diesel tanks, which are filled every few weeks by tankers that presumably drive out from Kalgoorlie. The main water holding tank of roughly 100,000 litres and the header tank roughly 10 meters high and 30,000 litres are in the same fenced compound as the diesel generators a few hundred meters removed from the edge of the community, far enough away that the community itself is delightfully quiet.
I could not help think about the completely unsustainable nature of the community. The only thing not shipped in is the water and the few rabbits and kangaroos that are hunted. Everything else is flown or driven in. All the diesel, all the food, all the money. Not only that, there is no industry or livelihood here for the people in the community. There are a few odd jobs that community members do, but all the essential services are staffed by white folk. Everyone is on the dole and there is no incentive for them to work. Far out! Not only that, but the place is strewn with rubbish everywhere, not much care for the land at that level at all.
So, my problem solving mind gets busy thinking up all sorts of solutions to this and that, an experience I assume most new arrivals share. At least there is no alcohol allowed in this community and many people say that this place is better than most. After a couple of days it occurred to me that this town reminds me a LOT of a little Indian village. The people look similar, their language sounds similar, the land looks and feels like some parts of India, there is trash everywhere, people sitting around doing nothing, the family and community bonds are very strong, most things are ramshackle, but the clinic is spick and span. The only and significant difference is that fact that there is no industry, people aren’t working. In India there is no welfare for people without work so people find ways to make money and survive.
A couple of days later some boys roll into town from a grammar school in Albany for a bonding session with the Tjuntjuntjara community and a footy match. So, I got Friday afternoon off to go watch the footy, only the second footy match I have ever watched. I didn’t think I’d be pulling my camera out for at least my first couple of weeks on the community, but I could not resist the sun setting right behind the came on the dusty field.
Next day, turns out half the community is going camping a couple of hours north near an ancestral water hole. My awesome new boss gives me the afternoon off and says it’s a great opportunity, if I’d like to join them. My eyebrows are half raised, prevented from a full vertical by me trying to keep my cool in an “I understand everything you’re telling my but I have no idea what I’m in for” situation. I figure Fiona understands since she laughs knowingly.
A couple of hours later I’m packed and squeezed on the front passenger seat with Grant, who I know from 5 rhythms dance and was randomly standing on the airstrip when I landed (!!!). The back is full with the rest of our drivers family, a puppy and much food. The party ain’t starting without us!
However, after about an hour or so driving we notice that one of the swags is missing, fallen off the roof. Oops! So Trevor leaves the rest of us by the side of the track to turn around and look for it. Can’t be that far back since he only checked about 20 mins or so previously. An hour and a half later and I promise to myself that I will never allow myself to be deposited at the side of the road in a desert many kms from anywhere as I wonder whether we should start walking. But with us is one old fella, a mum, four kids and a puppy. The kids build a shelter for fun and I figure that we’d probably make it though the night ok.
Finally the 4wd returns and we continue on the way, sans one swag, which someone else had found, taken back to the community, and radioed it in.
About 100kms we turn off the main “road” (sandy track over the sparsely vegitated dunes) into an even smaller track which slowly gets worse and worse until a couple of hours in we are basically just making the tracks as we go, or, in our case, following the tracks that had been made by the 4wds ahead of us.
It’s near dark when we stop by the 4wd bus which is being left there since the tack is getting too impossible for it to navigate. We already passed one of it’s punctured tires on the side of the track which they must have changed and left there to pick up on the way back. We get out to have a break and pick up some stuff from the bus that was being left there. Already there are three fires burning and I initially thought this was our camp, but as it turns out this mob just lights fires anywhere they sit down for more than 5 minutes. Eventually some more 4wds come and we continue for perhaps another 45 mins winding through the countryside.
It’s long dark by the time we arrive at the designated camping area and there are many fires dotted around the place, at least 10 or so, with a few people camped around each fire. On top of that kids were running around just randomly setting fire to any old trees and shrubs that would burn. Having lived in bushfire danger country for many many years this is a big eye opener and eyebrow raiser. However, none of the fires spread. So grant and I found a little patch of dirt, pulled out some dry grass and collected some dead wood for out own little fire. By this time someone else arrives who brought Grant’s swag along from town and everyone is settling in for a nice bbq feed (I attempted to eat a sausage, but failed after one bite) followed by a few hours of muted campfire conversation.
We lined up some logs that we could easily reach from our swags to push further into the fire during the night. I woke a couple of times to pee and stoked the fire. Grant was happily snoring away. At some point I woke to the more gorgeous band of gold on the pre-dawn horison. I looked for a while but decided that it was still way to early, so turned around and slept some more.
The next day after breakfast we all gathered and the elders told the story of this watering hole, the story of the seven sisters and the old man who was chasing them. They passed through this place and stopped at the water hole. It had filled up with sand and we all proceeded to dig it out.
I collected a few different types of rock and asked some old men about them and if I could take them home. Of of them in particular looks like shards of crystal, they told me it was used to cut the men in initiations, one of them showed me his scars. Larger pieces were also used to cut open kangaroos and smaller ones were put on the end of spears. I have always loved rocks and stones and they will take a proud place in my little collection.
Grant and I also walked up a little hill a few hundred meters away from the hole to have a look around after asking permission. There were lots of rabbit droppings and also camel tracks. The wild camels are apparently a pest in these areas. From the top we could see a few kms each way. I went and sat with the old men again when I came back and noticed they paid very close attention and nodded when I started to describe the land that I saw from up there, the different shades of green in the different areas etc. The sharpness with which they suddenly listened took me by surprise, suddenly they here very interested in every word. I didn’t even say that much much, but it highlighted for me that knowledge of the land would have been the difference between life and death for them and so nothing is as important as any information about the land.
And I am falling in love with it.