Rod Williams, Bush Poetry

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WATTIE CREEK

It was 1970, at Dugguruggu (Wattie Creek on the Victoria River in the Northern Territory — home of the Gurindji). A bunch of us were heading to Darwin, 500 miles to the North; a fair way from the Gurindji tribe's home territory, particularly when we had to travel in a secondhand five ton Bedford and three hundred miles of that road was the roughest bloody stretch in history.

The Bedford was a gift to our Gurindji brothers and sisters and Paul Fox and I had driven a load of fruit trees and timber to Darwin in it once before. Vincent Lingiari (the boss) wanted me to keep driving it until Nidgee (a skin brother of mine) became familiar with it. He could have taken it over then but he was one of the main men on the fencing team, fencing off a ten thousand acre horse paddock. Land that was originally theirs and had been taken by Vesty's, a huge British Multi–National. Vesty's controlled vast areas of land in the Northern Territory and Queensland and for the possession of this land paid the Government a mere pittance, but dispossessed and ripped off the Aboriginals who were the rightful owners of a lot of that country.

The idea of fencing the land off was the Gurindji's... not a bad little horse paddock, eh? But it's not a lot of land in that part of the country and this was just the start. They felt that it might be a way of making Vesty's, the N.T. administration and the Welfare, sit up and take notice.
In their minds and hearts there was no question about whose land it was. It was their own.

So I drove the truck. Drove it along the fence line, during trips away, into the Welfare Settlement for stores or whenever a picture was being shown in the open air cinema. In most cases a B grade Cowboy and Indian show. You should have heard those cheers every time an Indian would deck a Cowboy. So while I drove the truck Nidgee was second–in–charge on Donald's fencing team.

Nidgee was a perfectionist. He wanted to show me that he was a capable enough person to be “Boss of the truck”. He appeared to have X–ray vision penetrating the thickest piece of steel, slowly taking apart every section of that Bedford and questioning the responsibility that went with it. His brain seemed to turn with every moving joint.

But then Nidgee was a solid and practical man. Strong, with piercing and silent eyes. There was a great deal of gentleness in that man. He was physically strong and as black as I have ever seen anyone. A beautiful man with a great love for his wife and they both lived for the joy of being with their children. If Nidgee had known how much I respected and trusted and loved him, maybe he would not have worked so hard to prove that the truck was going to be left in good hands. But again... that was Nidgee.

When I think of Nidgee (my brother) I also think of Donald Nangiari, (the fence builder), a great man of silent strength with a controlled passion and love for life and families. He wanted me to be made a “Chulima” but Long Johnny messed it up and I was given the skin of a “Jumbijina”. That was okay because it made me Nidgee's brother; but I wanted to be a “Chulima” also. However, until the end of time I can always enter the Nangiari camp and live as one of the family.

                                                             * * * * *

I recall the first trip we made to Darwin, heading up to purchase building and fencing materials and food. Rangiari (Hoppy Mick) and myself were to do the return trip but we also took a couple of people who stayed in Darwin to visit their families. We made it up there okay but had to stay for over a week... you couldn't rush business in Darwin then. That didn't matter. Things were pretty hectic on the Sydney “Battleground” at the time and money for the purchase of building materials didn't arrive when it should have. One appreciates now, how hard people were working on all fronts but the communication breakdown between us and other Comrades in the Gurindji campaign at the time didn't seem funny.

In the meantime Mick and I camped in the backyard at Brian Manning's house and at night got eaten alive by the biggest mossies in existence. They're even bigger than those bloody dive bombers that inhabit the swamp country out around Moree in Northern New South Wales.
We had a week of bastard nights there and our world became one of silence, irritability and depression.

When our friends got the money through to us, we collected our food from the food stores, other materials from Titan's and Stewart and Lloyd's and got on the track away from the memory of that week of sleepless mosquito–haunted nights.

Back on the road again. That gruelling week in Darwin together, created a bond between Mick and myself and there was much laughter and light chatter as we steadily made our way home over the first 200 mile stretch, through the crocodile and buffalo country between Darwin and Katherine.
Half way along we picked up four people from the “Katherine Mob”, plus a bit of gear that they had.

We felt extremely proud to be driving along and carrying such valuable cargo. We had bags of flour, salt, sugar and boxes of tea, baking powder, powdered milk, bags of spuds and onions and cartons of tinned meat and beans. There was corrugated iron, guttering, solder, nails, timber, a new pump (to push the water up to the newly established orchard), bundles of fencing pickets, staples and coils of plain and barbed wire to be used in a symbolic gesture, which eventually would lead directly to the recovery of 1,100 square miles of tribal land, to be used as a cattle station by the Gurindji.

In Katherine we unloaded our hitchhikers and turned the Bedford back on the road.

About three hundred miles of road was being worked on and there were several big road camps. A lot of the road had been ripped up and it was like a narrow line of excavation that stretched for miles and miles. In some parts the road was so rough and the rocks so big and jagged that you couldn't do more than five miles an hour over it. It was on one of those rough, trying stretches that my eyes happened to point dash–wards and notice a red light. We were being tossed all around the cabin as we tackled an exceptionally bad section of “Boulder road” in low gear. The day was hot, the engine was getting hotter and we had obviously done–in our generator.

The day had turned into a scorcher and Mick and I weren't talking too much, just hoping we would reach the road camp. Suddenly the engine burst into flames.
We got that bloody bonnet up, but how, I'll never know! Our shirts and a spud bag were smouldering rags before we had smothered the fire. This unexpected breather was spent in absolute silence. We sat to let the engine cool down then attempted to start it... no go. Battery was either flat or buggered.

Mick and I were squatting by the truck not knowing what to do and wondering just how far away that bloody road camp was when we heard a noise... an engine... a machine of sorts coming towards us. Then we spotted it, a tractor–yellow grader moving in a ‘more–or–less’ northerly direction. I say more–or–less because the driver seemed to be spending more time zig–zagging back and forth across the road, than travelling along it. Anyhow during one of his zags he nearly hit us and pulled up. We were lucky, the way he was travelling we were sure he'd head bush and not see us.

He almost clipped us, then did a 360 degree turn around the truck and stopped on our right. He was paralytic. So rotten drunk that he couldn't step down from his seat. This incredible character managed to wrap his hand around a flagon and pass it down. I nearly dropped it. It was three parts full of port, red hot and almost took the skin off my hands when I grabbed it. The flagon had been sitting on the running board in the hot sun against hot steel. It was just what Mick and I needed. After a couple of swigs of that brew we began to laugh at our misfortunes.

The bloke said he'd give us a tow. I asked him where he was going.
“Darwin mate,” he slurred, “they can stick their road up their arse.”
He was about 35, carrying a wild–eyed look on his weather–beaten face and a head crowned with red fiery hair. He wore a pair of khaki work shorts and elastic sided well worn flat heeled work boots. On his top half was a ‘white’ T–shirt, now well stained with sweat and red–brown Western dust.

Mick was just standing there shaking his head and exchanging swigs with me.
“I fuckin' snatched 'er boys,” our friend declared. “I'm driving to Darwin, half a dozen bottles of Corio at Top Springs, then look out Fanny Bay Hotel.”

With those words he dropped it into gear, pulled the throttle on full and let out the clutch. Christ, you should have seen that grader rear. But not with the pride and grace of the Andalusian or the Arabian Animal.. in fact there was no pride, let alone bloody grace. Instead it was like this Monster Grader pointing to the sky. but I've never seen anything point in as many directions as this machine did... all at the same time.

Mick yelled in sheer panic... “He's fuckin' mad;” and took off around to the other side of the truck.
I was trying to be as quick witted as Mick and do the same, when suddenly the monster did a 180 degree spin on the big black rubber treads and crashed down on the other side of the truck. Hoppy Mick Rangiari was so fast that he was back beside me watching it touch down.

With a new burst of energy it took a mighty leap forward and did a lightning snake in front of the truck, skidding the big wheels to a halt, as they powdered the red dry–baked top soil. Mick and I threw a panicky look at each other... it was not good. We had to be towed to get started, there was no way out of it. But where were we going to get someone to weld the chassis together after he pulled us in two? Yet in unison, we sprinted to the front of the truck when he yelled,
“Hook the Bastard up and I'll kick yers over.”
We had the wire rope fastened back and front in seconds flat and I was sitting behind the steering wheel with the clutch in, hanging on like grim death. Mick left me on my own. In that country it's normal for your mate to hop in as well, because there may be a lot of towing and stopping and starting etc. Fortunately we kicked over easily. The wire rope was strong and didn't break, but how we held together with that jerk I do not know. Our friend managed to shoot seven lengths of corrugated iron off the back, a couple of lengths of guttering, an opened carton of bully beef and one bag of spuds. I asked Mick later why he hadn't hopped in the truck.
“Don't be bloody silly,” he grinned, “I didn't want to get killed.”

We unhitched ourselves from our hero, yelled our thanks over the roaring engine noise and he yelled back,
“Fuckin' beauty, see yers in Darwin,” and took off, straight across Australia.

We were back in the cabin of the truck pretty fast, worried in case the engine cut out again and were taking off when it became very clear that our friend... as he bucked and snorted his way across a million years of sunburn... was definitely heading in the wrong direction. We were pointed due South and he was about 35–40 degrees off on our left. Certainly not on the track to Darwin, but heading as flat–as–a–strap for the Queensland Coast, and into a huge pile of boulders that the road workers had bulldozed together.

The front wheels of the grader smacked into the boulder pile and it was suddenly standing vertical, doing a very graceful twist, which faced it even further away from the required destination. It then crashed down on the other side of the pile. Sitting in frozen astonishment, we watched it disappear into the shimmering heat of that Northern Territory burt–orange early afternoon.

The image of that grader reaching out to the sky from the heart of that aged and wise land like a giant yellow praying mantis remains as clearly as the moment itself. Each time I've returned to the Back Country since then, I've expected to see at every parched stoney creek bed, or from over some stark distant humming sand ridges, or from out of a red and green sea of Mulga and Sandalwood, the Phantom form of that wild–eyed ginger–haired driver, boring through the land on a savage road grader bleached white by the merciless unrelenting energy of the blazing Western sun.

                                                             * * * * *

A couple of months had passed since that little expedition. This time the Bedford was loaded with a human cargo. People who were either heading for Darwin to be with members of their families or looking for jobs there.

We were to bring back about $600 worth of food and some more building materials. About 12 or 15 people, men, women and youngsters, had made themselves comfortable on the tray back of the truck and Long Johnny, Cloud and myself were in the cabin. Our party left Wattie Creek and headed towards the Welfare Settlement.

There were a few humpies about a quarter of a mile from the Settlement and Police Station, and we were heading towards them to pick up another passenger, when the Police Land–rover came belting across the clay pan.
It reached the humpies five seconds after us and the copper wheeled in close beside the driver's side of the truck. Stepping out in unison we confronted each other at close quarters between the two vehicles.
“Where are you going?” he snarled.
“Darwin,” I told him.
“No yer not.”
“Why?”
“Because I said so,” he replied.
“Well, there must be a reason,” I said.
“Yes, show me your licence.”
I was getting agitated. “Look, give me the reason why you reckon we can't go or I'm jumping in this cabin and pissing off now.”
A sneer broke across his dial. “No sides on the back.”
“What!”
“No fuckin' sides mate!”
“Aw, Christ, you're not going to pull that one. No one worries about that up here, you know that as well as I do.”
“Well I am,” he said. “It's illegal and yer not fuckin' goin'.”
“Look, cattle graziers all over the North take stockmen and their families home at the start of the wet season, in a lot of cases back to their tribal areas. You know damned well that they're the backbone of the bloody cattle industry and have to hang off the backs of trucks and sides of Land–rovers. There's no concern whether they fall off, get run over or what the fuck happens to them.”
“I've never seen it and you've never seen it so don't get smart with me fella. You're just one of those bastard shit–stirrers who should get back home and mind their own fuckin' business.”
“Aw stuff this, I'm not talking anymore. I'm going.”

With that final remark I opened the truck door and had one foot on the running board ready to hoist my weight into the cabin when he reached in through the open Land–rover window, turned and flashed the .38 against the back of my brain.
I froze and caught the killer in those hate–filled eyes.
“You go,” he said, slowly and deliberately, “and I'll put you where I'd like to see those other black cunts — six foot under.”

Somehow the decision was made for me. My head nodded slightly in the direction of Wattie Creek and I entered the cabin silently, started the engine,slipped into low gear, nosed forward pulling down on the right hand as we circled the Land–rover and a policeman who stood there in a pair of white shorts, white singlet hanging out and a pair of blue thongs, holding a gun in his hand and a victory grin on his face.

We drove back in complete silence and told our story at the camp. Lingiari stopped a group of men who were going into the Police Station to kill the copper. We built a set of sides and two days later went to Darwin.

That incident has always haunted me. For years I wasn't sure whether or not I had made the correct decision. As far as the Gurindji were concerned I did. But as far as some whites were concerned the incident would have been much more dramatic and significant if I had defied the cop.

Now thirteen years later my passion rises when I think of my Brothers and Sisters up there and how they helped open out the Universe to me. But I seem to live in a permanent disturbance. Someone tossing and turning as if during a life of sleepless nights, but far out in space. A restlessness contained within a loneliness, caused by being part of one culture and having my insides stretched and pulled every moment in another direction.

Oh wise and patient people... You have my Spirit.

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