After meeting up with friends in a very green Alice Springs we set out on the 15 hour drive along the Tamani Road in Warlpiri country to Lajamanu.
The history of this landscape is that of the Frontier wars involving a series of conflicts over 140 years (1788 to 1934) that were fought between Indigenous Australians and mainly British settlers. Denialism, the failure to acknowledge the existence of armed resistance to white settlement and the widespread frontier conflict, constituted a ‘great Australian silence’ in Australian history. This politics of ethnic amnesia started to shift in the 1970s, when it was acknowledged that Australians had been engaged in the intentional physical killing of groups of people because they were those people, and forcibly removed children from their group with the intention of ‘transforming’ them into members of another group.
Central Australia was one of the last frontiers in the European conquest of Australia and, when administered by South Australia in the 19th century (between 1860 and 1895) 40 per cent of the population in the Alice Springs region, were mostly shot in the name of ‘dispersal’. Frontier massacres were erratic, episodic, sporadic, from a dozen to ten dozen dead at a time, more eliminationist than simply punitive in intent — for stealing livestock or spearing cattle ranchers, bushmen, miners and men who took Aboriginal women.
Coniston in the Tanami desert
was its western outpost in the European conquest of the Northern Territory. The conflict was caused by the pastoralist’s attempts to occupy Warlpiri land and then to secure that land from the Warlpiri. This conflict lasted until the 1930s, and it was centred around the Coniston massacre, in an area in and around Coniston Station, just north of Yuendumu. Coniston is the last known officially sanctioned massacre of Indigenous Australians. It was a series of punitive raids that occurred over a number of weeks as police parties (ie., vigilantes under the command of a white police officer, Constable William Murray) killed indiscriminately to establish white Australia by killing over 200 or more Walpiri, Anmatjere, Kaytete and Allyawar people.
Termite mound, Tanami
In 1928 Central Australia experienced a severe drought that reduced the ground water. The original owners of the land did what they had done for thousands of years and gravitated to their ancient water sources, mainly in the form of soaks.For the pastoralists, the lack of water came at a crucial time as they were carving out vast tracts of land to run cattle. Conflicts between Aboriginal people and white settlers resulted. The Aboriginal people were angry as they watched their waterholes being destroyed by cattle, fences being erected and white men taking their women as wives or servants. Their law, customs and traditions were being violated.
The new pastoralists saw that the Aboriginal people were competing with their cattle for the precious water. They considered their cattle to be more important than the Walpiri people. This was a frontier society determined to maintain its whiteness, determined to put an end to Aboriginality, and ensure the erasure of the Aboriginal presence, one way or another. Aborigines as a distinct group would disappear.
Our first overnight stop on the road to Lajamanu was Pimba and the caravan park at Spuds Roadhouse. Pimba is just down the road from the Defence -controlled town of Woomera and the Woomera Prohibited Area, which has been closed to the public since 1947, when it was used for Cold War rocket and nuclear tests by Britain and Australia between 1955 and 1963. Roxby Downs, BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam site and Andamooka are 100 km or so down the road.
Petrol station, Pimba
The history of this region is one of the suppression of information and dissent by the British military, Australian Governments and scientists about the radioactive fallout from the British nuclear testing. Marlinga has been declared “safe”, even though the buried long-lived plutonium waste (half-life 24,000 years) is in an unlined burial trench only 2-3 metres below ground – slightly deeper than we place human corpses– with no regard for its longevity or toxicity. Continue reading
The landscape just south of Port Augusta (ie., after Port Pirie ) is quite different to the landscape north of Port Augusta on the way to Woomera. It is a study in contrasts: farmland and desert.
The Princess Highway, south of Port Augusta, runs between Spencer Gulf and the lower Flinders Ranges, and the country between the highway and the Flinders Ranges is primarily farmland. The landscape looked very green and lush after all the winter and spring storms and rains.
lower Flinders Ranges
The electricity grid that extends down to Adelaide is very obvious in the landscape. Port Augusta is a transport hub and a crossroads. The old coal-fired power stations (the Playford A and Northern Power Stations) have been closed, as has the Leigh Creek coal mine. There is a community push for a transition from coal to renewable energy (solar thermal plants) and to make Port Augusta a renewable energy power hub.
I sat in the back of the LandRover Discovery on the Mildura to Pimba leg of our road trip to Lajamanu. Since the stops to take photos would be few and far between due to time constraints, I took photos of the landscape through the window.
The picture below is of pastoral/grazing country on the Goyder Highway in South Australia, on route to Port Augusta. This highway is an east-west link through the Mid-North region of South Australia, and this is the landscape between the River Murray at Morgan and Burra in the mid-north of South Australia.
It is sparse, saltbush country with a few small trees. It looked strange and I wondered what would it have looked prior to grazing? Would there have been more trees? A mallee woodland?
Landscape, Goyder Highway
This landscape is north of an imaginary line that separates the land in South Australia that receives 300 mm or more rainfall per year from the land that receives less than 300 mm per year. The imaginary line is named after George Goyder, a government surveyor who first identified and mapped Goyder’s Line.
This line indicates the northern limit of climatic suitability for intensive agriculture in South Australia. North of Goyder’s Line, annual rainfall is usually too low to support reliable cropping, with the land only being suitable for grazing. Continue reading
In mid-2016 after I’d bought a swag I accepted Judith Crispin’s invitation to join her and her friends to travel to the northern Tanami Desert to see the Warlpiri people’s Milpirri Festival at Lajamanu.
The Festival is held every two years on the cusp of the rainy season at Lajamanu, and it is the result of a collaboration between the Lajamanu Community, the Tracks Dance Company and the Lajamanu School.
Judith and her friends were travelling from Sydney and I’d arranged to drive up to Mildura from Victor Harbor via the Mallee and Calder highways to join them at a caravan park on the NSW side of the River Murray at Mildura. The arrangement was that we’d would camp overnight at Mildura.
In the morning I would leave my car in the Mildura Airport’s long term carpark and then travel with Judith and friends in her LandRover Discovery. The plan was to stay overnight at Pimba, near Woomera in South Australia, before making our way to Alice Springs the next day. We would then pick up another group of friends that Judith had invited, and then travel in convoy to Lajamanu via the Tanami Road. The round trip is roughly 8000 km.