The camel trek solution

I found the  solution to my predicament about how I could  photograph in northern South Australia. I could do  a camel trek with  experienced cameliers. The camels would carry the swag, food and water,  we would do the walking and the cameleers would guide us through the remote, semi-arid landscape.  So we booked a 12 day walk  as part of a party of six  starting on June 19th and finishing on July 2nd.   The trek started from  near Arkaroola and it  finished at  Mt Hopeless, reputed to be the northern edge of the Flinders Ranges.  The group included 3 friends from Suzanne’s Heysen Trail walking group.

We left the stormy winter weather at Encounter Bay on the southern coast of  the Fleurieu Peninsula,  and drove  up to Alpana Station near Blinman. We  arriving  in the late afternoon  and stayed overnight in the shearers quarters.  This  gave me an hour or so for a bit of photography wandering around the station  before dinner in the North Blinman Hotel. I had no time to explore Blinman itself,  to check out the Blinman mine,  or scope the fascinating landscape around Blinman.

emu,  Alpana Station, Blinman

I had a digital camera–the Sony a7R111– and two film cameras–a Leica M4-P and a Rolleiflex TLR. I decided against taking a carbon fibre tripod to use with  the Rolleiflex, as the Sony  has good low light capabilities and can be handheld in low light.   This was to be a trial  run to see if my body  could handle the walking  for 12 days, and whether or not I could do any  photography. I considered using large format (ie., taking the 5×4 Linhof Technika IV) to be over the top.  I understood that as everything centred around the 12 camels–the pace, the camp site,  where to walk, and the loading and unloading of the camels  each day— this might allow some time for photography.   Continue reading

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re-assessing

I realized when I was at Karlu Karlu in 2016 hat I found  the country in the northern part of South Australia  (ie., north of  Port Augusta) that we  had passed through on the way to and from  Lajamanu to be as  interesting as  the destination itself. I realized that wanted to explore this country rather than travel though  for 12 hours a day to  get to a particular destination. It was the journey, not the destination that was crucial for me.

Pylons+ Flinders Ranges

But how to explore the northern part of Australia? Aerial photography was too expensive; I didn’t  have a 4 wheel drive; I wasn’t prepared to go into this semi arid county on my own;  I wasn’t interested in just sticking to the main highways, stopping for a break and a quick photo;   or just taking photos through a car window as I travelled  through the landscapes limited.

The landscape looked interesting through the window:  there were the salt lakes either side of the Stuart Highway, the various deserts, the pastoral landscapes north of  Goyder’s Line, the Flinders Ranges themselves,  and the country of the northern Flinders Ranges. This was a landscape that I didn’t know.  Continue reading

Milpirri portraits

Photographing people  was very different at Lajamanu during  Milpirri that it is in Australian cities.   Many of the  young Milpirri   wanted to have their  photos  taken,  and they often presented themselves in front of the camera. Then they would ask their friends to be part of their  performance. Often they  would direct in the sense of presenting themselves  for the camera.

From what I could see on the night  the photographers at Milpirri were non- Aboriginal people (kardiya). This was another indication that the reality of life in Lajamanu is that Warlpiri culture is being overwhelmed by a pervasive and powerful Euro-Australian culture.

2 girls at Milpirri

Warlpiri friends, Milpirri

 

Most Warlpiri feel trapped between two cultures. Young people particularly feel that engagement with the mainstream organisations that run Lajamanu requires too great a departure from their Warlpiri life, while on the other hand the culture of their elders seems increasingly irrelevant. The result is that many people are in a kind of social no-man’s land where the values of neither culture are learned deeply. In some cases the young Warlpiri  now know so little of their own culture that they do not even have the luxury of choosing which culture they want to follow.

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Hooker Creek

Whilst I was at Lajamanu I would sleep in  a swag  on the verandah of the Learning Centre, rise before dawn, quickly  dress,  then  walk around the township  taking photos before the early morning  light became too bright.

I usually ended up in the Hooker Creek area and wandering along the dry river bed as this gave me more time  for photography. The township is on the eastern side of  Hooker Creek. The creek is normally dry and a flooded Hooker Creek is  a rare occurrence in the Wet season at  Lajamanu.

tree, Hooker Creek

tree, Hooker Creek

Lajamanu used to be known as Hooker Creek circa 1948 –1978 . That was when it was a government settlement which also included  a Baptist mission from the 1960s. Government here means the Commonwealth government since  1 January 1911 marked the date  in which the Northern Territory became the responsibility of the Commonwealth.  At the time there was a belief that Aboriginal people were an inferior and doomed race.

Some held the view that full blood Aboriginal people would die out in within a few generations, and the best thing that government policy makers could do for them was to provide a comfortable existence until that happened. Settlement meant the Chief Protector was empowered to assume the care, custody or control of any Aboriginal or half-caste if, in his opinion, it was necessary or desirable in the interests of that person for this to be done. Continue reading

the heavy weight of the past

The common interpretation of  the frontier wars between settler Australia and the Aboriginal people is that this history is  a case of a doomed hunter-gatherer people unable to withstand the agriculture, animal husbandry and machinery of modern capitalism. This downplays the history of  the killing phases, segregation-by-incarceration phases, assimilation or absorption- to-the-point-of-disappearance phases, and  the  erasure-of-their- presence phases.

Currently, the aboriginal people in Northern Territory and Lajamanu are governed under an ‘emergency intervention’ initiated under the Howard Coalition government 2007 and continued under the Rudd and Gillard Labor federal governments, then the Abbott/Turnbull  Coalition government. This involves sending in civilian task forces (largely untrained in this work), and the military (even less qualified) ‘to save the children’ from reported child abuse, sexual molestation and neglect. The predators are  now seen as  the Aborigines themselves.

This is Henry Jakamarra Cook and one of his sons reading Judith Crispin’s recently published book, The Lumen Seed,   which includes a number of Henry’s stories:

Henry Jakamarra Cook, Lajamanu

Henry Jakamarra Cook, Lajamanu

This intervention involved the suspension (and therefore the protections) of the federal Racial Discrimination Act and the Northern Territory’s anti- discrimination legislation. That  suspension was revoked and the Act restored on 31 December 2010. The intervention, however, l involves the suspension of the permit system which allows Aborigines to decide who can enter their domains; the search for sexual predators; the quarantining of all social welfare payments; the physical medical examination of children; and the banning of alcohol. Legislation in 2011 ensured that social service payments would be tied to school attendance.

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landscape, Tanami Desert

Late one afternoon  whilst I was at Lajamanu I went on a brief phototrip with Helga Leunig to take photos of the Tanami Desert landscape.  We travelled a short distance  along the gravel  road  that provides access  to the local cemetery and rubbish dump.  This road  north  from Lajamanu, which   connects Lajamanu to the Bunting Highway,  Kalkarindji and Top Springs,   and doesn’t feature on Google maps is  the road that we would take to leave  Lajamanu for Alice Springs via Top Springs.

Helga had briefly explored the area to the north of Lajamanu early in the day,  and she was interested in returning to the rubbish dump to photograph a red car in the late afternoon light.  We never got there. I suspected that we  missed the turn off because we were rushing to catch the light. The Tanami landscape was very different to what I’d expected. I thought that it would be low and flat like the landscape of northern South Australia or featureless sand plains.   I didn’t expect this bio-region  to be as treed as it was:

dead tree, Lajamanu

dead tree, Lajamanu

Vegetation is predominantly spinifex hummock grassland with a tall-sparse shrub overstorey. Like most coastal Australians my imagination had constructed it  as  terrifyingly,  inhospitable arid country–an undifferentiated,  empty  desert landscape  with intense white light, termite mounds, and extreme temperatures.  Unhomely. It was yet another version of the white settler’s “dead heart”–that  long held popular conception of the Australian interior as a great and threatening unknown; one  counterpoised to the mythical  Inland Sea  in the middle of Australia  that  was  the preoccupation of  the early white  explorers, such as Charles Sturt, who took a whaleboat to the desert.  I didn’t expect  to see the  clustered eucalypts.

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The Tanami + the Frontier wars

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

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.