Saturday, August 3, 2019

Working in an Aboriginal community

Painting of water hole, burnt landscape and sand hills, Balgo Art Collective

         Mulan, an Aboriginal outpost with a population of about 200 people, wasn’t on any of the maps that we used to get us to the Lake Gregory field area. Giff Miller had sent a cryptic email that said, “Turn right about 30 km after you pass through Billaluna. We’ll be camping about 10 km out of town on a creek. You can’t miss it.”
We drove from Halls Creek, past the Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater to Billaluna, a town with several shops and a gas station. There, we asked where the road to Mulan was, but we asked in a way that was destined to take us in the wrong direction.
         Little did we understand that Aborigines never answered “no” when asked a yes or no question. We asked, “Is this the road to Mulan?” The answer was, of course, yes. Our family of four, mom and dad with the two kids, headed down a dirt track that got smaller and smaller. Just outside of town, we passed a hitchhiker and without much thought, offered him a ride. He was heading in the same direction as we were, but we didn’t notice until he hopped in the car that he was carrying a rifle. Perhaps this wasn’t the smartest thing we’d ever done.
The real road to Mulan, with Evan 1998
         After a few km, we came up to a group of Aboriginal hunters, and our rider thanked us and took off. The hunters had set fire to the area on the left side of the road in order to drive game to the other side where they would shoot any bustards, turkey-sized birds, or kangaroos, both of which were considered delicacies. It was our first time driving through a bush fire, but not the last. When we let off our hitchhiker, the road diverged into three directions. Chris pointed to the left fork, “Is this the best way to get to Mulan?” The answer, of course, was yes. Chris headed the jeep down a one-lane dirt track. Within a km or two, the road diverged again. We stopped, thought about it for a moment, then took the left fork. Shortly, the road started to fade out with thorny acacia bushes covering the way. We had reached a dead end.
         Fortunately we had food, water, and enough fuel to camp out if we were lost—and we were. Carefully, we turned the vehicle around and retraced our steps. In 1998, I did not have a GPS unit so were traveling on our own with maps. After returning to Billaluna, we stopped in the store, this time asking the white proprietor how to get to Mulan. He directed us back to the Tanami Track and told us to look for a primitive sign and an even more primitive track leading to Mulan. Near 5 pm, as the sun was low in the horizon, we finally turned off on the track that took us through sand dunes and swamps to the village of Mulan.
         Over the years, I met many Aboriginal people even working with them in the field. I went many times through the village of Mulan 40 km off the Tanami Track in Northern Territory, but that first trip to Mulan influenced my son to become a medical professional. Years later he reflected on this trip:
The desert landscape stretched for miles. When I was ten-years-old, I traveled with my family through the Australian outback in search of the small Aboriginal town, Mulan, where my mother conducted fieldwork, 8 hours away from the nearest paved road. After years of abuse from the Australian government, the village greeted us with wary skepticism. Mulan hosted high levels of chronic illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and impoverishment. The village leader, Whiskey, took us in and we exchanged ideas on wildlife and climate. Throughout our stay, what impressed me more than the accumulation of 100s of years of passed down knowledge was the distinct and overwhelming respect the community held for him as their leader and, more importantly, as their healer. He treated everyone with the utmost kindness and kept an open ear for all who sought his counsel. The degree of trust they had in him inspired resilience that pushed them through times of drought and illness. Observing Whiskey made me realize how one person can make a difference in the lives of others. The strength he inspired in his people allowed them to turn the Australian outback into a home where they could grow for generations.” Evan Swarth, December 2018.

         We drove out of Mulan with Whiskey’s directions—over a sand hill, through a creek bed, then over a sand hill, you’ll see them on the right, he said. We took off confident we’d be in the camp within a few minutes. No problem with the first couple of sand hills and creek beds, but no sign of Giff or John. Then the road forked. We got out of the vehicle and looked for recent tracks, but the sun was now well below the horizon and it was getting dark. We chose the left fork heading into a vast open plain dotted with the outlines of gum trees. Suddenly, there in the distance we saw the bright orange glow of a campfire! The relief was palpable.
         We’d made it. As we drove closer, the orange glow grew larger—it was the rising moon. Disappointment lay heavy in the vehicle. Chris and I kept an upbeat tone. But tt was 9 pm, pitch black outside. The kids were hungry, and we were beat. We pulled off the road under a gum tree, pitched our tent, heated up some baked beans, and called it a day. The kids slept in the car.
Giff Miller, intrepid geochemistry explorer
         Where was Giff? Would we ever find the camp? The next morning we packed up camp, and with determination, continued on the track. Within 20 minutes, we ran straight into a small caravan of field vehicles driven by Giff, John Magee and Jim Bowler. Relief flooded over me. We’d made it. After spending the day collecting plants, we headed at last to the camp, another 10 km from where we’d parked the night before, far from the few sand hills past Mulan.
         That first field season in the Mulan and Lake Gregory area was a good experience for learning how to incorporate a whole new field area into a study. We had originally thought that we could take sediment cores from the center of Lake Gregory, a sizeable lake in Aboriginal territory. We were naïve in this thought because the Aboriginal community had no boats and forbid sampling sediments in any part of the lake. When we thought about this, we realized that the Mulan people’s dreamtime stories included a serpent coming from the center of the lake, who morphed into the tribe that occupies the land today. To drill into the lake would in essence disturb the sacred ground—a religious area strictly off limits to geologists.

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