and the Broken Trailer
‘This land belongs to the Pitjantjatjara people,’ Dad said to me. I sat in the front seat while he negotiated the corrugations, bumps and lumps of the poor excuse of a graded road. Abandoned cars, just shells really, languished in the scrub each side of the road. He pointed at the wrecks that were planted in crimson fields of wild hops. ‘They run their cars to the ground. Anyway, normally you need a special permit to go on to their land.’
‘Then how did you get to go here?’ I asked.
Dad chuckled. ‘Well, I wrote a letter to their council of elders asking permission. I put at the end that if I didn’t hear from them, that meant they gave their approval. I didn’t hear from them.’
‘I have friends at Ernabella as well,’ Dad said. ‘I used to come up to Ernabella when my older brother was teaching there. When I was ‘round your age.’
Dad went onto explain how he made good friends with the Pitjantjatjara lads about the same age as him and how they explored the Musgrave Ranges. Dad even learnt the language.
‘How long ago was that?’ I asked.
‘Oh, something like thirty-five years ago,’ Dad said.
‘And you were ma son’s age,’ Mr. B said from the back seat.
I glanced to the back of the Rover. Matt blushed and looked away. I’d been impressed by his silence on this trip. I was sure I hadn’t heard him utter more than a few words the four days we’d been travelling. He seemed an obedient little chap, especially in his father’s presence. I wondered what Dad was like when he was Matt’s age. I imagined Dad as more talkative, after all, he could speak the language of the Pitjantjatjara people. And he must’ve been more adventurous to go camping in the Musgrave Ranges.
‘There was this one time,’ Dad said, when I went exploring with my friends in the middle of summer. We forgot to take any water and it was hot. We got lost and had to search for a waterhole. I was so thirsty, I thought I was going to die. We found the waterhole just in time. But I learnt a valuable lesson to always take water and salt tablets.’
Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!
‘What’s that noise?’ Mr. B shouted.
‘Oh, no!’ Richard said peering out the back window. ‘One of the trailer bars is broken.’
Dad sighed. ‘And we’ve only just started today.’
We stopped, jumped out of the Rover and then formed a circle around the trailer that leaned on its side.
‘Now what are we going to do?’ Mr. B asked.
Dad bent down and examined the damage. ‘A part is missing.’
‘I’ll go look for it,’ Richard broke away from the circle and sauntered down the track.
The rest of us stood mesmerized by the leaning tower of trailer that seemed to be sinking in the sand.
A few minutes later, Richard returned. ‘It’s gone, I can’t seem to see it anywhere.’
‘So what are we going to do?’ Mr. B asked again.
Dad kicked a tyre. ‘There’s only one thing we can do. We have to pile everything on top of the Land Rover.’
‘What? You are kidding, aren’t you?’ Mr. B laughed.
‘No, I’m serious. We have to get parts to fix the trailer, and we can’t leave it here,’ Dad said.
‘You—you mean the trailer too?’ Mr. B asked.
‘The trailer? How’s the Rover going to cope with that?’
‘It’ll just have to,’ Dad said. ‘I wouldn’t risk leaving it here in the bush.’
‘Yeah, not by the looks of those car wrecks,’ Richard muttered.
‘You mean to say, if we leave the trailer, someone will come along in this desert and take things?’ Mr. B said scratching his head.
‘Yes, most likely,’ Dad said.
‘Even if we hide it in the bush?’
‘Have you seen where the other car wrecks are, Mr. B?’ Richard said. ‘They’re not exactly on the road.’
Mr. B put his hands on his hips and frowned.
‘Look,’ Dad said, ‘we’re not far from Ernabella. We can get the trailer fixed there. I’m sure we’ll be alright for a few miles.’
Mr. B grunted and then pointed at his son. ‘Well, come on boy, don’t just stand there, help us unload the trailer.’
We all helped pile the contents of the trailer and then the trailer on top of the Rover. While Richard tightened the last of the ropes over the trailer-stack on the Rover’s roof, I stood back and mused, Now the Rover really does look overloaded.
As we prepared to jump in the Rover, a battered old utility car (in Australian we call it a “ute”) roared up to us. The ute stopped and two Indigenous men stepped out.
‘Do you need any help?’ one asked.
Dad waved at them. ‘It’s okay.’
The men jumped back in their ute and then waved at us. They drove away with dirt and dust from the road billowing behind their vehicle.
After loading ourselves into the over-loaded Rover, we thundered down the road. A Holden sedan approached from the opposite direction. Dad slowed down as we prepared to pass on this narrow road and we prepared our hands for the obligatory wave. The thing about the outback, as the drivers of the cars passed each other, was the slow raising of the hand to the windscreen; a ritual greeting for the rare fellow traveller.
The car neared and we lifted our right hands up and down. The Indigenous owners of the sedan, did the same. Dad tracked the car as it passed us. Then he looked back.
‘Felix! (not his real name),’ Dad said. ‘It’s Felix, I would recognize him anywhere.’ He stopped the Rover in the middle of the road.
Felix had also parked mid-track. The two old men from their respective vehicles jumped out and paced to each other. They shook hands, laughed and babbled away. So Dad really could speak their language.
We all climbed out and Dad introduced us to Felix who shook our hands. Dad continued to banter in Pitjantjatjara. I reckon he was showing off his linguistic skills for Mr. B’s benefit.
After some time chatting in Indigenous tongue to his friend, Dad shook Felix’s hand once more and then the men patted each other on the back before bidding each other goodbye. Then we jumped back into our respective vehicles and continued on our journeys; one to Ernabella and one away from Ernabella.
We stopped in at Fregon, another Indigenous settlement much like Mimili. Then at about 2.30pm we arrived at Ernabella.
A teacher friend of Dad’s invited us into his home for refreshments and each of us had a hot shower. I enjoyed the soft warm drops of water showering down on me. My treat for the week. Below rivers of red mud spun into the drain hole of the bath. I scrubbed my hair with shampoo. The soap refused to lather. I scrubbed and scrubbed.
‘Lee-Anne!’ Dad called. ‘Don’t take all day, the boys need a wash too.’
‘Oh, alright.’ I turned off the tap. I guess the boys did need to wash, probably more than me. They were getting quite ripe at close quarters in the Rover. After all, it had almost been a week since we had a proper wash.
All showered and smelling sweet again with soap and deodorant, we trailed after Dad who gave us a tour of the settlement, including the school. Ernabella lies at the foot of the Musgrave Ranges, south of the South Australian, Northern Territory border. The land belongs to the Pitjantjara people. The mostly prefabricated buildings were neatly arranged around a random collection of unsealed roads.
Dad guided us around the school which appeared empty. We followed him around the white building. ‘Must be closed,’ Dad said.
‘School holidays, I guess,’ I said.
Dad scanned the transportable blocks and then screwed up his nose. ‘We need to find someone to fix up the trailer.’
We walked through the settlement. The white buildings stood sentinel to the roads void of human activity and traffic. The crunching of stones under our feet was magnified by a town suffering from a bad case of abandonment.
‘Where are all the people?’ Mr. B asked.
‘Wow! The place is tidy and look how clean the streets, are,’ I said.
‘Except for the gravel,’ Richard mumbled.
We wandered after Dad who was having a hard time finding someone to fix our trailer. Anyone…No one seemed to be around. I wondered if Ernabella was a ghost town.
Mr. B suggested we wait by the store that seemed closed and suffering a severe case of neglect. This we did.
‘The reason the settlement is so tidy,’ Dad explained, ‘is because everybody, I mean the aborigines, have a job to do here. They don’t get their welfare payment unless they do their job. They probably have someone cleaning the streets of rubbish and all sorts of other jobs.’
‘Not the store, apparently,’ Mr. B said.
‘Ah, well, they have to get the stock from down south, from Adelaide. Perhaps they’ve run out,’ Dad said with a cough.
An Indigenous man sauntered up to us.
Dad strode to meet the man and he guided him to the trailer still perched on top of the Rover.
While the trailer was being repaired, I climbed a hill. I figured the trailer would take ages to be fixed so I had time to sun bake. I wanted a tan. Treading up the hill, I noticed Matt running after me.
I stood and sighed. Great! Just when I wanted space to myself.
‘Look what I found!’ Matt said holding up a stick.
I examined the carved piece of wood. ‘Oh, yeah?’
‘What do you think it is?’
‘I dunno, a corroboree stick, I suppose.’
‘Oh, cool! Can you take a photo of me with it?’
I took a photo of Matt proudly holding a corroboree stick that he had found. The Musgrave Ranges behind were cast in hues of gold from the rays of the late afternoon sun.
Near evening, we visited an Indigenous pastor. As the Musgrave Ranges is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara People, Dad and the pastor discussed the possibility of getting a couple of guides to be our companions as we climbed Mt. Woodroffe.
For the night we camped in Two Mile Creek which is not far from Ernabella. Dad conceded to camp not alongside, but right in the dry creek bed on the soft sand. This arrangement made Mr. B very happy. ‘For once I get to sleep on soft sand,’ he said.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016
Photo: Wild Hops in Musgrave Ranges © C.D. Trudinger 1981