Disappointment at Docker River


[Extract from Trekking With the T-Team: Central Australian Safari 1981]



Thursday July 30, 1981


Fortified with a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs, we set off for the Peterman Ranges. The Mulga country captivated me with the black trunks of mulga trees jutting out of the plains of golden grassland and red soil, and the distant lavender hills hidden behind them. While we bounced along the unsealed highway, I looked forward to each new kilometre and the landscape around each bend, my eyes feasting on the rich and vibrant array of colours.


Bang! Bang! Bang! One of the boys hammered on the window. Dad pulled the Rover to the graded roadside.


C1, my older cousin climbed down clutching his head and groaned, ‘I have an awful headache.’


             Dad stepped out of the driver’s side. ‘Ah, well, we’ll have a break, then.’

C1 sat on the side of the road, with his water bottle tucked by his side, he buried his head in his hands. my brother sat beside him for moral support. The rest of us climbed a nearby hill.

Massive Fig Tree DRdadca81086.jpg


As we advanced up the slope and the morning temperature rose, I peeled off layers of clothing—layers one, two, three…until only my jeans, T-shirt, and boots remained on my body.


Photos taken of the massive native fig tree, we returned to the Rover. There lay the “stockman” C1, stretched out on the side of the road, baking in the warm rays of sunshine in stubby shorts and a hat over his face, prone, and still.


I raced up to him. ‘Are you alright?’


‘The headache’s almost gone.’ He leaned on one elbow. ‘I think I’ve recovered.’


‘Oh, that’s good.’ I wiped perspiration from my forehead, and asked, ‘What’s with the clothes or lack of them?’


‘Oh, a man must get a tan,’ he said.


‘You’ll get sunburnt,’ TR, our family friend said. ‘I think we’re ready to leave.’


‘So soon?’ C1 pushed himself to sitting upright. ‘Just a few more minutes of sunbaking. I haven’t had my quota of sun.’ He thudded down on his pillow of rolled up clothes.


I turned to TR. ‘He’s adapted to the Central Australian way of life; take it easy, there’s no rush.’


TR laughed. ‘That won’t last.’


‘Time to go,’ Dad said as he marched up to my cousin. My father shifted his weight from one foot to the other, on edge, as if the sand burned through to the soles of his boots. ‘Come on,  we have to get to Docker River to meet the guides. And if we’re late…’


‘Al-right!’ C1 rose with a groan, pulled on his T-shirt, and then shuffled to the front cabin of the Rover. ‘If we must, but I’m sitting in the front with my uncle.’ He meant my Dad.


 Peterman Ranges Tempting UsDRdadca81046.jpg


We journeyed, with frequent photo stops, through more mulga woodland, the Peterman Ranges making a charming mauve background to the valley of inky limbs holding up the blue-green canopy of leaves. The mountains behind the mulga groves tempted us, the soft breeze whispering through the gullies calling, “Come to us, explore us, see what we have to offer.”


We drove into Docker River settlement, the sun high in the sky, and our necks as if made of rubber, glancing this way and that for signs of life.


The settlement, a smattering of transportable buildings of metal caravans appeared abandoned. Dad parked the Rover, and then we wandered around the empty road of crimson dust.


‘Were we too late?’ I asked, thinking that aliens had abducted all the inhabitants of this town while we drove there.


Dad replied, ‘Ah, well!’


‘Oh, dear! We’re too late.’ C1 sucked the air between the gaps in his front teeth making a whistling sound.


‘Why don’t we just go ahead and explore the mountains,’ TR said. ‘No one’s here, no one will notice.’


‘We have to have a guide,’ Dad said, ‘we can’t go into the Peterman Ranges without a guide.’


A small man with hair, I mean hair that looks like a bird’s nest had fallen from a tree and landed on his head, sauntered up the road towards us.


‘Where’s everyone?’ Dad asked.


‘Dunno,’ he said with a shrug in his over-sized Hawaiian shirt. ‘Sports carnival somewhere out…’ he waved his hand in a general northerly direction, ‘there. Gone bush.’


 Docker River SettlementDocker Daca1981.jpg


Over the next half hour or so, he chatted with us. He was from Adelaide and had taken up a teaching position at Docker River teaching the Pitjantjatjara people. He loved the job and raved on about the life here with such enthusiasm, I became caught up with the idea of teaching in Central Australia. This guy covered all manner of topics—books, ideas, teaching in Docker River. The eyes of Dad, TR, C1 and C2 glazed over but my brother and I listened to the teacher guy, giving him our undivided attention.




Shuffling. Was that shuffling? Or was it the wind? Maybe a whirly-whirly whipping up stray tumble weed? No, the shuffling turned into a deliberate crunch, crunch. I looked over the teacher’s shoulder and peered into the distance. There plodding towards us, an owner of the land, hands in his baggy jeans, shoulders slightly hunched in a soot and checked shirt, and eyes fixed on the red dust of road. Dad perked up and strode towards him, hand outstretched.


‘This is K,’ the teacher said. ‘He’s an elder.’


‘We would like to go and explore the Peterman Ranges, but I’ve heard we need a guide,’ Dad said, careful not to ask in a direct manner. State your case. State your position. Let them make the offer.


‘I’ll find someone,’ K said and walked off, disappearing down the road.


So, in good faith we waited for the promised guide. The teacher wandered off. We ate lunch. The sun sank towards the horizon bathing the low hills, scrub and aluminium buildings in vivid golden-orange tones.


Dad sighed. ‘Ah, well, I guess he’s not coming back.’


TR held his upper lip stiff trying to hide his disappointment. ‘We better find a campsite before it gets dark.’


We piled in and on top of the Rover and trundled out of town to find a camping ground.


 Goodbye PetermansDRdadca81075.jpg


A roaring fire of fragrant mulga wood made up for the acute disappointment. Our chef extraordinaire, Dad threw together a feast of steak, mashed potatoes, and damper.


As we sat around the fire, enjoying our meal my brother stood up and pointed. ‘Hey, look! A white dog.’


The dog startled and vanished into the darkness.


After a cup of cocoa since the Milo went missing, we filed off to bed. Swaddled in the comfort of my sleeping bag, I enjoyed the rich Mulga aroma of the fire.






© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2017


Photos © C.D. Trudinger 1981



4 thoughts on “Disappointment at Docker River

  1. I loved the paintings re scenes and this piece writing compliments it so nicely. I felt for you, the leader no sense of time one at nature moves so slowly . We whites are on a timetable schedule and at times too busy to take in our lovely surrounds . Or do you blame your cousin whom wanted to sun bake instead of making that move straight away? Can’t wait for the next instalment . Keep up this writing am enjoying it.


    1. Yes, Dad took some good photos. Hard not to with the scenery in the Peterman Ranges. You’re right, I was very frustrated that we couldn’t explore but understood that the land belonged to the Indigenous owners.


  2. Yes understanding the indigenous owners rights towards their land. You were so lucky in been able to move and see central Australia so much to see


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