Three journeys

Almost a day had passed since my arrival in Darwin. It is morning now. I open the curtains and look out across Darwin and its harbour. The sun shines brightly, in the morning sky there is the slightest hint that the wet season is on its way.

The first journey: a state funeral

Sunset ant Gunbalanya

I do not feel this is the best morning of my life. I leave the room and go down to breakfast. Soon I am in a cab back to the airport to meet ANTHONY MURPHY, then the director of Injalak Arts and Crafts, who had been on a trip to Adelaide to see his family.

The Injalak troopie (a 4 wheel drive) was parked in the airport car park and ANTHONY and I were to drive to Gunbalanya that morning. I meet ANTHONY in the arrivals hall, he had been up most of the night.

Anthony Murphy

We stand in front of the large painting of a rainbow serpent in the arrivals hall, the sign below describing the work and the artist. The sign, already with its white stickers, their purpose was to obscure the artist’s name.

“I will drive ANTHONY”

We head out of the airport car park, both feeling the same deep sadness. We stop for supplies on the outskirts of Darwin.

These infrequent shopping trips for people who live in remote locations in Australia are a chance to stock up with items that, back at home, would either not be available or be too expensive to contemplate. We stock up the troopie and continued on our journey. The drive took us through Humpty Doo and through the Kakadu National Park to Jabiru.

Then the familiar turn off to Gunbalanya, now 60 kilometers away. The troopie comes into its own, the trail of red dust behind us. Here we are at the East Alligator River crossing, traditional owner JACOB NAYINGGUL’s crossing, where a few days earlier, we had been filming JACOB crossing the river, backwards and forwards into Arnhem Land.

In a few days the slowly flowing river will become a powerful and deep body of water, strong enough to take with it even the largest road train that dares to cross it. The river is about to cut off Arnhem Land for yet another wet season, protecting it from the outside world.

River crossed, we were driving through JACOB’s country, the road smoother now as it had been graded in preparation for the funeral. The Arnhem Land escarpment in view, we drive on past Wulk billabong with all its lilies and two large crocodiles. We arrive in Gunbalanya and head to Injalak Arts and Crafts.

We unload the shopping and carry it up the stairs into Anthony’s house, a tropical building on stilts. In the living room plaster ceiling panels are missing courtesy of a cyclone the year before. We settle in and cook an evening meal. Sitting on the balcony that evening we looked towards Injalak Hill, the sun setting over the billabong, the whistling kites make their last calls of the day. We think of WAMUD NAMOK AO.

The next morning we walk over to the Injalak Arts and Crafts building. The troopie will be used as the hearse in the funeral procession that morning so we all set about cleaning the vehicle. ISAIAH NAGURRGURRBA, GLEN NAMUNDJA, GABRIEL MARALNGURRA, GRAHAM BADARI and DON NAMUNDJA plus the usual Injalak Arts stalwarts were all there. Between us we removed the accumulation of Northern Territory dust, cleaned the windows and swept out the inside. The troopie shone in the light, it had never been so clean. This group of great artists had cleaned and polished the vehicle for their long time mentor.

Meanwhile in Sydney that same night, KERRY O’BRIEN, ABC television presenter, reported;

“Remote Australia has had its first state funeral honouring an Aboriginal man they called “the Professor”. In death, he’s known as WAMUD NAMOK, and he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia five years ago. He was a famous artist who won a prestigious Telstra Art Award in 1999 and whose works feature in major public collections around the country. He’ll also be remembered as a man of science, who generously shared his unique knowledge of the landscape and fauna of Western Arnhem Land. 700 people turned out to pay him due homage”.

My part in all this came about through collecting art. Our first visit to Australia in the mid 1970s was the moment that we discovered Aboriginal art and along with other artists the work of WAMUD NAMOK. WAMUD’s generation of artists were very special indeed, their work steeped in knowledge of country and culture, work deeply rooted to place and caring for country.

The earliest work by WAMUD in our collection goes back to 1968 and the latest works include some of the artists most recent. WAMUD’s work has had a great influence on our lives, in both giving us great joy in owning it and for teaching us about another culture, half way across the world from our belonging.

In late 2010 WAMUD NAMOK was honoured with a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. It was Creative cowboy’s honour that our films about the artists of Western Arnhem Land were shown throughout the duration of his exhibition.

The second journey: a walk from Seim to Medige

Ken Thaiday Snr

KEN THAIDAY’s memories from childhood told him that there was a great distance between the Villages of Seim and Medige. For a young child, and before there were modern roads and cars, it would have seemed like a long way.

Many of the houses in Seim are built at the edge of the beach, on the zone where the coconut palms meet the sand. During a high tide the waves almost touch the walls of some houses. The main street, which is the only street, is lined with coconut palms. The village shop is busy all day and the village children play games of chase, they run through the village and its gardens, and much to the irritation of the elders, throw things at each other.

It can be windy in Seim. In fact it is windy for much of the year. Happily tropical cyclones are rare in the Torres Strait. During summer, that is early in the year, the prevailing monsoon winds blow from the northwest at around 20 km per hour. During the winter (April to November) the winds turn to dry south easterly trades that gust at around 30 km per hour.

Because of the reefs, wave heights rarely exceed 3.5m and are always lower during the monsoon period. The seas can be choppy making trips in small boats dangerous during certain periods of active weather. To some extent the islands are protected from the large swells generated in the Coral Sea which are blocked by the northern most extension of the Great Barrier Reef.

Alag mask, tradition has it that when someone is wearing an Alag mask you do not call his name. If you do the results can be painful.

The Torres Strait can be a difficult place if you are a camera person dealing with the chop of the sea and the gusting winds. Our bedroom overlooks the ocean, the wind blows in through the louver windows blowing the curtains so hard that they are parallel to the ceiling. They stay that way all night long as the wind howls around us.

KEN THAIDAY is staying at Sarah and Pau’s house on the opposite side of Medige to where we are staying in Seim. We decide to walk to Medige to see KEN, at a guess the most likely place to find Ken will be on the jetty with his fishing line.

What seemed to the young KEN THAIDAY to be a great distance turns into a short walk as Seim and Medige have both expanded along the shoreline, almost to meet each other. The area between these villages was once a sandy track surrounded with a beautiful beach lined with coconut palms. It is the place where KEN remembers the villagers dancing and where he learnt to dance as a child.

Today the area has been cleared and filled in with rubble to create what resembles an untidy car park. In one part of this area the new health centre stands. Most of what is left is empty, with the exception of a couple of rusting containers and a large stack of abandoned cement sacks, perhaps the remainder of a construction project long ago, the cement now turned solid as rock.

At the far end of this space is a hill in an area called Proserpine, this is KEN’s land.

I am not the only one to reflect on the changes on Erub.  Artist, CLINTON NAIN, also reflects on these changes in his work Erub has a bitumen road now. This painting is owned by the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia.

Making a Dhari

Ken Thaiday Snr at Kemus, Erub

The third journey: crossing the Rift

BEN is getting nervous

It had been very dry. I had a sense that BEN was starting to get nervous. The hippos were also getting restless forcing their huge bulk sideways and upwards through the water that remained in the river below us. Their grunts grew louder.

Time to go, the black clouds started to roll over us. The baboons started to run up the river bank opposite to us gathering up the babies as they ran. A dozen or so Guineafowl, one behind another, ran along the banks edge, silhouetted now, legs working furiously and heads down.

There are no bridges here, so a rising river means a long wait until the river recedes again. Back in our vehicle with BEN at the wheel we drive swiftly up the dirt track leading from the river. We are not the only ones in a hurry. A group of Maasai with more than one hundred cattle are also on the road, soon we are in the middle of the herd. We move gently along with the animals.

BEN looks more anxious. Then we are through, accelerator down we speed and bump our way towards the new camp. Then it happens, the lightening and the rain. A sudden torrent fills the air to turn the African dust to a slippery mud, the rains have come at last. I have a sense of joy, for so long in dry places where the rains have failed. Now the rain will provide the pasture for the animals of the Rift Valley.

ROB, our cameraman, shouts,

“look the whole place is underwater”

It had all happened within moments. Our problem was now getting across those rapidly rising rivers. The rain was so hard that it was impossible to see the track ahead now lost in the flooding rain.

We had three rivers to cross to get back to the camp, we arrived at the last river just in time, a few moments later would have meant spending several days here, then we were through.

This was to be a night of luxury away from the tent. Soon we were sitting at the bar, whiskey in hand, watching the rain pouring from the roof and  filling the river next to us.

The animals were happy that night. When the rains come a remarkable change takes place. What was dust coloured landscape yesterday now has a tinge of green, the first growth of the wet.

After the rain