Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 7
Where the Hell is Warakurna?

© Jens Hültman

Car Buried in Ground, Great Central Road, Australia

Car Buried in Ground, Great Central Road

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In his book about English football hooligans, Among the Thugs, Bill Buford writes about his thoughts when he is taken along by the hooligans to a football riot in Torino. The hooligans had told him another time they'd taken a journalist along, and that he shat himself when everything started to "break out", and that they "had to" stab him. Buford thinks to himself as he is running along with the hooligans, 'I’m not gonna shit myself, I’m not gonna shit myself'.

This was the thought in my head on the early morning when we set out for nine hundred kilometres of desert driving on the Gunbarrel Highway. Nigel locked the hubs on Fidelity’s front wheels and off we went. A conventional car has transmission to either the front or the rear diff. A 4WD has transmission to both. Normally, with a 4WD vehicle you have power only to the rear diff, which means that mostly you drive the car in 2WD. When you are going to drive in 4WD, you stop the car, get out and lock the hubs on the front wheels. If you don't lock the hubs, engaging the 4WD will not help. Both hubs need to be locked, or the 4WD will not work. Locking the hubs means that both front wheels are now rotating synchronously. Most hubs are "free wheeling", which means that if one of the front wheels cannot get a grip, it will spin while the other one is still working. It is very handy when climbing on rocks, uneven surfaces, sand, mud or other forms of nastiness. However, the hubs should not be locked when driving on hard surfaces, such as bitumen, for a long time. That can destroy them.

After the hubs are locked you get back into the car and move a lever to either "high ratio 4WD" or "low ratio 4WD". Either way, it is now possible to tackle many obstacles that you would not have thought possible to overcome.

Halfway to Kata Tjuta is the turn-off to the Great Central Road over to Western Australia via the Aboriginal communities and outback townships of Docker River, Warakurna, Warburton and Laverton. Trespassers without a permit from the Aboriginal communities are fined one thousand dollars for travelling on this road, if caught. Some land in Australia has been handed back to the traditional owners. Mostly, you need a permit to enter Aboriginal land. Sometimes you can travel on and camp next to the roads, provided you do not drive into the communities. Often, you are allowed to visit the roadhouses to refuel and stock up on supplies. It is a common complaint from Anglos that they need a permit to visit "their own land".

The Great Central Road runs straight as a gunbarrel through the Peterman Ranges. The plain beneath the towering mountain ranges is an impressive sight. The desert landscape south-west of Alice Springs is among the most beautiful in Australia. The red earth is covered with golden spinifex grass beneath a clear blue sky. Desert oaks stand tall in the barren desert. We stopped to have a look at the unfortunate Lasseter's Cave, where he died in the '30s, after unsuccessfully searching for a "huge gold reef" in the desert.

Driving a Landcruiser on a dirt road proved to be great fun. Just as Fidelity had been heavy, noisy and clumsy on the bitumen, she was happy when she got dirt under her wheels. I turned on the Aggression tape and enjoyed driving. Motörhead blasted out through the speakers: "The Ace of Spades, the Ace of Spades", I sang and laughed. 'Yahoo! Here we go!’

The first thing you discover when you drive on a dirt road is to avoid driving in the dust of other vehicles. If you do, you will not be able to see a thing. The second discovery is that the 4WD transmission is rather handy if the surface is covered with sand. The first part of the Great Central Road/Gunbarrel Highway is well groomed and easy to drive on, but a bit sandy in patches. Driving in sand is a bit like driving on new snow. You slow down, shift to a higher gear and try to keep a straight line so that you don't slide around. Dirt road driving wasn’t that hard after all’, I thought to myself. Little did I know what lay ahead of me. We slogged along on a sandy and severely corrugated road behind a huge road train, and then drove into Warakurna.

Warakurna is the archetypal outback community, which mainly consists of Aboriginal dwellings in various states of decay. Some distance away from the community is a roadhouse, which always is run by white Australians under a license from the local community government. The petrol pumps are often locked in iron cages. Everything is shared in an Aboriginal community. This includes whitefella's stuff. If the petrol pumps weren't locked in cages, everybody’s cars would always be running around on free fuel. But an even sadder reason for the petrol cages is that petrol sniffing is all too common in Aboriginal communities. The kids sniff petrol and fry their brains. Therefore, the cages are there for good reason. You can bring alcohol to Aboriginal land only for your own use. It has to be hidden in the outback Esky or generally kept out of sight when visiting a community. Giving or selling it to the locals is strictly forbidden.

Is this a "lock your car place"?’ I asked Pat. 'Well, you better’, she replied. We entered the roadhouse. An old Aboriginal man, who looked as if he and Methuselah had been born on the same day, came up to us. At first I could not understand him but with Nigel's help, I finally understood that he was introducing himself as "Wally". He asked us where we were from. He had not heard of Sweden, but intended to look it up on the map.

The roadhouse had suffered a minor disaster. The power had gone out, so most of the food in the fridges and freezers had gone off. The proprietors had lost $1000 worth of food. They were sad, but this was nothing compared to the locals. The public mood was as morose as if a hunting party in the old days had returned empty handed. We bought the remains of the greasy offerings and munched in on it, washed down with soft drinks. A bit more of this diet and I will be blessed with the same rotundness as I had when I skied in New Zealand in 1987, I thought to myself. That was when I was eight kilos overweight and looked like an air defence balloon. Many locals could have applied for that job as well. Diabetes is another plague of the Aboriginal communities. Alcohol, sugar, greasy junk food and white flour have done them no good.

Two women came in with some canvasses. Wally smiled at us. The proprietors asked them what they were carrying. Wally’s wife and daughter answered in soft, shy voices that the canvasses were Dreamtime paintings they had done. They did not look at us but had the air of "if somebody would like to have a look at this we might show it to them". We had a look at it. It’s a Bush Tucker Dreaming’, explained Wally’s wife in a low voice. ‘It’s about the Seven Sisters.’

She was a round woman with a Rastafari beret on her head. She started to point out various details in the songline that told the story about the Seven Sisters. A songline is used to tell a story of how the ancestral beings created the world. It is also used to memorise how to find one’s way in the outback and how to find tucker in the bush. You learn and then paint the story of your own dreaming, your own totemic creature. Through different levels of initiation, you acquire more and more knowledge about your own dreaming, the part of a songline that you are responsible for. If the story is forgotten, then the creation ceases to exist. Therefore, it is mandatory that the songlines be learnt by generation after generation and that the spiritual bond with the land be maintained. The land cannot be owned but it must be cared for spiritually. White folks are only told so much of a Dreamtime story as they are supposed to know.

Wally’s smile threatened to cut his head in two. I felt like in a dream, it was unreal. Here I was, far out in the Australian bush where few tourists set foot, meeting real Aboriginal people showing me real Dreamtime stories. I did not know what to ask. I felt like buying the painting. The permit from the Central Land Council stated that this was verboten. Scoundrels travel out to Aboriginal communities and buy paintings for less than they are worth. Aborigines do not haggle. It is easy for the ruthless to get a dirt-cheap bargain.

Meanwhile, Nigel, always the energetic guide, arranged a visit to the nearby Giles Meteorological Station. A man called Len Beadell built many of the roads in central Australia in the 1950s and '60s. A main driving force for this project was the British nuclear bomb tests that were performed in the central deserts. As part of the preparation for the tests, Len and his crew built the bomb roads. They also were assigned the task of preparing a spot for a meteorological station, named after an early pioneer, Ernest Giles. Len’s old grader is still standing in a cage at the station. The cage is needed to protect the machine from being robbed of parts by Eejits and Para-Militaries who want to souvenir them.

This machine and a bulldozer were the two vehicles that battered their way through the bush and built the roads. Len travelled ahead with his Landrover, which typically had six or seven punctured tyres a day. Periodically, he stopped and signalled with a mirror to the bulldozer operator who was attacking the bush. Then came the grader, which "smoothed" things out. Hundreds of kilometres of roads were built in this way by the Gunbarrel Crew. They constantly fought the scorching heat, swarms of pestering flies and rain that poured down and transformed the desert into mud. Len Beadell was not only a surveyor and a builder of roads, he was also a witty writer and a great cartoonist. The kitchen at Giles Station features a famous "bar" where Len has drawn a number of cartoons on the walls. This is a "staff only" area. Nigel managed to talk his way into the kitchen so we could get a look at the cartoons. One of the cartoons features Old Wally, a father or grandfather to the present-day Wally. If Wally were the young one, then I would have liked to see Old Wally!

We also got a short tour of the station from Pete the Meteorologist. He told us what it was like to be away from his family in Adelaide. They worked at Giles in stints of six weeks at a drawn a number of cartoons on the walls. This is a "staff only" area. Nigel managed to talk his way into the kitchen so we could get a look at the cartoons. One of the cartoons features Old Wally, a father or grandfather to the present-day Wally. If Wally were the young one, then I would have liked to see Old Wally! They worked at Giles in stints of six weeks at a time. This is what life is like for many workers in the outback. Still, Pete said he would never give up his work. At first, he had gone to Giles out of curiosity. Now he looked forward to coming back repeatedly.

Chapter 8 →