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Searching for a Story in the Heart of Australia - Part 1
A travelogue about hitting a dead-end, traveling on a whim, and ending up somewhere unexpected.
In two weeks I am traveling back to Australia to complete my book project that explores the colonial legacy in the outback. This return has got me thinking about my previous trips. This week, I wrote a travelogue about following my nose and ending up in an unanticipated place. This is the first of two parts - read the second part here.
It was a 563 km drive from Uluru in the Northern Territory to Warburton, Western Australia, along a sandy dirt road through indigenous lands. For stretches, red rock jutted from the hills against a big blue sky, and spinifex, mulga, and desert oak skirted the road.
The area is one of the most remote parts of Australia. Over the six-hour drive, I passed three cars. A small shop and gas station in each of the two Aboriginal communities I drove through were the only places for fuel and supplies.
I was taking the drive on a whim, searching for an image to represent a facet of Indigenous Australia and this remote tract of the outback. I had traveled to Uluru two days prior to meet some of the elders at the Mutitjulu Aboriginal community and photograph them. But when I arrived, it became clear that the community manager, a white Australian man with lips pursed from drawing a lifetime of cigarettes, wasn’t going to let me engage the way I hoped. He placed a bunch of restrictions on me: do not enter people's homes or have conversations without him or one of his supervisors present in the community, and don’t wander beyond a certain distance from his office. He was hostile and I realized the restrictions weren't really about me, I think he held deep contempt for the media and the sensationalized stories that too often depict the area.
I was on assignment for The New York Times, working on a story that was to be a broad portrait of the Australian bush. I was on a work schedule and I didn't have time to waste with people that didn't want me around.
During a brief conversation, while the manager was absent, one of the community elders mentioned to me that Indigenous Australians from the western desert nations were gathering near Warburton for an annual initiation of young men. It was a ritual where the Aboriginal boys coming into puberty are initiated as men; a ceremony that, depending on who you ask, consists of circumcision and the incision of scars on the chests, shoulders, arms, or buttocks.
My ears pricked up when I heard the words “secret mens business,” as the initiation is often referred to by Indigenous Australians. This is because within their customs it's not discussed; the initiated don’t come back and share their transformation with the women or even other men. As a “white fella” I could not go near the ceremonies, but I knew that Warburton would be buzzing with people afterward. Maybe there was a photo to make—a portrait, a street scene, or people traveling home. I wasn't sure exactly what I would find but I was in the remotest part of the country with stifled work plans. My gut said go.
As I approached the outskirts of Warburton, my eyelids were dipping with the sun, drowsy from the day's drive. Midnight Oil’s “The Dead Heart” played from the rental car speakers, scratchy from six hours bouncing up and down on dirt roads. The song was my attempt to relate to the landscape and draw inspiration for a country I didn't fully understand.
Ahead, a group of men appeared on the road, shrouded by dust in the day's last purple light. I slowed down, glanced to my right, and saw people scattered through the bush, a few hundred perhaps. Some were sitting, others walking, and a group of ten or so women danced and clapped with what looked like tree branches from the distance. This was part of the ceremonial area for the initiations. I felt immediately uneasy, not because of what I was seeing, but because I was an outsider. I had no place there at that moment.
I continued into town, pulled into the only roadhouse, and filled up the car. As I paid for gas, the non-indigenous manager asked me what I was doing here, “Traveling and taking photos,” I said. A bell announced a group of young men coming into the shop, their red ochre faces illuminated under the fluorescent lights. They grabbed cans of Coke, Magnums, and some food, and paid without making eye contact or speaking.
“Did you come from that way?” asked the owner, lifting his head up and back towards the east. I nodded. “Surprising you didn’t get speared on your way in.” I asked if he had a room and he said “Yes. You better hide out back until all the business is over”.
For the next two nights, I stayed in a mobile home behind the roadhouse. It was a trailer park with a few caravans and a barbeque area surrounded by a metal sheet fence with barbed wire across the top. As the manager advised, I hid out and edited photos from the previous week's trip: the red earthen scars of an Iron Ore mine in Western Australia, drunk farmhands kissing at a Bachelor and Spinster Ball in Victoria, a rodeo in Hay, New South Wales.
As I scrolled through my photos, all I could see was the symbolism of colonization through the events and the white faces I edited. Just a few kilometres away, the original custodians of this ancient land were circumcising their youth with a blunt stone, and passing along sacred songs like they had been doing for centuries. One night, I heard police sirens. Dogs barked. I wanted to be out there so badly. Instead, I watched Point Break on my laptop before dozing off to sleep.
When I woke up after the second night and peered between the gates toward the front of the roadhouse, the street was bustling for a small bush town. Indigenous Australians filled cars with gas, kids darted between cars barefoot, and red ochre was still visible on the faces of men who crowded into the backs of utes. I wandered out with my camera slung from on my shoulder. There was a photo to be taken, but as my hand moved to the camera by my side, a teenage boy shook his hand at me. He didn't speak but I knew what he meant. Everyone was emerging from a spiritually intense few days and I was the only white person there. I felt nervous and scared that if I lifted my camera I would upset someone.
I also felt defeated. I had driven all that way on whim and for five days I hadn't made a photo that would be worthy of a final edit. How could I justify five days on the road without making an image for my editor? It was too far to continue forward through Western Australia, and my rental car was from NSW, so I decided to drive back to Uluru, where I had come from, and then onto Alice Springs to regroup and explore my options.
As I stood watching, a voice surprised me: “Adam.” I looked up to the round face of a woman I had met around three weeks earlier and almost 1000 kilometers away in Wiluna, another remote Western Australian town. I didn't know who she was or where she was from, but I remembered her because she had a small boy with a toy Captain America shield. When I had told her I was working for The New York Times, she told me she traveled to America for an indigenous conference. Our interaction was brief that day, although I took a photo of them together resting under a tree.
She knew my name, but I didn’t know hers. I asked her what it was and she replied, “Daisy. Where are you going?” She seemed frantic, and I later learned she had a fight with one of her daughters the night before and they had been put in the community jail. I wondered if that was the siren I had heard. I told her I was driving to Uluru and she asked if I could drop her home on the way. Sure I said, I need to pack up my car, I’ll meet you back here in fifteen minutes.