Searching for a Story in the Heart of Australia - Part 2
A travelogue about hitting a dead-end, traveling on a whim, and ending up somewhere unexpected.
This is the second part of a travelogue about taking photographs in the Australian bush. Read the first part here.
When I pulled around the Toyota Rav4 rental and nosed up to the roadhouse, Daisy Ward was nowhere to be seen. The crowd that had descended like ants to honey earlier in the morning had now thinned. I got out and lit a cigarette, leaned against the car, and squinted into the harsh mid-morning light as the nicotine sent a slight tingling pain through my forehead.
The bell on the front door of the shop rang and Daisy walked out, followed by another elderly woman, a boy I guessed to be 8 or 9, and a small dog. “We got to pick up some stuff,”' she said. “What stuff?” I replied. “Just our blankets over there.” She pointed across the road towards town in a direction that looked arbitrary to me. The notion of having my drive commandeered ignited a sense of frustration in me. I asked who our extra passengers were, “My sister and her grandson,” said Daisy. Despite my internal resistance, her soft voice and her matter-of-fact conviction endeared her to me.
Daisy hopped in the front seat, the other two passengers took the back, and we putted from the roadhouse to their camp on the outskirts of Warburton. An indigenous Australian man sat silently by a small, smoldering fire. Daisy had been camping a few weeks previously for the “secret men’s business,” so we gathered her stuff, filled the trunk with her blankets and mattresses, then hit the dirt road east. It was a three-hour drive to Daisy’s home community of Warakurna. As the car bumped over holes and crevices, Daisy and the others fell asleep. Again, I was left with the red rock jutting from hills, the spinifex, mulga, and desert oak.
There are moments as a photographer when I become acutely aware of the bizarre situation I have gotten myself into because of the camera in my hand. I took stock of the car full of sleeping strangers, the landscape with no sign of human adulteration, and I felt lonely yet gifted. Another big blue sky wrapped the earth.
A few hours later, we pulled off the Great Central Road into Warakurna and my passengers stirred to their country. Daisy gave me directions to her place, a government-built red brick, one-story house with timber boards where windows once were. As I unloaded their sleeping gear, my self-satisfaction for helping them was supplanted by my reality. I was lost in the bush and had another 800 km to Alice.
Daisy was distracted by a gaggle of community dogs she hadn’t seen for weeks. As I waved goodbye and turned to hop in the car she offered an invitation. “Tomorrow we can go out bush. I’ll show you my country. You can go stay at the roadhouse.” I remember her manner and words because that’s how they always were — decisive and anchored in the moment, free of any future doubts or material concerns. My western middle-class mind started doing the math, the pros of leaving, the cons of staying. “Sure, I’d love that,” I said. “What time?” “Come over tomorrow,” Daisy said as she walked inside her house.
The Warakurna Roadhouse was a 5 km drive from the community back towards the main road. The skinny white Australian manager greeted me and rented me a “donga,” the colloquial name for temporary housing in Australia. He took my dinner order. As the sun faded, I sat with the silence of the bush outside my donga and ate a chicken schnitzel, mashed potatoes, and frozen greens that had been revived by a microwave, all of it trucked in from thousands of kilometers away.
The following morning, after an instant Nescafe coffee, I eagerly drove back to Daisy’s. It was 9 am but she wasn’t around, or if she was I couldn’t raise her. I went back to the roadhouse and paced on the dirt, kicking around bull ants, and made a phone call to my Mum and another to a cousin. I also made an environmental portrait of the roadhouse manager positioning him next to a fuel bowser protected by a metal cage with a sign that said “Opal,” the low-aromatic fuel sold there. (In the early 2000s, British Petroleum developed Opal with a federal government production subsidy, to stifle widespread petrol sniffing in remote indigenous communities.)
A little after lunchtime a white Toyota troop carrier turned up at the gas station. At the wheel was Jillian Lennon, a sociologist working with women elders in the Ngaanyatjarra shire— “The Lands” as she referred to it. Daisy jumped out with two other elderly indigenous Australian women from the community, Nancy Jackson and Erica Shorty. (Erica was the woman who I had given a ride to with Daisy the day earlier and her grandson and dog were still in tow.)
Jillian asked me if I had a permit to be there and I looked at her dumbfounded. I had driven to this remote part of Australia without researching the logistics. “No, do I need one?” I coyly responded. Jillian was gracious about my ignorance. “You do, but if Daisy invited you, she’s your permit. She’s the most influential woman in The Lands.”
On the drive out, Daisy shared her childhood memory of how her family would walk barefoot into Warakurna every two weeks to watch black-and-white Hollywood westerns on a projector, then walk home into the desert. Jillian stopped the car at a shallow valley lined with dry native grass that was golden in the afternoon sun.
We began wandering, looking for wild tobacco; Nancy and Erica fanned out in different directions. I followed Daisy, and as we walked she pointed up to the red rock cliffs that surrounded us. Whispering, she explained that all the hills are animals. It was hard for me at that moment to comprehend the depth that was contained in her simple sentence, but I knew she was sharing her “dreaming” with me, the intimate spiritual stories that explain time and creation. The landscape to me was grass, trees, and rocks. I stretched to understand the knowledge and connection she had to each of these earthly elements.
We climbed back into the truck and drove beyond the valley to a red sandy flat dotted with trees and shrubs. The women had purchased frozen kangaroo tails at the community store before we left, and Nancy gathered tree branches for a fire to cook them. Daisy checked the stumps of nearby trees for honey ants and found a nest at the base of one. With a thin stick she repurposed as a tool, she gently dug at the earth revealing the ants' underground tunnels and sifted them out of the dirt with her fingers. After filling a small bowl, we all picked an ant from the small crawling heap and sucked the sweet floral liquid from the translucent sacks on their backs.
When the “roo” was ready, Nancy unwrapped the tails from the aluminum foil and we nibbled at fatty sections sprinkled with salt. While the indigenous women played with the dogs, Jillian looked over at me. “You’re lucky Daisy brought you out here you know. She doesn't do this with many people. She’s very grateful.” Soon the truck shadow stretched over our campfire and we packed up and drove back to Warakurna. By the time we arrived the sun was covered by a blanket of grey clouds that spanned the entire late afternoon sky.
As we disembarked the Troopy, Daisy asked me if I would drive her to a “sorry place” to pick up her mattress. When an Indigenous Australian dies in these remote communities, family and community members vacate the house where the person lived and gather elsewhere for a period of mourning in a “sorry place.” Daisy and I were mostly silent as I drove her a few kilometers out of town. When we arrived, she wandered slowly through the bush camp amidst the desert shrubs, trash, and abandoned cars until we reached a tree covered in a tarp to create a shelter.
I had been photographing the entire afternoon, but despite sharing a very intimate and personal afternoon with Daisy and the elders from Warakurna, I hadn't made an image that I felt transcended the mere phenomenon of walking, cooking, and being in the bush. The photos rendered in my mind were distant recordings, but what did they really say?
I asked Daisy if I could make her portrait in the sorry place, and as she continued to wander, I paused her at different moments. She sat proud and gazed straight through my camera when I asked her to sit on a rusting bed frame. Daisy found her mattress, then we folded it into the back of my car and I drove her home.