Ooldea Railway Siding

Ooldea Railway Siding, 1932

I spotted her in the crowd and immediately felt sick to the pit of my stomach. In retrospect I guess it was love at first sight. My first wife had never made me feel this way. I had recently lost her to a new and strange disease which was yet another by-product of the invaders. Before they came such things did not exist. She hadn’t been the only one to suffer. A great many had succumbed to this illness. This came about with the arrival of their spirit men. They didn’t respect our stories. They tried to teach us new ones. Their stories were from another land. They didn’t have relevance here. They spoke of one, all-seeing spirit. For us there are many. Everything we see—every rock and tree and animal—they all have names and they all have stories. The invaders should understand this. We do not force our knowledge upon them, yet they do this to us. We can see our spirits by the traces they have left. I cannot see their spirit.

For a while we accepted their stories and what we thought was their assistance. Because of this my wife is no longer here. I have had to wipe her name from my memory. She became ill from their food and the hidden things they brought with them. Many of our tribe passed into the spirit world because of this. I can still see their bodies laid out in rows upon the ground and covered in some kind of white material. At the time I fled in fear, as did many of my tribesmen. The fear saved us, though, and because of it we are still walking in this world.

In any case, upon meeting this girl I felt driven to find out more about her. I took this feeling as a sign that my time of mourning was over and that I could stop wearing the white ochre.

I didn’t know which skin she was but I felt relatively safe to pursue and court her as she wasn’t from my immediate family. My greatest fear was that she was from a hostile tribe and they wouldn’t be willing to trade her. I didn’t have much of value to trade and was apprehensive that I would have an uphill battle trying to persuade her people to let her go with me. I could have asked my own relatives to help out but I didn’t want to impose on them. Things were hard enough as they were. It had become more and more difficult to find things of quality to trade. The invaders had expanded their stranglehold on our land and we could no longer go to many of our traditional sources. The most prized ochre was to be found in the mine at Bookatoo. But the area had been taken over by the invaders and it had become too dangerous to go there. The Dieri had also been driven from their lands and could no longer grow and harvest pituri. Of course, there were other sources for these things but they were substandard. Unfortunately, now we were faced with no other alternative and reduced to making do with what we still had. It was a sorry situation.

Having nothing else of value to trade, I would have to rely on my spear-making abilities. My father had taught me well and I had unlocked the secret to getting the weight and balance right. I was confident that my handiwork was worth something. Not everyone could make weapons of such quality. They were so sleek and incredibly accurate. I was proud of my skills. I had speared many a kangaroo from a great distance and had excellent success with smaller animals. I could only hope they would be of sufficient quality and prized enough to trade for a wife.

We had been travelling our usual route along the water lines towards the great salt lake when I had encountered her. On our journey we were shocked to see how much had changed. What had happened at the place where I found her was even more disturbing. My forefathers had always gathered at one particular waterhole. I had never travelled so far but had been taught how to find it and had its position engraved on my woomera. It was a soak of immense purity and went down into the deepest recesses of the earth. The elders believed it would never run dry, not even in the driest of seasons. In the end they were wrong. Even they could not predict the changes that were happening to our land. When we reached this place— Yooldil Gabbi it is called—there was much activity. The invaders were there and had a built a new kind of pathway. It carved its way through the desert, cutting across our usual route. It was so long that there was no way to walk around it. It was constructed of felled trees laid across a high mound of stones piled upon the ground. On the trees lay two thin lines made of some kind of shiny rock. I knew how to carve and shape wood so that it was long, thin and perfectly straight. How they had managed to do this with rock defied my knowledge. On this pathway there travelled an enormous beast, a devil serpent. It was huge and the colour of charcoal. A haze of ash rained down around it, covering everything in its wake. Its insides appeared to be on fire. It spewed black smoke and hissed white clouds of water. It was intolerably loud, deafening even. When I first laid eyes on it I was very much afraid. My brothers assured me that it was bound to the pathway and would not deviate. As long as we kept our distance it would not harm us. Not only was this beast a horror to behold, it also required sustenance, and lots of it. It fed on water. Its appetite was so great that it was draining the sacred soak. It did not happen immediately, but the day was fast approaching when it would quench its thirst for the last time. Then the soak would be empty. It would have sucked the bowels of the earth dry. My ancestors would not have believed this was possible. This beast would do it though. And once the water was completely sapped it could never again be replenished. Of course, it would take many seasons before this happened and we continued to pass through this area as it was an important route. As with so many other things we had no choice, and when the soak was gone we were forced to find other means to sustain ourselves. By this time so much had changed that it was of little consequence.

At this place there lived a woman. She was pale like the other invaders but she was different. She had contact with the spirit world. Even though she appeared physically as a woman it was unclear if she was entirely from this world. The elders respected her and she protected us to some degree. She had the same weapons the invaders had, two small fire sticks. She kept the other invaders away with them, particularly their lawmen. I was wary of her, though. Not all spirits are to be trusted. Although she was kind to us and did her best to shelter us from the other invaders, far too many people became dependent on her. I thought this was a bad thing. They came to her for food and water and even entrusted some secrets to her. They called her Kabbarli, which means grandmother. The invaders called her Mrs. Bates.

She was against us mixing with children resulting from a relationship with an invader. She believed that our people would not survive, and those of us tainted with the seed of the invader were not the same. My father and grandfather had spoken to me about the invaders’ attitude before. That they were against children that carried their own blood. I asked myself why. Was it not to their benefit that we learn to live together? These children were a bridge between our worlds. They were the future. My father had told me how things were when the invaders first arrived. At that time they came with their own animals but still shared the land and respected our sacred grounds. There were many good men among them who believed that we could live in harmony. It is not that way anymore. Now they want it all for themselves. The land is not any single person’s property. Why is this so difficult to understand? The land is for all of us. We must respect it. It provides for us. It owns us, we don’t own it. If we care for it, it cares for us.

This girl was one of these children. Her father had been a man who had walked with camels and had deserted her mother. I didn’t have a problem with this, though. She was one of us. We were all from the same mother, from the land, so what did it matter that her father was an invader? He was no longer around anyway, and her mother was a strong and noble person. She upheld the law. If I was to be joined with her I would have to care for her mother anyway. Her father was less important.

In the past, courting a woman and making arrangements with her family had required a long ceremonial procedure. Now we were forced to make somewhat more haste. I felt it important to take her away from this place as soon as possible. I planned to head back towards our homelands where there would be less chance of being disturbed by the invaders. There was much discussion among my tribesmen concerning her suitability for me. Eventually I was able to convince them that she was of great importance to me and that I wouldn’t leave without her. They proceeded to make the necessary arrangements with her family. I was relieved to hear that my spears were of sufficient quality to appease them.

Thankfully, enough among them hadn’t become totally reliant on the invaders for sustenance and could make use of my weapons. I had seen the terrible results of relying exclusively on the invaders offerings, particularly at this place. Some people had even taken to wearing the invaders’ coverings. They had even begun to smell like them, and the odour was putrid. They resorted to begging from the invaders that rode on the great black beast. There was even talk that certain women had offered themselves up as payment in return for food or water. I was astonished at how quickly our people had resorted to this sort of bartering. There was no honour in this. It only served to convince me further of the importance of leaving as quickly as possible and taking this woman away with me.

We set up camp some distance away from the invaders’ pathway. I didn’t want the spirit woman around either, but the elders accepted her so I had little choice. In the evening we began the marriage ceremony. Even though I had been through it once before I had forgotten some of the things I was obliged to do. One part of the ceremony involved my wife’s mother. By law she was entitled to hurl abuse at me and I was not permitted to respond. I was somewhat perturbed that she protested about my inability to provide for her and her daughter. Had she not seen my spears? In any case, I put up with her rantings for as long as was necessary. It was just the way. This arrangement did have its advantages, though. After absorbing the sting of her words we were never allowed to communicate directly with each other again. That would have to be done through her daughter. It would also be my responsibility to ensure that she and her daughter were well cared for.

Once the ceremony was over I decided to leave as soon as possible. I will set out to follow the example of my grandfather. I will endeavour to go forward and educate my children correctly. Perhaps in time things will change and the land will be returned to our care. I do fear for the damage that will be done before this occurs. I have seen it in this place and all the other places where we can no longer go. I will do what is in my power. I will try and avoid contact with the invaders as best I can. The only place that is still safe is our homelands, as long as we avoid their spirit men. I hope it will stay that way and not be taken over like the other places. It is a place I know well. Everything is familiar to me there. The way the seasons change, all six of them. The land speaks to me there. It doesn’t whisper. It cries in a loud voice. I call back to it and it answers me. I don’t know how long we will have but I will persist until the day comes when we must find another sanctuary or things improve. I have even heard that they have proposed a special area for us. A state, they call it. A state of what? I can’t see how that would work. The land is for all of us and should not be divided. It is a sorry situation, but somehow I don’t feel that all hope is lost. I have found a new partner and we will face the future together.


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