The whole continent of Australia was first populated by the Aborigines. It is likely that a foreigner will see the Australian Aborigines as a homogenic group. This is wrong. The homogeneity amongst the Aborigines extends as far as the skin colour and physical features. Away from this, they are as different as an Igbo man is from a Kanuri or Zulu man. The language and culture are different from one another. To understand Indigenous Australia Aborigines, one needs to look at Australia from the structure in place in sub-Saharan Africa. The Zulus, Asantes, Songhai, Igbos, Kikuyus, Yaos and Hutus are all Africans yet they are different nations. In a similar manner, the Lurija, Anangu, Goorie, Nunga, Murrie, Arrernte are all Aborigines but different nations. Aborigines prefer the use of the word country than nation. Had Africa not been balkanised, the set-up will most likely be similar to that of present day indigenous Australia.
Our plan today is to cover the 610kms from South Hedland to Broome, that is almost the same distance from Mombasa to Nakuru, passing through Nairobi. However, before we embark on this trip, we have come to the South Hedland Library to process some documents that are urgently needed back in Perth. Here in South Hedland, we are on Kariyarra country. This fact is visibly displayed by the bronze plaque on the wall of the library acknowledging the Kariyarra people as the traditional custodians of the land and paying respect to their Elders, past and present.
The Kariyarra country is bound by Ngarla country to the north, Nyamal to the east and Ngarluma to the southwest. Hearing these names, it was as if I was back in the History of West Africa class being taught about the ethnic nationalities that preceded the modern African states. In 2018, following a 20 year court battle, the Kariyarra people were adjudged as holding exclusive and non-exclusive native title rights and interests over approximately 17,354 square kilometres of land and sea in the Pilbara region, including the town of Port Hedland. With this judgement, all the non-Kariyarra occupiers of land in this area are now tenants of the Kariyarra people as represented by the Kariyarra Aboriginal Corporation. In essence, for any use of land in this area, consent and payment of rent to the Kariyarra Aboriginal Corporation must be negotiated.
With about 25% of all royalties collected by the state being returned to the countries through the Western Australia royalties for region programme, these are supposedly rich people.
Add to this, the fund coming to the Aborigine Corporation from the signing of Native Title Agreements with individual mining companies. In oil industry parlance, this is what is referred to as the cost of the social license to operate. Money from the exploitation of the Pilbara resources is flowing back, in some ways, to the Kariyarra people. It will not be far-fetched to conclude that this may be a key reason why the Kariyarra and other Aborigine nationalities are not proportionally represented in the workforce. Why would one work if there is a guaranteed share of the national cake assignable to him?
But, we need to get back to the library experience. The building has been standing here since 1979 to aid educational inclusiveness of the people of this area. It is a small bungalow building, painted in light blue colour and located close to the main shopping mall in South Hedland. We had arrived well before the opening time of the library and had to wait a while, spending the period to observe the goings on in around us. Conspicuously posted on the outer walls of the library was a notice that says “No cash kept on premises”. The burglary proofs, something of an aberration in major Australian cities, are here. The library doors and windows are secured with welded iron barricades and we were left wondering who will be interested in stealing books from a library. We watched a couple of first nation people passed by and noticed not a few walking bare footed. It is a way through which they maintain great connection to the land. Mother earth is very important in indigenous culture.
At the time posted, we approached the door and watched as the young lady inside exerted quite some efforts in opening the locks and barricades that protect the entrance door. Inside, the library is modestly equipped with desktop computers, books, video CDs and more important, free Wi-Fi. We also saw that school bags are available for rent, something that felt strange to us. For the about the one hour period we spent here, the only folks that came in was a Caucasian woman and her daughter. No Kariyarra native was here for the duration of our stay but we could see them from the library windows as they move about, walking mainly toward the shopping mall.
We also noticed that there is an unusual high presence of police corps everywhere we have been in this area. This first occurred to us yesterday while at the shopping mall and we are now seeing them around the library, this early morning. The same will be seen at the gas station, later, as we fill up with gas for our long trip to Broome. It soon dawned on us that the further north we traveled, the more the intense the policing of these areas appear to be. Could this have to do with the crossing of the 26 degrees parallel as mentioned earlier?
Waking up this morning, I need to seek out medical help for my swollen gums. The tooth ache has become unbearable and I hardly slept the previous night. Using the search results from Google, I called some medical practices to book an appointment. None was ready to book me in and I was advised to go to the emergency ward of the nearest hospital. The only practise that was ready to see me requested that I pay twice the normal charge for consultation. I weighed my options and told my wife that we should brave the odds and go to Broome. Help should surely be available there.
Crossing the Great Sandy Desert in a motor vehicle would be on the Great Northern Highway, either be northwards from Port Hedland or westward from the Kimberley. We are doing so from the former. As we left Port Hedland, we drove on bridges across a few river beds, all with the same dryness. The wideness of the river beds inform that these are actually big rivers in the wet season when they are flowing though currently no single drop of water could be seen anywhere on them. Once we drove past the Pardoo Roadhouse, the river channels disappear completely and we were now at the western extremity of the desert. On this segment of the trip, the Great Northern Highway is closely hugging the coast. Though we could not see the ocean which lies to our left, at no point on this road were we further than a few kilometers from it. Which begs the question, why is this area visibly dry that it is a desert? Again, the teaching of my geography teacher at Lagelu Grammar School came handy. Though I must have stolen a few looks at the very beautiful NYSC tutor that was assigned to our class, I could still hear her voice as she taught about relief or orographic rainfall. She had taught us that areas close to the coast with no mountain ridge may experience drought. She had used the Namibian desert as an example and here are voice lingers on in my ear, as I observe the lack of water in the Great Sandy Desert.
The scenery was devoid of mountain ranges, everywhere we looked was just plain land covered with shrubs, no thick vegetation of any kind. In very few places, we could notice the pastoral leases with their cattle and wondered where the water for the livestock is from. Acess to water and knowing the location of wells in this area was important to the early settlers, a knowledge that was the exclusive preserve of the Aborigine who had tendered this land for centuries before the advent of the white fellas. The knowledge had been passed down from one generation to another but is now documented for all in the Hema Maps, a good tool for all 4WD adventurists like us. Looking at our Hema map, these wells and bores are located not very far from the Great Northern Highway and one can only conclude that the men that built the road were well influenced by these bores in choosing the exact path it follows. Today, the commuter in motorised vehicles does not need to bother about water, these can be gotten at the roadhouses.
At this point, we had handed over the Explorer to its cruise control function, there is no reason to be pressing and de-pressing the accelerator and brake. The road is lonely and for major stretches of the road we were the sole traveller, each experience being punctuated by a road train or another sole traveller returning from Broome. Traffic is very light and on this long stretch of the highway, the major risk to drivers is maintaining concentration. It is no gainsaying that vehicles on this road have to be in the most road worthy condition, any breakdown will be very costly both in terms of time and money.
As we passed by the much famed Eighty Mile Beach on our left, the road sign announces that we were now on the Nyangumarta-Karajarri country lands. We chucked a little in pronouncing the name, it’s probably the longest word we have come across on this trip. After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at the Roebuck Roadhouse, situated at the turning off to Broome Road, while the road continues its way to the Northern Territory. It has been one long drive to get here and immediately we noticed a change in the traffic situation, this stretch of road has a fair bit of traffic. The vegetation is also different with tall trees on each side of the road, a great contrast to what we had noticed on the highway previously.
The sunset on the Broome road was spectacular. The cloud formation in the horizon, hiding the sunset behind them, created a unique vista too beautiful to describe. It was like a fire burning in the sky. Saf could not resist this and she pulled the Explorer to a stop to take some amazing pictures of the sunset. The first impression of a visitor to Broome is that this is an old town. The well set-back houses, the grid-like streets dotted with trees here and there and intersecting at roundabouts all add to this impression. There is not much modernity to it, no new buildings are rising up. No apartment complexes being developed and in fact there was not a single construction crane here.
After settling in to our room, we remembered that we were hungry and headed straight to the restaurant. We were given seats next to two odd fellows. One very stocky white fellow whose visible skin areas were completely covered with tattoos. Even the forehead was not spared. Added to this, he was sporting a long goatee beard running down his chin. The aura he exudes was one that says clearly “do not mess with me”. The other was a little bit lanky, tall and walked with a swagger. His mien was that of someone that wouldn’t blink an eyelid in skinning someone. Surprisingly, they were not together. Our tattooed man was busy chatting away with another man while the lanky guy sat alone, drowning his alcohol. I was unsettled because of their presence yet they remain unbothered, probably unaware of my existence in that space.
Dinner was served and it looked sumptuous but my aching tooth told my brain in clear words “you can admire the food with your eyes but you are not savouring any part of it”. I made attempt to bite a slice off the pizza and screamed out from pain. Saf was empathic but continued to do justice to the meal. The pain has become unbearable and I can’t wait till morning to get a relief. Saf came up with a home remedy that has to be made from a mixture of alcohol, ginger and pepper. We took a drive to the liquor store and purchased a bottle of gin, the active ingredient for this mixture and came back to prepare the concoction. Sleeping tonight would be an uphill task.