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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

Decades on, the tasks of the colonis­ers had turned from claim­ing to sur­vey­ing; from draw­ing lines on the land to un­der­stand­ing what it held. The Euro­pean his­tory of the Aus­tralian trop­ics had be­gun and that his­tory is rich in tale, and in­ci­dent; in­deed it is glut­ted with dis­as­ters, griefs and joys. The north part of the state bor­der runs through grandiose ter­rain. It passes close by Wyn­d­ham port and the Cam­bridge Gulf, and the belvedere sur­mount­ing the Bas­tion Range.

From this re­doubt the eye can see five great rivers and the hazy coast­line of the North Kim­ber­ley. Close by is the Ord River ir­ri­ga­tion scheme, now al­most a half cen­tury old, and at its heart lies the town of Ku­nunurra, and the di­ver­sion dam, with its vast iron bul­warks that re­sem­ble heraldic weapons re­forged at in­hu­man scale. A short drive on and the bor­der quar­an­tine sta­tion rises up like some bar­rier from the Soviet Union’s dark­est days. Be­yond it, af­ter a few fur­ther kilo­me­tres, is the Dun­can Road, and it was in this reach of sta­tion coun­try, where Brah­man cat­tle now graze, that the line in the north was first fixed by mod­ern in­stru­ments in 1921.

A sci­en­tific sur­vey party ar­rived at Wyn­d­ham on the state ship Bam­bra in midJune, a de­light­ful sea­son. There to meet them was the lo­cal par­lia­men­tar­ian and land­holder, Michael Pa­trick Du­rack. ‘‘ MP’’ was an in­tel­lec­tual as well as a bush­man and pioneer. He was fit and im­mac­u­lately at­tired, and sported a dis­tinc­tive Van Dyck beard. He trav­elled with the sci­en­tists, their guide in chief. He led them to their ‘‘ ob­ser­va­tion camp’’ at the boundary be­tween his own Ar­gyle Downs and Rose­wood sta­tions. They made their wire­less time sig­nals, found their place and set a con­crete marker up, just as they had weeks ear­lier when their bor­der sur­vey work was be­gin­ning, at the same lon­gi­tude point far south on the shore of the Great Aus­tralian Bight.

‘‘ Took pho­to­graphs,’’ wrote ‘‘ MP’’ in his di­ary: ‘‘ The boys put on an­other cor­ro­boree at spe­cial re­quest of the party — all very in­ter­ested.’’ Those pho­to­graphs, in high­con­trast black and white, sur­vive, and they show the land­scape as it was and still is: all­dom­i­nat­ing, over­whelm­ing, in­dif­fer­ently ac­com­mo­dat­ing of the marks of man. But like all the Du­racks, ‘‘ MP’’ was far-think­ing; he had a taste for schemes and for vi­sions. He longed to see the north devel­oped and to that end, in the late 1930s, he be­gan ne­go­ti­at­ing with Isaac Stein­berg of the World Jewish Congress to turn the Ar­gyle re­gion into a Jewish home­land, a place of large-scale set­tle­ment, a refuge from the storms of Europe. The time was too late, by far: his­tory took its dark course, the scheme came to noth­ing.

A decade on ‘‘ MP’’ sold up, and it was left to those who came to the Kim­ber­ley af­ter him to dam the Ord, cre­ate an ar­ti­fi­cial lake where the Du­rack homestead once stood and build a mod­ern ser­vice town close to the bor­der line.

But of sur­vey­ing, a task of in­finites­i­mals and new re­fine­ments, there is never an end: the lat­est team ex­am­in­ing the line are in the field to­day. It was fixed with some de­gree of con­fi­dence at its top and bot­tom in the early 1920s. But what of the mid­dle, that tricky point where the Ter­ri­tory and South Aus­tralian bor­ders meet the line? Sur­veyor-Gen­eral’s Cor­ner is a fre­quent tar­get of out­back four­wheel-drive ad­ven­tur­ers, for the strik­ing rea­son that there is not one bor­der point, but two, sep­a­rated by 127m of well-trod­den scrub. The north­ern and south­ern mark­ers from which the line was drawn are slightly out, though no one re­alised for more than 40 years — and the mis­align­ment cre­ates a dog-leg at the cor­ner, a kink in the straight­ness, mi­nus­cule enough but with real con­se­quences.

In­evitably, this de­tail has fas­ci­nated the new breed of post­mod­ern ge­og­ra­phers, and Aus­tralia has its very own: the am­bi­gu­ity-court­ing post­colo­nial cul­tural sys­tems ex­pert David Turn­bull, se­nior re­search fel­low at the Vic­to­rian Eco-In­no­va­tion Lab. Turn­bull’s lat­est pa­pers are avail­able on the VEIL web­site and they make a heady brew. For him, the prob­lems in the sur­vey line raise thought dilem­mas, in­con­sis­ten­cies be­tween desert and main­stream ways of map-de­vis­ing, be­tween their re­spec­tive ‘‘ spa­tial on­tolo­gies’’ — and there is one fa­mous episode that proves his point. In 2000, a Ngaany­at­jarra na­tive ti­tle claim on be­half of the bor­der com­mu­ni­ties of Ki­wirrkurra and Win­gel­lina was lodged and hit a snag. Both claim ar­eas were de­scribed in the doc­u­ments as ly­ing within the state of WA. Both were re­jected: the first strayed across the line by be­tween 37m and 42m, while the sec­ond pen­e­trated marginally into both the Ter­ri­tory and SA — and years went by be­fore th­ese anom­alies could be ironed out.

How dif­fer­ent things were in the Tjukur­rpa, the an­ces­tral past, which ra­di­ates its force to this day in desert be­lief-sys­tems: the time when cre­ator be­ings and heroes roamed the land­scape, stamp­ing their will on its features, guid­ing them into their present, their eter­nal shape. Much of the line’s course through the desert crossed great shim­mer­ing lakes of salt, and blaz­ing deep-red dunes, and be­longed to the Kukatja and Pin­tupi.

They had their tales for it, and those tales formed the ba­sis, four decades ago, for the first board paint­ings made at the birth of the Abo­rig­i­nal art move­ment, in Pa­punya. One of those early artists was Yala Yala Gibbs Tjun­gur­rayi, a com­mand­ing fig­ure. He had a fond­ness for baroque sub­jects re­lat­ing to his coun­try, far to the west. Among them was the nar­ra­tive of an old man, Yina, whose ad­vances to a group of younger women were re­jected at a par­tic­u­lar site. Slighted, vexed, Yina dragged him­self away, and dragged his enor­mous mem­ber with him. He lay down at a point near the bor­der line, and the im­pres­sion of his body left be­hind a great water hole, Yu­mari. It was there the old man com­mit­ted a strik­ing of­fence: he slept with his mother-in-law. No greater in­frac­tion of desert so­cial codes could be con­ceived. Nor would many pre­dict the next phase of the story: the old man’s swollen sex­ual or­gans left him be­hind and kept right on mov­ing, trav­el­ling through the coun­try, across the dunes and plains.

As it hap­pens, Yala Yala was him­self a favourite sub­ject for the most prob­ing pho­tog­ra­pher of cen­tral Aus­tralia, Jon Rhodes, who cap­tured him first on a film­mak­ing jour­ney deep into the Pin­tupi desert in 1974 and then again in 1990 when he was liv­ing on a set­tle­ment close to his own coun­try and his life was draw­ing to its end. Rhodes prints th­ese im­ages in Which­away?, his enig­matic, though much an­no­tated, book of desert pho­to­graphs, in which Yala Yala is shown re­peat­edly amid the spinifex, sit­ting, gaz­ing, ris­ing, lean­ing on a dig­ging stick, as though il­lus­trat­ing the Sphinx’s rid­dle on the ages of man. And there is Yala Yala yet again, at Yu­mari rock plat­form, close to sun­set: old, stand­ing to­gether with his young son, their thin shad­ows bi­sect­ing the deep wa­ter­hole’s north-south line.

Like oth­ers be­fore and af­ter him, Rhodes in those days no­ticed the way the moun­tains of the desert give the im­pres­sion that they move and shift their shape, and seem to travel along with those who see them. He was search­ing, look­ing, like all who go into the coun­try of the line: search­ing for what hap­pens when a straight, mapped bor­der be­comes one with the land­scape, when man’s for­ward-reach­ing thoughts run out, when the lines of our cer­tainty dis­solve away.

Juana La Loca Old Man’s (Yina) Dream­ing Dona

Clockwise from top, panoramic view from Bas­tion Range; (1972) by Yala Yala Gibbs Tjun­gur­rayi;

by Fran­cisco Pradilla Otiz

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