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