I get out of my cosy swag aside the still flickering fire and, as I head over to the vehicle to get something, I notice fresh hoof marks in the red dirt. I thought I had been dreaming, but we must indeed have had a mob of brumbies clatter past in the middle of the night. The evening had been cool and otherwise still – a full moon drifting across, dusk to dawn, from one horizon to the other, like a sacred eye amidst a scattering homage of brilliant stars. I find out later they were wild donkeys: not everything out here is exactly what it seems.
After a seven hours drive from Alice Springs on Sunday, we got in after dark and set up an impromptu base in a rarely used camping ground. A few old buildings include a semi-built shed where I set up a desk. I can see right through the unfinished walls across grassland to khaki hills. This site, a few kilometres outside the township of Ernabella, is surrounded by calm, old, beautifully worn-down mountains wrapping around us like ancient arms in a circle of tender embrace. It is as if we are in nest.
In a way we are. Such is the camaraderie and spirit of goodwill holding together this cheery group of techies and creatives, admin folk and an entire documentary film crew. Plus a kid and a dog!
The night before, with most of the team crashed out after a massive first day, a few of us sit around the fire chatting and admiring the hills. The production’s leading actor Trevor Jamieson says that their rounded shapes remind him of country further to the west.
Over that way, well into central West Australia, similarly rounded mountains belong to an Emu Dreaming. The concept of Dreaming (Tjukurpa) means a lot more to Aboriginal people than to Europeans. I will not have got this exactly right, but the story Trevor told us as we were dozing off goes something like this:
A flock of young emus have walked a long way when they come across some interesting tucker. They bend down to eat these seeds which make them dopey. One by one they lie down to sleep and never wake up. The roundness of the hills represent the backs of the emus. The emu features strongly in many stories from different locations, often features a ‘law’ aspect, and much contemporary Aboriginal art draws on its symbolic significance in image making.
If you can picture it, Ernabella sits about 480 kilometre’s south-west of Alice, almost directly under Uluru, on the South Australian side of the border. In 1872 pioneer explorer Ernest Giles passed through the area and wrote: ‘This is a really delightful discovery. In all my wanderings … in Australia I never saw a more fanciful region than this.’
In 1933, a sheep station was established in Ernabella. The Presbyterian Mission bought the station lease and founded the Ernabella Mission in 1937. While some locals worked on the station, for others the mission served as their first encounter with Europeans.
The Presbyterian Board of Missions established the mission at Ernabella as a buffer against increasingly destructive European expansion into unprotected Indigenous country, and to offer education and medical help. Ernabella mission had a policy of deep respect for traditional culture, best exemplified in their use of a bilingual education policy from the start. School teacher Revd. Ron Trudinger arrived at Ernabella in 1940. He began teaching young Aboriginal children in the local creek bed. Within six weeks he had translated the Lords Prayer into Pitjantjatjara, beginning the bilingual tradition that continues to this day. A remarkable man, Trudinger’s role at the mission over many decades merits particular attention.
The mission closed in 1973. The Lands were ‘returned’ to Anangu (the people) by the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 (South Australia) granting them freehold inalienable title to the country which, in fact, they had never left. This ceremony took place on the actual site where we are now camped. Ernabella, now also known as Pukatja, sits close to the centre of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands).
Ernabella sits north of Maralinga, notorious for the atom-bomb testing undertaken by the British, in consultation with Australian government, but not the consent of traditional landowners and residents who were forcibly moved off their country and dumped elsewhere. For those who didn’t make it out in time were locked in by thousand-kilometre fences and died like starved rabbits.Others hid in caves and survived, though illnesses of various sorts have been passed down through generations: this on top of the price indigenous Australians everywhere have paid for having been dislocated from their lands.
Ernabella Is a town with an extraordinary history. And those of you already following this blogsite will know that this trip has been in the planning for some months. We are here to observe and, in part, document rehearsals in situ of Big hART’s amazing theatre show, Ngapartji Ngapartji about the atom-bomb testing at Maralinga, its immediate impact, but more importantly the long-term effect it has had in terms of cultural dislocation and spiritual alienation on the region’s descendants.
The show is coming ‘home’, as it were, and for the first time, after several years to packed houses in fancy theatres at arts festivals in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.
In just over a week, the show will be presented to many locals who, from various perspectives, already know the story. Or at least bits of some of the stories out of which the drama is composed. Various residents of the Ernabella township have been included in the performing ensemble from the beginning
On this occasion, the production is to be presented on a specially built site in the heart of the town as part of the Ernabella Arts Centre’s 60th anniversary celebrations. Ernabella is famous for many reasons, particularly the fact that in 1948 a building was dedicated to art making, the first of its kind in Australia.
Some are travelling great distances to be here including ex-residents – Aboriginal and European. Among the big ex-mission names is retired Deaconess Winifred Hilliard who arrived In Ernabella in 1954 and stayed on teaching and encouraging arts and crafts skills for the next 32 years. Another guest planning to visit is Bill Edwards, one-time Superintendent. But more of all this in the days ahead.
I should report on other activities so far. Three days ago I was greeting photographer Brett Monaghan off a British Airways flight from Milan. He was coming home after eight years and landed with the bulk of his European life in tow: a mere two hundred kilograms in Excess Baggage. We spent that first night repacking; and then by 10am the next morning we were on a Qantas flight to the Centre of Earth. As we descended into Alice the famous vast red earth revealed itself from horizon to horizon.
The young lady at the Europcar (free plug) desk helped us into our state-of-the-art, all-mod-cons blue Nissan patrol and we were off. Alice has a lovely town centre, flat and square, with neat simply designed buildings set on the bank of the almost always dry Todd River bed. We found where we had to go, the Ngapartji Ngapartji office, where resident company members were milling with various other recent arrivals.
A day later we were on the road in convoy. About seven vehicles, several towing trailers stuffed with camping gear, food and – you name it. Our vehicle carried a mountain of swags on its roof racks to which I was greatly tempted to tie some grand ribbons of coloured fabric – a la Priscilla. Along with our own gear in the back sat two massive Eskies of butchered meat. If Brett and I got lost, or stuck, or broken down, we knew we could at least survive on raw protein for some time. All the more tasty if one of us could work how to make fire by rubbing together a couple of sticks!
Less carnivorous vehicles specialized in the transport of fruit, vegetables, water, tofu burgers, muesli, tea bags, water, coffee, six varieties of Mountain bread, and whatever else hard-working pioneers carving out culture on the frontier of contemporary arts practice require.