Aurukun Aura

The road we've been driving over for two days has changed markedly for the worse. Just thirty kilometres from the Cape York Aboriginal community of Aurukun, at the juncture where the road feeding the Chinese owned Chalco mine branches off to the north, the road servicing this remote community deteriorates.

White and grey ibis pose elegantly at the edge of a lagoon, a duopoly of thoughts flash before me. Swim-Crocodile; Refresh-Maul. Its been a long drive from the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival.

Cecile's mobile phone whistles its bird tweeting chorus ring tone, befitting the bush we are driving through. Its Guy (he's French, so we pronounce his name as 'ghee') the arts centre manager checking in to see how we are travelling.

Just as we establish our bearings with him, and confirm that we are just a hundred meters from the Aurukun Arts Centre, a police landcruiser mopes by. We wave, they gesture, then quickly turn around and pull up next to my open window. "Who are you working with?" is their way of quickly finding out if we have prior permission to be in Aurukun. It's a closed community and permission is required to be here.

He's a handsome and friendly policeman who succinctly provides us with a "no frills welcome pack of important information for Aurukun", advising us strongly not to leave our car anywhere unlocked, and in fact, not to leave it anywhere other than in the fortified police compound each night. He stresses that car theft was at an all time high and in epidemic proportions.

It confirms to us the origins of the eight abandoned and wrecked cars, some of which were late model vehicles, adorning the sides of the road into Aurukun. I muse to myself that these are, perhaps, modern day totems from a society which traditionally made ceremonial wooden totems.

That first hour in Aurukun presented so many images and anecdotes, that I felt 'compelled' to write about the aura which appeared to shroud Aurukun.

During the introductions and greetings with 'ghee' he calmly walks to the window glancing down at our hire vehicle. He returns and quickly goes through the ten commandments of "how not to lose your vehicle in Aurukun", all of which filter down to leaving our vehicle in the police compound for the eight nights we reside here.

Out of curiosity and keen for a benchmark of reality, I enquire how it was that he could park his car at home and not lose it, to which he responds with a relaxed resignation that he had been broken into four times and that he often woke during the night to find young kids in his car, and would simply yell at them to "fuck off".

Was this the same gentle arts centre manager who recently strode into the high brow New York art gallery world, costumed in his hand made Italian slacks and silk shirt, strutting confidently after yet another sold out show by the famous Aurukun wood carvers and painters?

Ghee tells us of the complexities of his job and life in Aurukin, and how local artists, ready for a quick buck, were selling their artworks on the streets for a pittance. They were undermining his four years of work in Aurukun and their international standing.

Cecile and I found our way to the accommodation and bumped into the vivacious Deborah, head of the shire cleaning department.

Each of her sentences was punctuated by raucous bursts of manic laughter, as Deb told us how recent guests had left their car parked in our accommodation 'compound', with its twelve-foot high spiked aluminium fence, chained and padlocked gate. At three in the morning someone hotwired the vehicle and rammed it through the gates and went on a seven hour joyride around town, screeching around corners and doing 'burnouts', until the petrol ran out.

Commandment number six: Only ever have about 'ten bucks' worth of fuel in your tank.

As we chat with Deborah four men scurry back and forth loading their gear out of the accommodation and onto their ute. "We're outa here - too dangerous at the moment" says the electrician. "We've got exposed wires and we are suddenly in the middle of a brawl, and just imagine what would happen if we killed someone! We'll be back when they calm down. That huge mob were using star pickets, wooden palings, and punches were flying everywhere. Women fighting women, men, kids. Its fuckin crazy! Dangerous".

Deborah is still quelling her fears with unfettered laughter, and tells us about the contract plumber who eventually had to sleep in his car just so it wouldn't get stolen. His company paid for his air conditioned room, complete with queen size bed and fresh linen, but he slept awkwardly in his car each night so that he had a vehicle to drive to work in each day.

Commandment three: Never leave your car anywhere at night - anywhere, except for the police compound.

"They even stole one car which was parked and locked inside a shipping container!".

Its Deborah's Day, her moment to download. "One night I heard fire sirens. First and only time I have ever heard fire sirens here. The police were all out patrolling and someone had torched the police station". Raucous laughter, followed by beaming smile and another full belly laugh. "And everyone is leaving their cars there thinking..." It's too much for her to contain herself, and the sentence tapers into a smile, degenerates into a convulsion of laughter controlling every part of her body.

New Commandment number, errr... eleven: The police station may not be a sure bet!

I studiously deliver our vehicle for its overnight internship at the police compound, having taken everything of value out of it, turning our bedroom into a storage room, and feeling some sense of security. I felt like someone from Johannessburg or Port Moresby. Entrapped in my own abode. There was the padlocked front gate, the deadlocked front door followed by a secondary internal locked door, and finally the locked room door.

I observe that because most cars are off the road from 4pm each afternoon, that there are large numbers of people out walking, riding push bikes and large groups of children playing games in the middle of the road. Perhaps this is the upside, the positive edge of cause and effect.

Each evening small fires are lit outside houses, some on the 'footpath', and small groups of people gather to 'story' and play. The smoke mixes with the sweet aroma of the massive flowering mango trees, sauteed with dust and bougainvillea flowers. It's the sweet and sour fragrence of Africa.

Commandment number nine: Don't think that the accommodation is any safer than anywhere else!

Cecile says "Look at that note on the fridge", and gives a muffled and strained laugh. It says (word for word):


Recently a lady staying at the guesthouse went for a walk around Aurukun and was bitten by a dog. The lady received deep lacerations to her leg as a result of this attack and had to be flown to Cairns Base Hospital.

If you go walking ensure you take a STICK with you!

Next morning I walk to the police compound to collect the vehicle, and... its there!! Untouched. No broken windows. No spaghetti of wires ripped from the dashboard. It's not what I was expecting.

I drive back to the accommodation, to pick up Cecile for her day's work with the Ghostnets Art Project, and come across a swaying mass of people flooding onto the road. I see a man texting (I was told today they use Deva Text - of which I know nothing?), kids mock fighting, and tributaries of people heading to the epicentre of violence. Another fight has broken out, the seedling for a brawl.

Next day we come home for lunch to find two women, one skinny waif and a bulky 'mamma' standing toe to toe, and shaping up to each other as if seasoned boxers. The dancing footwork of the waif in direct contrast to the knee trembling 'roundhouses', those ambit claims at airspace, of the angry mamma.

I meet a young contract carpenter at the police station that same afternoon who tells me he's come to make a report of an attempted carjacking. Driving back towards the police compound a young man with a spear walked into the middle of the road and stopped him, demanding that he hand over the car. "His arm was in tension, the spear poised, and I was shitting myself. Someone yelled out at him and I sped off. Fucker, I didn't know if he would put a hole in me or not. He was off his face. But if he did, I was going to get out and bring him down with me. Prick."

Commandment number 7: Don't lose your nerve at a carjacking.

Cecile and the women artists of Aurukun seemed to coexist within a different world. Spread out on the floor, surrounded by colourful 'ghostnets', ropes, floats, wire and cutters, the women sat quietly, contented, creative and curious. They wove and stitched in rhythm to the stories they exchanged, interspersed by rich periods of silence. Five traditional women, not one of them drank alcohol.

I asked them how it could be that in a remote Aboriginal community, that the Shire could come to the decision to build a huge tavern, selling alcohol, prompting violence and community disfunction. Nobody answered, but we all knew.

"I just bin to Washington and New York. After the second hour in the plane from Brisbane, I asked if we were close to Los Angeles yet, and the young lady said we were a long way away". Mavis told us how she had grown up in a bark 'humpy' and never had to pay rent, had her own garden with fruits and vegetables, but now the Shire owned all the houses, the shop, tavern (now closed), the land, and she had to pay them rent each week - even though this was where she was born, her mother's country.

I ask Mavis what she would prefer - electricity, fridges, walls and roof or that bark shelter. She said she would take me bush the coming weekend, for me to answer my own questions.

Slipping and sliding over eleven hours from Laura. The endless hue variations on red, corrugations and clouds of bull dust as centipede-like trucks thundered past, smooth and watered sections manicured by the apparition-like road gangs, or crunching the underbelly of our hired 4WD with the unpredictable, inevitable, pot holes.

This is how we arrived at Aurukun, on the west coast of Cape York.

Our schedule says that we'll be on the road again in three days time, heading to Mapoon, to our north. Only time will tell.

Three Days in Aurukun

"Wik language, Wik language...motherfuckers...Wik language" were the anguished shouts which beckoned our eyes to open and minds to alertness on our second last morning. It was pre 6am and someone was yelling in traditional language, long sentences, each time punctuated by 'that' expletive. We peek out of the curtains and see that the man across the road is stalking the street in front of his house, back and forth, as if a preacher delivering 'the word' to an invisible congregation. He is angry. Very angry.

After forty minutes of shouting, and a short pause, he appears again. This time he has a spear and is walking further up the street. Back and forth, up and down. He is psyched for battle.

His wife beckons him back inside and I hear him say, in English, "I'm don't get hungry when I'm angry". Another pause of cleansing silence.

Then he returns to the street with an axe, and out of view from our peephole hear loud smashing sounds, and later find out he has demolished an air conditioner at the back of the supermarket. The police eventually arrive and later that day I find out that he has had some tools stolen from inside his car the previous night. Another reason for brawling is hatched.

Monday morning brings a real sense of relief to be finally leaving Aurukun, unscathed, yet there is that uneasy feeling of leaving new friends and fellow artists.

I walked to the police compound in trepidation on the morning of our departure, and upon seeing our vehicle still there felt as if I'd won some unusual form of lottery. We packed out of the accommodation and drove towards the tavern where Gina, Cecile's co-workshop leader, was teaching a final week of workshops with the ladies.

I had met the police sergeant at the compound gates and he told me that we were lucky, as that night a group of young men had broken into the police compound, hotwired a car, and attempted to drive it out through the cyclone wire. They had failed and fled.

As we pottered along, Cecile and I recounted that final three days in Aurukun. The boat trip to Ikolet Beach, to collect ghostnets and plastic debris. We had became bogged in a sandbar, with small tidal waves (no, not tsunami, but from the extreme fluctuations of the tides of the north of Australia) buffeting the side of our 'tinny' and filling us with unwanted water. It was clear that someone had to jump overboard to push us out of the bog. It was a very tense sixty seconds, as we were in an area known for saltwater crocodiles. In fact, they had told us there was a resident five meter crocodile (and its many compadres) in the vicinity.

There was the evening I headed to the police station to deposit the vehicle, only to find a very angry young lady smashing the walls and windows of the building just near us, and upon seeing me she walked into the middle of the road, and threatened, motioned, to 'spear' her weapon through my windscreen.

Luckily, I remembered Commandment Number seven, and calmly locked eyes with her, my upper body and head motionless, expressionless, whilst slipping the gear lever into reverse and peripherally glancing in the rear view mirror to make sure I wouldn't run over any kids. I waited. The anger, the pain, the possibilities, all eddied before me. Expletives swirled effortlessly from her lips as she raised her tool of destruction, a long handled shovel, and threatened to spear it through my windscreen. At the point where she started calling me a "cunt" and flexed her arms, I planted the car accelerator and reversed quickly to the point where I could swing around and speed away. All this to the amusement of the locals, who had appeared from nowhere to witness the frivolities. I hightailed it to the police station.

I arrived just as the sergeant was locking the gates. He quickly berated me for not letting anyone know that I was parking our vehicle there the night before, asked why they didn't have a set of our keys in the office and generally 'let off steam'. I put myself in his position, the everyday stresses he must experience, and felt a sense of empathy to his situation. He stood there, not in his police uniform, but a muddied jungle warfare attire.

On his day off, and for relaxation, he had been in the mangrove swamps stalking and shooting wild pigs. I warmed to him, as I knew that pigs inflicting a similar vein of damage to the land as the bauxite mining companies, and enquired what he did with the pig meat. He said he bought it back and gave it to local families. There was a micro pause, and he said "I'd never eat them, they're full of TB" (tuberculosis).

Simply, I felt stunned by what he had said, yet before my mind could recover any sense of order, the lady who had just been threatening to spear my windscreen with a shovel stopped in front of us. "Did he tell you what I done?" she asks the sergeant. "No, what have you been up to Doris?" replies the sergeant. The ensuing conversation was distorted, dysfunctional, and terribly sad. I looked at both of them, going through the paces, a form of street theatre. Doris eventually threatened to kill herself and the sergeant reiterated that he'd come by in the morning to 'sort things out with her'.

Perhaps he might sentence her to eat a huge slab of TB infested pigs flesh?!!

We spent a wonderful day out bush with Mavis, an elder for this area, and the gorgeous little Delessa, her granddaughter who she'd been looking after for three years, spotting the magnificent brolgas and blue winged kingfishers, getting bogged, cooking damper, listening to her stories and knowledge of bush tucker, and fishing. I showed the prowess of someone who grew up in the dry, and often drought stricken climes of Broken Hill; Mavis catching four fish, me getting snagged and losing my hook and bait on my first cast.

Gradually the answer to my question of some days previously crystallized into an understanding and knowing.

We arrive at the tavern and the ladies are all sitting on the ground creating their wonderful ghostnet artworks. Delessa jumps to her feet, runs and launches herself at me. She craves love and attention. Mavis has made a magnificent nesting magpie goose, her totem; Jean has crafted a beautifully coloured basket; Janet has fashioned a huge leaf and Gappy has made a hat.

Cecile is immediately drawn to helping the ladies and our goodbye evolves as a work in progress and takes two hours. It is clear that the ladies respect and love Cecile, her integrity and gift for wordless communication.

In one week I have grown close to Delessa. A seven year old energy ball, cheeky, playful, creative, mother and fatherless, and ready for every game, task or cuddle I have to offer.

We finally hop in the vehicle, start the engine and reverse out of our carpark. As we move forward and onward, Gina comes running, waving, calling out for us to stop, and beckons us to turn off the car and come back inside. Always expect the unexpected in Aurukun, I thought to myself. Three elderly ladies from Aurukun stand and sing us two songs, saying they are sad we are leaving, but knowing we will meet again. I distract a surge of emotion by studying the lines and markings on their hands. The harshness of their lives is etched into their skin yet their deep beauty overwhelms us.

My mind swirls with rapid fire flashes of thought; the day I noticed the bronze plaque on the wall of the tavern which noted that Sir Neville Bonner had officially opened it; the ABC news broadcast telling of the renewed interest in bauxite mining just near Aurukun; the unresolved information about the existence of a royalties fund for the community.

Little Delessa has now buried her face deep inside the folds of Mavis's colourful dress as she realises what is happening. At that moment I wish I had a similar dress within which I could hide.