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Retrace 1996: Ellery Creek
Sunday 22nd September 1996 10:30 am
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We camped late last night. By the time we had set up camp and had some dinner it was too late to write. It was also cold and we had had a long day after getting up before dawn to climb Mount Liebig.

Dawn over Mt liebig
Dawn from Mt Liebig over the settlement

Emily didn't want to make the climb so Bonnie, Jack, Susan and I walked up through the spinifex and stones. It was not a hard walk at all. There were some small cliffs with animal inhabited caves beneath a rocky spur. I took a few photographs looking back over the settlement just as the sun hit the top of a distant range to the north west. There were more ranges to the south and south west but it was not hard to see the distant mountain that had caught Dad's attention. In fact, I recognised it immediately. It felt quite strange because I mean recognised. By the map it appears to be called Mount Peculiar.

Dawn over Mt Peculiar
Dawn over Mt Peculiar

Mount Liebig was divided by rocky spurs. We crossed one of these and walked up higher to where we could watch the full splendour of the dawn breaking through the ranges. Not far away to the southwest was a house (outstation) which belongs to Leo Paterson to whom, we are told, this country belongs. I considered how 63 years ago my father had stood here and looked out from the same spot. It had significance, but little meaning for me. Mount Peculiar was important as a place which had shaped some of his life just as my first view of the Warrumbungles in the distance had shaped some of mine. Being there and making this journey was perhaps investing this mountain with a family significance it did not deserve. Time will show. Susan took some photographs of Bonnie and Jack with Mount Peculiar in the background just in case, but there was trouble with the camera and I have doubts any of them will come out.

By the time we arrived back at the camp the sun was well and truly up. We had breakfast and gradually packed up. There was Red dust through everything. All around the camp in the sandy creek bed were some quite striking red seeds. Bonnie, as usual, set about making a picture in the sand with them. It was such a wonderful picture that the others became involved and our departure was delayed while they gathered more seeds and completed it. I took a photograph of it but again I don't think it will come out or if it does it will be quadruple exposed.

This time we managed to get back to the settlement without getting bogged in the sand. As we arrived Anne Jones came out to greet us. She showed us around while Emily (who did not want to come) stayed with the car in the shade. Builders were constructing a new store from cement blocks and Anne revealed obvious pride in this achievement. Anne was very apologetic about the old store which Susan was very keen to see. The old store was a corrugated iron shed opposite the old people house which was little more than a room with a toilet block. She said they preferred to sleep outside but if anyone was sick they tried to get them into Alice Springs in case they died. Death meant that the house became a sorry house and that no one would go into such a house for at least a year. After that there had to be elaborate ceremonies to drive out the spirits and often extensive changes had to be made before it was suitable to live in again. In the past the shelter would have simply been burnt; a much more efficient process. It seems that whoever has come up with the cement block designs for housing has not really considered this problem. An easy to dismantle house might work better.

The current manager of the store had installed a siren so we waited a few minutes until it went off at 9:30 announcing with a factory-like wail that the store was now open. People came from all over the place some even driving cars from 100 metres away. They were mainly women and children with very runny noses. Almost all the women had a wad of what looked like tobacco protruding from the corner of their mouths. Anne said it was pitchuri (a mild and traditionally used narcotic) which was absorbed through the lip.

The shop was divided into two sections. One section had blankets, billies, tires, dresses and even a television. The other was L shaped and had basic foods with a row of fridges along the back wall. Bonnie said the women just left them open and that she had gone along the row closing them. At the counter Anne's daughter, who worked at the shop, was trying to persuade (with little success) some of the women not to spend all the money kept for each person in their personal envelope. This was called 'sit down money' and as I understand it was a fortnightly cheque made out to the store in each person's name (in the absence of banks). Overall the store was quite bare. Anne said that this was because the fortnightly truck was due on Thursday. Prices were accordingly high but all the profits from the store went back to the community which actually owned it. It appeared that most of the administrative positions were occupied by Anne's relatives. Her explanation was that people were usually appointed because they were there at the time. No doubt they all did very well out of the community but any judgements without knowledge would be extremely unfair and Anne and her daughter showed themselves to be extremely considerate. She was certainly very kind to us and only too willing to answer our questions and try to give us some idea of what was going on.

As we walked back to Anne's house for coffee she tried to improve our understanding. Apparently the 13 year old settlement had a population of about 250. They were Luritcha people. There were very few people around because the Red Ochre Men were coming through and everyone was afraid. This explained why there was no one at Haasts Bluff. Anne was not forthcoming about The Red Ochre Men. The main point was that they were trouble and that they passed through regularly on their way to a ceremony from somewhere in the east. The main difficulties the community faced were alcohol related or stemmed from the transfer of a nomadic subsistence culture more appropriate to a time when survival depended the distribution of scant resources. She told us numerous anecdotes about the wrecking of cars and houses because they were considered communal property. Her own Toyota was under threat because in theory it belonged to the community and could be used by anyone. She said that if she let them use it, it would be a wreck within weeks. Ominously there was a pile of several hundred wrecked cars right next to her house.

She showed us some of the paintings she had acquired. One was particularly striking. It was made up of a sort of patchwork of dot fields with nodes of honey ants and a procession of honey ants moving diagonally up to the right. It was painted by Gillian, the daughter of a famous painter. It seems she had run up a large bill at the store and was desperate for money. Anne offered her $100 as being all she could afford. Gillian had accepted. Anne said she had had it valued in Alice Springs at $4,000.

The plan was that she (Anne) would show us the way to the southern track leading to Haasts Bluff. She said there were actually two ways to go but that the other way led through a pass which was sacred and that Leo Paterson, who owned it, was not around to give us permission to go through. It also went quite close to a sacred cave which we were not allowed to go near. I suspected this was the cave my father had found and mentioned in the journal. It may have been at Talipata Gorge. The difficulty was that none of the tracks were marked and that they forked off in all directions. Many of these were used by the grog runners who ferried alcohol to the 'dry' communities. I didn't have a great deal of faith in Anne's local knowledge outside of the community because when we looked at the map she seemed very vague. In fact, she had only been on the track once, 3 years before just after she arrived. However, she became more confident and her offer to show us was very generous and better than nothing.

We set off in convoy, following her and Susan who wanted to find out more about the community. My suspicions were soon confirmed when the track petered out and she came to a halt. We backtracked and tried a few more forks before, fearing the waste of too much fuel, I parked under a tree and waited while she went ahead with Susan to explore. Jack had a blood nose (his third) which probably has something to do with the heat.

Eventually they returned with an Aboriginal couple, Isabelle and Charlie who were going to show us the track. Susan said she and Anne had come across a camp with some of the people from the settlement who were avoiding the Red Ochre men. Again we followed Anne's Toyota but this time across country, pushing through sparse mulga. Eventually they stopped and I joined Isabelle in the back seat while Susan followed. Charlie spoke very softly indicating to an increasingly frustrated and nervous Anne, which way to go. Eventually in a thick patch of mulga both Charlie and I got out to clear timber away. Charlie said very quietly, "not far to go". We soon came out on to a well worn track much to everyone's relief. My concern was that this track would fork away like the other tracks but we confirmed with both Charlie and Isabelle that the track went right through to Haasts Bluff. I even drew a road forking in the sand. Charlie said that if we came to a fork we should keep left.

Susan with Isabelle and Charlie
Susan with Isabelle and Charlie

Susan thought a bag of oranges would be a good present and was surprised when she offered them to Charlie that we went to take one only. Before they drove off with Anne back to Mount Liebig, they were kind enough to let us take a few photographs (although I'm not sure Isabelle was too keen).

Jack on my lap steering
Jack on my lap steering

We headed off with a little over half a tank of fuel and Jack sitting on my lap steering. It seemed as though we were set. The track ran quite close to Mount Peculiar and I was tempted to stop and climb it but I had a vague anxiety about fuel and time. I justified my hesitation by remembering that our permits ran out at the end of the day. It seemed like it was something to leave for another time or even for another generation.

close to Mt Peculiar
closer view of Mt Peculiar

After a few hours we saw Blanche Tower in the distance and although our course was quite a bit south of the camel track, I was able to get agood feel for the country and locate several of the photographs. We eventually came to some new stock yards. Soon after the track gradually began to peter out and run along a fence line. We kept to it for another 5 kms but when it turned south we decided it must be the wrong track and were forced to back-track to find our mistake. Every fork we foundand followed ended abruptly in a disused camp strewn with rubbish. Reluctantly we had to take up the original track again. When we stopped for a late lunch under a tree, we were all a bit worried. I regretted not making some arrangement with Anne. We had no choice but to push on. However, to our relief, after only a few more kms Blanche Tower again came into view and we all brightened up considerably.

Blanche Tower
Blanche Tower

We came to a stock gate and what looked like a fairly new outstation with several cars about. When we drove in we were greeted by an Aboriginal called Darrell who said we was originally from Hermannsburg. We had indeed taken the wrong track and apologised profusely for intruding. The right track was about 10kms to the south. I told him about the camel journey and he lit up at mention of Hezekial. We warned us against taking any photographs but was open and friendly and seemed to have a special dignity and self respect. As we drove away petrol became the main concern with over 150 kms to go. However, after passing through an empty Haasts Bluff, we made it Glen Helen and filled up at 98c/litre. Our plan was to go to Ormiston Gorge nearby but when we got there we found the place over regulated and covered in four wheel drive camper-vans. With the sun setting we raced for Ellery Creek and arrived just in time for a quick swim before dark.A solitary dingo howled, but there was no wind and it was a perfect night.

We woke to sound of butcher birds and great swarms of finches wheeling around in what was really a very high gusty wind. Today has been a rest day after a week of driving. We have spent most of the day sitting, washing, writing, swimming andwatching the wildlife around the waterhole. My favourite creatures are the beautiful crested spinifex pigeons. They fly up out of the spinifex like quail and come down to the edge of the water to drink amongst the hundreds of little finches thatcan be heard chirping away during the day. There is also a small group of ducks who resolutely and fearlessly

Emily on the rope - Ellery Big Hole
Emily letting go of the rope

paddle about avoiding the humans. About midday people started to arrive with picnic equipment. Being a Sunday they were mostly from Alice Springs. Mid afternoon 2 bus loads appeared through the trees. The first of these was made up of 15 year old boys and girls and looked like a school tour. The pigeons moved aside for some timid testing of the water my the more adventurous. One of the boys displayed his manhood by plunging in. Gradually the rest followed asa wonderful anthropological case study unfolded. The brave boy wanted the attention of one of the girls and conspired to push her in. There was much screaming and splashing while, one by one, with previous victims assisting, new victims were chosen. The last was a Chinese girl who definitely did not want to get wet. Her anger was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of the second bus of about 50 Aboriginal boys about 13 years old. Many of them carried blown up inner tubes and immediately launched themselves into the water. Their arrival had a curious and dramatic effect on the general ambience of the waterhole. The white girls all left the water and quietly retreated to the grassy bank. The white boys also left the water and went off to explore the rocks.

Looking down at Ellery Big Hole
Looking down over Ellery Big Hole

The whole place rang with gleeful shouts as the 13 year olds revelled in the delights of the place. They were everywhere. Some climbed the cliffs, others joined Jack and swung from a rope over the water, others broke up a reed bed and made spears with which they hunted small creatures. Another group threw stones at the immovable ducks. Gradually the white children returned. it was a fascinating afternoon's viewing. At one point I went over to see how Jack was doing. One of the boys said they were from Euro College in Alice Springs. Jack said they were not a bit racist towards him and Bonnie remarked how friendly they were and that they looked her in the eye. Tonight the children are ravenous and we are using up the last of our easy food. We need to find more water as the water from Glen Helen is foul and we don't want to drink the gorge water after seeing so many people swim in it.

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