Old Bugger Me
Click on the arrow on the left of the audio file to hear the story read.
This story occurred when I was the District Director of Education for the Kimberley. The Wangkatjungka Community is about 120 kms south-east of Fitzroy Crossing. The turn-off into the community is just before Ngumpan Pass and the startling red Ngumpan Cliffs.
At the top of the Pass heading for Halls Creek is a viewing place. I used to always park there on my trips back to Kununurra, even if only for ten minutes, to look south over the vast flatness and hear the silence. What most Australians don’t know about is a secret guarded by these Ngumpan Cliffs. I was privileged to be shown some of the secret, on the condition that I would never reveal it. I haven’t and I won’t.
The story took place on a visit to Wangkatjungka School over a couple of days. I was undertaking what was called an annual review which meant seeing all members of staff, inspecting their teaching records and checking those against the performance of a sample of students. Meeting the teachers and students was always good and these were visits I enjoyed.
Two nurses from Fitzroy Crossing Health were also in the community doing eye and ear checks. I knew them both and over one lunch break I chatted with them at the clinic about possible health issues with the students. As we talked, an older man with snow white hair and a similarly coloured beard entered the room and sat quietly, waiting for one of the nurses to see him.
“Dave, have you met Charlie?” Jessie introduced us.
As she did, she spoke to him in his language to introduce me, and explained to me in English that Charlie had just returned from Wiluna. Now Wiluna is in the northern goldfields regions of Western Australia, some 2000 kilometres south of Wangkatjungka. I wondered why he’d even gone there, it being so far from here. So with Julie as an interpreter, I chatted with him, telling him about me, what I did and why I was in Wangkatjungka. He seemed to take it all in, glancing at me as Julie translated. And that’s how the conversation continued.
“Your family all in Wangkatjunkga now?” I asked.
“Son and two daughter,” he told me. “Other kids live in Fitzroy.
We exchanged pleasantries about our children, and then I asked, “Wiluna’s a long, long way, Charlie. Did you drive or go by bus?”
He shook his head. “Walk!”
I stared at him. “You walked to Wiluna?”
He nodded slowly, as if it were nothing to be surprised or impressed about.
“That’s 2000 kilometres: that’s a long way,” I stated. “How did you do it?”
“But it’s desert and there’s no water. So how did you live out there and find water?”
“Been water there, and what I can’t find, there been some on Canning Stock Route. So I walk night and sleep day. And plenty tucker too. I find good tucker. Get good feed by burning bush and grass stuff.”
I could only nod at the scope of what he’d done, and told him, “I just can’t imagine one of my mob doing that trip and surviving even if he or she only walked one way.”
Even with a translation, he cocked his head to one side, and frowned, as if inquiring what I meant.
“Tell him what you mean some other way,” Jessie suggested.
“I meant if I walked from here to Wiluna and back, I probably wouldn’t have made it. I would have died,” I finally managed.
He spoke language to Jessie who burst out laughing.
“Ask him about getting back from Wiluna?” she suggested to me.
“Okay, so Charlie, which was harder: walking to Wiluna or walking back?”