Sunrise on spinifex grass in the Great Victoria Desert at the northern extremity of the Nullarbor Plain.
Aboriginal musician J. Minning is describing traditional life as he prepares a freshly shot kangaroo for a Pitjantjatjara barbecue – roasted whole in a freshly dug open earth oven. “It’s about doing things right way,” he says. “For people growing up in the bush, country comes first. The land, that’s your home y’know?”
J. is singer and songwriter for the Desert Stars, maybe the most remote rock and roll band in the world. They’ve just released an album, Mungangka Ngaranyi? (It’s on Tonight?) and are planning a nationwide tour.
Their music is influenced by their favourite band, AC/DC, to the extent that they’ve been nicknamed “‘Blackadacca”. They’ve played sellout shows from Kalgoorlie to Alice Springs. But their roots are firmly in their ancient homeland.
J. has been hunting with bassist Justin Currie and driver Ethan Hansen, head of land management group the Spinifex Rangers. They live at the community of Tjuntjuntjara, 700 kilometres from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and the homeland of the Pitjantjatjarra people known as the Pila Nguru (Spinifex People).
J. is busy infusing a mess of intestines with dung squeezed from the entrails. “It’s nothing but grass,” he says, laying them on a platter of kataya leaves, before roasting them as an entree.
Life at Tjuntjuntjara is interwoven with connections to country. It operates on finely nuanced laws developed over millennia for the survival of small groups in harsh terrain. The community is designed around clusters of close family, but everyone is indirectly related in the dualistic Aboriginal way where cousins are sisters, biological parents are distant aunts and uncles are called Dad. It’s a sturdy domestic architecture that encourages traditional practices such as hunting kangaroo to provide food for elders.
Ethan and Justin expertly dismember the cooked kangaroo. “We gotta share it out,” Justin says, his arms smeared with blood. “Some for the uncles and aunties, some for the tjamu [grandfathers]. Next time when they go out we’ll get some too.”
The hunt was a spectacle. Ethan drove, expertly whipping around trees and rocks at speed to keep up with the powering kangaroos. Justin the shooter leaned into the swerving vehicle to steady himself to take the shot as their new album thunders out of the speakers.
Hearing the music amid the rush of the hunt is like being able suddenly to understand Pitjantjatjara; it has all the menace and compressed power of AC/DC, leavened with J’s lyrical tenderness reverence for country and it reflects traditional life just as the dot painting art of his parent’s generation. The sacred dot paintings illustrate the interface between Dreamtime (Tjukurpa) and desert terrain. The painters, many now in their 80s, were the generation who walked out of the desert to end a 40,000-year nomadic lifestyle. Embracing modernity meant loss and gain. To some of them, it also entailed meetings with Queen Elizabeth II and prime minister Gough Whitlam.
One of these virtuosos, the aloof Mrs Simms, can sometimes be seen walking with her retinue of loyal dogs. Other elders, playing cards or sitting silently in the dust, give no indication that their transcendent canvases are feted around the world’s fine art enclaves.
The paintings document evidence of 600 generations of continuous habitation of their land. They were instrumental in establishing the connection to country that earned the successful Native Title claim in 2000. It marked their return from an exile sparked by British atomic bomb testing in the 1950s at Maralinga, in the heart of Pitjantjatjara country.
I thought I heard a thunder near Maralinga
I thought I seen a serpent man
Feel my spirit running
A day before the hunt, elders Mr Grant and Mr Hogan spoke while Betty Kennedy interpreted their stories. She was six when the bombs were exploded and talks of the fleeing desert people being picked up in trucks or forced on a brutally long walk through the desert without water.
Mr Grant remembers the routes taken to avoid the atomic apocalypse. The exodus is embedded in cultural memory, an event perhaps as momentous as creation stories.
Betty told with great sorrow of the people left behind. Entire families perished, poisoned by the nuclear fallout or blinded by the explosion. Some, like the Rictor family, disappeared into the desert till 1986, the last nomads to emerge into white-influenced civilisation.
By then, of course, other Pila Nguru had joined the ranks of the world’s first nuclear refugees. The survivors established a makeshift community at J.’s birthplace, Cundeelee Mission, until water shortages forced another move south.
In the early ’80s, the elders grew restless and many walked back into country, ending up at Yakatunya, not far from where the kangaroo hunt. J. grew up there in the traditional way. But he was constantly on the two-way radio to Justin at Cundeelee, raving about their shared passion for music. As a result his songs are steeped in connection to country and rock and roll.
“When I learned music it was from cousins drinking at their fires, cassette tapes playing AC/DC or Warumpi Band,” J says. “We was out at the edge of the community with air guitars and cardboard drums, dancing and singing along. Kids gotta stay away from drunk people. They’re bush people and it’s rough.”
Drinking was one of the biggest problems for people fresh out of the desert. Alcohol fragmented social ties evolved over millennia and along with the horrors of the Stolen Generation there was a less documented “lost generation” who succumbed to drink driving, diabetes and other afflictions. Orphaned or neglected kids lost to petty crime and substance abuse are now as plentiful in the towns as men in their fifties are few.
Desperate to escape the ravages of civilisation, the old people pressed on to Tjuntjuntjura, which was declared a dry area. They had been awarded compensation for the Maralinga bombings and have been settled there for 30 years, an oasis for lives scarred by drugs and alcohol.
These scourges still plague those who travel to Kalgoorlie, where incarceration rates are high – one in 27 Aboriginal men are jailed in Western Australia, usually for minor civil infractions.
Everyone in the band has been arrested – their drummer recently did some time. J’s last stretch was for stealing a policeman’s hat.
In Gravel Road, J invokes a rock and roll outlaw in a high speed police chase.
Blazing red, flashing blue lights, here they come,
I’m on my way to the gravel road
Catch me if you can
The fire is dying, a full moon hangs over the desert and the stars are colossal, intense. The kangaroo is butchered and the men chew on choice morsels of kidney and stomach while Justin plays country licks on J.’s guitar.
Ethan listens silently, a stoic figure in the star-lit dusk. As head of the Spinifex Rangers, Ethan, with four other men, patrols 5.5 million hectares of country. They set firebreaks and hunt feral camels and cats, threatening the delicate ecology of the bush: songs used to tell of nomads feasting on brush-tailed possums at the right time of year, not anymore.
The Spinifex Rangers eradicate vegetative plagues like African buffel grass and map and maintain sacred sites, including traditional water rock-holes. “People ask ‘How long you been doing this job for?’ But my people been doing it for thousands of years, and I’ve been doing it all my life,” Ethan explains.
J. agrees his songs serve the same purpose as dot paintings, reminding younger generations of this ancient matrix of land and spirit. “That’s why we gotta keep on playing this music,” he says. “Young people, they like raging and all that. I see ’em watching, playing air guitar just like I did. We keep on reminding them that this is the real story and we’re doing it by rock and roll. They learn something from the Desert Stars, every time they see us.”
Next morning the group drives north to Illkurka station and on the way visits an ancient rockhole where a Spinifex Ranger had recently pulled out the body of a dead camel. The water is no longer putrid; zebra finches and budgerigars now drink in vast, swirling green and blue flocks. The 4WDs pull out and careen over long sand dunes when suddenly camels are spotted. Justin shoots four. Ethan is happy, describing the havoc the creatures wreak on the desert with their insatiable appetites and blundering feet.
It’s exhilarating stuff, hunting with the wardens of their ancient country. They inhabit a richly textured tapestry of music and art that invokes scientific principles of ecology, astronomy and quantum physics and are direct descendants of people who thought nothing of walking naked through stony desert without water, carrying possessions, babies and immense libraries of oral knowledge, with ancestral songs providing navigational maps.
They abide strictly by ancient laws more stern than any Biblical proscription yet their music and art is as vital as any and they survived the British Empire, nuclear holocaust, smallpox and generational kidnapping.
They are the Pila Nguru, latest in a long line of desert stars.