Welcome to Paruku. I am 15km south of Mulan (pronounced mullin) at Handover Camp which is about 12 hours’ drive from Broome. It is the edge of the great Sandy and Tanami deserts.
In our last episode, First Dog on the Moon (me) attended the 2016 ninu (bilby) festival, a meeting of Indigenous rangers in Kiwirrkurra. Kiwirrkurra is Australia’s most remote community (13 hours west of Alice Springs, just over the border in Western Australia). It was my first trip to the middle and didn’t we all have a lovely time.
Now that I am an experienced desert scientist I have been asked to return. A month ago I received an email from Monique of the Kimberley Land Council inviting me to the Species of the Desert Festival being held at Lake Gregory (Paruku). How exciting. It is all being hosted by the Paruku rangers who discovered the night parrot on their country a couple of years back.
The Indigenous ranger groups are made up of traditional owners working to protect and maintain country and culture all over Australia. Among other things this means combining Indigenous knowledge with modern science to do things like fight invasive weeds, control feral animals, reduce destructive wildfires and protect sacred sites.
This festival is a huge meetup in the desert taking place on an IPA – an Indigenous protected area (obviously different from that other IPA, the Institute for Public Affairs, in fact possibly the exact opposite). IPAs are very different from other protected areas like national parks and so on as they are owned and run by traditional owners working with the federal government.
My plane landed in Broome and I piled into a well-packed four-wheel drive with the crew from Country Needs People, Sophia (campaign communications manager) and Andy (marine biologist) who were kind enough to take me along with them. We headed out on the Great Northern Highway – a substantial and seriously constructed road cutting through the red earth. It was a far better road than I expected heading into the desert, considering it isn’t a marginal seat.
It’s Fitzroy Crossing on day one then Handover Camp the day after with 250 other people for a week including the 22 Indigenous ranger groups and loads of helpful well-meaning white people from government and various other organisations about the place.
The festival program includes mapping and sharing knowledge (and for me a lot of looking at the desert and the trees and trying to make friends with the dogs here – not camp dogs they are just dog dogs).
There are conference sessions all day on things like:
night parrot update!
feral animal management. What have you tried. What worked. What didn’t.
Parnkapurti Creek: 50,000 years of land management! Where western science and Indigenous culture intersect. (We went and saw the spot where a 50,000-year-old bit of sharp utensil making flint was found by the same archaeologist who found Mungo Man – Barry someone IIRC, there is no Google out here I can’t check you look it up.)
This is bilby country and night parrot country. Outrageously I was not able to see a bilby on my last trip even though it was an alleged bilby festival. The star of this festival is the elusive and extremely unhelpful night parrot yet I am told I am unlikely to see one of those either it is outrageous. The night parrot, thought to be extinct, turned up a few years ago in western Queensland. Since then there have been a few sightings although it is extremely rare. It is another fiddly hard to find and save from itself parrot. The bird scientists are not sure if it is a few dislocated populations dwindling away to extinction or there are heaps of them and it is just a bastard to find. Probably both. Here is a picture I drew of one previously being interviewed on a late-night talkshow.
The MC for the event is Kim Mahood who is famous in these parts for not just growing up here but also writing books about it. Her essay Kartiya are like Toyotas is apparently compulsory reading for any white person intending to or currently working with Aboriginal people in the middle bit. If you read it you will understand why. It is hilarious. You can see my white guilt from space and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Things I have encountered:
huge flocks of fork-tailed kites – these are big raptors and they fly around in large mobs; it is mildly unnerving
big flocks of corellas
a bunch of agile wallabies in the car park at the hotel we stayed at on the way
large brown falcons
a number of excellent dogs
the new threatened species commissioner (she seems very nice)
Things I have not encountered:
We got a showbag! Everyone got a T-shirt AND a beanie. The T-shirt has a picture of this map on it. I was extremely excited.
Senator Pat Dodson is here with his marvellous beard.
I also encountered a sophisticated young fellow wearing a First Dog on the Moon T-shirt with this image – the world is a remarkable place.
I do not like having to wear a fly net upon my very head for the first time ever in my life. I do not like it, but there are a lot of flies and I like them less.
There are also a lot of ants. I like the ants but have not seen any. They build large red mounds – hundreds of these mounds dot the landscape and they clean all the tree debris from the ground. It is actually quite tidy in the desert aside from the dust and rocks.
Spinifex. Bunchy and ubiquitous. It is extremely prickly and also contains (I am told) an amazing polymer which one Aboriginal organisation in Queensland is apparently trying to turn into condoms as you do. (Have not encountered any of these.)
Before the event the organisers sent an instructive email which included the following information: Food – lunch and dinner is provided. There are no roo tails on the menu so if your team want roo tail please byo.
Bother, I thought to myself, I suppose I can go a week without any roo tail, and then I chuckled at my white person joke.
It is hot. We couldn’t get the tiny fridge to work in the four-wheel drive and the little sign on it said: “If fridge isn’t working reverse the polarity on the DC connection.” What does that mean, we asked each other? We did not know. Fortunately there were a number of people about the place who did and a replacement fuse was located. Serves us right for only bringing a cartoonist, a marine biologist and a campaign manager. I am the sort of person who would die in the desert without any trouble at all and it is comforting to be surrounded by 197 other people who would not.
More later, including an exciting night parrot story.
• Read part two of First Dog on the Moon’s notes from the middle on Friday