Radiant Sands is a collection of short stories based on my experiences in the Australian desert in the 1970s and 1980s. The stories are entirely fictional, although imbued with the truth of time and place.
Many tourists spend time in Central Australia visiting well-known attractions such as Uluru. Some seek a deeper encounter through art, bush foods and cultural experiences. The work of artists and photographers supports a growing appreciation of the stunning beauty of the land in its many moods, and the achievements of the Aboriginal people, although there is still so far to go. The present is still imbued with the past: past histories, past struggles, past hopes and dreams, past failures.
The stories in Radiant Sands take us into that past. They are set at a time when communications were limited, roads were unmade, visitors were scarce and the interface between indigenous and non-indigenous life was minimal. Today, it seems almost unimaginable. When I lived in the desert with my husband and two children we were over two hundred miles from the nearest store at Oodnadatta. The road was impassable after rain, there was no telephone service, no electricity, mail and supplies came by truck once every two weeks, and we relied on bore water carted in tanks in the back of the Land Rover. We lived in a caravan, which burnt down, and then in a tent and an aboriginal shelter, or wiltja. We cooked over an open fire and ate damper, jam and tea along with tinned foods and hunted meat. The nearest non-indigenous neighbours lived on a cattle station homestead forty kilometers away. There was a mission settlement further to the north.
Dust Storm touches on that long-ago desert life from the viewpoint of a hard-working and well-meaning medical sister struggling to know how to live with the demands of her clients in the outback settlements. Other stories in Radiant Sands reflect themes of love, loss, longing and confusion, with a taste of Desert Noir.
Last Patrol is the final story in the collection. Novelette length, it is set in and around Maralinga in the 1950s-1960s, when this remote part of Australia became the main site of British atomic testing, following the wartime destruction of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. Maralinga remains an iconic event in Australia’s history.
The Australian public was kept largely ignorant of the tests, their dangers, and the effects on the Aboriginal people on whose lands the tests took place.
In the early 1980s a public inquiry was announced. The Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing in Australia took place in 1983-4 presided over by Chief Justice “Diamond Jim” McLelland. I was the anthropological advisor to the Royal Commissioner and gave evidence on the effects of the nuclear testing program on the Yankuntjatjara and other indigenous inhabitants.
The Report of the Royal Commission is available in pdf form online in two volumes.