Radiant Sands is a collection of short stories based on my experiences in the Australian desert interior in the 1970s and 1980s. The stories are all entirely fictional, but they are written with the truth of time and place. The desert frontier was very different to other parts of Australia where white settlement occurred a century before. Aboriginal life remained rich and strong, even as the relentless pressure of Western economy and Government intervention intensified. One story from the collection, Dust Storm, is now on Amazon Kindle as a “teaser” to the book.
Many tourists spend time in Central Australia visiting well-known places such as Uluru. Some seek a deeper encounter through art, bush foods and cultural experiences. Today most are aware of the problematic past of Central Australia. Through the work of artists and photographers there is a growing appreciation of the stunning beauty of the land and its many moods, and the achievements of the Aboriginal people.
The stories in Radiant Sands are set in a previous age, 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, mail and supplies came 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 some 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. Nowhere in Central Australia is as remote today.
The short story Dust Storm gives a taste of that long-ago desert life. Other stories in the Radiant Sands collection are written from different points of view: the isolated and batty lady anthropologist, the cattle-station wife, the transient writer, the cultural studies academic. An extract from the longest story, Last Patrol, appears below.
Maralinga remains an iconic event in Australia’s history. This novelette length story (around 13,000 words) tells the fictional story of a Patrol Officer in the deserts of Northern South Australia when the British and Australian governments were carrying out the highly secret testing of nuclear weapons. The first tests took place at the Monte Bello Islands, off Northern Western Australia in 1952 and the first nuclear blast on the Australian mainland, named Totem 1, took place at Emu Field in October 1953. Later tests involved plutonium and other nuclear materials, from 1956 to 1963 at Maralinga.
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 into these events and their consequences was announced. The Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing in Australia took place in 1983-4 presided over by Chief Justice “Diamond Jim” McLelland. The author was an advisor to the Royal Commissioner and gave evidence on the effects of the nuclear testing program on the Yangkuntjatjara and other indigenous inhabitants.
The Report of the Royal Commission is available in pdf form online in two volumes.
AN EXTRACT FROM LAST PATROL:
ERNEST had feared it for a long time, keeping the truth even from himself until Anumara. But as the months passed into years he never stopped thinking of her until she was burned into his skin like the patina of tan on his face and arms.
His superiors had wanted to know why he hadn’t found her group on one of his patrols. But the Woomera Rocket Range was almost 100,000 square miles. It wasn’t surprising that he missed them. He was sure there were others. Anumara assured him it was true. Sadness crossed her face as she told him about her Mummies who were still out in the desert, her lame brother. He tried to get her to tell him more but she would turn away and walk off.
Others in Ooldea told him their relations were still living in scattered groups based around the soakages and waterholes far to the north-west. In late 1949 he was told to step it up. He wasn’t told what was happening exactly, but he realized they were planning some big tests on rockets and missiles. He was given a newer truck and a driver, and told to clear out the area. He talked to the Ooldea people again. He went to neighboring stations and heard the same story. But patrol after patrol found nothing. Maybe it was just imagination.
Whenever he had an excuse he went into Ooldea. He saw Anumara grown into a woman. She carried her baby boy on her hip when she came to greet him. She had learnt English fast from the missionaries, and was helping in the clinic. Intelligence shone from her eyes as she showed him proudly that she could write her own name. Several times her husband sought him out, demanding money, food and tobacco. He had the uneasy feeling that he was being offered Anumara, and if to him, then maybe to others. But she seemed so confident and strong in herself that he couldn’t believe that would happen.
Then in 1952 he learnt that Ooldea was to be closed, and all its people moved on. He was to assist the missionaries supervise the move. They were supposed to go to Yalata Lutheran Mission near the coast. Ernest protested. It would be totally destructive for the desert people. Ooldea was the southern border of their traditional country, Yalata was somebody else’s. And Yalata was washed by Antarctic winds. It would mean cold, fear and illness.
He was told there was no alternative. They had to ensure the desert was emptied. Something big was planned for 1953. Everyone at Woomera had signed the Official Secrets Act but British officers and servicemen were pouring in and word had it that there would be a big nuclear test. The year before the test in the Monte Bello Islands had caused problems with fallout due to the wind. The northern desert, they had been told, was more predictable.
Ernest went to Ooldea and found everything in chaos. Many of the people had learnt that the mission would be closed and had gone off by themselves, nobody knew where. The missionaries were confused and angry. The logistics were a nightmare. He searched for Anumara but nobody could tell him where she was. People had walked to the railway siding and got on trains going east and west. Others had disappeared back into the desert. Ooldea was abandoned. He did his duty and ferried people to the south where the small Yalata mission station was a disaster zone.
One night he found some of Anumara’s relatives sitting disconsolately under a broken water tank. They were chanting softly, keening the songs sang when somebody died. They were singing for their lost country. They too had heard that something terrifying and poisonous was going to happen there.
“Where is Anumara?” he asked one of them, a man she called “father” although he was, in white man’s reckoning, an uncle. The chanting had stopped and the men sat in silence, gazing into the small fire.
“Them two gone up Coober Pedy way. Somebody huntin’, ‘im seen ‘im family tracks out in the bush. Them coming in maybe. Look like her nguyntju – her Mummy”.
The old man thought that her lame brother, unable to walk, might have died.
“So that Mummy coming along now to look for her daughter”.
He wanted to leave for the north at once. But when he reported to Woomera that many Ooldea people had gone off on their own along the rail line he was sent to find them and bring them in to Yalata. He found them half-starving, in rags, sleeping in the sand and begging. Then he patrolled north in case some had tried to go back into the desert. There were no signs along the main routes between waterways. In any case he couldn’t go far for lack of fuel.
By the time he got back to Woomera he was put on duties transporting men and equipment out to the new site at Emu Field where the test was to take place. He told the British officer in charge that he had heard there were people coming in from west of Coober Pedy. They would be travelling along a waterhole and soakage route that passed very close to Emu. He wanted to go and check these reports. The officer was dismissive.
“If they’re coming in from the desert, then that’s all we have to worry about.”
Ernest found himself in a violent argument. There could be scores of people in the area. Everyone said so. They all had missing relatives in the bush. If nobody had found them, that was because they didn’t want to be found. But these people were on their way in. They would know for sure where the others were. Finally he was given a truck and tins of fuel and told to be back as soon as he could. There was a date set already, it was important.