Listening to the desert

Australia

The Tanami is a secretive desert. To the passing traveller it appears nondescript, its spinifex and wattle-scrub plains punctuated by low blue escarpments that materialise on the horizon, then disappear again. An observant eye might notice that this low-lying country has particular features - clustered eucalypts or huge termite mounds, indicating that there were once vast, slow-moving bodies of water here.

It also seems a place almost devoid of people: a couple of roadhouses, a mining settlement, the occasional homestead. In fact, the Tanami is dense with overlapping stories. A small Abori ginal community of about 160 people holds ancestral jurisdiction here over a desert wetland of international significance. This is where I come every year to work with the traditional owners on a project to monitor and manage their unique environment.

A hot wind belts against the western wall of the building in which I'm working with several female elders, sending tin cans and plastic bottles racketing across the dusty ground. Ngawurr ngawurr, they tell me, "big rain coming behind the wind. This morning we been see snake track behind your house, cheeky one." Cheeky in this context means poisonous. It's the beginning of the season the local Walmajarri people call Yirrirriny, when hot winds alternate with the oppressive build-up of storm clouds that may or may not bring the relief of rain. The reptile populations become active; the aggressive king brown snake seeks out the dampness around leaking lawn sprinklers. The pythons and goannas that are old food staples are also active, but with summer temperatures creeping towards 50° Celsius, local people stay in their air-conditioned houses these days and watch TV rather than go hunting. After the wet, when the country is alive with new growth, people will hunt and gather again, though for recreation rather than survival.

The first thunderstorm of the season surges in from the west, rolling over the community and drenching it in the space of half an hour with 40 millimetres of rain. In the morning the roads are reflective strips of orange water, and for several days the major access route is cut. It is an indi cator that soon the non-indigenous population of teachers and administrators will decamp for their annual holidays, and the provisional influence of the white world that funds and manages these outposts will be at its most tenuous.

Remote communities are a contradictory mixture of old values and modern aspirations. In the Tanami, this is never more evident than at this time of year, as the Christian Christmas and the wet season approach. Most people are nominally Catholic, a legacy of the mission days, but the spiritual culture is a curious melding of church ritual with ancestral law. Younger people are choosing to marry in Christian ceremonies, and kinship rules that regulate marriage are breaking down. Television has displaced the storytelling of earlier times, and among the remaining elders there is a growing sense of urgency to overcome customary prohibitions and have their secret knowledge and lore recorded.

I, too, will leave before the storms trap me for the summer. It is possible that someone in my team of elders will die before I return. If that happens, another precious fragment of desert consciousness will be lost from the Tanami, probably for ever.

Kim Mahood won the Age Book of the Year non-fiction prize for "Craft for a Dry Lake" (2000), published by Anchor Australia