Life apart ended with terror in desert chase

Troy Lennon; 2/3/10

The documentary “Contact”, screening on the ABC (Australia)_ on Thursday, looks at the moment that first contact took place between the last wandering band of Martu Aborigines and white people in the West Australian deserts less than 50 years ago. In 1946, the Australian government had announced plans to establish a rocket- testing range at Woomera in South Australia, with a target zone in Western Australia. But right in the path of the rockets were thousands of hectares of land still inhabited by bands of nomadic Aborigines. In the ’40s the government appointed a native patrol officer, Walter MacDougall, whose job was to make sure no people lived in the rocket target zone. MacDougall had to cover a vast, arid area – an easy place for people to hide. He cleared many of the people out but even after more than a decade, some still remained.

The Daily Telegraph; No Internet Text

In 1964 the rocket program moved into a new phase, the testing of Blue Streak rockets. Once intended as launch vehicles for ballistic missiles, they would now carry communications satellites. The area where the rockets would land was riddled with sacred Aboriginal sites, some sacred to the Martu people,  dedicated to Yimiri, the rainmaking serpent. It was around here they lived oblivious to the encroachment of Western civilisation. Yuwali, a 17-year-old girl among a group of 20 women and children, had heard her father speak of white men but had never seen one and had no idea what they actually were.
An oil exploration team in the area saw evidence of Aborigines in April 1964, right in the middle of what would be the dump zone for rockets on re-entry. MacDougall set out on a patrol into the area to see if he could get the Aborigines out of harm’s way.
He found abandoned camp sites and set off in pursuit of the group, but they proved elusive. As MacDougall’s group approached, Yuwali saw their trucks and thought a rock had come alive. The Aborigines feared they would be eaten by the strangers. They managed to elude the chasers. The band of women and children had been living without men for three years. Yuwali’s father had left with three of his wives, abandoning two remaining wives and several other clan members.
The rocket launch was due in May; MacDougall and his team were now racing against time as they kept trying to find the last Aborigines in the area.
Yuwali and her family appealed to Yimiri for protection from the “devils” and seemingly miraculously the heavens opened, delaying the rocket launch and making progress difficult for the patrol in their trucks.
Although the small Martu band remained in the wilderness, the launch went ahead. Fortunately the rocket went off course, was blown up and dropped well short of the dump zone.
The next launch was scheduled for October, so MacDougall planned another patrol for September, taking Aboriginal guides Sailor and Nyani, who spoke the Martu language. The guides made contact and enticed Yuwali and her family to come out of hiding in late September. MacDougall filmed the moment of contact.
It is part of the documentary. Yuwali was given meat to eat but thought it tasted strange and suspected it was either poison or faeces. The Martu were also given clothes. They were tied together so that they wouldn’t run back into the bush. They were terrified as they witnessed the rocket launch from the edge of the dump zone.
The older women in the group, Nyipi, Yukurrpani and Karntipa, decided that rather than stay in the wild without men, they were better off going with the white men. They were taken to Jigalong mission where other people who had also been removed from the land had been taken.  They were told to forget the old ways and were introduced to Western culture.
The rocket program began to wind down in 1967 and was cancelled in the ’70s. The Martu regularly return to visit their ancestral lands.