EACH YEAR I drive from my home near Canberra to the Tanami Desert and spend several months in an Aboriginal community that has become my other home. The trip takes a week or two, allowing for the incremental adjustments that make my arrival one of recognition, pleasure and ambivalence.
There was a year I did it differently, flying directly to Alice Springs and travelling the thousand kilometres of corrugated and sandy desert track squashed into the back of a troop carrier with nine or ten elderly Aboriginal artists. We arrived in the early hours of the morning, less than twenty-four hours after I had left Canberra. The vehicle headlights lit a disorderly world of damaged houses, broken cars, lean furtive dogs and accumulated rubbish. This was a number of years ago, when I was still sorting out the uneasiness of my relationship to the place and people, and I felt the rise of old anxieties and discomfort. It seemed that, having departed from the orderly, over-planned surrealism of the national capital, I had arrived at its sinister twin. As I helped to drag tattered foam mattresses and assorted bundles from the back of the troop carrier, I thought of the plans and policies manufactured in the tidy hill-fort of Parliament House, and imagined them on their trajectory across the nation encountering a zone of refraction somewhere in the upper atmosphere, arriving as a mess of shattered fragments on this windy plateau. This image has stayed with me, a visual metaphor for the sustained capacity of remote Aboriginal Australia to subvert the best intentions of successive state and federal governments.
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