TAKE A TRIP down the old corrugation road with some Bardi people and you’ll soon find out something about globalisation, indigenous people and the exact location of your own tailbone. Dubbed Australia’s “second-worst road” by locals – who measures such things? – the red pindan soil of the Kimberley is ridged into hard peaks only 15 centimetres apart, peaks that tighten your neck muscles as systematically as they torture your 4WD’s suspension. In shock, the tourists grin for the first few minutes, madly videoing the evidence of an Australia beyond the reach of KFC or tarmac. At about half an hour in, the novelty has worn off; grins fade and, for the unlucky, seasickness sets in as the peaks widen to a couple of metres and the vehicles start to surf their agonising three-hour course to One Arm Point, Lombardina or Djarindjin.
The corrugation road truly is shocking: physically, emotionally and in most other senses, except the most paradoxical one. Politically, the condition of the track reflects very little about the disempowerment of blackfellas in Australia’s north-west. These eight or ten tiny settlements are black communities with not a lot of work, not a lot of capital inflow, not a great deal of connection to mainstream Australia, let alone the globalised world economy of Bill Gates. There is the Christian residue of mission life and (as in every part of rural Australia, white or black) problems with grog, with ganja, with violence. But despite the newish Besser-block internet centres where you can dial up to New York or Beijing, there is also a keenly felt sense of cultural continuity. Some impressive leadership. Lots of bonefish in season; plenty of turtle still. Language is strong. Ceremonies form an important part of life, and for Bardi people the awfulness of the corrugation road is not another symbol of the whiteman’s neglect. It is, rather, a welcome moat, protecting them from what they’ve seen happen to once-sleepy Broome. Given the option to “improve” the road, local communities have strongly resisted. The Bardi prefer their corrugations, their bulldust holes, the lack of petrol stations and public amenities. They have deliberately chosen to welcome only those tourists who are serious enough to brave three hours of discomfort bordering on pain. “It won’t keep all the terrorists [tourists] out, more’s the pity, but it sorts out the wheat from the chaff,” one former ATSIC councillor told me. “Keeps out the yobbos, up to a point.”
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