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Dec 30, 2010

Postcards from Balgo – Fire in the Great Sandy Desert

Out here fires can sometimes run for weeks - if not months - and burn-out huge tracts of land - I'll try to keep a watching eye on this fire over the coming weeks - if you have any information on its progress please log in and post a note about its progress.

Where the fire started - Balgo's Ri-Con camp
Where the fire started - Balgo's Ri-Con camp

With near-record rainfall since January we have had a great season here in central Australia. Of course that has a dangerous flipside – abundant growth from the big rains mean, as The ABC noted here, a very busy fire season ahead in central Australia. A few days ago Steven Rhall, a friend living at Balgo (locally known as Wirrimanu) posted a note about the first big fire of the season near his town.

Steven works at the wonderful Warlayirti Artists Centre at Wirrimanu and is also an artist and photographer in his own right. You can see a short biography for Steven below and a link to his wonderful photos at his personal website. Here Steven gives a few thoughts on and some of his pictures of the fire that started not far from his home. Out here fires can sometimes run for weeks – if not months – and burn-out huge tracts of land. I’ll try to keep a watching eye on this fire over the coming weeks – if you have any information on its progress please log in and post a note about its progress.

And maybe Steven will send an update of the bush re-emerging after the next rains. Here is his first guest post at The Northern Myth.

Now I’m on holidays, I’ve really discovered true solitude. There’s not that much to do in Balgo and my donga and I have become close acquaintances since I chose not to ‘get out‘ for this Seasonal break.

Last Tuesday was not much different from any other day and I decided to go up to Balgo’s one and only store for a few supplies. Not that I realised it straight away but, stepping out the door and looking to the West, today would provide an experience somewhat ‘different‘ from the usual quiet day around town.

Balgo Store workers Sue & barb check the fire from a safe distance
Balgo Store workers Sue & Barb check the fire from a safe distance

A large plume of smoke, burning black from Wattle, was funnelling straight up into the clouds. I was taken aback.

The Kutjungka region including Balgo. Map from Holding Pawulyu, desshakksm (2005)
The Kutjungka region including Balgo. Map from "Holding Yawulyu", Zohl De Ishtar (2005)

In my travels around the Kutjungka one would often see signs of fire but almost always in some far distant place – but not this close. My Docu Brain had me grab the Camera and make an inspection. Feelings of guilt rose as I took my first shots. Here I was next to the Temp Builders camp with the main fire front right next to it and I. Should I “tell someone? Does anyone else know yet?” Also being next to the Police Station where I saw some movement, I at least knew James and his current off-sider were ‘on the job‘.

The local cops have a Waru Wangka (fireside chat)
The local cops have a Waru Wangka (fireside chat)

Seeming to be relatively safe from harm in the short term, the aforementioned Brain went straight to Twitter. Another way to kill the time I’ve found. A quick Pano stitch and Whammo! Someone in another country knows about the fire but – possibly very little else in Balgo. Alright, alright, get the shoes on, long pants. Go inspect again.

The fire from my front gate...and a pilot gets a birds-eye view
The fire from my front gate...and a pilot gets a birds-eye view

I chat to our new Officer James and he asks about the Water Tanker trailer we have in town. I provide a number. The lone Builder left here over the Festive break is apparently woken to find this calamity at the bottom of Ri-Con Tent city. I drive into Balgo proper; half looking for shots, half spreading the word. Barb in the shop jokes about having no fire brigade. It’s true. Balgo only got it’s Police presence seven years ago.

Balgo's own Burning Bush
Balgo's own Burning Bush

Fortunately the wind had the fire burn parallel our ‘Workers Camp‘ and not towards Bottom Camp. Unfortunately, the first time I was to have three lovely visiting volunteers over for a Movie and some A/C was cancelled due to the understandable fear of burning out. Just when I thought it was almost over, I could see flames from the kitchen window. I went to inspect again and whilst a good chance for another photo and a chat with the Coppers, it seemed of little threat to the Donga.

The old stockyards got a clean-out
The old stockyards got a clean-out

By nightfall, the front was a good distance away off to the West. I felt safe enough to leave house and catch up with the Volunteers. A good feed of Vege burgers (yep, not all of us eat meat out here) and we all went for a drive for a look-see at ‘the glow‘.

We finally sat down to our vegan feast...
We finally sat down to our veggie burgers...

I think it was a mis-judgement to take the girls to Dirt Mountain in the centre of the tip, in being a good vantage point. “Grossest thing ever I’ve done” and other cries entered the night sky. We soon settled for a spot nearby, all perched on top of the Landcruiser. How can something be so destructive and yet be so beautiful to watch?

The night fire on the north-western horizon
The night fire on the north-western horizon

The next morning I took the three dogs out for our daily walk. The fire seemed as intense but just as far off. It was surreal walking the same ground I had only walked 24 hours earlier but looking completely different and black.

My dog Brains checking for a free reptilian meal the day on the fire ground
My dog Brains checking for a free reptilian meal the day on the fire ground

My fear of coming across a snake this time was was much lower. More photos. I then spent the morning at the Art Centre mowing and whipper-snippering the grounds – just in case.

And the fire had moved away to the north-west
And the fire had moved away to the north-west

Still large plumes of smoke but farther off again. Drenched in sweat, I did finally make it to the store where I ran into Brandy, the Senior Law Man for the region. I asked him about the fire. Because he knew that my Kukujta is not the best Brandy simply replied “Finished“.

And the Little Corellas wait to feast on some roasted seeds
And the Little Corellas wait to feast on some roasted seeds

Steven currently lives at Wirrimanu (Balgo) where he works at Warlayirti Artists supporting young people there to create works in non-traditional Media. Apart from sharing knowledge of both the still and the moving image, he has keenly soaked up the experience of living in the land and with it’s people. He has grown to appreciate the desert lifestyle and actually fears the change inherent in moving on. Balgo is joyful, sometimes combustible, but overall refined. Steve wonders how he’ll, yet again, experience Melbourne in the New Year.

You can see more of Steven’s personal photographic work and thoughts at his website here.

Warlayirti Artists is controlled and managed by a Committee of Aboriginal artists, which is elected annually. Warlayirti Artists was established in 1987 following the success of the first exhibition of Balgo art – Paintings from the Great Sandy Desert – at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1986. Since 1987 the organisation has grown significantly and the artists represented by Warlayirti Artists have emerged as some of Australia’s leading contemporary Indigenous artists. As a result Warlayirti Artists contributes significantly to the social, cultural and economic well-being of the Indigenous residents of the Kutjungka region.

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4 thoughts on “Postcards from Balgo – Fire in the Great Sandy Desert

  1. Balgo > Melbourne – Steven Rhall [Photographer / Artist]

    […] It was a couple of days after Xmas in which a fire broke out in Balgo. I went out, photographed the goings on and spoke to some of the locals. Friend Bob Gosford, who is based in Alice Springs, gave me the opportunity to provide some words and imagery for his Crickey (sub) Blog – The Northern Myth (a great read for those interested in Top End / Desert life). I took the opportunity and in a matter of an hour or so provided my report. Honestly, you may tell it was written in that time but it was a good exercise for me in writing. Something I would like to do more of (at a higher standard!) in the future. Anyway, here’s the read. […]

  2. Postcards from Balgo – Fire in the Great Sandy Desert – The … | Today Headlines

    […] the rest here:  Postcards from Balgo – Fire in the Great Sandy Desert – The … Share […]

  3. Tweets that mention Postcards from Balgo – Fire in the Great Sandy Desert – The Northern Myth -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by HealthEngine. HealthEngine said: RT @bgosford: New guest post at The Northern Myth: Fire in the Great sandy Desert: http://tinyurl.com/2cwnlab #alicesprings #topend #ind … […]