Writer Martin Flanagan once asked some Warlpiri fellas, “What was the biggest difference between Yuendumu and Melbourne?” They answered, “The sky in Yuendumu is bigger”.
Set in the Tanami Desert, 3 hours drive west of Alice Springs, the Yuendumu sky is like an enormous deeply azure dome. By night, it’s a mass of pulsating stars. The irony being, that in this small place one feels connected to something much bigger.
Bigger … that’s how I feel when I attend to co-commentate the Australian Rules Football at the 55th Yuendumu Sports Festival.
Connected to something bigger, both in the sense of universal energy and by being part of a gathering that is a modern incarnation of gatherings that have been taking place for over 40,000 years. It’s a cliché, but it really is a privilege to be able to be here, to soak up the energy of this unique world. The landscape, language, culture and world view, while not unfamiliar to me due to my experience, are still essentially foreign and refreshing.
While it does inspire me being here, I am not oblivious to the harsh realities. The desert, with its extremes of temperature and dearth of water is a tough place to live. Add to that decades of failed Government policy, a vulnerability to exploitation, serious addictive substances issues and flare ups of factional violence and you have a community that is occasionally teetering on the edge of breakdown.
That said, this is a community that has survived for 72 years despite levels of trauma that would have completely destroyed those with less resilience. I have seen many of the manifestations of this trauma over the years, through my work as an Aboriginal Legal Aid solicitor, including attending the bush court at Yuendumu. That’s what makes attending the Sports Festival even more inspiring. It is a chance to soak up the enormous positives rather than being immersed in the negatives.
The PAW (Pintubi Anmatjere Warlpiri) Media Team, a mix of dedicated and talented Whitefellas and Warlpiri, have been busy setting up since the crack of dawn on Saturday. By 10.30am I am champing at the bit to get into it. It’s moments like this that I have to remind myself to let go of my city time-consciousness and busyness and adapt to “Warlpiri time”. Things will happen when they’re ready.
By 11.30am the old men have gathered. This is the genesis of everything. If they lived in the mainstream these old fellas would be enjoying a relatively relaxed retirement. Instead they are busier than they have ever been in their lives. They are constantly juggling a variety of duties from land, legal, business, health, development, cultural and research issues. The constant pressures they face are enormous. On top of that they are charged with the responsibility of both organising and maintaining order at this festival.
After much vigorous and animated discussion, the draw is settled and the legendary Harry Nelson gets to work on the PA system, threatening teams with forfeit if they don’t get their act together. It works and we are soon underway.
The starting point in any footy commentary is to get a good team sheet in numerical order. The challenge out bush is that there are often three players wearing the same number, several players with no number and some players with no guernsey at all. That’s when you have to get creative and write the player’s name next to “red boots”; “barefoot”; “topknot”; “big tummy” etc. Even when you’ve sorted that, there is a lot of random jumper swapping throughout the game.
Again, the key is acceptance and having fun with it. One fella came up to me at the end of the second day and said the comedy that came out of the commentators trying to keep up with whose who on the field was “better than Roy and HG”.
I find that mentioning names in the commentary is more important than the action, scores and time. Family is everything to Aboriginal people. And when a family member is mentioned on radio doing something fantastic on the sporting field that brings a great sense of pride and joy to those family listening. It’s always nice hearing those congregating around the commentary area responding to the call with a proud “that’s my son, grandson, nephew” etc.
Names and relationships are glue to Warlpiri cultural life. Everyone has at least four names, an English name, a Warlpiri name, a nick name and a skin name. Sometimes a person has to change their name as it is the same name as a person who passed away recently. Working out the most appropriate name to call someone is an interesting challenge.
On top of that, there is no shortage of creativity amongst Aboriginal people when it comes to choosing English names. Over the weekend I called a Hendrix, Messiah, Kiriath, Ananias, Nazareth, Jezaniah, Navarrone, Amadeus, Jethro, Augustine, Zieran, and Rodriguez. The girls are even better, Shimayla, Shemona, Shaimaya, Danisha, Laketta, Makisha, Ravina, and Prestina. The four syllable names are commentary death and I apologise again to Nicodemus, Ammoniah and Terrisita. Sometimes the players want to be called by their nicknames, often the names of AFL players or a Warlpiri word, but we did have one lad who wanted to be called as “The Terminator”.
In addition to getting the names down I also try and throw in a little bit of Warlpiri, with the help of my co-commentators, with Ngurruju!! (Good!!) being a staple. And every now and then I’ll try a local based metaphor with mixed success (“he climbed over his opponent to take that mark like a perentie (a large lizard) climbing a mulga bush”).
Then it is time to settle in, have fun and absorb the remaining challenges. Even in winter the desert sun is fierce. And we’re calling the footy while seated in the tray of a truck. So day one brings sunburn. We erect a shade but day two brings wind. The wind in the desert has a life all its own. It changes direction, ferocity and temperature depending on its mood. It decides games of football, carrying footballs 80 metres in one direction and stopping them dead in the other. And, when it is feeling extra cheeky, it sends out a whirliwhirli straight over the commentary team, on this occasion ripping off our headphones and the recently set-up shade.
In 2013 it nearly blew us clean off the roof of a troopy (watch this link to the end to see one of the best bush tornadoes ever!!. Then there’s the dust. A week later and I’m still shaking red dust out of my hair, ears, eyes, nose and boots. At various times the dust was like a thick red mist in the air such that it was impossible to see the players. What really fine tuned the senses though was when the dogs decided to fight right next to the boom mike, or even better, a cheeky kid would walk past and scream into it. That was a good test for the eardrums.
And finally, the cold.
Now that Yuendumu has lights at the oval the footy doesn’t stop at sundown. And once that sun goes down the desert transforms from oven to icebox. By the end of the Grand Final at 11pm on Monday night I could not feel my fingers or toes. All around the ground the spectators had sparked up campfires to keep warm and that was an amazing sight. I wanted to start one up on the back of the truck!
And what of the football itself. In a word, sublime. Silky skills, blistering speed, fierce tackling and gravity defying leaps. All taking place on an oval of hard blood red earth. It must hurt like Hades when players get dumped on it, especially if they hit one of the many drink cans or dog chewed animal bones that pock mark the surface. But no one stays down for long.
Did I mention they are tough out here?
For a sports lover like myself it is Nirvana; or more appropriately out here, Jukurrpa. Football is not just a game out here, it is a centrepiece to an important social gathering, where links to people, country and culture are reasserted and reinforced. It is part of everything, everywhen, Jukurrpa!
So when the ball is bounced none of the challenges matter. There is just a sheer exuberance to be part of this beautifully chaotic celebration of life. I literally do not have a care in the world. I just do my best to describe the drama, comedy and action unfolding before me. While the contests are fierce that undercurrent of sheer joy is also evident in the play. The joy of being part of Jukurrpa, of being alive, of resuming existing relationships and making new ones and the joy of being able to show off ones skills to the mob and, hopefully, receive their adulation. The teams that participate differ every year, depending on who is able to make it and the emergence of new teams.
Fourteen teams participate this year, from as far North as Ti Tree (a 6 hour drive) to as far South as Amata (a 21 hour drive). The age of the players ranges from 10 years old to 50, if you can play, you’re in. Seeing a 3.5 foot child playing full forward against a 6 foot adult defender is one of the many great contrasts on display.
This year it wasn’t just the men who got that opportunity. For the first time there was a women’s football competition. And it was superb. The women and girls were at it just as fierce as the men and the crowd loved it. In the women’s Grand Final the Nyirripi Demons won a thriller against the Wulaign Blues. The enthusiastic embrace of this cultural shift is testament to the strength and adaptability of the Warlpiri people.
Then, finally, at 9pm on Monday night, after three days of sensational football, the Grand Final between the Yuendumu Magpies and the Ti Tree Roosters kicked off. The oval is an incredible sight with cars parked facing the oval all around the perimeter. All are tuned into the PAW call on their car radios, so in the lead up to the first bounce we get everyone to honk their horns and flash their lights. The atmosphere is electric. The contest is willing and see-sawing. With five minutes to go and the game in the balance the lights go out!
There is always a controversial event in the Yuendumu Sports Grand Final, as if the spirits of the land want to ensure it is forever remembered and the victory properly earned. The lights are out for half an hour and the discussion gets animated. In the end the lights come back on and Ti Tree finish strong to claim their first Yuendumu Sports Title in two decades. They, and their supporters, certainly let everyone know about it with lots of whooping, honking and handfuls of red dust thrown into the night sky.
Even though it is 11pm and around 2 degrees celsius, there is a sense that no-one wants the festival to end and even though my throat is rasping from 12 hours straight calling, my eyes are filled with dust and my fingers and toes are numb, I don’t want it to end either.
Stewie O’Connell has written for The Northern Myth previously on life, mud and floods during the Katherine floods of 1998. You can read that post here.