Sights & Seeing – Dr. George Tjapaltjarri

MacDonnell_Ranges_West_of_Alice_Springs_Photo_Helen_Read_Pintupi_Homelands_Health_Service.IMG_4601 – Version 2

It was Dr. George Tjapaltjarri who would take us under his own wing and help us to see, the way he, exquisitely, sees.

On my first flight out to Walungurru (Kintore) from Alice Springs, there weren’t Global Positioning Systems (GPS)’s available, and the WAC (World Aeronautical Chart) for this region was in it’s sketch phase so not as accurate as a fresh-from-England art trained nurse with a new commercial pilot’s licence would have liked to discover. It was the mid 1980’s.

Magnetic compass and watch, a feel for wind drift so heading could keep track, and with exact fuel calculated for range along with looking out of the window, was ‘it’ in terms of navigating. Looking west from ‘Alice’, Walungurru lay 600 kms away so there was not much of a fuel margin left for being ‘uncertain of one’s position’ (OK, lost).

The West Macdonnell Ranges petered out and the horizon flattened encircling the little four seater Cessna 180 ‘plane (called ‘Tango’) I had borrowed for my employment as nurse-pilot with Kintore’s Pintupi Homelands Health Service. (PHHS). The whole desert was breathtakingly vast and beautiful. I was told the small community lay beside a big rock that looked like it’s name, Lizard.

Heading out all I could see, bar the Macdonnell ranges receding, was a vast world of nothing. ‘Nothing? How very wrong I was.

Once in Kintore, well respected Maparn (traditional healer), Dr. George Tjapaltjarri and I grew close working together in the clinic; a small building with just a table and a dentists chair in the ‘consulting room’; scales and cupboards in the babie’s ‘guts-ache’ area. The ‘office’ had a book case, table and chair: not far away sat the ‘rad-phone’ on a filing cabinet. This radio-telephone was our only means of communicating to the ‘outside’ and worked during daylight hours when the ionosphere allowed the radio waves to bound far enough to reach Alice.

Dr, or ‘Dokata’ George and I flew back and forth to Kiwirrkurra crossing the Northern Territory, Western Australia border, and time zones. ‘Tjapaltjarri’ might be in the ‘plane but would be flying his own way. It took a while for me to realise something of the enormity of what he could see.

Only weeks before, in Kiwirrkurra, the ‘Bush Mob’, or ‘Pintupi Nine’, people had ‘come in’ from North West Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay), to make contact with family – family make contact – and so the tiny community of Kiwirrkurra was in ‘lock-down’ mode and visitors were not permitted. A great deal of health work was pressing whichever way Dr. George and I looked. The times were complex and strained. Resources were tragic, standard of health appalling. Our PHHS team dwindled from five western medicine trained staff to one due to unseen Administrative failures. Frustration and fright drew determination.

Doing our best tending to people’s immediate needs around the clock every day, it was essential to get to fundamentals such as triple antigen ‘childhood’ vaccinations, teaching ‘whitefella’ nutrition – or the lack of it – and hygene associated with living on one spot on country. Community members were given ‘the doll’ – called ‘sit-down money’ by the people because they were being paid by the Government, urged, to, ‘sit down’ rather than continue normal life in the desert. Ephemeral matter, which usually decayed in it’s own deserted time, was not being walked away from. ‘Whitefella’ materials piled up, they don’t decay.

Whilst the trials and tensions to prevent death went on and Dr. George and I passed patients to each other, he challenged me to see country when we were in flight. Physically above Pintupi people’s land, Dr. George would point to huge distances ahead, or right down below us. I learnt there were words for every degrees on the compass (as I knew it), and a word for each distance along that compass point. That navigation is as natural as a heart beat. A track, a salt pan, a rise, might be far, far away but actuality could not be any closer than inside one’s brain. Know what it is you are looking at; because it’s inside you. That’s how it felt.

When Dr. George – a feisty, cheeky man – if I may say so; and an ultra powerful man of kindness, came in the plane, I would seat him in the back because I couldn’t be certain what he might do near the flight controls. We had different ways of flying. Using sign language, grinning hugely and with those dark sparkling eyes, ‘Dokata’ George would mouth place names over the engine noise and describe with glee the animals he could see. Fore and middle finger scrunched up – Camel! To me, initially, I could see little more than patches of dry vegetation, great dunes running like stretch marks and, an awful lot of sand.

But as time went on eye muscles strengthened and far distances became close. Dr. George would coach us Kartiya (non-Indigenous people) to be still and observe. On morning medication rounds – that is, home visits, should ‘Mr.’X”., not be in his temporary corrugated iron structure, I would stand still, quietly looking. It wouldn’t be long before being pointed to where ‘Mr.X’ was. The community, in relaxed conversation, read hand-signals throughout the whole settlement where my Kartiya eyes could barely see a hand.

Never physically airborne before, as natural being in the sky as on the ground, I noticed Cultural Custodians, artists, and patients sit in ‘Tango’ as though flying is the most natural thing in the world. Papunya Tula Artists, the Pintupi and Luritja artists owned art co-operative, based in Alice Springs, meanwhile would drive out with painting materials and supplies and drive back to Alice with precious artworks. Over weeks I could see magnificent paintings – flying-eye masterpieces – emerge from the outstations.

It was 1985. Why were these fine, multi-dimensional artworks not on the world stage? How could ‘wealthy’ Australia have children dying, let alone here of all places, of malnutrition?

This article first appeared on 20th November 2016 Text & Image Helen Read

To support people requiring renal dialysis to remain on traditional homelands, please visit The Western Desert Dialysis Appeal

Helen Read is an artist and former nurse-pilot for the Pintupi Homelands Health Service in Walungurru (Kintore), Kiwirrkurra, Gibson Desert Central Australia.

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