A stint of fieldwork recently took me up north for a short stay on Mornington Island, the largest of the Wellesley islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is a long trip to reach the islands, the last leg of which involves hopping from community to community aboard the mail plane from Mt Isa. The small plane shudders and bumps its way through the thermals above a landscape of ocean, islands, and rivers snaking their way over expansive coastal mudflats. The intricate topographical patterns of land and water seen from above are never more impressive than in the Gulf, yet flying in small planes is not something I relish and I am always glad to set foot on the runway.
The journey was familiar – many years ago I lived in one of those communities and worked with the Indigenous groups of the Gulf on their claims to land and sea. In the wet season we were cut off from the rest of the world for months, and the only way in and out for people and supplies was by air (or boat).
Living in exceedingly remote parts of the world suits me. I have always been attracted to wild places, to small scatterings of human presence amongst the vastness of nature, or to frontier settlements with larger than life characters and a life vastly different from the mainstream. In these places the needs, forms and rhythms of daily life are determined by something much larger than the individual, and the usual concerns of material life seem insignificant. The vastness seems to open you up, to strip away the trimmings and lay things bare. It makes the senses come alive in a way that is simply not possible in the city. It forces a reliance on your own personal resources, and on the small community around you.
And yet there are aspects of life in remote places that can be tough. Conditions can be harsh, and fitting in in a small place can be a challenge. Living in the bush means the usual myriad of social opportunities, facilities, and conveniences of urban life are simply not available. It is often a long time between a latte or a fresh vegetable or a newspaper. Getting to the nearest town may involve a hard drive of hundreds and hundreds of kilometres.
In these remote places many would expect to feel loneliness or a sense of deprivation because of the lack of all these things. And yet, my experience has been one of abundance – of a landscape filled with with stories, history and so much life, and of connectedness – to people and to country and to community.
Untangling a drag net
In the late dry season there is a constant wind which rattles the pandanas fronds and makes for pleasant sleeping at night
A flock of red-tailed black cockatoos at sunset
Tracks across the sand dunes