How five Aboriginal women survived five days in the outback using the stories of the land

How five Aboriginal women survived five days in the outback using the stories of the land

How five Aboriginal women survived five days in the outback using the stories of the land

Updated 1 May 2017, 13:10 AEST

In January 2013, five Indigenous women survived five days in the desert after an expedition to find roots for carving went wrong.

At the end of January 2013, when the temperature was soaring to 50 degrees Celsius in the shade, five artists drove into the desert to spend an afternoon digging for punu: tree roots, used for carving.

The four women in their 50s — Roma, Tjawina, Ivy and Jennifer — were travelling with Jennifer's mother, Mrs Woods, in her early 80s.

They had a strong connection to country: they knew the rock formations and the hills. They knew where the waterholes were.

And they also knew that in January, those waterholes would be dry.

They bundled into the car and set off, with blankets, their dogs, a few bottles of water for tea and half a loaf of bread.

Their remote community, Wingellina, is located on the border of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

They were excited to be going out bush for the day, to escape the heat and boredom of their tiny town.

Car troubles on day one

The five women drove over Mount Davis, just to the north of town. They continued for two hours, travelling towards a spot they knew provided good punu — a dry cracked creek bed overhung by trees.

Just before they reached their destination, the car started bucking. Steam poured from the hood. They stopped the vehicle to investigate.

"It's the battery — it's dead," Ivy said.

Jennifer, looking at the steam, disagreed.

"It's the radiator, it's boiling," she said.

They tipped water into the radiator and jump-started the car, a few pushing from behind, forcing it down a sandy slope until they reached a flat spot on the bank of the creek.

As the shadows lengthened they left the radiator to cool, digging long tree roots out of the earth with shovels, chopping them apart with an axe, and wrenching them out of the ground.

Towards late afternoon, they loaded the roots into the back of the car and got in.

Enough for the night

Roma remembers trying to turn the key. The engine wouldn't start. She checked the dashboard — empty — no diesel.

The women didn't panic.

It was Friday.

They had enough water for the night, and food to last them until the end of Saturday.

They built a fire, made some tea and settled down to sleep, sharing blankets and dogs to keep warm.

As Saturday passed quietly, they looked at the horizon, hoping to see a billow of sand that would signal an approaching vehicle.

That night, they took stock of their situation. Their water supply was depleted.

They decided in the morning that three of the ladies would walk to a rock hole at Urunturu to look for water.

Prayers go unanswered

Leaving Tjawina with Mrs Woods in the shade of a tree, Roma, Jennifer and Ivy walked to the rock hole. It was topped with a lid they had to pull open.

They sat and they prayed.

All three had spent time as children at Ernabella Mission in South Australia and were strong in their faith.

But after saying "amen" and opening the lid, the well was dry.

They walked back to Mrs Woods and Tjawina who were waiting eagerly for the water, the kapi.

"No kapi," they reported, mournfully.

The five artists knew the old stories and songs that conveyed knowledge and culture — tjukurpa. But that meant they knew their only hope of water was the large rock holes, such as the one at Wingellina, or at Blackstone, many kilometres away.

The next day they set off to walk home to Wingellina — or at least to the top of Mount Davis, where they could start a fire and attract attention.

They started just before sunrise, in the cool dark light of the dawning day.

A green spot in the distance

Halfway up the mountain, Mrs Woods stopped.

"You go without me, I'm going back to camp," she said.

But the ladies wouldn't leave her. Together they started back down the mountain.

Then, from her vantage point halfway up the mountain, Jennifer looked down to the dry creek bed below and noticed green in the distance.

She decided to walk to that spot to try to find water. Ivy followed while the others returned to camp.

Roma built a wilcha for Mrs Woods, so she was sheltered from the glare of the sun.

She remembered learning, many years ago, how to cut thick long punu to drain moisture and collect water. She held the roots over her billy can while the precious water dripped out.

She swallowed some, then poured the rest into a water bottle.

But the bottle had a hole and the water drained out.

Chased by clouds

Back in the community, people had noticed the ladies hadn't returned. With the men away on business, it was Karrika Belle Davidson, an elder in her 70s, who started the search.

Belle called the surrounding communities — Fregon, Ernabella — to see if anyone had spotted the women or the tracks of their car. No one had, so Belle, her son, and her friend Jennifer started driving from country to country in search of the women.

Meanwhile, Ivy, Jennifer, and their dogs walked for hours, occasionally resting under the shade of trees.

Two clouds chased the ladies, floating above them, making them feel happy to follow their path.

They reached the area of green that Jennifer had spotted from Mount Davis and Ivy noticed ngi ngi birds — small desert finches with red beaks forming a canopy on the branches of the surrounding trees.

According to tjukurpa, where you found these birds in great numbers, singing loudly and darting down to the ground and back up to the trees, there would be water.

A futile dig in damp sand

Beneath the trees were wild camels who scattered when they saw Jennifer and Ivy.

The two women sat down and prayed, then, sweeping aside a pile of dry leaves, found damp sand. They only had their hands, sticks, and a wiru, a carved wooden scoop.

They dug and dug but realised it was futile. To reach the water below they would have to walk back to the camp to collect the shovels and crowbars.

Ivy went first while Jennifer, stubborn, continued to dig until eventually, she too started walking, catching up to Ivy who was sitting under a tree, waiting.

"Ivy! Ivy, up there!" she called.

Jennifer climbed the tree to rest in its branches, away from the sole-scorching earth. Tipping her head back to swallow some brown sugar, she noticed a perentie, a goanna, basking in the sun.

A perentie!

Ivy fetched a stick, and aiming high thumped the perentie on the nose. Dead, he fell to the ground.

Eating perentie

They were delighted. This lizard would feed all the ladies back at camp.

On their return they came across the tracks of a second perentie, and chased it as it scrabbled into a hole in the sand. They dug down and pulled it up.

A second thump, a second perentie to bring back to camp.

Tjawina woke up when she heard dogs approaching, running ahead of Ivy and Jennifer.

"Roma, those ladies are back!" she called.

Roma made a fire and cooked the lizard. At first, their mouths were so dry they couldn't eat it. They sucked on the fat of the lizards, wetting their throats until they could manage the meat.

Then Ivy and Jennifer revealed they had found the water.

Digging for water

The ground was still hot as Roma, Ivy and Jennifer set out for the water that evening.

Roma borrowed Tjawina's shoes, and they carried shovels and crowbars.

Their dogs walked with them, panting in the heat. Reaching the spot they started digging.

Roma remembers it getting dark.

"On my turn, I went in," she said.

"Then it was me and Jennifer, digging that hole, and all the dogs were jumping up and down for the water."

They cleaned out the dirty water first, and then waited for it to refill with clean water.

"It was cold, like ice," Roma said.

They filled up the water bottles they'd carried from the camp and then left, walking back at midnight, with their dogs keeping the dingos at bay.

An engine in the distance

Now they had water, the women could relax a bit.

They set off yet again to the water site with their blankets and billy cans, their dogs, and the car's rear-view mirror.

They were happier. It was day six of being out bush but they had water and perenties and wood to carve while they waited to be found.

At the spring they built a fire, then watched and listened until finally they heard an engine in the distance.

Jennifer grabbed the mirror and scrambled up the bank. She angled the mirror so that it reflected the sun into the path of the oncoming car.

Belle had remembered the spot where the women liked to gather punu.

By chance she took the long way, coming up the creek instead of across the mountain, where she saw the flash of Jennifer's mirror.

Jubilation and relief

The women had been in the desert for five days, stranded with no water or food. People assumed they had died. But as they arrived back in Wingellina there was great jubilation and relief.

A policeman tried to insist they go to the health clinic for a check-up.

"Wiya," Jennifer said.

"We've got water from God, water from the heavens."

The women survived thanks to the oral tradition of tjukurpa, the stories and songs that impart knowledge of the land, of culture and place.

But the women's story of survival and the journey they undertook also became a contemporary tjukurpa, known as Kapi Ungkupayi, to teach younger people of how to share and how to search for water.