September 2005


Trouble on the night shift

By Anna Krien
Trouble on the night shift
Rescue and remembrance in the creek beds of the desert

‘Call the police! Call the police!’ A barrel-chested Aboriginal man is yelling out to the boss of the night patrol. A red station wagon with plastic sheets for windows is grinding its tyres in the dirt, a woman wailing in the back seat. Five patrollers look on, jostling beside their four-wheel-drive patrol van, an iron cage attached to the back. ‘C’mon!’ they call out again to Trevor Cook, the 23-year-old patrol leader, as he pulls out a mobile phone and starts to ring the police. The police are fifty kilometres away up the road. Phone pressed to his ear, Trevor looks over at his team. He brings the phone down. ‘Outta credit.’

We are outside the gates of Ti Tree, a dry community 200 kilometres north of Alice Springs. Scores of crows peck open the bellies of dead kangaroos. Termite mounds poke up like little red tombstones. Hundreds of plastic bags sway in the breeze, fixed on spinifex. There is a sense out here that the land will always beat you. Barefoot kids scrounge around rubbish tips, pillaging burnt-out cars for parts. The boys wear LA ghetto-style T-shirts – Eminem, Tupac, 50 Cent – and their all-defining question, ‘Do you have a football oval?’, is followed immediately by another: ‘Dirt or grass?’ And in the dark as I take a piss, squatting in the dirt, a wild brumby gallops past with a feral dog nipping at its heels. I watch them disappear into the scrub.

The Ti Tree Aboriginal night patrol consists of five blackfellas whose unpaid job is to stop grog runners. Ti Tree might be a dry zone but peering over its shoulder is a yellow XXXX billboard, erected by the nearby roadhouse, a reminder that beer is a ten-minute drive away. Aborigines say they don’t have a dreaming for booze, a song to ward off its evil spirit. Instead it sings to them, along with the roadhouse’s bain-marie, keeping the fried chicken, dim sims and hot chips warm. Trevor solemnly says he never touches a drop but another patroller tells me he doesn’t mind the odd beer. ‘On the weekend, you know?’ Sometimes the patrol feels like a bit of a show. Proudly they shine a torch into cars coming and going, checking for casks of goon and beer. They hurl empty casks into the scrub and puncture already sucked-dry bladder bags of cheap wine. A busload of tourists whips past. ‘McCafferty’s,’ says Trevor, as if spotting the species of bus company is the same as spotting an emu.

Wispy kids tramp through the grass, lighting fires that cast long flickering shadows. The patrollers tell them off. About a metre from the fence-line marking the dry zone a party is under way. ‘Today is payday,’ says Trevor, meaning government benefits day, otherwise known as thirsty Thursday. Payday can also mean payback. Recently a man got tanked on goon or beer then stabbed another fella in the thigh. Why? ‘It was tribal,’ explains a night patroller from Alice Springs. But why? ‘It goes back a long way. His grandfather tracked their grandfather for the government.’

Further up the road, where the night is so black you could lose an outstretched hand, is the Falconio stretch. Everyone in Alice Springs has a theory different to the court’s verdict about what happened to Joanne Lees and her boyfriend Peter Falconio on the night he went missing in 2001. The desert is a place where weird things happen and nobody is around to witness them, un-like the city where everything is observed, even if it’s just a glance through venetian blinds. ‘Something stinks about it,’ says the bartender at tourist pub Bojangles. As with the Azaria Chamberlain case two decades earlier, a lynch mob of misfits, mercenaries and missionaries grind their teeth. Their theories seem based more on boredom than on any outstanding evidence.

Boredom drove one blackfella out of his community west of Alice, declaring with the back of his hand: ‘Too many meetings here.’ Like desperate housewives, a handful of white workers on every community organise the locals into football teams and battles of the bands and tug-of-wars. They hold meetings, take minutes, ask for a show of hands. They run around collecting signatures for health grants, and black eyes follow them silently, no doubt wondering why these strange agitated white people aren’t with their own mob.

The sign for Ampilatawatja must have blown away again, the maintenance worker tells us, after we have spent more than an hour driving in circles, taking the long way round through Utopia, before stumbling through the back entrance to the community. A sports carnival is on and people have clustered in groups round the dirt oval’s sidelines, cheering barefoot boys and men as they tear after a football, weaving around each other like insects. Sometimes the players become silhouettes in the haze of a red sandstorm that turns white singlets pink and fills your nose with orange snot. A huge pig wanders from group to group, snuffling at scraps, and two wild donkeys stroll across the oval at half-time, poking their heads into the open windows of parked cars. Posters of the local Labor member Peter Toyne, wearing an akubra, are plastered over the general store. Toyne has donated a $300 prize for the Best Dressed Car competition and all around Ampilatawatja, a one-block community of about fifteen concrete houses, men are using watercolours to turn their vehicles into football mascots, wrapping crepe paper round the wire coat-hangers that make do for aerials. Some of the windscreens are so shattered that looking through them must feel like it is perpetually raining.

Toyne has a camera so that a photo can be taken of the winner and himself shaking hands. But come 5 p.m. there is no sign of any car competition organising itself. When one of the older men, told that Toyne is keen to get going, is finally asked what’s happening, he stares blankly ahead and rubs his chin. ‘We’re not ready,’ he says. ‘Maybe tomorrow.’

By day, the carnival consists mostly of football and of men doing languid laps of the community in their dolled-up cars. At night is the battle of the bands, on the back of a pick-up truck, children’s eyes glinting from their hiding place under the stage. Red dust swirls as about fifty people jerk and twist to a mongrel mix of rock, ska, reggae and country & western. Marjorie and Nigel, two born-again Christians, take it upon themselves to don the baseball caps of the night patrol and drive around. The battle of the bands, say Marjorie and Nigel, is the sanctioning of sin. They set up an alternative stage playing gospel tunes where about five people are in attendance.

Starting up Ampilatawatja’s night patrol entailed more than its share of difficulties. The community nominated one of the most respected men in the land to be boss of the patrol; the trouble was, the reason why he was so respected was that he was the main grog runner. Anxious to let the democratic vote reign, the white workers looked on for months as the new patrol vehicle was used to deliver beer and wine into the community of 300. Eventually the novelty rubbed off and the grog runner resigned. No-one took over. The patrol uniforms and vehicle were discarded, and for a while that was that.

Paul Quinlivan, a health worker at Ampilatawatja, says there is no ‘one size fits all’ model for night patrols. Out at Kintore, further west, he says the introduction of a night patrol resulted in the locals begging for a police station to be installed. ‘Blackfellas don’t want to tell each other what to do … they don’t want to be the ones seen drawing the line,’ he says. Kintore eventually got its police station and I can’t help feeling sorry for the new police and their families. They have been called out to one of the most remote and lonely places in Australia, to be loathed and scowled at but secretly appreciated by a community too scared to tell one another that they’re beginning to scare each other.

Paul has worked with Aboriginal people since the 1980s, witnessing secret ceremonies he chooses not to talk about. But when the prime grog runner is voted head of the night patrol even he becomes sceptical. ‘I mean, what is an elder? And who determines who is an elder?’ He says Aboriginal Australia anoints chiefs in the same way whitefellas try to find kings. Perhaps even the idea of a community, of small bands of nomads trying to live peacefully in groups of 500 or so, is a white construct. Most children at Ampilatawatja don’t go to school, and Paul is trying to get in on the government’s new ‘No School, No Pool’ policy.

‘It would kill two birds with one stone,’ he says. The children would start attending school and the swimming pool they receive in return would act as a disinfectant to a lot of the infections, mainly scabies, to which they are prone. The dogs at Ampilatawatja lurk in the shadows, distrustful of affection, because they know that most white people here would like to shoot them dead. But at night these same dogs curl up with the children, passing on their lice and scabies, which can result in kidney infections, because the kids scratch at the sores on their bodies and often draw blood. ‘If we had a pool,’ says Paul, ‘we wouldn’t need to coax anyone with big speeches about health and votes on medicine. They could just jump in the pool and get clean instantly.’

It seems that Aborigines with a fixed address are short not of money but of things to spend it on. In the Ampilatawatja general store, the only shop for 100 kilometres, the single food aisle contains pasta sauce, tinned vegies, sugary bread, soft drink, crisps and lollies. Adults sing songs about shooting roos, digging for yams and roasting budgies on a stick while their kids get high on Coca-Cola, glucose snakes and chips. Even in Alice Springs, social workers say many Aborigines choose to do their shopping at petrol stations, despite the overblown prices, because of a sense of shame: when they set foot inside a supermarket they are watched like hawks.

A friend once told me about the Christmas Eve when she gave a homeless man outside her local supermarket $50. A few days later she asked him, out of curiosity, what he did with it. ‘I went and bought me one of those portable TVs for $49.95,’ he replied happily. And when the batteries ran out? ‘I threw it away.’

In the rubbish tip behind Ampilatawatja discarded bikes, sometimes with only one spoke out of joint, are scattered among the empty Spam tins. People’s problems run deeper than money. And yet their preoccupation with money is palpable. One blackfella who wants to talk about the Schapelle Corby case cannot get over the bag of marijuana found in her boogie-board bag. ‘Did you see how much ganja she had? Huh? How much money would that be worth, eh? A lot of gangja, eh. A lot of money.’ People knock on Paul Quinlivan’s door at the health centre to do their internet banking. He says they rarely think to Google the world around them.

One man tells me the story of the football grand final at Yuendumu three years ago. There was this Aboriginal player who was so good he could have made it in the AFL. But after he kicked the winning goal in the semi-final four policemen ran onto the field and cuffed him. They had thirty warrants out for his arrest. His team-mates ran alongside the divvy van, banging their fists and begging for him to be released. The next day the coach visited the police station, pleading with them to let his star player out for the grand final. Finally they relented. A cop car accompanied him to the oval and he took up his position in front of the goalposts, where his wife was waiting in a car, revving the engine. Everyone knew she was his wife except the cops. He kicked six goals and they won the grand final. And when the siren went off and the spectators mobbed the ground, he jumped into the car and they took off down the backways of the desert. They were last seen in South Australia, where he was playing footy for one of the teams down there.

After hearing this story I think about the image Australia promotes overseas. I think of the tourist billboards that portray the true-blue larrikin, the laid-back bloke, and of our award-winning low-budget films and their stories of Aussies playfully avoiding the law. And I realise I don’t know a single whitefella like that.

Conrad Wiseman is a windswept cowboy. He takes us out on night patrol in Alice Springs, driving across the terrain with his thumbs. He was scared when he first went out on patrol. He had to press his hand over one man’s gushing stab wound while being thrown around the white mesh cage as the patrol sped towards the hospital.

At first glance the Alice Springs night patrol can look like a glamorised taxi service. Conrad and his team pick up folks who wave them down and take them to their town camps. But one afternoon a sheepish-looking man knocks on the back door of the patrol’s portable office, wondering if there are any lifts going out to his community, 200 kilometres away. His wife and three kids stand watching behind the cyclone fence. He fidgets nervously while he is told that he has left it too late; no-one is going out that way until Monday. He looks back at his family, then squints in the direction of Alice’s town centre. Trouble might find his family if they stay here for the weekend, the lure of the drink overwhelming.

On weekends, the twenty autonomous town camps around Alice are overcrowded with families from remote dry communities, often loaded up with card-game winnings. The average town camp, hidden away in the scrub, is guarded by a gang of wild dogs and consists of five to seven concrete-slab houses, each sheltering up to fifteen people. Because they are so close to the town centre it is impossible to make these camps dry zones, and the tyres of the patrol ute crackle as we flatten hundreds of VB cans strewn in our path. Conrad is a master of tough love. He calls a bunch of Aborigines ‘bloody idiots’ when they try to scam a lift carrying plastic bags of cask wine. ‘We’re a bloody night patrol,’ he hollers at them, accelerating off.

We hurtle past the Todd Tavern, its windows blacked out and covered in chicken wire on the side where the blackfellas drink, the door guarded by a bouncer. On the other side of the pub, reached through a different entrance, the whitefellas drink. You can see them through sparkling clear windows. We go past the drive-in, on the tail of a Mr Whippy van, playing its slow winding music. Strollers are left overturned and abandoned on the roads, as if the mothers got sick of the awkward contraptions and preferred to carry their babies. Children play in the skeletons of trampolines and car wrecks. Makeshift campfires flare up in the doorways of the concrete homes, and families sit around the warmth talking. One granny defecates on the veranda outside because the doors to the toilet cubicles have been torn off their hinges, exposing the blocked porcelain toilets with their shattered lids and jammed flushes.

There are more normal things too. Two chairs are placed facing each other in conversation under the shade of a tree. Picture frames nailed to walls rattle in the evening breeze. A family is setting a table for dinner, while outside Conrad tries to lure a woman holding a bloody rag to her face into the ute, except that her boyfriend keeps shoving her away. In the end the patrol, which is forbidden by law from physically intervening, has to call the police. And to the rusty whine of country & western, we drive through the night. We pick up one man sprawled flat out in a park. He has shat his pants and stares at us through glassy eyes. The patrollers radio back to base and are told they can’t take him to the main drying-out house because a woman there is complaining about him. We drive around with him in the cage, waiting for the green light to take him to another sobering-up place.

After dropping him off, Conrad checks the time: a train from Adelaide is due in half an hour. We speed through the scrub and alongside the train track, our spotlight shining on the railway sleepers. ‘Sometimes drunks try to cross the track, trip over and knock themselves out on the sleepers,’ Conrad explains. ‘And then the train comes along,’ he adds, pointing to the headlights of the oncoming Ghan, which shuffles back and forth across the desert between Adelaide and Darwin. As Conrad toots his horn joyously, the sound lost under the shriek of metal, I wonder if any of the people inside know that unconscious intoxicated people are being cleared from the tracks to make way for them.

We bypass Camp 18 because of sorry business; they are mourning two boys who were trapped in a car while playing with matches and burnt to death. ‘The parents were playing cards,’ Conrad murmurs. Madeline, Conrad’s shy sidekick, silently transcribes the night’s happenings into a report as we drive along. The night before she and Conrad discovered a woman whose legs had been doused in petrol by her boyfriend and set alight. The couple had been sniffing together in the dry creek bed when he turned violent. ‘You can tell the drunks and sniffers apart by the smell,’ Conrad says.

Madeline reaches out her long arms and adjusts the spotlights as Conrad takes the car off the road and into the creek bed once more. It is here, in the dried-out caverns of the Todd River, that I understand what night patrol means. It’s a way of telling people they are not forgotten, of shining a light over the country’s vast insides and spotting a crumpled body passed out, instead of losing them to the pneumatic cold of the night. To call in the police is to rat on your own people – and besides, most of the cords dangle, cut loose, in the phone booths round here. Night patrol is a presence, the first non-alien presence many Aborigines have had in a long time.

“Working for the night patrol is like working for the government in the old days,” says Ron McNamara, head of the Laramba night patrol. ‘A little bit of tea and a little bit of sugar.’ Only on the Alice Springs night patrol do employees earn wages. Workers on central Australia’s fifteen remote patrols are paid nothing. Laramba is rated one of the best, having stopped not only the grog runners who drop booze off but also the ones who used to pass through ferrying grog to communities even further out. ‘The police told us we couldn’t confiscate their alcohol, that it was theft,’ Ron laughs. ‘But that’s white law. We knew where they were heading with that grog.’

Ron and his colleagues are pushing for a pay packet. Visiting politicians – or ‘the men in grey’ – sometimes echo this call, perhaps seeing night patrols as a way of empowering Aboriginal people while skimping on police services. A salary, though, can be both a blessing and curse. Long-lost brothers and distant family members will crawl out of the cracks of the earth to collect their share. The burden can sometimes prove too much, and many Aboriginal employees opt to return to the dole. Check-out chicks are hassled into letting their family pass through the register without paying. Shelf-stackers are pressured to hand goods out the back way. Night patrollers endure the wrath of their countrymen. Rumours that patrollers have suicided over the shame of having to confront their own people pass from mouth to mouth but are never confirmed. Some patrollers have suicided. But it seems there are many reasons to suicide.

Richard Khan, a Pakistani refugee who came to Australia with his parents, used to be a petrol sniffer. He got into it with some Aboriginal kids out Coober Pedy way, cutting the tops off soft-drink bottles and sniffing the petrol out, his little face sealed perfectly in the opening. His parents soon caught on and moved the family out of the community, but many years later Richard returned to the land to marry an Aboriginal woman and became involved in the very first night patrol at Tennant Creek. He is a passionate advocate for confrontation, for Aboriginal people taking responsibility: ‘If they don’t want to help their brother, then they’re not night patrol.’ The hardest bit, says Richard, is ‘making sure all the patrollers are sober’. Once he resorted to ordering a breathalyser from the city for patrollers to blow into before clocking on for work. ‘It took three years to sober up our crew,’ he says, ‘and then all of a sudden night patrol became a place to sober up.’

After ten years of working on Aboriginal night patrols, Richard suffered a nervous breakdown. He had seen too many things he could do nothing about. He remembers being given fifteen minutes to clear people out of a dry creek bed ahead of a flash flood, dragging people too drunk or too old to run. He saw promised wives being taken against their will, then heard them howl while they were broken in by their new husbands. He saw kids’ hearts exploding after sniffing too much petrol. ‘That was why the night patrol folded in Papunya,’ he says, ‘because when the patrol took up chase of kids sniffing fuel their bodies were so fragile that sometimes their hearts just ticked over from the running.’ After taking a break, Richard now trains young night patrollers at Mutitjulu, near Uluru. ‘I will not stop unless these people give up or die out.’

On the way home we pause to fill up with petrol before heading to the airport. A queue is forming outside The Gap bottle shop, which is built like a fortress, razor wire over the back entrance. I am sitting on the bonnet when a blue Falcon stutters in beside us. Its belly scrapes the ground like a pregnant cat and it is full of blackfellas. The driver must have just been released from the hospital across the road because a clear tube with a seam of red blood inside it is attached to his neck. He uses a chisel to get his door open. His mate on the other side wriggles out the window. The driver heads to the petrol bowsers and the other guy unties the bonnet, which is held down by a piece of rope, and peers inside at the engine. After fiddling around a bit, they pay for the fuel and the man with the tube in his neck grabs a screwdriver from the dashboard and sticks it in the ignition. The car starts.

Anna Krien

Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, power and sport and Into the Woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests, and the Quarterly Essays Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals and The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock. Her debut novel, Act of Grace, was published in 2019.

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