Delicious descriptions: Marie Munkara on cars

Marie Munkara, Of ashes and rivers than run to the seaI don’t usually post Delicious Descriptions before I review a book but this one seems apposite. Yesterday, we did a tour of the Tiwi Islands – of Bathurst Island in particular. This is where Marie Munkara’s memoir Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea, which I mentioned in my last Monday Musings, is set.

So, the tour … we disembarked from the ferry, wandered up the beach to wait for our local guide, and soon saw a car pull up. One of the other tour members exclaimed, “Look, it’s got no windows!” And no, it hadn’t. Well, that’s not quite true, it had a broken front windscreen. However, it had no side or back windows. Regardless, a horde, seemingly, of locals, climbed in. Now, if you’re an Aussie, particularly if you’ve also seen the TV documentary series Bush Mechanics, you’ll know a bit about indigenous people and their relationship with cars – demonstrating both their resourcefulness and their lack of concern about material things. We saw and heard much evidence of this during our trip.

Anyhow, Marie Munkara certainly learnt about it, the real way – that is, through personal experience. This excerpt comes from the occasion when she agreed to go buffalo shooting …

I can deal with the early start, it’s just the vehicle he’s driving that leaves me dumbfounded. It defies description. I can tell from the rusted skeleton before me that it was once a 4×4 but I wouldn’t have a clue what make it is. A cloud of black smoke billows from the truncated exhaust, and the motor sounds like it’s running on one cylinder. There are no mudguards and the bonnet appears to be borrowed from another car and held in place with fencing wire. There is no tray left on the back anymore –time, salt-water and bad driving have taken care of that. Instead my four brothers are perched on packing crates that have been lashed onto the subframe. They busily light up rollies and shiver in the cool dawn air while early-morning sunlight filters through the bullet-holes in the roof above Colin’s head. My face must be registering concern as I look at the packing crates because Colin laughs and tells me that I have the seat of honour in the cabin. The door is rusted shut so I clamber in through the open window (there’s no glass anyway) and promptly go through the floor. I look down to see myself standing on the road. They were all waiting for that and laugh uproariously as I inspect the gaping hole and wonder where I’m supposed to put my feet. I see that Colin has a similar problem, both floors are totally rusted out.

‘Look there,’ says Colin and I see the rope tied from the window-winder to the steering column that I can rest my feet on as we drive along. Feeling a breeze on my neck I turn to see a gaping hole behind me: the rear window is also missing. Colin explains that this happened when he pulled up and Danny’s arse went through the window and got stuck. How Danny managed to get jammed in that space is beyond my powers of comprehension so maybe Colin’s pulling my leg. I test my foot-rest and it holds, though the thought of what might happen if one or both of my feet come off it as we are driving along almost makes me climb back out again. But I think of what I might miss if I did so I stay. I pretend I haven’t noticed there isn’t a seatbelt and off we go.

I have no idea how fast we’re going because none of the gauges are working, but I can tell it’s fast as we glide over the corrugations in the dirt road like it was smooth bitumen. Colin hoons around the corners like a racing-car driver and I hang onto the seat for dear life and push my feet hard against the rope. I manage to screw my head around without falling down the hole in the floor and look out the rear window. Despite the clouds of dust that enshroud them and Colin’s crazy driving, my brothers are still there, no one has fallen off their packing crate yet.

And that was only the start of an adventure which saw them all limping home, in the rain, after the car ran out of fuel, an event which didn’t surprise Munkara and which our Arnhem Land tour driver seemed to suggest is a common occurrence.

The thing about Munkara is that she’s laugh-out-loud funny. She’s also willing to giving things a go (mostly, anyhow!), and most of all she writes with respect and affection. All being well, I’ll post my review next week.

23 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Marie Munkara on cars

  1. I am right now at the Mildura Writers Festival where earlier this afternoon we had the pleasure of listening to Marie read from Ashes and Rivers. The excerpt described her arrival on Tiwi Island unannounced to find her birth-mother; no contact since the age of three, 25 years earlier. After a similar adventure with a vehicle, she is dropped off at her mother’s house (that’s a house !), her mother comes out, oh hello, daughter, come on in and have a cuppa. Yes, very very funny, as in, you have to laugh, otherwise you’d cry. Seriously recommended.

    • We saw so many wrecked or abandoned cars Lisa, while on the tour. Our driver Ian said that some would be returned to – some may have just run out of petrol. Things like this make us confront the cultural divide between us, in terms of our values and priorities. It’s good for us.

      • As you said in a previous post, their traditional practice was that anything could be discarded in the bush because it was all produced from things in the natural environment and would all decompose naturally over time. Still, it would be confronting to see the beauty of the bush despoiled like that. Though I suppose they find it equally confronting to see the built environment impinging on their country.

      • I don’t really think this is really a cultural divide. On outback stations, the rubbish tens to be dumped in categories: timber here, old roofing iron there, old cars over there. I once recorded a station rubbish dump in which the oldest cars included pre WW2 A-model Ford, Chevrolet and De Soto; the youngest was a 2001 Lada, which someone had driven onto the car graveyard and abandoned with the keys still in the ignition place (yes, we tried, it didn’t start!). We knew the station owner in the 1920s had had a Rolls Royce, but alas we didn’t find that.
        Basically station rubbish dumps were recycle supermarkets. The same goes for rubbish dumps around Aboriginal outstations. With cars, it makes sense to leave them on the side of the road so they are available for the next passer-by to salvage any useful parts.
        I’ve had personal experience of this in New Guinea, where I lived in 1969-70. We were at the end of a terrible narrow track in the highlands, running 30k from the highway, over a 3000m pass to a remote village and airstrip. We had a short-wheel base Land Rover; longer vehicles had difficulty with some of the bends and cuttings. The road was maintained by work gangs using shovels and wheelbarrows. No NRMA or RACV if you broke down; but there were abandoned cars along the way, so you just checked the nearest for the relevant spare part. Although steep, there were gardens all along the way, and some of the early coffee plantations, so plenty of local assistance. People would gather if you stopped , and if you had a problem someone was sure to appear with a car jack, a spare wheel, or info about the location of the nearest abandoned spare part supply.

        • Fascinating insight re the cars Jeannette. Makes sense. I’m sure as you say abandoned cars become a great source of spear parts.

          I think though that there is the divide when it comes to soft drink cans, candy wrappers, etc etc just dropped where finished with. These aren’t biodegradable the way, say, paperbark was that they used to wrap or eat food. Hence the program to change behaviour as we had in the 70s.

  2. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2018 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  3. It is really neat to mix real life travels with related literature.

    It is astounding what resourceful folks can do to keep motor vehicles functional. It is a testament to both people and machines.

    I really like that quotation.

  4. Well thankfully I have never been in a car with bullet holes in the roof. But I’ve had my share of dodgy taxis in India and China where you feel its a miracle that you arrive at your destination. Indian drivers often don’t switch their lights on at night because they want to save the bulb. Which of course makes for a deeply frightening experience for their passengers

  5. Pingback: Arnhem Land Trip 2018, Day 16: Tiwi By Design Tour | WherryOnline Oz Travel

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