Applied anthropology is anthropology at the coal face, with all that’s good and bad. For those of you who might have no idea what a typical day in the field is like for an applied anthropologist, or who even might be considering a career in applied anthropology, the following post is a snapshot of life in a typical day’s fieldwork.
Complete two sacred site clearances, requiring consultations with people who live west of Alice Springs.
This comprises a long day trip from Alice Springs via Hermannsburg then out to some Outstation (small family living areas for Aboriginal people) near Areyonga. If you’ve no idea of where I’m talking about, look these places up on Google Maps.
In my trusty (!) Toyota Troop Carrier, I leave town (Alice Springs) early in order to get to Hermannsburg to speak to some Aboriginal people about a sacred sites clearance the following week (involving a helicopter, but more next week, if I survive!).
After driving 120km, I am told that the people I need to see are in Alice Springs for the Shires meeting. Are you wondering why I simply didn’t call the people I needed to talk to up on the phone? Well, most Aboriginal people living in communities don’t have telephones. So you have to drive out and find them.
On the way out of a yard in Hermannsburg, I hop over a wire fence and tear my pants. Bummer. Now you can see the top of my thigh.
I drive on towards Areyonga. I am driving on the Mereenie Loop Road – my least favourite road in all of Central Australia. Not only is the Mereenie Loop notoriously bad (bumpy), as it connects Watarrka (Kings Canyon) with Alice Springs, it is frequented by tourists. Lots of tourists.
In fact, the Mereenie Loop seems to be mainly frequented by European tourists who forget that you are supposed to drive on the LEFT in Australia. And they drive fast – like they’re on the Autobahn in a Porsche. They drive way too fast for their own good. They drive way beyond their abilities on remote gravel roads. Consequently, I spent a lot of time going slowly towards the many blind corners on the Mereenie (there are lots), wondering if I’m going to find myself wearing a Britz camper and a few angry Czechoslovakians.
Part of the way along the Mereenie, I look at my driver’s side mirror, and it’s mysteriously broken. Shattered. Oh well, it makes for interesting viewing. Along the way, I see at least 100 starving brumbies (wild horses), whose ribs are showing. I also see a lot of camel poo.
I turn off the Mereenie and onto the well-worn track that leads to the Outstations that are my destination. Roughly 5 km in, I hear a loud put-put-put noise and feel a nasty vibration. I know exactly what this is: a flat tyre. I pull up and inspect the damage. The tyre is flat. Pancake flat. To make matters worse, I’m in sand country. Although I have a metal plate on which to put my jack for such occasions, I decide to find some a harder surface on which to change the tyre. I drive on about 500m and find a suitable hard patch of ground.
If you’ve ever wondered what’s involved in changing a flat tyre on a Troopy (I’m sure you probably haven’t) well, you’re about to find out.
First, you need to take the spare off. My Troopy has two spares, and I decided to use the one on the back door rather than the one on the roof.
You get your tools ready. Fortunately, the agency I work for is renowned for its well-equipped Troopies. In the back of my car, I have everything I could ever need and more. Of course, whether I could actually change a fanbelt, is another question altogether…
Then, you jack up the car. You might note that, due to the sandy terrain, I had no choice but to use the leaf springs as the anchor point rather than the axle joint. I also carry a hi-lift (or ‘roo’ jack), but I am not a fan of these things, and will use them only as a last resort. I have had two troopies fall of hi-lift jacks in the past – not a very nice sight to behold.
With the new tyre safely on, I now have to put the flat tyre back. I am SHORT, but strong. However, I can only lift so high using my legs. So I use my brain, not my brute, and the ladder becomes a handy ramp to wheel the spare back up onto the car.
All fixed, I’m ready to hit the track again (Gee… I’m starting to sound like Russell Coight. Sorry, only Australians will understand what that means!).
That Mob’s in Town Now
After changing the tyre and cleaning up a bit, I complete my drive to the Outstation. At the first Outstation, where the people I need to see are usually to be found, there is no one around. Not even a single camp dog.
I backtrack to another Outstation, located about 5km further west. Here, a piece of barbed wire gets tangled underneath the Troopy (ok, I saw it too late) and I have to stop and get it off. Thankfully, there’s no damage done.
I see some people coming toward me in a Landcruiser utility. They pull up and I tell them who I’m looking for. They say: ” … oh he’s living in town now … you got to XX street, look for the green fence and the flash red Commodore V6 ute …”
So I’ve driven over 200km already, and both of the people I need to see are … you guessed it … IN ALICE SPRINGS!
I thank these people for their help and head off.
I drive back along a very smooth track that brings me out near Gosse Bluff (Tnorala), an ancient meteorite crater so large, you can drive into it. It’s also a sacred site, but I’ll write about Tnorala some other time.
I stop and have lunch in a dry creek bed, just after I’ve passed a huge group of camels. I make some ants very happy by leaving them some bread crusts.
Whilst I’m driving along, I’m listening to Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country. It’s kind of bemusing to me to listen to Bryson chatting away about autumn in New Hampshire when it’s 37 degrees in Central Australia.
On my way back to town (I’ve now finished listening to Bill Bryson), I stop at Ormiston Gorge, just to take a photo of the waterhole and see if it’s filled up after the rain we had last week.
I continue into town, and find the people I need to see. I find the house I need to find by looking for the red V6 Commodore ute.
I complete my consultations in less than an hour. I’ve spent all day, ripped my pants, broken a mirror, and had a flat in sand country for less than ONE HOUR of work.
But hey, we all had fun, didn’t we?
Respect. Actually it sounds awesome. As I was reading I was thinking – god, I’d love to be hanging out with you for a day like that. Flat tyres ‘n’ all!
I think you’d have a ball wondering around the bush with me. Camping, chatting with old people (Aboriginal Elders), going to amazing places.
There’s not many people whose job is to record and protect sacred sites, which involves working with some remarkable Aboriginal people and having lots of laughs, seeing some very sad things, but also learning so much about what it means to be human.
And knowing how to change flat tyres. Which reminds me. I forgot to collect the tyre from Beaurepaires this afternoon.