In the town of Newman, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, it is believed a great creation spirit once lived. This spirit was destroyed when mining began at Mt Whaleback, one of the largest open cut iron ore mines in the world. Nyabaru is a term used by the Martu people, in place of the title or name of those who have lost their lives. It is also the local Martu nickname for Newman. Many believe the town; whose mining industry is the backbone of the Western Australian economy – is cursed.
A remote mining town. Hills and spinifex, ghost gums, dirty brick houses, attempts at gardens and the stench of isolation and money. The distant boom of a mine blast, red dirt and four-wheel drives. Kids on bikes play in parks and quiet cul-de-sacs. Young men with more money than sense play in pubs and dimly lit streets.
Driving. That’s the first thing. The most obvious thing. You don’t get to this place, without first experiencing the long silver stripe of bitumen stretching away into the horizon. Endless white lines, and red dirt, yellow spinifex and blue sky, and nothing but driving, driving, driving. Driving away from civilisation and into loneliness.
Once you get here? Well there’s the pool. Everyone goes there. It’s only closed two months of the year. You buy a family pass, gets you in practically for free. On the really hot days it’s not even cold in the pool. See the whole town down there, no one moving a muscle or you’ll break a sweat. All crammed into the hot soupy blue water, because it’s just that little bit cooler than the outside.
Then there’s walking up the end of your street and seeing nothing but hills and rocks for miles and miles and no people nowhere.
Boredom, nothing to do. If you’re into sport guess it’s alright, but it’s too hot for sport in the summer and if you don’t like playing with balls then there is nothing to do but sit on your hands.
Summer storms. Thunder and lightning booming round the valleys, echoing off the hills. Gusts of wind so strong they’ll pick up a trampoline and give it to your neighbours. Sitting in the bath during a cyclone, praying that it’ll pass. Hearing the rain start pissing down outside, looking at your mum for permission, then racing outside in your bathers. Boogie boards, down the hockey oval cause the whole thing has turned into one giant slip and slide and in the summer, it’s hot even when it rains.
A teenage girl is headed to this nowhere town, with its nameless nickname. Headphones and sunglasses. Face down, head in a tiny screen, thumbs busy sending abbreviations and hieroglyphic images into the ether.
Driving. If she never drives anywhere ever again she could die happy. Except she would have to die here because the only thing this place is good for is driving away again. She can’t trust her Dad to fork out on a plane ticket, not when there is a perfectly good 1000 kilometre stretch of road to get you from here to anywhere else. Her younger sister threw up the whole way. Her Dad gave up and stopped pulling over after a while. End of the trip the entire back seat was a sea of vomit, pieces of ham and slices of cheese bobbing away. Remnants of an attempted sandwich. May groaning and whinging and asking the same question, over and over, and over…
“No, we are not there yet!” The older girl and her father shout simultaneously.
“Seriously May, you think we’re gonna live under that rock over there for the next six weeks? Of course, we’re not freaking there!”
“Saski, she’s just a kid.” Her Dad’s voice is strained. He is tired of mediating between his daughters, and sick of the endless road in front of them.
“Dad she’s nearly nine, haven’t you noticed –”
“Nine is still a kid back off.”
“Saskia, drop it.”
Her phone worked in some of the little towns not far from the city, but then it’s just endless stretches of nothing. Can’t even Spotify, have to listen to her Dad’s endless books on tape. He’s gotten a heap of things May will like, so it’s all gross out, weird Australian short stories, and Roald Dahl and freaking Terry Pratchett. May is such a geek and her Dad just encourages her. Saskia points out that he is doing serious damage to her future sex life by letting her turn into such a little nerd.
“Yeah well, don’t want her to turn into you.” He fires back, instantly regretting his words.
“Saski?” She doesn’t respond.
“Come on baby girl, I didn’t mean it. Come on hon, we gonna get through the next six weeks without tearing each other’s heads off?”
“Don’t know Dad, you’re the one who doesn’t do living with women well. You gonna spend the whole time flying back to Perth, just so you can get as far away from us as humanly possible?” Except she doesn’t say that. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t talk to him for the rest of the trip. Which is a long freaking time. Especially with no Spotify.
Summer holidays, no school. Half the town clears out for Christmas and New Year, most don’t come back till term starts. There is room to move at the pool. Still the only thing you can do in this heat. One solitary white Toyota land cruiser almost fluorescent pink with dust drives into town. Passing everyone else on their way out.
The solitary supermarket is always expensive, but trying to get turkey rolls and roasting vegetables just before Christmas? When they pull into town it’s 48 degrees celsius in the shade. There are little kids frying eggs on the pavement. Little multicultural non-Christmas celebrating kids, about the only ones left in town, unless they got no family to fly back to.
Saskia decides it’s almost worse having signal. Who wants to see pictures of everyone else having fun, when you are stuck in the biggest hole in Western Australia? She honestly thinks about unfriending anyone with a smiling picture, next to a smiling boyfriend, any less than five hundred kilometres from the nearest beach. Her mum would be the first to go.
The Dad tries again when they arrive at his house. He’s apologetic about the mess, sorry the girls must share a room, proud of the family pool pass he has bought fore the summer, and ridiculously chuffed with all the food stocked in his freezer.
“It can be really beautiful round here. Especially this time of year.” He babbles inanely, unlocking the door to his tiny two-bedroom unit.
“The rivers are still full after cyclone season. I’ll take you out one night to look at the stars, you’ve never seen stars till you’ve seen them from the banks of the Fortescue.”
He waits for a response, but the teenager remains silent, and the younger one is already exploring, getting into wardrobes, and laundry cabinets, asking if she can go play in the backyard.
“There’s a dam, we can borrow my mate Dave’s kayak. It’s too hot to take a weekend camping trip to Karijini, but if you have fun maybe you can come back for April school holidays when it’s cooled down a bit?”
Saskia decides that if she can go hundreds of kilometres without speaking, she can keep it up for six more weeks. Screen out. Ear phones in. Face down. Smiling beach faces are better than her Dad’s puppy dog eyes.
“I’ll go camping with you daddy!” A small voice, returned from adventures in the too hot outside, pipes up enthusiastically.
“I know you will May.”
May is nine years old. She is a definitive kid. All freckles, and giggles and skinned knees. She is also all ready for adventure. Slip slop slap, covered in zinc cream and a broad brim hat because the world is a dangerous place. And it’s not the snakes or the spiders or the alarming fact that even cute and cuddly kangaroos are liable to beat you up—it’s the great big fiery ball of gas leering through the hole in the ozone layer.
There is nothing more dangerous to a pale faced freckly kid than the sun, and in this town, in December, there is not a cloud in the sky. Her Dad is a sleep and her older sister has her headphones on and is glued to her screen. There’s nothing good on telly, and even the pool is closed on Christmas Day.
So, May does what she has been dying to do, since they drove into town two days ago. She sneaks into the kitchen, pulls out a lunch box, and quietly makes herself a banana and vegemite sandwich, cut up an apple, and fills up a water bottle. The lunch box and the bottle go into her backpack next to her favourite stuffed toy, a worn out looking unicorn that was once white, is now grey and in a month will be stained pink by the red dirt that is everywhere, staining the hills, dying the footpaths, lining the roads, drifting in under the front door.
On the drive down, her Dad told her about the next-door neighbours. They have a black and white Jack Russel called Milly. Except Milly isn’t black and white anymore she is black and pink. Dad reckoned the lady next door had given up trying to keep things crisp and new. She had put in pink carpet, pink curtains, even painted the walls pink. Why bother with any other colour when the red dirt would always win? May’s Dad had explained it was the same iron ore that brought people from all around the world to Newman, so they could dig it up, that send the dirt that brilliant shade of red.
May had met Milly yesterday. She was disappointed the dog wasn’t quite the barbie doll shade of pink she had been imagining. But she was friendly and had a short stubby tale that had been cut off when she was a puppy. Her owner, a Mrs Smith said that Milly was like that when they rescued her. Mrs Smith didn’t like it that some people cut dogs tails short. She was a nice lady with blonde curly hair, and two little baby boys. Twins. Mrs Smith liked working in her garden and had lots of roses in different shades of pink and red, just like the inside of her house. When they went over later that day for a barbecue May was excited to find out the inside of the house was just as pink as she hoped it would be. Lots of different shades of pink, from candy pink to hot pink, to dusky rose. The house was like a candy land full of musk shade craft projects, and baby toys. Lots of baby toys.
Mr Smith was very tall. He works with May’s Dad on the mines, in the same shift. He had a big booming laugh and asked May and Saskia so many questions that May ran out of answers and Saskia got annoyed. The babies were cute, but they had just learnt to crawl and were always getting into things.
When they got home May’s Dad said that Mrs Smith was nice, but he couldn’t live in that house because, it looked like a giant Valentines Day card. May agreed aloud that the pink was a bit much, but quietly thought it looked nicer than the bland beige, and grey, and off-whites that coated the walls and floors of her father’s small house. And at least Mrs Smith had a garden!
Saskia didn’t say anything. She just went back to their room and slammed the door. May hates it when her older sister is like this. She remembers when they were little. Saski used to play with her for hours. Now all she does is play with her phone. Mum is almost as bad, but at least she looks up every now and again and smiles at May.
She feels shy alone with her Dad. He spends so much time away at the mines, and the girls don’t really see much of him. Now they would be spending six whole weeks living under the same roof while their mum ‘lazes around on some foreign beach with her boytoy’ as Saski puts it.
Saskia is angry because she has to spend so much time away from all her friends, but May doesn’t have a lot of friends at school. She doesn’t really like sport and would rather spend time using her imagination and playing make believe than running around during recess and lunch time. Most of the time she ends up in the library reading a book.
She should be reading a book now, inside the house, in the cool air conditioning. But instead she slips her backpack onto her back, dutifully slops some sunscreen onto her face, and a hat over her shock of red hair. She is careful not to wake her Dad as she sneaks out the front door.
Last night he had gotten out one of those premade cookie dough things, that look a bit like dog food all wrapped up into a sausage shape in their weird plastic casings. He’d sliced it up into circles and put them in the oven. Then May and her father had eaten the cookies still warm and gooey, and had glasses of milk, making sure to leave three cookies and a glass of milk for Santa. In the morning the milk had been drunk and the cookies were nibbled on, and the Christmas tree had been surrounded by presents.
Even Saskia had cracked a smile. Dad had gotten her a brand new i-pad, helped her set it up and everything. May wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. She had her own little tablet, but she’d left it at home. She preferred books anyway. Now Saskia had a slightly bigger screen to stare at, fancier, newer headphones. Big round things that covered her entire ears, made her look like an alien.
Most of May’s presents were books. Which was how May liked it. Books, and new clothes, and an inflatable pink flamingo to take to the pool when it opens back up after Christmas. If they were still in the city May would have her nose in a book. But she had asked her Dad the day before if she could go outside and play and he had said she could as long as she doesn’t cross the big road at the end of their street that all the road trains go down.
Her dad’s house is on a very short street, right at the edge of town. On the one side is the busy road, the one May isn’t allowed to cross. On the other is a cul-de-sac, with a circle of houses, and dirt path between two of them leading to a spinifex encrusted hill. May wanted more than anything to climb to the top of that hill. She had put the most exciting looking new book, in her backpack underneath her stuffed unicorn, and the lunchbox, and the water bottle, because why read inside, in the air conditioning, when you could read at the top of a hill?
It is very hot outside. Even this late in the afternoon, and there is no one to be seen. Everyone else is sensible and staying inside their houses, sleeping off their big Christmas lunches. Determined May marches up their street, and down the dirt path, and climbs to the top of the little hill. When she gets to the top, she let’s out an audible gasp.
Facing away from the town behind her, as far as the eye can see is nothing but more hills. Red, brown, and orange rocks, ghost gums with their white bark, and bright green leaves, paper bark trees, and of course, that bright red dirt. The hills roll away from her, full of crevices, and places to climb, and interesting nooks and crannies. Little plants with strange fuzzy purple flowers with bright yellow seeds in the middle that look exactly like tiny bananas. Climbing mossy weeds, and grass trees with their spiky green and pale brown tops, and their blackened ashy looking squat trunks. An entire world of adventure just waiting for her.
May knows she shouldn’t go down the other side of the hill. If she turns around now she can still see the street, and at the end of the street the house. But the wind pokes, and pulls at her clothes, warm and cheeky, urging her to go down the slope and venture into this untamed wilderness. She tells herself she isn’t crossing the busy road. In fact, she can’t see any roads in this direction. She remembers her Dad telling her once on a camping trip that snakes and spiders were more scared of her than she was of them. The key was to make lots of noise, and stomp around as loud as possible and then they would leave her alone.
Besides Saskia said it. She is almost nine. She is practically a teenager. May shoulder’s her bag, and skips down the hill, picking up speed as she goes, giggling hysterically, then the loose stones and dirt shift under her feet, and she trips, hopping, once, twice, arms waving desperately beside her body, as she tries to remain upright. But she’s going to fast now, and she flies forward sending her hands out in front of her to catch her fall.
The skin on her hands and knees is scraped and bleeding. Climbing back up the hill she just ran down is a much harder task than climbing the other side had been, because she can’t use the palms of her hands to steady herself on the rocks. She is twice as careful as she makes her way down the other side, and once or twice she can feel the tears welling up in her eyes.
When she gets to her front door she slips inside as quietly as she left. Putting her ear to her father’s door she can hear his quiet snore. Her sister also hasn’t moved, and is still stomach down on the bed, legs waving behind her, face practically glued to her newer and better screen. May manages to stay quiet, as she washes the gravel out of her palms, and skinned knees, even though it hurts. But she doesn’t want to get into trouble. Mum would never let her play outside by herself, not out the front, but she is sure even Dad wouldn’t be happy to know she had left the street. Outside the wind blows, whistling through the cracks and crevices of the house. It will be our little secret. May smiles. Today she made a new friend, even though that friend was cheeky, and contrary and almost got her in trouble, May feels pretty excited to have made a new playmate so soon after coming to town. And what a playmate! Today, she made friends with the wind.