May, 25 2010
Parnngurr
William L Fox
Writing

The photographers disperse early to take advantage of the slanting light while Larry and Tim and I walk up the gorge past the first pool to the second and eventually into the fractal branching of watercourses into the smaller canyons. Overhead we're accompanied by blue and green birds with russet heads and long straight beaks. They're bee eaters that migrate from Vladiovostok to as far south as Perth, and a reminder that no matter how remotely we think we're camped, we're embedded in a web of movement around the planet, be it birds or art or ore.

Mid-morning we drive back out of the valley and head south to Parnngurr, an Aboriginal community of about 150 people. Once again I hop out of the truck to walk along the road while the guys take photos. While they collect images, I collect sounds, the desert always talking. Sometimes it's a whisper in the grasses, sometimes a muted roar as the wind passes through the trees. Creaking limbs, singing birds, sand grains rustling against one another. It's disconcerting, once back in the vehicle, to be so disconnected from the aural world.

In Parnngurr we meet up with Gabrielle Sullivan, who's driven out to meet us, and after she helps us check into the dongers where we're staying, we head over to the nearby painting shed, a corrugated metal building about 18 x 24 paces with a high ceiling. A half dozen women sit on the floor painting while three kids run around. A gaggle of dogs sit patiently by a metal gate in lieu of a door. The physical settlement consists of forty or so structures, including a school, medical clinic, and a tiny community store. The Traditional Owners, Tim tells me, chose to settle here because of Parnngurr Hill on the southeast edge of the town, which marks a rich uranium deposit. When the people were offered a chance to return to their country, they chose this location because most of them didn't want it mined, and their proximity gave them political leverage. Tim also warns us not to drink the tap water as the groundwater is contaminated with the uranium.

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