The Last Of The Nomads

This is an excellent article we have from The Bulletin Magazine, 1984. It is the only account we know of that tells what it was like for the very last group of Indigenous Australians to enter contemporary Australian society. It's one of the most interesting articles we have on this topic and interestingly involves a few of the artists we have supported for over 10 years. 


COVER STORY PAUL TOOHEY The Pintupi nine became an international sensation when they walked in from the desert 20 years ago. Now, the survivors are finally willing to tell their astonishing story of life before - and after - the white man came into their lives.

For years he has buried his story deep within and sealed it there with pride and a strange and needless sense of shame. But sitting back by a rock hole in his homelands far to the west of Alice Springs, Pintupi man Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, aged about 45, is finally opening up. It is 20 years since he literally laid down his spears and, with eight family members, emerged from the forbidding Great Sandy Desert to a bewildering modern age. In doing so, the group created an international news sensation. But their relatives were determined they would not become a tragic spectacle, as they themselves had once been, and the world was kept away. They have never before told their story.

For Warlimpirrnga (pronounced “Wallimpirri”), who has never learnt to read or write but who has become one of central Australia’s most sought-after artists, the 20-year anniversary is absolutely meaningless. Same for Tamayinya, or Thomas, who is now about 35. He is Warlimpirrnga’s silent shadow, a warm but impenetrable man who appears either afflicted or blessed by a state of childlikeness. These men, most likely the last true subsistence hunters this country will ever know, reluctantly accept they have a place in history. And Warlimpirrnga and the others are prepared at last to talk about the long pre-contact wilderness years – and of what has since become of the group that became known to the world as “the Last Nomads”.

On October 24, 1984, Melbourne’s The Herald – as it was then known – announced the discovery of the Pintupi nine with an understandably hysterical front-page screamer: “We find the lost tribe.” The newspaper had a journalist who happened to be in central Australia and was handed the scoop. But The Herald did not find the tribe and, more particularly, they were anything but lost. Lost people do not survive in a desert, successfully raising children to adulthood, initiating their boys, wandering among claypans and soaks, and literally, in the words of Warlimpirrnga, “chasing the clouds” to stay beneath the precious rain.

Two weeks before the news broke, Warlimpirrnga and his older brother, Piyiti, found themselves staring down from a red sand dune at a family of Pintupi Aborigines camped by a vehicle. The place was Winparrku, or Mt Webb, on the road between Kintore and Kiwirrkurra, where a hand-pump bore had recently been sunk. Warlimpirrnga watched in fascination as an older man drew water from the bore.

On a previous occasion, Warlimpirrnga had lain hidden as two four-wheel-drive vehicles churned through his roadless red-dust world. But he had never been as close to a car as he was now. He was deeply suspicious of the contraption. He wanted water but also fancied running a spear through these strangers, blithely sitting there on his grandfather’s land. To understand how this encounter came about – which ultimately led to Warlimpirrnga’s group leaving their bush life behind – something of the history of the Pintupi (also Pintubi) people must be known.

In the 1950s, the British were testing their Blue Streak and Black Knight rockets, firing them from Woomera, South Australia, to the seas off north-western Australia. The Pintupi, who lived under the flight path, were being cleared out. Some went to Balgo, in north-western Western Australia, but most were taken hundreds of kilometres to the east, out of their homelands, to Papunya, Northern Territory. Here, other desert tribespeople were gathering to live on government-supplied rations.

As the last of the Aboriginal people to come in from the bush, the Pintupi were derided even among other Aborigines as unsophisticated myalls and were forced to the fringes of Papunya. By the mid-1970s, they were in deep trouble, dying fast from alcohol, sugar and chronic lung problems. In the words of Pintupi elder Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, culled from an old film: “From that first taste of grog we began killing each other.” With the advent of land rights in the Northern Territory in 1976, Aborigines started thinking about returning to their land – and none was more desperate to do so than the Pintupi.

In 1981, the Pintupi went back west to establish the community of Kintore, close to the WA border. But their real heartlands were even further west, across the state line where there were no land rights. Wrongly relying on a federal government promise that national land rights legislation was coming, Freddy West Tjakamarra and others crossed over into WA in 1983 to nominally reclaim their land and to create Kiwirrkurra. Now, at least, the Pintupi had good access to Lake Mackay, a giant salt plain where a multitude of critical Dreaming tracks converge.

More and more Pintupi people began moving back. By October 13, 1984, a man named Pinta Pinta was, with his family, in the process of trying to set up a tiny outstation at Winparrku. As the sun went down, Warlimpirrnga and Piyiti – venturing at least two days’ walk from their family group – crept close to see who had lit the fire.

“I saw the fire,” says Warlimpirrnga through a translator, Pintupi man Bobby West, son of Freddy. “They were burning spinifex because they had a flat tyre. They were calling out for help. I waited till the sun went down. I wanted to spear them. I didn’t know Pinta Pinta or [his son] Matthew. Pinta Pinta didn’t take notice of what I was saying. I said, ‘My grandfather died here. This is my country.’ Pinta Pinta said, ‘This is my father’s country.’ We didn’t believe one and other. They thought I was a featherfoot [kadaicha man, also called a “spear man”, or witchdoctor]. I thought they were featherfoot men.”

Piyiti, less feisty than his younger brother, stood back. “I got my spear ready,” says Warlimpirrnga. “I was angry – they were angry, too. They had a shotgun ready, but Pinta Pinta was shaking, frightened.” Warlimpirrnga called for water, so Pinta Pinta pumped some from the bore into a billy can. “He said to me, ‘This is water’.” The naked Warlimpirrnga tugged on Pinta Pinta’s shirt out of curiosity, at which point Pinta Pinta was terrified to notice both men had sacred objects in their headdresses. He was convinced they were some sort of secret-society “revenge killers”.

Warlimpirrnga then grabbed Pinta Pinta by the arm in a traditional Pintupi greeting. Matthew, standing by with his shotgun, panicked. “He fired a shot in the sky,” says Warlimpirrnga. “I threw the water away and ran.”

To this day, sorcery informs decisions in the desert. Spirits are most active at night, so humans keep their evening movements to a minimum. But having looked into the eyes of a devil, Pinta Pinta and his family were not about to sit still: they bolted, driving 60km or so west to Kiwirrkurra on a flat tyre. Bobby West, then a young man, remembers hearing the car limp into town late at night. Pinta Pinta and his family caused a commotion. “They said, ‘Ah! We saw featherfoot man in Winparrku!’”

Freddy West questioned the logic of Pinta Pinta’s account. He knew of a family who had never come in. People would at times see footprints and distant campfires. From Pinta Pinta’s description, Freddy knew this was no featherfoot. Freddy had known Warlimpirrnga and his parents well, in pre-contact times. And now Warlimpirrnga was making an appearance, after all these years.

Kiwirrkurra’s leaders decided to find Warlimpirrnga’s group and bring them in. Their main motivation was a sense of pity for what the elders called “the naked ones”. It was a prescient move. By then, the group was in real danger – not from the desert, which they had mastered, but from themselves. The gene pool was running dangerously low and inbreeding – which Aborigines avoid with their complex skin classification system – was imminent. In 1962, these nomads were sometimes part of a larger Pintupi group, which included Freddy West Tjakamarra and his family. West and his family had decided to go in to Papunya and, on the way, met NT welfare officer Jeremy Long, who was on an expedition to check on remaining Pintupi nomads. West told Long of the family who had chosen to remain in the Lake Mackay region.

This group was, at this point, led by a man named Waku Tjungurrayi. Waku and Papalya had an older daughter called Topsy and a young son, Warlimpirrnga. Papalya had three sisters known as the “Nangalas” and Waku had already fathered Piyiti to one of these women.

A year or two after the West group went their own way, Waku’s group met a small hunting party that included Purungu George Tjapanparti and Tommy Gibson, who had previously encountered whites at Mt Doreen station, near Yuendumu. They were intent on heading back to Mt Doreen - which, like Papunya, had become a ration centre. Waku fiercely opposed “going in” to live with whites but his daughter, Topsy, was then a young woman with no one to marry in her own group. It was agreed she would marry Tommy. They walked back to Mt Doreen for their “honeymoon” – and this would be the last time Topsy would see her family for 22 years.

Waku and Papalya then had another child, Takaria. Then Waku died, probably about 1964. “Someone sing him,” Warlimpirrnga says, explaining that his father fell to sorcery. “My cousin came out, a featherfoot, and sing him ‘from the side’ [meaning in a sneaky way]. It was a jealousy thing, something to do with all his women.”

After that, a man known as Lanti, or Old Joshua, came south from Balgo to marry the widows. “Joshua,” says Warlimpirrnga, “was a featherfoot man himself, very clever. He could fly.” He delivers such statements matter-of-factly. Joshua had lived at the Catholic mission in Old Balgo and had first-hand experience of whites. “Joshua had got into too much trouble in Balgo,” says Bobby West. “He used to kill the sheep and nanny-goat [for food]. He got too much problem, so decided to leave Old Balgo.”

Warlimpirrnga says Joshua was “just sort of travelling by himself” when he ran into the family. His luck was in. Joshua’s skin grouping was the right match to Nanu’s, so she became his primary wife and they began a family. They had Thomas, Yalti and Yulkulti. Walala, the youngest in the group, was Joshua’s son to another woman, Watjunka, who also passed away in the desert.

By 1967, Jeremy Long heard that Waku’s widows had been joined by a new husband, Joshua. Although Long had never met the group, he investigated Joshua’s background and found he had been burned in a fire at Balgo and ended up in Derby hospital. Long suspects it was this experience that persuaded Joshua to leave Balgo – and leave behind a wife and children. Knowing Joshua knew the way to Balgo, Long never tried to find the group. He took the view they would come in if and when they wanted. It was probably the death of Joshua, three of four years before first contact, that focused the group’s thoughts towards coming in. They believed whites were out to kill them. “He [Joshua] got poisoned by a tin of meat,” says Warlimpirrnga.

“He was poisoned by mining people,” explains Bobby West. “Because he was sneaking into their camp every night, pinching that tin of meat, food, mining group. Somebody always drive around [working], come back home and say, ‘All that tin of meat gone, tucker’s gone, everything’s gone.’ So they say, ‘We’ll get ’em next time.’ They [the whites] get a couple of tin of meat, and put some sort of poison. One morning, he [Joshua] eat this tin. He stomach was like this. [Indicates a hugely distended belly.] He went back with his family. He was suffering. They stay with him till he die.”

Warlimpirrnga now seems happy with this version of Joshua’s death, but when the group came in they gave Lutheran linguist Ken Hansen a slightly different version. Government documents reveal they complained Joshua had been shot by whites. Approaching two four-wheel-drives, Joshua had picked up a tin can and tapped it with his spear – possibly asking for meat. There was the sound of a shot and Joshua was found dead on the ground, with blood on his chest. The group placed his body in the traditional manner, in a tree, away from the dingoes.

By 1984, this wandering band numbered nine. Papalya and Nanu, as the group’s widow-matriarchs, were both aged in their mid 50s. There was Takariya, then 24, nowadays sometimes known as Doris, and the girls Yalti, 14, and Yukultji, 12. Of men and boys there was Piyiti, then about 26, Warlimpirrnga, about 25, Tamayinya, 15, and Walala, 12. The group’s only modern tool was an axe-head that Joshua had brought from Balgo. It was said to be so handled and valued that it was polished to a mirror-finish. Warlimpirrnga had grown into the role of big-game provider. “I would spear mala [kangaroos], emus, pussycat, rabbits, snake,” says Warlimpirrnga. “It was easy to catch them. I made my spear sharp with a limestone rock.”

Warlimpirrnga tells how he and Yalti were once hunting when they saw vehicles. “I saw a white motor car and another one with a canopy. It was the first time I saw a car. I was a big boy by then, a young man. I was with Yalti and we were married [she must have been a very young bride]. We had just caught a kangaroo. We were frightened and we went away. Old Joshua had told us about white men and motor cars. We knew there were non-Aboriginal people closing around us. We didn’t know what was happening.”

It is believed Papalya and Nanu, fearing being killed by the whites who had killed Joshua, or others, decided to send Warlimpirrnga and Piyiti to find their relatives. Having missed the boat when the others went in more than two decades earlier, they were simply too fearful to turn up unannounced in a community. They had heard Joshua’s stories, once widely shared among Pintupi, of how white people ate human flesh.

They also lived in fear of a man, Yawa Tjapaltjarri, who lived alone in their area. This man, like Joshua, had experienced white society, but was on the run from Aboriginal men who had killed his older brother.

The eminent anthropologist Fred Myers, who wrote a report on the Pintupi nine shortly after their first contact, noted: “Probably because [Yawa] lives alone, they regard him as having become a mamu [demon] and were frightened of him ‘lest he bite us’. He is regarded as a ‘clever man’, with special powers including the ability to fly.”

At risk of becoming “hillbillies”, as Bobby West puts it, and fearing dark human forces, it was time to think about bringing this way of life to a close. Two weeks after Warlimpirrnga and Piyiti’s encounter with Pinta Pinta and his family, the group would see two cars – loaded with Aborigines – approach. Even though they were desperate to meet their relatives, they did not know what to do except to run for their lives. Warlimpirrnga, however, wasn’t having any of that. He launched a spear.

Yalti and Yukultji, now about 35 and 34 respectively, are seated on a mattress in Kiwirrkurra, 700km west of Alice Springs. They rarely give their story an airing and, as such, attract a small crowd. As with Warlimpirrnga, the women worry that their story will show them up as ignorant or primitive. Bobby West works hard on them to not be ashamed. Theirs is a story of pride and survival, not disgrace: they can rightly be called the last of the First People.

The sisters tell how they lived mostly at a claypan-soak called Marua. “We knew about Balgo and Papunya and Yuendumu,” says Yalti, but they never went near these places. “We wanted to go to Balgo to visit our family, but the old man [Joshua] always say no.” She and Yalti would stoke the morning embers and prepare the camp. After that, “we played around the sandhills, looking for witchetty grubs and lizards”. It was, she says, a “most happy” life.

At night, the nine slept by four separate campfires, divided along gender and age lines. Helping keep them warm at night, says Yukultji, was a “big mob of dingoes, full dingoes, might be 12 of them or something”. They used their own hair or cat fur to make nimpala, short skirts that served as belts in which to keep lizards – the group’s staple – rather than offering concealment.

Yukultji remembers seeing an aeroplane and a helicopter cross the sky. “We were too frightened,” she says. “We hid under a tree.” Such visions were not associated with any recognised Dreaming story and impossible to explain. Joshua, who must have seen a plane when he was at Balgo, apparently did not try to set them straight. He told Yukultji that “kartiya [whites] got no god”.

Now, they laugh about how confused they were when they first came in. The diary of Charlie McMahon – later to become known as the didgeridoo player with the group Gondwanaland, and at the time Kiwirrkurra’s community development officer – reveals much about events leading up to that moment.

It was a Saturday night when Pinta Pinta and his wife and sons raced to Kiwirrkurra to breathlessly report seeing “two naked men”. McMahon notes that on the night of Sunday, October 14, Kiwirrkurra people were scared and “sleeping close”, discharging shotguns randomly into the air to ward off Warlimpirrnga, who they feared would seek revenge on Pinta Pinta and Matthew. That afternoon, McMahon writes, a decision “to go out to find them and give ’em trousers is made!”

The seven Aboriginal men who led the search party on Monday morning had lost any fear of featherfeet men but were worried – rightly – that Pinta Pinta and Matthew may have roused Warlimpirrnga’s ire by discharging the shotgun. McMahon was in one of the vehicles that set out to search for Warlimpirrnga and Piyiti’s tracks. “Tomorrow, we will find the two men’s tracks and maybe they will spend their last night free of the modern world,” he wrote. “Tuesday morning: Freddy finds tracks going north ... Willy finds discarded boomerang. By midday after crossing about 10 dunes skirting the edge of Angas Hills, the two men’s tracks are headed north ... they are trying to obscure their tracks ...” That night the search party camped close enough to see Warlimpirrnga and Piyiti’s fire.

McMahon had work to do and turned back to Kiwirrkurra. The seven Aboriginal searchers were joined in another vehicle by an Aboriginal Affairs field officer, Speedy McGuinness, sent from Alice Springs, and Geoff Toll, a friend of McMahon’s.

Warlimpirrnga and Piyiti had headed north from Winparrku, the shot of the gun still ringing in their ears. For a while they attempted to lose any potential pursuers by jumping on spinifex clumps to avoid leaving prints. After a while they gave this up and the trackers had no difficulty picking up the trail. At Mamurltjunkunya, the searchers found the two men’s tracks and a campsite. They counted seven other pairs of feet.

Reasoning the group might be afraid of seeing clothed Aborigines, the men stripped naked. Footprints led the searchers deep into the mulga scrub. They first found one of the older women – probably Papalya – panting and exhausted, trying to hide in the spinifex. She swore at them when they offered water. Thomas stood to throw a spear. They let him go. “We were running around – we were so scared,” Yukultji says. “They came and grabbed us.” It sounds like a mass kidnapping but it wasn’t really that way at all. The men wanted to calm them and offer them the choice. Warlimpirrnga was not so easily appeased. “I was angry because they were following us,” he says. “I ran straight to my humpy and grabbed a couple of spears and nulla nullas. They kept coming at me.”

Bobby West says his father spoke to Warlimpirrnga, who was by then in full warrior stance, his spear loaded in his woomera: “You mob been living in bush too long. You’ve got your family here – we are your family. You know my father’s name? I will tell you my father’s name.”

“And I knew,” says Warlimpirrnga. “I threw the spear anyway, because they’d been chasing me.” But he says he deliberately misdirected it to fly past Freddy West’s thigh. It is also suggested there was anger at West – who left the group all those years before in 1962 – for not coming back to find them. “After that, I left my spear and woomera by a tree,” Warlimpirrnga says. “That was all.”

McMahon diary note, Thursday October 18: “Radio message this arvo says they’ve found the two men with seven other women & children – they require more fuel and vehicles to bring ‘em in. Over radio-telephone I asked that they tell the ‘bush people’ that they can stay out if they want and after 20 mins discussion they decided they want to come in. Anyway, Freddy and the Kiwirrkurra mob seem very keen to bring them in.” On Friday, McMahon met the returning vehicles at the south-east edge of Lake Mackay. “They seem very nervous but in very good health ...”

Most got in the vehicles, reluctantly, although Warlimpirrnga and Piyiti jogged behind as they ploughed across the hard-going sand hills towards Kiwirrkurra. Looking back over the tray of the vehicle, Yukultji saw smoke coming from the exhaust and leapt out. “I thought the car was on fire,” she says, laughing.

Even though Kiwirrkurra is about as remote a community as can be found in Australia, there was still a full sense of culture shock awaiting the Pintupi nine. But before discovering modern amenities, one of the first things to get out of the way was a weeping and wailing session with the relatives – and a reunion with Topsy, who had in the 22 years since she had left the group married and married again. Topsy had promised she would one day come back and find her family, but never did. Myers writes that upon seeing her “their faces turned dark with rage”. Her brothers and sister attacked, striking her “for having left them behind and not having come to search for them”.

When they were calm, Topsy introduced her daughters to Warlimpirrnga. Myers writes: “As [Topsy’s] brother hugged his niece to his chest, the wrenching sorrow of his crying was added to Topsy’s.” For the anthropologist this was proof that the group, while never lost, had always wanted to be found. They were immediately clad in ill-fitting rags. The Kiwirrkurra people, having known ridicule for their own nakedness, wanted to be sure this group did not suffer similarly. Boxes of matches were struck and burned in awe. But adapting wasn’t easy. “This one [Yukultji] was trying to put sugar in her tea, but she put Rinso,” says Yalti.

“I was digging a hole, putting money in it,” says Yukultji, explaining that she just didn’t like the stuff. She was laughed at for trying to roast an orange and an apple in the fire. Yalti had never had a blanket before and quickly took to it. Yukultji refused, insisting on sleeping naked by the fire. Yalti remembers grabbing handfuls of sugar and stuffing it into her mouth. In a matter of days, they had left their pristine health behind. They were snotted up and had hacking coughs.

In Canberra, two days before The Herald broke its story, then Aboriginal affairs minister Clyde Holding was itching to make an announcement. With debate raging about land rights, the discovery of this group seemed to provide proof to doubters of Aboriginal connection to land. But Kiwirrkurra’s Aborigines were not about to be used as political pawns. Especially not with a government backing down on its promise of national land rights.

Holding’s information was so restricted that he had little to tell the press, apart from a vague concern the group lacked immunity from disease and that a common cold might prove fatal. The Herald had already been given brief exclusive access to the group, Holding claiming this would “keep the dingoes [media] at bay”. Herald journalist Robyn Dixon – who had to promise to keep the group’s location secret – wrote of Warlimpirrnga’s “numb, expressionless face”.

The DAA’s deputy secretary, Aboriginal man Eric Willmot, advised his own boss, the well-known Aboriginal leader Charlie Perkins, against allowing any anthropological access to the Pintupi nine: “The anthropological community seem somewhat put out by us not seeking their eminent advice,” he wrote in a departmental note. “Personally, I think they have done well enough out of Aborigines. With the exception of a few very practical people like [linguist] Mr Ken Hansen, we don’t need them.”

This was a time when anthropologists were often seen as skull-measurers who gnawed the bones of Aboriginal people. But the Central Land Council, by then in full land-rights mode and claiming vast tracts of central Australia, knew the value of anthropologists. They could provide detailed genealogies which could, in turn, prove legal connection to land. The CLC insisted, against advice from Holding and Willmot, that Fred Myers – who had studied Pintupi people and was fluent in their language – be flown in from New York to write a report.

Holding’s department was further frustrated when it tried to send a medical envoy, the NT’s chief doctor, John Hargrave, to examine the group. Hargrave, who arrived in Kiwirrkurra unannounced and began examining the newcomers, was promptly stopped in his tracks by Aborigines who ordered him back on his plane.

Myers said in his report that Pintupi “memories are still strong about the number of people they lost when they went to Papunya in the 1960s” and doctors were still hated for their poking and prodding – and their failure to resurrect failing lives. A Kintore doctor, David Scrimgeour, part of an independent health service, who had a long history with Pintupi people, was initially the only practitioner allowed in. George Tjapaltjarri, a respected ngangkari, or traditional doctor, assisted.

Hargrave complained of “political manipulation” and wrote a panicked telex to Canberra. “Why are the nomads mixing in the extremely unhealthy environment of other ‘infected’ Pintupi at Kiwirrkurra?” he asked. “All nine first-contact Pintupi are sick – lying down, fever, not eating, nasal discharge, loose cough ... new Pintupi may be exposing others at Kiwirrkurra to leprosy or vice versa.” It raised real alarm.

Notes from a teleconference in early November, between Perkins, Holding and others, reveal their anger at being kept in the dark. “Nine people could die within the next two months,” Perkins said. “So the blood of these people is going to be on the hands of who? It’s going to be on the hands of the minister for health, and the minister for Aboriginal affairs and the Central Land Council ... and the so-called independent Kintore health service.”

Perkins demanded that a full medical team be allowed to inspect the people. “They’ve got to be protected from their own kinfolks who are giving them disease and deciding what sort of health they should have. It’s an infringement of civil liberties. How dare they decide that you can’t have a [government] doctor because we don’t like government doctors so they just die. They die. That’s literally what’s going to happen.”

Letters to Holding from children at Bunyip Primary, in Victoria, reflected the widespread but mistaken view that the federal government had forcibly dragged the Pintupi in. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” Shannon, aged 10, told Holding. “Even if you don’t care about Aborigines, I do.” “The least you could have done was stop those ignorant so-called kidnappers from taking those poor Aborigines from the Great Sandy Desert,” wrote Lynda, also 10. “Just send them back!”

By mid-November, the group had been given penicillin and a range of immunisations. Blood tests showed they were all positive for the treponema organism, which may have been due to yaws or syphilis. But short of keeping them in a bubble, there was no way of avoiding disease. Kiwirrkurra’s people decided the best thing was to just get it over with and expose them. None of them did drop dead.

Police briefly attempted to investigate the group’s claims that Joshua had been shot or poisoned. But they refused to reveal the location of his body so the matter went nowhere. That only the second white person the group met was McMahon, who has a steel hook for a hand, must have been strange enough. It has also been said that the first western music the group ever heard was Midnight Oil, with whom McMahon was developing a musical relationship. “But it could just as easily have been Devo,” McMahon says. “I was pretty big on them at the time.”

“I wanted them to have their own tap,” he says. “I’d neglected to put a gate valve on the main pipe and had to cut the pipe to give them this tap. I’m in this pipe and this water burst under pressure. They’d never seen anything like it and the laughter was amazing. They cracked up.”

Despite moments like these, Piyiti was not handling the new life. One day, possibly several months after the group came in, he got up and walked back into the desert. Why? Either no one knows or no one’s saying. Surviving members of the group never refer to him by name. “They don’t want to,” says Bobby West. “Because he’s gone back. They don’t want to tell. They know him, I know him. He was here. He was walking from that art shed over there and he sneak away. I followed his track, all the way. Along the side of the airport, I followed him right up the side of that hill over there. I was lookin’. He give me tricks – I don’t know where he gone. We lost him. He was a clever man.”

McMahon recalls Piyiti well. “He had a really lovely smile. I’ll never forget his laugh. But he didn’t like the contact. What struck me, apart from some small-scale initiation markings on the men, there was no scars from fights and stuff – unlike the others who had been in Papunya. They were very peaceful.” As a gesture between the Kiwirrkurra people and the newcomers, Takaria was in a matter of days “married” to Freddy West. But she fancied another man, which led to some very public spear-brandishing. “This is the stuff Piyiti would have seen,” McMahon says. “I don’t think he knew how to cope with conflict after being in such a harmonious group.”

There is still talk in Kiwirrkurra of fires seen now and then out to the north, suggesting someone is still wandering free or, as the case may be, caged in the vast desert by a sense of fear. But asked what had come of Piyiti, Warlimpirrnga has a different story. “I seen him in Alice Springs,” he says. Really? “A few years ago. He’s living in Warrabri [now Ali Curing, just south of Tennant Creek].” What happened when you saw him? “He gave me too much [lots] of money. He told me he’s got two boys and two girls and a tall Walpiri wife.” Warlimpirrnga says Piyiti nowadays goes by the name of Yarri Yarri.

In 1998, Papalya died of renal failure. Mike Harper, until recently Kiwirrkurra town clerk, was close to the old woman. He recalls scrubbing her back at bath-time and was shocked by the manner of her death. “I once visited Papalya in hospital in Alice. She was terrified. The staff used to throw her a plastic cup of coffee, something she had never ever drunk, and sandwiches wrapped in plastic which totally fooled her.”

Harper says this woman, who survived the worst conditions Australia can throw up, was “perished and starving when I called in to see her. The ward orderly said she was like a ‘dog’. They had her on a mattress on the floor in a room all by herself. It was a really pathetic sight.”

In March 2001, Kiwirrkurra was hit by heavy floods and stayed flooded for two years. It led to a new tragedy for the Pintupi. Evacuated to Alice Springs, then to Morapoi station, north of Kalgoorlie, they spent two years devastated by alcohol, which is banned in Kiwirrkurra. There were jailings and bashings and eventually, the group broke into families and fled – to Balgo, Tjukurla, Wiluna, Kalgoorlie, Warburton or Alice Springs.

Nanu, perhaps fortunately, saw none of this. She took ill on the morning the emergency services flew to Kiwirrkurra to assess the flood damage. “I remember it well,” Harper says. “We were all at the school and suddenly Nanu was ill; the nurse and I had to break the ambulance window to get to the oxygen bottle as we had dropped the keys in the mud. She later died on a trolley in a corridor of the Alice Springs hospital. There was to be an inquiry into her death, as malpractice was suspected, but it never took place. Because of the floods she had to be buried in Kintore. Her family were and still are very sad about that. They really wanted her buried next to Papalya, in Kiwirrkurra.”

They call the Pintupi lands the desert, which seems imprecise. As southern Australia suffered drought over the past two years, these central plains were awash. Some even call it the Dead Heart, but the Pintupi know it to be otherwise. Now, Kiwirrkurra, population about 150, has pieced itself back together. It has been a battle but the story of the Pintupi people will one day be recognised as one of Australia’s greatest triumphs of survival.

Removing the mysterious Piyiti from the equation, five of the six surviving Pintupi nine still live in Kiwirrkurra. Walala lives in a town camp. Warlimpirrnga and Thomas, as busy artists, divide their time between Alice Springs and Kiwirrkurra. They are all hard people to pin down – the nomadic streak remains strong and they are forever hitting the long desert roads in their shabby cars.

Kiwirrkurra is home to five of the top 10 exponents of Western Desert art, Warlimpirrnga’s two-colour, almost psychedelic waves of dots taking him to near top of the list. Yalti and Yukultji, both mothers now, also paint statements of country – Yalti’s is the more precise work. She is a teacher’s assistant at the Kiwirrkurra school. Warlimpirrnga, the cousin whom she grew up with in the desert and later married, drives across the community to pick her up when the school siren sounds in the afternoon.

Takaria lives between Kintore and Kiwirrkurra. She remembers her desert life as a hard one, “walking all day. But it was a good life”. She is content, she says, glad she came in. Asked if she is happy at how things turned out, Yukultji glowers and says sharply: “No.” Then bursts into laughter. She remembers singing and dancing every night to the sound of boomerang clapsticks – but she always knew it would end. The quiet Thomas? “He’s a bit of a sad one,” says Bobby West. “He needs a wife.” Harper says it took him years to get to know Thomas but, when he finally did, he found him to be one of the most endearing people he’s met. “I don’t see him as a sad bloke,” he says. “Out of all of them, he remains different. The others came around to our way. Thomas always stayed out there on the edge. I’ve never seen him angry, ever. I always felt his mind was back there, in the desert.”

Warlimpirrnga, described as having a numb and expressionless face when he first came in, says he too is content. “I am glad I came in. It was a happy life, chasing the clouds to the soak country. But I’ve found my family. Now, I stay with them.” And now he hunts with a rifle. “Too much beer, too much sugar – a spear takes my energy,” he smiles.

The Pintupi people have won back their land on both sides of the NT-WA border – and Warlimpirrnga is in the process of reclaiming exactly who he is. Last year, he made an appearance at the Yuendumu sports festival, where he entered the fire-making contest. A queue of traditional Aboriginal men attempted to make fire using only sticks of wood. Warlimpirrnga’s spark struck first.