Aborigines: 'I was terrified. I didn't know anything about white fellas'

Until 1964, they had never been in contact with the outside world. Newly discovered footage captures the moment their innocence ended

It was 1964: the US had gone to war against North Vietnam, the first Ford Mustang was rolling off the assembly line and Beatlemania was reaching fever pitch. Meanwhile, in the Western Australian desert, a group of Aborigines were still living as their ancestors had done for thousands of years, with no inkling of a world beyond the expanse of sand and spinifex grass they called home.

That innocence was about to end: in October, the group – the last desert-dwelling Aborigines to make "first contact" with white Australians – was found by patrol officers scouring the dump zone of a rocket test range. The remarkable encounter was filmed and photographed. But the footage did not come to light until recently and it is only now being widely viewed, thanks to a new documentary called Contact.

The grainy images capture a moment of great poignancy, when an ancient civilisation and a way of life were effectively extinguished.

The 20 women and children – members of the Martu tribe – were among the last Aborigines to emerge from the desert.

Among them was Yuwali, who was 17 at the time. She and her family thought the officers were "devil men" who had come to eat them. They had never seen a truck before. "I said to the kids, 'you know those big rocks we play on, the rock has come alive,'" she recalls in the film.

She adds: "I was terrified. My whole body was shaking. I didn't know anything about white fellas. Seeing one for the first time was a real shock. It looked like his skin had been peeled off."

But this was no hallucination: Yuwali's world had changed, beyond recognition, forever. Before long, the Martu were taken to a church mission, where they were given clothes, taught English and schooled in becoming good Christians. In the documentary, surviving members of the group take the directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean to their homeland in the Percival Lakes area of the Great Sandy Desert. The area is extremely remote: even now, it is a four-day car journey to get there – half of it entirely off tracks – from the nearest town, Newman, in the Pilbara region.

Until the white men arrived, Yuwali and her extended family had no concept of the modern world. They had no idea that Australia had been colonised for nearly 200 years. They led a traditional lifestyle, wandering through the desert, their route determined by the seasons, the availability of food and the mythical "Dreamtime" tracks. They hunted with digging sticks and dingoes.

Across the continent, in a different universe, Australia was preparing to launch a series of British rockets from the Woomera test range. The Percival Lakes, part of the dump zone, were regarded as uninhabited. "We really didn't expect to find anybody out there," Terry Long, a native welfare patrol officer, said.

Of that first meeting between a space-age civilisation and nomadic hunter-gatherers living off the land, Mr Butler said in an interview this week: "It must be the most extraordinary clash of cultures of all time. It's really quite incredible."

Mr Butler, who also produced the documentary, was anxious to tell the story while the remaining witnesses were still alive. Yuwali is one of a dwindling number of Aborigines who straddle the two eras. A young adult when she left the desert, she still has a clear memory of pre-contact days.

Her recollections of coming face to face with the strange white men are detailed and vivid. The truck "looked like a monster, big eyes, it made a big noise ... made the earth tremble".

The men, she thought, had dishes on their heads. (In fact, they were wearing hats.) She and her relatives fled, leading the men on an ultimately unsuccessful pursuit.

The first rocket was fired anyway, but, fortunately, went way off course, landing hundreds of miles from the lakes. With the second test looming, another expedition set off to find the Martu people. This time, though, the patrol officers were accompanied by two Aboriginal guides. Yuwali and the others finally emerged, walking slowly across a red sand dune.

The guides were determined to bring them to the isolated mission at Jigalong, where many of their relatives had already congregated.

They had their own motives: they had taken a fancy to Yuwali and her aunt, and claimed them as brides. Mr Long, meanwhile, was convinced that the women and children could not survive much longer in the desert by themselves.

It was the end of a way of life for Australian Aborigines, although the Martu later gained land rights over a vast swath of Western Australia. At the time, Mr Long felt he was doing the right thing; 45 years later, he is less sure. "We ought to have handled this much, much better," he said. During the journey to Jigalong, "they tied the kids up with rope around their ankles to stop them running away", says Yuwali. She, meanwhile, was mourning her beloved dingo, whom she had been forced to leave behind.

While the guides could translate, there was ample scope for misunderstanding. The lead patrol officer, Walter MacDougall, who shot the footage, reported at the time: "These girls [the Aboriginal women] think they owe me something, and I don't want it." He locked himself in his car at night to escape their advances. According to the women, though, "he was looking at our bodies, getting fresh".

The Martu were also unimpressed with the white man's food. Their meat, they thought, "tasted like shit, so we spat it out and buried it".

Yuwali, who went on to marry twice and have four children, still lives in the Pilbara. Recalling 1964, she says: "We were worried about our homeland when we first arrived. But now we've been swept up in our new lives. We couldn't go back to the old ways... [But] we left our hearts back in our country."

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