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When worlds collide
When worlds collide

The men had gone, leaving the group feeling alone and unprotected.

But the day when Yuwali's mother told her to sit tight with the other women and children while she went hunting, was the first time real fear came.

On that day she saw the devil cannibals. First a big rock came alive and rolled into their camp. Then she saw two of them stand on a ridge with dishes on their heads and they had white skin. But she wouldn't let them see her.

In 1964, in a remote area of Western Australia called Percival Lakes in the Great Sandy Desert, two Native Welfare officers searched for signs of human life. They knew it was unlikely but their job was to ensure the area was uninhabited prior to the test launching of a space rocket. When the officers found clear evidence of a group of Aboriginals living there, they had to act quickly - the countdown had begun. The group, however, proved evasive.

When the first test rocket called Blue Streak One, part of a joint UK-Australian satellite program, went off track, scientists detonated it, exploding pieces across the desert. Welfare officers Terry Long and Walter MacDougal were horrified to discover the group they were tracking were heading for Blue Streak Two's target dump area.

The group, remnants of the Martu, the last nomadic Aboriginal tribe in Australia, were going to Yimiri, the Serpent of the Dreaming who lived in bull rushes in the salt lake. They called on Yimiri to bring a storm to drive the devils away. And he did.

"This part of the story is both poetic and astounding," says Martin Butler, co-producer and director of Contact, a new ABC documentary. "Quite often in the Pilbara it won't rain for five years. To have a storm with torrential rain at that point was incredible. Of course, to the Martu people, it was precisely what they expected to happen. What can we say? These are the facts on the ground."

The rocket launch was delayed and the group escaped both it and the welfare officers.

Never could there be a moment that captured so perfectly the story of Australia as the one when finally 20 Martu were enticed from the bush to make contact with white man. Witnessed by so few, it was a mighty collision of ancient and modern, of polarised belief systems, of cultures. Contact follows what happens to the group when they walk away from their 50,000-year way of life in the desert and are driven 400km away to Jigalong Mission.

"It is astounding to think at the time Beatlemania was raging and we were all watching TV. Life outside the desert was completely modern. It is astounding in a developed country that this occurred - two completely divergent people in time come into contact with each other," he says.

Butler, who has worked on current affairs programs including Foreign Correspondent, Four Corners and Lateline, says his experience in the desert with Yuwali, now 62, and her family, has sparked a sense of connection to land and Australia's first people. It inspired him to make another documentary on the archaeological history of Australia, from the arrival of humans to the arrival of Captain Cook.

"The land out there is so vast, so empty, amazingly beautiful and magical. The night stars are unbelievable and appear in this wide arc of sky - it's breathtaking," Butler says.

"We don't know enough about Aboriginal history, we don't contemplate the astounding survival skills that were developed over 50,000 years. Aboriginal people existed across this country often at the most extreme level. Nowhere else in the world are there people seemingly comfortably in 50C heat and in freezing conditions. That is astounding survival ability and we don't pay enough respect to it."

For Yuwali and her people, the Jigalong experience was not the culture-stripping horror that many Aboriginals suffered - indeed they joined forces with many of their people at the mission.

"The kids weren't stolen from their parents though they lived in dormitories, they spent time with them so they weren't lost to their families or culture - Martu was still their first language. And they weren't turned into Christians. That's what the missionaries hoped for but they failed."

Contact airs today at 9.25pm on ABC1.

The West Australian

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