~Dem woman’s understand~
“Hooshta” is the call as the lone Camel man prepares his string of hard workers for unloading.
Three days and nights before the sight of his girl and their new born baby, yet to be seen by his own eyes.
As time and distance fall, thoughts of his appearance come to mind, preparations are in order!
That piece of soap stone that clings upon the saddle tree is manicured to remove its windswept razor edge, a most important job as
such an edge is capable of circumcising a galvanised water tank.
He fights the camels for the juicy bottle brush,
as a little sweetness under the arms won’t spoil the night.
As the homestead comes into sight,
the green camel far behind loses his step as the cheeky dogs circle,
Steady boys, Steady a strong yet firm command from the camel man gives his team of workers comfort as they carry their delicate load of provisions and mail towards the awaiting Mrs Boss, governesses and all the kids.
Pleasantries are kept to what needs to be said,
nothing more, nothing less.
His forever spoken love lay working beneath the floor boards,
amongst the heat, sweat and promise.
Another marble lands in the billy, that’s the call from up above,
Tea, sugar and fresh milk is in order quick, quick!!!
Ting! Another marble, two pots six cups.
That night amongst the camels, saddles, stars and a full moon he was holding his newborn, a prouder man yet to be seen, his joy alone was enough to light the night, and was well spoken in many a camp for months to come.
Their love was tolerated, but far from understood!
For years their love was coded from the slouch of a hat,
As crude as it was it was theirs for the keeping!
It was spoken that whites wanted it easy, but that wasn’t the truth at all! Men from the land need dem woman’s that understand, an understanding that need not be explained.
“Dem woman’s really do understand”
In 2004-05 Dean Koopman walked across the Australian outback from Broome to Port Augusta. Accompanied by 3 camels (Henry, Shabby and Hussan), the quartet took 9 months to traverse 6000km of desert. This was not the extreme stunt of a Bear Grylls-esque conqueror of nature, but an act of love from a man who grew up in the Simpson desert and after some years abroad as a social documentary photographer had returned to the land he felt most comfortable with.
We met Dean ‘7 years and 70kg later’ in Marree, South Australia where he has settled and is currently building a house and works as a successful poet. Dean’s story reads to me like a contemporary re-working of the much mythologised stories of Australia’s colonial explorers. Where Charles Sturt tragically dragged a whaleboat into the desert for a God given vision of abundance, Dean represents a new type of European pioneer – one who has spent time with the land and local Aboriginals and is finding a deeper sense of connection with the great Australian ‘backyard.’
Dean Koopman: Dean Koopman is my name, my dad was a Dutchman. I never grew up in Marree, I grew up and spent time on the other side of the Simpson desert but all the vegetation is the same as here, 100km to the South its not the same, and when you’re into livestock and camels knowing all the vegetation is everything – you have to know whats good or bad for your livestock, but if I go 100km south to the Northern Flinders to me that’s the edge of the outback. So although I’m not in my home in the Northern Territory near Walkabout bore, I’m on this side which is to me the same because of the vegetation, the extreme heat, the winds and the isolation. For six months theres not many people here except for a few locals – it’s a very special place then I think.
Mark Leong: Is there a reason you’re here rather than your original home?
DK: Basically when I walked across Australia I came through here with my camels. Copley, south of here, was where I met Sally who ended up being the mother of my children, so that’s what kept me in the area. I’ve got two beautiful sons – a four year old and an 18 month old. My four your old was named Sandy after the Sandy Desert – the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen – and my other son we named Hunter, hes a very special Downs Syndrome child, I’m building this home for him because he might be challenged to afford that on his own if he wants to, so my goal is to build a home for him in a community that will accept him – Marree is a fantastic community.
ML: Would you mind telling us a little bit about your trip walking across Australia?
DK: If I wanted to get across Australia I probably would have driven, you don’t have to walk it, it wasn’t a point A to B thing. It started a while ago when I went to a funeral in Melbourne, I’ve always been a backyard anthropologist, I went to a garage sale and there was a boot full of books for $30, and I found a book by a lady from Pilbara in Western Australia about what happened there around the turn of the century, and she spoke about people who were taking shortcuts across the great sandy dessert to get from Pilbara to the Kimberley gold rush. I looked at a map and thought, well, theres nothing there, on the map of Australia theres no lines through it, it’s a huge paddock and I thought I might go and find these people. That was the beginning of my studies, about four years of research, to work out where I actually wanted to go and learn the skills to cross deserts on your own.
ML: Where did you go?
DK: From Broome to Port Augusta, it wasn’t a straight line ‘cos I was tracking the things I was interested in, but in 9 months I walked close to 6000km.
ML: How many km did you cover a day?
DK: I like to walk about 40km a day, sometimes that doesn’t work and sometimes you do more. Your directions are determined by the vegetation for your animals, if they don’t eat well then you’re out there on your own. Theres three rules about camels: One, keep them well fed. Two, keep them close together. Three, remember they don’t need you. It pays to keep them happy, and if you do that you’ve got somebody that will get you out the other side.
Nick Sargent: What skills did you decide you had to learn before you left on the trip?
DK: I knew the vegetation already – the biggest preparation was saying to myself before I left – what ever can happen to a man in his life is going to happen to a man on this trip, and so when things did happen and they got awkward, hard and scary, whatever, I could say to myself ‘I knew this would happen, deal with it’. And that was more important than lifting weights or anything like that, it was mental preparation.
NS: Could you tell us a story about one of the more challenging moments…
DK: The first time I had an enormous amount of camels in my camp. Another rule, you don’t camp in the camel camp. In the afternoon and night time I tie them to trees and go to bed, and get up in the morning and let them go. But you don’t camp in the camel camp, and that was something I was taught and I realised why. If you’ve got big numbers of camels that come to yours, and race around yours at night you’d be trampled. So my lead camel was making grunting noises he’d never made before, he’d always been magical – they’ve got other senses that blow you away, he was just talking to my other camels who are very close to him and telling them something was on. I sat up and listened to that just on nightfall. I’m guessing about 4 hours later I hear a screech which is what bull camels do, they grind their teeth. You can’t hear camels walking at night time, they’re dead silent, but you hear this … (makes high pitched noise) … and over here you hear … (same noise) … and you’re not too sure what that is, and then I hear thirty at one time and think – shit, this is going to be difficult. I got up, I hadn’t had a torch for two months, it was a dark night with no moon and I was propped up against a tree under a mozzy net and I got up and one screech was about 3 feet from me – I could of put my arm out and touched this bull camel but I couldn’t see him. That was the first mob of camels I’d come across, and I had my firearm and let a few shots go into the air, I had a 308 ex-military rifle and it goes off with a bit of a thump and that was having no effect on the wild camels and I knew I’d have to wait until sunrise to see them off and control mine. And I’m hearing my pack and gear trampled, my whole world was in that gear – solar panels, HF radio – and I was concerned about that and my camels and I couldn’t see anything for what felt like 20 hours but was obviously about 8, sitting against a tree hoping not to hear distressed sounds from my camels and not being able to go near them. It was a big mob of camels, maybe 100 camels, and in the morning about 40 were left and they wouldn’t go and I had to shoot a camel which was the first time on that trip. As the months went on I didn’t have to shoot them, I was able to move them on, and I was actually catching them, castrating, nose pegging and training them – so I rocked into Alice Springs with a whole lot more camels than I left Broome with. But the first time, having to get used to so many difficult, awkward things is a tough time and knowing that I’d be scared for hours to come, watching the southern cross and seeing that I had many many hours of darkness before I could see what was going on. That was very difficult.
ML: So you ended up with more camels but you’re obviously closer to your original three camels, you kept them…
DK: Oh yeah, I’ve just looked after them, they’re my old mates. There was another time in the Sandy Desert I got my camels bogged, I’d just filled up with water on the camels, I had about 100L of water on each camel and I didn’t notice it, I was tired and I walked over it because I was light enough, but my lead camel dropped straight down to his belly bogged in the quick sand and it took us a long time to get out of that and traumatised the camel, but when we got out it was big hugs and jubilation for all of us, it was a big hard job and we got through it, they weren’t going to run away, we’ve been through so much – I’ve yet to be through as much with any person as what I’ve been through with those camels, as far as emotions of jubilation, sadness and fear – like I said, anything a man goes through in his life I went through but I did it with three camels.
ML: How would you describe camel personalities?
DK: They’re all different. Young Henry was your typical 15 year old kid with the American clothing and the skateboard, he’s the rebel of them all that’s not going to listen to anything and is going to do it his own way. But at the end of the day if you meet him half way he comes your way, but he’s got some attributes too. I chose him because he’s a camel that can be separated from the other camels so at the end of the day after our days walk I can hop on him and grab my rifle and go and get dinner. Theres not many camels that can be separated from the herd. The other, Shabby he’s like a grandfather, if he thinks he’s got too much weight on him he’ll complain but he’s got the least of weight, now I’m getting older I can see I’m becoming a lot like Shabby, old men just get that way when they get to around 44 or something. And then Hussan, my middle camel, he’s a big water boy, he’s the quiet backbone of the whole group, he reassures me when things are tough. I can load him right up, you put a ton on that camel and he won’t complain, and he still works for you. He doesn’t talk much but he doesn’t have to.
NS: You were talking earlier about taking your boys out and talking about the rocks and the plants and the land etc, can you give us an idea about what it’s like to have that kind of knowledge about the land which a lot of the people like us, from the city, don’t have?
DK: Well, my backyard goes from there right across Australia, when you’ve walked across the paddock once, I’ve studied every bit and its all pretty much great. What I did learn was that there were bush skills that I developed that there was no writing on, there was no way to get information and when you’re out there on your own you get to find out new things in your life that are important. What I did learn – and this is the greatest thing I’ve got – I did find out that you can look at the rock or the vegetation around you and that would tell you the type of ground that you’ll be going into, it was like my GPS was at my feet. I could see with the vegetation what I’m heading into. The ground actually tells you, and once you get the hang of being able to read that, you feel pretty comfortable travelling. In the old days they used to say that the dead finish bush was always at the edge of the desert country, so you would come up to dead finish, and that’s an old black fella terminology, and that was like “if you go on, you’ll be dead and finished”. You’ve got bushes that will tell you what you’ve got every 5 km ahead, birds too. When you’ve got certain vegetation halfway up the hill that always only used to be at the bottom of the hills, then you’re going why is it going halfway up the hill? Well that was because there must be water here, cause birds are shitting out their seeds and that’s why that’s around there. Therefore that vegetation is telling you that there is water nearby. There is just so much that you can learn from what is right under your boots. That’s something that I’ve gotten to learn, it’s not in any book because a lot of people that write books on the outback just go for a drive.
NS: As your kids are growing up and you’re showing them the landscape, how do they respond to it?
DK: Sandy my four year old, he’s amazing, he already knows about 300 species of vegetation in this area – you’ve gotta love kids with their thirst of knowledge. We know it’s a thing, cause every night I take my boy for a walk and we just look at every little bird, shrub, forb or anything and we’ll really look at them, and look at it through the whole season and watch it change and know what it meant to the plants that surround it and why some are not there cause introduced species have crowded them out. To watch a plant through a whole season, that’s what my four year old can do, now that’s very important for me. Theres just so many levels why I’m excited about that, not only for his intellectual ability to remember these things, although his pronunciation is always a bit different, but his memory for 6 months later looking at the same one. Out here I suppose we’re environmentalists without even really knowing the term, you just need to be. And it’s a big thing for me to see me boys already doing that. Even Hunter, my young Downs Syndrome child, I’ve never met a kid that can observe so well. He can’t talk yet, but to see him watch and observe things, he’s really studying things. You talk to him about things that he’s looking at and he responds : “I’m picking up what you’re putting down Dad”, he’s understanding it. I know I’ve got a couple of kids there that are like the old saying “you can take the kids from the bush, but you can’t take the bush out of the kid.” They are absolutely like that. I think you can go to the city once you know out here and always come back and be comfortable. But it’s a bit hard to do it the other way.
ML: Sounds like you’re doing a really good job
DK: Well, I’m working at it, but it’s a lot of fun. To me, I’ve had so many things in life that were great, but now, I love kids. Fuckin’ kids mate, they’re just magnificent.
The interview presented here is an excerpt from a longer interview conducted at Dean’s house in Marree by Mark Leong and Nick Sargent, which will form part of ‘The Cars that Drank Lake Eyre’ – an exhibition to be held from Oct 19-Jan at Customs House Library in Sydney.
Thanks to Dean Koopman for allowing us to publish ‘Dem woman’s understand’ and to Jenni Hagedorn for transcribing parts of the interview.
Images by Nick Sargent