I ended up jumping into a different truck with Fran and Jarrod and we headed to our next destination, Walatinna Station, to visit Yami Lester, a Yankuntjatjarra elder who had been blinded by the atomic tests that were done in the 1950’s. As we drove out from Coober Pedy, the terrain morphed from bare pockmarked sandstone to an expanse of flat, pale sand with low brush and small rocks. More bright desert wildflowers were bursting out from the pastel backdrop. After about an hour, we officially entered the Northern Territory.
A hill appeared in the distance and the trees and shrubs darkened and became denser and larger. We turned West off the main highway into the thick of the hill and drove up to Yami’s place, where we would all be camping out for the night. The earth was a glowing otherworldy red, was soft and rippled from the recent rainfall and there were clusters of trees that provided some patches of shade.
The sun had fallen and the horizon was humming with reds, oranges, soft pinks, blues, and purples and a few illuminated clouds sparkled through the trees. On every other night the falling sun had been quickly followed by the rising moon, though that night the hills and trees kept the moon at bay for a couple of hours and we were able to see the unhindered beauty of the starry sky. Mars was out and the band of the milky way streaked over our heads like a fireworks tail. I laid down on one of the open areas of the property staring up at the sky until the moon crept over the trees.
The next day we all hung out with Yami, who had a generous spirit and a giant smile. He told us the story of how he had been blinded by the nuclear fallout from the testing that had taken place. It was 1953 and he was living in the bush near Maralinga with his family. None of them were notified of the testing.
“I wanna talk about the Emu bomb tests. There were a lot of people living here. I was born not too far from here in the creek and anyway in the 50's there the Australian government and the British government made an agreement to have a nuclear bomb test and they reckon 'we got to look after the sheep and the cattle station'. Aboriginal people were not important. The sheep and the cattle were more important at the time. I was just playing with the other kids. That’s when the bomb went off. I remember the noise. It was a strange noise, not loud, not like anything I’d ever heard before. The earth shook at the same time; we could feel the whole place move. We didn’t see anything, though. Us kids had no idea what it was. I just kept playing. It wasn’t long after that a black smoke came through. A strange, black smoke, it was shiny and oily. A few hours later, we all got crook, every one of us. We were all vomiting; we had diarrhea, skin rashes and sore eyes. I had really sore eyes. They were so sore I couldn’t open them for 2 or 3 weeks. Some of the older people, they died. They were too weak to survive all the sickness. The closest clinic was 400 miles away.”
Yami was 10 years old and within 4 years he lost his sight completely. He became an advocate for Aboriginal Land Rights and nuclear disarmament from the 1980’s until his death in 2017.
The following day, we were on our way to Alice Springs.