Your “Eyesore,” My History?

People and “Dead” Cars in a Remote Aboriginal Community

in Transfers
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In this article we visit a car junkyard in the small Arnhem Land outstation of Nalawan in the top end of Australia's Northern Territory. Using both a mobilities paradigm and recent theorizing of waste from the global south, we will argue through our ethnographic observations that the wrecked cars become mobile, reassembled, and reconceptualized in a range of surprising ways. Though now immobile, the stories they encapsulate continue to circulate and reverberate with the complexities and tensions of Indigenous mobilities.

Bordering the fence that surrounds the little compound of houses at the Nalawan outstation, near the community of Ngukurr in South East Arnhem Land, is a place for old cars and assorted equipment. Walk through the gate and you find yourself in a seemingly disordered place, where you have to be attentive to partially hidden rolls of barbed wire which tear at your clothes, rusted nails extruding from old fence posts, and scatters of glass from innumerable broken windscreens. The rustles of lizards and snakes moving through the undergrowth, piles of partially shredded tires, and sheets of rusting iron provide a constant reminder of the need to be wary. Each wet season, the area becomes inundated. Things move around. New scraps are revealed, and others become hidden beneath the mud. Buffalo and wild pigs trample the area and crush objects into the ground, causing further disturbance. Termites eat their way through any fallen wood, building mounds as tall as people.

At least six complete car and truck bodies can be found. Not a scrap of original color remains on any of them; each is completely rusted, with tall grass growing out of their hoods and wheels, making them appear ancient (the oldest vehicles are two 1970s Toyota Land Cruisers). Scattered around them are parts of cars: differentials, fuel tanks, kangaroo bars, wheel rims, windscreen wipers, seats, and tattered remnants of tires. Toyota leaf springs erode from the earth like the ribs of a prehistoric animal. Other remnants include fuel drums and building equipment, including three gas-powered cement mixers, a lighting plant, two enormous water tanks, and sheet after sheet of corrugated iron. Nothing works in its original form, but we argue in this article that these objects are far from dead to the people of Nalawan. They remain mobile, reassembled, reanimated, and reconceptualized in a range of surprising ways.

Picture 1:
Picture 1:

The Car “Dump”

Citation: Transfers 11, 1; 10.3167/TRANS.2021.110102

In 2018, a fire swept through the edge of the outstation, burning the area with the cars. Once they had blended into the landscape, becoming more embedded in it every year, but now, with all the undergrowth burnt away, they were starkly exposed. A non-Indigenous person working in the community suggested that the “dump” was at best a bit of an eyesore and at worst a dangerous collection of sharp rusted metal and a refuge for snakes. The officer offered to remove it. The community flatly refused; “the cars are our history,” they said, and the cars remained. As one community member explained to one of us later: “They [the old cars] are important. It's a memory thing. They remind us about our family, and we can share stories with the kids about building Nalawan. ‘Im [Him] bring back memory about how we go out there with no support and how hard it was.”

This story resonates with Burström's description of a deeply contested car junkyard in Sweden where locals fought to protect around 150 car wrecks lying in a small bog, claiming that the site should be protected and preserved as a significant cultural site.1 The government strongly resisted ascribing cultural heritage value to these objects and sought to have them removed as waste. The local community sought to protect the cars not because they had intrinsic value but because, like the cars in Nalawan, they were resonant with memory. However, after considerable public interest, appeals, and media attention, the Swedish junkyard became a protected tourist attraction, a place for “existential contemplation” about the passage of time and the awakening of personal memories and histories associated with the car wrecks. While the car junk yard in Nalawan is not and probably will never become a tourist attraction, it is an important site for Nalawan residents, due not only to what Burström calls the “emotive and reflective potential in things,” but to the political and cultural history that the cars reveal.2

Nalawan is an outstation of the community of Ngukurr in South East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. It is situated on the Roper River, 22 kilometers from the main community. There are three habitable houses at Nalawan and a permanent population of two people. Other families visit when they are able to. Often, they are unable to visit because they lack a vehicle to travel the twenty-two kilometers between the communities. Ngukurr is home to approximately one thousand Indigenous people and a very small population of non-Indigenous people, including teachers, nurses, and other support workers. The communities are very remote, being a full days’ drive from Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory, and four hours from Katherine, the nearest sizable town. A twice-weekly bus service operates, linking Ngukurr to both Katherine and Darwin, but ticket costs are high for a population that is largely dependent on government welfare payments. Private vehicle ownership is characterized by the short life span of vehicles and the difficulties that owners face in obtaining licenses, registration, and insurance.3 Ngukurr residents often lack the financial resources to buy the type of sturdy car that could survive the conditions (such as the large four-wheel drives driven by government workers, clinic staff, and anthropologists) and are forced to buy inferior, often badly maintained second-hand cars. These conditions result in Ngukurr and Nalawan residents, like residents of many remote Aboriginal communities, having unequal capabilities for mobility.4

This article discusses how, for the residents of Nalawan, the cars are history. As Georgine Clarsen points out, Indigenous people have a long history with the automobile, but this history has been pushed aside by non-Indigenous stories of settler overlanding success and their penetration of the continent.5 This deep reflection on the cars and their meanings is an attempt to redress this balance in a small way. The dead cars of Nalawan document and reflect people's engagement with mobilities and how the inequalities of this engagement are affected by race and by settler politics. The cars also embody a range of different policies toward outstation development, and how people understood and constructed narratives of their lives in the 1970s and 1980s. The cars provide an enduring reminder of the vulnerability of even the most robust vehicles in such a harsh environment and the determination of the people who chose to establish the outstation in that particular setting. The cars are also memory, in that they encapsulate something of the person who owned them and their stories, which are remembered, interpreted, and reinterpreted by families. But the cars are also very much alive, and people interact with them on a daily basis. It is clear that this location is not a “dump”. No household refuse is ever to be found there, and in fact, to get to the actual dump one must drive a further two kilometers. Nothing of salvageable interest can be found at the actual dump. The complete opposite is true for this place with car bodies.

This article is about movement in terms of travel and a movement in terms of the outstations movement, a political and cultural movement that encouraged and supported families in their aspirations to leave community centers and reside on their ancestral lands. While this anthropological research is based on ethnographic fieldwork in Nalawan, a mobilities framework helps us to explore not only the dimensions of power in this movement, but also the unequal distribution of mobilities in remote Indigenous Australia and people's continuing struggles to resist this inequality.6 It also alerts us to the culturally specific meanings of mobilities and automobiles when explored from an Indigenous perspective.

Our ethnographic focus on the car bodies allows us to combine a mobilities framework with anthropological perspectives on waste. This article points toward an understanding of the potential of material things, in their relationships with people, to be assembled and reused, and also to be understood as symbols and objects of relations that serve to tell narratives about the past.

Indigenous cars and automobilities

Mobilities researchers Mimi Sheller and John Urry point out that even though cars are ubiquitous in people's everyday lives and that access to a car powerfully changes people's relationship with, and understanding of, place, they have been a neglected subject in the social sciences.7 They argue that a focus on the car and how the car opens up possibilities for movement into new spaces and new ways of living is in direct opposition to sendentarist theories of living associated with Heidegger, which position stability as a normal state, and “place and treat as abnormal, distance, change and placelessness.”8 There has since been a flourishing of research into how cars transform social relationships and practices, from the way we work to the way we shop. Cars also influence the way we feel and respond to both environment and motion. As Featherstone explains: “The car too is increasingly revealed through studies as a ‘place of dwelling;’ or corporeal inhabitation. It is experienced through a combination of senses and sensed through multiple registers of motion and emotion.”9 The car, and automobilities more broadly, have become central to disciplines such as sociology and geography.10 But key areas of future research remain, which particularly focus on what Sheller has termed mobility justice.11 This new mobilities paradigm poses questions about who is able to exercise mobility, how inequality occurs through power and disciplinary systems, how people resist or overturn these regimes, and how greater mobility justice can be supported. These questions are central to the study of Indigenous mobilities, as Indigenous people's history of car use are characterized by unequal access to both vehicles and the right to drive them.12

Anthropological work with cars, such as Daniel Miller's edited volume Car Culture, has sought to understand the “humanity of the car” and how inequality, oppression, and violence become part of the relationships between cars, people, institutions, and other things that surround cars and people.13 In Car Culture, both Diana Young and Gertrude Stotz discuss the integration of cars into Indigenous Australian people's phenomenological and cosmological relationships.14 For a Warlpiri community in the Western Desert, declares Young, cars carry with them the desire for mobility, but also mediate people's social relationships and their connections to country. Young discusses the detailed way that cars are aligned with An-angu everyday life, from the way in which people arrange themselves physically in cars, to the spatial rules a car must adhere too as it navigates country. For the An-angu, cars reinforce and support their spiritual connection to the land, enabling people to travel further distances to hunt, attend religious gatherings, and care for the land. In the same volume, Stotz describes the negative impact the car has had on society by intensifying gender asymmetries at Nguru and reinforcing ongoing colonization.15

Clarsen argues that non-Indigenous and Indigenous people became exposed to the automobile at the same time, “although always on asymmetrical terms.”16 The car became a powerful tool for the settlers to colonize and exploit otherwise difficult to reach Aboriginal people and lands. Indigenous peoples, however, have built their own distinctive automobile cultures and seized the opportunities for travel, pleasure, work, and communication that cars facilitate. The distinctiveness of this culture, borne out of adversity and unequal access to resources, includes the ability to modify and repair cars long after they might have been discarded by their non-Indigenous owners. Such automobile cultures remain celebrated in television programs such as Bush Mechanics and Black As.17

Other research, which has explored the meaning of cars in Indigenous communities, has focused on the car as a site of contestation and how powerful people work to gain control of a scarce commodity.18 Under such conditions, ownership of a car becomes highly symbolic of personal power. In Grayson Gerrard's study, the car becomes symbolic of the distance between the resources owned by non-Indigenous visitors to a community and the community members themselves.19 She argues that a continual practice of humbugging for lifts from non-Indigenous residents is a creative way of redressing this imbalance.20

Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson, working in Maningrida, describe the car as central to contemporary Kuninjku life and an “ideal prism through which to consider Kuninji experience of modernity.”21 Importantly, they explore how access to a vehicle has impacted traditional livelihoods. With a vehicle, hunters are able to greatly expand their range, and also the amount of game that they are able to carry back to the community. The truck itself becomes a hunting tool, when skillfully maneuvered to run down a buffalo or other large game.22 Access to vehicles also allowed local artists to reside on their own country, where they felt most settled and productive, and to transport their paintings back to the community for sale via agents or the community art center.23

The studies described above provide important insights into how the car transforms people's worlds, opening up new opportunities but also engendering new tensions. These studies have focused less on people's relationships with cars in terms of meaning or emotion, which are a vital component of the mobilities paradigm. Two important exceptions are Anthony Redmond's phenomenology of travelling by community mutika (motor car) in the northern Kimberley, Western Australia, and Young's previously cited study of the life and death of cars on Pitjantjatjara lands.24 Car travel is an experience of the body, especially so in the densely packed conditions and body shattering roads that are characteristic of the experience in Aboriginal communities. Both of these studies describe the bodies of cars and humans as being intertwined; as cars and humans travel, they get tired and they die or, as people often say, “finish up.” Stotz, for example, similarly describes cars as having distinct identities and consciousness—a failing car, for example, was described as having a “headache.”25 In Young's study, car and owner are so interlinked that a dead car appears to encapsulate the memory of its owner, and if this person is deceased, it becomes a source of sadness, but also a deep repository of memories.26

The connectedness of cars, people, and country in Indigenous culture has resulted in the car being a recurring motif in Aboriginal art, music, theatre, literature, curatorship, dance, poetry and film.27 Artists have captured the complexity of meanings embedded in cars; for example, the life-sized Toyota woven out of grass by the Tjanpi Desert weavers captures the usefulness and desirability of the car, but also the fact that this group of women were unlikely to own or even have access to a car.28 The continuing process of colonization allowed by cars is captured in Billy Kenda's work, where the cars driven by tourists almost blend into the Central Australian landscape.29 In Jody Broun's “White Fellas Come to Talk About Land,” the white Toyotas take a more sinister appearance as the apparatus of non-Indigenous bureaucracy.30 The ubiquity of the car, its ability to connect people to country but also its ultimate fragility, is neatly summed up in Ngukurr Artist Karen Rogers’ “Troopy,” in which a series of panels show the car embarking on a fishing trip, heading home, getting fixed, and then “broke down.”31

Recent literature on Indigenous mobilities has focused on the car and driving as sites of contestation between non-Indigenous law enforcement and Indigenous drivers.32 In these articles, the authors point to the incongruity of the law requiring people to have licenses, have registered cars, and obey the road rules in environments where there are no real roads.33 The driving experience for contemporary Indigenous people is one that is characterized by increased policing and high levels of incarceration for relatively minor traffic and license offences. Under these conditions, abandoned vehicles represent a new kind of story. They are not only abandoned because they break down but also because their owners are not able to comply with the regulations surrounding driving and car ownership.34

The Social and Material Death of Things

Discarded (modern) things that are left behind in Indigenous communities have recently become an increasing focus of Australian anthropological scholarship, although the study of discard behavior has a long history in archaeology.35 Stephen Muecke and Deborah Bird Rose, in their chapters exploring post-colonial studies of waste, pose the question: why is some waste valorized and some despised? Muecke describes archaeological interest in remnants from a pastoral past and wonders why “the old fences, four-gallon drums, ruined bower shed and old chains and tools” have more meaning than a soft drink can that has been tossed out a car window.36 His answer is that these things are marked as important because they tell a particular story to a particular group of people. The dominant stories are those that valorize a colonial past, or the pristine value of wilderness, rather than those of the contemporary inhabitants. Comparisons can be made with the literature concerning roadside memorials to commemorate people killed in road accidents, which have been interpreted as symbolic of societal flaws.37

Rose provides the example of what might be seen as littering: leaving remnants of a meal at sites on country: “My Aboriginal teachers in the Northern Territory rarely picked up after themselves, but more to the point, they do not seek to erase themselves.”38 She argues that leaving such things are deliberate attempts by people to show that they have been in a particular place. They are not obscuring their tracks, but instead are leaving tangible and readable traces of their activity. These traces also tell a story about people's knowledge of and activity in a particular space: “The remains of the dinner camps tell the stories of how they went to that place and called out to the country, and how the country fed them.”39 She again draws attention to whose story one might read from these remains. Is it a story of casually discarded waste? Or a story of a favorite fishing spot where families have returned year after year? A spot that that carries the memories of people and their relationships and their varying levels of hunting success?

Nalawan and the Daniels family

This article draws upon the memories of Daphne Daniels, an elder of Ngukurr and owner of the Nalawan outstation, and includes her recollections of Nalawan in the 1970s and those of her family. The stories that we tell here were recorded during three periods of fieldwork in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and in continuing conversations with Daphne as we wrote this article.

The outstations movement began in the 1970s era of “self-determination,” when Indigenous people throughout the Northern Territory obtained government support to take their extended family groups to their ancestral country and build homes.40 Though there was very little infrastructure, outstations became an important part of the land-rights movement, and were also a way for individuals and families to look after their country and to escape the alcohol and other drug issues in larger communities at the time.

During the 1970s, the Nalawan outstation became home to the Daniels family, where they established a small group of houses and set up a generator for electricity and pumps and water tanks to collect water from the nearby Roper River. Primary schooling was provided on country by a member of the family, and at this time the small community was able to break away from the main community of Ngukurr.41 By early 2000, however, many of the outstations, including Nalawan, were deserted or only used as holiday houses, due to increasing pressures on people to remain in Ngukurr to attend work and school along with a dramatic reduction in government funding to support outstations. Perhaps most importantly, the family lacked a vehicle to make the trip from Ngukurr to Nalawan.

As described by Senior and colleagues, outstations are now largely unsupported by government.42 There has, however, been a renewed interest in the outstations and in their development for tourism and education purposes. Over the last few years, the Daniels family has spent a great deal more time at their outstations, especially in the dry season when access is easier. As adults begin to inhabit this place again, so do children, who clamor to spend some time in the bush. The outstation becomes a tool for children to learn about their history and families. Material culture, including dead cars, is an important element of this educational storytelling.

The Cars

1970 Toyota Troop Carriers (Cars of Authority and Leadership)

Toyota Troop Carriers were (and are) the ultimate car of authority in a remote Aboriginal community. Robust enough to survive the conditions and large enough to transport many people at a time, they continue to be highly prized. The troop carrier is also the vehicle associated with people making official visits to the community, such as representatives from the Northern Land Council (NLC). Two substantial four-wheel drives are “parked” next to each other in the Nalawan car graveyard, both lying on their sides. As Daphne explains, “one was Dad's car and one was my Dad's brother's car.” Daphne's father was an important community leader, and president of the local community Government Council during the 1980s. By the 1990s, Daphne's father lived in another small community outside Ngukurr, but the sight of his Troop carrier sweeping into town meant that important business was happening. Daphne's father was known as a political agitator, so the presence of his distinctive car (white with a black tire tread pattern down the side) would bring a chill to non-Aboriginal council administrators. Daphne's uncle, also politically active, was the teacher at Nalawan during the 1970s.

Those two cars, which speak of authority and power, not only represent the strength of two community leaders, but also their kinship, which is reflected and remembered in their placement. The cars speak of power, but they also speak of devastating loss. In his last years of his life, Daphne's father became disabled, increasingly immobile, and finally confined to his house. The former leader had no money left to buy a vehicle. Occasionally, when he was able to get a ride, his debilitating illness meant that even getting into a car was extremely difficult, and the poor quality of the roads caused him great pain. He was no longer able to visit the outstation that he was so influential in creating.

1980 Toyota Troop Carrier (The “Cow Catcher”)

Most of the vehicles in the graveyard are damaged beyond repair, but clearly this was not always the case. Rather, the graveyard is where vehicles have been modified and repurposed. One of the vehicles is a 1980 Troop Carrier, which was cut down to become a “cow catcher”, an intimidating Mad Max-like creation with a sawn-off roof and a huge bull bar. Daphne Daniels reflected on this vehicle in 2020:

My dad, he had this bull catcher, they used to go out on the plain and catch all the wild cattle; they would ride around and push all those wild cattle down.43 I didn't go in it; it was too dangerous. They used to catch wild cattle, salt-water bulls from Weigiba [an outstation on the coast near Numbulwar]. They loved their buggy. They chased those cattle through the swamp. They didn't worry about trees, rocks as long as they got those bulls.

Picture 2:
Picture 2:

The “Cow Catcher”

Citation: Transfers 11, 1; 10.3167/TRANS.2021.110102

When we were kids, we used that car for collecting wood and water. That was the first car I drove, we were driving so young, like eight, ten years old. It was hard at first, couldn't work it out. It would jerk. Took a while to get used to it going down the creek or up a hill. I remember one time it was going uphill and it stalled and ran back. We panicked, didn't know what to do. Dad said, “put the break.”

We stole it. We used to steal them cars at night—my brother and cousins—and we would drive to the disco night in Ngukurr. We used to get in big trouble. Sometimes they would send one of use kids out to collect wood and then we'd be gone forever. Used to get really in trouble. Big hiding. In Ngukurr, they knew that Nalawan kids were not allowed in Ngukurr. Gumbali [the minister of the church] used to say, “what are these kids doing here, how did you get here?” Then they ended up taking us back in the church Combi. Uncle used to wait for us with a big stick. All in a line, biggest to littlest, to get a whack on the bum. ‘Im bring back memories. I tell the kids story about those cars.

Stories about the “cow catcher” remind us of the stories attached to cars, of the reaffirmation of kin ties through the possibilities that cars offered, and they provide a visual memory of childhood and rebellious teenage years. They also tell a story of the driving freedom that was possible when on one's own country and not governed by non-Indigenous laws. It is unlikely that the “cow catcher” was registered or even able to be registered, nor that the drivers (especially the children) were licensed. The one misdemeanor Daphne remembered was of children going into Ngukurr to the disco when they were not supposed to be there, but not the actual act of getting there. It would not be the church minister pulling up any young people attempting to drive into Ngukurr now. It would instead be one of the local police officers, and although “getting a hiding” was painful, it did not carry the lasting implications of a fine or an arrest.

1974 Mazda 929 Sedan (a Luxury Car)

Not all cars in the car yard are the traditional four-wheel drives that are most common in remote Australia. Some cars were viewed as “luxury cars,” being two-wheel drive with plusher interiors and comfortable seats. One such car was called “the luxury car;” it was owned by Daphne's aunty, and while it was used to transport her, it was also used to visit family and travel to important ceremonies. It was, however, considerably less robust than the cars designed for the conditions. Subsequently many of the memories associated with it are of it breaking down.

That car was my grandmother's car. She had a disability and couldn't walk. My auntie had a disability too. Before we had the car, we used to push my grandmother and auntie around in a wheelbarrow. We pushed them everywhere—poor things. Then she got that car and we used to all ride on the back of that car, everywhere, and we would get really bogged. We would drive everywhere looking for water, because it was before we had the pump, to pump water up from the river. We used to carry a 44-gallon drum with that car all the time, used it for washing and drinking. But that car was always getting bogged, we were always pushing it and dragging it.

Picture 3:
Picture 3:

The Luxury Car

Citation: Transfers 11, 1; 10.3167/TRANS.2021.110102

We also used to drive it to Numbulwar for ceremony and visiting. It always had a lot of people in it, always overloaded. And it would break all the time and my father would fix it. I often wonder how my dad used to fix that car and how he got parts. He had training as a mechanic, knew how to fix things.

My brother used to drive that car too, but he had no license. In those days it was ok. People could ride on the back, no worries.

Similar to the “cow catcher,” the “luxury car” was also modified, the water drum offering an immediate source of water for those long trips to visit family. But it also offered a degree of mobility for Daphne's aunty and grandmother that they did not previously have. They were able to join the family on trips in considerably more comfort than the wheelbarrow previously afforded. As with the story of Daphne's father, this story is also laced with tragedy. The disabilities of both grandmother and aunt were caused by a neurodegenerative condition that has a high incidence in some areas of Arnhem Land.44 As the disease progresses, individuals become “locked in” and are completely immobilized.

Daihatsu Delta Three-Ton Truck (Used as a Community Bus)

For Daphne, the vehicle that contains the most memories is the community bus, which she remembers from her teenage years:

I like the big truck the best. ‘Im bring memories back. Sometimes that bus would struggle through the mud to get into town. Sometimes we would have to get other cars to pull the truck out of the bog. All of us family would go in it and we would use it for shopping, going to ceremony, everything. It was used for rations too; we went to get food with it. We would camp in it, too, when we were frightened for snakes and buffalo.

Dad got that bus because he needed something to fit us all in with all our swags and everything, so Dad bought the bus. We needed it to go and get rations from Ngukurr and fuel and stuff. It was fun and it was safe when you go out camping. You can camp in the bus when you go out hunting.

Memories of this bus also bought back memories of another vehicle that is not in the car graveyard.

Dad made money out of bull catching and bought a second-hand bus. It was used for shopping, moving, disco. But it's not at the car graveyard, maybe it was sold. I was a teenager when we got that bus. Twenty-four-seater—the Nalawan bus. It was hard to drive in the wet, but all right in the dry.

While the car junkyard place is referred to as a car “graveyard,” and as such the cars are associated with the identities of their previous owners and the trips undertaken in them, it differs from people's understanding and interaction with cemeteries containing people who have passed. Human cemeteries, at least from the perspective of people living in this community, are separate from the community and with unmarked graves; therefore, they do not usually carry any symbolic reminders of the people who are buried in them. People do not have casual everyday interaction with these spaces, but instead visit them at the time of a person's funeral.

Picture 4:
Picture 4:

The Community Bus

Citation: Transfers 11, 1; 10.3167/TRANS.2021.110102

The cars speak to each other, in the memories of the families that used them; they refer to other vehicles, to profits made from economic enterprises. They also speak to the intense physicality of automobility in remote communities, where cars are respected for their ability to cross difficult terrain, rather than their capacity to do this with the maximum of comfort and the minimum of noise. They are also respected as a form of dwelling, where they provide a safe place to camp. Importantly, and in keeping with the ethos of the outstations movement, the cars are remembered in a context where the residents of the outstations made the rules and the only restriction on driving was the actual functionality of the vehicle.45

Cars and the Outstation Movement

Although people have talked about walking the distance from community to outstation in the past, it is a particularly rough and often extremely steep walk in very high temperatures. Regular access to the outstation and travel from the outstation to the amenities of the community, including the school and the clinic, necessitates a vehicle.

The outstations movement began in the 1970s, as small groups of people from larger communities moved back to their traditional lands. They were supported by the self-determination polices of the newly elected Whitlam (Labor) Government that sought to empower Aboriginal people to claim back their land, to have more input into policy making, and to remove discriminatory policies. From the outset, access to a vehicle was recognized as integral to outstation support, and $10,000 grants became available to support outstation development.46

It was also clear that access to such a highly desirable commodity also had the potential to cause significant disharmony in communities, as powerful leaders used the development of their outstations as a way to gain access to vehicles.47 A very unpopular police response was to replace Toyotas with tractors as outstation vehicles. Although the remains of the tractor at Nalawan are long gone, Daphne remembers that this was the only vehicle that was provided for them through outstation funding: “Yes, we had a tractor. Dad used it to get soil for the garden and to bring in wood.” Funding for the outstation movement was severely reduced when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was abolished in 2004, and by 2007, the then-Liberal senator of South Australia described outstations as “cultural museums,” making a very clear message that no further significant funding would be forthcoming.48 During the period that one of the researchers was living in the community from 1999 to 2004, Nalawan outstation was uninhabited because no one had a vehicle. She experienced only one trip to the area, which was by boat along the Roper River.

Cars and power

Rolf Gerritsen and others describe the car, usually a Toyota Land Cruiser as the “ultimate status symbol” in Aboriginal communities.49 Access to vehicles is characterized by chronic shortage, and there are always far too many people who want to travel in a particular car at a particular time, which is a source of ongoing tension in the community. When community members are able to purchase a car, it is often not equipped to cater to the conditions (as large four-wheel drive vehicles are extremely expensive), and its life span is often extremely short due to the harshness of the terrain and the lack of funds to ensure on-going maintenance. Gerritsen argued that the outstation movement was a way for “prominent men” in the community (those aspiring to leadership, but not yet “dominant men”) to move up to a new level of status. The vehicles associated with outstation resources become a “symbolic display” of this status.50

Nalawan, however was established by a man who was already a dominant man and president of the local Community Government Council. This power is reflected in the car graveyard, which contains the remains of the two most highly prized vehicles (the Toyotas) as well as a fashionable luxury car. It also explains his daughter's assertion that none of these vehicles (with the exception of the tractor) were given to the family and were instead the product of “hard work:” “All the other cars were privately bought. Dad and family bought those cars, lots of work went into buying those cars.”

Mobile Cars and the Contemporary Outstation Experience

The blue Prado pulls up and children spring out as if a pressure valve has been released. Through the doors, through the hole in the roof… they just keep on coming. D has managed to pack fifteen kids in the back of the car and the outstation population has instantly doubled.51

Access to a vehicle transforms the outstation experience; this is most palpably experienced when a Toyota deposits its load of children to stay with their relatives. Daphne's brother argued that he was only going to bring “two or three,” but “they all cried to come,” making it impossible to leave any child behind. Suddenly the food resources were demolished and quiet was a distant memory, but these children were experiencing a return to their country that had not been possible for many years due to the lack of a vehicle.

The family currently has access to two cars, but both vehicles are in a poor state of repair. People are often able to scrape together enough money to purchase a second-hand car, but not enough to ensure a functioning spare tire, or any kind of regular service. On one hunting trip, the family in the car in front was forced to stop every few kilometers to pump up a tire. This ensured that every trip was fraught with the most basic uncertainty: “will we make it home?” The drive to Nalawan is punctuated with wrecks, reminders of all the cars that didn't make it home and which are now considered to be landmarks. The gateway to the outstation is marked by Daphne's old Toyota, with “welcome to Nalawan” etched into the dust in the window.

However prone to breaking down, the cars made inhabiting the outstation possible. Current policy determining service provision to outstations in this region means that people are forced to live a dual life between the outstation and the community if they are to fulfill their responsibilities, such as going to work and sending their children to school.52 With access to a vehicle, people were able to travel the twenty-two (extremely difficult) kilometers to attend meetings, to go to the clinic, and to collect groceries. As Altman and Hinkson observed, access to cars meant that hunting became a different and perhaps more successful experience; animals such as kangaroo that were previously hunted on foot and laboriously carried home were now hunted from the car.53 As previously described, large beasts such as “killer” (unbranded) cattle were hunted by knocking them down with the vehicle.

Trips to distant hunting grounds were as much about the joy of travelling and reconnecting to country and landmarks as they were an opportunity to procure new reserves of game. On one of Senior's most recent trips, she and a group of students54 accompanied the family to the “turtle hunting place,” which involved a drive of three hours over jump-ups, through deep creeks, over stony outcrops, and through deep sand, with everyone packed in the tray on the back of the Toyota. The students’ complaints about their discomfort were magnified by the fact that only one turtle was caught and there was actually a much more direct route home. They were quickly reminded that no one else was complaining about being hot, or squashed, or pounded by the road, everyone else was happy to be moving and “seeing country.” This story highlights different expectations of travelling; for the students, the destination was the purpose of the journey. For the Indigenous members of the group, being on the road, observing the state of the road (the thickness of the dust, the corrugations, the changes observed since last travelled), stopping, starting, looking at places, seeing animals, meeting up with other travelling groups or guessing where they were going, was as much a part of the experience as actually getting to the hunting place. Traversing the landscape by car in this way allowed the Indigenous occupants to reconnect with and care for country (see also Young's description of the agency of cars amongst An-angu in the Western Desert55).

Immobile Cars: The Car Graveyard

The period of time between mobility and immobility for a car at an outstation may be very short, given the lack of resources for repair and the punishing conditions. The car graveyard56 is evidence of this short cycle. Occasionally, however, finding spare parts from the graveyard made repairs to existing cars possible. During this visit, a local elder's car had a broken clutch, which made starting an extremely jerky process, especially for all the children piled into the tray. The partner of one of the authors, as a former mechanic, was able to salvage the parts needed from one of the ruined vehicles to repair it, and the children's journeys became a little bit safer.

The locations of abandoned cars in the region are well known to people, and abandoned vehicles are generally fair game. Young observed in the Pitjantjatjara lands that cars abandoned on public roads were open for anyone to take, “but wrecks near homelands are the property of those who live there/or the nguraritja/Traditional owner if these are not the same person.”57 The harvesting of spare parts is a continuing event, even if a car was abandoned because it ran out of fuel or, as in one case, the loss of the key. This means that people have a safety net and are often able to limp home. Increasingly, however, technological advancements such as electronic ignition keys create new problems for these bush mechanics. Previously, lack of a key would not be an impediment to driving.58 People who are from outside the Nalawan community must ask before they touch the cars, in the same way that they must ask before they travel through the country, and many times, people call into the car graveyard on the way home from a hunting trip to patch up their car to drive it back to the community of Ngukurr.

People's interactions with dead cars involve a constant reassembling of parts. Each bit that has been removed is someone back on the road again, a completed hunting trip, or the kids returned to town in time to meet the bus to Katherine. The car graveyard is a source of a wide range of household goods and materials for repairs. A constant joke in the community was the statement “I'm just going to Bunning's [a major hardware chain store] to pick something up,” which indicated a quick walk across to the graveyard. The nearest real Bunning's store was a day's drive away in Darwin and inaccessible to most people. Fuel drums make tables and shelves; wire from old seats makes hooks and fasteners. Sheets of iron make windbreaks and leaf springs make fire surrounds.

Picture 5:
Picture 5:

Fireplace Made from Wheel Rim and Leaf Springs

Citation: Transfers 11, 1; 10.3167/TRANS.2021.110102

In 2016, one of the old fuel drums was used to make an oven. An old Toyota snorkel provided a chimney. The usefulness and versatility of the oven is a constant source of conversation. It is used to roast bush turkey and fish, to cook pizza, and perhaps most astonishingly, delicate little cupcakes. But this oven is more than a prized addition to the outside kitchen. The combination of salvaged parts is also a memorial to the man who created the outstation. His name and the dates of his birth and death are inscribed into the side of it.

The materials in the graveyard also become a source of speculation about what might be possible, given the right equipment. Daphne, for example, dreams about cutting the fuel drums in half, painting them bright colors, and using them as planters for trees to line the street of the outstation. She is hampered by the lack of appropriate cutting equipment. Other items, such as a large iron tank, are constantly assessed for usefulness (perhaps for water storage, or a swimming pool for the kids), but people lack the equipment to move them.

The graveyard is an endlessly fascinating place for children to play, ignoring warnings of the dangers of snakes, spiders, and scorpions that have also made the place their home. The old truck provides a cubby house and a climbing frame. The cars take their passengers on pretend journeys “right around the world.” One 1982 Suzuki Sierra Short Wheel Base is completely gutted, except for a steering wheel and pedals. The children push it along like a pedal car and it travels considerable distances along the road. Fuel drums are used for balancing games, causing non-local parents to grimace about the thought of injury, infection, and tetanus, and the problems of dealing with medical calamities in such a remote location.

Discussion: Looking at Waste and Reading the Cars

An exploration of the meanings embedded in a paddock of cars in various states of ruin provides the opportunity to bring waste theory and a mobilities paradigm together. As the above discussion suggests, however, the “waste” cars are not seen as such by the Aboriginal people who live near them. Instead, they are seen as an intrinsic part of the landscape and as monuments to the people who drive them. The stories that are embedded in the cars speak of the struggles and continuing unequal access to mobility that Aboriginal people face in environments characterized by rough terrain and great distance.

Waste to an outsider's eye is unsettling, but one person's eyesore is another person's memory. The attention paid to waste also varies in terms of the stories that one chooses to reconstruct from it. Consider the following: the mud flats around the community are covered with scatters of stone tools, from large hand axes to small spear points. A careful study of this waste can reveal a story about how people used the land and about their past life worlds, and this particular waste is highly valued. In other parts of this country, other waste is revealed; spots along the river are marked by tangles of used tea-bags, empty tins, and scraps of aluminum foil lying in a fire-place. They are not ancient, but they still tell a story about how people use this land. They mark a place where people sat down long enough to have a cup of tea, where a fish or a damper (a kind of bread) was wrapped in foil and cooked on the coals. They mark places where people come back year after year, and as Rose points out, they affirm people's relationship with the country and the resources it provides.59

Similarly, the cars in the car graveyard could easily be dismissed as waste. They have moved out of a commodity phase (if indeed cars in Aboriginal communities were ever commodities in the way that the manufacturers intended), have lost their value as things to drive around in, and are now available to be reassembled as different things. While the running life of cars in remote Aboriginal communities is often extremely transitory, a more lasting value remains, and the cars themselves become de-stable and mutable.60 Arguably more important is the memory invested in the objects, the stories that are told, the histories that are interpreted, and their lasting association with particular people. Cars can be stripped back, changed, be little more than a rusting shell of their former state and still retain their symbolic value. A car stripped back to nothing is still remembered as the car that grandma drove and that got bogged in all the time. Over time, rather than disappearing, the cars get more imbued with symbolic status as they represent the person who owned it, their relationships, the journeys they took, and the life they led. The cars also convey a sense of kinship and relationships across generations. The children who play on the cars now will also come back to the graveyard as adults to hunt for useful spare parts, and as more dead cars are added, they will also add their stories to the mix.

In a recent trip to Ngukurr, we asked to be shown where a particular friend had been buried in the local cemetery. Graves are typically unmarked (although this is changing), and the only way we could find the grave was to count back from the most recent one. People are not memorialized; indeed, until very recently, the name of a dead person could not be spoken, and their photograph could not be seen. The car graveyard became a lasting memorial to the people who had lived on the outstation, as each was represented by the vehicle they had owned. In the construction of the oven, a re-assemblage of car materials has become a memorial for a person with a name and date inscribed on it.

These, however, are unruly memorials, haphazardly existing within the environment. Things of great meaning co-exist with things that have little (or for which the stories have been forgotten). Apart from the determination to preserve the car graveyard as a whole, there is little interest in protecting the things within it. The car graveyard as memorial, like the industrial ruins described by Edensor, defies formal strategies for remembering, with no attention to selection of things to be remembered or their placement.61 These are not “publicly sanctioned narratives” of a family and their struggle to establish their outstations, but rather a “warts and all” story that is continually added to and reinterpreted.62

Our reading of these narratives is a conversation between the meanings that were accessible to us as outsiders, which included stories of hardship and struggle, the succumbing of machines to the environment, and Daphne's interpretations about cars as representing members of the family and the stories of their lives. Unlike Edenor's ghosts embedded in forgotten industrial landscapes, which attest to the unfamiliar and the uncanny, the ghosts embedded in the cars become another layer of a deeply known landscape which is (and always was) already deeply embedded with spirits, history, and memory.63


A focus on the car graveyard at Nalawan has allowed us to draw together two important topics in social science. An understanding of Indigenous mobilities helps us understand both mobilities and waste in new ways. The material objects in this article (the cars) have a short life as machines of transportation but have long and mobile afterlives in daily life, histories, and memories. By asking the question, “what does this waste mean to a particular group of people?,” our article brings to the fore the juxtaposition between waste that is valorized and seen as interesting and that which is distasteful or should be forgotten or discarded.

A paddock of wrecked cars and other machinery may be easily overlooked or looked at with distaste. And yet the Nalawan car graveyard tells a rich and multilayered story about a group of people and their struggles to build their outstation. They tell stories about past travels, hunting trips, and connections to other communities. They embody the tracks that they and their owners created over the landscape. They also tell individual stories about the people themselves. The cars stand as a lasting memorial of their owners, a surprising outcome in a setting where death usually results in the destruction or redistribution of everything associated with a person. The car graveyard is a highly accessible memorial that families interact with on a daily basis. Far from being immobile, the cars themselves are in a constant state of change. They are buffeted by forces of nature, and they are also continually re-assembled by the human inhabitants into other things of value. This re-assemblage does not reduce the symbolic value of the remains of the cars themselves. Instead, “‘im bring back memories” that serve to connect the living with those who have gone before.



Mats Burström, 2009, “Garbage or Heritage: The Existential Dimension of a Car Cemetery,” in Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now, ed. Cornelius Holtorf and Angela Piccini (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2009), 131–143.


Burström, “Garbage or Heritage,” 142.


Thalia Anthony and Harry Blag, “STOP in the Name of Who's law? Driving and the Regulation of Contested Space in Central Australia,” Social and Legal Studies, 22, no. 1 (2013): 43–66; Thalia Anthony and Kieran Trantor, “Travelling Our Way or No Way!: The Collision of Automobilities in Australian Northern Territory Judicial Narratives,” Griffith Law Review, 27, no. 3 (2018): 281–306.


Mimi Sheller, “Theorising Mobility Justice,” Tempo Social, 30, no. 2 (2018): 17–34.


Georgine Clarsen, “‘Australia‒Drive It Like You Stole It’: Automobility as a Medium of Communication in Settler Colonial Australia,” Mobilities, 12, no. 4 (2017): 520–533.


Sheller, “Theorising Mobility Justice.”


Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” Environment and Planning A, 38 (2006): 207–226, here 209.


Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Basic Writings (London: Routledge, 2002), 347–363; Sheller and Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” 209.


Mike Featherstone, “Automobilities: An Introduction,” Theory, Culture & Society, 21, no. 4–5 (2004): 1–24.


Sheller, “Theorising Mobility Justice,” 19.


Sheller, “Theorising Mobility Justice,” 23.


Anthony and Blag, “STOP in the Name of Who's Law?”; Anthony and Trantor, “Travelling Our Way or No Way!”


Daniel Miller, 2001, “Driven Societies,” in Car Cultures, ed. Daniel Miller (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 1–34.


Diana Young, “The Life and Death of Cars: Private Vehicles on the Pitjantjatjara Lands, South Australia,” in Car Cultures, ed. Daniel Miller (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 35–58; Gertrude Stotz, “The Colonizing Vehicle,” in Car Cultures, ed. Daniel Miller (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 223–245.


Stotz, “The Colonizing Vehicle.”


Clarsen, “‘Australia‒Drive It Like You Stole It,’” 525.


Clarsen, “Black As, Performing Indigenous Difference,” in Mobilities, Mobility Justice and Social Justice, ed. Nancy Cook and David A. Butz (London: Routledge, 2019), 159–172.


Rolf Gerritsen, “Outstations: Differing Interpretations and Policy Implications,” in Service Delivery to Outstations, ed. Peter Loveday (Darwin: ANU Press, 1982), 57–69; Stotz, “The Colonizing Vehicle.”


Grayson Gerrard, “Everyone Will Be Jealous For That Mutika,” Mankind, 19, no. 2 (1989): 95–111.


Ibid, 110.


Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson, 2007, “Mobility and Modernity in Arnhem Land, the Social Universe of Kuninjku Trucks,” Journal of Material Culture, 12, no. 2 (2007): 181–203, here 183.


Ibid, 191.


Ibid, 192.


Anthony Redmond, “‘Now We Got Truck Everywhere, We Don't Travel Anywhere’: A Phenomenology of Travelling by Community Mutika in the Northern Kimberley, Western Australia,” Humanities Research, 7, no. 2 (2011): 81–73; Young, “The Life and Death of Cars.”


Stotz, “The Colonizing Vehicle.”


Young, “The Life and Death of Cars,” 51.


Ursula Frederick, “Roadworks: Automobility and Belonging in Aboriginal Art,” Humanities Research, 17, no. 2, (2011): 81–107.


Robyn Williams, “Steering Tjanpi in the Digital Desert,” Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 5, no. 1 (2016): 3–18; Sarah Holcombe, “Indigenous Australians and Transport—what can NATISS tell us?” In Assessing the Evidence on Indigenous socio-economic outcomes: a focus on the 2002 NATSISS, ed, B. H. Hunter (Canberra: ANU E Press 2006): 183–196.


Bindi Mwerre Anthurre Artists, “Billy Kenda Biography,”


The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, “Past Telstra NATSIAA Award Winners,”


Ngukurr Arts Aboriginal Corporation, “Troopy,”


Anthony and Blag, “STOP in the Name of Who's Law?”; Anthony and Trantor, “Travelling Our Way or No Way!”


Anthony and Trantor, “Travelling Our Way or No Way!” 297.


Anthony and Trantor, ibid., 301.


Lucy Bell, “Place, People and Processes in Waste Theory: A Global South Perspective,” Cultural Studies, 33, no. 1 (2019): 98–121; Charles H. LeeDecker, “Discard behaviour on domestic historic sites: Evaluation of contexts for the interpretation of household consumption patterns,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 1, no. 4 (1994): 345–375.


Stephen Muecke, “Devastation,” in Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value, ed. Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 122–132.


Kate V. Hartig and Kevin M. Dunn, “Roadside Memorials: Interpreting New Deathscapes in Newcastle, New South Wales,” Australian Geographic Studies, 36, no. 1 (1998): 5–20.


Deborah Bird Rose, “Decolonizing the discourse of environmental knowledge in a settler society,” in Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value, ed. Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 64–82, here 72.


Ibid, 72.


Kate Senior, Richard Chenhall, Julie Hall, and Daphne Daniels, “Re-thinking the Health Benefits of Outstations in Remote Indigenous Australia,” Health and Place, 52 (2018): 1–7.


Outstations were provided with support for educating children. In Ngukurr at this time, several local people obtained teaching degrees as part of the aboriginalization of schools, and one of these people took responsibility for teaching at Nalawan; see also Kate Senior, “‘Back Where We Started?’ Schooling in Ngukurr,” South East Arnhem Land Research Project Working Paper 1 (ISCCI, University of Wollongong, 2000).


Senior et al., “Re-thinking the Health Benefits of Outstations in Remote Indigenous Australia.”


Wild cattle, often referred to as “killers,” are unbranded cattle and so free for community members to kill. An efficient way to catch and kill these beasts is to run them over.


Jennifer Carr, Joyce Lalara, Gayangwa Lalara, Gloria O'Hare, Libby Massey, Nick Kenny, Kate Pope, and Alan Clough, “‘Staying Strong on the Inside’ to Keep Walking and Moving Around: Perspectives from Aboriginal People with Machado Joseph Disease and their Families from the Groote Eylandt Archipelago, Australia,” PLOS ONE, 14, no. 3 (2019): 1–17.


Senior et al., “Re-thinking the Health Benefits of Outstations in Remote Indigenous Australia.”


Nicolas Peterson and Fred Myers, Experiments in Self-determination: Histories of the Outstation Movement in Australia (Canberra: ANU Press, 2016).


Gerritsen, “Outstations: Differing Interpretations and Policy Implications.”


Senior et al., “Re-thinking the Health Benefits of Outstations in Remote Indigenous Australia.”


Gerritsen, “Outstations: Differing Interpretations and Policy Implications”; Gerrard, “Everyone Will Be Jealous For That Mutika”; William Fogarty, “‘You Got Any Truck?’ Vehicles and Decentralised Mobile Service-Provision in Remote Indigenous Australia,” Centres For Aboriginal Economic Policy Research Working Paper no 30/2005 (Canberra: ANU Press, 2005).


Gerritsen, “Outstations: Differing Interpretations and Policy Implications,” 62.


Kate Senior, Fieldnotes (Ngukurr, Australia, 2018).


Senior et al., “Re-thinking the Health Benefits of Outstations in Remote Indigenous Australia.”


Altman and Hinkson, “Mobility and Modernity in Arnhem Land.”


The students were on a university cultural immersion program in Ngukurr and Nalawan.


Diana Young, “Coloring Cars: Customizing Motor Vehicles in the East of the Australian Western Desert,” Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, ed. Alison J. Clarke (Vienna: Springer, 2011), 117–127.


We acknowledge that this place functions in a different way than a graveyard, in that people do not usually visit graveyards for spare parts or refer to them as “Bunning's.” We use this term as it was the local way to refered to the place with the wrecked cars, and also because it reflects the personal histories embedded in the cars.


Young, “The life and death of cars,” 50; The Pitjantjatjara Lands are Aboriginal lands of the central Australian Desert located in the north west region of South Australia.


Clarsen, “‘Australia—Drive It Like You Stole It,’” 167.


Rose, “Decolonising the Discourse of Environmental Knowledge in a Settler Society.”


Nicky Gregson, Mike A. Crang, Farid Ahmed, Nasreen Akhter and Raihana Ferdous, “Following the Things of Rubbish Value: End-of-Life Ships, ‘Chock-Chocky’ Furniture and the Bangladeshi Middle Class Consumer,” Geoforum, 41 (2010): 846–854.


Tim Edensor, “The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disorder Memory in Excessive Space,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23 (2005): 829–849.


Ibid, 831.


Senior et al., “Re-thinking the Health Benefits of Outstations in Remote Indigenous Australia.”

Contributor Notes

Kate Senior is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Newcastle, NSW Australia. Her work is with people from remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory; she has worked in the Ngukurr community for over twenty years. Email:

School of Humanities and Social Science, Faculty of Education and the Arts, University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia, 2295

Richard Chenhall is a medical anthropologist who has worked with Indigenous Australian communities around various issues related to the social determinants of health, alcohol and drug misuse and treatment, and youth sexual health. In addition, he has published in the fields of sensory studies, the anthropology sleep, and Japanese alcohol misuse and recovery. Email:

Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 3010

Daphne Daniels is Deputy Chair of the Board of Directors for the Yugul Mangi Development Aboriginal Corporation. She has been involved in collaborative anthropological work in her community for over twenty years. This research is based in her family's ancestral land. Email:

Ngukurr Community via Katherine, NT, Australia, 0872


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies


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