The desert is a place of extremes. Some days it’s so beautiful out here you don’t know how you can bear it. And I have loved the Warlpiri people for decades now. They are a gentle, creative people —one of the most remote communities on earth. On other days the desert shows its teeth, and you’re reminded just how small we human beings are. The past 48 hours have brought me both.
The Warlpiri love their dogs. I’m staying at Warnayaka Arts Centre and I wake every morning to the sound of painters preparing for the day. They sit on floor mats — and their dogs sit beside them, or chase each other around the centre, often running over fresh paintings. Moon has slotted right in.
I’m fortunate to have built strong relationships in this community. This is a picture of Judy Martin, my “mother” in Lajamanu. I can’t stress enough how important it is to forge connections like this if you’re an Adventure motorcyclist. If people know you’re in the desert, they’ll look out for you — they’ll call for help if you don’t show up. If I were in trouble I’d trust the Warlpiri to come for me — far more than emergency services!
It was a hot day on Tuesday. We decided to head out to Jirlpili, a waterhole about 60km south of Lajamanu — a rain dreaming site. Not able to fit everyone on my motorcycle, I borrowed the art centre troopie and we headed out.
The waterholes around Lajamanu are full for the first time in years, and the Warlpiri are delighted. It was magical to see them playing in the water with Moon. A desert dog himself, Moon goes crazy around water. He’s not a natural swimmer, thrashing through the water and barking at the splashes. It was one of the happiest days he’s had in this trip. The water was cool and clear, and he was surrounded by friends.
Heading back into town Moon didn’t look good. He was panting heavily and couldn’t stand up. We chalked it up to exhaustion. He’d spent half the day tearing through the reeds and jumping into the water — a lot of exercise after days on a motorcycle. But by the time we reached Lajamanu he had begun to foam at the mouth. The Warlpiri told me that mulga snakes (king brown snakes) have been frequenting the waterholes since rainy season and I’d better call a vet. So I did.
It was night by this time, around 6.30pm, and Moon was having convulsions. I felt up and down his legs but couldn’t find a bite mark. With no visible bite, our snake bandage was useless. The vet was in Katherine, a 7 hour drive over the desert. He told me that Moon’s symptoms were consistent with snakebite. His only chance was antivenom —but there’s no antivenom in Lajamanu. The vet was blunt and kind. Five hours after being bitten, he told me, if the snake has fully envenomated the convulsions will stop and he’ll go into cardiac arrest. If he doesn’t die at that point, then antivenom might still save him.
I gave Moon a shot of vitamin C (thank you Charlie) and borrowed a friend’s car. Everyone knows you never, ever drive in the desert at night — and you never do it alone. There are too many dangers — animals on the road, sand traps and washouts you can’t see. And if you must drive in the desert alone at night, you go extremely slowly. I ignored all of that.
Leaving Lajamanu I called Ben, telling him we were racing to Katherine for antivenom, but Moon had little chance of making the 7 hour drive. Realistically, he had no chance.
It was one of the strangest, most terrifying nights of my life. The sky out here is huge and dry lightning was flashing all around me. The next day would bring rain storms, but that night it was just brilliant lightning displays across the clouds. We sped through the desert, Moon lying on my lap, foaming at the mouth, his convulsions growing more and more extreme. I spent the first 20 minutes screaming and crying — begging the desert not to take my dog. Then it dawned on me that this would probably be our last journey together, so I pulled it together for his sake.
Moon loves riding in the car at night, he loves the desert, and he loves being with me. There could be worse ways for him to leave the world. So for the next six and a half hours I just talked to him. I made up stories about miraculous dogs with bodies made of stars and lightning, I told him how much he meant to me, I told him he was a good dog. Owls lifted over the car, rising on the wind in front of us. I dodged a python stretched out like a pipe across the road. And all the while, lightning danced over the horizon.
We made it to Top Springs just on five hours after snakebite. Moon had stopped convulsing and lay still on my lap. I kept my hand on his chest. If he went into cardiac arrest, I decided, I’d just stop and be with him — until it was over. But he was still breathing. No cardiac arrest, so I accelerated. The distance markers to Katherine said 150km, then 140km. I read the signs out to Moon as they flashed by. About 50km out of town we passed a car on fire by the side of the road. For the first time since leaving Lajamanu, I stopped — but there was nobody in sight. Just another stolen car.
We screeched into Katherine at 2am. A police car did a u-turn to follow us, but I didn’t slow down. When the policeman saw me turn into the emergency vet car park, he flashed his lights and went on his way. Moon had been so still for the past hour, I’d kept my hand on his snout, just to make sure he was breathing. I left the car in the middle of the car park and carried him, totally limp now, into the surgery. The vet appeared, sleepy after driving in from home. Moon lifted his head and barked at him.
We found a bite mark on his nose, but the blood tests revealed only small amounts of snake venom. The vet explained that older snakes tend to conserve their venom — Moon had obvious annoyed this snake, but it had chosen not to kill him. Of course, until we reached Katherine, only the snake knew how much venom he’d used. After antivenom and some fluids, Moon was looking much brighter. Ben texted to say he’d arranged a motel for us (best boy ever) and we crawled into bed just before dawn — $1000 poorer for the experience, but both of us alive.
Next day, Moon and I began the long trip back over the desert to Lajamanu. In daylight, the miracle of our night-flight to Katherine became even more apparent. In the dark we’d somehow managed to avoid the huge potholes, the mud pits, sand traps and herds of white bison.
Taking Lajamanu road out toward community, we saw the damage caused by recent storms. With Moon leaning against me, almost back to normal now, it was totally surreal. It was as though the desert were telling us “I could’ve killed you both, you know — but I decided not to.”
We arrived back at the Arts centre at 6pm last night. The trip to community took almost twice as long as our night drive to Katherine — because we could see the dangers. Warlpiri friends had been waiting nervously for our return. People came to the window of the car to pat Moon. The old ladies were crying. Nobody had thought he’d make it. Many dogs are bitten out here, but most don’t survive the drive to Katherine. Most are dead by Top Springs.
Today I’m feeling blessed and exhausted. It’s another beautiful day in the Tanami and my dog is alive. He’s running around the arts centre stealing paintbrushes as I write this. Tomorrow we’ll fix the motorcycle and start preparing to ride out of the desert together. And when I look in my mirrors I’ll see Moon barking like an idiot at the trucks.