Revered Aboriginal elder Mitjili Gibson Napanangka straddles two worlds – that of a traditional hunter-gather in the Western Desert and that of a world-renowned artist in Alice Springs.

Story By Sue Williams

A tiny Aboriginal woman with a shock of white hair under a bright orange and blue headscarf strides across the vast dry salt beds of Lake Mackay in the wilds of the Western Desert. The dazzling crust of bleached salt crunches beneath her bare feet, the sun pounds down from a cloudless sky, and a million bush flies hover like a thick cloud around her. She doesn’t seem to notice. “This is where I grew up,” she’s saying in one of the two Aboriginal languages – Pintupi and Warlpiri – in which she’s fluent. “We walked around here even when we were young. I became a mother of children here.” It’s hard to imagine life being possible on these blindingly white, flat, featureless plains that stretch off as far as the eye can see, straddling the Western Australia-Northern Territory border, 700 kilometres west of Alice Springs. But Mitjili Gibson Napanangka, a sprightly, cheery descendant of the desert peoples of this area with a spring in her step, a mischievous smile and a stubborn glint in her eye, is all the proof anyone could need. For while Mitjili survived well as a traditional hunter and gatherer for the first 25 years of her life in the outback, nowadays she’s flourishing in her new life in Alice Springs. Now aged around 70, according to her family’s reckoning, or 80, if her official government-allocated birthday is to be believed, Mitjili has become a woman revered for her outback skills that are in huge demand to catch animals for natural-history documentaries and feature films, as well as helping out biologists, zoologists and botanists, and teaching bush crafts.

This story excerpt is from Issue #62

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2009