Love on the Run

New documentary tells tale of love and survival in the Australian desert.


May 11, 2007— -- For weeks the search party combed the remote Gibson Desert in Western Australia looking for Warri and Yatungka, aboriginal lovers with a Romeo and Juliet-style love story who'd fled their homes decades earlier to live together as nomadic exiles.

Tribal law forbade them from marrying, because they were not of the same "skin group." Consequences for going against tradition could have resulted in severe physical injury or even death, so the star-crossed lovers left their then-settled Mandildjara tribe and became known as "the last of the nomads" in Western Australia.

They survived for decades, walking from water hole to water hole and using handmade spears and boomerangs to hunt for kangaroo and quandong fruit, the native peach.

"Footprints in the Sand," a 27-minute documentary that tells their story, made its world premiere earlier this week at the Aboriginal Film Festival at the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

The couple's son, Geoffrey "Yullala Boss" Stewart, who was born in one of the water holes in the desert, shares their journey -- retracing by unaided memory specific trees, spinifex and landmarks in the remote bush where he grew up with his brother and sister.

"It is a story of love and resilience," film director Glen Stasiuk, a happily married father of two, told ABC News. It is a "reminder of what is important, who we are and where we come from," he said.

Despite the couple's defiance and departure, the Mandildjara elders had not forgotten them or stopped worrying about them.

In 1977 during a severe drought, elder tribe leader Mudjon became increasingly concerned for their safety. Conditions were harsh in the desert, and the couples' age had become a factor -- Warri was thought to be in his 70s and Yatungka in her late 50s or early 60s.

"They lived a hard life," said Stasiuk. "I'd give city dwellers now 24-48 hours to survive in the conditions they lived in."

A year before the drought, Mudjon had met William Peasley, who was on an annual trip through Australia to follow the path of explorer and gold prospector David Carnegie. They met again the next year, and that was when Mudjon convinced Peasley to change course and help him by using his vehicles to search for Warri and Yatungka.

Peasley later wrote about the experience in a book "The Last of the Nomads." A documentary by the same name followed and won a gold world medal at New York festivals in 1998.

Together the rescue team searched the desert by tracing evidence of fires and the building of shelters, trekking from water hole to water hole, and sending off smoke signals in the hopes of some response in return from the couple.

They received no answer and, as weeks passed, soon began to give up hope of ever finding them.

"What would be their last resort?" Peasley remembers asking Mudjon, "tell me where that would be."

Mudjon then led the team to a place called the Ngarrinarri Clay pan, where depressions in the ground could hold water as a last possible source in the desert.

"From start to finish," Peasley, now 80 years old, said they had feelings of "doubt, excitement, disappointment, all sorts of things."

It was in that claypan that they found the soulmates -- barely alive and with no food.

Warri was sick with a leg injury and could not hunt. It was Yatungka whom they had depended on to stay alive.

That day, Peasley left a letter in a bottle at the site as a time capsule to document the events. The bottle remained there for nearly 20 years, and in 1998 was officially recovered and donated to the J S Battye Library in Australia. A plaque in the couple's name also rests in the spot where they were found.

Mudjon and Peasley transported Warri and Yatungka back to their tribe.

"They were terrified of the vehicles," recalled Peasley. And in terms of showing signs of relief from being rescued "they gave us no indication of how they were feeling -- they don't use expressions like we do."

For Warri and Yatungka, it was their love for each other that kept them alive and the love of their family that brought them home.

Warri died in 1979, 18 months after their return. Not willing to go on without him, Yatungka refused food and drink and died within weeks after.

Stasiuk, also director at the Kulbardi Aboriginal Center at the Murdoch University in Perth, wants the "indigenous voice to be heard."

Inspired by seeing footage from the original search party, Stasiuk said it was a "privilege to go to a remote location and share the experience of their spirit and their ancestors in the middle of nowhere."

Stasiuk described the essence of his documentary as "the strength of love -- working with each other to survive every day and needing a support system," and likens this story to John Lennon's famous song "All you need is love."

Footprints in the Sand will air on SBS, Australia's public TV station, in July.

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