Love on the Run

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

ByABC News
May 10, 2007, 5:48 PM

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.