A two-foot lizard sizzles on the coals of a camp fire, while Elva Cook takes shelter beneath a shade tree from the searing midafternoon heat.
It’s a harsh environment, but Cook’s desert home has become a haven from an affliction that is killing Aboriginal children and threatening their ancient culture - gasoline sniffing to get high.
“They come here when they want somewhere where they can sit down and dry out. When they come here, they don’t sniff,” she said.
Gasoline sniffing has occurred periodically in remote Aboriginal communities in outback Australia for decades. Researchers say the level of abuse fluctuates greatly, washing over communities like a wave and then dissipating.
At Hermannsburg, about 11 miles west of Injartnama, the wave is cresting and is carrying a generation of teen-agers and children as young as 4 into crime, delirium, brain damage and early death.
There are about 70 sniffers in Hermannsburg, mostly teen-age boys. In a dry creek bed, they hold open-ended soft drink cans containing gasoline over their nose and mouth, then roam the streets intoxicated.
Hermannsburg’s sniffing outbreak is among the worst of what a draft report for Northern Territory government says are at least 10 central Australian communities that have a total of 200 sniffers. Social workers say there are many more, and the communities affected stretch to the nation’s north coast.
“There is currently a crisis of inhalant substance abuse in central Australia,” the report says.
For their high, sniffers pay with brain damage, headaches and hallucinations, memory loss, malnutrition and epilepsy. Prolonged use leads to lead poisoning and death. Some sniffers die or are horribly burned in accidents when gas ignites.
Sniffers are abusive and violent. They commit break-ins and assault family members and tribal leaders. The effect on their communities is “far beyond their numbers,” the report says.
Aboriginal elders say gas sniffing and other substance abuse threatens to break the cycle of handing down “dreamtime” stories, dances and paintings that have kept the world’s oldest continuous culture alive for more than 40,000 years.
Maggie Brady, Australia’s leading researcher on gas sniffing, likens its use among Aborigines to drug experimentation by teen-agers in all societies. But relative poverty and extreme isolation mean street drugs like cocaine are not available to many indigenous people.
Gasoline sniffing is “the most accessible and efficient substance with which to achieve a mind-altered state,” Brady said. Boredom and rebellion are key factors.
Gasoline sniffing has been recorded among other indigenous peoples, including the Inuit of Canada, the Pueblo, Navaho and Plains Indians of the United States and the Maoris of New Zealand.
In Australia, it is difficult to measure the problem’s extent, or how many have died. Sniffing is not illegal, and there are few official records until sniffers show up in crime reports.
Experts say sniffing has been characterized by periodic outbreaks that crop up, ricochet across the country, then drop off. But Brady, who estimates there were 63 deaths in the decade ending in 1991, said sniffing has been intensifying over the past 30 years.
One sign of the demand is that Aboriginal sniffers pay as much as 50 Australian dollars ($38) for about 2-1/4 pints of gasoline. Many Aborigines live in areas so remote that the nearest gas station may be 100 miles or more away and few have cars, so traffickers can charge high prices.
Affecting almost exclusively the most out-of-sight group in Australian society - poor black people living in the outback - sniffing has been given low priority by state and federal governments.
The Northern Territory government says it supports the work of Aboriginal outposts like Injartnama, which lies 100 miles west of Alice Springs, but it provides no training and no long-term back-up.
Cook and her family keep sniffers busy with manual work. Its a simple theory: keep vivacious teen-agers busy and they will stay out of trouble.
They also try to instill Aboriginal skills being lost in a haze of gas and alcohol fumes.
But Cook despairs for the future.
“The old people are tired now. Our kids are going the wrong way. What’s going to happen when we are gone?” she asked.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SOLDIERS BLAMED Australians popularly blame American soldiers stationed in northern Australia during World War II for introducing gasoline sniffing to Aborigines. The earliest known report of deliberate inhalation of gasoline fumes was in the United States in 1934, and conventional wisdom has it that U.S. troops introduced the practice to Australia because liquor was in short supply, researcher Maggie Brady says. Aborigines supposedly took up sniffing in imitation. Historians say there is no documented proof of the U.S. link. Brady, an authority on gasoline sniffing in Australia, says only that the theory is “certainly feasible.”