LAJAMANU, Australia — Halfway into a 400-mile journey through a dusty stretch of the Australian desert, the team’s minibus ran into trouble.
The players, Warlpiri Australians from one of the country’s most isolated towns, were headed to a carnival, a celebration of sport and culture that brings together far-flung Indigenous communities from across the Central Desert.
Much of the drive to the site of the event, in Yuendumu, from their home in Lajamanu, Northern Territory, was a straight shot along the infamous and empty Tanami Road, a bone-rattling dirt track that stretches 650 miles.
But the trip was just a short jaunt for the players, who have traveled up to 1,000 miles to play their favorite game, a sport called “bush footy.”
The game is a take on Australian rules football, one of the world’s most brutal sports. It is the town’s saving grace, residents say — a diversion from everyday hardships in a place with a harsh climate and few employment opportunities.
“All them young fellas getting stuck in town and getting into trouble,” said Dione Kelly, the team’s coach. “That’s why we take them out to other communities competing in football.”
Nearly every young man in town — and some old men and quite a few women — play the sport, which some experts argue was inspired by an ancient Indigenous game, known locally as purlja. There are just 600 residents in Lajamanu, but it’s home to five bush footy teams, with 18 players on a side. When a carnival is on, nearly the entire town attends.
Suddenly, though, the team’s presence at this carnival was in jeopardy.
Just before the bus reached the first of two turns in the entire journey, the flashing lights of a police car appeared.
“I understand that everyone is traveling to the carnival, but it’s my responsibility to make sure everyone gets there safely,” said Garry Willmett, the officer who pulled over the bus. “So you’re not going anywhere, until I see a license.”
The only problem: No one on the bus had one. Also, no one was wearing a seatbelt. And the bus was overcrowded. And it was probably speeding.
Such run-ins with the police are common in Lajamanu (as are other social problems, including substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide). Residents feel they are often unfairly singled out by the authorities who many see as discriminatory and heavy handed.
“Three of those boys have warrants out for their arrests, including the driver,” said Clint Firth, a representative of the Australian Football League, the sport’s professional league and governing body, who was watching the scene from another car traveling with the team as part of a convoy. “They’ll probably be running out into the bush now.”
The traffic stop came not just with the threat of arrest but of derailing the entire town’s chance of properly enjoying the carnival. Fortunately, a town elder with a license, traveling in another car in the convoy, offered to take over driving the minibus.
Satisfied with this arrangement, the officer sent the team, and the convoy of townspeople, back on their way. Not even a mile later, when the coast was clear, the vehicles pulled over and the drivers swapped again.
“He’s a new cop, only just arrived in town. Things are different here,” Mr. Firth said. “The last guy was completely different, he realized you can’t book people for small things. Otherwise you’ll be arresting the whole town.”
Across Central Australia, Indigenous players and their families see bush footy as an opportunity to connect with their neighbors, their relatives in faraway towns and their culture.
“Same like Brazil,” said Cyril Tasman, one of the elders from Lajamanu who supports the team. “They got their footy, we got our footy. It’s like a religion here.”
As the team continued its journey, the bus passed burned-out cars, the odd tourist and the Outback’s famous road trains — trucks pulling three or four trailers at a time. The serpentine vehicles can stretch up to 200 feet and kick up dust for miles in their wakes.
Shortly after dusk the team pulled into a bus shelter for a meal of corned beef and bread. The area near the Granites, a gold mine, is one of the few spots in the desert between Lajamanu and Yuendumu that has cell service, and the players scrambled to check their phones.
The mine, founded in 1993 by an American company, compensates the land’s traditional owners from Lajamanu and Yuendumu. These royalties help pay for the carnivals by providing money for food, transport and programs run by the A.F.L.
Just past 11 p.m., with the fuel light on, the bus made its second turn of the trip, arriving at Yuendumu. The team scattered as each player found a room or camped on the veranda of a relative’s house.
This year, 17 men’s and eight women’s teams entered the carnival. It was only the second time in more than 50 years that a women’s competition was also held. Other sports are also typically played during the carnival, including basketball and softball, and the festival features other aspects of the local culture, including art and dance.
Some of the carnival’s visitors have other pursuits on their minds as well. As Mr. Tasman, the Lajamanu elder explained: “You know, all these kids are connected on social media now. The boys and girls are talking online and these carnivals are a chance to meet in person.”
But footy is the main attraction.
Bush footy is played in significantly different ways than how the game is played in cities. For one, the oval, or field, is often dirt instead of grass. While the professional game has become increasingly technical and strategic, bush footy has very little structure.
“It’s how they used to play the game 50 years ago,” said Mr. Firth, the football league representative. “Bush footy is pretty unique. It’s a lot looser and, to be honest, more fun.”
The first day of competition started with plans to play games well into the night. But suddenly, in the middle of a game, play was halted. Players walked off the field, and the lights illuminating the oval were turned off without explanation.
Gradually, a message was whispered through the crowd. There had been a death in the community and to show respect, everyone had to leave the grounds immediately. The crowd dispersed into night. The town was eerily silent, except for the faint sobbing of family members mourning the young man’s death.
A rumor quickly circulated that the carnival would be canceled. By the next afternoon, though, the grieving family gave the town permission to continue the carnival. The teams took to the oval and the crowds followed, surrounding the sidelines to cheer.
The Lajamanu team made it through to the quarterfinals, facing off against its archrival, the hometown team from Yuendumu.
Lajamanu was winning until the game’s final minute of play, when a Yuendumu player ran the ball down the length of the field and scored a goal just as the buzzer sounded.
In an instant, the team’s dreams were dashed. But there was little time for misery. They had to get back on the bus. They were expected in Katherine, 710 miles away.
Another game of bush footy was waiting for them.
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