NORTHERN LIGHT

I’ll never let you go
If you promise not to fade away…
                                     – Muse, Starlight

Dusk on The Esplanade.  As the evening hubbub of Cairns comes alive, I sit at a corner table at the Coast Roast café watching the transition from day to night over the rim of a coffee cup.  Day ends quickly in Far North Queensland. The arrival of darkness isn’t so much a slow adagio dimming of light as a sudden shut-off.

But although the sun has long since slipped behind the rampart of hills west of town, the night sky retains a faint afterglow of soft indigo light.  The sodium vapour street lights add their orange blush to the sky and a few stars twinkle on the horizon.

The silhouettes of fruit bats, like scale models of stealth bombers, wheel in the air overhead.  From the fortress tangle of a gigantic strangler fig across the street, screeching rosellas compete with the techno-throb of car sound systems as the city’s

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Evening on The Esplanade (photo supplied)

population of boy-racers begin their nightly patrol.

My day had begun deep in the Outback among the Quinkan rock-art sites near the township of Laura, three hundred kilometres inland from Cairns.  For the previous ten days I had driven alone on the long straight roads of the Outback, with only the stereo in my 4WD for company. But the silence and vastness of the empty bush had begun to get to me.  I needed a latte, a comfortable bed and a text message. There was only one thing for it: I had to flee the Outback and drive, hell for leather, down to Cairns.

A sudden descent through rainforest, three bars of coverage appeared on my phone and I was in Cairns…

I’d left Laura as butcher birds were gurgling their dawn wake-up calls to the bush.  The eastern sky had the burnished copper glow which heralds yet another scorching day in the Outback.  The road unfolded ahead like a red scar scratched across the dirt landscape.

The drive to Cairns passed in a blur of images spooling past the window: an endless movie backdrop of trees and ancient rocky hills.  A bush fire crackled to itself beside the road; tiny half-abandoned settlements of timber and tin appeared in the rear-view mirror before I had time to notice their arrival.   

Later, miles from anywhere, I passed the bloated corpse of a bull, its rigid legs pointing to the sky and its mouth a rictus grin of surprise from the ambush of the road train which had killed it.  A sudden descent through rainforest, three bars of coverage appeared on my phone and I was in Cairns. Within minutes of hitting town I was feasting under the golden arches.

August mornings in Cairns are perfect.  The air is cool and dew sparkles on every surface.  The man-made beach on the Esplanade, with its gleaming steel fish sculptures

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The Esplanade (photo supplied)

and glossy boulders, reflects the pink and blue pastels of the sky. Offshore, massed clouds glow in the sunrise.  Magpie larks flit from tree to tree, while market stallholders set up their colourful tents.

I watch the city’s morning rituals from the same café table I sat at last night.  A pair of teenage Aboriginal girls screech and giggle beside the phone boxes, their chatter competing for attention with the “pee-wee” of the larks and the cheeky warble of strutting mynahs.

Fuck you, fuck you…” one of the girls is shouting at her friend.  The roar of a jet taking off drowns it all for a moment. The Esplanade is virtually empty.  The backpackers and tourists which thronged the bars and restaurants late into the night have yet to surface.  I finish my coffee a set off to explore.

A forest of masts and rigging rocks on the sluggish water of Trinity Inlet.  Lying beyond the weed-strewn railway tracks and framed by dusty godowns, the Port of Cairns seems a long way from the tourist melee of The Esplanade.  Leaving my car in the shade of a palm tree I wander the wharfs where fishing boats, prawning luggers and yachts bob on the ebb tide. Mangrove forests choke the muddy banks on the far side of the inlet. Sparks of molten metal fall from blow-torches, and angle grinders howl on rusty steel as shipwrights refurbish a trawler in the dry dock.

Eddy James, manager of the Cairns Sugar Terminal, is opening the security gates of the terminal to allow a truck and trailer-load of sugar into the compound.  The terminal consists of a pair of vast warehouse, each able to hold 117,000 tonnes of raw sugar trucked down from the mills of Far North Queensland. A zigzag of conveyor belts connect the warehouses.  I talk to Eddy through the chain-link fence and ask if I can have a look around.

The air is heavy with the sickly smell of sucrose.  Eddy pushes a tiny red button set into the cliff-like front wall of Warehouse Two and a giant door slides open.  Inside, a conical, twenty-seven metre high mound of raw sugar gleams sweetly in the gloom.

“Makes yer teeth hurt just lookin’ at it eh mate?” says Eddy.  We descend a staircase to a chamber beneath the floor where a kilometre-long conveyor belt takes the sugar out to the hold of a waiting ship.  I picture the tonnes of sugar pressing down on the concrete above and imagine my last thoughts if it gave way: “parting is such sweet sorrow…”        

Violent waves are shattering themselves on the rocks at Machan’s Beach, a cluster of shacks and houses scattered across the delta of the Barron River on Cairns’ northern edge.  American ex-pat Gage McCassan is casting a prawn net into the river where it empties into the ocean. The water is the colour of black tea from tannins leached from the rainforest by the river on its short, precipitous journey from the brooding hills.

Northern light has a look all of its own…

“I ain’t caught a damn thing,” says Gage ruefully.  His net, fringed with lead weights plops into the water and he draws it back towards him.  Nothing. “But I don’t mind,” he adds. “The kids are happy playing on the beach and this is better than working in the garden.”  

At Sonya’s On The Beach it’s a lazy Saturday afternoon.  A couple of girls chat over the newspaper; a collection of locals yarn at the bar. A radio warbles somewhere inside, tuned to a talkback station no-one is listening to. I order a beer and sit gazing out across the ocean.  You could while away a lifetime in a place like this, talking about cyclones and tides and the minutiae of life by the sea.

Later, I stand in the sandy bed of another of the Barron’s streams. Out on the mangrove-lined, crocodile infested river, a couple of fisherman in an aluminium dinghy pull a giant

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The Barron River near Machan’s Beach (photo supplied)

barramundi out of the water.  A thunderstorm glowers offshore. Northern light has a look all of its own. The bay is a sheet of silver welded to the sky.

Evening again, another coffee at Coast Roast.  Another day is ending and the nightlife is humming.  There are beers to be drunk, nightclubs to frequent, all manner of adventures to be had in the warm night air.  Cairns invites action. I could melt into the crowd and lose myself in the sybaritic pleasures of this northern night under these northern lights. But I find it easier to just sit and watch. I order another cappuccino as the rosellas begin to screech.

Corner Country

“I thought of all the songs I’d sung
About this Outback track,
And that is how this vision came to me…”
– Slim Dusty, Along the Road of Song.

Beyond Bourke, a one-dog-town on the banks of the Darling River in Western New South Wales, the single lane bitumen road gives way to a rutted outback track. My rented 4WD moves about on the loose red sand like a schooner under sail; thick eucalypt forest crowds to the edges of the road. The Australian expression “back-o-Bourke” refers to any place a long way out. And here on the road to Tibooburra, I am a very long way from home.

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The Cut Line.

The village of Tibooburra crouches in the lee of bouldery hills in the middle of a howling wilderness. A dust storm has hit the town when I arrive. It thrashes the gum trees outside the Tibooburra Family Hotel and bowls random items – a plastic chair, a sign saying “open”, an empty beer can – down the main street. A collection of dusty 4WDs are angle-parked outside the hotel.

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Tibooburra

I order a beer and a steak at the bar then repair to a corner table. The conversationsaround me are typical of any Aussie pub: work, gossip and who will win the cricket. On the wall behind me, a wide-screen TV beams in live coverage of an AFL match in Melbourne.

Communications are the lifeblood of the Outback. In the early days of European settlement, news took weeks to filter across the vast distances. But the advent of satellite phones, radio telegraphy and the internet has meant isolated communities such as Tibooburra are now hooked into the instant information age. Even cellphones work out here, although my New Zealand handset stubbornly refuses to connect to the local CDMA network. I fiddle with it while I await the arrival of my food. I decide that, like me, it’s intimidated by the vastness of the coverage area. The massive steak the waitress sets down soon makes me forget about the tyranny of distance; my phone will have to work its problems out on its own.

There is something inexpressibly sad about abandoned farm buildings, where people toiled to make their dreams come true but ultimately failed.

Next morning, I drive out to the ghost town of Milparinka, 60km west of Tibooburra. Established in 1855 as a police outpost, the town once boasted a school, pub, courthouse and jail. Little remains now. Over the years the population drifted away and the town fell into disrepair. The pub closed in 2004 and only one reclusive resident still lives in the town.

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Pale Shelter: the old Courthouse, Milparinka.

But the old courthouse has been restored to its former glory by volunteers and is now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of this forgotten corner of Australia. I let myself in through a side door. The courtroom is a cool haven from the enervating heat outside. A hot wind howls around the eaves of the building; the sash windows tap-tap-tap in their frames.

The room smells of wood and dust. Its walls are lined with faded sepia photographs of families, police officers and sundry scenes of local activity. Printed excerpts from court records show that most of the cases heard here were for minor offences: “having horses loose in the town”, “stealing a coil of fence wire”, “taking a wagon without permission”. Reluctantly, I leave the shelter of the courthouse and head west, deeper into the Outback.

The disused woolshed at Waka Station stands next to the road between Tibooburra and Cameron Corner. There is something inexpressibly sad about abandoned farm buildings, where people toiled to make their dreams come true but ultimately failed. Red dirt has blown in through holes in the walls; parts of the roof are open to the sky. I wander through the silent shed imagining the activity which once took place here: the spinning shaft of the shearing plant, the clattering hand-pieces, the wool falling from the sheep’s backs on to the polished timber floor, the row of sweating shearers and scurrying rousies carrying armfuls of golden fleece; the heat and stink and noise.

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The old woolshed at Waka Station.

It is all gone now. More red dirt coats the old Lister petrol engine which once drove the shearing plant; a matted fleece sits un-skirted on the wool table. The counting-out pens are empty and overgrown with weeds: they will never again see the white mobs of freshly shorn merinos.

Nearby, the cookshop windows gape sightlessly out across the shimmering landscape. White tiles flake off the walls of the roofless shower block. I imagine the shearers stretched out on the ground drinking beer after a sweltering day’s work in the woolshed. The scene reminds me of the 1975 Australian movie Sunday Too Far Away, in which a shearer’s wife laments the lack of physical and emotional contact with her husband and lists the reasons as: “Friday too tired, Saturday too drunk, Sunday too far away…”

In the hot space of the bar in the Cameron Corner Store, stockman Jake Lewis is drunk. Slouching beneath his big Akubra hat, with a can of Bundy and cola in his meaty fist, Jake is regaling the room with a story about how he single-handedly outwitted a renegade bull by tripping it up with the handlebars of his dirt-bike. At least, that’s what I imagine he is saying. He has obviously been in the bar for a considerable part of this Sunday afternoon and his speech is as scuffed as his dusty RM Williams boots.

The assembled drinkers, all of whom are at various stages of inebriation, listen intently, occasionally offering jocular interjections as they guzzle their beers. I sit quietly in a corner drinking ice-cold lemon squash. When Jake’s story eventually ends, the Corner Store patrons return to taunting me about sheep, sex with sheep, the marital possibilities of sheep and all the other tawdry insults Australians feel compelled to heap on “bloody Kiwis”.

Cameron Corner is the point where the state boundaries of New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland intersect. The corner (one of four such points in Australia) is named after John Brewer Cameron, the NSW Lands Department surveyor who spent two

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The place where three states intersect at Cameron Corner.

years from 1880-1882 marking the Queensland/New South Wales border.

It is one of those strange places where the tenuous lines of time blur. As each state has a different time zone you can celebrate New Year’s Eve or your birthday three times in the space of three hours. The Cameron Corner Store is supposedly a Queensland business with a New South Wales post code and a South Australian phone number.

By five o’clock, with the sun an incandescent ball in the sky, the store patrons adjourn outside for a round of Tri-state golf. The golf links consist of nothing more than a baking expanse of desiccated and spiky spinifex grass with ragged squares of plastic turf for teeing off. The three putting “greens”, one in each state, are patches of bare red dirt

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Tri-state Golf.

sprayed with diesel to keep the vegetation from re-growing. The inebriated golfers take forever to reach the first (Queensland) hole but manage to consume a number of beers along the way. I leave them to complete the rest of the round without me. A final volley of insults about sheep-shaggers accompanies me as I drive away.

I reach Jack’s Camp at dusk. A vandalised, graffiti-covered double-decker bus sits forlornly beside a lone ironbark tree. A pair of morose magpies mooch about looking for a handout. I climb to the top deck of the bus and wonder about the journey which took it from the streets of London to this lonely Outback space. It is an eerie place to be alone, so I decide to drive through the night to Innaminka. I watch the old bus shrink in the rear-view mirror until it disappears in the mauve twilight.

…it seemed as though I was caught in some time travel time vortex from which I could never escape.

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Number 12 bus: Stretham High Street – Oxford Circus via Outback South Australia.

 

At nine o’clock next morning I sit with a trim latte in the Outtaminka Bar of the Innaminka Pub. Katie, the bar manager, is from Birmingham. In a neat inversion of the Australasian bar staff in Britain, she answered an advert in an Adelaide backpackers for someone with a sense of adventure and ended up here.

During the night I had driven through a pitch black wilderness beneath a sky encrusted with a crushed-glass glitter of stars. To pass the time I searched the static-laden AM radio band for programmes beamed in from distant cities. Out in this no-man’s-land of time zones I had listened to the same programme play at different times on different channels and it seemed as though I was caught in some time travel time vortex from which I could never escape. The lights of Innaminka had appeared like a beacon in the darkness just before dawn.

Outside the tinted windows of the Outtaminka Bar, the heat is already shimmering across the river red gums growing along the banks of Cooper Creek. The temperature is forecast to reach 42 degrees at midday. I should be outside exploring. But time is something there is plenty of in the Outback. The spirits haunting Corner Country have been here a long time. Another hour won’t matter. I decide to have another coffee before I set off in search of more ghosts in this vast red dirt landscape.

 

Vanishing Points

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away…

– Percy Bysshe Shelly, Ozymandius.

At Curdimurka Siding, the windows of an abandoned railway station stare sightlessly out onto a landscape of grey saltbush and red dirt.  The roots of a coolibah tree have cracked and heaved the platform.  Swallows nest in the eaves of the verandah; galahs roost on the rusted water tower.  The tracks of the disused Central Australian Railway, half buried by drifting soil, converge into a vanishing point on the flat horizon.

Curdiminka Siding, Oodnadatta Track, South Australia.

The station building stands alone in the wilderness.  Inside, the names of passing travellers are scrawled in charcoal on the flaking plaster walls.  Through a grimy window I watch a four wheel drive towing a low-slung caravan and a cloud of red dust pass by out on the Oodnadatta Track.  A loose sheet of corrugated iron rattles on the roof.  The hiss of locomotive steam is just the sound of cicadas.   

The Oodnadatta Track runs from the village of Marree, in central South Australia, to Oodnadatta, four hundred kilometres further north on the edge of the Simpson Desert.  The track follows a course roughly parallel to the route taken by the Central Australian Railway.  

The light is so harsh I am just a shadow in the resulting image.

Nicknamed “the Ghan” (short for Afghan, a reference to the Afghan cameleers who pioneered transport routes into Australia’s inland), the Central Australian Railway operated for more than a century.  The last train passed down the line in 1980.  A new railway had been built further west.  The Ghan was no longer needed.  The iron tracks were torn up.  The stations, sidings, bridges and water towers were left to subside into the desert.

Blue and White Limbo, Lake Eyre, South Australia.

Beyond Curdimurka, on the edge of Lake Eyre, I walk out into a white limbo of salt.  The hot air is heavy with the briny scent of sodium chloride.  The thin, crystalline crust crunches underfoot.  Fed by a catchment comprising one sixth of Australia’s area, Lake Eyre occasionally fills with water.  But mostly it is dry: a bleached landscape of blue and white, like an overexposed photo negative.  I set my camera on a tripod and take a selfie. The light is so harsh I am just a shadow in the resulting image.

Steampunk Sculpture, Oodnadatta Track.

On a flattened ridge overlooking the lake, some deranged artist has created steampunk sculptures from bits of iron scavenged from the railway.  A pair of aircraft, their tails buried in the dirt, protrude from the ground.  The scene is reminiscent of a Pink Floyd album cover.  I leave the white sepulchre of Lake Eyre behind and drive north towards an unreachable point where the edges of the track converge and the sky comes down to meet the Earth.  

I camp for the night beside a waterhole on the Warriner River.  The girders of a Ghan railway bridge, balanced on thin steel struts, cross the river just downstream.  Thousands of wading birds screech and titter on the water.  

I pitch my tent on a spit of red sand surrounded by bright green acacia bushes laden with fragrant yellow flowers.  My campfire crackles and snaps as I cook steak, onions and tinned peas for tea.  Later, I drink coffee and condensed milk squeezed from a tube and watch the last rays of the sun drain from the sky.  

The Warriner River.

I am struck by the thought that the heat and light produced by the burning wood of my campfire fell as sunlight on the Outback decades ago.  In a strange, tenuous way, it connects me with the days when the Ghan trains rattled over the old bridge which now stands silhouetted by the rising moon.   

…black-clad crows, like hunched station-masters, gurgle their disapproval.

The Painted Desert.

Two thousand feet above William Creek, bush pilot Sarah Stevens puts her Cessna 172 into a long banking turn.  The aircraft skips and yaws in the bumpy air.  Our destination is the Painted Hills, a jumble of ridges and hummocks etched with ochre and yellow minerals, pure white clays and purple shales.  As we fly low over the hills, their colours and tints are reflected from the underside of the Cessna’s wing.  

We circle the gigantic spiral hole of the Prominent Hill copper mine then turn north-east on a heading of 063° which will take us back to William Creek.  Far below, the waterways and channels look like veins on the back of an ancient hand.  William Creek’s handful of buildings coalesce out of the haze.  On our approach to the runway, I look down on the parallel lines of the Ghan railway and the Oodnadatta Track.  They are nothing more than indistinct scratches on the landscape.  

The Algebuckina Bridge spans the Neales River, fifty kilometres south-east of Oodnadatta.  Completed in 1892, the colossal steel lattice of girders and cross-braces, half a kilometre long, seems to hang in the shimmering air above the green water of the river.  

The Algebrukina Bridge, Oodnadatta Track, South Australia.

Steel bars block the ends of the bridge.  Recklessly, I clamber around the outside edge and walk across, stepping from sleeper to sleeper.  Corellas and galahs shriek at me from their guano-splattered roosts on the girders; black-clad crows, like hunched station-masters, gurgle their disapproval.  In the centre of the bridge, the steelwork draws linear projections which collapse to vanishing points behind and ahead of me. 

The Pink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta.

Oodnadatta, the “driest town in the driest state of the driest continent”, arrives out of the blue.  After days alone in the wilderness, the ragged collection of buildings, scattered along a short, wide strip of tarmac, feels like a bustling urban environment.  At the centre of Oodnadatta, The Pink Roadhouse could be a set from Pricilla Queen of the Desert.

I wallow in the sybaritic pleasures the roadhouse offers: hot showers, cold drinks, steak sandwiches.  But I feel a strange desire to return to the long, converging vistas of the Oodnadatta Track, and the decaying remnants of the Ghan.  I walk to the northern edge of town where the tarmac crumbles into red dirt again. The boundless desert stretches away before me.  The road runs to a point where the sky comes down to meet the horizon, and vanishes. 

Walking on the Moon

Moon Rock

Over the Mountains of the Moon
Down the Valley of the Shadow
Ride, boldly ride…
If you seek for Eldorado.
– Edgar Allen Poe, Eldorado

Thirty kilometres north of Coober Pedy, I turn off the Stuart Highway onto a wide red dirt road.  A dented sign bolted to a steel pole reads “The Breakaways 9km.”  My rented 4WD shudders and rattles as I drive along the corrugated surface.  The south-east breeze whips a cloud of fine crimson dust off into the grey saltbush scrub growing along the roadside.  On the radio I can hear a country song through a gale of static on the AM band.  The sky is a vast indigo dome draped with fuzzy strips of altostratus cloud.

…the escarpments cast shadows as black as interstellar space.

This is mining country.  The surrounding landscape is dotted with conical heaps of white mine tailings, like piles of hour-glass sand.  For decades, people have bored holes into the flat, ocherous landscape around Coober Pedy in search of one of the world’s most coveted gemstones: the shimmering blue stone known as opal.  Lurid signs, depicting unhappy stick figures falling head-first down vertical shafts, warn of the dangers of straying off the road.  Each cone of tailings, and there are thousands of them, stands beside a metre-wide shaft drilled straight down for twenty metres.  Fall into one of these and I would vanish into a subterranean space never to be seen again.

After nine kilometres I step out of my truck onto the moon.  I am surrounded by a lunar landscape of low, flat-topped mesas painted in colours so striking it takes my eyes a few minutes to tune in to them.  It is as if I am looking at a colour palette on a whole new set of wavelengths: colours I have never seen before.  On the eroded slopes of the hills, deep burgundy reds bleed into butterscotch yellows and burnt orange.  Screes of clay, as white as molten steel, cut deep grooves through the colours; the escarpments cast shadows as black as interstellar space.

The Breakaways, so-called because they appear to “break away” from the edge of the nearby Stuart Ranges, are one of those rare places you discover serendipitously, then wonder why they are not world famous and crowded with tourists.  But I am alone out here.  Exploring the ravines and hummocks, between castellated domes and fissured slopes of broken rock, I feel like an astronaut walking on the moon.

From the summit of one of the mesas I look back down on my truck, so small and insignificant in the landscape that it looks like a lunar lander.  I find a cave and lie in the shade watching the cloud-shadows play across the plains.  Nothing moves except the wind.  Back in my truck I blast off back towards the highway with a disembodied newsreader’s voice on the radio sounding like mission control.

Coober Pedy is the Eldorado of opal. Mining is the town’s raison d’etre and in the six decades since the gems were discovered here, miners from forty-eight different countries have arrived to try and make their fortunes.

Mine Surrounds

The town sits in a shallow valley surrounded by a moonscape of mine tailings, pure white beneath the blue sky of Outback South Australia.  Large parts of the town itself resemble some sort of science fiction moon-base, whose inhabitants dwell underground to escape the punishing solar radiation which pours down on the landscape with relentless fury during the summer months.  Houses are excavated deep into the soft rock and thousands of ventilation chimneys protrude from like ground like little metal mushrooms.

My motel room is hollowed out of a hillside overlooking the western end of town.  The walls and ceiling are scored with marks left by the excavator which dug the twenty-seven rooms making up the Lookout Cave Motel.  The rock is the colour of pink Himalayan salt, and so soft and friable that tiny pieces continually flake off.  But the temperature inside stays at a constant twenty degrees winter and summer.

I no longer feel as though I am walking on the moon; I am back on the good Earth…

At Tom’s Opal Mine, on the edge of town, I don a hard hat and descend a rectangular passageway leading into the bowels of the Earth.  Subdued lighting throws eerie shadows into recesses and side tunnels.  Occasional shafts bored from the surface admit fresh air and the whispering sound of the wind.

Opal is created when water saturated with silicon dioxide is squeezed into fissures in the rock then baked under pressure until it crystalizes into pale blue stone.  The miners bore their shafts to a depth of twenty meters to reach what is known as The Level, where the veins of opal are found.  Most mines yield nothing; of all the opal discovered, eighty percent is worthless and called “potch” by the miners.  But fortunes have been made in Coober Pedy’s mines and, indeed, most of the world’s supply of opal comes from here.

Later, as I step out of the mine it begins to rain.  The wind has risen to a shrieking gale and the air is heavy with the sweet smell of rain you only get in the desert.  The rain splatters against the windscreen as I drive towards the sunset which burns red and purple in the west.  The tailing heaps seem to glow as if lit from within by an unearthly yellow light.  A rainbow arches over the opal Eldorado.

As the sun sets, the rain evaporates, the wind dies down and a bright perigee moon appears on the horizon. I park my truck and walk out into the landscape.  I no longer feel as though I am walking on the moon; I am back on the good Earth.  Wildflowers carpet the spaces between the tailings heaps with a delicate profusion of Earthly life.  I pick up a handful of red soil and let it run through my fingers.  The shadows of night fill the valley.  The lights of Coober Pedy begin to glow.

Ghosts of Cooper Creek

I live and breathe the silences
and dust where no man reigns…
        – Cold Chisel, Wild Colonial Boy

Dawn at Cooper Creek.  Day begins early out here in the far north-east corner of South Australia.  Long before first light seeps into the sky, the birds are awake: screeching and wailing and squabbling in the river red gums along the banks of the Minkie Waterhole.  Sprawled on my camp stretcher, beneath the diaphanous folds of a mosquito net, I watch the stars fade.  The Southern Cross, whose four points have shone brightly through the trees all night, lingers longest.  The waterhole lies mirror-calm in its frame of trees, reflecting their gnarled branches and bushy crowns in perfect symmetry.

Travel Writer at Minkie
Travel Writer Life: Dawn at Minkie Waterhole, Cooper Creek.

It is pointless trying to sleep with the avian racket going on overhead so I rise and boil water for tea: black of course, this is the Outback and milk is a luxury.  I sit on a spit of white sand down by the creek watching the sunrise.  Fish jump and plop out on the water.  A pelican cranks itself aloft like a Catalina flying boat.  I can already feel the heat seeping inexorably into the air even though the sun has yet to clear the horizon. 

It is a ghost river in a land full of ghosts.

Cooper Creek is the third longest river in Central Australia.  It rises on the inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range near Charters Towers, a thousand kilometres to the north-east.  But unlike our steep New Zealand rivers, the Cooper is a sluggish creature.  Its waters seep slowly westwards through thousands of channels and billabongs.  Eventually it loses itself in the salty expanse of Lake Eyre, dying without fulfilling the dream of every river: to fall gently into the sea.  It leaves no trace of its passing.  It is a ghost river in a land full of ghosts.

In 1861, the explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills met their deaths on the banks of Cooper Creek not far from my camp.  Burke was the leader of the grandly-named Great Inland Exploring Expedition which had set out from Melbourne in 1860 with the intention of being the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north. 

Having established a base camp beside Cooper Creek, near present-day Innaminka, Burke and Wills, along with two others, set off north towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, two thousand kilometres away.  It took them four months to reach the north coast of the continent and return.  Through mismanagement and bad luck, by the time they arrived back at Cooper Creek one of their number, Charles Grey, was already dead.  Burke, Wills and John  King, the third remaining member of the party, were in advanced stages of malnourishment.  The rest of the expedition had given them up for dead and returned to civilization.  The three men began starving to death in a land of plenty.

The local Aboriginal people had lived happily on the banks of the Cooper for millennia.

Cooper Waterhole
Cooper Creek.

To them the waterholes, forest and scrub-lands were a well-stocked larder with everything needed to sustain them.  But to the pompous Burke, the local people were not to be trusted and the party made little effort to learn from them.  Consequently, first Burke then Wills expired: skeletons dressed in rags under the trees.  Only King, who understood the locals’ abilities better, survived.  He was rescued after four months.

With my breakfast of black tea finished, I break camp and set off in my 4WD.  As I drive up the rutted track leading away from the creek I wave to Jim and Dave, a pair of retired teachers from Adelaide who are spending a week camping and fishing at the Minkie Waterhole.  A dingo idles across the track in front of me; emus peer at me with wide, glossy eyes.  I reach the road, which is really no more than a slightly wider dirt track than the one I have followed up from the edge of Cooper Creek, and turn east into the sunrise towards Innaminka.  On the radio, through the static of the AM band, I hear the forecast temperature for the day: forty-three degrees.

Innaminka is a town that died and was reborn.  Crouched on the edge of a howling, red-dirt wilderness, the few scattered buildings have been revitalized by both tourism and the discovery of natural gas reserves further west.  The town originally comprised a pub and a police outpost servicing the lonely cattle stations along the Cooper.  In 1910, the Australian Inland Mission established a hospital at Innaminka and for sixty years it provided medical care for the outback families and stockmen whose lives depended on the “mantle of safety” provided by the AIM hospitals across the Outback.

But eventually, Innaminka fell into disrepair.  The pub burned down, the police post        – described as “the loneliest posting in Australia” by officers unlucky enough to be sent there – closed and the AIM hospital fell into disrepair.  Innaminka became a ghost town. 

In the 1950’s a few audacious tourists began passing through the Cooper Creek area.  A new pub was built and Innaminka began it’s long, slow come-back.  In the 1990s the

Storm Clouds
The old AIM Hospital, Innaminka.

vandalized ruins of the AIM hospital were completely re-built and now house the headquarters of the Innaminka National Park.  And, best of all for a road-weary and dusty travel writer, the Outaminka Bar at the Innaminka Pub serves the best coffee west of the Blue Mountains.

I spend three days camped at various spots beside Cooper Creek.  Each day I rise with the birds and set off to explore before the day becomes too hot.  I visit the Dig Tree, an ancient coolabah tree where supplies were left for Burke and Wills by the expedition before they retreated back to Melbourne.  The tree still bears Burke’s carved initials and the Roman numerals LXV denoting it as the expedition’s Camp 65.  In 1899, a local man carved a likeness of Burke in the bark of a nearby tree.  The solemn-eyed, ghostly carving still gazes sightlessly out across Cooper Creek.

An ominous bank of cloud, as black as charcoal, hangs over the landscape and bolts of silver lightning jump across the sky.

I visit the spots where first Burke, then Wills died.  They are lonely, isolated places where the incandescent sun beats down with an almost tactile force.  Hot winds shake the desiccated leaves of the gum trees with a sound like crumbling bones.  In this land of vanishing rivers, beneath the vast cobalt dome of the sky, I often feel very small and alone.  I can sense the endlessness of time out here.  The implacable waters of the Cooper lie motionless between banks of sand, never giving up any secrets.  Only the gurgling crows seem to recount the memories of ghosts. 

By mid-afternoon each day the temperature reaches the forties and I retire to the cool sanctuary of the Innaminka Pub to drink cold liquids of various kinds and chat to the locals.  The shop next door keeps me in supplies and I can update my Facebook page via satellite from there for a dollar a minute. 

Road
Forty-three Degrees Celcius on an Outback Road.

On the third morning, however, the weather is different.  I awake to the low grumble of thunder off to the west.  An ominous bank of cloud, as black as charcoal, hangs over the landscape and bolts of silver lightning jump across the sky.  I break camp and drive into Innaminka.  The dirt compound out in front of the pub is full of four wheel drives. Campers from all over the area have made for the safety of “town” before the roads become impassable.

The air is heavy with the sweet smell of rain: an aroma only the desert can produce.  I sit on the verandah of the old AIM hospital and listen to the first heavy spots as they hit the corrugated iron roof.  Thunder splits the sky and shafts of lightening crackle and fizz in the air.  The rain increases in ferocity until it sounds like ball bearings hitting the roof.  It seems as though all the energy amassed by the heat of the previous few days is suddenly being unleashed.

And then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the storm has passed.  The sun sparkles on beads of rain hanging from the fences around the AIM.  Wreaths of steam rise from the road. 

Pub Carpark
The Scene at Innaninka.

The wet red dirt sticks to my boots as I walk across to the store where the assembled 4WD enthusiasts are discussing the weather.  The forecast is for more rain in the days ahead.  The last thing I want is to be trapped out here by a flood. 

I decide to let discretion be the better part of valour and leave while I still can.  I re-fuel my vehicle, send an e-mail home saying “I’m OK…see you soon”, then watch Innaminka fade in the rear-view mirror. 

I reflect on the fact that Outback travel isn’t for everyone.  The mind-bending distances, the punishing heat and the vast, silent, red-dirt spaces make visiting the Outback a very different prospect to the Australian coastal holiday experience.  A digital display on the dashboard tells me it is forty-two degrees outside.  I turn up the air conditioning and the stereo.  Off to my left, Cooper Creek shimmers in a quicksilver mirage, then vanishes into the sunlight like a ghost.

Dawn at Minkie Waterhole

 

Wide Awake in Dreamland

Out here nothing changes,
not in a hurry anyway.
You feel the endlessness,
running on the light of day…
                 – Goanna, Solid Rock

Before the Dreamtime there was nothing.  The Earth was flat and lifeless; no stars glittered in the sky.  The universe was dark and silent.  The Ancestors lay sleeping, deep in the ground where they had passed the ages.  But the Ancestors were restless; their long sleep was nearing its end.  On the first morning of the world they awoke, flexed their ancient limbs and began calling the world into existence. 

Emerging from the ground they created the stars and the moon.  They created the animals – the frilled lizards, the snakes and the kangaroos – and the rains.  They brought forth all the rainbow-hued birds and created trees in which the could live.  They made the people, the laws and language and dance.  They carved the rivers, filled the seas and built the mountain ranges.  And as they brought the world to life, the Ancestors walked the land, naming the places and singing songs of the creation.

The story of Lungkata was also a blueprint, a route map, a recipe book and a parable. 

At Uluru I came face to face with these Dreamtime stories, etched into the flanks of the great red stone white men named Ayers Rock.  On the 1800 kilometre flight west from the rainforests of Far North Queensland, I had travelled back in time both literally (the Northern Territory is half an hour behind Eastern time) and figuratively, to the six hundred million year old Red Centre of Australia.  The landscape which unfolded beneath the aircraft’s wing seemed so old it was almost worn out.  Its features – dry creek beds, bony ridges, rumpled sand dunes – looked like blood vessels and sinews in the back of an old man’s hand.

Uluru
Uluru (stock photograph)

The aircraft’s final approach took us over Uluru at dusk.  As the pilot executed a banking turn into Connelan Airport, I had a glimpse of the rock standing pink and mauve amid a sea of sunset orange.  The surrounding landscape was covered with desert vegetation: yellow spinifex grass, desert oaks, mulga trees and a profusion of desert flowers which had sprung to life after a recent rainstorm.

Archeological evidence suggests that Aboriginal people have lived around Uluru for at least 10,000 years.  According to the tjukurpa (pronounced “chooka-pa”), or law, of the local Anangu people, Uluru was built by two boys who played in the mud after the rains which followed the creation.  In Anangu legend the three central ancestral beings of the creation were the Mala (rufus hare wallabies), the Kuniya (woma pythons) and the Liru (poisonous snakes).  The stories of each of these beings is engraved onto the surface of Uluru in the form of protruding rocks, snake-shaped cracks, ocular caves and dozens of vaguely human and animal profiles.

The following morning I went walking with Jacob Puntaru, an Anangu elder, and Kathy Tozer, a white Australian who has developed a close rapport with the Anangu people.  Kathy interpreted my questions for Jacob and translated his replies.  We followed a path through olive-green mulga trees to a clearing where we sat while Jacob lit a fire.  His skin was as black as night; his face and hands had been deeply wrinkled by the bright Central Australian sun.  As the astringent eucalypt smoke swirled around us, Jacob related the story of Lungkata, the blue-tongued lizard.     

“Long ago,” he said,  “Lungkata traveled up from his country to Uluru.  He came across Panpanpalala, a bell-bird man, who had killed an emu and had set about cooking it.  The bell-bird man was asleep so Lungkata stole the emu and took it to a hideout, way up there.”

Jacob paused and pointed to a small cave notched into the rock near the summit of Uluru2Uluru. 

“When the bell-bird man discovered his emu gone he went to ask Lungkata if he had seen it.  Lungkata replied that he hadn’t.  But Lungkata had broken a sacred law by stealing the emu and as punishment the bell-bird man set fire to the rock.  Lungkata was burned and fell to his death.” 

The sheer face beneath the cave was blackened as if a fire had, indeed, swept the rock.  Jacob waved his hand towards the foot of Uluru. 

“Over there you can still see pieces of the emu lying on the ground turned to stone,” he said.  “And the tail of Lungkata is poking from the ground nearby.”

As I listened to the story I realized that what I was hearing wasn’t simply an entertaining tale.  The story of Lungkata was also a blueprint, a route map, a recipe book and a parable.  The information imbedded in this and every Aboriginal legend has been passed down through the generations.  With each telling, more information would be added to the story.  So a person traveling to Uluru would be able to go over this and other stories in his mind and divine the best route, where to find food and water, how to cook the food he found and how to behave when he reached his destination. 

To the untutored European ear, Aboriginal stories seem nothing more than quaint works of native fiction. Yet the parable of Lungkata has a deep significance for modern visitors to Uluru.  Before the advent of tourism, only initiated Anangu men were allowed to climb Uluru.  But nowadays, with hundreds of people clambering up the steep path to the top of rock each day, accidents are bound to happen.  When a person falls to their death, and the Anangu hear the helicopter rotors thrashing the hot air as the body is recovered, they see it as the legend of Lungkata coming true.

“This is not something I made up to entertain visitors,” Jacob Puntaru said.  “These things really happened and you only have to look at the rock to see the proof.” 

The sand underfoot was the colour of chili powder and every bit as hot.        

Later, I set off to walk the nine-kilometre path around the base of Uluru.  The rock rose from the desert in great billows like an enormous petrified wave.  Its deep red colour was bought into sharp relief by the intense blue of the sky.  Iron oxides ran in stripes through the stone which felt cold when I touched it, like the skin of a reptile.    

It was easy to see how the Anangu could read stories into every crease and bulge of Uluru.  Staring up at the rock from the sparse shade of a  bloodwood tree I could see a dingo’s paw, a human face, the pock marks of spear-thrusts and a coiled snake.    

Uluru3The sand underfoot was the colour of chili powder and every bit as hot.  Occasionally, a breeze would come out of nowhere, blow for a few minutes, then fade to nothing.  These desert zephyrs, however fleeting, were a welcome relief from the heat and made me less envious of the tourists cruising by in air-conditioned buses. 

It took three hours to circumnavigate Uluru.  As I explored the rock’s recesses and gorges I began to sense the endlessness of time out here.  The domes of nearby Kata Tjuta and the monolithic bulk of Uluru have seen the sun rise for 109 billion mornings.  We humans, on the other hand, have existed for a mere eye-blink of time by comparison.   

After a cold drink, I headed west in my rented 4WD.  The sun dissolved the road into a shimmering mirage: the landscape swam and wobbled in the heat as if I was looking at it through a glass bottle.  The sky was incandescent, the colour of burning magnesium.  Ahead of me, the domes of Kata Tjuta rose from the desert like a cluster of bald heads.      

To the Anangu people, Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) is a deeply sacred place.  For 10,000 years they have lived around these 36 strange red rocks – whose name means “many heads.”

The car park at Olga Gorge was empty.  Leaving my vehicle parked in the meager shade of a mulga bush, I set off along a rocky path leading upwards between the highest domes.  The air was blisteringly hot.  Dunnie budgies (flies) swarmed around me.  The domes were composed of orange pebbles cemented together with coarse red gravel the consistency of crumbled biscuit.  Time, wind and water had sculpted their sheer sides with Mondrian-style stripes, grooves and fissures.

UluruKata
Kata Tjuta (stock photo)

As I climbed higher the gorge narrowed, constricted between the sheer walls which seemed to lean inwards until the sky was reduced to a crack of cobalt blue overhead.  A wooden observation platform stood amid stunted bushes at the head of the gorge.  Had I been there at sunrise or sunset the view would have been stunning.  But the afternoon air was suffocatingly hot – each breath felt like I was inhaling molten treacle – and the determined hordes of flies detracted from my enjoyment of the vista.  After a short time I decided to retreat. 

In the endless sea of scrubby desert surrounding Uluru, the Aboriginal people have found all they need to sustain their culture, the oldest on Earth.          

As I walked back down the gorge, a squadron of tour buses materialized in the car park as if created out of the hot air.  A crowd of sweating tourists began toiling towards me, swatting at the flies and stumbling over the rough ground in shoes more suited to a cocktail bar than an outback hillside.  I saw an American woman wearing rubber kitchen gloves and a face mask and carrying a can of fly spray. 

On the way back to Yulara (the village which provides amenities for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park) an Aboriginal man flagged me down.  His wife and two children sat in the shade of a battered Holden station-wagon playing cards. 

“Buy us some beer would ya mate,” he asked through the open passenger side window.  It is a request tourists often hear around Yulara.  The Anangu elders have declared the area “dry” and the only way Aboriginal people can obtain alcohol is by getting tourists to buy it for them.  I was tempted to oblige him – I was hankering after a cold beer myself – but out of respect for the local by-law I politely refused and gave him some cans of lemonade for his kids.

I rose at 4.00 am next morning to watch the sunrise light up Uluru as it has done for the last 109 billion mornings.  Parked between two tour-buses I sat on the roof of the 4WD in the chilly darkness before dawn.  The bulk of Uluru was nothing more than an area of blackness against the starry sky.  But as the light grew stronger the rock began to glow, first a pale blue, then deep purple and finally, in the instant before sunrise, a rich ochreous red.

Within minutes, the tour-buses departed, conveying their passengers to buffet breakfasts in air-conditioned hotels. I was alone in the desert.I thought about the stories Jacob Puntaru had told me the previous day.  In the endless sea of scrubby desert surrounding Uluru, the Aboriginal people have found all they need to sustain their culture, the oldest on Earth.  They recognize the interconnectedness of all things, from grains of sand to the mightiest of mountains.  While Europeans see the land as a resource to be exploited and changed to suit them, Aboriginals see themselves as keepers of the land and strive to keep it the way it is: part of the never-ending legend of the Dreamtime     

The Light Horse

With cold steel bayonets gleaming, in sodden seas of blood
They raced towards the stronghold, all in a crimson flood,
Such maddening surge of horses, such tumult and such roar
The Wells of old Beersheba had never seen before …
                                     – Edward Gerard, The Wells of Old Beersheba

One hundred and one years ago, on October 31st, 1917, my great-uncle, A.F. Blakiston, took part in the last cavalry charge the world would ever see. The Battle of Beersheba took place in Southern Palestine (now Israel) and saw the eventual capture of the high ground from which the approaches to Gaza were defended by a seasoned Ottoman (Turkish) garrison.

After a number of previous defeats, the allied commander, General Edmund Allenby, had called in the Australian Light Horse Brigade, ordering them to charge the defences of Beersheba. Armed only with bayonets (their rifles had to be slung over their shoulders while mounted), which they held out like swords in true cavalry style, the Aussies galloped across the open ground between the British lines and the Turks’ positions, jumped over the trenches, leapt from their horses and laid into the stunned Turks with enthusiastic abandon.

lighthorse

The Ottoman forces were routed, the Allied forces (which also comprised Australian and New Zealand foot soldiers) mopped up the remaining pockets of resistance, and then began the long march towards Jerusalem, which they captured six weeks later.  The Charge of the Light Horse went down in history and in Australian folklore. Amongst the young Australian horsemen, most of whom hailed from the vast cattle stations of the Outback, where horsemanship was prized over all things, was a scattering of men from other countries, including, quite by chance, my great-uncle, A. F. Blakiston.

“[A] great sight suddenly sprung up on our left, lines and lines of horsemen moving. The Turks were on the run and the Aus. Div. was after them. We could see the horses jumping the trenches, dust everywhere.”

Arthur Frederick Blakiston was born in the English county of Derbyshire in 1892.  The son of a Baronet, he was educated at Bedford School and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  A fearless horseman, “Blakie” as he was nicknamed, rode furiously to hounds and was a fearsome rugby player.  Following his war exploits, he would go on the play rugby for England from 1920-1925 and tour South Africa with the British Lions, playing in all for of their test matches there.

I first encountered Blackie in early 1990, when my girlfriend Linda and I went to visit his widow, Lady Ann Blakiston, in the village of Corton, near Warminster, on the edge of the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.  We were working as live-in bar staff at a pub in Central London at the time, a couple of Kiwi kids out exploring the world. I knew of Lady Ann’s existence both through the well-researched Blakiston family tree, and through my cousin John Blakiston, a Colonel in the British Army with whom we had already stayed with on several occasions since arriving in England in March 1989.

Lady Ann’s neat cottage, whose address was simply 8a Corton, was a shrine to the memory of the beloved Blackie. Over tea and lardy cake (a traditional West Country dessert) Ann regaled us with tales of her late husband’s adventures. The old fellow obviously had no liking for those in authority and had often traded a safe comfortableafb life and income for penurious adventures that were their own reward.   

 

 

On the ship home from the British Lions’ rugby tour to South Africa, Blakiston and one of his team-mates were leaning on the rail of the afterdeck, discussing what their prospects would be when they landed back in England.

“How much money do you have?” asked Blakiston’s friend.  Rummaging through his pockets, Blakiston took out his last coin, a silver sixpence bearing the profile of King George V, surrounded by the legend GEORGIVS V DEI GRAS:BRITT:OMN:REX.

France v England 1925 2
Arthur Frederick Blakiston, England vs France.

“This is it,” he said, looking down at the gleaming coin in his hand.  “How much do you have?” His friend replied that he was penniless. With that, Blakiston hurled his last sixpence overboard.  It curled through the blue air, glinting momentarily in the sun, and disappeared into the ocean.

“Well,” said Blakiston, “we’ll both start from scratch when we get home.”

Having joined the Royal Field Artillery at the outbreak of World War One, Blakiston had been gassed at Ypres, won a Military Cross for gallantry at Verdun, and had been posted to Palestine with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, now under the command of Allenby, in June 1917.

Bored with endless maneuvers and constant drilling, Blakiston decided to sneak away from his regiment and join the Australian Light Horse Brigade on their attack of Beersheba. By doing so he contravened a standing order that British soldiery did not mix or fraternize with “colonials.” However, Blakiston had no liking for regulations or those in command. To him, the opportunity for a pell-mell gallop across the desert was too good an opportunity to miss.

No record of Blakiston’s impressions of the charge exist. However, it is easy to imagine him in the thick of the fighting, spurring his horse on in the same headlong way he charged down hedges while hunting foxes on the downlands of England. A contemporary account of the the action, written by James McCarroll of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, paints the scene: “[A] great sight suddenly sprung up on our left, lines and lines of horsemen moving. The Turks were on the run and the Aus. Div. was after them. We could see the horses jumping the trenches, dust everywhere.”     

LIght Horse charge at Beer Sheba
In everything he did throughout his life, Arthur Frederick Blakiston was the embodiment of the Blakiston family motto, Fac Bene Nec Dubitans: Do Well And Doubt Not. And in the charge of the Australian Light Horse Brigade, Blakiston took his place in the last cavalry charge the world would ever see.

Time in the Flinders Ranges

Here endless trickles count what comes to be
and grain by grain the runnels decimate Eternity.
                                                           – Colin Thiele, Centralian Sandhill

 

North of Burra, the Barrier Highway unfolds across a landscape parched by drought.  The harvest-bare fields lie grey beneath the broiling South Australian sun. Dusty merino sheep cluster around hay feeders, and mooch along the fence-lines.

A lone tractor drags a cloud of dust along a red-dirt side road. Skeletal steel windmills – the icons of the Outback – spin languidly  in the hot wind. Grain silos stand in the cornersof the fields like crash-landed spacecraft.

Windmills near Burra SA
Technology, Old and New, Near Burra, South Australia.

I pass the abandoned farmhouse immortalized on the cover of the Midnight Oil album Diesel and Dust.  Its sightless eyes stare out at the beige ground; its tin roof is red with decay and rust.  The road runs between rounded, parallel ridges surmounted by dozens of wind turbines. Each turbine has three giant arms revolving slowly in the invisible wind;  their shadows lie stark on the slopes beneath them. Far off in the distance I can see the Flinders Ranges, floating in a pink and mauve haze.

The Diesel and Dust House
Diesel and Dust.

The Flinders Ranges unfold into the centre of South Australia in a series of broken, canted ridges.  Some of the oldest rocks on Earth are found among the folds and synclines of the Flinders. From a distance, the ranges protrude from the Earth like the curved backbone and ribs of some immense, fossilized animal: a Dreamtime creature stripped bare of flesh and turned to stone.

I travel north through the afternoon.  The sun keeps pace overhead and dips towards the western skyline.  Beyond Orroroo, the vistas stretch out across vast plains of grey saltbush, backed by ranges glowing violet in the sunset.  As the last light bleeds from the sky, kamikaze kangaroos bounce through the headlight glare; the corpses of those that weren’t quick enough lie splattered on the bitumen.  My world narrows down to a strip of cats-eyes embedded in the centre of the road like diamonds trapped in graphite. It is pitch dark by the time I reach Wilpena Pound and stop for the night.

Wilpena Pound, on the western flank of the Flinders Ranges,  is an amphitheatre of ancient, weathered rock formed into the shape of a pair of cupped hands.  The Adnyamathanha Aboriginal people lived with the sheltered confines of Wilpena Pound for thousands of years.  Their Dreamtime story tells how a pair of serpents encircled and killed a group of people camped at a billabong.  The serpents’ bodies were turned to stone, forming the outline of Wilpena Pound.

Much later, European farmers stocked Wilpena Pound with cattle, utilizing the enclosing ranges as a “pound” or natural corral.   But the landscape proved too hostile for farming and was eventually abandoned. The melancholy ruins of farm buildings can still be seen within Wilpena Pound, which  today forms part of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park.

Night in Wilpena Pound is silent.  Lying awake in my luxury “glamping” tent at the Ikara Safari Camp, I look up at a sky encrusted with stars.  A black rim of rock forms a border against the sky. The beacon of the Southern Cross turns slowly overhead. The air is so still I can almost feel the Earth moving through space.

I wonder about the light from the stars I can see.  Some of them are so far away that their radiance has taken millions of years to reach me.  And in a strange, convergent way, the ancient rocks of the Flinders Ranges may have been forming at the same time as that starlight began its long journey across time.

The places depicted in the photographs seemed frozen in a state of suspended animation, like insects caught in amber.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by a book in my parent’s bookcase called Time in the Flinders Ranges.  The book was illustrated with grainy monochrome and orangey Ektachrome images of twisted rocky ranges, gnarled eucalypts, strange marsupials, billabongs and red dirt roads.  The text described the experiences of someone who had spent some time travelling in the Flinders Ranges.

But to me the title of the book had a different meaning.  It implied that the concept of time in the Flinders Ranges was somehow different to the rest of the world: that it ran more slowly.  The places depicted in the photographs seemed frozen in a state of suspended animation, like insects caught in amber.

At first light I  take to the sky. The best way to gain a perspective view of Wilpena Pound is from the air.  As his powder blue Robinson chopper lifts off from the helipad at Rawnsley Park Station, my pilot Neil’s voice crackles over the intercom.

“I love flying Kiwis over the Pound,” he says.  “They seem to appreciate the grandeur of the place a lot more than Aussies.”  A gusty south-easterly wind lifts us rapidly over the outer cliffs of Wilpena Pound.  The castellated stone gleams in the morning sun; eucalypt forest clings to the scree-slopes and cliffs.  We fly in a long loop over the perimeter of Wilpena Pound.  A pair of hikers wearing bright red jackets ascend the peak of Mount St Mary, the highest peak in both Wilpena Pound and the Flinders Ranges.Beyond the far rim, the Outback stretches level and brown to the curved horizon beneath the azure dome of the sky.

Later I drive down a dusty, powder white road which leads me deeper into the Flinders

Bunraroo Road, Flinders Ranges
The Flinders Ranges.

Ranges.  The road undulates over a series of steep ridges then descends into the deep ravines of the Brachina Gorge, where the geological story of the last half billion years can be read in the folded, fractured strata.  As I drive, with the stereo blasting and my phone recording Snapchats to post later, it feels as though I am travelling backwards into the dim reaches of deep time: a time when the Earth emerged from the world-enveloping ice age known as the Cryogenian, and complex life began to evolve.

The 25-kilometre Brachina Gorge Geological Trail traces a lineal history of Earth’s geology beginning with “young” Wirrealpa limestone.  Formed in a shallow sea, and containing fossils of abundant marine wildlife, the stone here at the top of the rock record is a mere 520 million years old.

I spend the morning dawdling along on my voyage through geological time.  I climb a fossilized reef, 530 million years old; walk along a 590 million year old beach of petrified quartzite sand; see 630 million year old traces of stromatolites, whose ancestors oxygenated the Earth’s atmosphere; and lie on a bed of diamictite containing pebbles rounded by glacial rivers which flowed at the end of the Cryogenian.  

Eventually, I arrive at the point I have come to the Flinders Ranges to see: the Ediacaran GSSP.  Installed in 2004, the GSSP (Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point) is

gssp
The Ediacaran GSSP, Enorama Creek, South Australia.

circular brass plaque embedded into a tilted slab of strata in the north bank of Enorama Creek.  This “golden spike” (one of many worldwide but the only one in the Southern Hemisphere) marks a point in Earth’s geological history where everything changed. After eons of global glaciation, when almost all life had been extinguished on the Earth, the beginning of the Ediacaran Period, 635 million years ago, saw the planet begin to warm up.  The glaciers melted, the oceans teemed, and complex life, which would eventually give rise to human beings, began to evolve.

As a complex organism I need to eat, so I stop for lunch at the North Blinman Pub: “the highest pub in South Australia.”  Established as a mining town in the 1860s, Blinman today relies on tourism for its wealth. I sit outside on the verandah drinking ice-cold West End Draught and eating a steak sandwich, the staple dish of Outback pubs.   

A row of dusty four-wheel-drives are angle-parked outside.  A hot south-easterly wind bustles autumn leaves along the wide street.  A few tourists wander up and down the street. A gauge on the wall beside me shows the temperature at 28°: not bad for an April day. Back in my vehicle I descend into the confines of the Parachilna Gorge  

I camp beside a tiny waterhole surrounded by gnarled river red gums.  An ephemeral creek trickles from the waterhole over a lip of pale green limestone formed in some shallow ocean half a billion years ago.  As afternoon draws into evening, I climb to the summit of a low ridge and sit watching the day end. The warm stone radiates the heat of the day.  A currawong warbles in the trees below; magpie larks “chic-chic-chic” down by the waterhole.

Parachilna Gorge Emu
Emu, Parachilna Gorge, South Australia.

I imagine that this scene a hundred years ago, or a thousand, or a million years ago, would have looked almost exactly the same.  I can feel the slowness of time out here. In New Zealand, the forces of wind, water, ice and tectonics can shatter and change the landscape in days.  In the Flinders, change takes place one sand grain at a time.

A lone car drags a trail of dust along the valley floor and disappears into the darkening hills.  A big full moon, the colour of chardonnay, hangs in the lavender sky. Westward, the sun has long since disappeared behind the rim of the ranges.  I should return to my camp while there is still a little light left. But there is no hurry. The rock I am sitting on has been here for half a billion years.  My presence here is only an instant of time in the Flinders Ranges.