Out here nothing changes, Not in a hurry anyway. You feel the endlessness, Running from the light of day… – Goanna, Solid Rock.
East of Borroloola the back left tyre of my four-wheel-drive exploded. I was driving fast, too fast, probably, on a hellish stretch of road riven by pot-holes and deep puddles of bull-dust. The corrugated surface was so rough that I was unaware the tyre was disintegrating until I felt the automatic transmission change down a gear and realized the back corner of the vehicle was sitting low. By then I had driven several kilometres on the flat tyre and all that remained of the outer wall was a few hot shards of steel fibre and charred rubber. The rim was pitted like a golf ball.
I unpacked the tool kit and one of the two spare tyres I was carrying. The handle of the bottle jack was missing so I spent the next hour sprawled in the dirt beneath the vehicle, winding the jack up with an adjustable spanner. Once the ruined wheel was off I had to dig a hole in the road beneath the hub in order to get the spare on. I was covered from head to toe in bull-dust, grease and sweat. Even the flies wouldn’t come near me. I dusted myself off and continued on towards Hell’s Gate.
Beyond Wollogorang cattle station I crossed the border between the Northern Territory and Queensland. The sun was incandescent in the blue dome of the sky; the ground too hot to stand on in bare feet. The border itself was nothing more than a cattle grid set into a post and wire fence which stretched off into the bush and was soon swallowed by the trees.
Hell’s Gate turned out to be a far more pleasant place than its name suggests. I parked outside the Hell’s Gate Roadhouse in the shade of a spreading magnolia tree which shed its fragrant petals like desert snow. The beer was icy cold, the girl running the place was charming and friendly, and the Barramundi Burger I had for lunch was the best food I’d eaten since Darwin.
It was the sometimes bloody history of early European settlement which gave the outpost its ominous name. In the late 1800’s police stationed at nearby Corinda provided regular escorts for Territory-bound settlers as far as the rocky escarpments of Hell’s Gate, refusing to accompany the travellers past this point because of the fierceness of Aboriginals in the area.
Later, on an arrow-straight, red dirt stretch of road scraped through the bush, I was breathalysed by a pair of Queensland Police officers. Their white 4WD was the first vehicle I’d seen all day.
“You’re a long way from home,” the policewoman said, looking at the Victoria plates on the front of my vehicle.
“Further than you think,” I replied.
“Oh, you’re a bloody Kiwi,” said her burly partner, whose suntanned arms looked like truck axles. They checked my licence and I blew into a gadget which confirmed I wasn’t some drunken lunatic driving around out in the bush alone. A battered Toyota Landcruiser laden with grinning Aboriginals from the nearby Doomadgee Community pulled up and the police lost interest in teasing me.
Burketown (pop 230) shuts its shops early. I booked into the Burketown Pub – “the oldest pub in Queensland” – and by 5pm it seemed virtually everyone in town was at the bar. The English barmaid, Sophie, in a neat inversion of the Kiwi bartender in London, had applied for the job – board, lodgings and an air ticket from the east coast – when she ran out of money in Cairns.
I swallowed an ice-cold glass of Toohies New beer while some of assembled drinkers ribbed me about the destroyed wheel bolted to the back of my 4WD.
“Ya won’t be geddin’ that one fixed mate,” said a stockman sitting under a wagon wheel-sized Akubra hat.
When I asked him the way to the Burketown Salt Flats he nodded his hat towards the horizon and said “Just drive that way till you don’t see any more cane toads.”
In the darkness before dawn next morning I drove out past the edge of town. The road crumbled into furrows then into a single pair of wheel-tracks leading out onto the salt flats. The headlights cast twin pools of light onto the flat, featureless ground ahead; everything else was black as if I was driving into a void.
The salt flats were the quietest place I have ever been. I was the only living thing out there that morning. Nothing moved apart from vague air currents too insubstantial to be called wind. The surface of the ground was cracked like a reptile’s skin and the cool air possessed a vague odour of phosphate. It was so still I could almost feel the movement of the Earth.
A sliver of moon, attended by a pair of planets, hung in the eastern sky which was washed pale pink by the approaching sun. Soon, the heat would begin to rise and I would be on the road again, driving into another day of Outback adventures beyond the Gates of Hell.
Out where the river broke, The bloodwood and the desert oak… – Midnight Oil, Beds Are Burning
At Roper Bar I was swimming with crocodiles. And not the harmless freshwater variety, either. These were the real deal: big ‘ol, bad-tempered, drag-you-under-and-drown-you saltwater crocs. The sort of creatures only Crocodile Dundee could handle.
I had joined pilot Paul Smith and his friend Brigit, both of whom worked at the nearby Ngukurr Aboriginal Community, for a swim where the Roper River tumbles over a rocky slab of granite which gave the area its name. As we lolled in the cool water, Paul’s eyes constantly scanned the river for the tell-tale ripple of an approaching croc.
“We’re fine swimming here in the shallows as long as someone watches the river,” Paul said. “But out here you should never swim alone or even go near the water unless someone has told you it’s safe.” Of course where crocs are concerned, “safe” is a dangerously loose term. So when the setting sun began casting shadows on the river, making it harder to see into the water, I was happy to return to the campground and leave the Roper in the care of its Silurian masters.
Dawn in the Australian Outback is always heralded by the strangled gurglings, maniacal cackling, rasping, clicking and guffawing of birds. As I lay awake in the pre-dawn darkness, a pied butcherbird sang limpid notes in the tree above my tent, like a bell tolled in liquid. I rose at 5.30am, lit my petrol stove and ate peaches out of a can while the water boiled. One of the simplest pleasures of travelling in the bush is waiting for the billy to boil for a dawn cuppa. A pair of whistling kites eyed me from a tree-top as I broke camp.
Beyond Roper Bar the road became absurdly rough: corrugations, bull-dust and potholes you could lose an oil drum in. After an hour or so I stopped at the Tomato Island fishing camp. Mick and Rita Caulfield were mooring their aluminium dinghy beside a concrete boat ramp leading down to the glassy Roper River. Mick held a big barramundi Rita had caught. They invited me to visit their nearby camp.
Mick, stocky and graying, was a motorbike mechanic; Rita was a nurse who worked part-time at the Ngukurr Community, a five-minute boat-ride across the river. We drank coffee and they told me how they had quit their busy lives in Melbourne for the solitude of the Northern Territory bush.
“We went away for twelve months,” Rita said. “That was two years ago and we’re not ready to stop yet.”
“We spent the Wet (the rainy season) in Darwin last year,” Mick added. “Might settle down there when the time comes.”
Later, Mick took me upriver in the dinghy to see the wreck of the Young Australian. The bush grew down to the water’s edge; the river hid its secrets (and its terrors) beneath the glossy, opaque surface.
The wreckage of the boat, run aground at night by a drunken crew in 1873, lay against the upstream edge of a rocky islet. The rusted boiler, with its fire-door agape, had the appearance of a half-submerged skull. I imagined the horror of a sinking boat, the men scrambling blindly in the darkness as the water swirled across the deck-plates, and a crocodile-infested river to swim to safety.
Beyond Tomato Island camp the road hugged the right bank of the river. The radio picked up a broadcast in Pidgin English from Ngukurr. I sat for a while beside a lily-covered lagoon and listened to thunder growl in the distance. But it was an empty threat and no rain came.
Later, I hiked alone through the Southern Lost City, where eons of erosion have sculpted the hard granite into a natural architecture of towers, abutments, arches and grottoes. The hot wind had desiccated the surrounding bush and everything felt tinder-dry and lifeless.
I reached the dusty, red-sand township of Borroloola in the late afternoon. I had a cold drink at the local store, called home on the satellite phone, then drove out to King Ash Bay fishing camp, situated where the McArthur River drains languidly into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
I pitched my tent overlooking the river then retired to the Groper Bar for a beer. The bar occupied a rough corrugated shed with a big circular awning out back. Beers were served straight out of a rusty chest freezer. There were eleven other drinkers at the bar, mostly retired-looking gents in grubby singlets and shorts. A wall-eyed dog sprawled in the dirt.
The kitchen sold a range of fried food (is there any other kind at a fishing camp?) and as I worked my way through a giant steak one of the locals came over.
“That your tent by the river, mate?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “If I was you I’d shift it back from the water a bit.”
I thought back to the Roper Bar and how I’d survived actually sitting in a river full of crocs. Surely I would be safe thirty metres from the river. Mick Dundee wouldn’t have been worried. Sensing my reluctance the old-timer glanced down at the hunk of red meat on my plate then back up at me.
“We’d hate to see you end up like that, mate,” he grinned. ”S’up to you but anything would be better than being eaten by a bloody croc.”
At Menzies, a dead-on-its-feet mining town a hundred kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, I turn off the bitumen highway onto a rutted track bulldozed through the red dirt landscape of Western Australia. My rented car moves about on the loose surface like a schooner under sail on a rough sea. A cloud of ochre dust from the wheels obscures the rear view.
After an hour or so, a signpost points down an even rougher track leading through scrubby sand hills to the edge of Lake Ballard. The empty lake, its bed white with salt crystals left behind when its ephemeral waters evaporated, lies pressed under the weight of the hot sky. Waves of heat distort the flat expanse of the lakebed, where fifty-one skeletal figures stand immobile in the shimmering air. I leave the car parked in the sparse shade of a bloodwood tree and begin to walk.
The Inside Australia installation is a collection of metal sculptures set up on Lake Ballard in 2003 by English artist Antony Gormley. The sculptures are based on computer scans of the inhabitants of Menzies, rendered in alloys of iron, molybdenum, iridium, vanadium and titanium. According to his website, Gormley sought “to find the human equivalent for this geological place.”
“I think human memory is part of place,” he wrote, “and place is a dimension of human memory.”
Out on the lake bed, I am alone in my own dimension of heat, flies and sweat. The red mud of the lake floor, overlaid with its rime of salt, has dried and cracked like the skin of a reptile. It’s slightly sticky surface sucks at my jandals, which, in hindsight, were not the best choice of footwear for exploring the widely-spaced components of Inside Australia.
Each of Gormley’s works is set a distance of seven hundred and fifty metres from its neighbour. The footprints of previous visitors trace indistinct pathways leading from sculpture to sculpture in a long loop around the lake. From a distance, the sculptures are merely vague outlines: shadows caught in the distorted, iridescent air. Up close, they are eerie, with outstretched arms, protruding breasts and shrunken heads.
The midday sun casts foreshortened silhouettes of each statue onto the ground, simplifying their forms even further, like the charcoal rock drawings of Aboriginals. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadows change shape and size, each one describing a sun-dial ellipse around the sculpture’s feet.
It takes two hours for me to complete my circuit of the sculptures. Back at my the car, my sweat- and dirt-stained reflection in the windscreen looks vaguely like a component of Inside Australia, seared by heat and light. I start the engine and let the air-con revive me before returning to the road.
As afternoon cools into evening, I walk alone through a deserted desert town. Whereas at Lake Ballard I had seen human shapes inhabiting an empty landscape, here in the abandoned mining town of Gwalia I walk through an urban space devoid of human forms.
The timber and tin buildings stand sway-backed and forlorn beneath the empty sky. Front doors hang agape in their frames, giving views down the throats of hallways to the rooms inside. Windows stare sightlessly out across the dusty street. A pair of morose emus, like feathered sextons in a kindling cemetery, watch me in a desultory fashion as I wander the ruins.
From 1897 until 1963, the Sons of Gwalia Gold Mine was the life-blood of Gwalia. The rough-and-ready township grew up around the nearby mine-shaft, which descended for a kilometre into the hard granite beneath the town. By 1910, more than a thousand people called Gwalia home. During its lifetime, the mine yielded 2.6 million ounces of gold: worth about NZ$2.4 billion at today’s prices.
But in the early sixties, the gold ran out. In December 1963, the owners closed the mine. Trains were dispatched to convey the remaining miners, their families and whatever they could carry to Kalgoorlie. Overnight, Gwalia became a ghost town.
The setting sun casts long shadows between the buildings. Inside the kitchen of a once-comfortable miner’s cottage, tiny shafts of light pierce the gloom through bullet-hole gaps in the tin walls. Cast iron pots stand on the long-cold stove; a table set with two plates and a fork sits askance on the disintegrating floorboards. Faded newspapers cover the walls in lieu of wallpaper.
Inside another cottage, books that will never again tell their stories stand on a shelf above a bed which will never feel the weight of a sleeping body. The roof is open to the sky. A glassless lantern, which will never light another night, hangs beside a back door opening onto the endless space of the Outback.
The grimy windows of Mazza’s Store – “Birthday Goods, Tobacco and Lino” – reflect the last rays of the setting sun as I sit on the store’s verandah watching the day end in Gwalia. Funereal crows, whose gurgling cries are the ghost voices of the Australian bush, perch in a nearby scribbly gum.
I imagine Gormley’s iron sculptures, radiating the day’s heat back into the air over Lake Ballard. Here in Gwalia, it is the past which radiates: in the deserted homes of the people who once gave this place a dimension of human memory. Their day’s work done, the emu-sextons pay me a last cursory glance before ambling off towards the abandoned pub.
You’re in by Karumba, Where the fishing boats come in; I can’t believe this feeling, But I wish that I was there, Every passing day… – Goanna, Every Passing Day
Fifteen nautical miles north-west of Karumba the oppressive air presses down on us with an almost tactile force. Thunderheads massed on the horizon foretell a cooling storm to come, but for now the four of us aboard the Kathryn M2 are at the mercy of the monsoonal heat. The boat’s hull cleaves the water of the Gulf of Carpentaria with a sibilant hiss; the diesel engine thrums beneath the deck plates. We are making eighteen knots, heading back to port with our day’s catch: three decent barracuda, a black kingfish and half a dozen Spanish mackerel. Standing on the bridge, with a cold beer in my hand, I watch the green smudge of the Australian coast drawing slowly nearer. Behind us, the boat’s wake unfolds across the sea which lies like a sheet of obsidian beneath the luminous immensity of the sky.
Karumba is situated in the south-east corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria: the southernmost extremity of the Arafura Sea. Nearby, where the sluggish Norman River falls into the Gulf, a delta of tidal creeks and wetlands extend inland in a series of meandering saltwater estuaries. This mangrove-choked landscape is the habitat of estuarine crocodiles (the bad ol’ boys of the crocodile world) and a vast array of bird species. The Gulf is located on the migratory path known as the East Asian Flyway and hundreds of thousands of birds use the region as a jumping-off point for their flights into Asia and beyond. Flocks of eastern bar-tailed godwits, fresh from their summer on the Avon-Heathcote Estuary, at Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand, stop off to rest here en route back to their breeding grounds in Alaska.
The Port of Karumba was originally a refuelling and repair stop for the Empire Flying Boats, which connected Sydney to Great Britain. The aircraft landed on the stretch of the river in front of the town and during WW2 were the only aerial connection Australia had with the rest of the world. Karumba was also a Catalina Flying Boat base for the Royal Australian Air Force and the ramp onto which these amphibians taxied now forms one of the town’s streets.
I first heard of Karumba in the mid-eighties in a song called Every Passing Day by Australian band Goanna. At the time I was working on a High Country sheep station, deep in the heart of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. It was a world of sheep dogs and horses, hobnail boots and musterer’s huts, harsh winters and late snows. For me, Karumba was out on the edge of the world, about as far removed from the High Country as it was possible to get. Lying on my bed in the shepherd’s quarters, listening to that song while the nor’ west wind shrieked around the eaves, I imagined steaming mangrove swamps, crocodiles and tidal mud, fishing boats coming home in the sunset and endless, punishing heat. Karumba seemed like the sort of beyond the pale place I would never visit. And yet, in one of those strange twists that life can take, here I was, sailing home to Karumba after a day’s fishing on the Gulf, with the first flickers of lightning exploding across the sky and the air heavy with the scent of rain.
By the time we reach shore it is raining: a heavy, blattering downpour which pock-marks the opaque water of the river and runs in deluges from the scuppers. We adjourn to the Sunset Tavern (one of the few places in Eastern Australia where you can watch the sun set over the ocean) to relive the day’s escapades. Outside, sixty millimetres of rain falls in less than an hour. By nightfall the storm has moved on and a watery sliver of moon hangs in the sky.
Karumba is the southernmost port on the Arafura Sea: surely the most evocatively-named sea in the world. The name is redolent of pirates and pearling luggers, of spice islands and hidden mangrove coastlines. It’s the sort of sea that a character in a Joseph Conrad novel would set sail across: “blue and profound, without a stir, without a ripple, without a wrinkle, viscous, stagnant, dead.”
Prior to the European discovery of Australia, the Arafura Sea was the haunt of Macassan fleets from the Celebes Islands. The Macassans harvested beche-de-mer (a type of sea cucumber resembling a black, tumescent penis) which they cured on the beaches and sold to the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. Later, pearl divers came, then shrimp fisherman. Today, Karumba is home base for Australia’s largest shrimping fleet.
The day after my fishing trip is a Saturday. Nothing much is happening in Karumba. A few fishing boats come and go at the pier; the tide rises and falls among the mangroves and mooring ropes along the Norman River; mirages shimmer on the asphalt road leading out of town and into the Outback. Ceiling fans stir the tepid air in the Animal Bar of the Karumba Lodge Pub; next door, the Suave Bar is empty. I sit in the shade of a spreading fig tree outside the Post Office drinking chilled orange juice from a plastic bottle. Ants are nesting in a crack in the concrete sidewalk. A girl arrives in a dusty 4WD and empties the mail from box 71 of the 233 red mail boxes set into the wall. Magpie larks play in a listless, desultory fashion on the blue and orange phone boxes.
All day thunderheads have grumbled out on the plains. The sun is incandescent in the pewter dome of the sky. As afternoon wears on the heat grows more and more oppressive. Mosquitoes feed on my exposed skin and flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos fly screeching from tree to tree. It is as if the natural world knows something is about to happen and is restive.
As the sun begins its descent into the sea, the horizon is shrouded by roiling clouds. Bolts of lightning jump earthward from the black belly of the storm. The atmosphere seems charged electricity and heavy with moisture. This is the real deal: the full spectacle of heat, convection, air masses, water vapour, static electricity and raw energy. The sun has gone out. All that remains is a pale, flat, eerie glow which casts no shadows. Huge knives of lightning slice the sky, thunder detonates overhead with ear-shattering force and the air turns the colour of soot. As the storm rages all around I take off my shirt and let the rain beat on my bare skin like a benediction.
Karumba is the sort of place which epitomises the adage “the journey is the destination”. You need to make a real effort to get there by driving west from Cairns through 800 kilometres of empty Outback. And, let’s face it, there’s not a lot to see once you’ve arrived. Sure, people come from all over the world for the excellent fishing. Campers spend months at the Sunset Point Caravan Park just doing nothing. And there is a zinc smelter to visit if you’re really stuck for entertainment.
But the real attraction of visiting a place like Karumba is being on the edge of the world. Tropical towns by the sea have a different feel to inland places. They look outwards, towards the emptiness of the ocean, away from the security and certainties of the land. For me the pleasure of being in Karumba lies in simply watching the sun set over the sea while the Sunset Tavern regulars, oblivious to the solar spectacle outside, gamble on television horses racing in other parts of Australia. It lies in the thrill of watching the violent arrival of a tropical storm after the ennui of a 45 degree day. And, best of all, it lies in the pure, unexpected delight of being in a place I have dreamed of for so long.
In Karumba I can smell the warm breath of Asia. Across the narrow waters of the Arafura Sea lie the jungle islands of Irian Jaya, the coral atolls of the Moluccas and the teeming shores of Indonesia. Yet even this close to Asia I am rooted firmly in white Australia. Satellite dishes beam the latest news of the world into town; every meal comes with chips and beetroot; men in grubby shorts and tee-shirts drink copious quantities of Victoria Bitter beer from ice-cold glasses; and, on the edge of town, Aboriginal people move like ghosts in their own land.
On my last evening in Karumba I drift down to the Sunset Tavern to watch my final Arafura sunset. Day ends suddenly in the tropics. Sunsets are always brief but spectacular. I sit on a rocky outcrop, still warm from the day’s heat, as the sun sinks inexorably into the sea and the sky turns the colour of spilled blood. Distant thunder clouds, piled on the horizon, are lit from within by strobes of lightning. As the sun disappears, the colour bleeds from the sky, the sea fades from pink to indigo, and night comes down like a theatrical curtain.
I sit for a while in the gloaming listening to the pulse of the ocean. The incoming tide roars on the shoreline with a noise like a distant cheering crowd. Karumba had once been a place which existed only as a collection of images conjured in my imagination by the words of a song. But now that I have seen it, Karumba is real. It has been burned into my memory during the time I have spent out here, under the sun on the edge of the world. The ocean glitters in the starlight and I know that, for the rest of my life, I will go to Karumba in my mind, once or twice every passing day.
FOOTNOTE: Goanna’s 1984 album Oceania is a forgotten masterpiece. Upon its release it failed to chart and quickly disappeared from view. I bought a cassette copy of the album in 1985 from a record shop in Timaru on the South Island of New Zealand. I have it still: worn out, spliced and almost inaudible after thousands of playings. Oceania was never released on CD and, until August 2020, was unavailable in any form whatsoever. But in September 2020, after my daughter asked me what my all time favourite song is, I discovered that a remastered edition of the album had appeared on Spotify. I am listening to it now. It is my favourite album of all time and the song Every Passing Day, upon which this story is based, is my favourite song ever. The story itself, which appeared in the magazine Avenues in 2005, won a QANTAS Media Award for Best Magazine Travel Story in 2006. I’d like to return to Karumba some time soon, to smell the warm breath of Asia and watch the passing days out there on the edge of the world.
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
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
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 JohnKing, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Uluru.
“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 abloodwood tree I could see a dingo’s paw, a human face, the pock marks of spear-thrusts and a coiled snake.
The 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.
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.