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.

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.