The Road to Darwin

Chapter 5 – Alice Springs

Rolled into Alice Springs, literally: a strong head wind burnt up all the petrol. As the sun set in the west, (I presume it was the west because that’s where the sun sets where I come from.) we set about looking for a campsite. A blackfella approached me, opening his overcoat to reveal a couple of rather nice little dot paintings. (They seem to be all the rage up this way. Albert Namatjira must be turning in his grave.) He inquired politely if I would like to buy one of his original, hand made authentic aboriginal works of art for a modest sum, but I explained I was an artist myself and could paint my own for free.

I asked him if he knew of a good place to camp. He looked at me like I was a half-wit as he spread his arms expansively, taking in the length and breadth of the Todd River and said:

“Anywhere you like.”

We were tempted to take up his generous offer of free accommodation, but mother’s wise words whispered in my head: “Never sleep in a dry river bed son, you could be washed away in a flash flood.” We settled for the 4 Seasons Caravan Park, along with every second bogan in the country, here for the Desert Nats. (Not to be confused with the dessert gnats, that get stuck in your custard on hot summer nights, or the Summer Gnats, which are held in The Bogan Capital of Australia.)

Bumped into an old swaggy (homeless person) rummaging in the bins. I offered him a glass of milk but he explained he was collecting bottles and cans. When he cashed them in for cash he gave it to The Royal Flying Doctor Service, as he was a ‘good Samaritan’.       ( Not like those Bad Samaritans) He turned out to be quite a loquacious fellow,               (We couldn’t shut him up) waffling on about the last iteration of The Desert Nats, when a car exhaust incinerated some of the spectators. They were burnt to a crisp and could only be identified by their dental records, except for one old digger who had dentures, but they found a bullet in his leg from the first world war, so it could be no one else, he was the last surviving survivor of that particular war.

Turns out it was the good old Flying Doctor that whisked them all off to Adelaide to be saved. (or identified) Which brings me, by a round about route to the kernel of this shaggy dog story: John Flynn’s grave. As you are all no doubt aware, The Very Reverend John Flynn was buried at Mt. Gilen, some fifteen kilometres west of Alice Springs, in The Year of Our Lord 1955 (approximately) Being a devout member of the Presbyterian faith he asked on his death bed that a large rock be placed on his grave. A rock so large it would remind the faithful of the very rock that sealed the tomb of Jesus Christ himself, no less. An unusual request, maybe a little presumptuous even, but who could refuse the last wishes of a man who had devoted his entire life to good works in the service of that very same man/God. A suitable rock was procured, and not just any old rock. An exquisitely beautiful rock, an 8 ton monolith, as round and smooth as a babies bottom. This rock was taken from a place we have all come to know as The Devil’s Marbles. Maybe that is where the trouble began. The real name of the place is ‘Karlu Karlu’ which probably means double devil in Arrernte.

The reverend seemed to rest in peace for quite some time under his chosen rock. Being the 1950’s the local Arrernte people were not consulted or even told about the theft of what was definitely not your average common or garden rock. It was actually a very powerful and sacred rock. Of course the original owners of the rock were completely mortified once they discovered it missing. Much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and waling inconsolably. But being the 1950’s it all fell on deaf ears. The Arrernte endured their humiliation and degradation and hurt and anger in abject silence, as was befitting their station. But they did not forget.

As the years went by, the world at large became a little more civilized, and the non-black people of Alice Springs gradually came to see that the local black people bore certain similarities with themselves, and could no longer be lumped in with the cows and sheep in the animal kingdom, but must be grudgingly accepted as members of the human family. And so they began to notice that the black people had feelings just like themselves. And in their nascent stirrings of empathy, they could not help but notice that the black people were not happy, so they asked their newfound kin what was the matter. The non black people were shocked to hear the outpourings of pent up anguish from the Arrernte people over the theft of their sacred rock, and deep down inside the long dormant hearts of the non-black people a germ of empathy began to grow, for they too now had imbued the very same rock with sacred meaning.

So began the long and tortuous negotiations to right the wrong that had been done.

These negotiations began in 1980 and continued  sporadically and spasmodically and intermittently andndinterminably until 1996. Sixteen long years of toing and froing. But the Arrernte people have been around for a long time. They didn’t come down in the last shower, they had the patience of Job, as the Presbyterians like to say. The problem was finding a replacement rock of equal grandeur, befitting a man of such stature. In the spirit of accommodation that had began to permeate relations between the two tribes, Presbyterian and Arrernte, the blackfellas went out and found a rock as round and smooth and perfect as the first. A rock that had been be lying around the desert for God knows how long, without accumulating a skeric of sacred meaning, a tabula rasa.

All the stakeholders came to inspect the new rock: The Presbitarians, The Arrernte, the Warrumungu, the Kaytetye, The Central Land Council, Parks and Wildlife, The Royal Flying Doctor Service, the local council, the dog catcher, the lady across the road.

They were all immensely pleased with the new rock..

Everything was going swimmingly until the Arrernte saw the parlous state of their special rock: It was covered with graffiti, some of it quite lewd. Although the non-black people claimed this was their version of ‘rock art’, the black people were not fooled for a minute. The rock was cleaned, and popped right back where it belonged, in Karlu Karlu. It is now gleaming white, a palimpsest. Sticks out like a dog’s ball, but that odd and faitful rock is cherished just as much as all the other rocks.

Maybe there is a lesson in there somewhere?

Read the full story HERE

Next stop Darwin for the Darwin Awards (hopefully we won’t get nominated)


Chapter 1 – Hattah

We leave Castlemaine on the last day of July, heading for Darwin and beyond. We don’t see anything to write home about on the first day. Inglewood seems like a thriving little town, plenty of locals out in the street, until you notice they are actually shop dummies dressed up in old clothes. Good ploy though, you’ve got to have a gimmick these days if you want to stay ahead of the pack. After that we don’t see many real people, but there are flox and flox of sheeps. But they are really dirty. I am not impressed. After a few hours we come across a farmer outstanding in her field. I wind down the window and give her a piece of my mind:

“Your sheep are filthy.” I say.

“It’s a disgrace. You should be ashamed of yourself. When we go to the country we like to see nice white sheep surrounded by nice green grass.”

She ambles up to the fence, gives the vehicle the once over like it’s a mangy dog that should be shot, fondly pats the dead fox hanging off the barbed wire, wipes the sweat from her weary brow, takes off her Akubra,  swats a blowfly, scratched her crotch laconically, sticks her thumbs in her braces, spits out her chewing tobacco, assumes a nonchalant air and launches into a long and sibilant soliloquy. (due to her missing teeth, no doubt) Something about the drought, the wool price, the wheat board, the water board, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority the Government, the mouse plague, the locust plague, the dust storms…………

“That’s all very well,” I say,

“But what about our visual amenity, have you taken that into consideration?”

She just lets out a loud fart and wanders off shaking her head.

We get as far as Hattah Lakes on the first night, where we camp with a flock of wild emus. Emus can be very curious. They scare the living daylights out of our poor old deaf dog Gunyarr. I don’t complain to management, it is a National Park after all.

It’s great to sit by a log fire again, I haven’t done that since last night.

(Did you know that the television was invented just after the introduction of the electric radiator. It was designed to replace the trance-like state induced by starring into the flickering flames of the open fire.)

Next day we get sprung with a shit load of fruit and vegetables on the South Australian border. I am talking top shelf, organic, free range, biodegradable produce here. Goods we paid good money for. Such a shame to see it chucked in the bin, but there is only so many raw vegetable one can eat in one sitting. It’s all a big scam of course: We are meant to restock the larder at the next town. Very good for business. The Victorians do the same thing in the opposite direction, so I guess it’s all fair enough, but a terrible waste of fine food none the less.

I politely suggest the confiscated items could be given away to the poor. The officer replies:

“That is a matter for the Welfare Department, not Border Security.”

We cross the Murray at the cute little town of Morgan, our cute little car on the cutest little barge, like something out of yesteryear. It’s really hard to find a camp on the river. In the socialist enclave of Victoria, you can camp pretty well anywhere on any bloody river you bloody well like: The rivers and the beaches belong to the people. (Make that ‘Communist enclave’.) Not here in the Fascist State of South Australia, private property extends right through the river and up the other side.

Of course we camp there anyway, ready to tell any belligerent land holder that it actually belongs to the blackfellas, who are traditionally in favor of camping.

Morgan is the point on the river where it takes a left hand turn and heads South. That is why there is a massive pump that pumps water all the way to Whyallah on the Eyre Peninsula, some 360 kilometre to the West. Unbelievable, isn’t it? So some of the water cooling those giant smelters has come all the way from Queensland.

Being skeptical by nature, we decide to follow that pipeline and see if it really does go all the way to Whyallah. As soon as we leave the river it gets rather arid. Nothing but salt bush, dotted with stone ruins. We have crossed the famous Goyder Line. For those who didn’t pay attention in Form 2 Geography: Some time back in the late 18 hundreds, there was a wet period in South Australia. This happened to coincide with an influx of Prussian refugees. (presumably from the losing side in The Crimean War) The naive immigrants were sent North, with their goat herds in tow, on a quest to tame the wilderness and quell the restless natives. Their first mistake, one of many it appears, was to eradicate the natives before asking them probing questions about the prevailing climate in the area: A subject the local natives knew well, I might add, having studied it studiously for countless generations.

(Shoot first and ask questions later, as they say)

As you can guess, the good times didn’t last. As luck would have it, their halcyon days were an aberration, a blip on the flatline of semi-endless drought that we so quaintly refer to as ‘life in the outback’. The hapless pioneers scuttled back to Prussia, with their tales between their legs, leaving behind a treasure trove of quaint stone ruins to add to the rustic charm of the bucolic countryside.

Having failed to learn their lesson from the locals, nature set about teaching them anyway, with the help of George W. Goyder, agrarian visionary extraordinaire. George W. traversed the land with a pointy stick, drawing a long and meandering line, delineating the arable land from the wasteland. Henceforth all lands falling to the North of the Goyder line were to be referred to as ‘The Badlands’. It was decreed that no foolhardy farmer should ever sow a single seed outside that line, no matter how deceptively fecund the land appeared, for, as sure as night follows day, they would all be ruined. This maxim was strictly adhered to for as long as the latest drought persisted, but irrepressible optimists that we humans are, as soon as the heavens opened, the happy peasants forgot about Mr. Goyder and his pointy stick. (The downpour had washed away his markings anyway.) They rushed North again with gay abandon, (if you will pardon the expression) astonished to find perfectly good homes to inhabit, complete with barns and weather veins, just waiting to be filled with ‘hard working families’.

What a Godsend!

We can all see where this is heading, can’t we? Let’s leave the story here before it gets too grim.

Suffice to say, it doesn’t have a happy ending.

…so that is why the heroic deeds of George W. Goyder have been passed down from generation to generation of Form 3 Geography students, making sure his name will go down in the annuls of history alongside the late, great Richard Bowyer Smith, fellow South Australian and inventor of the stump jump plough no less.

Now where were we? Ah yes we are passing through endless waistlands dotted with rustic stone ruins, surrounded by hills dotted with those ghastly wind turbines. They are everywhere. Such an eyesore. So glad to get to Whyallah and see the lofty chimneys on the steelworks, choofing out black smoke, just like Puffing Billy, so much prettier!

I ask a local why it is called Whyallah. He tells me an Afghan Cameleer once built a statue of the Muslim God up on the hill here and everyone would ask: “Why Allah?”. It is apparently the only statue of Allah in the whole world because whenever anyone else built one they got their head chopped off. Thank God the Taliban never got as far as the Eyre Peninsula.

Chapter 3  –  Whyallah to Coober Pedi

On the road again, nothing to see, not even a tree. Came across this old fella in the middle of nowhere. he looked a bit bemused and befuddled so we pulled over and asked if he was OK. He was pretty keen to know how the war was going. We asked him: “The war in Syria?” “No, the great war, the war to end all wars’. We had to tell him we’ve had quite a few wars since ‘the war to end all wars.’ He looked even more befuddled than before. He scratched his head and walked back into the scrub. Weird huh?

We got sick of the highway after that and decided to take the scenic route. You don’t need to follow the road, it’s open country. We just set the compass on North, put the car on cruise control, told Alexa to look out for obstacles, laid back and had a nap. We woke up when we heard Alexa chatting away to a human being. It was that camel lady who crossed the country from Alice Springs to Carnarvon. Turns out Channel 7 asked her to do it again for a TV special. The crew were pretty pissed off to see us ruining the shot, but we had a good chat to the nice lady. Turns out she lives in Castlemaine. Small world eh?

To read the full story go HERE

We kept our eyes peeled after that. Soon enough we come across another loner: No car, no bike, no woman, just a dog and a gun. He claimed he was going to be the first person to cross the country from north to south, on foot, and live to tell the tale. We offered him a Vegemite sandwich but he eschewed it. He said it would corrupt the integrity of the enterprise. Then he just called his dog, pulled up his trousers and headed back to the middle of nowhere without so much as a backward glance. Wierd huh?

To read the full story go HERE

Decide to stick to the main road after that freakish experience. Didn’t bump into any more oddbods for a couple of hundred Ks. Then what do you know, we encounter a couple of grey nomads trotting along. We offered them a glass of milk as a way of introduction, but they eschewed it, pointing out they were raw vegans and ate nothing but uncooked food. Turns out they were running right around Australia, every day, for a whole year. Wow! They said they were really enjoying it, except for the dead kangaroos and the blow flies and the running bit, which takes 4 hours a day, and the eating bit, which takes even longer. Starting with six bananas for entre and ending with six bananas for dessert. But they said they slept really well every night. This grueling regime would be hard enough for a normal person on a diet of meat pies and Chico rolls, let alone a couple of old fogies on a diet of lettuce leaves and tofu.

But they did it. 366 days straight (1 year approximately) Fifteen thousand Ks, a forty kilometre marathon every single day, including weekends, destroying every misinformed myth about vegans along the way.

Definitely made me feel a bit lazy, sitting on my arse in the car for four days straight, and another couple of weeks in the saddle to go, but then I’m not a vegan.

For the full story go HERE

Chapter 4 – Coober Pedi

Done Whyalla, Darwin here we come!

Nothing to see except salt bush till we passed Iron Knob.

It looks different every time I see it. It is definitely getting smaller every time.

Back in the ’50s, when I was just a lad, it was called ‘Iron Boob’

After a few decades of rather creative mining they had to rename it ‘Iron Knob’

These days it’s called ‘Iron Pimple’

Soon to be renamed ‘Iron Gully’ then ‘Iron Canyon’.

More saltbush and the occasional dirty lonely mangy sheep for the rest of the day.

Some pretty weird animals out there, best to keep going.

Plenty of rotting kangaroos being devoured by crows and wedge tailed eagles, salt lakes, one cow, nothing else till Coober Pedy.

Lots of holes in the ground. Apparently an old Italian nona was the one who discovered how to find opals, way back in days gone by. After eeking out a meagre existence scratching in the dirt for the first thirty years, as her delicate complexion became all hard and leathery and her children ran off, one by one to the siren call of the city, she came to understand that the opals grew in fissures in the rock. These elusive fissures held a little bit of water that made the grass just that little bit greener. So she and her faithful husband who had grown equally withered by her side, went in search of thin lines of slightly green grass. She devised a most ingenious method of detection: standing at the top of a long ladder tied in the back of a ute, scanning the barren wasteland day after day, through shine and shine.

Her method was very successful. They both became rich beyond their wildest dreams. But their road to riches was not without its potholes. They refused to divulge their secret method under pain of death. They were smothered in honey and staked to ants nests, they were forced to listen to Metalica 24/7, and such things, but they were both hardy peasant stock from Sicily, raised in the ways of the Cosa Nostra, they kept mum.

It was many months before they recovered from their ordeal and continued their quest. But of course, their every move was being tracked. Their secret was soon exposed.

(It is pretty difficult to be surreptitious when you are wandering around the desert on the top of a 4 metre ladder, even the most incurious start to wonder what you are up to.)

If anyone can find an image of that woman up that ladder on that ute I would much appreciate it.