The mythical ‘they’ say that we all have a book in us. Well, after many years of procrastination, I have finally started mine.
Months ago when I published The Desert of Redemption on AIM I vaguely remember that I promised someone that I would follow up with some snippets from the Desert Road Trip. So here they are … I’ve simply pulled an excerpt out from one of the chapters in the book.
“Salvation for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Religious Institutions, and elsewhere? Well, that is such a bullshit question, and later in the book, I will address that issue. But for now, I’m happy to do a tiny copy of a Bill Bryson and talk about my recent epic (for me) journey alone out into the Australian Deserts.
The god I don’t believe in is perhaps the only entity who truly knows why I did it. All I can say is that on a given day an impelling force appeared under my arse and launched me on a 7,000 kilometre Road Trip to the land of spinifex and red sand. My butt and I simply jumped in the car and vroomed westwards, and, the impracticality of it all and the total lack of forethought and planning was quite touching in a way.
Seriously though, I embarked on that trip because I knew that I had to break, or at least to attempt to minutely fracture, a mould that had been made for me by others.
Agoraphobia, depression, PTSD, and fear are all millstone necklaces in their own right, and combined they had kept me sitting on verandahs, hiding on lounges, and fearfully skulking through open spaces and supermarkets. None of that was a decent way to live. It was all a legacy of my childhood sexual abuse. However momentary it might prove to be, I wanted the taste of freedom.
As a person who was well used to a searing bright coastal light, I was amazed by the flatness and open blue sky once I started to hit the inland plains of Queensland. I thought I knew how flat a landscape could be but as I reached each new horizon it was flatter and more featureless than the preceding one. It was like driving towards the embodiment of nothingness, which was fairly apt considering that I was trying to leave so many things behind.
This whole book could simply be about that trip, but I have other things to talk about. So here’s a one chapter precis, where each place of note only gets a paragraph, bookended by an article containing my existential musings on the whole deal.
Goondiwindi surfaces because I met and had a beer in a hotel there with a man whose camper van had broken down. He was stuck in the town for a few days while repairs were underway. He was travelling alone but he had a female companion, and house, in Townsville, and a female companion, and house, in Melbourne. He sojourned between the two and he had the biggest shit-eating grin I have ever seen on a human face. A happy, travelling, man. According to him either end could only stand him in short stints, and he could only stand either of those ends in short stints as well, so all needs met I guess. His life consisted of joyous, brief, unending, reunions. There are many ways of living and one doesn’t have to be a Mormon to live them.
Wilcannia. You have to go there to understand what sadness and dispossession truly means. Went into the only pub not realising that it was mainly an Aboriginal pub. Whites are supposed to go to the bowls club. I was not refused service, but the can of light beer was thumped down with anger and hate, and since I’m a reader of the truth of our history, I simply nodded acknowledgement. An old bloke there must not have thought that all whites were arseholes because he happily engaged me in conversation while I disappeared the beer, and then myself, as quickly as I could.
When you enter Broken Hill from the east you drive along a section of highway that is paved with the exploded carcasses of kangaroos. We are all used to seeing the occasional example of roadkill, but that road into the town was something else, ten kilometres of smashed animals. A local told me that such things are not talked about because it might frighten off the tourists. The Miners’ Memorial in Broken Hill lists out all of the causes of death of far too many of the early workers, and it is a salient reminder of why the pursuit of greed/profit in any era is not a good thing, and of why Unions always did, and still do, have relevance.
At Coober Pedy, I met an Aboriginal man. We accidentally ended up sitting opposite each other in the underground bar. Cold beer and smiles and all of that. He was a tiny wizened coal-black man who did not speak English, and I was a tall wizened white man who did not speak his language. It was all in the eye contact, and we clinked our beers together at the ludicrous sight of us both sitting there pretending that we were rich inhabitants of opal heaven and I learnt that eyes, indeed, can chortle in unison. Also met a female travel writer in Coober Pedy who had chortling eyes as well.
The road to Lake Eyre, beyond the edge of the outer reach of nowhere. Totally alone. Flat tyre. Tested the finer points of agoraphobia. Walked about a kilometre out into the desert (yes, I could still see the car), and just stood there. Aloneness had been a negative neck scarf for all of my life, and I wanted to confront it. Confronting it was.
On the road to Uluru, I was flagged down by a group of Aboriginal men whose car had run out of fuel. Endless empty horizons in all directions. We tried to siphon some out of my vehicle but that didn’t work. I drove their leader into a local Settlement to pick up a can of gas. On the way back he told me that the others wanted to beat me up, do me in, and rob me of my dollars and all of my camping gear. He told me that he said to them ‘Really? This white bastard is the only one who bothered to stop, so pull your heads in.’ He also told me that ‘We hate you white fellas because of what you did to us, but you stopped, so you must be one of the ok ones.’ We got on like a house on fire after that.
Uluru. It has presence, it has energy. I did not, and would never, climb it. I peered over the sign asking people to please respect the sacred nature of the place and not tramp all over it, and watched all the tourists, and dumb bucket-list pillocks, and brainless nationalists, selfie their way to the top. Dumb, insensitive, shits. But Uluru will outlast them. The Uluru Statement from the Heart will outlast them all.
Drove out to Kata Tjuta. Forty-degree heat. Trekked into the gorge and absorbed as much of the energy as I could. Go there. Absorb. Ran into a bush fire on my way back to Uluru and I was stuck behind a petrol tanker of all things. Fast run through hot spots, and thankfully no explosion. The resort at Uluru prides itself on the number of employees of Aboriginal descent that work there. Most of the Aboriginal workers I spoke to said that most of them were from NSW, or coastal Queensland, and that the local Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people did not feature heavily on the books. If that is true, you would have to wonder why.
Countless other places visited of course, and countless other people met, but space is at a premium so here’s the short version of things …
The Red Centre. It still exists. You cannot fly over the deserts and expect to pick up any real sense of what they are, and how they ‘feel’. You have to traverse them at ground level. You have to experience the rolling out of the miles. You have to immerse in the endless unfolding of the blue sky and the red earth. You have to understand that, out there, distance and time lose meaning.
And as for the long-cherished mythical belief that Outback European Australia is peopled with hardy folk who have no interest in, or sophisticated understanding of, issues that take up the minds of us oh-so-important urban coastal dwellers, well that bullshit myth is soon placed to rest when you go out there.
Outback people might be mightily more attuned to the vagaries of nature than the rest of us combined, but that is where the difference ends. Their sophistication level is dead even with ours. Which leaves open the question of how sophisticated are we as a people, all together as a blob, and as a Nation, which is a question that cannot even begin to be answered in a book as short as this.
I must admit that it was fascinating to see during the trip, except in the smallest of smallest two-house towns, that just about anywhere out there are Indian, or Vietnamese, or Thai, or Filipino or Anglo-Celtic cafe families who are prepared to dosh up a reasonable meal for you at a reasonable cost. And your expresso is likely to be produced by a top-knotted hipster dude who just as easily could be plying his trade in Lygon Street, which he probably recently was. Australia in some ways is changing for the better. Salt of the Earth Australians come in many happy forms these days.”
Right. Vague promise vaguely kept. Back to the book!
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