TRUE COLOURS

TRUE COLORS

By Fergus Blakiston

 “And Wilderness is Paradise enow…” – Omar Khayyam

I thought I would die on the Dampier Peninsula. It wasn’t just the saltwater crocodiles lurking in the mangrove creeks. It wasn’t the black tip sharks patrolling the waters of King Sound. I could keep a wary eye on the 30-foot tides, which raced in twice each day, swallowing the rocky beaches along the coastline in minutes. The ferocious mosquitoes, the ants and sand flies were merely an annoyance. What affected me most out here was the isolation — the feeling of being at the uttermost end of the earth — and the realization of how vulnerable, emotionally and physically, humans can be when confronted with a true wilderness.

The 150-mile long Dampier Peninsula juts seaward from the northern tip of Western Australia. To the south-east, beyond the deep indentation of King Sound, lies the equally rugged Kimberley region: a wilderness of wind-sculpted landforms, hidden rivers and forests lost in deep gorges.

The Dampier Peninsula is pirate country. For hundreds of years before Europeans settled Australia, Portuguese, Dutch, Macassan and Chinese buccaneers frequented the coast of King Sound, laying low to evade pursuers and perhaps burying ill-gotten booty. Many of the sound’s landmarks — One-Arm Point, Disaster Bay — have names with an unmistakably piratical ring. The peninsula is named after William Dampier, an English privateer turned explorer who first mapped the western coast of Australia.

Around thirty percent of the peninsula’s 8000 square miles of land is owned by Aboriginals, whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years, and their permission is required to visit many of the isolated missions and outstations. Yet for travelers willing to forgo the sybaritic resorts of Broome – the northernmost town on the coast of Western Australia – for a few days in the bush, the peninsula offers a perfect opportunity to interact with and learn from Aboriginal people.

Mark Manado’s family runs Barramundi Moon bush camp, east of the Beagle Bay Mission on the coast of King Sound. The evocative name comes from a song Mark wrote about fishing for barramundi at night. Although the name sounds exotic this was no luxury retreat. The facilities are basic and visitors need to be self-sufficient or, like our group, part of an organized tour to stay there. The attraction of Barramundi Moon is the chance to explore a remote and savagely beautiful part of the Dampier Peninsula in the company of Aboriginals who still maintain strong links with the land.

To reach the peninsula I had flown from my home in New Zealand to Darwin via Sydney, then on to Broome: a total of ten hours in the air. It was like flying from LA to Paris and it seemed as though I had almost reached the end of the world. In Broome I joined four other travellers with a shared interest in Aboriginal culture.

We had all discovered Barramundi Moon by searching the Internet; our driver and guide, Dan Balint’s company, Kimberley Wild, had also been engaged using the Net. There was a pleasing symmetry in using computer technology to arrange a trip into the wilderness to learn about the customs of the world’s oldest continuous civilization.

With Dan’s sturdy Landcruiser four wheel-drive packed with fresh water, food and camping gear, we drove north from Broome along the Cape Leveque Road: a grand name for what was nothing more than a deep groove carved through brick red dirt.

The road (or “track” as the Aussies call an outback road) is impassable during the rainy season (“The Wet”) which lasts from December to April. It’s roughness inspired the title of Aboriginal playwright Stephen Baamba’s play, “Corrugation Road,” about the rigors of life on the peninsula.

Dan attacked the road like a rally driver. “The only way to drive on corrugations is to hit the buggers fast,” he shouted over the juddering rumble of the Landcruiser’s suspension. His face alternated between a mask of concentration as we lurched through patches of bulldust (deep, finely powdered dirt which can easily bog a vehicle) to a broad grin as we became airborne in the back after hitting a particularly big pothole.

As we hammered north through the gnarled eucalypt forest I wondered what lay ahead. The road ran into a vanishing point of red beneath a sky of burnished copper. The thrumming of the wheels on the dirt seemed to be chanting a mantra: “come and find out, come and find out…”

After three hours of bouncing we reached the Beagle Bay Mission, a tiny cluster of houses established in 1890 by French Trappist monks. In the 19th century, Europeans settlers clashed with the Aboriginals and the mission provided a refuge for many Aboriginal families. The simple, single-story mission church, constructed from timber hewn from the surrounding bush and stone quarried from the coast, was completed in 1901, and has an exquisite altar inlaid with mother-of-pearl depictions of biblical scenes and Aboriginal motifs.

As we stood in the reverential silence before the altar, another Landcruiser roared up outside.

“I’ve been looking for you mob,” Mark Manado said as he walked into the church. “It gets dark quickly up here and it’s easy to get lost.”

Tall and gangly in a New York City t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, Mark’s Portuguese ancestry had sharpened his Aboriginal features, giving him an aquiline nose and high cheekbones beneath jet black skin. His cousin, Stephen Victor, a grizzled elder of their Nimunburu tribe, grinned at us from beneath a battered Akubra hat.

The late afternoon sun slanted through giant fig trees growing on the mission grounds. Sulphur-crested cockatoos screeched overhead. Some of the mission kids played a boisterous game of Aussie Rules football on a dirt pitch. We piled into the vehicles and headed east through a forest of six-foot tall buffalo grass and tall, gaunt stringy-bark trees. The setting sun glowed hazy orange through the miasma of dust thrown up by our wheels. By the time we reached the camp darkness had fallen.

Mark lit a fire and each of us was assigned a roomy shelter in which to sleep. The shelters consisted of a corrugated iron roof over a concrete floor, with shade-cloth providing the walls. Each shelter contained four camp stretchers. Preferring to sleep outside in the cool the May air, I suspended my mosquito net from a tree I and slept on a stretcher beneath the star-encrusted southern sky.

Life at Barramundi Moon revolves around the tides and the eternal cycle of day and night. At low tide next morning we set off along the beach with Mark and four members of his family. As the day’s heat grew, we walked north beneath towering cliffs of rainbow-hued sandstone. These are the true colors of Australia: alternating bands of ochre red and pale yellow capped with a green skin of vegetation along the cliff top. Chunks of rock the size of buildings had fallen onto the beach, and the relentless ocean was patiently scraping their edges back into sand.

I clambered into a narrow cleft where a colony of common sheath-tailed bats had made their home. “They taste great roasted,” Mark called from outside as the bats flitted and dived around me, their shrill squeaks echoing from the walls.

Farther along the beach, Mark showed us a wide semicircle of stones, which once formed a fish trap, strategically placed to collect fish as the tide receded along a sandy channel. It was being taken over by mangroves, because it was no longer used. But as we stood inside the circle talking, Mark’s 5-year-old nephew, Vaun, speared a crab for lunch.

When we stopped for a rest in the shade of a massive lump of sandstone I asked Mark about the evocative name of his camp.

“A mob of us were going out fishing one night,” he said. “We were driving down a bush track when we saw the full moon rising ahead of us. I said to my son, ‘I can feel the barramundi in my fingers looking at that moon,’ and so we made up a song about it called ‘The Barramundi Moon.’ ”

We climbed a jutting headland and descended into the eucalypt forest for a lesson in gathering the natural fruits, berries, roots and vegetables Aussies call “Bush Tucker.”

“To us the bush is a giant open air supermarket, stuffed full of edible plants,” Mark said, plucking a handful of tiny translucent berries from a scrubby bush. (The berries tasted of tinned pears.)

“Bush tucker is high in carbohydrates and vitamins,” he continued. “You could survive out here for ages just by eating berries like these.”

But far from being a convenient larder, the bush is also a hardware store full of useful tools and a pharmacy in which Aboriginals can find cures for any ailment or injury. Mark knelt and dug a root from beneath another stunted bush.

“This is a Banjurra root,” he said. “If you crush it up and drop it in a rock pool it suffocates all the fish in the water. They float up to the surface and you can grab them.”

By now it was midday. The sun was incandescent on the ocean and beat down on us with an almost tactile force. The landscape span and wobbled in the heat as if we were looking at it through a glass bottle.

 “In heat like this you need to conserve your energy,” Mark told us. “Aboriginal people do most of their food-gathering and traveling in the early morning and in the evening. In the heat of the day we just rest up.”

As he spoke he plucked some leaves from an acacia tree and stuffed them into his pocket. Back at camp an hour later we boiled the leaves in a billy-can of water to make a refreshing herbal tea that tasted like peppermint.

That evening we walked out onto a reef exposed by the receding tide to watch the sunset. Wave-worn rocks enclosed pools where aquamarine crabs watched us with glittering eyes and long, black sea cucumbers lay motionless amid crimson and sapphire corals. As the sun sank into the land the air seemed to shimmer and in the moment between day’s end and night’s arrival, the sky and the sea fused into a seamless mirror of pink and mauve light.

Tide-oriented places like Barramundi Moon always seem to encourage a degree of soul-searching and I found the Dampier Peninsula particularly conducive to introspection. In new surroundings, freed from the routines of home, every emotion and response becomes intense. At Barramundi Moon, I no longer felt the everyday constraints on my thinking. I could change a little about myself and try something new in the safety of anonymity.

A few hours in jet aircraft and four-wheel-drives can shift us from the safety of familiar surroundings into an utterly alien place. I realized how being in a strange landscape can also bring people together. Stripped bare of luxuries our small group had formed a strong bond of friendship out there. 

Despite the fact that the six of us came from several different countries (three Aussies, a Kiwi, a Canadian and a Swede), during our three-day stay on the peninsula we learnt to rely on each other’s strengths, just as our Aboriginal hosts rely on the communal strength of their tribe to survive. We caught and cooked fish and crabs to eat, tended the campfire and took turns looking out for crocs whenever we swam in the warm waters of the Sound.

On our last morning at Barramundi Moon we clambered over a headland south of the camp to explore a cave. The coastline here was forbidding and primeval. Giant salamanders slithered on the tidal mud. A forest of inscrutable mangroves choked a brackish creek beneath cliffs of red and purple stone. The incoming tide roared on the overfalls and embankments of the reef with a noise like a distant cheering crowd.

The floor of the cavern was strewn with colored pebbles and crushed shells that crunched beneath our feet. At the back of the cave the numbers 1417 were etched into the damp rock of the ceiling. I ran my hands over the numerals and wondered about their meaning. Was it a date? Was it a set of coded directions to buried treasure? Was it the last message of a castaway, dying alone on this burning shore? Outside the cave, the ocean glittered in the sunlight, like a new frontier where anything was possible. I put my arm around one of my new friends and thought: “Out here you can make up your own ending.”

The Harmony of Height

THE HARMONY OF HEIGHT

By Fergus Blakiston

Out of the maze of valleys,

The thousand mountains, shining,

Lifting their rock and snow

Into upper air, ocean of light

                    – Charles Brasch, Hawk Over Brown Peak

 

At sunset I sit on a rock ledge above the Mueller Glacier.  Day ends quickly the Southern Alps.  Though a chill grasps the air as the sun dips behind the South Ridge of Mount Sefton, the rock beneath me holds the day’s warmth.  Far below, the mountain’s shadowy silhouette crosses the Mueller Valley and scales the Sealy Range.  To the north, standing like a sentinel above the Hooker Valley, the icy bulk of Mount Cook is bathed in golden light and, further back, the sunlight gleams on a thousand shining mountains. 

The indigo sky is clear save for a few streaks of high cirrus cloud; a pale silver moon hangs above Cook like a piece of a child’s mobile, suspended on an invisible thread.  Avalanches boom and snap from the ghastly cliffs of Sefton’s East Face as hanging glaciers shed huge chunks of ice.  The slopes at the bottom of the face are grubby with debris. 

The avalanches are almost continuous.  Their white noise reverberates around the peaks as the glaciers disintegrate.  The mountains are never totally silent.  Rock shatters, ice cracks, water roars: the entire onomatopoeic soundtrack to the turmoil of raw geology, plate tectonics and the mountain-building process.

+++++

We had spent the afternoon slogging up the Sealy Range from the Mount Cook Village.  Bent beneath my pack, I kept myself focused on the climb by reciting the script of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in my head.  I was out of shape after a summer of slothful indolence and this was an impromptu ascent, cooked up over a curry by my mate Mike and I the previous week.  I’d done no training for the climb and our provisions – cheese, wine, chocolate bikkies and the like – were more suited to a gentleman’s afternoon ramble than an early autumn alpine tramp.  Spasms of cramp wracked my legs and my eyes smarted from the formaldehyde sting of sweat. 

We arrived at the Sealy Tarns, halfway up the flank of the range, at lunch time.  The sun was gloriously hot and we lay shirtless in the tussocks beside a mirror-calm tarn eating boiled eggs, salami and bread.  Parties of guided walkers passed by, hurrying upwards on some unwritten schedule.  For our part we were happy to lounge in the sun reading the paper and feeling smug.

We reached the Mueller Hut, bright red in its cradle of rock and fresh snow,  at two.  The hut is popular with backpackers and a full house was forecast for the evening by the hut warden.  We sat on the deck chatting to other hikers about the rigors of the ascent from the valley.   A pair of older trampers from Christchurch were sharing, with loud voices, their enlightened views on “women-folk”, “communists” and “the little konichiwas”, so we set off across the snowfield beyond the hut in search of less crowded lodgings.

+++++

The last rays of sunlight shine through a hidden pass at the head of the Mueller Valley.  Cloud pours over the Divide through a notch between two fanged peaks, like dry ice at a rock concert. The Mueller Glacier, striped with slot-car tracks of moraine, curves down from snowfields beneath the Main Divide.  The East Face of Sefton gleams like polished marble. 

Mike has tea simmering on the primus so I clamber down to join him.  Our digs for the night are an overhang of rock we have christened Drippy Rock Hotel after the melt-water seeping from the stone.  We sip the warm shiraz and nibble cheese and crackers as if we are in the lounge bar of some posh alpine lodge instead of our less comfy but no less convivial bivouac.  

Sprawled on the rocks beneath the overhang we yarn about the things that drive people to climb mountains.  With their deadly shifts in weather, their deathtrap crevasses, avalanches and eternal coldness, it’s easy to perceive the mountains as utterly inhospitable and cruel.  But the mountain are neither cruel nor kind: they simply are.  Humans may seek to test their inner strengths in the mountains but our puny presence matters not one iota to the implacable rock and ice giants.  They exist.  They have always been there and will remain long after the human race has disappeared.

The combined effects of a hearty feed of stew, several post-dinner cups of coffee, and a few lung-fulls of a certain herbal substance mean I spend a restless night, listening to the growl of avalanches across the valley.  The mountains stand awash in starlight: a negative image in black and silver. 

I trace the slow transit of Venus across the sky and watch satellites, gleaming with reflected light, skid across the black background of the universe.  Occasionally, a meteorite flashes its dying moments above the peak of Sefton.  It’s so still can almost feel the earth spinning on its axis.

Eventually I fall asleep and when I awaken the sun is pouring pink light over the summits.  The snowfield surrounding our bivouac is frozen solid.  The seepages from Drippy Rock have been staunched by the frost.  Even the avalanches have fallen temporarily silent, held in check by the frost’s icy grip    

In keeping with the relaxed approach to the whole expedition we loll in our sleeping bags until the morning is well under way.  Mike cooks a pan-full of bacon and we perch on top of the rock munching bacon sarnies and slurping coffee.  A few parties of guided trampers crunch purposefully past on crampons, heading up the eastern side of the valley towards the Annette Plateau.

A pillow of cloud hangs in the valley below; tendrils of mist reach up to envelop the lower slopes of the Sealy Range.  But at Drippy Rock Hotel we bathe in the warm autumn sunshine, with out gear strewn haphazardly around us and our boots unlaced.  I try to remember the lines of a Dennis Glover poem called The Harmony of Height:  “What pleasure lies in height and cold, the splendour of the hills…”

To me, the greatest pleasure of the mountains is to simply sit and look around.  No epic ascents for me.  I prefer to leave the dangerous stuff to mountaineers.  The day is still young.  We could climb nearby Mt Ollivier (1933m) or practice our step-cutting on the glacier below.  But the morning is far too nice for anything as strenuous as that.  I open a packet of chocolate biscuits and put the billy on for another cup of coffee.

Under The Sun

UNDER THE SUN

by Fergus Blakiston

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 pressed down on us with an almost tactile force. Thunderheads massed on the horizon told of a cooling storm to come, but for now the four of us aboard the Kathryn M2 were at the mercy of the monsoonal heat. The boat’s hull cleaved the water of the Gulf of Carpentaria with a sibilant hiss; the diesel engine thrummed beneath the deck plates. We were 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 watched the green smudge of the Australian coast drawing slowly nearer. Behind us, the boat’s wake unfolded across the sea which lay 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, 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 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’ wester 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 reached shore it was raining: a heavy, blattering downpour which pock-marked the opaque water of the river and ran in deluges from the scuppers. We adjourned to the Sunset Tavern (one of the few places in Eastern Australia where you can watch the sun set over the ocean) to re-live the day’s escapades. Outside, sixty millimetres of rain fell in less than an hour. By nightfall the storm had moved on and a watery sliver of moon hung in the sky.

Karumba is the southernmost port of 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 site and sold to the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. Later came pearl divers then shrimp fisherman, and today Karumba is home base for Australia’s largest shrimping fleet.

The day after my fishing trip was a Saturday. Nothing much was happening in Karumba. A few fishing boats came and went at the pier; the tide rose and fell among the mangroves and mooring ropes along the Norman River; mirages shimmered on the asphalt road leading out of town and into the Outback; ceiling fans stirred the tepid air in the Animal Bar of the Karumba Lodge Pub; next door, the Suave Bar was empty. I sat in the shade of a spreading fig tree outside the Post Office drinking chilled orange juice. Ants were nesting in a crack in the concrete sidewalk. A girl came and emptied the mail from box 71 of the 233 red mail boxes set into the wall. Magpie larks played desultorily on the blue and orange phone boxes.

All day thunderheads grumbled out on the plains. The sun was incandescent in the pewter dome of the sky. As afternoon wore on the heat grew more and more oppressive. Mosquitoes fed on my exposed skin and flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew screeching from tree to tree. It was as if the natural world knew something was about to happen and was restive.

As the sun began its descent into the sea, the horizon was shrouded by roiling clouds. Bolts of lightning jumped earthward from the black belly of the storm. The atmosphere seemed full of electricity and moisture. This was the real deal, the full spectacle of heat, convection, air masses, water vapour, static electricity and raw energy. The sun had gone out. All that remained was a pale, flat, eerie glow which cast no shadows. Huge knives of lightning sliced the sky, thunder detonated overhead with ear-splitting force and the air turned the colour of soot. As the storm raged all around I took 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 lay in simply watching the sun set over the sea while the Sunset Tavern regulars, oblivious of the solar spectacle outside, gambled on television horses racing in other parts of Australia. It lay 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 lay in the pure, unexpected delight of being in a place I’d dreamed of for so long.

In Karumba I could smell the warm breath of Asia. Across the narrow waters of the Arafura Sea lay the jungle islands of Irian Jaya, the coral atolls of the Mollucas and the teeming shores of Indonesia. Yet even this close to Asia I was rooted firmly in white Australia. Satellite dishes beamed the latest news of the world into town; every meal came with chips and beetroot; men in grubby shorts and tee-shirts drank copious quantities of Victoria Bitter beer from ice-cold glasses; and, on the edge of town, Aboriginal people moved like ghosts in their own land.

On my last evening in Karumba I drifted down to the Sunset Tavern to watch my final Arafura sunset. Day ends suddenly in the tropics. Sunsets are always brief but spectacular. I sat on a rocky outcrop, still warm from the day’s heat, as the sun sank inexorably into the sea and the sky turned the colour of spilled blood. Distant thunderclouds piled on the horizon were lit from within by strobes of lightning. As the sun disappeared the colour bled from the sky, the sea faded from pink to indigo, and night came down like a theatrical curtain.

I sat for a while in the gloaming listening to the pulse of the ocean. The incoming tide roared 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 had seen it Karumba was real. It had been burned into my memory during the time I had spent out there, under the sun on the edge of the world. The ocean glittered in the starlight and I knew that, for the rest of my life, I would go to Karumba in my mind, once or twice every passing day.