At Roper Bar I was swimming with crocodiles. And not the harmless freshwater variety, you understand. 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 the rocky slab 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.
I had set off from Darwin two days earlier to drive the eastern section of The Savannah Way, a 3700 kilometre route across the Great Top End of Australia, from Broome in Western Australia to Cairns. Much of the route is via sealed highways and well-maintained back roads. But the 700km section from Roper Bar, in the Northern Territory, to Normanton, in western Queensland, is a lonely Outback track requiring travelers to be self-sufficient and have some knowledge of four-wheel driving.
Dawn in the Australian Outback is heralded by strangled gurglings, maniacal cackling, rasping, clicking and guffawing. 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 traveling 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 was 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 the 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 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 which came with my rented 4WD, 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 of 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.”
Walkabout at Uluru
Jacob Puntaru settled himself cross-legged on the ground, pushed his Akubra hat back on his forehead and touched a flaming match to a pile of sticks. The dry mulga wood caught alight with a crackle; its astringent smoke curled up into the deep blue Central Australian sky. Beyond the clearing where we sat, the world’s biggest rock, Uluru, rose from the plain.
An elder of the Anangu Aboriginal people, Jacob was guiding us along the Mala Walk, part of an ancient route around Uluru which his ancestors have followed for 10,000 years. Along the way, Jacob told us through his interpreter, Kathy Tozer, he hoped to teach us some of the folklore his people attach to Uluru. As the campfire’s 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 was cooking it in an earth oven. The bell-bird man was asleep so Lungkata stole the emu and took it to his hideout, way up there.” Jacob poked the fire with a stick then pointed to a small cave notched into the rock near the summit of Uluru.
“When the bell-bird man discovered his emu was gone he went to ask Lungkata if he had seen it. Lungkata lied that he hadn’t. In a rage 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 a heap of rubble piled at the base 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.”
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 and the Anangu hear helicopter rotors thrashing the hot air as a rescue is made or a body is recovered, they see it as the legend of Lungkata coming true.
“This is not something I made up to entertain you visitors,” Jacob Puntaru said. “These things really happened and you only have to look at the rock to see the proof.”
I remembered Jacob’s words later that day as I set off in the shimmering heat of mid-afternoon to walk the nine kilometre path around the base of Uluru. Up close, the rock was massive. It towered overhead in perpendicular billows like an enormous petrified wave. The red stone was incredibly hard and cold like the skin of a reptile. I could easily see how the Anangu people had read stories into every crease and bulge of Uluru. Staring up at the rock from the meager shade of a bloodwood tree I could see a dingo’s paw, a person’s face and the pock marks of spear thrusts.
At the Mutu Tjulu water hole, rainwater had run down from a catchment of smooth red rock which towered overhead. The Anangu respect this place as the home of Wanampi, an ancestral water-snake. Wanampi has the power to control the supply of this precious water. As Mutu Tjulu is the most reliable water-source around Uluru and wildlife depend on it for survival, the Anangu are careful not to offend Wanampi by polluting the water or swimming there.
Tiny green plants with pin-cushion clusters of bright yellow flowers and miniature purple fox gloves grew around the water hole. Flocks of pied butcherbirds and zebra finches flipped from tree to tree. A busload of tourists arrived shattering the silence with the beep and whirr of cameras. But as I set off along the track it only took a couple of minutes to walk away from the tourist traffic and into the great solitude of the rock. In places the trail hugged the base of the rock. The red stone towered overhead in great billows, almost perpendicular. The deep red colour of the rock was bought into sharp relief by the deep, deep cobalt blue of the sky. The rock itself was flaky and cold, like the skin of a reptile. It was incredibly hard and incredibly old, arching overhead like an enormous petrified wave.
The track was composed of coarse red sand, gravel and small pebbles. I picked up a piece and tried to imagine where on the rock it might have come from. veered away from the rock, through dry spinifex grass and stunted mulga trees. This allowed a more panoramic view of the rock with its undulations, its hummocks and folds, its strata and the different effects of light and shade. The ground was alive with ants but a cool breeze kept the flies away.
There were many sacred sites which people are warned not to touch or climb the rock or take photographs. As only properly instructed and initiated people are permitted to enter these places under Anangu law, casual visitors would be violating the tjurkupa (Aboriginal law) by walking amid the stones or taking pictures. As the Anangu – and, indeed, all Aborigines – believe that the name of a dead person should not be spoken, a photograph of a sacred place is like speaking a dead person’s name over and over.
I passed the Kuniya Piti site, a traditional Anangu men’s site. The sun was burning hot and the vegetation was low, scrubby and very dry. The trail crossed several dry watercourses which, during the occasional rain storms, would channel water from catchments up on the rock out into the desert. Occasionally, the silence was shattered by the flap of rotor blades as sightseeing helicopters buzzed the rock. The choppers and all aircraft are restricted to narrow flight-paths to minimize the aerial intrusion and to safeguard the residents of the nearby Aboriginal community for being constantly disturbed by aircraft.
The Kuniya Piti site was strewn with pieces of broken rock, huge boulders, caves and overhangs. The rock above was pockmarked with holes and fissures. It was as if the skin of a giant anthill had been peeled away to reveal the network of tunnels and passageways within. The wind had by now died away entirely and it was extremely hot. The people I met walking – most of whom were walking in a clockwise direction; I was walking anti-clockwise – seemed ill-prepared for the conditions. Most were hatless, walking in shoes more suited for the patio or café that the grueling conditions around the base of Uluru.
I was walking along about 300m out from the base of the rock, moving through an area of waist-high scrub. Wittchety bushes festooned with seed pods rustled as I passed. The path cut a straight swath across the red soil. The flanks of the rock were almost vertical and I felt quite insignificant in its presence. I had some sense of the endlessness, of the enormous amount of time which has passed since the rock was formed.
I reached a shelter built in the shape of An aboriginal humpy, with a lean-to roof of mulga branches and a circle of logs to sit on. I sat for a while in the shade, drinking water and gazing up at the rock. It was 10.59am and I had been walking for an hour. In the distance I could make out the purple and mauve domes of Kata-Tjuta, the Olgas. I was now walking across a wide, bare plain towards the car park at the base of the climb. It was a grueling stretch of the walk, even with the amazing spectacle of the rock beside me. With photography forbidden on this side of the rock I began to scan the ground around me for signs of life. There were dozens of different animal tracks, from tiny scuttling creatures to birds, lizards and snakes. There were delicate flowers bursting forth after the recent rains. Wild melons lay ripening in the heat.
Up on the rock, patches of white guano marked the places where birds nested and roosted. The sand was the colour and consistency of chili powder and every bit as hot. Occasionally, a breeze would come out of nowhere, blow for a few minutes then fade away to nothing. These desert zephyrs, however fleeting, were most welcome in the stifling heat. If it hadn’t been such an amazing place to be walking I might almost have envied the tourists cruising past in their air-conditioned buses.
It was easy to see how the Anangu people could read stories into every crease and bulge in the rock. I was standing underneath a shady bloodwood tree staring up at a rockface. Halfway up was a ledge where trees and grasses grew. I could see a dingo’s paw, a person’s face a wave breaking. A gigantic sliver of rock had split off and slipped down like a loose shingle from a steeply-pitched roof. I could see right through beneath it.
In several places there were piles of ancient debris where avalanches had crashed down form the heights above. The debris might have lain there when the first men came to Uluru, perhaps even before men arrived in Australia.
On the western side of the rock, the path followed the edge of the bitumen road for a few hundred metres. I could see people toiling up the rock and wondered about their sanity. “Are they fucking mental,” I asked myself. That morning, just minutes after the sunrise, people had been swarming up the rock.
The path turned hard left and once again I was walking along against the foot of the rock. The red stone reared above me like the walls of a cathedral. I passed a huge cave where the cliff had collapsed millennia ago to form a deep recess, sacred to the Anangu. Though a sign said clearly no photographs I watched a tourist happily snapping away at the cave.
And so I came to the deep, shady recess of Kantji Gorge. It was 11.31am and it was a relief to be out of the heat. A tiny waterhole, shaded by eucalypt trees lay in a muddy hollow at the base of the rock. I could see the dark line of algae where the waterfall which feeds the billabong came down from the hidden catchment above. The rock itself leaned out beyond the perpendicular, hiding the cliffs and gullies above. There was a wooden walkway to the edge of the pool. This was the main source of water for the Mala ceremonies and for thousands of years people and animals have depended on the pool for survival.
Further along, the rock beneath an overhang had been blackened by the campfires of ten thousand years and handprints in white ochre decorated the walls of the small cave. There were rock paintings, too, depictions of hunts and animals along with spirals (which signify a waterhole or a honey ant nest) and geometric patterns red and yellow and black. I came to a long overhang, like a giant petrified wave, where the rock was striped with oxides and lichens and the ground was covered with fine white powdered rock. There was another pool here, fringed with grasses and small trees. A tiny trickle of water splashed down from the lip of a hidden pool above. Dragonflies flitted in the still air. There were paintings of hand- and footprints on the walls of the overhang. The spirals and geometric patterns found at Uluru are still used by Aboriginal artists throughout the Central Australian deserts. The colours are made using ochre, sandstone pigmented with various coloured oxides. Ochre is a valuable trading commodity and is still traded across the land. Paint is made by mixing powdered ochre with water and as suck are very thin and easily damaged.
Beyond the base of the climb I was once more on a baking crossing, besieged by flies and with little wind to cool me down. There were some large trees growing on precipitous gullies high on the rock where there was presumably enough soil and water for them to gain a foothold on the implacable rock.
At 12.42 the mulga trees were providing some shade from the sun which had also angled over the rock somewhat. The path veered outwards once again to avoid another sacred site, this time an Anangu women’s site: Pulari.
And so I came to the end of the walk. Alone in the bush I read a plaque which said: “Around you is one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world. Since ancient times Uluru has been a place of learning and discovery. Its physical features have helped explain how humans and nature are one. Everything, to the smallest detail, has a part to play. Take a moment to look, and discover life here.”
IRON AND GOLD
BY Fergus Blakiston
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 desultorily 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.