In the late summer of 1976 I took the longest break of my working life. At the age of almost 64, more than 43 years after my first trip to the centre, I drove over to Perth and came back to Sydney via Laverton and Ayers Rock.
My vehicle was a tried and trusted four-wheel drive Toyota, in which I had learned to be comfortable and secure under almost all conditions, from snow and ice to drought and flood. When necessary, which was not often, I could sleep dry in her in supreme comfort. She was equipped with a refrigerator (running off gas, battery or mains) and a vast collection of spares and implements accumulated over many shorter adventures.
There were luxuries in the form of instant vegetables, tins of special treats, liqueurs, wines, cartons of beer, china tea, coffee, marmalades and essentials like Scotch Whisky, axe, spade, compass, telescope, sack of potatoes and flour.
In addition, there was also an extra spare wheel, many tins and containers for water and petrol and a 40cc Honda trail bike as a back up and last resource. The result was a vehicle rather heavy for deep soft sand crossings but she took almost all in her stride without missing a beat. With library, wardrobe, maps, fuses, gas cylinders, lights, mantles and shoe polish, she was like a well found boat and every inch was filled. Her drink might have cost a little more than a camel but apart from other obvious advantages, she smelt much better and the noise she made was greatly preferable to those a camel makes from both ends.
The whole trip was the fulfilment of a promise made to myself on the top of a remote hill: to reach and climb Mt. Olga some day; to climb to the top and try to prove whether or not I had seen it from the north.
I had never had the time to do this until I had retired from a teaching hospital with all the ties and duties that my excessively busy life demanded. In the interval, the dream recurred and became something of an obsession to which I am vulnerable. As I had spent the last eight years in self-disciplined slavery learning Homeric Greek. I added the challenge of declaiming the first four books of the Iliad. I felt that to do so would constitute some form of first for the record books in a man my age. In the end I got what I deserved for such childish exhibitionism.
Privately I was already nervous and doubtful of my determination to go through with the project. Not so much from fear of the mechanics of the trip, but from doubts as to whether my brain could survive the pressures of the total impartiality of a neutral land which, unlike older civilized countries, is not involved with human ghosts and history, but merely reflects oneself back on oneself.
The centre of Australia is part of an infinite universe, inevitably drawing the mind to eternal truths and concepts. It impells the brain to expand its tiny kernal of truth and beauty and discard ephemera. It commands the dictum of the seven wise men to 'know thyself'. If one passes the test - the reward is peace, if not, it can unhinge. The margin is not great and the risk is high.
In the event, the journey was far easier than I expected and the rewards of peace and solitude far greater.
I drove over to Perth on a marvelous leisurely course with many detours stamping an endless roll of beauties on my mind. I screwed up my determination to make the experiment. Once across the Blue Mountains I was welcomed by the expanse of plains with their mirages, dust, smoke, light and glorious skies which allowed the rhythms of time and distance to take hold.
I travelled slowly, stopping for five minutes every hour to smoke a cigarette, strolling about, turning over stones, looking at ants nests, bush, grass and trees, or scanning the panorama. Slipping into the easy routine of a regimen that freed the mind. No specific daily goal but stopping in good time at some congenial spot.
West of Warren, through the famous merino studs, the country slowly changed through Nyngan to Cobar. The soil got redder. Little pools of broken windscreen glass increased, like points on a graph. Mulga clumps, groups of emus, kangaroos, red or pink sheep, coolahbas, copper mines and then a long stretch of poorer country to the Darling and Willcania. Half castes lounged in the streets and traces of river steamers showed the remnants of former enterprises abandoned.
Broken Hill, pervaded by a miasma of union tyranny, running down, wearing out and falling apart. The goal post on playing fields show how overwhelmingly linked it is to South Australia, clear evidence of the southern lunacy and anti-colonial hysteria.
In Perth, eschewing the local Hilton, I eventually discovered a hotel-motel in outer north Perth and started to live a double life for a week. I was divided between the formalities of an Opthalmological conference with academic dress and dinner jacket (fortunately dust proofed), and a bitter battle with bureaucracy for a permit to travel back through the centre.
The hotel had an interesting clientele of opportunist adventurers in many fields. A shifting population of tough and self reliant young men from the Kimberleys and the far north who were used to covering enormous distances. Miners on enormous wages who had flown in to whoop it up during a break from iron ore and nickle mines. Fly-by-nights, from Perth and the eastern states, grass widows waiting for their partners who were away on contract to carry, build, explore, farm or deliver all sorts of skills. Their objectives were to avoid taxation and get enough money to build and settle. The communal self-serve meals were more than adequate. The vehicles in the parking lot had bull bars and spotlights and their owners told tales of encounters with kangaroos and cattle during night-long distance-swallowing journeys.
It was a complete contrast to the luncheons I was attending. At one of these I was lucky enough to sit next to Sir Charles Court, a wise and strategic thinker of the first order. He retained the common touch, a mixture of practicality and long term vision. There was a memorable dinner at the Weald Club, given and chosen by Tim Yates. It included an inspiring professor of Greek and a dozen compatible men and women, all outstanding civilized paragons.
Between these two extremes my time was frittered away by the mind-crushing dead hand of the bureaucracy. In my efforts to get the permit I was shuffled from office to office, backwards and forwards from widely separated departments. I met a selection of pedantic rule-bound minor officials, some arrogant, some insolent, some indolent, a few even bemused or part-aboriginal and totally lost. The telex messages that had to be sent and received often went astray or lay on the desk of some link in the untraceable chain who happened to be taking the day off. Only the mapping department was an exception, quick, kind, helpful and efficient.
I became hopelessly familiar with the Western Australian Aborigines Planning Act 1973. Permission to enter a Reserve. Thou shalt submit a map of the proposed route with the path clearly marked in red ink. Thou shalt not deviate from this path by a matter of feet. Thou shalt not fossick, carry a firearm, deal with a native or dare to visit Giles, The Musgrave Ranges or any of the other huge areas marked prohibited on the maps. The penalties are dire. Few Australians have any idea of the difficulties and prohibitions placed on travel in their own country or the enormous proportion of it that is out of bounds and unreachable.
If the totality of all this obstruction was designed to be in the interests of pure blood aboriginals it might have some justification, but, now that there are no aboriginals living a tribal life, by their own, perhaps wise choice, the effect is entirely contrary and merely hides the fact that there has been a complete breakdown in the structure of tribal life. There are, however, a few impositions that have a basis in common sense. The duty to report to the police at Laverton and to telex back from the other side probably saves a few fools from death and expensive searches. As it is, the only point of getting a permit is to be able to buy petrol at Warburton and Docker River, without which the journey could not be undertaken. This privilege is 'subject to availability and only between certain hours with the production of the permit.'
When, at the very last moment, my permit came through, I left their offices comparing them bitterly with the Sydney Water Board and the Maritime Services Board. I think they may have taken this as a compliment, but it was the unkindest insult I could think of at the time. The great Australian Public Service which pushes non-achievment to an art form: enormous, self-multiplying, and all-pervading. That which places an immovable dead hand on every type of initiative, invention and industry. In close alliance with the Teachers Federation it is already on its way to implementing the objectives of a Socialist revolution by achieving the lowest common denominator in every facet of life. A perfect counter to the process of evolution.
To my dismay, all my friends in Perth advised against the folly of returning home across the Centre, This, together with the difficulties with the permit, shook my resolution and I dilly-dallied by a circuitous route to Wave Rock (an interesting but somewhat vandalized phenomenon). The rhythm of routine and a lovely night in the bush soon restored my purpose and I pushed on to Kalgoorlie the next day. I found more charm and dignity there than I had had time to recognize before, but like Broken Hill, there was also a subtle air of degeneration and decay. I camped in some old digging and had an interesting evening with two, separate, old fossickers who politely accepted a single whisky, made it last, and talked freely of many things ancient and modern. They politely left early to their respective peace and solitudes. A rewarding social evening.
The next day I moved on along an excellent but forgettable road to Leonora and then by mid-afternoon to Laverton. The police were kind and efficient and gave helpful advice on protocol in the settlements ahead while pouring scorn on the small print. Encouraged, I asked directly if they thought it mad for a man of my age to do the trip alone. They laughed and boasted of the speed with which they could get to Giles and beyond. They eyed my equipment with jealous longing and allowed me generous time in which to Telex back from Ayers Rock because Easter was coming up and like most things on the many holidays in Australia, would be out for the duration.
After filling with every ounce of petrol possible, I departed. The first settlement where petrol is available is Cosmo-Newberry, only 57 miles out. I judged it out of hours and not worth stopping and so ran on 20 miles or so and camped on mulga scrub and bare red earth. There were a few cattle, kangaroos and dingos mourning in the evening and a pervading solitude.
In the morning my well tried routine of camping worked smoothly. I drove off into the rising sun at a modest speed because of repeated and increasing flocks of emus travelling south. The bare earth gave way to open plains of grass and spinifex as I passed a precarious two wire fence that no doubt marked the end of the Cosmo-Newberry cattle. The effect of cattle was dramatically plain to see.
The track became more sandy and undulated over the plains. As I rose over a small crest to an unusually expansive view, I stopped in wonder a the sight of an enormous hoard of emus, all travelling south. I could see for some miles to the north of the track and estimated one tenth of the area where there were at least a thousand. Therefore there must have been about 10,000 emus visible. Weeks later there was news from the south, when they reached fenced crops, of the army being called out with machine guns to stem the tide.
The track was sandy and about two feet below the level of the country and bordered by soft sandy banks just one track wide. One left a plume of dust behind for miles which hung suspended for ages in the still air. With the passage of each vehicle the track must have deepened a little. Except for the track, travel over Australia is like an ocean voyage. Little of the surface is truly flat and great waves of gentle rises and falls limit the visibility most of the time. The crests are seldom more than a couple of miles apart and occasionally a higher crest or culmination of a trend to a sort of plateau extends the view. One gets used to huge stretches of exactly similar scenery with infinite permutations of detail as some subtle change in soil chemistry favours one variety of tree or flower over another or a rocky range introduces a different colour or texture to the scene.
In the troughs and the crests of the waves the car rattles more; a sign of limestone more or less buried in the dust. Little ripples of wind blown sand, minor gullies and wombat diggings ruffle the surface. A great blue bowl of sky reddened on the fringe with dust. It goes on forever. Eagles wheel in the sky harried by crows. Hawks hover, pinned to an exact point before swooping down. Cockatoos and Corellas flock and parakeets are all over the edges of the track. Ahead, beautiful great pairs of bustards, black and white, rise slowly at regular intervals. They are as regular as the remains of broken down cars, abandoned by aboriginals in their modern passion for wheels without mechanical understanding. Lasting eyesores in the uncorroding air. Fortunately, the lines of empty bottles and tins that mark the track were mostly hidden by dust and spinifex. I resolved to keep a wary eye for plumes of dust which would warn of other vehicles but I was not to see one for 806 miles.
Although the police at Laverton had assured me that I could not go wrong, there were several times when the track divided in a way that made it hard to decide the true route. Once I made a mistake and it took 40 miles of a semi circular cast across country to discover the main track again (much to my relief). Thereafter I took meticulous care over any apparent alternatives.
The evenings and nights were an ineffable joy. I would select a suitable camping spot while there was still enough light. The abundant choices were limited only by the necessary criteria of adequate firewood, aspect, protection from wind, sleeping surface, and an absence of ants, scorpions and reptiles. It was a relatively quick process with no need to consider, mud, noise of frogs, traffic or the propinquity of other humans. There was the relief of the the cessation of travel and anticipation of the first generous snort of whisky, but before that, there had to be enough firewood handy to last the night and morning, the billies had to be full of water, utensils to hand and an outline of the menu in mind. Then, as the first dingo raised a lonely cry (both welcoming and discreet, unlike any dog) and a match went to the fire, there was the first libation, the fragrance of the smoke and firelight slowly winning a battle with the setting sun.
As the billies slowly come to the boil, more dingos join in. Red coals for cooking make clear the details of the coming feast. An interval, to put potatoes in their jackets in the coals, allot the billies their tasks. Then a second whisky to ease the pain of cooking and perhaps upset the timing of its consummation slightly. The inimitable quality of simple foods cooked on an open fire, the added aromas of coffee, tobacco and a liqueur, husbanded drop by drop in the magic circle of firelight; a secret island of delight in a dark sea.
The wireless of the world comes alive, granting a choice of the greatest music from the orchestras of the world: from Amsterdam to Boston, London and Sydney. One night Gielgud read the whole of Eliot's 'Four Quartets.' Trios and quintets played the chamber music of Bach, Shubert and all the everlasting geniuses. One can declaim aloud, without embarassment, such verses and languages as the brain's limited stores can produce or the ultimate in privacy; to listen in silence to words and music inside one's head, chosen at random by the subconscious and triggered by mysterious chance.
In Australia this has a special quality. The land is detached, indifferent, remote from all human emanations. There are no ghosts, no spirits, no aura of civilization. Impassive and neutral it makes no judgement, but merely reflects one's self back on one's self, one's true self in a crystal-cruel mirror. A self acutely aware that it contains the fruits of other men's genius down the ages and that this store has limitations.
In the desert heart, the metronome of eternity beats a slow half heard message as the earth spins beneath and the parchment of the stars unrolls. The mind launches into unplanned themes, ideas, inventions and philosophies in the interstices of space. The brevity of ones span of sentient life mixes with estimates of the chances of the recombination of the scattered atoms that spark one's life. Accepting the probability of annihilation heightens the ecstacy of enjoying it while it lasts. I think that is why deserts always make or break, why they spew out prophets, religious maniacs, divisive faiths, wisdom and lunacy. There is a fine line between them all.
I only know that I gain integration, peace and harmony and am proud to be a man, an inheritor of the achievements of man's genius. But there is always a fine line between being driven mad by the guilt of not retaining more of the trust within, through indolent ignorance. Maybe my ultimate sin is to think myself sane.
As midnight approaches I run through the old Arabic and Greek names of the stars, imbibe a hot rum and water and fall into a slate wiping coma. Dingos creep into my camp leaving their tracks for me to find when I wake at picanniny daylight. A handful of leaves brings the fire to life to greet the sun, warming the chill of a new day.
Breakfast, pack the car, shave and 'bath', in that order. Last thing is cleaning of boots, a token gesture to civilization (easier than dressing for dinner). Then driving off a few yards, returning to ensure that nothing is left behind and a last look at a private sacred site; one more in a string of jewels, each of a unique and unforgettable quality, sparkling in memory across a vast continent.
The never ending tyranny of distance imposed its hypnotic rule again. It was broken only by the need to choose a track or by a bigger tree, a rocky outcrop, or a lone windmill, until an imperceptably longer rise suddenly revealed an extensive view of the Warburton Range over many ridges of mulga scrub. After an hour or two the track arrived at the entrance to a compound, where a mission was founded at about the same time as I was first in the Centre. I found it in an uneasy sort of divided control, part mission, part Aboriginal Council, part Government administration. I felt it better not to probe to deeply.
It was early afternoon with a breeze and a few clouds increasing, raising dust in the small barren area. There was a crowd waiting for the store to open. Some distance away was largish hospital and some undistinguished houses and buildings. There was a petrol pump on the outskirts and a overall aura of depression. Out of courtesy, I called at the hospital to offer any opthalmic services and was told of two small children with possible trachoma. They were awaiting evacuation to Laverton by air to see a colleague. I was told by the senior of two nursing sisters in command of the place that the excessive size of the place was due to the provision of a exact replica of the hospital, somewhere in the north. This was some form of political trade off.
While the two children were being rounded up I went over to the store which was about to open. I was at once besieged by a mob of cheeky and demanding aboriginal children, a large pack of contentious dogs and a crowd of natives awaiting the strict opening hours to exchange welfare credits for groceries and stores. Carried in by a crush, as the store opened somewhat after the appointed hour, I bought, in strict turn, a tin of clingstone peaches and pushed my way through the dogs and mob to return to the hospital. Then came the unexpected, the two unusually black children were presented, beautifully and neatly dressed with an unusually large even blacker mother. She was dressed with elegance in a style that would have graced the streets of Paris and she spoke impeccable English. After examining the children, who had certainly got a case of purulent conjunctivitis, but no sign of trachoma, I said as much and assured her that it would clear quickly with routine remedies. She was very relieved and thanked me gracefully. However, I thought it wise to say that it might be wise to take the flight and confirm my view, being loath to tread on the toes of a colleague unwittingly.
I explained that as I was just travelling through a follow up was prudent. I also promised to convey the good news to her husband some 80 miles further down the track at an old mining settlement.
At that time much fear of trachoma was being spread by a group aiming at government finance for a socialist vote-spreading crusade by the far left. Spurious and cynical as it was, the propaganda succeeded very widely and achieved its intent very well.
Producing my precious permit, I filled up with petrol well within the prescribed hours and thankfully left the polluted dust by way of a couple of very steep creek beds. One of these I took too fast, dislodged the roof-rack and consequently added to the litter along the track. There was a threat of rain and a few drops fell before the breeze dropped, the clouds rose and I camped for another enchanted evening under the fringe of the Warburton Range only about 10 miles on. I enjoyed some of the cling peaches for desert.
The next day I spent sometime reorganizing the load. This turned out to be a better distribution of weight and more secure. The loss of the roof rack was a blessing in the end. The Warburton Range seemed to fade away in a stretch of mulga and I made only about 50 miles before stopping for lunch on an attractive rocky hill of sandstone boulders, with quite a grove of trees. I poked about the rocks, came on a large tiger snake basking on a rock and sure enough found water running down a little gully not far away and two more snakes (smaller and blacker) slipping into cracks in the stones. Not far away, on the other side of the track, was a windsock marking what looked like an unused air-strip from the top of the knoll. I expected other life to be congregated round the area, but it was midday and siesta time and snakes discouraged too close an intrusion on their privacy. A little further on. I saw a windmill and a small settlement with a couple of gleaming new aluminium houses amongst them. This turned out to be the rendezvous I was seeking with the husband of the family with the two children. He was the boss man of the settlement and a truly remarkable man. He was huge, at least 6' 4", highly educated, accustomed to command and in the middle of distributing food and supplies to the community from the back of a large truck. He was already forewarned of my coming, politely craved my patience until he had finished the job in hand and then turned on a parade of aborigines for an inspection of their eyes.
They were mostly male and elderly, full blood, with little English or pidgeon. Nearly all had either old injuries, very old trachoma or minor cataract and degenerative retinal troubles, some suggestive of diabetes. I soon realized that the parade was an organized courtesy to me, rather than serving any useful purpose, and during the process some urchin stole my tri-focals, which I had laid on the bonnet of my Toyota. A search was organized but they never turned up. Fortunately I had a spare pair of bi-focals in the glovebox. The boss man was not an aborigine, he was bigger, blacker and of quite outstanding quality and intelligence. He lived in the largest, newest aluminium home. He was not a negro. I felt it would be rude to make enquiries, so, to my sorrow he and his family will remain an intriguing mystery. I left, mourning my tri-focals and the weeks ahead without them but the bi-focals served me well.
The track ran on to Mount Aloysius through mainly open country. There was the occasional glimpse of a dingo and bustards and red kangaroos became more plentiful as I went east, with a falling off of emus. It is a long long haul from Warburton to Docker River but much more varied and interesting in scenery. The track runs east and north, almost due north for quite long stretches. The Blackstone Range, with Mount Aloysius, the Cavanagh Range, the Blood range and the Petermann Range are all quite different geological structures and have different colours and formations. The Cavanagh Range has deep red piles of apparent masonry in the shape of forts, spaced at intervals along a defensive wall. The Blood range is more scarlet, but really only a larger ridge. While the Petermanns are on a much grander scale, massive, with quite impressive valleys and vistas.
Before reaching the road to Giles there is a right angled turn to the north and a crossroad running to the Musgrave Ranges in the South. It is totally prohibited, as is Giles itself. On reaching the Giles Road intersection I used a couple of tins of reserve supplies of petrol and turned east through the varied country of the Cavanagh range. There were great groves of casuarinas, undulations, slopes and quite a variety of track surfaces, sometimes very rough, sometimes sand and sometimes loose stones. the basic mulga, spinifex sand and stone remains the norm and wrecks of vehicles constantly crop up every few miles.
The approach to Docker River involved a track of heavy red sand, running along a winding traverse on the south side of a valley, gradually narrowing as one went and giving expansive views of the Petermann Range to the north. An abandoned truck blocked the track at one tricky bend and I nearly came to grief in a swerve into heavy sand on a downhill slope. I could find no sign of the driver and no tracks of anyone walking back the five miles or so to the settlement which stood on a flat area at the head of the valley and looked much more attractive than Warburton. It covered a relatively large area and was obviously a well laid out township.
It was getting late and I was just on the edge of closing time for petrol but came on a bowser quite quickly. I hoped to get through and to camp on the other side before dark. I went in search of the operator of the pump and found him nearby helping a black to erect a large and impressive modern tent in a rather confined space. The aboriginal was a slow learner and either from temporary irritation or nature, the teacher was gruff, off-hand and noncooperative about petrol. Before he stood on his rights about the time I pitched in and helped with the tent. We got it up fairly quickly while the aborigine watched. The man thawed out steadily. He was late middle aged and turned out to be a very informative, knowledgeable and pleasant man. It was now well after bureaucratic hours but he filled my tank with enthusiasm. I asked about the truck. It had been there for three days needing mechanical repairs to the differential. Our talk continued and I found that he was a potential mine of information about flora, fauna, geology, aboriginals but unfortunately a policeman from Giles appeared on some business to which a stranger could not be privy. He must have been half an hour behind me on the track, catching up no doubt. he was also a fine type of young man. By the time we had established essentials it was obvious that his business was becoming pressing and I prepared to leave in the gathering gloom. As I started I was accosted by a pleasant looking young man, with an invitation to come over and have a meal with him, stay the night and exchange news and talk. By virtue of being a fresh face I accepted in the gathering dusk, we drove over to a small suburb of caravan homes, settled at the head of a valley amongst gum trees with a steep hill behind. It was getting dark and a generator started up some distance away and lights came on in the caravan and a couple more nearby. It was clearly a semi-permanent residence, no wheels, dug in with a patio and barbecue built in front. The inside, in disarray, was adequate in essentials such as stove refrigerator and sleeping space. He indicated at once a late teenage aboriginal girl he was living with. She was wearing a black dress with a red pattern and had a red ribbon in her hair. He announced that he was a school teacher, came from Sydney, hadn't been able to stand the cost of the return air-fare for the last two years and expressed delight that I came from Sydney. I produced a couple of cans of cold beer that I had in my fridge, which we shared while he lit the barbecue fire. The mother of the black girl turned up out of the dark and harangued her daughter in a whining and angry voice. They went off for a time together, but the shouting continued. another, slightly older young man, also with a shadowy mistress in tow, arrived and joined the party. She was shy self effacing and stayed mute in a dark spot. The second man appeared to be some sort of engineer and I think he ran the generator among other duties. Large steaks and hunks of bread were produced and a little more not so cold beer by the teacher and I. We exchanged a little talk and news, but the teacher kept reverting to the cost of airfares to Sydney, the financial rewards of his job and the prospect of his ultimate pension benefits. He launched into the cost of living at Docker River while we ate, but the black girl and her mother came back and kept breaking in with obvious complaints from mother, a withered specimen, with no English. Quite unintelligible domestic arguments kept breaking out in two languages. I never found out what it was about, but the girl was petulant and aggrieved while the mother yelled out long tirades at intervals. In the midst of all this an older man appeared with red hot news of some shady deal with the head of the local blacks. It involved both young men. I vaguely gathered that it was in some way connected with artefacts and that the price had been raised to include a new truck for the head black. The time had come when I felt that I had to escape the trap. I made feeble excuses to the teacher who had done his best and produced a desert of cold tinned mango but he could not escape domestic and business commitments. I turned down the offer of a bed and drove off quickly, finding the road to the east. After two attempts I found a camp a few miles out by a ghost gum that suddenly showed up in my headlights. I lit a fire and got stuck into the whisky to relax my jangled brain. There was a red ball of fire to the east and the smell of smoke but I judged it to be a good 10 miles or more off and the wind was from the north, taking the fire across my estimated route.
I slept soundly and woke in the morning to find I was in a very pleasant spot. the ghost gum (of modest size) had a scarlet blaze. Only a few yards away the track crossed a very wide dry creek bed about 80 yards across, hills rose to the south and lots of trees lined the banks. I decided to have a day off to make and mend as there was still a glow in the east at picanniny daylight that was not the sun. When I rose the smoke haze was across its face right on my path. So I had a liesurely breakfast, lingered over laundry and chores, put everything neat and tidy, Bristol fashion, sewed on a few buttons and pondered the trip so far.
Up to this point I had been travelling over country I had never seen before by myself It was very similar to other parts of the gigantic wilderness that comprises so much of the continent. Such an individual sample is like a microscopic slide of a lump of tissue; it remains a razor thin survey of a tiny part of the whole and only a basis for diagnosis, yet a single malignant cell has profound implications. The presence or absence of many features may be misleading and conclusions drawn on limited evidence can be dangerous, unless other evidence from other methods can be brought to bear. Yet what is seen may be the heart of the problem and what is seen must exist. Any significant change (over a period) between two like specimens must be of import.
The overwhelming finding of this trip was the total absence of aborigines on the land, or any sign of their presence. No smoke signals, no cooees, no tracks, no hunting fires, only a profound absence. Compared to what one would have seen 50 years ago, a rather eerie vacuum.
The aborigines have abandoned the harsh struggle for survival in the harshest of countries for the easier amenities of the settlements, aggregated into unnatural communities demanding a totally new series of techniques of hygiene, nourishment and custom for which they have few skills. they become the passive recipients of every necessity, exposed to infection by mere propinquity and closer association. Unprotected from access to alchohol and a host of new afflictions to which their immunity is low and their very natures susceptible to a destructive degree. The rites and ceremonies, the lore and law is quickly lost. Initiations and practices vanish or learn more than a distorted fragment of their legends, or even language. The authority of the elder men fragments, the bull roarers no longer send women scurrying and the transmission of the secrets, ceremonies and rites is broken and lapses.
This was a relatively good season and the profusion of emus and kangaroos and more visible wildlife very evident. As there is always a wide variation from year to year and cycle to cycle in this. It is impossible to come to any assessment of a trend in this. If the absence of hunters and their hunting fires has any effect, which is doubtful, it is certainly impossible to estimate.
In the few places where there were cattle and stock, the ground was bare and in marked contrast to the rest, but this too is of doubtful validity. Thinking of these things I realized how lucky I had been to have no high winds and dust storms so far, not even many willy-willys, except in areas grazed down by stock. But this might have been due to it being late summer rather than its height. It came upon me strongly then, how lucky I had been to see the relatively intact aboriginal tribal life, as it was, only a little less than half a century before. To have seen customs, heard their songs, good humoured laughter, sense of the ridiculous, skills and childish innocence. Of course there was the other side, their awesome battle to survive in a cruel environment and their own cruel rites and practices which, for the tribe to endure, were perhaps necessary to maintain a standard of fitness and skill and weed out the weak. Their natural curiosity has been a big factor in leading them to discover the attractions of civilization and to opt for purposeless and parasitic welfare as an alternative to unrelenting endeavour and thus hastening their path to extinction.
Absorbed in such reflections the chores were finished and the morning passed quickly. The fridge had been cleaned, stores assessed and everything put in such good order as my limitations could achieve. I decided to push on slowly, as I felt that another day would bring me to the Olgas and to Ayers Rock. The wide creek bed was soft and I was a little anxious but the Toyota went smoothly through. Then quite soon I came to another which was wider and softer, but again the heavily loaded vehicle took it easily. Presumably they were the beds of the Docker and Hull Rivers. I was in a low lying gully, with rocky hills on the south side and a network of channels. Quite quickly the ground got wetter and boggy in places. There was evidence of recently stuck vehicles and of their extraction. There were rabbits, lusher growth and flocks of birds. I chose my way with great care. I came on to a signpost saying Lasseters Cave, it pointed up a steep rocky gully. This may have been in the vicinity of where he died, but I had not thought that it was so far south. The ground dried out gradually and I ran into sandy country then unexpectedly I drove into a last relatively narrow little creek bed with steep banks, made an error of technique and got well bogged. I wasted over two hours, carrying scantily available sticks and stones, letting down tyres and getting myself out and then almost the remainder of the light pumping up the tyres again. I camped in a bowl of red sandhills a half mile further on. I was now near the edge of the fire, which had crossed this part of the track a day before and was still burning strongly a couple of miles to the south. The breeze was still from the north. There was a glow of fire in the south and east and I walked up to the crest of the enclosing sand hills to find a fresh nor-west wind and still a huge arc of fire in tomorrows path and all around the southern horizon. Still, I had another perfect evening and night in my protected private world out of the wind and secure. I was all the time expecting a truck to come from Ayers Rock with stores, which I had been told was expected, but it never came. The next morning I made an early start, driving uncomfortably into a rising sun and immediately ran in to burnt out country with a pattern of burnt and spared spinifex and mulga trees, which fairly soon turned into smouldering areas and then into fire itself, on both sides. Several times I had to stop, use the axe to clear fallen trunks, or drag branches off the track. all the time the country was turning into a close succession of red sand hills, I came to the eastern edge of the fire and escaped into untouched country, yet the whole of the south was aflame and moving south over an enormous area.
I was in a happy frame of mind, having heard a marvelous Bach concert the night before, composed an after dinner speech that I was to give at the Union Club some time hence and written a desert sonnet that pleased me. I was still pleased with myself when I stopped for lunch and heard on the wireless that a plane, flying from Laverton to Ayers Rock had gone down somewhere north of my line. Then came a never ending succession of sand hill bowls of greater or lesser size. Mostly they had a crest of stunted mulga. All had a sharp ridge at the top of the climb in and out of the bowls between. I remembered the on coming truck and rigged a pennant on the highest pole I could make because the track was a narrow trough of deep sand and it was necessary to charge over each ascending slope at speed, blind to all but the track itself. There was no view from the crest, but the next bowl. The hills grew bigger and bigger. they were innumerable and somewhat claustrophobic, it seemed endless.
I climbed a bigger than ever slope to a higher crest and came to a sliding stop with both feet instinctively down on clutch and brake and cried aloud "My God!" (Strange for an atheist). It was the most theatrical and dramatic sight I have ever seen. There, straight ahead were the Olgas. A gigantic family of close packed peaks, glowing blood red in the setting sun behind me. Incandescent, glowing monumental pillars, magnified by aerial and intellectual perspective, in contrast with the flatness of half a continent. They flabbergasted the mind. I feel sure that even a Tibetan would have gasped, (however used to the Himalayas).
The only way to catch a first sight of them is to come from the west with the setting sun behind, half dazed with the monotony of everlasting sand dunes. The impact is overwhelming: The most dramatic and beautiful sight of a lifetime.
They stood about five miles away, with a red-gravelled slope running down to their bases, broken by gullies and light scrub. As the sun fell lower the colour changed to pink, then tan, they seemed to shrink and to grow by turns. Here was the very heart of the earth, the metromome of eternity beating just beneath. Far beyond them was the lower flat top of Ayers Rock. As the light failed, I pulled myself together and camped just outside a wooden structure marking the entrance to the National Park.
From the angle I could see Mount Olga, there seemed to be a way to the top that was negotiable enough and that night I counted my blessings, quite unaware of things to come. Reaching the Olgas alone marked the culmination of a private ambition. Everything seemed to lead up to it. It was the opposite of the usual flatness felt on the actual atttainment of a long-sought goal. It was in keeping with the exciting achievements of man that had transformed the world in my lifetime. I remembered that I was born when Scott was dying at the South Pole, Everest had been climbed and Amudsen had reached both poles. I had seen the first sputnick on its first traverse across Australia while camped on the Moonbah one frosty night, without foreknowledge and thus sleepless with conjecture all night. Rutherford had split the atom in the next year. I had missed Halley's Comet and wondered if I would live to see it return and still wonder. Armistice day and the first sounds coming like magic on a crystal set by grace of Marconis genious. The crystal was galena the cousin of the silicone chip. Movie pictures rose and fell, to the talkies and I had heard a teenage Menuin playing the violin. Above all, the replacement of Newton by the mind shattering implications of Einstien's incredible genius and a geometric progression of explosive change and advance in every discipline but discipline itself. The half dozen useful drugs being replaced by sulpha drugs and the thrill of seeing many ancient and lethal diseases vanish altogether. Then the early magic of penicillin and a flood of specifics with incalculable effects on mankind. The second world war, hatching techological advances beyond imagination. Carbon dating, dendochronology and changes in past polarity, clarifying history, confirming the theory of continental drift and the form of the double helix. Translation of the ancient tablets of the story of Gilgamesh, from the libraries of Assur Banipal in ancient Ninevah. Then such a flood of potential advance in every field that no man could hope to be even reasonably aquainted with the possibilities available in more than a limited choice of fields. A widening rift between the minority of disciplined thinkers and those unable to keep their balance, so that at the very time when trained and disciplined minds are vital, there is a widespread escape of a majority into barbarian ignorance. Opting for mind destroying pop music, parasitic socialism, alternative 'life styles' and emotional bondage to false images, rather than reality. It rather looks as though it will depend on a confrontation between the barbarians represented by the tyrranous trade unions, the Teachers Federation and the beneficiaries of the welfare state, on the one hand, and the supporters of individual freedom, discipline and integrity on the other. When it comes down to the wire, it is a simple choice between those who demand 'rights' and those who perform their duties.
The next morning I drove round the Olgas and Ayers Rock to pay my dues and learn the rules at the rangers office. Noting on the way that the route up Mount Olga that I had hoped for, was, in reality, separated from the next pillar by a huge cleft, and that the only way was straight up. I also met the first vehicle since Laverton as I got close to the rock. The ranger was kind and very helpful, though rather busy with the search for the airoplane, rumoured to have been seen on the ground. He bent the rules to allow me to camp outside the ring track round the Olgas, so that I would be spared the dust and the expense of returning the the designated camping area every day, which was a dusty rather sordid area subject to quite a lot of itinerant traffic, a few aboriginal mendicants and a mixed bag of campers. He even designated two areas, one on each side, which would be pleasant spots; as they both turned out to be. I promised to bring back every scrap of garbage and litter, to avoid over nourishment of the dingos.
I then enquired about climbing mount Olga. This he strongly advised against, saying that he had enough on his plate without having to waste time and energy on the paper work involved in retrieving and disposing of the dead body, likely to be the result of such folly. So I dropped the subject before his benevolence was reversed and went off to have a very welcome shower in the camping area bathrooms. Not far away was a petrol station somewhat cheaper than the last two, which was run by a lately-come South African. Business was slack and we had more than an hour's talk about our respective countries. He was overjoyed to hear that I thought that we had got a very one sided picture in Australia of their affairs and the true facts. While he did not favour apartheid, he had no real alternative that would not be worse, and he agreed with me that our handling of our problem was even more misguided and bad for the aboriginals, as well as a deliberate suppression of the true facts. His wife, a large, intelligent and very capable woman ran a supermarket nearby and I was able to restock at surprisingly reasonable prices with many things, including a supply of meat from the abatoirs in the Alice which was of superb quality and flavour, patently from free range cattle fed of the natural aromatic native herbage.
I drove back to the Olgas on the very wide, dusty corrugated road, turned off to the Rangers spot on the south side of the range, which was a dead flat thickly grassed area, with a few low shrubs from which the Olgas looked like a row of pebbles, rather like the spine of a mythical dragon, nestling in the sand, diminished by perspective to a mere curiosity. I dined like a king on the beautiful new steak, to the music of the dingo's sad lonely song and let 43 years of dreaming and obsession screw my courage to the sticking point of tackling the climb next morning, suppressing the rangers good advice. It was inescapable; an inbuilt obligation to myself. Not to do so seemed the foulest disgrace of betrayal.
I slept well, made a hurried breakfast, rushed the chores and drove round to the 'Valley of the Gorge' and started to climb, taking a water can, field glasses, an apple, a banana and some hunks of bread.
The conglomerate rock had small irreglarities, projecting pebbles, scales and roughnesses, which provided foot and hand holds. The first 50 feet or so an easy slope and encouraging, but, as the pitch steepened, it became essential to test each purchase carefully before trusting weight to it, as some were loose and brittle. Small pieces rattled rather noisily down below with an intimidatory rattle and alarmingly longer duration as I gained height. I was careful not to look down. Eventually I reached the height of the vertical slits that mark a stratum of caves on all the pillars of the Olgas and scrambled into one gratefully for a rest and safety. It was a clear almost windless day and the cave was empty and quite dark, stretching back 20 feet or more. There were a few bird droppings near the entrance but no nests or other life. I was on the shady side and the ground looked awesomely remote when I looked down, for the first and only time. I ate the apple slowly in order to prolong my stay, but forced myself to edge out onto the face again in the end, rather acutely aware of diminishing courage. I climbed more slowly now taking infinite care with foot and hand holds which seemed to get steadily harder to find and more awkwardly placed. The pitch was just short of vertical, but had where the surface was more glossy and smoother and perhaps rather darker in colour.
I began to stop climbing and to cling to the face, rather than rest, fighting off a looming panic. This went on for ages, until I began to suspect that the pitch was easing slightly. I did not dare to believe it, until it grew so obvious that I could have stood up and walked without handholds, which I did not do until the last few feet became an easy walk to the long almost flat slope to the top.
A wedge tailed eagle hovered almost motionless a few feet away just above the crest of the cleft on my right and eyed me carefully, slightly turning his head, then wheeled away, showing a red underneath in a mocking effortless curve shrinking height and distance. I stumbled in a half daze along the top. It was mostly smooth rock but broken by gullies in which grass and a few stunted shrubs had a foothold. I sat down to eat the banana.
The prospect of the return ordeal overwhelming everything else. Somehow I pulled myself together, stood up, disclaimed no more than the first 20 lines of Book 1 of the Iliad, even more terrified by the awesome sound of the very first word and its threat. 'Wrath' is far more menacing in ancient Greek. Took a hurried look at the view, registering only an impression of Ayers Rock and Lake Amadeus and knew at once that if I did not start down, I never would. I would die of thirst, a craven corrupting mess.
I backed towards the edge lay down on my face and started to inch down, even where I had walked a little way on the way up, looking for handholds and feeling for footholds, for I could not look down at any price. When the cliff steepened a little some of the worst terror was relieved by the necessary concentration of finding footholds. I crept down and down interminably, in cold numb fear, on the edge of panic. Which enveloped me at least twice. The first time was on a slippery patch, where I had to climb up and transverse to find something a little better, and another time when my left leg started to shake and jerk, either from fear or fatigue, or both. Both times I clung to the face impelled by reason to let go an get it over.
I shall never know the hair line that lay between the vestigial victory of instinct over reason that made the difference, perhaps it was the thought of the time it would take before the final splash. Suddenly another danger threatened in a sudden puff of wind, which had been getting up for some time, but remained subconscious in a mind that terror had wiped clean. I thought that I must be somewhere near the cave level, just as I heard far off voices below. I looked down and saw a knot of people by a tourist bus with upturned faces still a long way below and realized that I was just below the caves which I had missed. I also discovered that the loss of my trifocals had made me unable to look for footholds anyway and I almost laughed at the irony of being caught by bi-focals in this way. It would have been hollow laughter if I had had it in me.
I climbed down a little further and heard a raucous Australian voice shout 'Even money he moikes it'. I dislodged a stone which clattered down and momentarily wished that I had done it on purpose as a reply. I once again lost track of time as I went painfully down until a slight easing of the slope brought a tenuous hope. I went on a the same slow pace until one foot hit a flat wide surface and it was over. The bus and the people had gone to see some more interesting sight and I staggered over to my truck, shaking all over, broken ashamed and humiliated. I knew that my prime object had been to look for the little hill from which I might have seen the Olgas years before, but had not even tried and knew that I never would. I was crushed and knew the truth, but did not know then as I do now that growing lack of confidence and timidity would plague the rest of my life with self distrust, well founded.
I found that I had been on the face of the rock for a full seven hours. So I gathered a few sticks and lit a fire, boiled the billy and drank about a gallon of china tea with the chunks of bread. As I did so I became aware of a pair of pied butcher birds just above in a small gum tree. They had a lovely voice and every now and then they broke off to mimic the voices of other birds cocking their heads to listen intently each time. If they got a reply they went off to investigate and then came back and did it again or came down for bits of the bread. It dawned on me that this was a hunting technique and thought for some time that I had made a discovery but found later that it was mere ignorance and ommission of wider reading but at the time it cheered me up a little to have found them out for myself.
I found that I was uncertain of the sequence of events on the rock face and almost blank about the view from the top with many gaps of time itself on the way down. So I drove round to the west side of the Olgas on a very rough part of the ring track, meeting a bearded youth in another Toyota needing water and a new radiator hose which, to his surprise, I was able to supply. I went down to the "Valley of the Winds" on the nor-west aspect, where there were more butcher birds and walked up the cleft into the heart of the Olgas, as far as I could go. It was cool, shaded from the afternoon sun and quite dark in places. The pebbles in the matrix of rocks were all colours, like precious jewels and the colours of the rocks and patterns entrancing. Above, were sunlit peaks with many wedge tailed eagles like little black commas against the bluest of skies. The peaks turned to red and I went off and camped in the rangers second spot, cozy sandhills surrounded by low mulga, with a family of shy and respectful dingos self effacing. I used it as a base, while I poked about the clefts and bases of the consortium of Olgas, using the little trail bike, where possible to case the joint. The unique flora and fauna of this lovely place once again underlined the depths of my ignorance, but the many unfamiliar plants animals, butterflies and moths, insects and all forms of life were fascinating, and the colours from the setting sun entrancing. There was even water now and then, unevaporated, protected by the deep and narrow clefts where the sun never reached. The sentinel peaks themselves with the series of strata repeated in each had a magnetic attraction, especially the zones of the silt guarded caves, some used by birds, safe from almost all enemies, the ones I use having tell tale white streaks below. I watched with field glasses for hours, but learned very little. Nowhere were there any signs of human damage, and I met no-one the whole time. Tourists seemed confined to a few well chosen vantage points. I found it hard to drag myself away but left reluctantly after nights of peace in tune with the lonely dingo family who sang around me every evening and left their discrete tracks near my sleeping bag every morning.
A succession of excellent meals, with the usual libations and musical accompaniments did much to ease my disarray. I stopped at The Rock and joined the queue, already strung out along a safe and well marked, even hand-railed in spots, route to the top. It was 40 minutes to a cairn, some distance across the flat top from the edge. Actually the top is not flat, the rock being quite bare, but eroded into a pattern of gullies, bows ridges and undulations, smooth and worn, making passage to the top as demanding as the climb itself. The colourful and polylingual stream was also fascinating. All ages all nations, Japanese, Greeks, Americans, Spanish, English, Hungarian, Italian, even French. A mixture of Australians, the only discordant groups, small gangs of youthful Aussie Ockers, noisy exhibitionist desecrating by their presence, casting an aura of potential vandalism. The rest of the huge area was relatively uninhabited as I walked around it, well back from the edge, mainly looking at the variations and intricacies of the patterns on the bare sandstone, fluted here and there, water-worn, sandblasted and of infinite interest. The view was limited to about 20 miles by haze, dust and smoke. There was no hope of a far view to the north. Lake Amadeus' salt blended with the haze on its far side and the flat country round merged with a blurred horizon, except for the Olgas, surprisingly but appropriately remote. I went down against the stream and walked right round The Rock, looking at the patterns of the cliffs and aboriginal drawings on the cave walls at the base, quite large water holes on the south and met and talked with a 71 year old Russian whom I had seen at the top and was doing the same thing. He spoke good English and was horrified by our young. I think that he only spoke to me because he heard me ticking off a small group of show offs at the top. It made a bond.
Near the end I encounted a small party of tourists under the wing of a young ranger. who were looking at Aboriginal drawings in a longish cave. They seemed to be a special group at the other end, where I had come in at first. The drawings were intriguing. They consisted of an older style, partly overlaid in the whole cave by purely Arundta drawings. I was trying to work out the possible implications and was bursting with curiosity, when the young ranger detached himself and came across. He turned out to be the son of a man I met before he was born, in the Alice. He told me that some 28 years or so ago the western Arundta had fallen on hard times and had sought and obtained union with the Pintjinjara of the region. The tribes had almalgamated, but the Arundta had predominated since in the drawings, which had now ceased for some years. He was impressed that I had at once recognised the separate styles and we started to discuss a possible change of climate in the last 40 years, which I was increasingly led to believe. He had just time to agree that there certainly had been an increase in rainfall over the last 8-10 years when he was reclaimed by the party of the American elite and we had to leave it there. He was an obviously well informed and excellent type of young man and we parted with mutual respect.
I went over to the rangers office to say good-bye, collect an acknowledgement of the Telex to Laverton pay for it and give thanks for a lot of good advice. He had heard from the driver of the tourist bus of my descent from Mt Olga, so my confession was redundant. He was not amused by my admission of how right he had been and was clearly gratified by the departure of an untrustwothy visitor. I learnt that all the occupants of the crashed plane were safe and retrieved.
I had not the heart to go back to the Alice, now a city of 16,000 people the size of mount Gambier or Tamworth, so I took the track to go through Mulga Park and Victory Downs to the Stuart Highway. About 40 miles out I stopped amongst a horde of red kangaroos and resident dingos.
The National Park at Ayers Rock is run with great understanding and effectiveness. There is remarkably little vandalism and a pick-up truck visits all the litter tins every evening over the whole area. What is remarkable is that visitors are somehow induced to use them almost exclusively. This is almost a miracle, when one considers that the success of a sporting event, opera house function, or popularity of a beauty spot is officially measured by the tonnage of litter scattered about afterwards. The Olgas are played down in favour of the Rock, so that most of the buses, of which there are relatively few, take their occupants to mostly fairly remote viewing spots, though well chosen. This is a brilliant success. The few aboriginals are mostly secluded in an off limits area to tourists, and those who do appear in the camping areas to exploit the tourists are no great advertizment for the race. The hotels and guesthouses are in discrete spots and not obtrusive. The standard of accomodation is not such as to enourage long residence anyway, according to reports. The rangers are of the finest type, tactfully commanding and getting an amazing standard of compliance to their rules. The worst problems are gangs of youthful low-caste Australians, but the distances involved and the paucity of tracks keeps them mostly at heel. There is occassional mayhem of drunken parties, usually confined to areas where there is an audience, and effecting little permanent harm.
It is the best run National Park I have seen in the whole of my travels. I fear the the effects of recent plans for an expanded 'Hilton' type development will be a vast risk and even more so the lunacy of placing the area under the authority of an aboriginal council has incalculable possibilities for destruction by default.
After adding another gem to the chain of camps I ran through mulga and grass lands, passing Mount Connor, about 2600ft high, flat topped and impressive in its isolation and solitude. Stopping later at a station, where an oldish woman was the only custodian. Whilst I was there an elderly black came in demanding a carton of beer and brandishing a fistful of notes. She refused at first, but two younger blacks appeared out of the long grass and joined in. They sounded abusive and belligerent so I went into the office and offered the old lady support. She refused assistance and I noticed a shot gun on the wall. After a little more debate they left carrying three cartons of Fosters, already broached and left in a trail of foam. The woman came out, shrugged her shoulders and said, "What can you do?" I went on pondering the statement of Utnapishtim to Gilgamesh 5000 years ago, "there is no permanence". Eventually after many miles of grass , stony outcrops and ridges, sand and more grass, stopping at another station for petrol and feeling the Stuart Highway would never come, a long cloud in the distance turned out to be evidence of a north bound truck about to gain the bitumen south of the Alice. I turned south for Coober Pedy and Port Augusta, almost half the continent away. The road was wide corrugated, very dusty and instantly tedious. An Approaching vehicle can be seen 10 or 15 minutes before meeting by its huge plume of dust. If there is any element of west in the wind there is a longer or shorter stretch of dust storm reducing vision to zero, and a shudder as the vehicle passes, its square shape producing a shock wave.
However, in spite of recent delays to the Ghan due to unseasonable rain, the trucks were infrequent enough to be endurable. Near the turn off to Oodnadatta I was flagged down by a half caste in a battered old bomb. I carefully stopped about 50 yards past him before deciding that he was alone and safe, so backed up and found he needed water. I gave him a four gallon tin. He was bound for the Alice from Oodnadatta and had already come 80 miles to the highway. I asked about Bony Bream and the Camel Mail, but he had never heard of him.
After a few more miles I turned off at a line of quite big gum trees and drove up the dry sandy bed of a wide creek out of the sound of the highway and camped in a marvelous spot with firewood and a large flock of galahs clowning and tumbling in the trees above. They are natural comedians and like an audience. There were damp spots in the creek bed and a soak I dug filled quickly and provided somewhat salty water but good for everything but the whisky. ( I always carry a special supply of water for such an important mixture). I left the spot rather reluctantly in the morning and rolled off the miles, untill about midday I came to another tree lined river bed just beyond which was a windmill and a 10,000 gallon tank running over. I stopped, bathed, and tried to ignore the litter of others using this facility for travelling stock. The road improved a little and I made good time stopping for the night in a dense clump of mulga with a few dingos for company.
The next morning open relatively flat and bare country gradually led to the approaches of Coober Pedy. At first on the south side and then on both sides, rows and rows of little pyramids, some khaki, some white, gave the impression of army tents in a huge encampment of Kitchener's days. The accumulated evidence of human effort was awe inspiring a fitting tribute to mans hope and heartbreak. Right then things were on the crest of a wave. Here and there were patches of larger scale mechanical effort. Bulldozers, working open cuts, elevators, all sorts of earth moving and sifting machinery, costing a fortune in an enormous gamble. Coober Pedy itself was a real frontier town, smothered in a perpetual cloud of dust were a crowd of opportunist adventurers, shady dealers, agents for machinery, old Australians, new Australians, money lenders, business men, mechanics, spivs, con-men, prostitutes, down and outs and a sprinkling of honest men and gangsters who had hit the jackpot in a big way. The talk on all sides was of torrents of money flowing from undercover deals, fabulous finds, enormous prices for new machinery, all on a basis of lawless corruption. Men carrying smart cases, attended by bodyguards, often Chinese, Armenian or Greek, could be seen slipping from dealers shops, but no overt firearms. While filling up with petrol I had three offers to buy my truck, the offers quickly rose to three times its original cost and then an open invitation to put my own price on it. I fled through the congested traffic lest temptation should leave me stranded in the aweful dust, already dipping into my first aid supplies for drops to ease red hot eyes from the inescapable dust.
Even the dusty road seemed soothing after Coober Pedy and I went on through Kingoonya, flat, bare and also dusty and turned off the road across a little gently sloping plain towards a stand of mulga a couple of miles away. Then in poor light got hopelessly bogged in a minute little creek bed astraddle one bank. It took untill nearly midnight to extricate myself, having to unload, chop through resistant stunted mulga, reduce tyre pressure and dig and lift repeatedly with the jack and use every wit. At last she came out in ultra low 4 wheel drive. Exhausted, with hands blistered from the axe I reloaded, dined and drank enough whisky to ease the pain and to push me into a deep coma until piccannniny daylight, when a full bladder woke me up. I went slowly and carefully back to the highway after breakfast on low tyres and had just pumped one up when two healthy young men came along in a new truck and produced a large hydraulic pump, finishing the other three in half the time I had laboured on one. They were off on a mineral survey somewhere to the north and I wished them a heap of luck. I almost apologised to my faithful truck and her equally faithful Japanese builders for my careless mistake, but learnt another lesson, including the virtues of hydaulic pumps.
From Kingooya to Hesso the road runs alongside the trans-Australian railway, working its way between the great salt lakes of Lake Gardner to the west and Lake Eyre to the east. Most of the way is very dusty, with some mulga country, some salt bush, more anady country and a lot of bare open undulating useless country. I wasted some time taking a side track to Woomera, still generously plastered with Verboten signs, but surfaced with bitumen, as befit the standards of public servants. All this seems quite unecessary, so long after post-atomic hysteria had faded, but there was eventually a gate, with an armed guard, with whom I had a pleasant exchange of insults. I turned back and made my way past Hesso, where I happened on a large break in a water pipeline running parallel with the line. The area was heavily wooded with a mixture of mulga and good sized trees, and supported large numbers of birds of varied kinds, Galas, crows, magpies, parrots, parakeeets, wrens, honey eaters, for the most part. There was a small fresh water lake from the burst pipe and just as I got out to investigate, a train came past, *est bound, and a jet of water washed its starboard side down, soaking the driver and the passengers with open windows. Their surprised yells briefly rang out. The noise of inumerable frogs, as well as the roar of the leak drove me some distance away to get a peaceful and delightful camping spot, with a log fire for a cold night. I was glad of a warm sleeping bag and in the morning my fingers quickly went numb away from the fire.
I tarried until the sun was well up before having a very refreshing bath in the lake and moving on. No more trains came from either direction and I half expected some gang to come and repair the leak, which was gradually getting larger. But noone came and I moved off towards the western highway which was not far south. There, as I completed the circle, were the unwholesome hippies of all sexes on both sides. Once glance at the potential pirates was enough to push the foot down on the accelerator. There were the odd ones all the way to Port Augusta. The town has some assets, mainly visual, but an aura of faint squalour. The nearby Flinders Ranges and the waters at the head of St. Vincents Gulf make asetting that could be lovely. Somehow the feeling of polluted waters and the traffic of passers by, combined with the fact that it is half way between Port Pirie and Wyalla with their heavy industries and heavy union tyrants exposes it to the negative standards of such populations by unimaginable materialism.
Pausing only for a wheel shuffle and grease change, while I went searching for a port-a-gas refill, I went off, finding a new pass through the Flinders Ranges. This time a steep winding climb through a pass in beautiful sheep country, at the height of a lush season. Streams, lovely trees, everything at its best. This led out to the wheat plain through Orroroo (a nostalgic two letter memory) and then to Peterborough again. The country gradually getting worse on the long haul from Broken Hill.
I stopped west of broken Hill in an old abandoned diggings off the road in broken country, with a local ecology of rabbits, foxes and the old dingo and ran through the names of the stars on a very clear, nippy but brilliant night. As water coming down the Darling from the north made the road at Wilcannia doubtful I took the Wentworth Road for a time, then crossed west to go through Harfield and Oxley. On the way I noticed several times green crops of shrubs that were obviously being watered but could not identify them. They were not large but kept cropping up at intervals over 50 miles or more. In the middle of this I met a policeman alone in a car, as I was having lunch beside the third grade sandy track. He was clearly ill at ease and estraordinarily inquisitive and suspicious. He alsked for my licence, registration and proof of identity. As I prattled on about my journey he began to relax somewhat and accepted a can of beer. In the end he moved on. He was so different from a policeman who once came purposefully to an evening camp near Inverell to see if I was part of a rustling syndicate of local butchers, knocking off a bit of free meat in the vicinity, that my doubts persisted. It was not until two days later, nearing Bathurst, that my subconscious recalled the characteristics of Cannabis Sativa from an old materia medica, that my suspicions cryatallized and I began to wish that I had the name of the cop or could remember the number of his car. Then I was rather glad that I had been so naive and that my palpable, perhaps culpable innocence had been so apparent. I regret the can of beer though.
That evening I deliberately camped about 50 miles short of Balranald to avoid a too obvious visit to friends at dinner time. It was in dense mulga country with a absolute horde of red kangaroos who kept thumping through the night and in the morning forced a slow crawl to the Oxley highway to avoid collision. Some of the old males were huge. The sun was well up too for I had cleaned up more carefully than usual to pay a visit to Florence and Roger Street in a homestead nestling in a bend of the Murrumbidgee four miles from the road.
Then followed a marvellous day, looking at aboriginal mounds in their paddocks and imbued with the special peace and harmony that they create amidst much positive achievement in unique fields. I left in the afternoon and sped across the Oxley plain with emus silhoutted on the skyline through Hay, to The One Tree Plain where great grey kangaroos caught the evening light. It was getting dark before I found a copse of trees and firewood and another happy night, sparkling but chilly. The last day, through steadily increasing closer settlement and larger country towns to Bathurst and Lithgow could have easily brought me home, but heavy traffic out of Sydney to a long weekend motor race led me to turn off towards Mount Wilson and camp well down a mountain track in peace and quiet and abundant firewood amongst tall trees, adding a pendant to the chain of hypnotic and beguiling nights. For ever after profoundly influenced by the journey in many ways, an increasing awareness of limitations arising from acknowledged cowardice and solace from effects of solitude and the rhythms of the heart of the earth.