Crossing to California

19 Ιουνίου , 2011

Μετά την απαραίτητη Αυστραλιανή παρένθεση, την οποία επέβαλαν τα από καιρό χρωστούμενα κείμενα για τον Ben Nicker και τον Nicolas Rothwell, επιστρέφω στην αφήγηση του οδοιπορικού μου στις ερήμους των νοτιοδυτικών ΗΠΑ (Νοέμβριος 2010), την οποία είχα αφήσει εδώ, φεύγοντας από το Las Vegas.

 Με τη σειρά της, η αφήγηση αυτή είναι και η ίδια μια παρένθεση: ο πρωταρχικός σκοπός του blog ήταν –και παραμένει– η εξιστόρηση των εμπειριών μου ως κυανόκρανου στη Δυτική Σαχάρα. Σταδιακά, θα (καταφέρω να) επιστρέψω και να κλείσω –επιτέλους!- εκείνη την αφήγηση, και μαζί να κλείσω και το παρόν blog, του οποίου ο καιρός έχει ίσως περάσει προ πολλού…

 Μέχρι τότε…

. . .

Ανατολικά της Ασίας, πολύ κοντά στον Επί της Γης Παράδεισο, είναι ένα νησί που κατοικείται από όμορφες, δυνατές γυναίκες, όπως ήταν οι Αμαζόνες. Τα πάντα εκεί είναι φτιαγμένα από χρυσό. Οι γυναίκες είναι τρομερές πολεμίστριες, και ιππεύουν γρύπες, τους οποίους ταΐζουν με τα σώματα των νεογένννητων αρσενικών παιδιών τους. Βασίλισσά τους είναι η Calafia, από την οποία  το νησί πήρε το όνομά του: California.

Αυτά έγραφε ο Ισπανός Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, στο μυθιστόρημά του Las Sergas de Esplandián (παλαιότερη σωζόμενη έκδοση 1510, Σεβίλλη). Μερικοί τον πίστεψαν. Ανάμεσά τους ο Hernán Cortés, ο οποίος, αφού είχε καταλύσει την αυτοκρατορία των Αζτέκων και είχε οριστεί κυβερνήτης τού Μεξικού για λογαριασμό τού ισπανικού στέμματος, υπολόγισε ότι μπορούσε να φτάσει στο νησί πλέοντας για καναδυό μέρες βορειοδυτικά, ξεκινώντας από την ακτή του Ειρηνικού.

Και το βρήκε.

Island of California (map circa 1650, from Wikipedia)

* * *

Δεν είναι περίεργο που η εικονοποιία της Καλιφόρνια συνδέθηκε από νωρίς με τη Γη της Επαγγελίας των Ισραηλιτών, ειδικά για ανθρώπους που ξεκινούσαν από την ανατολική ακτή των ΗΠΑ. Δεν είναι η απόσταση – η πρόσβαση στην Καλιφόρνια από τα ανατολικά, δηλαδή από την ξηρά, είναι φραγμένη: στο βορρά από την οροσειρά της Σιέρρα Νεβάδα, αδιαπέραστη το χειμώνα (οι άποικοι του Donner Party θα έτρωγαν τους νεκρούς τους, εκεί, όταν παγιδεύτηκαν το χειμώνα του 1846-47)˙ και στο νότο από την φοβερή, ανελέητη απελπισία τής ερήμου Mojave.

Απόσπασμα από το ημερολόγιο του Patrick Breen, μέλους του Donner Party, 25-26 Φεβρουαρίου 1847: "Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I dont that she has done so yet, it is distressing. The Donnos told the California folks that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow"

Ινδιάνοι Απάτσι και Κομάντσι φύλαγαν τα περάσματα. Πρωτόγνωρα δέντρα στοίχειωναν το τοπίο, θυμίζοντας πετρωμένες ψυχές στην κόλαση, να εκλιπαρούν για οίκτο…

Joshua Trees @ Mojave Desert, Nov 2010

* * *

Και τις δύο φορές που πήγα στην Καλιφόρνια, πήγα δια ξηράς. Η πρώτη φορά ήταν τον Ιανουάριο του 2000: πήρα το λεωφορείο από την Tucson της Arizona, και αποβιβάστηκα 1200 χιλιόμετρα αργότερα, στο San Francisco (όπου, όπως έχω εξηγήσει αλλού, δεν είδα την Chinatown)…

Η δεύτερη φορά είναι τώρα. 12 Νοεμβρίου 2010. Από τη Nevada, στον επαρχιακό αυτοκινητόδρομο 373.

Crossing to California from Nevada Hwy 373

Λίγο πριν τα όρια της πολιτείας, έχω δει πινακίδα:

CORRECTIONAL FACILITIES AHEAD – HITCH-ΗIKING IS PROHIBITED

Yeah…

Τρελάρες…

I just love you…

. . .

(Στο επόμενο: Into the Valley of Death)

Homer in the Outback

11 Ιουνίου , 2011

Nicolas Rothwell, Wings of the Kite-Hawk – A journey into the heart of Australia

 

The William Creek Hotel, in South Australia, was founded in 1880. “In Greece”, the owner had told me, back in 2007, “1880 might feel like yesterday. But in the Australian context, it’s ancient.

William Creek SA, December 2007

Ancient trails, half-forgotten, half-buried in the red dust, guide the steps of Nicolas Rothwell, as he travels up and down in the Australian heartland, documenting his journeys in this wonderful, highly enjoyable book. Here we will meet 19th century explorers and hotel caretakers; scholars of Aboriginal art and Hell’s Angels (or, to be more precise, their local version, the Coffin Cheaters!); truck drivers reading behind the wheel and fans of Radio Birdman; Eastern European expats and former doctors on Antarctic expeditions. And, of course, lots, lots of stories, amusing, sad, bittersweet: about how there was an unknown darkness in the world, and its center was the Hotel Tully Falls; about the magnificent, astonishing legs of Pauline Hanson; about the legendary jukebox in the William Creek Hotel; about Leichhardt’s Camp 119, the loneliest place in the world; and Geoff Bardon’s first public appearance for years – “as if Thomas Pynchon were to turn up suddenly at some meeting of the Modern Language Association”!!!

And high above, patrolling the desert skies, always present –either directly or hovering just off the edge of the printed page–, the kite-hawk, “stooping down to within a few feet of us, and then turning away, after having eyed us steadily.” I think it is exactly this steady stare, not of the kite-hawk, but of Nicolas Rothwell himself, his unifying tonal mood, that manages to keep this book remarkably coherent at the end, despite its anecdotal material.

All but one, each book chapter is named after an explorer of the Australian inland. In the first chapter (“Leichhardt”), we follow the author as he traces the path of Ludwig Leichhardt, the German explorer that disappeared during his final inland expedition in 1848, never to be found. Outside Australia, Leichhardt is perhaps better known as the inspiration for Patrick White’s novel Voss (1957), considered a masterpiece in literary circles and securing White’s reputation up to the Nobel prize (not surprisingly, neither White nor his novel are ever mentioned in Rothwell’s book).

Rothwell travels with Leichhardt’s Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia at hand – Cairns, Normanton, Mount Isa, and then again, a year later, from Cairns to Chillagoe, where he meets biologist Roly Mackay, “with his six thousand books and his van-load of samples”, who has been naming wolf-spiders after explorers of Australia:

“He knows the country like the back of his hand. You should go and talk to him before you head out: but be careful you control the conversation, otherwise you’ll never get away: they’ll drag out your skeleton in years to come.”

And everyone is there, echoing Leichhardt: the Mayor of Burke Shire and famous Akubra hat-maker, “Honest John” Molony, reading the Journal in his truck; Darcy Redman, “the dynamo of North-Central Queensland, the Voltaire of the Selwyn Ranges” (“Leichhardt. As a man, I find him totally underexposed. If you go out there you will find him. I have gone out there – and I have.”); Tommy Prior, assuring the author that, no doubt, Leichhardt “was a Ford man”. And just before the end of the chapter, Rothwell will realize “the game that the explorer played, a game with the kite-hawk, of life and death. Three calls from the fatal bird meant No to one’s desire; and four, Yes. Three calls, and he would throw himself down; four, and he would live. He had made his pledge, then listened for the kite-hawk: and the bird…”

. . .

The second chapter (“Promised Land”), is the only one not named after an explorer. Here, the –not less exciting– topic is the Aboriginal rock art.

With an initial surprise that goes away gradually as the narrative proceeds, the chapter starts with the author wandering through Central Europe, “shortly after the revolutions that dethroned communism”:

“I drove on for several days tracing a zig-zag route through provincial Moravia and Slovakia, glimpsing everywhere the signs of empire in disintegration, whole worlds of custom, order and privilege collapsing, falling into oblivion. At times during that journey I felt almost like some colonial explorer who carries in his bloodstream a fatal bacillus, an infection so virulent it will destroy all that he sees, and all he yearns to see – and it is slowly destroying his own life as well, for who will heed the explorer in a settled land when the joy of discovery is gone, and nothing beyond the frontier remains?”

What has an extended excerpt about Central Europe to do in a book about the Australian Outback? As it turns out, this introduction is not at all unjustified, for the chapter is a parade of Central European expats:

“the bearded, deep-accented George Chaloupka, a Czech émigré who headed the rock art project at the Museum of the Northern Territory, and who was chiefly responsible for revealing to western eyes the painting tradition of Arnhem Land.” The Czech President, Vaclav Havel, who “was paying a State visit to Australia, and had expressed a wish to stop in Darwin, so as to visit the rock art sites of Kakadu, which he had learned of from Journey in Time”, i.e. Chaloupka’s book on the subject. Karoly Pulszky, a nineteenth-century scholar of the renaissance and a prominent political figure in Hungary, who fell from grace and “went into exile, in Australia, a country where he believed he could escape from rumours. But he was a knight of the renaissance, unable to live among sheep-shearers. He […] fell prey to depression, and loneliness – and, on the sixth of July, 1899, in a place called Myrtletown, in the state of Queensland, I believe, he took his own life.” Robert Bednarik, “monarch of the rupestrian world, convener of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations, author of some four hundred scientific papers, a man who, contrary to life’s usual pattern, became more, rather than less, a figure of the imagination, the longer one knew him.”

The subject of the European look on the Australian landscape permeates the chapter. But the opposite, the influence of the Outback in the eyes and minds of those driven too close to it, is also here:

“It took all day, and as we went through the Gorge seemed to me like Camelot: all mist-shrouded hills and far-off thunders. It was the kind of weather when the Aborigines thought spirits were walking, and the black trees came alive. And then I saw the rock art.”

“‘It speaks to you?’

‘It tells me the values that are dominant elsewhere really don’t apply here. This is a very different kind of place. For me, coming here wasn’t a culture shock alone, it was an environmental shock. I looked up, and I saw. Each mountain you come upon seems perfect, as if they had been designed by an architect. Most of them look like castles, like German or Spanish or Indian fortifications: don’t you see?’

He gestured high above us, and for a moment I could almost see the flags and crenellations, and tiny silhouettes of guards and sentries standing their watch against the bleached-out sky.”

“suddenly, the Outback seemed a place of echoes and repetitions, where one lives over things experienced before; where time is not at all the smooth, unbroken, forward flow we sense around us, but something yawning, full of rifts and voids, amidst which we navigate, almost unknowing, so that our advance from second to second is little short of miraculous.”

George Chaloupka speaks:

“’Once, you know, I even dreamed that I might buy a little apartment in Prague, in the Mala Strana perhaps, and I would go back every summer and spend time there, but now!’ – he shook his head – ‘When we were in Kakadu the other day I looked out across the grass plains, those wide plains, burned, or dry and yellowing, the way they are all round old Mudginberri station: dusty grass, smoky grass. You can see such colours nowhere else. And I realised that in my mind now I have come to find European forests dark, and monotonous, and threatening. Here you can lie safely under the casuarina trees, you can walk through the stringybark forests and find them filled with sunshine.’ “

And on and on we drove, through the Pilbara landscape that so resembles false-colour film; and ranges on the horizon dancing red and mauve inside the heat-haze; and the painful poetry of the Outback ruins…

Outback ruins...

. . .

Chapter three is named after Captain Charles Sturt, Lord Byron’s schoolmate in Harrow school. Here, the author’s guide is Sturt’s two-volume Narrative of an expedition into Central Australia, with “its wooden, perfunctory quality”:

It became evident to me, that we were locked up in the desolate and heated region, into which we had penetrated, as effectually as if we had wintered at the Pole.

“Sturt’s temperament, despite his military background and his Olympian manner, was reflective, self-questioning, melancholic. A wall of glass hung between him and society; he was a man born for loneliness, for absence from the things he loved; he had the horizon always in his eyes.”

“What was he seeking at the continent’s veiled heart? A space as abstract as the grief that lurked inside him. What was he fleeing, and leaving behind? Not only all he cared for, and held dear, but need, and pain, and love itself. Where was he bound? Like every noble or beautiful thing, to the kingdom of death – that kingdom he longed to see with his own eyes, to endure, and to return from, with golden words upon his lips.”

Sturt’s relationship with his men; his “almost Iliadic” relationship with the horses, “who have characters, and figure by name in his narrative”; his feeling that “his departure on the expedition […] was somehow a betrayal, an act of transgression for which he would have to pay a price”; his insistence that the kite-hawks, “patrolling their lonely deserts, had held power of life and death over him and his party”; and “the dream-like quality of Sturt’s descriptions” make the author to resolve, “almost as soon as I began reading the expedition Journal, to make the voyage of my own into his landscape, and through the desert that still bears his name.”

And so he does, together with the photographer Johnson Venn, beginning with Broken Hill, and an unexpected –and rather awkward– encounter with

“the object of collective attention, tall, flame-haired, square-faced, with green eyes set close together: the independent member for Oxley, Pauline Hanson, who was at that time close to the peak of her short-lived celebrity, and by far the most recognizable human being on the Australian continent.”

“’Thank God that’s over,’ said Johnson.

‘Just tell yourself that was the aperitif,’ I tried, feeling he was on the verge of mutiny.’ And now the open road. No politicians. Only emptiness, and silence, and the spirit of the inland, for weeks ahead. White Cliffs – Wanaaring – Innamincka – Birdsville – what could be a greater privilege?’

‘The frightening thing,’ he replied, slowly, ‘is that you’re inviting me into a nightmare, and you sound as if you’re looking forward to it.”

Apart from Sturt, three more precursors (should I say ancestors?) accompany the author as, in parallel with his journey, he reads his way into the desert: John Walter Gregory, a Scots geology professor whose Dead Heart of Australia “seemed to me then like some magic adventure-book”; Francis Ratcliffe, “a young British ecologist, who had been dispatched in the mid thirties to the arid, dust-blown terrain round Birdsville, a town he both loved and loathed”; and Cecil Madigan, one of the last explorers.

“Ratcliffe formed a dark impression of the Centre. […] For all his joy in recording nature, [he] never seeks to catch the desert landscape. Instead he gives that landscape’s effect on him, which was unsettling to the extreme. At his first encounter with the desert, he felt he was looking ‘round the bend of the earth’, into shimmering emptiness: ‘It was hard to grasp that the distance we could see, which looked so very distant, was but a mere step along the way we had to travel.

He tried to imagine the scene without its coat of grassy spinifex, when the film of green had given way to blinding, uninterrupted glare: ‘Even with this green I thought it was just about the cruelest and most inhuman world that it was possible to conceive. Little did I guess that within the next day or two I was to be introduced to worlds still more desolate and terrifying. I was uncomfortable and nervous now: later I was to be really scared – scared that something in my mind would crack, that the last shreds of my self-control would snap and leave me raving mad.’ […]

For Ratcliffe, much like Sturt, had read himself into the landscape, and saw his own fears and longings reflected back to him. […] Ratcliffe saw, in the iron-shod plains, something darker still, which Sturt also glimpsed and shied away from, and which has left its ghost in the opening to the second section of [Ratcliffe’s book] Flying Fox and Drifting Sand.

Here Ratcliffe recounts the words of advice he was given when he headed for the inland, for that tortured landscape of broken hills, red and brown and yellow: ‘It is a terrible country you are going into. You will be glad to escape from it; but it will get you, and even after you will find yourself longing to go back.’

Longing to go back, because he was receptive to nature, and because the land had its grievous splendour, and he could trace the chains of biological cause and effect all through its constantly repeated terrain? Or for quite another kind of reason: because he had looked into that empire of formlessness, and death, and found it beautiful, and fallen half in love with it? Because oblivion, and stillness, and silence were calling out to him?”

The reflection to the author comes just after a few pages, when he finds himself “possessed by a desire to return, as soon as possible, and live there, amidst that emptiness, in a place I scarcely knew at all”…

. . .

“Everyone stared at me.

‘Is this the new resort hotel?’ I asked uneasily.

‘No resort here, son. This is a homestead. Glen Helen homestead: capital of the blues.’

‘And can I stay the night here?’

‘If you’re sad enough, if you’ve got the blues bad enough, and if you cross my palm with folding money we might let you roll out your swag on the verandah. I’ll show you.’ “

Glen Helen Resort, December 2007

@ Glen Helen gorge, just behind the resort, December 2007

Although Theodor Strehlow, after whom the fourth chapter is named, was not an explorer, he and his father, Carl, “haunt the intellectual climate of the Centre in much a way a pair of soaring eagles, by their mere presence, redefine the sky.”

“ ‘Dripping with tragedy,’ he said. ‘Just dripping with it. You want to be careful you don’t get too caught up with it yourself. Everyone who sets off on the Strehlow trail goes slightly mad.’

‘That’s right,’ murmured JC. ‘Central Australia cut deep into him. A heavy dude. Fallen metaphysics.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Many devils in his universe.’

[…]

“Theodor Strehlow was born at Hermannsburg in 1908, the year his father’s ethnographic researches first entered into print. The legend of the son’s life has by now eclipsed the father’s patient ethnographic work. As a child growing up among Aboriginal children Theodor was as fluent in Aranda as in his native tongues. His linguistic gifts became clearer still during his time at the University of Adelaide, where he excelled as a classicist. Almost immediately after graduation, he found employment as a researcher into the indigenous cultures of Central Australia: he set out to study what he once had lived. With a dream of ‘salvage linguistics’ in mind, he embarked on a series of field expeditions, travelling by camel, together with an Aboriginal guide. He looks back upon this period in his last book, the unwieldy Songs of Central Australia, which, by virtue of its rarity, has become a kind of sacred object of the modern literary domain.”

“ ‘By the way, I’ve put aside a few things for you. […] Songs of Central Australia,’ he announced, in triumph. ‘An association copy.’

‘Going cheap at three and a half thousand, I suppose?’

‘How did you know?’

‘All I have to do is double the price you gave in last month’s catalogue.’

‘Well, maybe  there’s hope for you yet in the book trade.”

“Yet for all its encyclopaedic scope, its romantic tone, its elaborate, theory-laden structure, there is something in this work of retrospect that is inert and dead. Strehlow conceived his Songs of Central Australia as the last record of a dying world, and that mood stains all within its pages. The sacred songs become chants of mourning and loss; the civilisation he describes seems no more than an afterglow; even the landscape breeds in him feelings of isolation and of loneliness.

[…]

In 1933, writes Strehlow, he was taken, with two old men of the southern Aranda, to this site, and shown a large cluster of stones lying in the midst of a bleak desert of table mountains. Out of the huge total of ceremonies, whose performance at this spot, according to tradition, once lasted for more than six months, only a few scattered dramatic pieces were still remembered: ‘Everything else had been swallowed up, by time and oblivion and death.’

The author continues to wander, happening upon Wighard Strehlow, Theoror’s nephew from Germany, who was paying a visit to Glen Helen, and who was currently writing himself a book on Strehlow.

Wüstenanz, announced the cover of the book before me. Australien spirituell erleben. […]

After some while in town I paid a visit to a consulting anthropologist I knew, a man of the grimmest post-marxist opinions. Had he ever heard of Wighard, or come across the book?

‘Christ,’ he said, sitting up in his chair. ‘It’s not in that silver briefcase, is it? You didn’t bring it here?’

‘No – no, of course not,’ I answered, uneasily.

‘Thank God for that! I wouldn’t want to be within a hundred miles of that thing. What’s it called again – Dances in the Desert?’

‘Something like that – and why not?’

‘Don’t you know? It’s got the same kind of photographs Strehlow sold to Stern magazine – the ones that caused him so much grief and unhappiness.’

‘And they show secret material, and shouldn’t be viewed by outsiders?’

‘They’re just bad luck, like everything to do with the Strehlows. If I were you I’d get rid of that book at once, or at any rate, be careful where you read it – and in what frame of mind.’ “

[…]

“After much calling out beside the hotel’s front gate, and sounding of the horn, I tracked down Arltunga’a solitary owner Christine Knox: she was in the far corner of the red-soil paddock, consulting her weather instruments. […]

I gave her a quick version of the Strehlow story: Hermannsburg and Horseshoe Bend; Wighard at Glen Helen.

‘Perhaps you’ve seen his book?’

I reached for my briefcase and began to pull it out.

‘No – and you better leave it there. I’ve never seen anyone with it, although we do get a lot of Germans up this way, when the hotel’s open. I remember all the story very well, about the photographs – that was big news in the Territory, years ago.’

[…]

At some point while I was sleeping, the weather broke. I opened my eyes. The rain was drumming down on the tin roof. The sky was still half-dark. I went outside: rust-coloured water filled the ruts along the road. I struggled up to the hotel building. Christine turned around: ‘What have you brought with you?’ she said, accusingly.”

The other prominent figure of the fourth chapter is Geoff Bardon, “the schoolteacher round whom, in the early 1970s, the painting movement at Papunya settlement first crystallised”, appearing here along with JC, one of the infamous Glen Helen scholars…

“He swivelled round. On the back of his jacket was an intricately inlaid death’s head emblem, and around it, picked out in worn, frayed letters, the legend: Coffin Cheaters Motorcycle Club, Kalgoorlie WA.

‘Is that a current affiliation?’

‘Some things never entirely leave you – but I’m on a different vector now.’

‘And what are you doing here?’

‘I’m here to see the man, of course.’

‘The man?’

‘Geoff Bardon. I’m a collector. Early Papunya boards – I’ve got ten of them, all early consignment, all documented.’

‘And you keep them at Glen Helen?’

‘Are you joking? Have you seen the security at that place? No, they come with me on the road.’

‘You take ten priceless, fragile paintings with you on a Harley-Davidson across Australia?’

‘Sure. I love them. They sustain me. I’m their custodian. I’ve been looking after them for years. They don’t mind traveling – they’re depictions of dreamtime travels, not out this way, it’s true, but their dream-lines reach back where I’m going.’

‘And where’s that?’

‘I’m on a run to the Pituri country: Mernie sandhill, out beyond Cacoory ruins, off the Eyre Developmental Road. Maybe it might interest you, sometime, to come along. It’s a very historic part of the world; there are even people who say that’s where Leichhardt and his party finished up. It’s beautiful: red sand, blue-gray mulga; the five most poisonous snakes on earth. It’s the only place where you can find them together.’

‘That must come in handy, but what’s Geoff Bardon to you, that you drove all this way to hear him?’

‘Don’t you know that passage towards the end of his book, the Shelleyan echo: “I believe it is in the furthest reaches of the human imagination that our country lies, and there we must seek it out, like poets of a coming age.”

In the lecture hall:

“There were introductions; they seemed endless. Anthropologists and curators jumped up and made their way to the stage, and spoke, bathed by spotlights, as though they had stumbled into the beam of some intrusive deep-sea exploration probe.

‘Witch-doctoring?’ I whispered in JC’s ear.

‘Haven’t you ever had any strange times in the desert?’ he replied, in a stage whisper, and a couple of faces in front of us glanced around.

‘No.’

‘Then you haven’t been out there long enough. Don’t you ever ask around about that kind of thing? Don’t you ever talk to Aboriginal people? They’d set you straight right away.’

‘And have you ever seen anything, yourself: anything unusual?’

‘Are you joking? Every day out there’s a day close to the edge. What do you think Bardon was into? What do you think the painting of the desert’s all about?’

‘Well,’ I whispered back, ‘form, and ceremony, maybe, and pattern – their place in human life.’

‘It’s about fear – fear, and danger. The abyss. I’ve been out near Mount Conner, when the ice-spirits are floating in the air. I’ve driven out from Balgo towards Lake Gregory, and felt the coming of the dog-men. Once, when I was working on a geo-survey from Alice Springs, at Taka, down near Maryvale, I went out from camp alone one night, into the western Simpson – deep into the devil-devil country.’

‘And what happened?’

‘I went a long way through the desert. I found an isolated peak among the sand-dunes. I began to climb it, and the devil-forms came rushing, screaming past me. They wanted to uproot my mind: it was the universe’s challenge.’

‘Shh!’ scolded a woman just beneath us, turning round. ‘Quiet!’

‘Quiet yourself,’ said JC. Can’t you see Geoff Bardon is about to give his talk?’

[…]

‘Sand and dust’, came [Bardon’s] voice. ‘Sand and dust. I ask you to consider these words as markers and limits of our knowledge of what we are’ – and his thoughts, like the scurries of some desert wind, flowed on, faltering, breaking. […]

Briefly, sighing with each pause for breath, he painted pictures of the artists he had known, and been closest to: their smiles, their looks, their movements, Mick Namerari; Charlie Tarawa; Uta Uta; Tim Leura; Kaapa. Tears were standing in his eyes; he spoke their names like those of saints. […]

What were the early paintings, he asked, and at once he gave his answer: they were mind-maps, of course, a system of mind-maps across the whole continent. The artists at Papunya had made the invisible visible. […]

‘It was a great honour to work with these men,’ he said, and his hands gripped the lectern. ‘It was a great honour to speak here today. My time up there, in Papunya, was one of rejoicing and joy. The painting movement is now a vast unstoppable force of conscience which has emerged so as to forever change the history of the world.’

Before the chapter ends, we return to Strehlow, and his

“… account of an expedition he made to Ayer’s Rock, a four-day haul across a hundred miles of waterless country. The camels strayed; the Aboriginal guides went off to fetch them back; the white members of the party themselves became restless, and full of fear.

@ Ayer's Rock (Uluru), December 2007

Strehlow recounts an experience he attributes to his fellow-anthropologist, C.P. Mountford, though he was not in the habit of describing other’s feelings, and it may well be it was his own. The party had made their way successfully to Uluru, which was at that time a very different place from the jamboree one finds today: ‘We were at the base of the vast silent rock, and not a beast or bird had been sighted by us for over two days. The only sound that night was the moaning of the wind around the titanic monolith. One member of the party ventured out into the caves at the base of the rock in order to copy some of the native drawings in them. Several hours later he returned to our lonely camp fire. He had done little work. Draughts had kept on extinguishing the flame of his carbide lamp, and he admitted that it had been an eerie experience sitting there on his own in these ancient caves, where the wind was producing weird sounds, sighs, moans, and hissing noises. He did not go out again during the next two nights.’ “

Cave @ Uluru

. . .

Ernest Giles, “the poet of the Outback”, lends his name to the fifth and final chapter of the book:

“He only emerges into Australian history in 1872, at the head of a small private expedition – but these shadows that surround him seem entirely right. Unlike his precursors and his contemporaries, Giles was not a man of science, he was not a soldier, nor a survey official, nor the emissary of a colonial government. His story has no hidden contours. There was no romance to be exorcised, no psychic tension casting its symptoms onto every range and creek-bed. He had no circumstances; no flaws of character. He was the freest, the most literal, the most disturbing of all the explorers. ‘An explorer,’ he wrote, ‘is an explorer from love – and it is nature, not art, that makes him so.’ “

“At that moment, from behind him, Giles companion, Alf Gibson, called out. Unwelcome news: his horse had knocked up and was on the verge of collapse. The two men, in truth, were not poised on the brink of breakthrough, though they had pushed far into the wilderness of spinifex that bears Gibson’s name today. They were a hundred miles beyond their waiting colleagues at the support depot, in burning, blood-red sand-dunes, without shade, or sufficient water, or supplies; and now, with only one good horse between them, they could not risk the high ground beckoning; they could barely hope to fall back on their steps.

‘Look here, Gibson,’ Giles said. ‘You know we are in a most terrible fix, and only one horse; therefore only one person can ride, and one must remain behind. I shall remain, and now you listen to me…’

It was a simple enough plan. Gibson would go on to the water-kegs which they had left along their outward route, water the mare, rest an hour or two, then head on by dark. At dawn, the ranges he was bound for should be in view. He would be safe. ‘Stick to the tracks’ – they were clear in the red sand; they would lead him home. At camp, he should send out a rescue party, with water, to come for Giles. Gibson asked for the compass so he could steer by night. Giles gave it to him; and off he went. Through some instinct, as Gibson receded, Giles called out once more: stick to the tracks! And watched, staring through the sunshine, while his companion was borne slowly out of human sight.

The plan was not designed to claim Gibson. It was more like an act of sacrifice, a death sentence passed by Giles upon himself, as though in requital for his failure. Extinction in the desert was always in his mind; at times, the desert served him as a realm of after-life, a zone where he might encounter forlorn souls, like Leichhardt, that ‘lost Pleiad’ for whose traces he was ever on alert.

Giles began his solitary trek. No rescue party came for him. In his narration of his journey, the days and nights pass like a dream. His head spins; he faints; he trudges through stands of spinifex as tall as himself. He makes the water-kegs; he finds and pounces on and eats a baby wallaby, ‘raw, dying as it was, fur, skin and all – the delicious taste of that creature I shall never forget.’

On the sixth day he reaches the ranges and the waterhole; after two more days, at dawn, he walks into his camp, and wakes his men, who stare at him as though ‘he was one newly risen from the dead’. But Gibson? The returning horse’s tracks, as Giles to his horror and alarm had already seen, diverged at mid-point from the outward route. What of him? No sign. Next morning, Giles set off anew at the head of a search team, quartering the desert, looking for the man lost instead of him – but in vain. […]

Failure. Disappearance. Death. This ordeal forms the heart of Giles’s expedition narratives. His fame as a bushman rests on that delirium-tormented return, which is described in Australia Twice Traversed, in the most racing, tumbling, impressionistic prose.

[…]

‘Ernest Giles,’ repeated Grahame, frowning, and shaking his head. ‘A wild individual. He’s a bit flowery and romantic for my tastes, but I suppose he is a fully paid-up dweller in the realms of the unreal.’

‘He was a scientific explorer,’ I protested.

‘You think so? Show me.’

Grahame leaned over and took my copy of Australia Twice Traversed.

‘Don’t be led astray by all those Latin name-lists of plants and trees at the back. How about this: “I trust it will be believed that an explorer may be an imaginative as well as a practical creature.” See: he believed he was writing the landscape, singing it into being as he went. Exploration was his fiction. He was the hero of his own story. He was in hyper-space! Although I must confess, there are times, out in the King Leopolds, with the thermometer over forty, when I almost think he was on to something. Listen: “Strange as it may appear, it seems because the tales of Australian travel and self-devotion are true, that they attract but little notice, for were the narratives of the explorers not true we might become the most renowed novelists the world has ever known”.’ Grahame laughed. He snapped the book shut: ‘Clear enough for you? He was a frustrated author, just like everybody in the desert. To be at the top of the best-seller lists: that’s what he really wanted.’

. . .

As a character of the book points out somewhere, “All the explorers were mad, but some of them were more successfully mad than others”…

(The book is re-issued with a new introduction by renowned travel writer Pico Iyer and a new foreword by the author)