Sunday, 2 May 2010

Western Australia II: Postcards of the outback

IT SEEMS a funny thing to say, but I have always wanted to see the Outback. It's a funny thing to say because, before I went to Australia in 2007, I had never really considered going to Australia at all. Many people have lists of the places they most want to go - I still do - but mine had places like Peru and, because of a Primary School project I remain fond of to this day, Mongolia. But as I travelled down the East Coast from Cairns to Melbourne over two months in 2007, I started to yearn not only to see more of this tremendous country, but to see the real country, away from the densely populated thin strip of land east of the Great Dividing Range. I wanted to see it all, but more than that I wanted to see the lesser-known west, where people are few and far between and the earth turns red. Given the privilege of returning to the land Down Under, it was always the plan to go to Western Australia and travel into the bush.

So here we were, Rachel, Ben and I, driving north into the countryside. First along the dual carriageways around Perth - initially getting lost and driving into the airport - into smaller suburban towns, repeatedly over the ever-diminishing Swan River and into the farmland beyond. The land was surprisingly fertile; I had had preconceived ideas that the area around Perth would be stripped of moisture, exacerbating the city's reputation as the most remote in the world, but the vineyards and pasture blanketed the landscape in two shades of green - that of grass and gum trees. It wasn't long before we turned off the Great Northern Highway and on to the Brand Highway, the split between the only two roads that cross the state to the north. The Brand Highway follows the coast, whereas the Great Northern Highway, a drive of stamina and strong engines, cuts north-east as far as Port Hedland, 1,635km away, with little in between. Missing the turning was non-negotiable.

I had not driven any vehicle for a very long time, and I had never driven anything as big as Ben. High-sided and heavy (and more importantly, subject to a $1,300 deposit), driving him was a daunting task. We could take no chances, nor could we attempt speed or sudden changes of direction or velocity. Road trains overtook us. We knew we would have to get faster and endure longer distances in the days to come, but for now we were taking modest steps. Our official final destination was Shark Bay, 833km away, but in our minds we really wanted to go further - to Coral Bay and Ningaloo Reef, a further 500km away. We knew that some days driving we would see few people and even fewer settlements; we knew there would be days when driving between neighbouring towns would take the entire day, with no services in between. So day one would be to orientate ourselves - our target became Jurien Bay, 267km up the coast. By nightfall we were exhausted: we had taken frequent breaks and switched drivers often. Less than two weeks later I would drive the same distance in one stint with absolute ease.

Over the course of our journey I became an irritating bundle of excitement.

"Wow! Look at THAT!" I would repeatedly shout. I was unendingly enthusiastic about everything, usually utterly mundane things or a cluster of particularly fascinating trees. Mostly it was the dirt: I was ecstatic all the way because the earth was red. The roads went on to the horizon, and the earth was red: simple features but, in my mind, captivating. I am enchanted by wilderness - for me it equates to solitude. My enthusiasm was undoubtedly irritating but I couldn't help it. I see the world in postcard photographs, and everywhere I looked I wanted to capture what I saw - trails breaking through the forest or the scrub, criss-crossing the world in lines of red dust; unfailing sunshine and outback; the continuum from fertile land to desert and back again.

"Wow! Look at THAT!"

I think Rachel wanted to hit me.

For a sparsely populated coastline, WA contains a surprising number of landmarks, so much so that it was not possible to stop at them all. First along our route was the Moore River National Park, a forest to the left of the road: desert lay to the right. Upstream on the Moore River was once the Moore River Native Settlement, a relic of Australia's shameful history. Moore River was a centre for the relocation of Aboriginal mixed-race children, removed from their parents for 'their own good' to be converted to the ways of the whitefella - and often then into slavery. It was from Moore River that in 1931, Molly Craig, Daisy Craig and Molly Fields, three Aboriginal children aged between 8 and 14, escaped and, without roads, maps or compasses, walked 1,600km to their home of Jigalong along the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Their story has been immortalized in Doris Pilkington Garimara's book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, subsequently turned into a feature film by Phillip Noyce. It is an inspiring tale but telling of a dark place in history - it was not until 2008 that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Aboriginal community for the Stolen Generations, 39 years after resettlement policies ended and 139 years after they began. We couldn't stop at Moore River because it was too far out of the way and, besides, the settlement no longer remains. It was enough to know that it once did, but I found it a curious notion that this empty landscape not so long ago had such a key role in history. I wondered what other secrets innocent landscapes hold both here and elsewhere around the world. The Aboriginal Land Trust took over the Moore River site in 1974 and it is now known as Budjarra - "mother earth".

Jurien Bay is a coastal town on the Indian Ocean. As the sun set on day one, tourists and fishermen alike stood at the end of the pier in silent contentedness. The sun scorched the horizon a deep orange as it disappeared into the dark blue sea, and a sea lion popped his head out of the water, coming to see what all the fuss was about - and steal the fishermen's catch while he was at it.

I can't be sure, but I probably said "Wow! Look at THAT!". Entirely by accident you understand.

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