Towards the centre.

Alice from ANZAC Hill
It takes three hours to fly from Melbourne to Alice Springs.  It’s a trip that takes you from the green and blue of the coast, over the sickle of the Great Dividing Range, and out into the red of the centre.  It’s a trip that takes you away from most of the people that call Australia home and out into the sparsely populated Red Centre.   It’s a trip that takes you to some of the most iconic locations in Australia – red stone and red soil - and into the places where the oldest surviving cultures in the world meet the 21st centaury head on.  For many Australians it’s a journey of discovery, challenge and inspiration. 

For some Australians this may also be a journey of obligation; a kind of visitation to the mythological centre ground of a continent country. A place where we can look at the people we displaced, and try to understand what this means. Every country has its myths, used to define itself, and a need to separate from others.  The Green and Pleasant land of England, the Manifest Destiny and The Endless Frontier of the USA.  These are all constructs, built on foundations containing a mixture of strained half-truths, political manipulation and tourism industry spin.  For coast-bound Australians (like me) the Red Centre is both a challenge and an attraction.  To define it – as some do – as the Real Australia, is to belittle the work and lives of all those who live elsewhere.  And to view it as just a tourist attraction, a geological oddity a long way from the sea, is to ignore its importance to the people who first set foot there.  It lies at the centre of things, but remains distant and, for all my wishful thinking, unknowable.  It is a land that causes internal contradictions to rise, unbidden, to the surface. 

The rocks and bushes, sand and soil, form the bones and life of a culture that placed attachment to land – to country – at the centre of things.   Do modern Australians do the same thing?  Do we see the remarkable nature of the land beneath our feet – or do we flee to Bali for cheap beer and vegemite on toast for breakfast?  Do we know the stories of a people who have been here for 50,000 years – or do we fly to London, Paris or Prague in search of culture?  And does it matter if we do or don’t?   Thoughts flicker.  Some, like weak flames on damp kindles, fail and disappear.   Others take hold and swirl between some form guilt and some form of celebration.  I am flying to a place considered by many to be the heart of Aboriginal Australia.  But what does this say of all the other nations that called Australia home long before the first fleets arrived?  Nations who may have traded with the peoples of central Australia, but who told different stories and held different places to be sacred.  For all I try, for all I think it would be remarkable to really know what ‘country’ means, I don’t think I can. I don’t see story, I see habitat, maybe even landscape.  It’s a mindset 50 years in the making. It has served me very well and makes the world make sense, but sometimes it would be nice to look around in a different way. So am I just going to watch things from a distance, watch things I don’t really understand and then come home to write pious words about them?  Such thoughts of voyeurism and elitism cloud my mind – it’s not normally what I think about in the first hours of a holiday. 

Black Kite

The centre of Australia has always held a fierce attraction.  At first, when it was unknown to all but the first Australians, it was a place of mystery, a blank on the map.  People dragged boats inland, looking for great oceans and fat pasture.  People died doing so and passed into myth.  People claim to have found huge reefs of gold and then to have lost them.  People went looking for what they thought ought to have been there and often never found it.

But the sea seekers were much closer to the truth than they knew.  Much of the rain that falls on the coast flows inland, away from the sea and into a huge salty lake – Lake Eyre.   Glitter bright reflections on the surface catch the eye and break into my inward pointed thoughts.  Lake Eyre is full, but emptying. Sitting in the deepest part of Australia, partly below the surrounding, distant, oceans, it’s an inland sea with nowhere to go but into the air. It’s a strange thing to see in the desert.  I silently add another location to an already unfeasibly long list of places to visit.

Alice Springs – often just Alice – lies astride the normally dry Todd River, and under the watchful eye of the MacDonnell Ranges.  All main routes, road and rail, in and out of the town pass through The Gap, a split in the hills that looks like it was made long ago by the thumb of a giant, dragged through now hardened soft clay. Alice is far from being a one-horse town, but it seems to wear its intimacy and lack of size as a badge of honour.   In central Australia the distances become huge, but in Alice you are never far from all that it has to offer. On the road, signs tell you that it’s over 1000 km to Darwin and about the same to Adelaide.  They may as well have just said “A long way”, for all that you can really imagine such a distance. 

The view from the top of ANZAC hill adds another layer to the idea of distance. As far as the eye can see the landscape is red.  Beyond the fringes of Alice there are few signs of human activity.  As the trip continues we will slowly come to understand the scale of things here.  Outside of Alice a trip back to the shops for forgotten milk would involve a drive equal to a coastal holiday in England.  Black Kites swoop overhead to hunt through the patchy hillside grassland and climb in lazy circles over the supermarket.  A family tells their children to pay some respect as they pose in front of the War Memorial at the top of the hill.  Honeyeaters chase from bush to bush, and tiny thornbills dash from clump to clump.  You can feel the distances emptying away the cramped days of city work. You can feel the crisp, winter clean air sluicing away the grey city dust.  You can see the red earth clinging to the side of your shoes and the fluff of your socks.  We stand there in the middle of things, a long way from anywhere, and close to where we have chosen to be.

Australian Ringneck
Down in the town centre people lie on the grass and try to sell paintings.  A man on a unicycle orders a coffee, but wisely drinks it before he leaves.  The milk shakes are huge, the toasted sandwiches a little under-done and the coffee a relief.  On the wires overhead an Australian Ringneck parrot eyes off the sugar packets with a keenness that suggests addiction. With a wing flared swoop it steals a prize, a little brown bag of energy, and returns to its vantage perch. With dexterous feet and a nimble beak it tears the corner from the packet.  Between the opening and the eating sprinkles of sweetness fall to the ground below, where ants gather the table scraps and scattered crystals.  

Beneath the bridge a river of sand stands still, waiting for floods and distant rains.  Above the bridge the sky is a crisp blue, endless.  Trees with pale bark and silky, silver branches grow from the sand, drinking deep on unseen water.  The road leads to the Botanic Gardens and lunch.

In the car park I am not surprised to see a strange bird on a picnic table.  It pauses long enough to allow me to get my camera and in the instant before I press the button it turns tail and flees.  Everybody else is hungry and walks towards the café that nestles between tall, shading trees.  I walk in the opposite direction, looking for the bird, seeking this moment’s Grail.  I see it. It sees me.  I raise my camera to my eye.  It flies off.  It’s not so much the hunter and the hunted as the agile and the stumbling.  I smell coffee and the delight of fresh toast.  I abandon the quest, and return to the café where my family sits, waiting, behind a table that is square rather than round.

Spotted Bowerbird
During lunch the Grail comes to me.  It’s a Spotted Bowerbird.  The head looks bare, but it’s clothed in dense, flesh coloured feathers. The nape of its neck is splashed with a patch of pink.  The body is paint speckled – spotted really – with pale yellow; rain-washed mustard; sunflower petals holding too long past the last month of summer.  The bird lands on the table just out of arm’s reach. It cocks its head to one side, eye to sky, eye to the table and steals the flakes of bread left on a plate.   

A chattering in the trees draws my eyes upwards, to where two tone birds chase and call.  One walks headfirst down a branch and flicks away chunks of loose bark with a long curved beak.  A noisy squabble breaks out as the birds land on the same table as the Bowerbird, which cocks its head once more and flies away.  The new birds are Grey Crowned Babblers, a noisy collaborative bird that breeds in family parties, and fights over food with the same intensity as teenage brothers.  With weather that swings from drought to fire to flood with capricious randomness, Australia is no place to put all your reproductive eggs in one basket.  In the bad years you need to just get through, in the good years you need to lay down stock for the coming years. This is always easier with some help.  So the siblings stay with their parents and help out as needed.  Only after a few years do the older birds leave to start out on their own.  They squabble in the branches, fight on the tables and in the children’s sand pit.  In the garden bed two play tug of war with an abandoned crust.  The rough and tumble of these encounters makes a lie of one of their common names – “Happy Families”.

Grey Crowned Babblers
In the motel car park Crested Pigeons feed on broken, scattered, breakfast cereals and Magpies stalk around in the background, strangely shy with their red eyes and powerful beaks.  Parrots call from the trees and the ever-present kites watch as I arrange the bags in the back of the car.

We head away from Alice towards the West MacDonnell ranges.  The 4WD feels like overkill on the sealed roads, but at least it looks like every other car on the road, although it’s clear that it’s a hire car rather than a local one.  The road is straight, but not in that scenic disappearing horizon kind of way.  One each side of the road are rock ridges and towers where the harder rock has resisted the slow process of time.  All of the rocks – and the sandy soil – are drawn from a palette dominated by red and orange.  The ground between the road and the steep slopes is covered with a dense and thorny scrub.  I can’t help but wonder what this place was like before the road, before travel was possible with just a key twist and the push of your right foot.  Red buttresses of rock push out from the hills and sharp ridgelines snake down to the road.  In the UK they would all have names and be covered in climbing routes.  Here, I wonder if they ever were named, and if they were, do people still know what they are called?   It’s a landscape that seems predisposed to mystery.  The rock faces and ridges look bare and inhospitable, but there must be life up there.  I just don’t know what sort.

Simpsons Gap
To break the journey into bite sized pieces, and so we don’t have to lie when asked “Are we there yet?” we pull off the road at Simpson’s Gap. By some quirk of geology a narrow chasm, filled with a dry riverbed, cuts through the rock here.  The sign says “No Swimming” as a cool morning breeze kicks up dust from the sand.  There is no sign of water in the riverbed, just white trunked gums and smoothed down rocks where the water once was. 

Beyond the flat bed of the river a steep jumble of rocks lies between the red cliff face and the pale river sands.  Movement where it seems implausible catches my attention.  From out of the muddled stones the form of a wallaby grows.  It disappears as quickly as it appeared, to be replaced by another, higher up the slope.  The wallabies are fleet footed and sure, and at times they simply disappear in caves and caverns hidden beneath the larger rocks.  If the eye takes a while to grow accustomed to the dark, it also takes time to see animals where you would normally think there would be none.  The Black Footed Rock Wallabies are more than at home in the steep builder’s rubble of erosion and weathering.  Leather pad feet and body length tail for balance allow them to go where I would need ropes and a hard hat.  On a wide rock ledge a few blades of grass tempt one wallaby to stop for a meal.   It’s chased from the favoured platform by a slightly larger one.  The displaced wallaby sits with slumped ears and loose front paws.  I can’t help but see disappointment in its expression.

Black Footed Rock Wallaby

Zebra finches flicker through the scant branches of a thorny bush; their calls busy and frequent.  People watch me watching them and ask me what they are. My reply seems to leave them disappointed.  I point out the wallabies, which they have, somehow, failed to notice.  I hear H call, turn around, and follow him further along the dry river.

Deeper into the gap a small pool sits under a steep rock face.  The sky comes down to the Earth in the mirror surface.  Reflections stutter on the rock walls.  The shadows are deep, the sky bright.  It’s chill in the shadows and warm in the light.  I see things from today and remember things from yesterday.  I was here years ago with a school group, teenagers who were planning to change the world and be friends forever.  I wonder where they are.

We keep going and going along the road, the distances and times starting to stretch out into the true vastness of the place.  On each side of the road the strata of drystone walls run in straight lines, parallel to blacktop.  I assume the road follows a softer path, a path already worn down.  We arrive at Ormiston Gorge where the car park is as reliable as ever – babblers, parrots, bowerbirds and a pied butcherbird that hides it head behind a branch. 

Simpsons Gap
More of a surprise is the size of the waterhole below the cliffs.  Cormorants and grebes dive under the sun bright water and surface in the dark shadows of the under cliff.  Soon noisy teenagers, double daring each other to swim to the other side, join them.  They shriek at the cold, and cling to the rocks for support.  I decide to look away as they swim back – some things are best left unseen.  Beyond the still of the waterhole the gorge opens through a series of tight corners.  High above the water gum trees grow from the weaknesses in the rock.  Lower down tree trunks are crushed into rocky cracks and sheets of stone are polished by the passage of water.  The power of water seems so evident, but today’s river is calm and passive.

A few miles on the road changes colour from the black of tarmac to the red of rock and sand.  Stones chatter click on the wheel arches.  Dust fogs the view in the driving mirror.  Some parts of the road are soft sand.  Some are slick and shiny hard.  The driving wheel pulls towards the slower, sand touched wheels.

The 4WD drive no longer feels like over kill. 

Ormiston Gorge