One evening, three weeks after he’d come to Yulara, and by then starting to feel well at home, the famous Uluru sunset going down about as smoothly as his evening beer, when a white bloke, looking like he’d just come in from the desert, trudged into the campsite. Filthy dusty he was, characteristic of those who live with little water to waste on washing, unshaven, clothes only a thread away from rags and at five paces even the artist’s un-judgemental nose twitched. Said he’d been living with an Aboriginal woman in Mutijulu. The artist invited him to sit down at the card table, drink some beer. They talked of life in the desert, what the tourists were doing to the landscape, daytrippers. The man rolled a joint. They talked some more. After a while the bloke wandered out into the sand dunes and brought the woman in to sit with them. She’d been waiting while he did his men’s business - whatever that might have been she seemed unperturbed. She sat just far enough away from them so as to make it difficult to include her in the conversation. The artist had never met an Aboriginal woman before. She was beautiful. Black as ebony and silent as the moon. Try as he might to include her, she steadfastly ignored his stumbling efforts at sociability. Her mate explained it was simply cultural. Women did not speak with men. Nothing personal. As the sun went down and the desert’s brief twilight played across their faces, the man stood up, winked, picked up his bag and set off back in the direction he’d come. The woman followed him. Not a word passed between them. She walked three or four paces behind him as they disappeared into the darkening sand dunes. Back to Mutijulu he presumed. As to what he was after he didn’t say. Maybe he just wanted a beer and a yarn. The more Aborigines the artist came into contact with the more uncomfortable his cultural shock seemed to get. Around the resort he met an Aboriginal man. He was a tradesman working the Yulara resort. It was evident the man was speaking a kind of English, but this English was spoken at such a pace and shape it was completely unintelligible to the bewildered artist. His failure to understand even this Pidgin English sealed his embarrassment, finally exposing him to himself as the product of a culture almost totally imagined by the white man and his assumptions of adequacy. But he had a plan. He meant to fill in the very substantial gap in his education. He meant to untangle those assumptions, at least the ones he could recognise. His sense of equality with all men for instance. The complacency that comes with a born-to-rule mentality he knew would resist interference. Not being able to speak another man’s language became a metaphor for a more general and hitherto unnoticed insecurity. He began to feel the heavy weight of his step on the earth. This weight seemed to reflect the intransigent nature of his injury. But his solution was imminent. So he believed. Once he had permission to move onto some Indigenous country, the path to repair would present itself. When he got back to Alice Springs he went straight to the chambers of the Pitjinjara Council and asked if there was an answer to his request. The white officer thumbed through a pile of papers. “The answer’s no.” “No? That’s it, just no – any elaboration on that?” “No I’m afraid not.” “So after a month of waiting, it’s just ‘no’…” “I’m sorry.” So much for the grand plan. He knew nothing of how Indigenous communities operated. Years later an Aboriginal lecturer in a course he was doing told him that if you wanted to have association with Aboriginal people, you needed a referee. You needed someone, an Aborigine, a member of the community, to vouch for you. The idea that a letter could be persuasive was a convention from another world. White man’s world. Where words can be an analogue of the man. He’d encountered another dead end. Much like the one he’d run into in India when the old German monk, Anagarika Govinda, had said if he wanted to study the Tibetan way he needed to go to the Tibetan University in Benares and learn the language. As he had done. At the time the idea had seemed far fetched; what he sought must surely be accessible without having to learn Tibetan. Now, in Alice Springs, he was fully prepared to learn another language, even considered it a goal of redemption, aiding in the preservation of probably the most potent of cultural commodities, but the community wasn’t interested in his words. Being helpful was important to him. If he thought about it, being helpful was probably one of his foundation drivers. There would be other opportunities. He remembered Carl Jung’s warning to those who would appropriate the exotic – he said it was necessary to mine ones own culture, to look to ones own traditions and values. Pilfering the traditions and culture of other peoples led only to confusion and dismay he argued. Here though was the rub…the artist believed that Aboriginal culture was his culture… because it was Australian and because he believed some part of him might be Aboriginal. He was Australian, therefore it was his culture. This naïve point of view took some time to work its way through to an understanding of why Indigenous people were so possessive of their cultural artefacts like language and art. A bulwark against radical mixed race insecurity. The paradox that sometimes self-defence mechanisms can prove counterproductive was an argument, he came to believe, which needed to be made by others. The mystifying element in the equation was his suspicion he had, from his mother’s family, Aboriginal antecedents. He’d confronted his maternal grandmother on her death-bed and asked her, straight out, but the old dear had smiled and said nothing. His Indigenous fantasy was fuelled by the fact that just about every Aborigine he met, and since he’d moved to Brisbane he’d met many, took him for a Murri. It had been only two hundred years since Australia had been the repository of the British criminal class but he knew that to be the descendant of a convict had outgrown this shame and become quite fashionable, the odium swallowed up in time. His grandmother though still had apparently retained, so he believed, a semblance of what would once upon a time have been the family shame brought about by its consanguinity with Indigenous people. In the twenty first century Australians with Indigenous ancestry generally eschew their European inheritance preferring to identify as Aboriginal. As to why, he was uncertain. He understood those who don’t know must live with the ambiguity. But that’s the lot of all peoples of mixed culture. You’re neither this nor that yet at the same time you are both this and that whereupon you must decide which and when. He was having no great success in making his cultural bed. Little wonder, he figured, the bed was uncomfortable. Back in the Alice he had to make a move. Life rolls on. He’d heard about a billabong called Boggy Hole twenty odd kilometres down the Finke River. There’d been very little rain in recent times but he was assured there would be enough water in the billabong for a swim; he was also told he could expect a totally dry river bed. After reprovisioning he drove south west out of Alice. Turning into the Finke river bed he saw that, as predicted, it was dry. It was also very wide and meandering, peppered with rocks and small islands of trees. The bed itself was made up of very fine and quite deep white sand. He got out and tested the sand. Even at ten in the morning the sand was almost too hot to touch. The heat of the sand meant it offered little resistance allowing normally pressured tyres to sink. He deflated the tyres on his truck to about half their highway pressure, dropped the gearbox into low ratio four-wheel-drive and embarked. There was no obvious track to follow, so he went very carefully, the vehicle seeming to float through the sand around the various obstacles in the way. Progress was slow in first gear as the river meandered about heading south. After a few hours of this he noticed another set of tyres had recently past, also heading south. Because the river was so wide and the path taken could vary enormously the other driver was evidently choosing a route which only rarely crossed his. Towards two in the afternoon he noticed a small herd of camels, seven or eight animals, wandering along next to the river apparently unperturbed by the labouring whine of his diesel motor as it pushed through the sand. Looking totally out of place to him, they seemed perfectly at home, their Afghan ancestors long forgotten. Or did they also, like elephants, have long memories, giving them deep and disquieting rumblings of some other place? Some other landscape? The tracks of the vehicle which had gone before him crossed his way again. He stopped the truck and got out to have a closer look. The vehicle evidently had much narrower tyres than were appropriate for this terrain, probably fully inflated standard road tyres was his guess. The tracks showed no trace of tread, just a pluming of the sand to indicate the tyres were spinning as they failed to find traction, more like extremely inefficient propellers. They wove off to the left and disappeared around some boulders. He continued following his own improvised route as the hours slipped away. Around four in the afternoon he pulled into some shade looking out over what seemed to be a substantial body of water lying in the shelter of a small hill. He stripped down to his shorts and dragged the ever- useful lilo over the rough ground and onto the cool dark water. He could think of no way to adequately describe the effect of such a body of water on a parched sensibility. For the quenching of thirst there is nothing like water. No drink that can compare to water to slake that primary need for hydration. In a desert just the sight of water invokes magical affection for this extraordinary fluid. Of course he had a good supply of the by then unpalatably warm stuff in bottles in the back of the truck, but the sight of that small reservoir of life sustaining water filled him with a strange emotion. And now he was floating out on a cool body of it, the afternoon sun abating slightly, a vigorous insect life clicked and chatted away in the reeded fringes and his eyes were full of the subtly exquisite earth colours decorating the bluff overlooking Boggy Hole. He would have lain there, entranced, no longer than fifteen, twenty minutes when he glanced over at the Landcruiser and saw a figure swaying in the shade, and leaning heavily on the side of the truck. The man’s head was covered with a small towel shrouding his face. He was the driver of the other vehicle. His car, a Range Rover, was bogged in deep sand a couple of kilometres back he said. The fellow was exhausted – a pale skinned IBM computer technician in his mid-thirties from Alice Springs, his face was bright red. On the way back to his stranded car he hung his head out of the passenger window and vomited several times. After he’d drunk some water he said he’d heard the truck go by and, hoping the driver intended to stop at the water, had set out for help. His car was lying flat on its belly in the deep sand. He’d tried to cross the narrow hollow of a mainstream part of the river where the sand was just too deep for his heavily laden vehicle. And he hadn’t been travelling alone. He had two women and three children with him. They all appeared comfortable and cool sitting in the shade with their esky. Smiling brightly at the return of their man. The children were all under seven, freckly red-headed kids with no idea of the danger they were in. The stranded family had nothing to say at the sight of their crippled would- be rescuer, their eyes widening perceptibly as he climbed clumsily down from the truck, no doubt at that point putting all their hope into the power of Landcruiser to drag them free. It was immediately obvious to him that the best way to pull the Range Rover out was to go past it and onto the opposite bank and from there attach the towline. But he had to cross the same deep sand to get there. The risk of him too getting bogged was real enough in spite of the extra size tyres, so he gunned the motor hard and went at it. There was a moment, a brief moment, when the truck seemed to surrender to the hot sand's tugging enticement, but there was just enough momentum to carry its two tonnes past the Rover and up the bank. The towline’s length determined that he’d had to pull up on the still sloping river bank. Not a helpful set up for a tow. As he very carefully took the strain so as not to spin the wheels and dig himself in, both vehicles inched forward. It was a delicate operation as the turbo diesel did its work. There was one tense moment when it felt to him like the equation was not quite right and the chunky tyres would finally surrender and bury themselves in the hot sand, but then they found some firmer ground at the crest of the small slope. The convoy of two surged forward and out of danger. The mightily relieved party packed up their gear and headed back to Alice. The artist went back to the water for some swimming, somewhat sobered by the vivid realisation of how close he was travelling to the place of the unexpected and its killing ways. He began to consider his dysfunctional body in the context of his unimaginably remote aloneness. Out there. The IBM team had been fortunate at least one vehicle was there in their moment of need. He knew not everyone could be that lucky. Was he feeling lucky? He had a CB radio which had so far offered little in the way of communication beyond short sharp sprays of white noise and the odd garbled voice. Once, while he was somewhere between CooberPedy and nowhere he’d heard a voice and understood the owner was somewhere in Western Australia. But he’d not been able to establish any conversation. The experience filled him with no great confidence that in a bind the CB would be of any use. As night marched on he decided to drive the short distance to a spot he’d noticed on his way in. The ground there was slightly elevated, a small dome, exposed; instinctively he felt if he was visible he would be safer. The ground was flat, smoothed with a thick layer of bull dust and unusually free of ants; he threw down the lilo. As he lay under his blanket of stars and silently shooting meteorites, the warm night air comforted his body as he took it through its routine of releasing the accumulated strain of the day. Sometime later he woke. This was not unusual, his strange body, even while he slept, would seek out the most appropriate positions to accommodate its discomforts and the manoeuvres often woke him up. He lay there for a few moments, noticed the stars had reconfigured in the heavens, the inky night lay all about, no breeze, silence. Still comfortably warm. Then the silence quietly faded and was replaced by a sound he could not immediately identify. As the sound amplified he began to make it out. A rumble of many somethings. Perhaps hoofs. Getting louder by the moment. By the time he’d lifted himself onto his elbow and turned to the direction of the by then noisy advance he saw them coming through the trees around his dusty knoll. Brumbies. In a hurry apparently. Dividing like the Red Sea around Moses the herd split, going either side of him, rattling the ground and passing within a couple of metres of where he lay, the feral pungency of their sweat saturating the air and mixing with the dust they kicked up in their passing. The clatter of hoofs receded as he lay in the settling dust; he thanked his lucky stars the animals had seen him and had had the courtesy to go around. In the morning he returned to the water hole for a swim to wash away the fine dust which had settled implacably deep into his ears and up his nose crusting with the salted sweat of his skin. Afterwards he lay, drying off, in the gentle early morning sun and considered his future. The prospect of going back the way he’d come was unattractive and did not suit his adventurous frame of mind. The map showed the river meandering along way into the south before bending to the east. A series of tracks were indicated one of which eventually joined the east-west Ernest Giles road which in turn ran into the main north-south Stewart Highway. But there was the matter of fuel. On a bitumen road a full tank could give him a thousand kilometres of driving. But the high revving first gear slow slog he’d had to employ driving down the river had swallowed up a concerning amount of his supply. He had another twenty litre jerry can in reserve but he didn’t want to be even close to needing it. Aside from the map he had a compass. He knew this was not a high quality instrument. It did have a needle which swung to the north but from moment to moment it was as if north was a moody creature which couldn’t properly decide where it wanted to be, shifting its position by as much as five degrees. He hoped the tracks might be signposted and so the skittish compass would not have to be relied upon. At least now he was on a track and not labouring along a river bed. He headed south. The track had no identity. His compass indicated he was heading approximately south. He drove. The track was straight. The day wore on, the drone of his diesel motor like a bottled swarm of blow flies. The straightness of the track began to worry him. The map was no longer helpful, he had no idea which track he was on. It passed across ridging sand dunes but otherwise persisted with its uncompromising straightness. Occasionally he’d come to a diverging track and would have to decide which one to follow. The compass led him inexorably south - ish. Towards midday the glazing light bleached much of the detail from the landscape as he rattled into and across large salt beds, white crystalline intelligence describing an unappreciated tableau. An hour or so later, still banging along, the hot air blasting through his open window, he considerer his position. His reliance on the Toyota. The fact of his mighty isolation. His need for nothing, absolutely nothing, to go wrong. He reminded himself the heat would be corrupting his thinking and not to get too concerned. Another fork in the road with no signs. This one was harder for him – one headed south west and the other south east. As his aim was the Stewart Highway he chose the easterly track and drove on. A squirming disquiet in his belly began to distract him. He remembered stories of people who’d got lost in the desert on this kind of track. It was said they were not real tracks going anywhere. Just geological survey tracks made by technicians to sites of interest to them and their employers. Disquiet slowly turned to fear as the relentlessly straight track bore him through the desert. Off to the west he could see a group of grey-green trees that might have been at the edge of a river, promising some respite from the glare and the heat and the straightness and the moan of the engine but by then he was in a mild panic and knew he had to keep going. He did eventually arrive at a bitumen road. He felt exhilaration. Release. He loved that road. Got out of the truck and stood on it, leaned down and picked up a stone that had worked its way loose from the binding tar. He loved that stone. The trip from Boggy Hole had so completely eroded his confidence in knowing where he was that he couldn’t decide whether he needed to turn left or right. After a while his disorientation receded and he swung left, east, into Ernest Giles Road, wondering in the euphoria of his slightly altered state whether Giles had been important or just earnest.
No Man’s Land
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