Wednesday, 21 December 2011

I seen you before mate!

Termite Carnac


“I seen you before mate !”

What in the Dreamtime or something? I’m thinking this is fantastic. The first human contact in Australia real and this guy is the genuine article. Black Fella, Spear Chukka, Aboriginal, take your pick, long graying hair and a beard and at first I think he works for the airport somehow because he has a once fluorescent vest on and we are skirting the runway perimeter. Then I notice the large, boney, bare feet and the raggedy shorts.

“I seen you. You came up there, then you didn’t like ‘dat road much so you came over the grass to ‘dis one. I came along up there and then down there and you came along there and here we are.”

“Here we are. So it seems”

“Where you goin’ mate?”

His accent is Australian but thicker, deeper than I have heard before, like thick Claret against a light Beaujolais Neuveau


“Yeh, that’s over that way.”

He points out across the bush

“Which road would I take?”

“Ah, go down this road then down the next road, that might get you there.”

“Thanks a lot, eh… Bye”.

He looks a little disappointed, I’m not sure if it is because I am going or because I want to go to Darwin of all places.

“I guess I might see you sometime in the future then”. He says, and really mulls over the possibility.

“I hope so mate, I really do.”

As my new friend lopes across the road and into the bush, Anja pulls up beside me.

“Who was that, she says.”

“That, I believe, was Stone-Age Man.”

Welcome to Australia.

We had met some “real” Australians in the airport. White guys with big bellies, shorts and vests. As I pulled our bikes off the merry-go-round one specimen asked me if we were some of the crazy people intending to ride through the outback. No, I replied we thought we might just have a spin round the park in Darwin and fly back home.

“Ha Ha. Funny. I drive a road train and keep sucking in cyclists, they keep coming and I pass ‘em and they keep getting sucked in.”

“Yeah, look out for road trains.” Pipes up another chap. “But you are far more likely to die of heat stroke this time of year, that and dehydration”

“No no.” says a third man “ They are far more likely to drown in a flood or get blown away by a cyclone, it’s the wet season.” He turns to us. ” It would be better if you came in July.”

We left these optimists to fading shouts of “Look out for the crocs and the snakes” and headed outside to piece together our bikes and ride into town to stay with Brennan, our Couch Surfing host and his ever-changing family of backpackers.

We planned on a day in Darwin, shopping and getting maps and achieved everything we wanted, got some good advice (finally), only to wake up sick on the leaving day. While everyone was sweating and cursing the heat, I was pulling on jumpers and feeling cold, a real fever. Anja was the same but a day later than me.

After four days we wobbled weakly out of Darwin, struggled 64kms down the road and crawled into the bushes to make an early camp.

We were in a meadow of Magnetic Termite Mounds, over 2m high, 1m wide, 15cm thick and all pointing East to West. They were giant menhirs, aligned uncannily like the stone rows at Carnac, facing perhaps a similar equinox. To imagine that ants and men could build monuments in deference to the same deities. This was already the outback proper and would change little for the next 800kms. We began to notice the only variance in landscape being the size shape and colour of the termite mounds, the amount of bark on the gum trees, and the frequency of the crocodile-creeks, (don’t camp to close – fair dinkum; if one gets you, poke it in the eyes – easier said than done I bet; if you go to get water make sure it’s moving and shallow, they like deep holes – useful info).
A familiar sight

Another hard, slow day brought us to a lay-by where we camped next to a young French couple on tour in a car. In the night a jeep pulled up and a bunch of loud young men spilled out, apparently for a nights reveling. Strange place, the nearest town was a hundred miles away. They spoke a strange language neither of us knew what, then a burst of almost English… “It’s the local fellas again, I said to Anja.”

We had been warned, even by the non-bigoted, to be a little wary of this mob. We were at least partially aware now of some of the social problems affecting the Aboriginals in the Northern Territories and some of the results thereof. I figured the best thing was to go and say hello.

Did I sit barefoot in a circle and hear some tales and wisdom from the ancient culture?…not exactly. I sat booted (they were barefoot) in a circle and discussed, inadequately on my part, the merits of Chelsea over Manchester United. I had sworn before we left but was in the end too lazy, to learn the names of a few English league football players, and a few Cricket names. It seems you can just say ‘Wayne Rooney’ or ‘David Beckham’ (a bit out-dated now) and part good friends with strangers from anywhere in the world.

All the boys seemed related somehow and lived in a community beginning with B somewhere south eastish and indeterminably far. “You should visit our town on the Queen’s birthday, we have a big party, it’s quite famous and one year some tourists came”. I was too embarrassed to let on that I had no idea when the, I should say ‘my’, Queens birthday was but if I find out and am in that neck of the woods at the right time I will surely visit. I am a Republican Anarchist with Communist leanings but can think, now, of no better reason for a party in the middle of the outback, than celebrating an English Monarch’s birthday.
Outback Sunset

The Aboriginals have a particular way of talking. They will look the other way and say something fairly casually and not, in words, outstandingly profound but the way they say it carries a surprising weight. We always feel a little honored when any of them take the time to talk to us. Not that they are busy. Busy seems to be a foolish, modern frivolity they have no time for. Another thing is that they always remember your name. Not in a polished, American salesman-type way, you sometimes don’t remember giving your name but on parting they will use it, like the first guy we met, as if they expect to meet you again sometime.

I sit now in the shade by a swimming-pool in a campsite in Tennants Creek. It took eleven or twelve hard days to get here and the same number of nights ‘crawling into the bushes’ as Anja calls it, (actually she says ‘crowling into ze bashes’ and I have no desire to tweak her pronunciation). We have splashed out on a day off in civilization (little c, says I, the Snooty Pomm).

I hope that this blog may have encouraged one or maybe two souls to venture out on two wheels and make a modest cycle-tour. My attitude is that almost anyone can do it. When gym-fit twenty-somethings descend from their taxi’s, buses and 4x4’s and say to us on our bikes, “blimey, I could never do that” I get a bit annoyed and think, “yes you could but you’re too lazy to want to”. I must however point out that Outback Australia in the summer is perhaps not the time and place to begin cycle-touring. The going can be at times a little strenous.
We're no longer afraid of the long straight road

I figured Australia is flat right? Wrong. It’s all uphill. The roads are good and fast are they not? No, they are good but sharp gravel sprinkled on tar makes loud and slow going. I counted on a constant headwind so at least got one thing right. Oh yeah! I almost forgot.. It’s hot.

So we battled for days and days against illness, relentless heat, slow roads and headwind. Riding 10kms then hiding in what shade we could find until we worked up enough courage for another stint. Until now there have been trees but as they were all designed by Dr Zeus the shade they offer is scant at best. ‘Kein A1 shatten’! remarks Anja disappointedly. You can sit in the ‘shade’ with your hat on and somehow your face is still in the sun. Sometimes we pray for our normally beloved orb to sink through its self made, orange horizon-soup to go and bother you guys in the West. The only other fleeting shadow is cast occasionally by a circling fleet of raptors overhead. They sometimes follow us for miles, searching for a sign of weakness. “Keep your shades on Anja, don’t let them see the fatigue in our eyes!” Flies, undeterred by our paltry speed, wander across our savannah dry faces to drink from our billabong eyes. Balls of fur bounce away through the undergrowth and giant lizards hot foot it across the heat-haze highway. The Northern Territories, Top End.

Some days we spend 7 hard hours in the saddle and average 15 kmh. The last day into Tennants Creek the wind veered around, blew from almost behind us and we cruised easily into town averaging 22.5kmh on the clock. Now that is more like it, though with no wind to cool us down it is even hotter. On a cloudy afternoon the thermometer may drop to a cool 40 c in the shade.

We constantly raise hot water-bottles to our cracking lips but can’t seem to ever quench our thirst. Only the thought of lunchtime tea keeps us going at all. Some say you can’t drink the bore-water (boring water we call it). It can be a bit brackish but mostly it’s ok. Can’t afford to be fussy. There are petrol stations every 100kms or so but with a loaf of Mothers Pride costing over 5$ we can’t shop here. We have stocked up on 8 days worth of provisions, we hope, and set out tomorrow for Mt Isa 600 odd kms away with little in between.

So, well, this is the hardest cycling on the trip so far. It’s 45 degrees in the shade if you find any. I once wet my shirt in a creek (deep and still but I was quick) and put it back on. The water was warm but suddenly I was freezing cold, man, this lasted a minuit and a half and then I was dry again. The effect of rapid evaporation at work I guess. An Aboriginal guy we have befriended in TC told me not to do it or I’ll get sick. Well that’s just spoilt my only fun.
This Chap keeps following us!

There was heavy rain around Darwin but we left it behind in Katherine about 700 kms back. Apparently we will find it again in Queensland. El Nino or La Nina (I forget) is playing silly buggers again this year so they are reckoning on more flooding in the East. We will deal with that if and when we encounter it. One hot sweaty night (can one die from dehydration while sleeping?), I was still a little hallucogenic from the fever, fire-flies were putting on a fire show to rival any beach-hippiechick and lightening was constant and all around. We heard a rustling in the trees, louder and nearer it came and then it swept through the tent, a cool strong wind, a draught from the wings of an Angel. We basked a while in its breath and then came the rain. Before long I was outside in my altogether scrabbling in the mud with our faithful little trowel, digging a trench round the tent to divert the worst of the groundwater. As a child I had ‘The Ladybird Book of Camping’ with a cartoon picture on the cover of a happy chap eating his dinner as a torrent was diverted around his camp by carefully excavated trenchwork. This, back then, was my idea of heaven. I guess that night , just south of Katherine, I achieved in a way a long forgotten ambition. The picture though, of me at work, is not one for the cover of a children’s how-to book.

Most nights though are fantastic, the sunset and birdsong are particular to Australia. We could be no-where else. Giant Parrots squawk and pass in frantic clouds, followed by smaller, multi-coloured ‘keets and ‘toos. Spoonybilled storkybirds hoover up frogs from grassy floodwaters and unseen hundreds of greenybeaks chirp and hoot in the gum trees,(one day we might find a bird book). My favorite though are the ‘Naughty-Birds’, Anja calls them ‘Nasty-Birds’ but I like the little fellas. They are cocky and a little like jackdaws but with more colourful and expressive gurgly-chirp voices. They have a magpie’s strut, hang around in sixes or sevens and often pay us a lunchtime visit. They like cheese.

Rarely have we slept so far from other humans. There is often no-one for 60 miles or more in any direction. The stars are indescribable and we think we have finally picked out the Southern Cross. Orion is the only familiar form we can see though I can’t understand what he is doing down here. He lays upside-down, low in the East. The cool hour in the morning is best for cycling, but also best to eat our porridge or camp-flapjacks, drink a mug of coffee and watch the day begin.

Should we have backed out of the outback? Possibly. I ride ‘point’ all the time and just seem to lose more and more weight. Steak and eggs last night and the same tonight (I hope). We can’t seem to drink enough for a healthy coloured urine. Most people we meet tell us we are crazy. The only people outside here are the Aboriginals sitting in the shade in town. This may sound a little weird, even offend some people, but so far, Australia seems to us to be very much an indoor culture. A similar phenomenon seems to exist to that which I noticed years ago in the Southern USA; people have air-conditioned houses, shops and businesses, shuttle between them in air conditioned 4x4’s, and never acclimatize to the heat. I went 12 days without going inside a building; in Tennants Creek I did the shopping, 40 minutes in a frigid, AC. emporium and when I came out it felt 20 degrees hotter than before, I couldn’t believe how Anja could bare to sit outside. There must be some real tough guys working outside at the cattle-stations, doing jobs one can’t do from a pick-up. We just have not seen them. Most Australians seem overweight or at-least unfit (damn, I am going to be unpopular), and struggle to walk from their vehicles across the car-park to the supermarket. The minority, let’s say 10%, look like they could run two marathons back to back before lunch without working up a sweat (given the right synthetic energy supplements and sports drinks of course). It’s all or nothing it seems. Please forgive my frankness any Auzie reading this, you must understand we spent 15 months in Asia and have undergone a kind of culture-shock.

The people we have met have all been friendly and interesting whether oldly native or new. The Northern Territories must be a pretty hard place to live. There seems to either be too little water or too much and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of soil. No mountains to erode, never any ice to do the eroding, no forests as such to hold what there is. It seems any soil that may form is washed away each year and this has gone on repeatedly for millennia, eons even. When the Stuart Highway drives through a shallow cutting, the clean-cut sections show a basic stratification; cracked red rock with a few millimeters of red gravel on top. The green must somehow cling to this. There is a lot of green right now but I don’t think it lasts even half the year. The trees must have roots that penetrate rocky fissures in search of moisture. Life here looks so thin and fragile, it is only a skim on the surface of what would otherwise look, I fear, very much like Mars.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Anja & Tom,Remember to come and rest & recouperate at our place.It will be my pleasure to give you another Bowen session to ease those ahcing muscles.Our home always has space for you.I admire your determination and endurance.You inspire me.Rita in Sdyney 0419607997 I pray for you xoxoxo