Random Play by Graham Reid


Back from the big backyard

I have returned from the Outback with stories to write up, literally hundreds of photos, much fun had and lessons learned. I pass on a few random play observations here about that wonderful, dramatic place.

Things to Know: There’s a simple rule for driving in the Outback, fill up at every petrol station because the sites and sights -- and petrol stations -- can often be separated by endless ribbons of highway. Skip a top-up and you can find that half tank which gave you such confidence is draining away -- just like the colour in your cheeks when you realise you are long way from anywhere and there is no one else on this road. I only slowed down for a flat spot with petrol pumps laughingly called Mount Ebenezer some 250kms south west of Alice Springs and by the time I had taken the turnoff to Kings Canyon that pump was 50kms behind me, my gauge was dropping to just above quarter full and my heart sank when a sign said the next pump was 170kms away. It was a constant 28 degrees and cloudless outside -- but I felt a cold chill in my colon.

How big is very big? In the plane on the way back from the Outback I did some maths: in seven days I flew approximately 10,000kms (with Qantas!); drove more than 1500kms by myself; was in a chopper and on a 4WD military style jeep with bull-bars all round; spent time in nine airports (some repeats); slept in five different beds from swanky hotels to bush campers; heard more Crowded House, Cold Chisel, Paul Kelly, Aboriginal reggae and Barnesy than I have in a decade; and had variations of lamb (ribs, shanks and buffet cuts) for dinner on three consecutive night -- yet in all those hours and days of driving never saw a single sheep.

An Encounter: In the Ducks Nuts in Darwin a young Australian-Indian guy asked me what I was reading. I told him and he squatted down to take closer look. After a few minutes of conversation in which he told me New Zealand was another state of Australia and that he knew nothing about Aboriginals because he came from Melbourne he said, “this is all very interesting but I’m really drunk so if you’ll excuse me I need to go and vomit.”

A Book: In Darwin, Steve put me on to Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Richard Trudgen. It is a remarkable account of the original people of the eastern part of the Northern Territory who traded with Indonesians for centuries before Europeans arrived; have words in their language from India; were forced off their land by white settlers in the mid 19th century; were being massacred (women and children lined up and shot) as late as the early 20th century; fought three major wars with invading settlers (spears against guns) to retain their land; were wiped out in the hundreds and possibly thousands by malaria; had their traditional trading taken from them by white settlers and Japanese in fishing boats; were given back some land only to have it taken again when bauxite was discovered on it in 1952; were told in 1972 that their traditional trade in crocodile skins was now illegal so their income was stopped overnight . . .

It is an extraordinary story of a people who can speak four or five indigenous languages but struggle with English (largely because of the concepts such as “committee“, “self-determination” and so on that certain English words contain) and it goes a long way to explaining the current plight of Aboriginal peoples in the region. As a young doctor noted, his colleagues who were going to hospitals in Europe were obliged to spend three months learning the local language, but no one expected him to learn the language spoken in Arnhem Land by his patients.

A Casual Comment: While being driven around a property 130kms south of Darwin that stretched to distant mountains Scott, the owner of Mt Bundy Station was talking about how the area was used by the airforce during World War II. He had a runway near his house. “And yeah, there’s another airfield on this property apparently, but we haven’t found it yet.” It’s some country when you can misplace an airfield.

Roadside Attractions: Dead kangaroos (I gave myself double points for dead cows), burned out cars, signs in the desert which read “Floodway” and have poles measuring the depth of invisible water in metres, mysterious mountains of bottles and fire patches literally a hundred kilometres away from the nearest town, Uluru and Kata Tjuta on the horizon for hours before you get close . . .

A Puzzlement: A chopper pilot at a small settlement about 120kms west of Alice Springs was surprised when I said I came from New Zealand, he didn’t think I had a Kiwi accent. I asked him -- the third person in as many days who had made the comment -- where he thought I came from. “Wales maybe? I dunno mate.”

A News Story: A Northern Territory man -- aged 39 -- made the front page of the very irreverent NT News. He filmed himself masturbating while driving at 160km/h on the Stuart Highway. In his car he had 4.96kg cannabis hidden in an eskie in the boot, two plants on the back seat, two pipes and a loaded .22 rifle. The father of three was also a disqualified driver -- but was granted bail so he could marry his girlfriend of six months. The brilliant heading on the article: “Is this bloke a complete tosser?”

A Television Programme: The Hollow Men (co-written by Rob Sitch aka Mike Moore in the classic media parody Frontline) is one of the most incisive political satires around. Yep, it has a lot of Australian references, but like the equally droll The Games and Frontline, it makes equally good sense to a New Zealand audience. I hope we get it here (the episode I saw a little of was terrifyingly familiar), but equally hope we don’t try to do a local version.

The Real World: In interviews Kevin Rudd has an astonishing ability to speak at great length saying nothing specific but punctuating every phrase with buzzwords like “the future”, “the Australian people” “positive outcomes” and so on. It is disturbing, and like The Hollow Men, very familiar. If you get my drift.

It’s a fact, Jack: Every Australian athlete going to the Games or the Paralympics is already a “hero” on the fast-track to being a “legend“. They also all appear to have “-o” or “-y” already appended to their name for easy familiarity.

And this: After dinner I had some maps out looking at the next distant point on the largely empty map when I got chatting to a waitress. I said I was surprised to see that Adelaide River where I was headed was actually about 120kms south of Darwin. I said I’d thought it was just around the corner. She said, “if you want ‘just around the corner’ you should go to New Zealand.”

Finally: I’ve posted a few photos of the great and arid Outback, dramatic Uluru and so on here. Not all pretty. Click on them to make them bigger. Enjoy.

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