Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Thursday December 16 1971. 

The odd thing was that even though we had travelled hundreds and hundreds of miles in a straight line, we could not continue to proceed straight ahead at Norseman.

We had to turn left or right. It’s the world’s biggest T-intersection. You turn right to go to Kalgoorlie which is directly north, or left to go to Esperance, directly south. They are both, of course, hundreds of miles away. Check it out on the map. It’s bizarre. Or, with roads shown, here.

Imagine the arguments people would have sitting right there at the Norseman T-intersection:
- Let’s go right.
- No, let’s turn left.
- I wanna go right.
- Well I want to go left.
- No, right. To Kalgoorlie. It’s only a hundred and fifty miles away.
- No, left. To Esperance. It’s two hundred miles away, but there’s water! And Kalgoorlie’s in the fucking desert! And I am over the fucking desert!
- But Kalgoorlie is closer to Perth. And we’re going to Perth.
- You can go via Esperance. I hear it's pretty at this time of year.
- Well, we’re going via Kalgoorlie. If you don’t like it, you can get out and walk.
- If you're going to be like that, I will. Bastard.

Door slams. From outside car:

- And fuck you! And fuck Kalgoorlie!

Steps crunch away through the gravel. Squeal of tyres, receding into the distance.

- (shouts) No wait, I was only kidding, Kalgoorlie’s fine ... I love the desert. I love it!!! I love dust as well!!

From inside the car:

- Fourteen hundred fucking miles of that and I’m free at last.

(We didn’t have this conversation, I just idly wondered how many people did, as we sat at the intersection waiting for several road trains and half a dozen cars towing caravans to go past.)

We turned right. Our plan was to go to Perth via Kalgoorlie, then return via the south route, passing surf beach Margaret River, travelling through the giant Karri forests in the south west corner of Western Australia and back along the whaling coast via Albany and Esperance. On a map of Australia, our finished trip will look like a giant dessertspoon.

Some time after turning right out of Norseman, I fell asleep as usual, head against the car window, pillow under my neck, idly listening to my cousin’s cassette player hissing and popping and clicking in between playing taped music.

I started dreaming straight away and the chattering cassette player music insinuated itself into my half-awake, half-asleep dream; just as, at school, the droning of my teacher would so often become the soundtrack to so many nodding afternoon dreams. I dreamt I was at school and my teacher was droning about mathematics or Australian history or having to bring two dollars for tomorrow’s excursion to the city or how no-one pays attention to him any more or why we needed to listen up and not talk among ourselves or what next week’s essay would be about or his life story in detail for that matter. The car bounced and I snapped awake and realised where I was. Not at school, but in the middle of the desert – and I felt a sudden surge of emotion, an ecstatic blend of excitement mixed with the relief of freedom, like a caged bird on an open windowsill facing outwards. Kind of the opposite to how you would feel if you were dreaming about running free through the landscape of your dreams, the green forests of your forefathers, the dales of home; only to wake remembering you had just been jailed for life and would never see the sky again. And so - on and on - my thoughts wandered, just like this paragraph, as we wound our way north through more desert on the way to Kalgoorlie, heart of the Western Australian goldfields.

On my cousin’s cassette player:

summer breeze makes me feel fine
blowing through the jasmine in my mind
summer breeze makes me feel fine
blowing through the jasmine in my mind

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Wednesday December 15 1971 (continued). 

Where were we?

Melting in the desert. Eating salad sandwiches. Drinking tea. At twenty past nine in the morning. You know what? The best drink you can drink in the heat is hot, sweet tea. Any tea-drinker will tell you that.

Oh, man, that spider: it was the biggest goddamn spider I have ever seen in my life, about the size of the average crow. And the same colour. Right in my face.


Back in the car. Uncle at the wheel for the second part of the day’s scenic drive. Are we enjoying ourselves, he burbles? The sights? The weather? The endless road?

He’s totally the joker. Aunt lights another thin cigarette. I told them about the spider. Uncle said I should have taken a jar and collected it as a specimen for school. Totally the joker.

Dust is everywhere. Especially in the car. No air-con, so the windows have to be down or we fry. Hundreds of miles of dusty roads in a red desert means you can’t escape it. And it's 101 degrees. Fahrenheit.

Sometimes as I’m riding along in the back seat, gazing out the car window at the spinifex, cousin’s napping head lolling on my shoulder, aunt and uncle in the front seat, dash radio burbling softly, I get to thinking that it would be easier travelling through a sandy desert because the sand would not be as infuriating as dust, which is finer and hangs in the air like a hot, red fog.

We stopped at Water Tank about midday. 102 degrees. I’m almost delirious now, so I’m not sure whether Water Tank is a place or just a water tank. I have a feeling it’s on the map, so let’s stick with the upper case W and T.

But even though it may have been on the map, it was still just a big wire-fenced square compound with a corrugated iron roof covering a tank and rudimentary pump drawing water from some subterranean aquifer. Well I guess an aquifer is subterranean by definition.

The water was brackish. But it was water. You have to boil it first.

We left Water Tank behind and slowly the red landscape changed. The spinifex turned to low shrubs and the low shrubs turned to small trees. Still straggly and parched but small trees nevertheless. We saw lots of these.

Oh. I haven’t mentioned kangaroos since Port Augusta. Maybe that was wallabies anyway. Wallabies are just like small kangaroos. As whippets are to greyhounds. The same but different. I’m raving. I’m delirious. It's 103 degrees.

Kangaroos are dangerous because they run in front of your car and you hit them and sometimes they die and sometimes you die. You have to be particularly careful at dawn and dusk when they are on the move. Uncle was particularly careful. We didn't hit any kangaroos or anything at all.

Interesting note: in recent years, hitting eagles has been as much of a problem as hitting kangaroos on outback roads. Why? Because of the Drought. (The Drought is to blame for everything in Australia.) Eagles feed on small animals, right? And small animals eat grass, right? But the Drought killed much vegetation and small animal numbers were reduced, forcing eagles - formerly wary of roads and traffic - to eat roadkill for food. They descend to the road and gorge themselves and are unable to lift off as quickly as drivers – accustomed to other birds flitting away before being hit - expect. So if you see a wedge-tailed eagle on the road, slow down. It’s not going to flit away like a sparrow.

Two in the afternoon. More delirium and more funny place names: Caiguna. Cocklebiddy. Balladonia. (I love Balladonia, it makes me think of a mythical place where songwriters go to write long, lilting songs about adventure and romance. But it wasn’t like that at all. It was just a Mobil roadhouse frying in the sun - 105 degrees now - with its Mobil flying horse sign blown down by a storm.)

The Eyre Highway ended at a place called Norseman. It was more like the Sahara than Scandinavia.

This is where we ended our day’s driving: a dusty old caravan park run, as most caravan parks seemed to be, by some friendly old couple. Their home was a glorified caravan with an office - ‘All Visitors Must Report Here’ - tacked onto the front and a propped up clothesline out the back.

On entering the office through a flimsy screen door you could smell their dinner cooking and hear a television set blaring in the living room behind the office. A few dusty tourist brochures hung limply on a shelf and a bell rang when the screen door slammed.

We parked the 'van. Across the way, sure enough, were the old fools and their Renault. He seemed to have figured out the tent. Only took him half of Australia. By Perth he’ll be an expert.

I headed straight to the shower block to try and shed some dust.

I stripped off and stepped into the concrete shower cubicle, turned on the water and watched the dust flowing red down my trunk, down my legs, through my toes and out the circular drain hole. Guess what - the water trickling out of the showerhead was salt water. Have you ever showered in salt water?

It made my body stickier and dustier and saltier than before. I finished my shower and sandpapered my naked body with my towel.


On my cousin’s cassette player:

I wanna live with a cinnamon girl
I could be happy the rest of my life
with a cinnamon girl
a dreamer of pictures I run in the night
you see us together chasing the moonlight
my cinnamon girl

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Monday, December 20, 2004

Wednesday December 15 1971 

The bloke in the garage hoisted the car, located the leak, soldered it or plugged it or whatever he had to do to fix it, unhoisted the car and handed it over.

‘There you go,’ he said, laconically. ‘Good as new.’

No doubt he sees quite a few petrol tank leaks, with three hundred miles of road covered with pebbles leading to his front door. No doubt he's also glad that most of the leaks are usually small enough to not actually allow most of the fuel to run out on the spot, because then he would have to go out and tow them in. It’s always better if the problem drives in. Always. Ask any mechanic.


Last night, after running around after a non-existent semi-naked girl, Danny and I had come back to the caravan, hot and sandy, and listened to the news on the caravan radio.

As always, we paid attention to the weather forecast. And the forecast for today? Hot. Top temperature, 107 degrees. (We still lived life in Fahrenheit in 1971. Plus 107 sounds impressively hotter than 44.) I had to go and take a cold shower after hearing that. Uncle put back his intended departure time an hour to five o'clock. No problems, uncle. I'm an early riser. I do like a snooze later in the day, though.


It was a sultry, brooding ten past five in the morning when we slipped out of Eucla under the heavy cover of an oppressive darkness. The heat hung over the desert like wet tent canvas.

We swam through the torrid landscape. It fell behind us faster than it did yesterday because we were driving on a real road again. The car was happy and the tyres were once again busily humming their rubbery vibrato. No more nasty, choking, atonal, tuneless pebbles.

At six o’clock, my uncle switched off the car's headlamps as the first rays of the sun slowly throttled the long shadows. Black turned to gold before our eyes.

Seven o’clock, eight o’clock. If it was hot earlier, now it was like someone had switched on an oven. Click.

At twenty minutes past nine, the Valiant panted to a stop at Madura where I had the earliest lunch of my whole life.

We parked under the shade of nothing, because there was nothing to make any shade. We climbed out of the sticky car into a desert that was already a cauldron. Uncle opened up the van, and we climbed in. It wasn’t much cooler inside. Maybe a little. Maybe 95 degrees instead of 98.

We ate all anyone can eat when the sun wants to melt you and you know it and the sun knows it.

Cheese, cold meat and salad sandwiches. The usual. Well it’s not like you can pick up a hamburger. Water. Cups of tea. Fruitcake. Sitting up at the little fold-down table in the 'van. Trying not to melt. Sweating drips that turned to little streams flowing onto the orange and brown vinyl bench cushions.

After we'd eaten, uncle and aunt wanted to have a short rest before continuing. Cool. Guess what I did? Went out exploring. All that talk about the heat isn’t going to stop a fourteen year old from checking out the lie of the land. Danny disagreed and took a nap.

There was a kind of hill across the highway. I thought I might climb it and look over the surrounding terrain. I might be able to see the ocean again. Or Perth. Or some wild camels.

Halfway up, stumbling through some scraggly bushes, my face walked into something soft and velvety and sticky. Then all of me did. The soft and velvety and sticky thing was as big as a hammock. I kind of bounced off it, except it stuck to me.

In the middle of the hammock, one long, fat leg that seemed impossibly black and impossibly long stretched itself out. The other seven legs just kind of stayed where they were. I didn’t have to count eight. I knew. You always know. Especially when you’ve walked into its web.

The eight legs joined at a body that was only as big as an ordinary dinner plate. I reeled backwards. Part of the web was still stuck to me. The spider jerked around like a dog doing circles before going to sleep. Maybe it was annoyed. Maybe it had fangs. Maybe it was going to bite me. Maybe I would die before I could get back to the caravan.

Maybe ...

You get the picture - all the usual maybes associated with large black spiders. It moved again. It was impossibly nimble for its size. I threw the web off me and even though it was 98 degrees I shivered anyway.

Then it stopped moving and just rocked there in the breeze. If there was a breeze. I stared at it for a while and it stared at me for a while. It won the staring competition but only because it had more eyes than me.

I went back down the hill, totally forgetting to check the horizon for wild camels. Or Perth.

Uncle was just closing up the caravan. It was not yet eleven in the morning but it felt like the afternoon.

He fired up the Valiant and off we set again on our trip across Australia.


On my uncle’s car radio:

you are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here
and whether or not it is clear to you
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Tuesday December 14 1971 – evening. 

Eucla is a settlement just inside Western Australia, an oasis in a sea of shifting sands. Literally. It is close to those treacherous cliffs where the desert drops suddenly into the ocean. Eucla was once the original telegraph station and the remains of that building emerge and recede into sand drifts as years go by.

Look to the south and you can see the Southern Ocean, a brooding, grey mess of water that stretches away to forever or to Antarctica, whichever comes first.

Look to the north and you see nothing but dust. It's red.


After discovering the fuel tank leak, uncle went over to have a chat to the local mechanic. (Mechanics were easier to find than fresh water in some of these towns. Clearly, they were always needed.) He came back and drove the car to the mechanic’s hoist and left it with him overnight.

After an early dinner of probably cold meat, potato salad, sweet corn, bread, fruitcake and tea, cousin Danny and I went off on our usual reconnaissance. In most of the towns we stayed in, we were just looking around, checking out the town, nothing specific.

But in Eucla, we were looking for something specific: a half-naked girl. The half-naked girl we were looking for had a name: the Eucla Nymph.

The Eucla Nymph would not have been hard to recognise; she was about seventeen and wearing a kangaroo skin, if wearing is the right word.

The Eucla Nymph story was coincidentally just breaking in Australia when we were travelling through. We’d also been hearing reports on the car radio.

So here we were, two teenage cousins, 15 and 14, in the outback, running around looking for a half-naked girl. Life just doesn’t get any better than that. It just doesn’t.

Except if we found the girl.

Of course, we didn’t find the girl. Even at 14 and 15 we knew it was a stupid hoax put on by some idiot radio station. (Teenagers always see through things that suck in adults like that. Sometimes it is salutary for parents to realise their teenagers are smarter than parents realise. Danny and I were running around saying, ‘This is fun but it’s such bullshit, isn’t it?’ The girls we were after were not some idiot mythical radio station model publicity stunt but the real girls in the backyards of Australia - the ordinary, awkward, beautiful, thin, fat, tall, short, in-between, lost-for-words, talkative, blushing, blanching girls, the pursuit of whom was our life’s primary purpose.)

Hmm. Did we lose that somewhere along the way? Maybe we did.

And maybe we didn’t.

I had a good time in Eucla. All that shifting sand. And the Nymph.


On the radio in the caravan:

today I saw somebody
who looked just like you
she walked like you do
I thought it was you
as she turned the corner
I called out your name
I felt so ashamed
when it wasn't you
wasn't you

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Tuesday December 14 1971 - afternoon. 

Back on the road after lunch. This is the most tiring part of the day. The sun is at its highest and you just want to sleep.

Of course, I did. Uncle’s power of staying awake amazed me. Two thousand miles of alertness. Maybe Aunt was jabbing him the ribs all the way while she smoked her thin cigarettes. The whole journey, she sat up front with him while Danny and I lounged in the rear, alternately falling asleep.

In our more wakeful moments, we noticed there still wasn’t much traffic. In 1971, attempting a crossing of the Nullarbor desert was still a major endeavour due to the unmade road. Not many people had four wheel drive vehicles.

Because there wasn’t a lot of traffic, we got to recognise many of the vehicles travelling our way. They all stopped at the same overnight stops, because there was really no other choice.

This afternoon, there was a white Renault 10 in front of us with an elderly couple in it. We had seen them in the caravan park at Port Augusta and again in Ceduna. They were always driving erratically. Had been doing so for a while.

When I snapped out of one of my little afternoon reveries, the erratic Renault was right in front of us. My uncle was driving evenly, sitting on his maximum speed of around 48 miles an hour (unmade road, caravan). But the Renault kept speeding up and slowing down. Looking at what, exactly? The dust?

Uncle braked, sat back, braked some more. But eventually he had to pass the stop-start Renault.

Mid-manoeuvre, the Renault sped up again. Fools! It was too late to pull in again, so my uncle had to coax a little more speed out of the Chrysler six-cylinder which was already singing the high notes.

The car’s left wheels hit an extra deep pocket of gravel. It lurched one way. The caravan lurched the other way.

The caravan jack-knifed. My uncle wrestled the beast. The beast wrestled back. My uncle kept wrestling. We ran off the road.

After an eternity that lasted maybe eight seconds, he somehow found a straight line in the dust. He dragged the car and van to a stop, whoa! He switched off the engine. He got out of the car.

He sat down on a log. His forehead was sweating. He mopped it with a handkerchief. We had come that close to losing the 'van altogether. And he knew it.

The Renault 10 had just putted away, oblivious, its idiotic four-cylinder rear engine popping up and down like an over-enthusiastic marching band.

My aunt lit up a smoke. My cousin and I took off our shirts. It was unbearably hot and the sweat was turning the dust on our backs into soup that ran down our spines and into our shorts.

After a while, we got cold drinks from the caravan; and then after a longer while, we carefully pulled back onto the road and resumed.

The dusty unmade highway stretched on into the afternoon. Now the sun was in front of us, drawing us on like land-moths to a flame in the western sky. The flame went west faster than we did and an hour or two later we rumbled across dust and small stones into Eucla.

We found the caravan park easily enough and panted to a stop at the ‘Stop Here To Register’ sign. My uncle and aunt went into the office.

Across the way, a white Renault 10 was parked in a camping bay, trunk lid up and front doors open. Next to the car, a flustered man was fiddling about trying to put up a tent, which kept falling down. A frowning woman appeared to be helping but clearly wasn’t. She was jabbing her finger at the tent and her mouth was snapping open and shut.

After we berthed the 'van, my uncle did his daily post-journey check of the car. One hubcap missing, no doubt during the earlier incident.

But a little while later - uh, oh: we noticed a smell.

The fuel tank is leaking.


On my cousin's cassette player:

nights in white satin
never reaching the end
letters I've written
never meaning to send
beauty I'd always missed
with these eyes before
just what the truth is
I can't say any more

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Tuesday December 14, 1971 - morning. 

Ceduna is on the very edge of the vast Nullarbor Desert, Nullarbor being an aboriginal word meaning ‘Latin for No Trees’. Heh. We joked about that for days.

The desert, on one side, comes to a sudden and very dramatic stop where it meets the Great Australian Bight, part of the Southern Ocean. Imagine a flat plain that just stops dead, dropping off sheer into the ocean. Those cliffs run along the coast for thousands of miles. All along, the unrelenting sea, over thousands - maybe millions - of years, has gouged channels deep into the cliffs which emerge as blowholes in the plain. People fall into them. What a horrible fate.

Ceduna - which we reached last night - is a fishing village. Well, it was in 1971. Maybe today it is an IT outpost or a casino town or a canning industry hub or a destination for photographers of bikini models. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the same as it was in 1971. The nearest large town to the east - Port Augusta - is 480 kilometres away (that was yesterday's journey) and the nearest to the west, 1200 kilometres. That’s the way we’re headed. Don’t run outta gas, Uncle. (Not really a danger, there's a number of fuel stops in between.)

The car has run like a swiss watch so far, hasn’t missed a beat. Just thought I'd mention that.

Today, we left Ceduna aiming to reach Eucla - across a red desert with nothing in it except the three hundred mile dirt road running through it. That’s right, the road is unmade.

It was a steamy, humid, dusty, exciting, unforgettable day. A threatening humidity lurked under a blanket of darkness as we hit the highway at probably five-thirty, six. A journey like this needs an early start. Goodbye, Ceduna.

Ceduna shut its eyes and went on sleeping. It wasn’t long before the made road ended. As we hit the dirt, the tyres immediately starting talking a different language, a kind of cobble-cobble-cobble instead of their usual whishing rubbery sound. With less grip on the road, the car and caravan developed more of a swaying motion. Each surface variation - for example, a pothole - would cause the suspension to swing, creating a pivoting effect at the towball, the central point between car and 'van. So we kind of swished along in the heat and dust like a landlocked boat.

The morning creaked towards noon. The miles rolled under the car and the caravan and out the other end in a cloud of red dust and a scatter of pebbles.

Red dust everywhere. Scrubby, indeterminate desert plants. OK, they probably had names, I’m not a botanist. But you wouldn’t want them in your garden next to the prize roses.

The traffic on the Eyre Highway was rare enough in those days that the aborigines – the Anangu people - gentle, black-skinned, snub-nosed, brown-eyed folk with washed out hair and that awesome presence that people whose ancestors have lived in the area for thousands of years - could flag down cars going through and shyly show travellers their artefacts: boomerangs, leathergoods, bark carvings. We took a look and had a chat with the gentle, lost-in-their-own-land Anangu people. 'G'day. Where you from?' 'Melbourne, mate!' 'Melbin long way, mate. Where you goin'?' 'Perth.' 'Perth long way too, mate.'

That place is called Yalata. It is still there, but there is probably an air-conditioned showroom with credit card facilities, an espresso machine and low fat muffins.

Later, we crunched to a stop somewhere in the flat sea of red dust for a sandwich. A dust sandwich. With maybe hardboiled egg. A hardboiled egg and dust sandwich. And cups of tea. Always cups of tea.


On my cousin’s cassette recorder:

the first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
and the sky with no clouds
the heat was hot and the ground was dry
but the air was full of sound

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Monday December 13, 1971 

I woke up to the sound of something screeching very loudly and very close to my left ear.

Then the caravan ceiling smacked me on the head. Remembering, again, not to sit bolt upright in bed, I pulled on my clothes and jumped down from my top bunk.


Last night, the Valiant had rolled to a stop at the Port Augusta Fauna Park, kind of a cross between a caravan park and a zoo.

Its camping sites were scattered around the park, and there were wallabies, peacocks, deer, goats, emus; some wandering around, some in enclosures. Cool.

Cousin and I spent the early part of the evening doing what we usually did, checking out the place, stretching our legs after hours of driving.

From way over the other side of the park, I could see uncle sitting on a deck chair right next to the open door of the caravan. Aunt sat next to him, rolling tomorrow’s cigarettes. She rolled all her own cigarettes, making them curiously thin. The tobacco lasts longer.

They sat there in the early evening light, chatting about what? They were neither young nor old. They were in their middle years. He was mild-mannered, quiet and patient and had curly hair that was already white; she was a tiny slip of a woman with dark hair and olive skin. She was always ready with a wisecrack, just like her younger brother, my father.

Later, in the van after dinner, we played cards around the kitchenette table.

It was a noisy night at the Port Augusta Fauna Park. I listened to the chattering of partying fauna, wondered for a while what they were talking about and then fell asleep.


And so, this morning, a sudden screech woke me with a start and I hit my head. Having climbed down from my bunk, I slipped outside the caravan to personally greet the locals.

A peacock was scratching about looking for something it had lost in the dirt and a wallaby bounced up and down on its way to wherever wallabies go in Port Augusta, South Australia, at six-thirty on a Monday morning.

The menagerie was still hyperactively chattering to itself when we left at five past eight. Two emus were having a domestic and the peacock was refereeing. A goat looked on, baaed loudly, walked away and started chewing a timber garden railing near the cockatoo enclosure. I guess there were humans about as well, but I don't remember any!

On the long, lonely road out of Port Augusta, the landscape started to change, turning from brown to red, as if the earth was oxidising.

Sure enough, we soon came to a town called Iron Knob. Don’t laugh. In Australia, a knob is a small hill. Or a door handle. Iron Knob is a metallic bump in a flat landscape, like a ball sitting alone on a billiard table. It’s still a funny name though. The iron mine adjoining Iron Knob is called Iron Maiden. Iron Knob and Iron Maiden. What a pair.

Lunch: Kimba. Under a tree again. I have the photograph. Valiant and caravan parked under a tree in Kimba, South Australia, December 13, 1971.

I love the names of towns, they fascinate me for some reason and I never forget them. Kimba. Kimba. Kimba.I can’t stop saying it. One day I’ll have a cat and call it Kimba. By the way, here is Kimba on the map. (And thank you to the pretty girl pointing it out. I don't know who you are, but I'd like to. Hello, world: if I've googled your picture, let me know who you are.)

The idea of parking under trees was not solely for the purpose of me taking a nice photo, but because it was damn hot. No air-con in the car. Or the 'van.

The afternoon drew remorselessly on and so did we. Small towns approached and receded, sleeping in the afternoon sun. Wudinna. Poochera. Minnipa.

Minnipa was nothing more than two giant cylindrical wheat silos soaring into the endless sky. We could see them approaching from miles away. Just as, if you were an ant, you would see two milk bottles in the middle of a tennis court from the baseline. If you happened to be an ant on a tennis court.

Leading away from the silos, a broad gauge railway track glinted metal in the hot sun. On the rails, several faded red railway trucks were snoozing, waiting patiently to carry grain to seaports.

We hit the edge of Australia at four o’clock.


On my uncle’s car radio:

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the empty skies, my love,
To the dark and the empty skies.

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Koala mistakes pole for gum tree. 

I'm interrupting my holiday diary to bring you this koala rescue story.

There's another photo in the print edition of the koala, down from the pole, all wrapped up in a blanket. It's very, very cute with its snub nose.

However, I'm sure you'll have noticed that the koala thanked his rescuers by biting one of them! They might be cute but they can also be nasty. Guess they have to be.

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Sunday December 12, 1971. 

I had fallen asleep quickly the night before and I woke up a little disoriented.

Where the hell am I?

On the top bunk in a caravan parked in a supermarket car park in a suburb of the capital city of another State, is where.

I proved it by pulling aside the ruffled curtains over the narrow top-bunk window and taking a glance outside.

The carpark was no longer empty. Cars were pulling in and out and people were wheeling shopping trolleys here and there. Oh, oh. Looks like we overslept. Better wake my uncle and aunt and cousin ...

Danny was snoring on the opposite top bunk but uncle and aunt were already awake, of course. They were sitting in the caravan kitchenette. On the fold-down table were bowls, cereal, teapot, toast rack, jam, butter, milk, fresh bread. They had probably fetched it all from the supermarket while I slept. Man, these guys have got their act together. I’m going to enjoy this trip.

My diary shows we went to early Mass at Adelaide cathedral and were on the road north out of Adelaide shortly afterwards.

Adelaide’s north is dusty, grimy and just like every other mid-size city in the entire world.

We rolled through endless industrial estates which surrendered unwillingly, inevitably, to green fields. The kind of green fields you get when they’re next to industrial estates. Which is grey fields. With thistles. And rubbish, old car wheels, dead refrigerators.

Otherwise it was beautiful. Just beautiful. Everything’s beautiful on day two of a four thousand mile caravan journey. Everything.

Later, the grey fields turned yellow. We were snaking our way through the rippling wheat plains of South Australia. This was pretty. Curving roads scything through tall wheat which swayed in unison like a boughing yellow wall, heads waving hello and goodbye together.

We sighed through Crystal Brook, which I thought was the prettiest-named town I’d ever heard.

Then we stopped for lunch at Port Wakefield, under the shade of a huge old tree by a river. I have a photograph of it - black and white, with the place and date scrawled in pencil on the back.

Through the long, golden afternoon hours, I drifted in and out of sleep, head against the car window, as we passed a thousand farms.


On my cousin’s cassette recorder:

you're built like a car
you've got a hub cap diamond star halo
you're built like a car, oh yeah
you're an untamed youth
that's the truth with your cloak full of eagles
you're dirty sweet and you're my girl

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Monday, December 06, 2004

Saturday December 11, 1971. 

At precisely 7.45 on a sunny Saturday morning in early summer, a Valiant station wagon hauling a caravan pulled up outside my house. In the car were my Uncle Noel, Aunty Frances and cousin Danny.

They were on their way to Perth, Western Australia. That’s a long way to tow a 'van. Perth is 2136.2 miles from Melbourne.

And I was going with them.

We loaded up my gear. I travelled light, just a bag of clothes and an instamatic camera, an early Christmas present. I kissed my family goodbye and climbed in the back seat beside my cousin, who at 15, was one year my senior.

Soon the Valiant and the caravan rolled out of Deakin Street. My father drove his Holden ahead of us some ten miles out of town to show my uncle the correct turn-off to Adelaide, the first day’s destination. Then he waved us on, turned his car around and disappeared.

My diary, which was not much more than a timetable with a few scrawled observations, tells me our first stop was for lunch in Horsham, a medium-sized town basking in the sun in the middle of the flat, golden Wimmera wheat belt.

We slipped out of my home State – Victoria - into South Australia around five o'clock. Never having been out of Victoria, I had always imagined it would feel different being in another State, as if the air were a different colour or something. No transcendental experience occurred as we crossed the border but we did go back in time. South Australia is half an hour behind Victoria.

We chased the sun until it went down. It was dark when we climbed the Adelaide hills east of the city. Over the top the Valiant groaned, automatic gearbox chattering up and down, caravan purring along behind, and then we triumphantly descended into the Adelaide lights, just like an aeroplane landing at night in slow motion.

It was too late to search for a caravan park or a camping ground. We drew to a stop in some suburban supermarket car park around ten o'clock and stayed the night right there, simply jacking up the caravan and leaving it connected to the car.

You could do that in those days.


On my cousin’s cassette recorder:

now I've been happy lately
thinking about the good things to come
and I believe it could be
something good has begun

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A picture crashed to the floor in the dead of night. 

A framed photo of my father-in-law taken when he was young, about twenty, a handsome young Scotsman with a cheeky grin. Only a small picture, about six by eight inches.

It was a still night. No one had slammed a door (only I was home and I was in bed), there were no sudden vibrations and no storm or wind was rattling the house.

Of the forty-one assorted pictures and plates, some large, hanging on walls in various rooms, it was the framed picture of my father-in-law that fell to the floor.

My father-in-law had died two weeks earlier.

The picture didn't break.

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Friday, December 03, 2004

Marlowe never had a case like this. 

Maybe he did. Maybe it was one of his minor ones Chandler never wrote about.

Imagine the title: 'The Cat, the Dog, the Remote Control Car and the Sardine.'

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

Thursday, December 02, 2004

You know they live in trees, don't you? 

Don't you?

Well, of course they do, they're tree kangaroos.

They are native to Papua New Guinea, our much-loved northern neighbour, home to the Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels.

Australians love Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels more than anyone else on earth.

Because they are angels.

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

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