Up Your North – Parts 6 and 7

VI

There is a saying, I am not sure if it is Jewish, that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.  I have always been sceptical of the validity of that proposition – with, say, rape or torture – but it did seem be handy for my arrival at the Bungles.  The events of the day might even change my attitude to Saturdays at large.

I resolved to leave it until the morning to decide whether I would on the morrow go back to the Park.  But when I got up and realised it was a full 80ks to get to where I wanted, which meant about four hours there and back before setting off on the highway, I decided to defer the issue until I was ensconced in comfort in Kununurra.

Breakfast was at 7am – sharp!  And you may not want to play games with Storm number 8.

Any chance of some weeties?

This is a cooked breakfast!

This is what logicians call a non sequitur.  The result does not follow from the premises.  I have had cooked breakfasts all over the world – you even get offered a boiled egg in Paris – but I have never been denied weeties – even as a slushy for the army.  It could send a man’s bowels berserk.  But the South African lady was soft behind her firm exterior.  We compared the Bungles to Table Mountain, where she had come from.  There were big cast iron cooking urns around the campfire outside that reminded me of those used for breakfast on safari in Zimbabwe – one of which held curried potatoes as part of the best breakfast ever – which of course started with weeties.

It was a good breakfast, and I was keen to shake the dust from this wadi off my feet, until a friendly looking dude about my age strolled in to inquire about breakfast.  I said I thought you had to have a token from the night before, but he might try his luck at HQ.  He came back with a big relieved smile and a token that he gave to number 8 before waddling off saying that he could not face breakfast without a newspaper.  He came back with a three day old Australian.

Trevor, for that was his name, was most interesting.  He said that he had been visiting his sister who was doing community work at Warmun (Turkey Creek) about 40ks up the road.  He was sympathetic to the condition of the indigenous people.  He had been shown over the school and he thought it was first rate.  ‘If we have done the wrong thing by these people, and we have, this is a good start in the repayment.’  He told me that he had visited a memorial to murdered aboriginals at Misery Creek – where a stockman had shot and burned aboriginals eating meat because he thought, wrongly, that they had taken his stock.  I told Trevor of my own small part in the repayment, my own little Calvary, the day before, and we laughed.  (I need not I think apologise for the religious reference, because I had firmly in mind that the first miracle was turning water into wine – which could cause bloody mayhem in this part of the world.)

Then Trevor said something that told me he might be a lawyer.  He said that with mandatory sentencing, the bureaucrats had taken over the job of the judges – meaning that government rather than the judiciary was responsible for the sentencing of those convicted of breaking the law.  Up there, you go inside for your third offence.  A young man had just gone in for stealing loaf of bread – because this was his third offence – it would have been insane to do that for any other reason.  We reflected that we like to think that this is how the white men came here to take this land from the blackfellas – by sentencing people to transportation to here for stealing a loaf of bread.  It is a remarkable example not so much of history repeating itself as of our obdurately refusing to learn and being too scared to bend.

Trevor and I swapped cards – I had to go and get mine marked ‘Writer’ – and we had a good laugh about two Victorian lawyers meeting over breakfast in a caravan park at the back of nowhere.  It was a helpful reminder of just how lucky we were – so, I left the Bungles area in as good a mood as I had entered it, and a little better informed, if not wiser.

The 240ks to Kununurra was more scenic.  There was fire damage all along the road and a lot of dead livestock as well as wild life.  I even saw wild horses.  You have to be careful in passing very long road trains.  I thought that the Nissan lacked grunt in overtaking, and its height did not make me confident on the bends on bitumen.  You also have to be careful on one lane bridges – that is something we have in common with the Scots, although the scenery is rather different.

When I got to Kununurra, I breasted the bar of the Visitors’ Centre and politely inquired after the flashiest boozer in town, having even more politely informed them that Florence and I had had a little misunderstanding about the quality of the accommodation booked for me down the road.  They took the news with the quiet equanimity that you expect in those parts.

VII

When I first went to see The Sistine Madonna of Raphael at the Zwinger in Dresden, I was horrified to find, after about thirty hours travel, that the gallery was shut for the duration of my stay there – which I had scheduled mainly to see that painting.  When I finally got to see it a couple of years later, it left me a bit flat – it just did not come up so well in the flesh.  It is famous not just for the Madonna holding the baby, and looking uncertainly into the future, but for the two putti at the bottom, with their credulous or quizzical gazes at a sacramental moment in western art.  There is another painting, I think by Pontormo [I now think after checking that it is by Rosso Fiorentino], of two putti – winged cherubim that looked like innocent toddlers – where the two are seated and one of them is leaning across to whisper something confidential about something that they are reading to the other.

It is a phase of life that every parent remembers with comfort and fondness.  The children are innocent – they are yet to be corrupted by the world.  They are yet to be burdened with the failures of their parents.  They are yet to be taught that people can be distinguished by the colour of their skin or by what they believe or by what their parents are.  They are yet to be formed by an upbringing that teaches them that there is only one God who chose only one people.  Toddlers are not conscious of such differences, whether they are discerned by man or imposed by God.  They are still as innocent as the day that they were born.  If the terms were not so charged, you might say that they are still in a state of grace undefiled by any notion of original sin.

I thought of the putti at the time I saw the most memorable image of the whole trip.  It was at Derby outside a rather battered IGA store.  Two young children about four years old were seated on the footpath.  One was as black as you can get; the other was as white as me.  They were just gabbling on without a care in the world.  It is the only example I recall of a completely easy mixing of colour and culture.  These kids did not even know what the word race means.  We do get conscious of these differences in time, but we rely on our upbringing to control how we express and react to those differences.  We rely on upbringing for courtesy and manners.

I thought about upbringing at the Sports Bar at the Kimberley Grand on that Sunday.  This is the swish upmarket hotel whose elegant luxury I embraced – and it was not over-priced.  The Sports Bar was not in Melbourne Club style, with giant TVs showing about six sports, with pride of place going to the AFL – I watched the start of the Belgian GP there later that evening.  Upbringing came to mind when a young white couple, about 25 but already well spread out, came in for lunch with three kids – aged about five, three, and a baby.  Both parents were drinking what we call pots of beer while taking it in turns to show the oldest kid the rudiments of pool – which required them temporarily to deposit their pots.  The older kids watched the TVs in a desultory fashion, but this was a mother who may choose not to hear a child crying for attention.

I wondered what kind of upbringing this might represent – Sunday lunch at the local boozer.  It was different to what the black kids were getting in the barren Halls Creek – but how different?

What about a white kid who was brought up to think that Sunday lunch was time to spend with grandma over the Sunday roast, although World of Sport was allowed into the family and as part of the family when sport was sport, and the whole world was not in your face, and you had to wait a long time after the event to see the Kennedy assassination on TV?  What about a kid who went to state school and was sent to Sunday School, and then went on to a public school where he got a scholarship and where the day started with religion, and where he was exposed to literature, the national team sports, and to the army and to dancing class, and he was exposed to an education that equipped him to go into a learned profession, and then go on to sample the best that western civilisation can offer all over the world, and colour in that learning at his leisure in stints at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard for kicks?  Was not that kid immensely blessed?  Is he doing enough to pay others back for the benefit of so fine and privileged an upbringing?  Noblesse is no good unless it is oblige, very oblige.

Up your north Part 5

V

There is bugger-all at Fitzroy Crossing, and even less at Halls Creek, about 280 ks away.  The River Lodge does however offer good bar and dining service under the stars.  I had been waited on by two very attractive young women, one from Brittany, and one from Montpellier.  (If you were into French more than me, you could brush up on it on a trip like this.)  After dinner, I had sat behind a number of blackfellas sitting in a semi-circle in the bar watching Port Adelaide beat Hawthorn.  They obviously barracked for the former, but I could not understand what they were saying.  I do not recall seeing any drinking between the races.

The road to Halls Creek is dead flat and boring.  Halls Creek itself is a very, very depressing place.  The only alcohol you can get there is light beer.  Asians were running the servo – very well; one rushed to get a Band-Aid when she saw I was bleeding – but the black people look very down and out, and the white people do not look much livelier.  It is the kind of place you just want to get out of.  I would meet others who had the same sad impression.

It is a further 120 ks to the Bungle Bungles turn off and then a notorious 53 ks of bone shaking and water hazard before you get to the Park Information Office, and then about a further 27ks to the famous beehive domes.  The day might only cover 453ks, but it was always going to be a lot harder than just that.  My booking agent at the Kununurra Visitors’ Centre, Florence (a fictitious name), had warned me that the last 53ks might take almost as long as the previous 400.  That was an overstatement – one of a number from that source, I was to find – but this was clearly going to be my longest day.  You bloody bet it was.  In bloody spades, mate.

There is gate across the road just off the highway and before you get to the caravan park there.  A guy was coming out.  As he got to me, he wound down his windows and said: ‘Do you see that guy behind me in the read cap?’  ‘Yep.’  ‘It will cost you $5 just for him to shut the gate.’  We laughed, but I still asked the man in the cap where I checked in.

How would I bloody well know?

Ask your mate behind the wheel – if he waits for you.

So, I entered the Bungles in high spirits, the highlight of my quest, the grail if you like.  After about ninety minutes of punishment I let out a shout of triumph when I passed the National Park Gate and arrived at the Information Office at about noon on the Saturday.

Office shut.  Unmanned.  Complex instructions on how to calculate fees.  No credit card facility for payment.  No change.  Just calculate the fee – I thought it was $50 for my two nights but I may have been wrong – and I put $50 in the envelope, and sought to display the evidence as instructed.  The complex instructions were only in English.  Put to one side the pay as you go issue.  This is supposed to be a World Heritage site and here we are behaving like hicks to tourists that we seek to attract.  You would not this inane rudeness at Iguazzu or the Grand Canyon.

Then I started to get a sullen premonition.  Why was there no sign for the soft accommodation that Florence had booked for me inside the National Park?  My paper spoke of ‘a tourist park.’  It may have been under canvas but it was en suite and with meals and a bar.  I drove about 7ks to the nearest camp ground and found a bloke in a tent who had been living there for some time.  He said that there was such accommodation about 30ks down the road but that there was no caravan park in the National Park itself.

Does that mean that my place is back near the highway.

Looks like it, cobber.

And I have just done those 53ks plus for nothing?

Looks like it.

And now I have to go back.

They’ll be booked out down the road.

Well, well, well.

Or Anglo-Saxon terms to that effect, with unchristian thoughts about Florence.  This was a major bugger-up, not perhaps without some contribution from me for not checking that the accommodation procured came within my written instructions. But at least I would get a beer when I made it back to join the people I may have looked down upon on my way in.

I retraced the 53ks and five water hazards, dangerously more quickly.  There was one notorious stretch of corrugation where I found it was better to boost the engine a little to achieve a kind of skating effect, but I was told later that this damages the vehicle, and you have to be very careful to cut back as soon as the surface changes.  I noticed a few drivers coming in looking like grim death.

I got back to the caravan park just before 2 pm, and, yes, I was booked in there.  So the South African lady who could have worn number 8 for the Storm told me.  She and a French guy with a beard from Brittany – I have forgotten his name, but a very nice guy – were attending to my needs as I informed them of a little misunderstanding  – un petit faux pas – with Florence.  The conversation went something like this.

Am I too late for lunch?

We don’t do lunch.

Well, it will be a slap-up dinner.  With a bloody good red.  It has been a bad day.

You will have to bring your own.

Why’s that?

We have no licence.

[After another reference to Florence] Where’s the next bottle shop?

180ks up the road mate.

[I remember that nice French guy saying that with just a hint of a glint in his eye.]

Well, well, well.

Unless you want beer.  That’s only 120ks south.  But I suppose that you have just come up from there.

And they only sell light beer.

Dinner’s at 6pm.  Do you have any allergies?

No, why?

There is only one meal – pea soup and beef stew.

Bonzer.

Here is the combination to the lock on the zip on your tent.  There is no power, but there is a light.

I take it that means there is no air-con.

Silly me.  It was in danger of becoming a killing field of great expectations, and I started to giggle.  But it took me about ten minutes to unlock the zip, and when I got inside it was about five degrees warmer than outside, which was north of 30.  I had half a bottle of red, but can you imagine what it was like after about three hours on that road in that heat.

The first thing to do was to cancel the second night.  When I went back to the HQ to deal with the South African lady about a refund for the second night and also to inquire about a helicopter flight, I met a guy called Bernard.  Hearing my helicopter inquiry, he offered me his wife’s seat on a flight at 3pm.  It was an hour’s flight, and I said I only needed 30 minutes (which should be true for everyone – you can see a lot in 30 minutes).  I gather that Bernard’s wife, whom I later met, had gone off flying in helicopters, which is understandable, and that unless a third passenger could be found, the price for the other two would be excessive.  I said to the South African Storm number 8 that if she assured me that I would get a refund of my second night – I had paid up front for this deluxe accommodation in the middle of nowhere – I would take the 3pm flight.  The deal was struck.  Everyone seemed happy.  I could salvage something from the day – apart from experience, and some lines to dine out on.   The Storm number 8 even made a little joke.

A little later an Italian lady from north of Milan weighed me in for the changed manifest that I was to give to the pilot, Ben.  Bernie and I allowed Deirdre to sit in the front and Ben strapped us in the back.

We all had a wow of a time.  Ben’s commentary was to the point, and we could ask questions over the intercom.  We went over a lot of cattle country where they muster by helicopter.  These flights, which I have taken at some of the world’s great sights, are expensive but worth every cent.  Apart from the wow, you get to grips with scale and history.

Bernie thought my day had been hilarious – so did I – and thought that I would be carrying all of the white man’s burden for a full twenty-four hours.  In sympathy, he invited me back to his base for a beer.  He was travelling in a 4WD bus group of ten with two driver/guides and sleeping under canvass at each stop.  I met a few of the group who said that the guides were terrific.  They all looked very content around the evening fire, although I may have blanched at the 5.30 start the next morning.  Here was an option for people who do not mind sleeping under canvas and sharing communal facilities.  I have done some of that up there, but, as I made clear to Florence, those days are behind me.

At dinner – 6 pm sharp! – I spoke to a few caravaners and picked up some of their lore.  They clearly have a sense of community and purpose, and I suspect that they get a better social life than people who travel like me – or in a big bus.  A guy at dinner, who came from England, shared a bottle of red at the table, and when I got back to my still hot tent to finish off the shattered remains of my red stock, I could not find a glass.  Perhaps this was because there was a sign saying that I should not drink the water unless I boiled it – but there was nothing to boil it with.  Nor was there power.  I went to the vans and borrowed a glass and had a couple with a convivial group there – who thought it was rich that I had not even been given a glass.