For years I'd been talking about it with my daughter – "Let's go Outback honey." From the time she was about 11, I'd been telling her it was it was a hop, a cinch, a 1600km round trip from coast to desert's edge and back.
I knew we could do in a single exhausting weekend. But she'd have none of that. Wise even at that age, she eyed me down each time.
"Back-a-Bourke" is a phrase that Australians use to mean as far away as one can imagine, way out yonder. How far is it? – "Back-a-Bourke mate, back-a-Bourke." Beyond our imagination in fact, which is the truth that lies behind all travel.
Bourke sits far up into the interior of Australia along the Darling River, an intermittently navigable river that wends its way through sludgy flat flood plains, emerging from tributaries to the north in Queensland, joining the more expansive Murray River, and somehow emptying it's mucky tailings at the coast in South Australia.
The Darling emerges and disappears, swells to a flood before shrinking to trickles with decadal shifts in rainfall: It dried up 45 times between 1885 and 1960. Now, like a battered housewife, it is habituated to mistreatment from agricultural overuse - fertiliser and pesticide run-offs, and the endless demands of cotton farmers (hard to believe we allow the growing of cotton in this dry continent).
The skies are brass and the plains are bare,
Death and ruin are everywhere;
And all that is left of the last year's flood
Is a sickly stream on the grey-black mud;
The salt-springs bubble and the quagmires quiver,
And this is the dirge of the Darling River.
At one time, Bourke boasted the world's furthest-inland Admiralty Court, to settle criminal matters among the 80 or so paddle-steamers that once fed the world's most abundant wool pipeline, and to handle the piracy of striking sheep shearers who at least once in the 1890's, boarded and burned a steamer filled with strike-breaking workers.
Paddle steamers on the Darling River in about the 1890s. Hardly the
Mississippi, but at one stage some crazy percentage of
global wool was extracted down this extraordinarily irregular river,
which dried up forty-five times between 1885 and 1960.
Out there - out back, the Outback – the phrase has a raw, throwaway kind of feeling, as if it's nothing much to journey into Australia's demonically seared interior. It's just outback, just a stone's throw away, as throwaway as the casual line itself.
Murray River paddle boat
It's a part of the Australian national myth that we are intimately linked to the tough interior of the country, and formed by it's baked and thorny sclerosis. Much of that myth was manufactured by late 19th century city-slicker poets and balladeers like Henry Lawson, and Andrew "Banjo" Patterson, the lawyer-poet-journalist who wrote "The Man From Snowy River" and the unofficial anthem we'd all prefer, "Waltzing Matilda."
Henry Lawson, Mark Twain by appearance, which I think was not a mistake. As a very young man, I met his ancient daughter and wish I had had the sense to know what more to ask her...
But most Australians will never travel to the Outback during their lives. Not only one of the wealthiest nations since the late 19th century, we are one of the most urban, and have been since our 18th century founding. Like my daughter, we cling to the coast. "Back-a-Bourke," after all, is a perceptual and physical wrench from the aerated blue and white of our glorious coastline and beaches.
Catalina, as we absorbed the pleasure of staying in one of the least salubrious
motels we've yet found - in Bourke, Outback Australia.
Out there, the hot air catches the back of your throat, tickling it to a gasp. Out there are the desert lands, the heartland of Aboriginality and the Songlines, epics of story-telling that made sense of the landscape for the original human settlers of this vast land perhaps 60,000 years ago.
Yep. that was it. The Coolabah Hotel/Motel (cover all your advertising bases). Nope, we didn't take up the offer.
The Great Sandy, the Victoria, the Simpson, the Strzelecki, the Gibson, the Sturt Stony, the Tanami, the Little Sandy, the Pedirka - around a fifth of the country is desert, but rain barely touches more than a third of the continent, which means that a third of the country is really quite desert-like.
Catalina, Silver City Highway, Sydney to Broken Hill and back.
There is a beauty out there, stark and dry. It hangs in the stream of over-heated air that quivers above the desert floor. It hangs in a perpetual thirst through which the shrubs and trees exist and twist as though turning their necks away from the sun.
So in February, newly returned from Kenya, my daughter finally said yes to more of the saeculum that I am building with her: the memories of things done that will outlast me, and outlast my ambition, my love, my curiosity, my lusts, and my blindness – the things that she will remember about her father, and carry forward far into her own life.
Just a stop along the road...
But what kind of 18 year-old agrees to spend six days in a car with her father, driving around an Australian moonscape, far from her friends, her bedroom grotto, the security of regular wi-fi, fresh coastal breezes, and her cat? Well, this is a tribute to Catalina's character and, I like to think, to my constant devotion to all that has bound us, overcoming the many tribulations of family and professional life.
Catalina with the puppy of an Aboriginal girl, offered up for petting as a welcome to Bourke.
For six days, we listened to her music, shared the driving, laughed at all there was to enjoy about the oddity of our journey (the few beautiful things, the discomfort and strangeness of choosing to be there), ranged over subjects that interested her while she heard things from me for the 40th time ("yes honey, but this way I know you'll remember them") photographed, and endured the heat.
This property advertised its WINDOWS! We thought that the rooms without windows, but with skylights, should have been advertised as "the Astronomer's Delight" or "Stargazers" suites, with an extra charge for honeymooners...
Sometimes, a real enthusiasm seized her, like when she jumped out of the car to scoop up some desert-red dirt in a specimen jar. But mostly she tolerated it all, with a droll calm, an easy laugh, and a steady patience.
For six days we traveled in a huge loop, more than 3000km, following the great arterial Murray-Darling river system that has flooded to its greatest peak for the first time in 30 years. The desert was in bloom, filled with flowers and waterbirds.
Sydney, to Crookwell, where we stayed on the farm of my buddy, the writer John Zubrycki, to Griffith, then Mildura where the Scots part of my family pioneered farming in the 1830's, before cutting through at sunset the magnificent 300km leg from Mildura to the legendary mining town of Broken Hill across the straight-as-an-arrow Silver City Highway.
Silver City Highway... this one didn't make it.
Broken Hill, is, as the highway name suggests, a silver and other minerals mining town. Because it is inherently odd, it was oddly the site of the only land-battle fought on Australian soil during World War One, which is really a rather grand, but eye-catching description of a skirmish bravely mounted by a couple of Afghan cameleers, latterly turned to pushing an ice-cream cart around the frontier town.
Presumably in a fever of devotion to the Caliphate, they decided to open fire on a picnic train filled with New Years Day women and children revellers as an act of support for the Ottoman fight against Australian troops who were soon to land on Gallipoli in Turkey (they were hunted down and killed in a Custer-like Last Stand on a mound of rocks, although not before they had killed four picnickers).
Broken Hill itself has a palpable charm. In part, it is the surprise of it all: the colonial architecture that has survived the mauling of suburban design that has defaced the charm so many Australian towns; the fact that "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" was filmed in the hotel in which we stayed, The Palace; a sort of swagger and civic pride of a place that is so unlovely, perched in a great flat expanse unrelieved by anything much except by the nobbly ugliness of a huge slag-pit that stands rampant in the middle of the town and on which a miner's museum bears testament to the 800 miners who died digging silver in Broken Hill.
Four ragged, dried-up-looking children are playing about the house. Suddenly one of them yells: "Snake! Mother, here's a snake!"
The gaunt, sun-browned bushwoman dashes from the kitchen, snatches her baby from the ground, holds it on her left hip, and reaches for a stick.
"Where is it?"
"Here! Gone in the wood-heap;" yells the eldest boy - a sharp-faced urchin of eleven. "Stop there, mother! I'll have him. Stand back! I'll have the beggar!"
"Tommy, come here, or you'll be bit. Come here at once when I tell you, you little wretch!"
From The Drover's Wife, by Henry lawson
It is a solemn sight, to stand and read the names of the men. When you mine, you can die in so many ways:
Fall of Stone; Rock Fall; Suffocated in Slimes; Crushed in Skip; Fell Down Shaft; Electrocuted; Crushed by Cage; Hit by Rock Drill; Fall from Kibble; Struck by Machinery; Fell into Ore Bin; Premature Explosion; Killed in Tube Mill; Fell into Chute; Crushed by Tipping Truck; Stope Collapse; Crush by Runaway Truck; Struck by Counterweight; Struck by Timer; Struck by Loco in Cage; Fell into Quarry; Suffocated in Skimps...
Catalina at the Broken Hill memorial for the 800 miners who have died since the 1890s.
We did Broken Hill before we did Bourke, which perhaps was a mistake. Bourke had little of the romance, and was 46 ° when we hit town. The shabby motel we chose added to the adventure, and the misery. Opposite its fine old paddle steamer wharf, they had erected a modern two storey Bowls Club, built entirely of the worst possible building material known to mankind, Colorbond.
[As I say to my daughter, Australians who use Colorbond liberally - for fencing, for roofs, for sheds, for walls – will always tell you that it lasts "forever", with a kind of teary sense of romance, leaving visions of an already bland post-atomic bomb landscape littered with nothing other than Colorbond. If these same people could shred it and put it on their cornflakes, they would].
I gave in with graceful acknowledgment that the Colorbond Bourke Bowls Club was the final straw for the two little piggies' adventure, that it had drained the final vestiges of good humour from my daughter's humour-jar, and we did the entire 700km stretch back to Sydney in a single leap.
There was a small hotel or shanty on the creek, on the main road, not far from the claim. Dave was desperate, the time flew much faster in his stimulated imagination than it did in reality, so he made for the shanty. There were several casual Bushmen on the verandah and in the bar; Dave rushed into the bar, banging the door to behind him. ‘My dog!’ he gasped, in reply to the astonished stare of the publican, ‘the blanky retriever— he’s got a live cartridge in his mouth——’
From Henry Lawson's The Loaded Dog