A wild leap of my life story into a period beginning in the early 1980’s, some 30 years later – which encompasses some dramatic changes. These changes lead inevitably to my future association with Aboriginal people and their culture. This is a brief (if I can control myself) but important chunk. I am married, living back at Littlehampton, and have a house, two children, and a mail round.
There was always something very different about being up and about at that early hour of the morning. Of course there are many whose employment has a similar early morning routine – baker’s vans, newspaper deliveries, milk vendors and numerous others, but in my case it was as a mail contractor that I did my morning round. I would pick up a van load of mail bags from the Mount Barker Post Office at 6 am every working day, and despatch them to smaller post offices across the hills. Along the way I would pick up mail posted from these offices, either in bags, or if it was just going to a post office along the route, in small bundles secured with rubber bands. It was a leisurely pace – indeed I was required to wait for a half hour each morning, my ‘breakfast break’, while a bag was sorted for the army camp, and I would sometimes use this half hour to do a bit of a trundle around, to read, or to take some photographs. There is no better time of day to take photos than the early morning, whether it be sunrise, frosts, rain or fog, and the pace of the morning, the luxury of being alone on the road inside one’s head, was transforming – meditative even. I had a Buddhist friend around that time, (who subsequently became a Monk) and he often talked of the ‘chattering mind’ and I would studiously concentrate on being aware of my runaway brain on my morning trips. It seemed that I could attain a state of stillness at times, but strangely, as soon as negative thoughts entered my head, there would seem to be a manifestation of it – generally as a road kill. There would be a bird, or a rabbit, or a fox on the road, and as the weeks rolled by I found that I could not leave these crushed bodies there to be continually ground into the asphalt. I was compelled to stop and to remove them from the road, and as I did so, I developed a closeness with the victims. I handled them gently, and their eyes hanging out, their smashed bones, their strewn guts and the smell of them brought not disgust, but empathy out in me. Once I became aware of this mini carnage on my route, it seemed that it came to dominate my trips to some extent. For example, I would come upon a magpie which had been hit by a car, obviously in distress, and would have to make the decision to put it out of its misery, or to give it a chance to recover.There were mornings when I would come across no deaths, and some extraordinary trips when it was full of them. I would pull out of my driveway, and be compelled to drag a neighbour’s cat from the road, and half way to my first pickup point, come across three dead ducks who had swooped in unison into the path of a truck. For the rest of such mornings, there would be a continious harvest of death – foxes, rabbits, magpies, parrots, cats. On one such morning, shaken by the carnage, I was recovering my equilibrium when I reached one of my last stops for the morning, when the Post master came out to exchange bags with me. “Did you see the…..oh it’s gone.” “What’s gone?” I enquired. “There was a dead dog there in the gutter just a while ago, someone must have taken it away.” I didn’t tell him, or anyone else about these experiences, but sure found them inexplicable. Weeks could then roll by with nary a death, and suddenly for no reason, there would be a similar busy morning – scraping corpses off the road – or there would just be the odd shock of a magnificent red fox, or a tiny dead bird to break the routine.
One very frosty morning, after a trundle around during my break to do some photography, I came over a rise, and there lying on the road in great distress was a kangaroo. A woman driving to her work had hit the roo as it hopped into her path, causing minor damage to the grille of her car, but major damage to the kangaroo. She had stopped her car, and was quite upset, but I must confess my sympathies were with the kangaroo. Its rear legs were smashed, with broken bones and flesh protruding from the gaping wounds. It held its upper body upright with its paws, and I felt I ought to despatch it. I searched my van, and finding a long iron bar used for winding up the jack, I contemplated the unsavoury task of smashing the poor creature’s head with it. But it didn’t seem right somehow. Suddenly, a great cloud of steam whooshed! into the frosty air from the roo’s torso, like a soul leaving its body, and it gave a death rattle, and died.
“What am I going to do? Look at my car.” Her voice cut through that icy morning from another dimension. I dragged the ‘roo from the road, and attempted to calm her down. I assured her that the damage to her car was minor, that it was perfectly drivable. She had not witnessed the extraordinary sight there on the road.
One pitch black night, somewhere between Uluru and Coober Pedy some fourteen years later, I will be faced with a very similar situation, but before that night, the cold war will end, the Soviet bloc will disintegrate, and Nelson Mandela will have ended his 27 year stay in prison to guide his country towards freedom. And the Berlin wall will fall. And nothing will be the same.
(Fourteen years later).
It is two in the morning. I quite like driving at night, pushing on ’til I’m really tired, then rolling out the swag, firing up deadwood and crashing till sunrise.
There is a large truck a mile or so in front of me. As its tail-lights disappear over the horizon, I flick my lights to high beam. In the near distance, dazzled in the lights, is the scene I witnessed on that morning mail run some fourteen years earlier.
A kangaroo, its smashed rear legs splayed uselessly behind it, and propped up on its forelegs, faces infinity on a dark night under the stars. It is that frosty morning, yet it is different. I roll the old diesel Jackaroo onto the verge, and the engine rattles to a halt. From behind the driver’s seat I pull out the nulla-nulla Old Silas gave me. The jack handle was wrong, but the nulla-nula is right.
The metre of hefty fire-hardened mulga, tapered to points at each end, squats in my hands like a sentinent being, and it is the road, the ‘roo, and me. Under a silent milky way sky, I swing the nulla-nulla, and the skull explodes like a melon. It feels as it should.
The ‘roo has joined the compatriot who departed this world in a whoosh of steam all those years ago, freed from its fear and pain, and there is the completion of a giant circle.
I drag the ‘roo to the side of the road, fire up the diesel, and trundle the black tarmac, under an endless sky.
****************** OOOO *****************
It is many years later, and my life has changed so much that I am pinching myself to comprehend it all. In 1984 I had become involved with a campaign to prevent a tower being erected on Mount Barker Summit, a previously untouched, apart from an access road to near its summit, block of natural bush, with magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. I was angry that this microcosm of what used to be, could be intruded upon in this manner. The tower was never really officially announced. There were just trenches dug alongside the road, barriers put up, and eventually a small article in the local paper, The Mount Barker Courier, announcing that a police communications tower was to be erected. Myself and a friend called a public meeting, in an attempt to find out more, but the work accelerated. My friend, who asserted that there had been ceremonial Aboriginal burials on the summit, addressed the Trades and Labour Council, who agreed to put a work ban on the site, provided a picket could be maintained, and within days a group of Aboriginal people had set up camp on the summit, stopping the work. It was a long and bitter battle, and by the time it was over, everything had changed. The story of the battle for the summit will be told in another place, but suffice to say that my life was now set on a course which would include separation from my wife of 11 years, and my three children, and which would lead to a deep involvement with Aboriginal people from there on. (Link to The Tower. )Nearing the end of the Summit dispute, I saw a television news story in a pub, talking about the hand over (handback?) of Uluru to the traditional owners, the Pitjantjatjara people, on the next day. I determined to somehow get there, but how? There were no direct flights to Uluru, and no buses which could get me there on time. I tried a light plane company but that required a minimum number of passengers. Eventually I was advised that an Airlines Of South Australia Focker Friendship would leave Adelaide for Uluru the next morning. The next day, with my backpack, camera and sleeping bag, I find myself on a Fokker Friendship aircraft, flying out of Adelaide on a flight direct to Uluru, for a $70 stand-by fare. The low altitude flight over the desert sees me with my nose pressed to the window, marvelling at the colours, the contours, the clarity. Shadows of the merest wisps of cloud are razor sharp and dark on the land, and the land itself is thousands of shades of reds, oranges, browns, blues, greys, – while the sky’s blueness makes the puff-balls of white clouds seem even whiter. Below, even the slightest trickle of water has left its tell-tale surrender to gravity etched in the arid ground. Flying over what seems to be endless eruptions of pimples spurting white pus, the gougings of the opal miners near Coober Pedy show the presence of man. The only other signs are the steel rail, the thin grey line of road, and numerous graded tracks which never seem to go anywhere, as mining companies extend their feelers. I can’t believe that other people on the plane, also flying to the handover that afternoon, can read their papers and chat – oblivious to the wonders passing beneath us.I have not yet set foot on the red earth of the Northern Territory, but it has already captured me.As we reached Uluru the Fokker circled, tilting precariously around the perimeter, the great red creature crouching like the reptiles in its shadow, while the endless sea of mulga, desert oak, and red sand stretched into infinity in every direction. The sun hovered above, bathing the scene in intense light, and enveloping us in heat as we stepped onto the tarmac at Yulara airport. Click here for linked blog.