After 2 days of riding across an interminable flatness, The Hill loomed up on the horizon like a mountain.
It was a pile of large weathered boulders 180 meters high – hardly qualifying it as a hill, let alone a mountain.
Yet seen from 20 kilometres away, The Hill loomed large, far larger than it was.
Our eyes, adjusted to immense spaces devoid of the slightest rise, the slightest dip, caught sight of a pile of rocks, a blip on the yawning emptiness, and magnified it out of all proportion.
I can imagine that in 1836 the British General Surveyor, Major Mitchell, fell prey to a similar distortion. Mitchell, leading an expedition of discovery, must have moved far slower than Anya and I on our bikes, enduring the flatness for weeks, if not months. He must have had times when he feared that he would never see anything else again but for that dead level horizon; like a line ruled across a page.
There’s Mitchell, longing for the sweet green hills and woods of England.
Then one day, peering through his telescope, he sees it: A hill!
He is struck by its shape. The first thing that comes to mind….is a pyramid.
He named The Hill ‘Pyramid Hill’ – as if it didn’t already have a name.
For his mind, conjuring up the comparison of a pyramid, came naturally.
In the 19th century, few places in the world caught the imagination of the English like Egypt. Whilst their archaeologists were uncovering the lost glories of the Pharaohs from beneath the embalming sands and unravelling the mysteries of an extraordinary civilisation, there was also a thriving industry in exporting artefacts, statues and mummies to England. Mummies were ground to a powder and sold by apothecaries as a medicinal cure-all. Countless books – both scientific and fictional – were written about ancient Egypt.
When Mitchell saw that distant goose bump on the strange and intimidating Australian horizon, he saw – a pyramid: a form, an image, which came naturally to a 19th century Englishman.
How did the aborigines see that hill?
They, who had lived in Australia for 50,000 years?
Virtually nothing is known about the tribe who inhabited this area because they vanished so quickly after Mitchell appeared on the scene – and white settlers followed in his wake, unleashing a pitiless destruction on the native inhabitants.
There are certain things however which we can assume.
The aborigines intense knowing of the landscape was based on song-poems.
These song-poems gave meaning to the landscape and its plants, insects, animals and geographic features. They believed that by singing their poems, they created the land anew. For them, there was no such thing as the monotony of a big flat land; they knew every tiny feature, invisible to the white European eyes.
They spiritualised the physical world. They saw themselves following in the footsteps of the spirit gods in their Dreamtime. There can be little doubt that a striking landmark like The Hill would have occupied a special place in the mythology of the original inhabitants of that area. Probably, it was the site for corroborees; for thousands of years, painted bodies danced under star-studded skies to the accompaniment of the didgeridoo and chanting sticks, whilst the elders recited the song poems of their people.
The closer we got to The Hill, the further away it seemed.
Our view of that pile of weathered rocks was increasingly obscured by farm houses, sheds, and trees and then, a town: a pub, a small supermarket, a café, an old town hall and behind this, a grid of wide streets lined with houses and trees. The town was 2 kilometres from Pyramid Hill and somewhat unimaginatively, went by the name ‘Pyramid Hill’.
We were given to understand that the locals referred to the Pyramid Hill as simply: ‘The Hill’.
There was a caravan park half way between the town and The Hill. We rode out there over a busy road and put our tent down. But even from the caravan park, we couldn’t see The Hill.
In the afternoon, we went on a short ride over some unsealed back roads. It was a meandering sort of trip, with no purpose other than to find quiet places. Once again, we noticed it: when we were far away from the town, we could clearly see the The Hill etched on to the horizon.
Late in the afternoon, following a dirt track, we came to the local cemetery.
We parked our bikes under a tree and wandered around, reading the epitaphs on the grave stones.
After a while, something struck me: at regular intervals, there were stones recording the deaths of family members in chronological order – with those of sons killed in France during the First World War being the first listed. The times being what they were, where there were no aeroplanes, the bodies of those sons could not have been brought back to Australia. They were buried somewhere in northern France. Memories came back to me of bike trips we had done in Belgium and France and seeing entire hills and plains covered in small white crosses; British, Germans – and Australians. Hundreds of thousands of crosses.
That evening, lying in our tent, I thought about our visit to that local cemetery. The names of those sons on the gravestones – whose remains were buried somewhere in France – were testimony to the grief which their mothers and fathers had endured for years until they too, had joined their sons on the other side of the River Styx. It was a grief no doubt made so much worse by the simple fact that they never got the chance to bury their sons in home soil.
The grief: it was something you could see in almost every country town in Australia, in the form of statues, monuments and plaques: the grief left in the wake of the so-called Great War, when so many Australian sons – a disproportionate number of them from country towns – had paid ‘the ultimate price’.
I got to wondering:
Why would young men from a remote, end-of-the-world town like Pyramid Hill want to go and fight in a war at the other end of the world?
It seemed bizarre.
All over Australia, there were other Pyramid Hills, thousands of them, desperately small, remote places, where the same thing had happened: a lemming-like rush by young men into the trenches of France and Flanders. Into a horrific ordeal which has been endlessly documented and been the subject of innumerable novels (most notably, those of British writer Pat Barker).
A point came in my thinking when I realised that my question was the wrong one to ask.
None of the men who left Pyramid Hill ever imagined that they would end up in the murderous hell of trench warfare. If that had been the case, there would have been no mass enthusiasm – bordering on delirium – to join the army.
It was when I tried to put myself in the place of a young man growing up in a tiny, remote town a century ago, that another perspective emerged.
Until comparatively recently, most people lived their lives within a very small place. Country towns like Pyramid Hill were extremely remote in a way which is hardly imaginable today. In the period 1914 -1918, there were 200 people living in the area. There were no roads then worth the name. There were few cars. The only means of transport were horse-drawn drays and carriages and, a good way out of town, a railway line. There were no mass communications. Few people had a radio. Newspapers were the only means of getting any information about the outside world. Life was dreary and monotonous. It revolved around physically hard work, day in, day out. There was no mechanisation, no tractors or harvesters. The big events were the football on Saturdays and church on Sundays.
The only escape from the boredom was drink.
Then suddenly came the prospect of adventure, of travel – this in an age when only the rich and the privileged could ever dream of travelling.
Defending the Mother Country from The Hun?
Nice rhetoric, but no more than that. Few people knew where Germany, France or Belgium – let alone Flanders – were. Their idea of Europe was Britain, ‘The Mother Country’.
For young men in small towns like Pyramid Hill (bursting with testosterone and living in a prudish society where casual sex was impossible), the outbreak of war was a once in a lifetime chance to escape the narrow confines of the farm and small-town life. It was exciting, an adventure; an adventure to travel by train with hundreds of other young men to the big city (for many of them, it was the first time they had seen a big city); they were provided with a uniform and were paid far more than they had ever earned on the farm; they met other young men from other towns, from all over the country, they made new friends, they saw the city with its sophistication and its busy streets; and then the truly incredible: seeing a harbour crammed full of ships and cranes and docks and boarding a real live ship and going on a long voyage over the wide, wide ocean to the other side of the world. Few of them had even seen a ship, let alone sail on one for two months.
The sights on the way!
The stops in Indonesia, India, the Middle East…unheard of! Incredible!
And at the end of it, the grand event, the crowning adventure: war. The propaganda industry had assured them that The Hun would soon be beaten, confronted by the full might and the stupendous glory of the British Empire.
Get there whilst you can!
See some action before The Hun is pushed back to Berlin and the war is finished!
You’d be mad to miss this opportunity of a lifetime!
Cold wet rain, booming guns, trenches flooded with water and rotting bodies. Years of it. A meat grinder.
Your best mates dying in front of your eyes.
In one action in 1916 at Fromelles, which anyone could have seen was going to be a disaster, incompetent British generals sent the Australians over the trench parapets – and within hours, 5000 died before firing a shot.
Four years of this.
On the following day, we rode out to The Hill.
It was a curious sojourn in search of something we knew was there from having seen it from a distance but lost sight of every time we had drawn closer to it: the stark image of a pyramid shaped hill, an ancient beacon in an ancient land.
Travelling in Australia, especially by foot or on a bike – one finds places where the presence of Australia’s original inhabitants can be experienced, almost as if white settlement had never occurred. A creek at the bottom of a gorge lined with gum trees, a natural marsh land reverberating to the sounds of frogs and birds, a gathering of large boulders protruding above the bush, a night sky far distant from the cities and ablaze with stars. In such places, one can, in precious, fleeting moments, can picture them, can slough off the present and travel back into the past, can undo the horror of the white man genocide; in these places, one can imagine them singing the ancient land into existence.
These are our modern-day version of sacred places.
I guess I was pretty damn naïve in thinking that out at The Hill, we might experience such a place, might experience that special feeling.
The Hill close-up was a let-down.
Better by far to see it from a distance.
On one side of The Hill was a busy road where SUV’s roared passed, and on the other, was an 18-hole golf course which subsumed the base of The Hill. Yes, of course, silly of me not to have realised how good it was to tee-off with The Hill as a backdrop.
There was something about the fate which had befallen The Hill which symbolised a deeper malaise. Much had changed and for the better. But our attitude to the land hadn’t changed: it was there to be used and exploited. Mined, farmed, sold, developed.
Blitz advertising and rampant consumerism ruled the roost.
All sorts of strange thoughts went through my mind standing there on top of The Hill.
How many times, in the middle of that inferno on the other side of the world, did those men, whose names are engraved on stone slabs in the cemetery, see The Hill – see it like they’d never seen it before: a temple resplendent on the crest of a mountain – and yearn to be back there?
They were probably the only white Australians who had ever be able to see The Hill, really see it.
For tens of thousands of years, the aborigines had sung The Hill into existence with their song-poems. After their passing, The Hill had been endlessly profaned.
And where were the epitaphs for the horror of their fate? Where were the monuments, the statues, the plaques?
Only a yawning emptiness.
Yes, standing on top of The Hill, you could feel it: the emptiness.
An emptiness to rival the large, uninhabited spaces of the big flat land.
The fate of The Hill was also the fate of our huge island continent.
If only we could learn to hold it sacred. Leastways, hold something sacred.
If only we could sing this country back into existence.