The Simpson Desert?
I didn’t know much about the Simpson Desert.
I knew it lay in somewhere in central Australia and much further north than we were going.
I kind of wondered why anyone would want to go there.
Consider the daunting dimensions of the GAF: it included the western areas of Queensland and New South Wales, most of the South Australia and Western Australia and much of the Northern Territory. Thousands upon thousands of square kilometres of nothing, dry, dead, wasteland or something mighty close to it. It was surely the biggest wasteland in the world.
Why would anyone want to select a specific part of that enormous Fuck-All and go to the effort – and expense – of driving there?
Sven informed me that the Simpson Desert covered an area of around 170,000 square kilometres.
I observed, perhaps a bit cynically, that driving around through hundreds of kilometres of sand wasn’t something which could inspire me much.
Then Sven began talking about camels.
Before I knew it, I found myself in the company of a different person entirely.
From a quiet, almost taciturn man, he metamorphosed into a chatter-box.
Oh yes! He was big on camels.
As big as I was on yellow foots.
He’d spent a lot of time in the Middle East working for a big Danish engineering firm; Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. There he’d become interested in camels, gone to camel races, gone on camel safaris, talked to the locals about camels and eaten camel stew with rice.
He knew a lot about camels in Australia.
He was really looking forward to seeing the camels in the Simpson Desert.
I can’t say I knew much about camels in Australia, only that they were feral and therefore, as far as I was concerned, a creature which had no right to exist. Which didn’t belong here.
‘Feral’: it was a word often used in Australia and in many different contexts. In essence, it meant a domesticated creature which had returned to a wild state. It was also used to describe people who had left the city and gone to live in the bush and in the process become anti-social as well as a bit mad. Feral could also be used to describe someone who had become so obsessed with something that they could no longer see the wood for the trees. Politicians for example might describe their opponents as being feral or having gone feral.
Whatever its uses, ‘feral’ unlike so many other words in the Australian lexicon, was never used in a positive sense. It always implied something negative or undesirable. In a language where even the word ‘bastard’ could be used to denote one’s best friend, the uniformly negative implications of ‘feral’ was striking, to say the least.
‘Ah, Sven….why do you want to see feral camels?
‘They are pure.’
I had a feeling I was missing something here – lost in translation maybe?
We eventually surmounted the misunderstandings between Denmark and Australia.
Sven knew his camels and knew a lot about the pure feral camels of the Simpson Desert.
He told me about how camels were brought to Australia during the late 1800’s and used to transport supplies up north because unlike horses and bullocks, they could survive long periods of time in the unrelenting harshness of the desert. Sven’s voice became almost passionate as he described how long lines of them, loaded up with boxes and bags, were led into the interior by camel drivers. Camels, he said with great emphasis, had played a crucial role in the construction of the telegraph lines and railways linking the south of the continent to the north. They had helped to build the Australian nation at a crucial point in its history.
In the 1920’s, they were superseded by the trains and later, roads. The camel drivers, rendered obsolescent, released their camels into the desert – where against steep odds, the camels proceeded to proliferate at an incredible rate. Current estimates put the number of wild camels at well over half a million.
‘Sven…where does the purity come into this?
‘These camels, they were isolated. They couldn’t interbreed with other strains of camels. They don’t have diseases.’
He explained to me how the camels in the Middle East were riddled with diseases. Australian camels were disease-free. There was a big export market for them. He had first heard about the Aussie camels in Saudi Arabia.
What a loopy world this was! The species we didn’t want bred like flies. The ones we did want were struggling.
If only the yellow foots could turn feral and the camels become endangered.
‘I’ve got nothing against camels Sven, it’s just that they don’t belong here’
‘Nothing belongs nowhere these days’
A strange way to put it but I knew what he meant.
Mozart and camels; Sven and I.
A point came when I got tired of listening to Sven and his camel talk.
It happened quickly, like the sun disappearing behind a stray cloud.
A shadow passed across me. A darkness appeared within me.
‘Over half a million disease free camels roaming central Australia.’
Sven found that impressive, a tribute to the species’ unbelievably hardiness.
I found the idea depressing.
Sven’s camels were doing a lot better than my yellow foots.
He and I were both headed into empty spaces in search of our obsessions but that was where our similarities began and ended.
The dramatic change in his demeanour when we got onto the subject of camels underlined not only the intensity of his obsession but also the sheer vitality of the species itself. I had done my best to reign in my obsession with the yellow foot in order to spare Sven and Ella a rant – only to find myself in the company of this Great Dane who observed no such restraint.
Maybe my reluctance to drill people about the yellow foot reflected my sympathy for a Loser in the Darwinian struggle of the contemporary Australian animal kingdom.
In my identification with that beautiful endangered species, I had the support of the politically correct on my side, of the Australian middle class and the Greens and the Left. But Sven had something far more powerful on his side: success. The camels had bred from a limited gene pool and now there were hundreds of thousands of them, somehow flourishing in an impossible land.
I began to actually resent Sven. The transforming intensity of his obsession cast mine into a pale shadow. It was all very unfair; he and his camels were on a winning ticket and my beautiful wallabies and I were struggling to find a reason to exist.
My rising irritation with Sven was crazy of course but that was how I felt. There were all sorts of feral thoughts going through my mind; me the same person who detested ferals and judged them harshly.
Look, the problem was this: the success of the feral camels, expressed by an exuberant man in the clutches of something close to a passion, was a powerful metaphor for the success, the vitality of so many other feral species in Australia including; rabbits, foxes, cats and goats – all of these forming formidable obstacles to the successful reintroduction of any native species – including the beautiful outback Jacob: the yellow foot.
The image of Sven leading a long line of camels into an expanse of sand appeared before me accompanied by doubts as thick and pestering as a swarm of flies.
All that stuff I’d talked about, that noble talk about how the reintroduction of the yellow foot was symbolic of our national identity and so on – seemed like so much bullshit.
Why were we working so hard, spending so much money, to reintroduce native species into their original environment?
The long term chances of survival of these reintroduced species were generally speaking low.
The fact was, they couldn’t cope with the competition from the feral species. In other words the ferals could do what time and again the natives couldn’t: proliferate in a harsh land.
So why try?
Surely it was better, and very much cheaper, to leave them in the zoos.
How many millions of dollars were being spent on eradicating the foxes, goats and rabbits?
And even then, my darling yellow foot was struggling.
It all seemed so unfair. Sven and Ella were on their way to see their feral camels and were absolutely reassured of seeing them, nothing more certain. For us on the other hand, our chances of seeing the yellow foot were altogether more unlikely.
Sven just kept talking and wouldn’t shut up.
I wondered about Ella.
I formed a picture in my head of Sven returning from a trip to the Middle East and greeting Ella in their luxurious apartment in Copenhagen with his camel chatter.
Was Ella as interested in camels as he or did she just go along with it?
Maybe their apartment or house or wherever they lived was filled with pictures of camels – and carvings and statues of camels. I once met a couple in Rotterdam who were obsessed with hippopotami; their large apartment was filled with photos and models and carvings of hippos.
Maybe Sven and Ella’s place was like that, only it was camels, not hippos.
Maybe when Sven and Ella had sex, Sven was thinking about camels.
I stopped listening to Sven and drifted off on Mozart.
From the back seat, I heard the sounds of Anya and Ella talking. It sounded like a lively conversation.
On the left of us, to the accompaniment of Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony, were small, sparse pines, so dark green they were almost black, and towering above them, a high ridge orange coloured, bone-like.
Instead of dropping us off at Blinman, Sven took a detour – and quite a considerable one – and drove us to the Caravan Park at Angorchina. The road there was unsealed and strewn with rocks and boulders; it passed through low, dry hills intersected with creek beds and in places, the road rose and fell so sharply that it seemed as if we were traversing a series of geological waves. I felt guilty about Sven, guilty about feeling jealous of him because of his absolute certainty of seeing his favourite animal – contrasted to the extreme uncertainty of me seeing the yellow foot. He was a nice guy and his driving us to Angorchina saved us quite a trip (we had planned on the following day to either hitch hike or walk out there).
That night, whilst Anya and I were discussing our stroke of luck in getting a ride with Sven and Ella, I opined that as far as I could see, they made a good couple. To which Anya replied:
They’re not a couple. They’re brother and sister.
Brother and sister?
And then, close on the heels of this small revelation, another:
What kind of nonsense was this?
How can two people who don’t resemble one another be twins? If they’re twins then so are we.’
‘You don’t understand.’
‘You’re right I don’t understand!. As far as I know twins are supposed to resemble one another otherwise they’re not twins are they?’
Anya proceeded to tell the story which Ella had told her whilst Sven was belabouring me with his camels.
On my part, not much chance for humour then.
‘Sven is my younger brother. He’s three years younger.
He and I were both born into twins: I had a twin brother and he had a twin sister.
Our mother and father had immigrated to Australia and we were living in Newcastle. They were poor working class. Dad worked in the smelters. We lived in a simple asbestos house, one of many, all of them arranged in neat rows. Life wasn’t easy. Then my brother and I were born and the real misery began.
You see I was born normal, but my twin brother was born with a serious intellectual disability. He was a very difficult child. He had to go to a special school. It was a nightmare for my parents. Then my mother got pregnant again and would you believe it? The same thing happened again: twins, a boy and a girl, one born normal and the other, with a serious intellectual disability, only this time it was the girl who inherited the genetic defects.
My parents gave up.
The new country had brought only hardship and suffering. They had two seriously handicapped children. They went back to Denmark. The social services there are much better than in Australia and by that time, the wages were higher also. Not that life was a bed of roses back home. The problems with our brother and sister hung like a cloud over our family. It was as if we had been cursed by an evil spirit.
Sven and I grew up wondering why we had been born normal and nor our brother and sister. No matter what we did, we were followed everywhere by a long shadow. We bore a heavy burden just to be alive and to be normal. Neither of us ever really found a way of dealing with it. Our brother and sister ended up dying young – in their 30’s – after bouts of drink and drugs and constantly being in and out of institutions. My parents suffered enormously, no matter how hard Sven and I tried to cheer them up.
Sven and I grew up during the ‘60’s but we missed out on it. There was the politics and the idealistic causes and really, it was young people celebrating their youth. There were new drugs like marihuana and LSD, there was the pill and free love; everyone wanted to experience life, to do something else other than live the conventional life. But it was not for us. We had this cloud hanging over us. We were different. I studied hard to become a teacher and outside of studies, I became very religious. I needed God. I became a member of a Christian club, an unfashionable thing to do in those days. It was through this group than I met my husband Jan. He came from a village in a part of Denmark where the people are very religious. We got married and went to live near his village. We had two children, a boy and a girl. Both times when I got pregnant, I prayed to God that I would not have twins, that what had happened to my mother would not happen to me. I felt guilty because if that was what God had in store for me then it was my duty to accept it. So for the whole time I was pregnant, which for most women is a time of fulfilment, of joy, I was in purgatory. ‘God, dear God, please spare me what happened to my mother’.
Sven studied engineering but he didn’t turn to religion. Instead he became very conventional. He made being normal a kind of religion. He got married to a very unambitious kind of woman who didn’t want to do anything other than raise children and cook meals and read women’s magazines. Sven got a good job with a large company, he went to work every day, bought a nice house and drove a nice car and every year, went with the family to Spain during the summer and Sweden during the winter. He never did anything out of the ordinary. He was always very reserved.
The years passed and my kids grew up and left home and Jan and I got older. Jan and I lost our belief. It was a slow process. The doubts grew over the years. Early one Sunday morning during the winter, he and I went ice skating on a frozen lake. It was a beautiful sunny day with a clear sky. The temperature was well under zero and everything was covered in a layer of white. We felt like children as we raced along over the ice. We laughed and did stupid things. It was possible to feel God’s presence on a morning like that. Later that day, we went to church. At the end of the service, as everyone filed out the door, the reverend took Jan aside and said:
‘Now Jan, tell me what you think about people who go ice skating on the day of the Lord.’
That was the breaking point for us.
We stopped going to church. We had been going there every Sunday for over 20 years. This had consequences for us; people in the village treated us differently, as if we were strangers in their midst. What was far worse was that our own children rejected us, especially our son. He was married to a very devout woman who came from another village where they followed a much stricter version of Christianity than we did in our village. He was certain that we would burn in hell. Our daughter thought the same thing though in time, she learnt to accept our decision. We couldn’t get angry with our children because we had brought them up to believe in God; we had taken them to church every Sunday and read the bible with them in the evenings. They had grown up following our example and they felt betrayed when we stopped believing in God. We could understand this of course but you can’t continue to believe in God just because it will help you get on with your children and your neighbours better.
When we retired, Jan and I bought a camper van and began travelling around Europe. Two years ago he died of a heart attack whilst we were in Portugal. He was only 63. In the meantime, Sven’s marriage ended. After years of being the conventional mother and home maker, his wife suddenly decided that she wanted more out of life. The children had left home and were working. She went off with one of the directors of the company where Sven was working. Sven had tried so hard to create a little oasis of peace and happiness in his life, and it all came to pieces. That had happened to me too, only in a different way.
After Jan’s funeral, I spent more time with Sven. For many years we hardly saw one another; at the funerals of our brother and sister and then our parents; sometimes at Christmas and on the birthdays of our children. We phoned each other a few times a year. Circumstances brought us back together; my husband had died and his wife had left him and each of us were abandoned, alone; we had no one else to turn to, he and I, the normal ones, the left-overs from the twins.
One day Sven got an idea. Travel to Australia to see the camels. He started reading about the camels in Central Australia. It was something to help him dig himself out of a deep hole. I was in a deep hole too. We were both suicidal and needed something, some plan.
Yes, let’s go to Australia and see the camels!
Both of us had lived sheltered lives. We were in our mid- 60’s and we had never really done anything except finding ways to be safe. Why were we born healthy and sane and our brother and sister destined to suffer such terrible lives? We had never been able to answer that and so we were never able to really be at peace with ourselves.
We have no plans and don’t know where we are going. Sven loves to drive, he just wants to drive and drive and get lost in the emptiness and listen to his classical music. Since we have been here in this country we realise that we still have much to live for.
We will see the camels and go on a camel safari. After that, no plans, only one; we will not go back to Denmark.
I’m thinking that maybe when we get to Darwin, we’ll go to Indonesia and travel around. Sven doesn’t care. As long as he’s somewhere, he’s happy.
Who knows where we will go? ‘