It had been my idea to go in search of an endangered species.
It had been her idea to hitch hike from Adelaide to the northern Flinders Ranges.
I didn´t think much of that idea. I tried to talk logic to her.
‘Why not use the organized forms of transport as far as we can and then hitch hike? From the 400 kilometers there, at least cover 250 with a bus?
Anya wasn’t interested: ‘Lets hitch hike all the way. It’ll be an adventure’, she said.
‘It’ll be impossible getting lifts with our heavy rucksacks.’ I retorted, ‘it´ll take bloody weeks to get there!´
Three days after I said that, we were there, in the north of the Flinders Ranges.
She was right about the adventure too.
We got a lift with an English painter on his way north to find inspiration; an elderly man in an old truck who lived in a one horse town and grew orchids to escape the ghosts of a hard life and loneliness; a woman who was running an outback pub and had been to visit her boyfriend who was doing time in a regional goal.
And last but not least, a Danish couple on their way to the Simpson Desert to see camels.
Everyone we hitched with had a story to tell.
In the case of the Danes however, I never got to hear it.
I thought I did, sitting in the front with Sven whilst he harangued me with information about camels in general and the feral camels of the Simpson Desert in particular.
But it was Anya sitting on the back seat with Ella who got the full story.
What was going on with Sven and his single minded obsession with camels?
A typical man, unable to express his feelings?
He must have known that Ella did not have this problem: that she was talking to Anya from the heart.
He must have known that after we left them, I would hear the full story.
I guess all of us beat a path through life in our own way.
He had a goal and he needed it.
The feral camels were an escape.
On our first night camping in the bush, with a small fire burning, I turned over the day´s events. That afternoon, walking with our heavy rucksacks, we lost the trail and had to retrace our steps.
Not a promising start.
It’s hard to follow a poorly marked trail and even harder to follow the meanderings of a mind.
Mesmerised by the flames in the depths of silence and darkness, my mind was wandering.
I had this 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.
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.
They’re not a couple’ Anya said, ‘they’re brother and sister.’
Brother and sister?
And then, close on the heels of this small revelation, another:
Twins were supposed to resemble one another and I couldn’t think of two people physically less alike than those two.
Anya recited the story that Ella told her whilst Sven was bashing my ears with his camels.
When you travel the hard way, you meet some interesting people.
But even taking this into account, the story of Ella and Sven was incredible, underlining the old adage of fact being stranger than fiction.
‘Sven is my younger brother. He’s three years younger than me.
He and I were both born as 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. It was an industrial city. 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 mother gave birth to two lots of twins and the real misery began.
I was born normal, but my twin brother was born with a severe intellectual and physical 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 the same 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 badly handicapped children. They went back to Denmark. The social services there were better than in Australia and by that time, the wages were higher too. 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 not our brother and sister. 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. Then 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 an even 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.
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.
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 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 were never able to have much of a life 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. Since we have been here in this country we realise that we still have so 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? ‘
Ella and Sven were not foreigners travelling in Australia, as I assumed.
They were Australian Danes returned to the land where all their troubles had begun and they were looking for a new life before it was too late.