Looking out the windows of the SUV, we saw it: the gaunt outlines of the northern Flinders Ranges, a metallic red brown vein of cliffs and ridges and valleys running deep into Central Australia, one the most arid, barren places in the world.
Then we knew we were nearing our destination, the point at which one journey ended and another began.
From hitch hiking 400 kilometres to walking 200.
They were tired looking those ranges, almost as if their venture into the heart of one of the world´s greatest wastelands had proved to be too much and they had renounced any ambition of being a normal range.
But early in the morning and late in the evening, they burst into a spectrum of colours, all the colours of the rainbow. It was a transformation as miraculous as the animal which had once thrived there and learnt to dress itself up in a coat of many colours, like the biblical Jacob – and to merge into its environment during the critical times of the day when it went to forage for food…..
The aborigines had called the wondrous animal ‘andu’.
The white man called it ‘the yellow footed rock wallaby’.
With the countless mornings and evenings engraved in its DNA, Andu was eerily beautiful. In the hope sighting this creature lay the promise of imagining this land as it once was, before white settlement, when the aborigines had thrived.
Which was why we were hitch hiking to the far north of South Australia with heavy rucksacks: we wanted to breathe new life into a dead land and without Andu we knew that was impossible.
We got the lift with Ella and Sven that morning. They pulled over and stopped and it was strange what happened next: the woman got out and in heavily accented English, told us to put our rucksacks in the back. When we’d finished doing that, she motioned for me to sit in the front with the man and Anya to get in the back with her.
´More leg room in the front´.
Later, I wondered about that.
Inside, introductions got underway.
Ella and Sven; they were Danish.
Ella had shoulder length ash blond hair, blue eyes, a round, friendly looking face; she was in good shape and attractive for her age – easy to see that when she was younger, she was a ‘looker’.
Sven had a high forehead, an aquiline nose, dark eyes, a lined but handsome face topped by a thick crop of wiry, black hair – probably dyed, I suspected given that the stubble on his face was grey. He was a big man and the wheel looked small in his hands.
The four of us chatted for a while.
Initially, Ella did most of the talking.
When she found out that we were headed to the north of the Flinders Ranges, with the plan of following an established walking trail and camping out in a tent, she exclaimed:
´That sounds adventurous!´
We began to explain that there was more than adventure involved.
‘ We’re hoping to see the ‘yellow footed rock wallaby’.
‘Yellow – foot – rock – wallaby’? exclaimed Ella, ‘What is that?’ (emphasis on the word ‘is’).
During our hitch hiking journey, Anya and I had worked out a division of tasks, something akin to the way we set up camp late in the afternoons and dismantled it on the following morning. It was my job to explain to strangers what a yellow footed rock wallaby was. I´d already had a bit of experience with this from our previous lifts.
‘A rock wallaby is like a small kangaroo only its smaller and has stronger, thicker, forepaws. Unlike kangaroos which never reside in one place but instead move around grazing where they can and resting under trees, especially during the heat of the day, rock wallabies have a fixed abode – in the crevices and holes in cliff faces which they can traverse with incredible agility. They feed on grass and small plants growing above and below the cliffs. To survive the hot days, especially during summer, they crawl inside their cliff face crevices.´
I didn’t have an image of Andu with me. When we left Adelaide, we had so many other things to attend to that it hardly seemed like a pressing concern. Later, on the road, I regretted that oversight.
Words were all I had and they were hardly sufficient.
‘The body of the yellow foot is blue-grey; its hind legs and fore paws are orange yellow. Its chest is white and there is a white stripe along its body and also its cheeks. Its long tail – it’s at least as long as the animal itself – is orange yellow and banded in sections of black.’
Ella and Sven were impressed.
‘So many beautiful animals in this country!’
I gave a short explanation.
Australia was the oldest continent in the world and also, being an island, its most isolated. Over aeons of time, the flora and fauna developed in unique ways. Originally there were 50 species of kangaroo-like marsupials, ranging from kangaroos two metres tall to a plethora of eerily beautiful, rabbit, rat and mouse sized hopping creatures: a menagerie of amazing and yes, beautiful animals.
But there was another side to this story which was altogether darker.
Today, I pointed out, most of these amazing and beautiful creatures were either extinct or endangered. White settlement had been an ecological disaster. A British settler invasion had wiped out the aborigines and at the same time, destroyed the environment and the wildlife.
Over the last decades there had been a campaign, initiated by the state Labour government, to reintroduce Andu into its original native habitat. There was politics behind the re-introduction of this unique wallaby in the Northern Flinders Ranges. The attempt to breathe new life into a decimated native species was symbolic of an attempt to redefine who we were as a nation and to expunge the demons from our past: the racism, violence and smallness of spirit.
I kept the politics of Andu short and focused more on the biology.
I mentioned the problem with feral animals, which was ironic, given what happened later.
I talked about how the settlers had introduced all sorts of European animals which had compounded the destruction of Andu: e.g., rabbits and goats, which competed with Andu for plants and grasses in the vicinity of the cliffs; foxes which attacked and ate Andu (especially because thanks to the rabbits and goats, it had to go further to find grasses and small plants).
An essential part of the re-introduction of Andu was a campaign to eradicate the feral animals.
Where were they headed? What kind of journey were they on?
They told us they were on their way to the Simpson Desert.
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.
Sven informed me that the Simpson Desert covered an area of around 170,000 square kilometres.
Why were they going to the Simpson desert? I asked.
Driving around through hundreds of kilometres of sand wasn’t something which could inspire me much.
It was then that 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.
And I was stuck with him on the front seat.
I suspected that Ella had set me up.
I mean it didn´t escape my attention that whilst I was being drilled by Sven, Anya and Ella were having their own conversation in the back.
Sven had worked in the Middle East for a big Danish engineering firm. It was there that 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. And 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.
They had been introduced by the white man and didn’t belong here.
My voice thick with disapproval, I asked him:
‘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.
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 for long periods of time without water.
His voice became almost passionate as he described how long lines of them, loaded up with boxes and bags and were led into the interior by their Afghan camel drivers.
Afghanis to handle the camels.
(In the mid north, at the copper mines, they had imported hundreds of Chileans to lead the donkey trains. In other words, they imported humans along with the animals).
In the 1920’s, Sven continued, the camels 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.
He stated this with a distinct sense of awe, even admiration.
I knew what I thought about those feral camels and it involved eradication.
I kept that opinion to myself. Instead, I interjected his spiel with what for me was an intriguing question:
‘Sven…where does the purity come into this?
‘These camels, they are isolated. They cannot interbreed with other strains of camels….these camels are like the camels in the Middle East in the time of Mohammed!’
Irony: The supreme isolation of Australia from the rest of the planet had led to development of unique flora and fauna –and now, in modern times, to pure camels.
What a loopy world this was!
The species we didn’t want multiplied. The ones we did want struggled.
Sven and his stupid camels!
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.
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.
Why were we working so hard, spending so much money, to reintroduce native species?
The long term chances of survival of these reintroduced species were generally speaking low.
And why were Anya and I going out there in the unlikely hope of seeing a few struggling examples of a doomed marsupial?
We reached our destination.
We got down at the side of the road and heaved our rucksacks on and began walking. The change was as sudden as two divers jumping off a boat and being immersed in another world. We were surrounded on all sides by bush and endless space.
My doubts began to fade.
The sense of purpose which had inspired us to embark on this trip returned.
The journey in search of Andu was about to begin.
We had to find it, that elusive animal.
To breathe new life into a devastated land.
Ella and Sven – I thought about them. Oh, they would find their stupid camels. The camels like in times of old in the Middle East. Nothing more certain.
I didn’t think much of their journey. Going all that way to see a feral pest. I made jokes about Sven and his damned camelmania.
Sweetly oblivious of the conversation between Anya and Ella on the back seat due to Sven’s monologue, I made assumptions, drew conclusions.
Anya was going to bring me back to earth and to realise that there was one hell of lot more involved in Ella and Sven’s journey into the heart of Australia than camels…..
And that their journey had its own kind of nobility, one no less valid than ours.