Mary Anning

 

Late one afternoon in a high altitude gorge in the Indian Himalaya, whilst looking around for rocks to hold down the tent, I found a fossil.

It was a small one, no larger than a debit card.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Over the years I’d seen many fossils in the quarry like terrains above the tree line but this was the first time I’d seen one which was small enough to take with me.   

I picked it up and studied it: there was a spiral of fine indentations, which at a guess had been some kind of shellfish or a worm.

With the light fading and a cold wind blowing Anya yelled out at me rather testily:

What are you doing?!

We’re supposed to be getting the tent up!

I shoved the fossil in my pocket.

For years afterwards, it sat on my desk next to my laptop.

I made no effort to find out what kind of fossil it was, of which creature. It was a souvenir.   

Then one evening, decades later, I saw a film called ‘Ammonite’ and as a result, that small souvenir garnered at random in an abyss became a stepping stone on a journey into the life story of a remarkable woman……

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The One Horse Town – Part 2

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Marrabel: it was a dot on a map, until it was hauled out of obscurity thanks to a horse which no one could ride. Experienced rodeo riders came from all over Australia and were defeated by that crazy mare and eight years passed before someone managed to stay on her for 10 seconds. In the meantime, a town no one had ever heard of became well known along with its annual rodeo, held in the spring and drawing riders and spectators from all over Australia.

But then one day, a storm appeared over the horizon and the town’s fame turned into notoriety and the unrideable horse became a symbol of a shameful past.

As visitors, people passing through, Anya and I knew nothing about this. With our tent pitched on the deserted rodeo ground, an icy wind blowing across the empty grounds, we convened to the pub as darkness fell with no more in mind than enjoying a warm meal and a glass of wine. It was a Tuesday and our expectation was that we were going to be back inside our tent early that evening.

But ended up staying much longer than we thought, making our way back to the rodeo ground late that night with a blaze of stars above us – and haunting, unanswerable questions trailing behind us…..

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The One Horse Town – Part 1

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Late one afternoon in winter, Anya and I arrived in a small town called Marrabel.

We were hitch hiking north. 

 Marrabel was the ‘mid north’ and we were on our way to the Flinders Ranges which lay in the ‘far north’.

 The mid-north was lush country in comparison with the far north. There were rolling hills which in winter garnered enough rain to make planting wheat and grazing sheep possible. Many of the gum trees were large, quite a contrast to the stunted versions in the far north which was semi-desert.  

 Most of the people who ‘lived’ in Marrabel didn’t actually live there, but rather, somewhere out of Marrabel, 10, 20, kilometres away.

Only 50 people lived in Marrabel itself.

We arrived late on a blustery, sunny, winter’s afternoon.

Along the ‘main street’ – the only street – were some old colonial era houses on one side and a small park on the other. There was not a single person to be seen anywhere. The only noise to be heard was the wind whistling through the trees.

At the end of the ‘main street’, on the corner of a T junction was a pub.

 On one corner of the junction, directly opposite the pub, was an electricity sub-station, a mass of wires and terminals behind a high metal bar fence glinting in the sun. 

There was also a statue of a horse next to it but we didn’t see that.

 We came to the pub, eased off our heavy rucksacks and left them outside and walked inside. There was no one there except for a woman standing behind the bar wiping glasses. We made our way past tables and chairs and approached the bar. Behind the woman was a sign above a row of spirits bottles which read:  ‘When I die bury me under the pub, that way my husband will visit me every day’.

Her name was Wendy. She was tall, middle-aged, with short blond hair. Unlike so many Australians, she was not overweight.

 We asked about accommodation.

 We had our tent with us – in preparation for a long walk in the Flinders Ranges – but we’d camped out the last few nights in some rough places and now we wanted to have an easy night: dump our stuff in a corner, not have to put up the tent, have a shower, sleep on a bed.

But the Marrabel pub didn’t have any rooms.  

Wendy was apologetic and made a suggestion:

 ‘You can put your tent up down on the rodeo ground and I can make you a meal tonight.’

 She wasn’t sure, but she thought there was a shower somewhere on the rodeo ground.

 Rodeo ground?

 I knew nothing about rodeos. I couldn’t  imagine ever going to one. My idea of a rodeo was from my childhood when I was raised on diet of American westerns: check- shirted cowboys with ten gallon hats riding wildly cavorting bucking horses and yelling ‘yippee!

A rodeo was an American invention and I assumed it was something recently introduced into Australia, like grid-iron and basketball.

When I expressed this opinion, Wendy’s reaction was immediate and impassioned and I realised I had made a mistake:  

 ‘Marrabel’s had a rodeo for 70 years!  It’s famous all over Australia!’

I was intrigued: a town with no shops, no petrol station, whose official population was 50 – and it was famous all over Australia? For 70 years?

Seemed like local chauvinism gone mad to me.

But I was wrong about that. Every year, in October, Marrabel, a nothing little town in South Australia’s mid-north, became a major stop on Australia’s national rodeo circuit. On that one day of the year it underwent a Cinderella-like transformation.

 ‘We can get anywhere up to 7, 8,000 people’ Wendy said ‘from all around Australia. From that one day in the year, we make enough money to finance our football and netball teams.’

 Just how did this one-horse town get onto the national rodeo circuit?

 As it turned out: because of one horse.

 Wendy pointed in the direction of the door:

 ‘There’s a statue just outside at the corner of the intersection next to the electricity sub station….’

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The Hill

After days of riding across an interminable flatness, it loomed up on the horizon: a pile of large weathered boulders 180 meters high. 

Our eyes, adjusted to immense spaces devoid of the slightest rise, the slightest dip, caught sight of that pile of rocks and magnified it out of all proportion, so that the molehill looked almost like a mountain.  

In 1836, Major Mitchell, leading a British expedition of ‘discovery’ fell prey to the same distortion, the same mirage. With horse drawn carts and a retinue of retainers in tow, he must have been moving far slower than Anya and I were on our bikes, enduring the flatness for weeks, if not months. All the while no doubt dreaming of the sweet green hills of England. 

Then one day, peering through his telescope, he saw it, that same pile of rocks and struck by its shape gave it a nameas if it didn’t already have a name – ‘Pyramid Hill’. 

Over the following decades, after the original inhabitants were driven off or shot, a  town was established nearby and imaginatively called Pyramid Hill and as for the original name given to the pile of rocks by Mitchell, that became known simply as ‘The Hill’.

So that was our landmark and we rode towards it,  only to discover that the closer we got, the further away it seemed …..

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Songs of Central Australia Part 1

It took two men, father and son, and the passing of almost eighty years to write it: ‘Songs of Central Australia’, one the greatest non-fiction books ever written and a precursor to the revolution in attitudes towards the original inhabitants of Australia.

The story behind the writing of Songs in Central Australia is no less remarkable than the book itself…….

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