The Landslide

 

It was at the wake of my nephew that I heard a song called ´The Landslide´. 

I suppose in a way it was appropriate; the song triggered off a landslide in my emotions.

For a while, I found it hard to remain standing.

 

The wake was held on the second floor of an old building in inner city Melbourne.

The building, like most of the buildings in the area, was built during the 19th century.

This one had been extensively refurbished.

On the ground floor was a trendy café and restaurant. The second floor had been outfitted to cater for large functions. There were table and chairs near the windows at the front, a bar with a long wooden counter and behind the bar, a large room with stacks of chairs along the sides.

Despite the renovations, the past was evident especially on this second floor; the high ceiling, the wooden floorboards and in places, the brick walls left bare.

 

My nephew had died of cancer after a long and terrible battle. He was 27. My partner and I had flown to Australia from Europe to be with him during the last weeks and offer support to my sister and my niece. During the emotionally turbulent days that we went into the hospital to visit my nephew, many conflicting thoughts went through my head, like stray bullets in a war zone.

Strangely though, I did not experience sadness. I was unable to shed tears like my partner. 

Was this because I was a male? 

 

One day my nephew posted on his Facebook account: ‘Thanks for all the love that everyone has shown me. Now I want to go to a quiet place.’

He went to that quiet place and now, a week later, there we were at his wake.

Box of ashes on a table.

And it was there, late in the afternoon, that the sadness ambushed me. Out of the blue, so to speak.

I didn’t cry but rather, almost fainted. Dizzy spell. 

Yes, finally it caught up with me, the existential despair of living and dying.

The sheer madness of it all. 

 

There were over a hundred people there. People were chatting and drinking and standing around in groups. Most of them, friends of my nephew, were young. Some of the groups of young people lived in country towns in the north of Victoria, where my nephew had grown up; they had travelled to Melbourne in a bus to attend the wake and were scheduled to return that night. Others lived in Melbourne and knew him from the time that he had lived there. He had enjoyed his childhood in a country town and being a gregarious person had made a lot of friends. But he had never regretted the move to the big city. He loved the city life and going out to clubs and pubs with friends and drinking and talking. He liked going to see stand-up comedians and bands; he listened to a lot of music – rock, jazz, blues, country and western – everything and anything. As an old man, even I knew that he was a musical bower bird. We’d be driving along in his car and he’d say ‘listen to this’ and I’d ask questions and get a long story. I remember him giving me a long spiel about one of his favourite American artists, Charles Bradley. Then again there were groups even from my time as a youth that he listened to: Pink Floyd, Dire Straights, Hendrix, Doors. Sometimes I wondered how he got the time to listen to so much music.

It was something I was reminded of whilst Anya and I were standing around talking to various people and sipping white wine; in the background, some of my nephew’s favourite numbers were playing.

Then late in the afternoon a number began which I’d never heard before.

Somehow it flew in under the radar of the emotional barrier I’d constructed during the preceding weeks.

 

‘Climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
‘Til the landslide brought me down…’

 

One minute I’m standing there talking, voice raised to prevail over the music (though it was not loud), and the next minute, I’m struggling to remain standing. Hit by a wave of intense sadness. It was so powerful it was as if I was drowning.

Which music was this and why was it having such a powerful effect?

I left the group and walked slowly towards the windows. There were only a few people sitting at the tables and chairs. Most people had opted to stand. I needed to be on my own. I pulled up a chair and sat next to a window and drew in deep breathes.

The music kept playing and I found myself in a time warp, an emotional déjà vu.

 

I’m back there in the hospital on a Tuesday morning.

Two doctors appear at the doorway to his room. No white uniforms. An elderly man in a suit and a younger woman in an expensive dress.

Anya and I are asked to leave.

We find our way to the waiting room. It’s 10 am. There’s a TV on the wall and on the TV there’s a morning show from one of the commercial stations. It’s so hard to believe that anyone would want to waste their time watching this absolute trash. Yet there are, evidently, hundreds of thousands of people – or is it more? – out there in the great suburban wasteland, with nothing better to do than watch these young, glamorous people with witless babble and stereotype laughter.

What’s wrong with Australians?

How come they get sucked into this rubbish?

Is this an example of our so-called free society?

The freedom to be fed bullshit? To be brainwashed?

‘Coming after the break (i.e. after another burst of blitz advertising), a woman asks our astrologer about her son’s future!’

‘Her son’s future.’

You couldn’t invent a crueller, more grotesque irony if you tried.

 

Twenty minutes later my sister appears in the waiting room in tears.

‘The doctors have said there are no more treatment options left. The only thing left now is pain management.’

Walking down the sterile hospital corridor. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to go into that room. Can’t we put it off? I have to go.

 

‘Obviously I’m disappointed’ he says.

(Disappointed!?)

‘But now it’s come this far, I want to go. I don’t want to hang around any longer. I want to die in comfort, peace and dignity.’

Anya and my sister in tears.

Not me.

I’m staring at this man and wondering how it’s possible than anyone can be so courageous and so forthright confronted with the reality of death.

During the following days it’s the same: after every visit, I walk out the hospital feeling more inspired than sad.

He’s polite to the staff. Never a trace of anger or resentment. He’s dying as he lived. Not a mean bone in his body.

One thought echoes through my soul like a voice echoing in a cave: ‘I hope that when my time comes to die, I can be like him.´

Days pass. Every morning we visit him.

No sadness.

A storm of emotions, but sadness somehow missing. Anger at the death of a young man before he had the chance to have a life. Guilt at having reached the age I have. And the  recurring question:

Can I die with that sort of courage?

To go out graciously?

 

I looked down at the street below.

It was almost deserted.

The winter sun was hanging low on the horizon, casting a luminescent light over the buildings.

There weren’t people around and the ones that were there, seemed unreal, like silhouettes.

What were any of us besides silhouettes?

What would Life bring them, those stray souls walking the darkening streets on a Sunday afternoon? Happiness, sadness, confusion, doubt, good times and bad times and then, nothing, a great darkness.

There it was before me, the strange farce of living and dying. 

Despite all our progress, all our modern pretensions, nothing had changed since the time we had wandered the great wilderness areas of our planet in tribes; we were inevitably confronted by two resounding mysteries, birth and death, and no matter how we tried to explain those mysteries, to unravel the unexplainable, there we were, confronted by a fathomless abyss.

What had Nietzsche once said?

‘Those who stare into the abyss run the risk of having the abyss stare into them.’ 

The voices sang and the abyss stared right through me, like a cold wind.

Somehow I remained standing.

 

 

The song finished and I recovered.

I saw my sister standing over near the bar.

I went over there and putting on air, a necessary light- heartedness, I asked her: ‘Hey, what song was that?’

Her answer was automatic: ‘The Landslide, Dixie Chics’

 

‘Dixie Chics?’

I’d vaguely heard of this group. Three women. I’d read somewhere that they’d caused a controversy by publicly opposing the American invasion of Iraq during the presidency of George Bush.

How dare they.

 

Dixie Chics. The Landslide. I made a mental note of it. The number that had almost sent me over the edge.

As night descended, Anya and I left. We walked back to the apartment we’d been renting for the previous month. We followed a bike path. A full moon hung in the sky like a child’s balloon.

Back in the apartment I got on to You Tube. Normally I was looking for classical music and opera.

This time it was different.

 

Ah, there it was: The Landslide. Dixie Chics.

Everything came back in a flash; the swooning, the standing near the window, the memories of the recent past, the intense experience of the present. Watching people on the street.

Whilst listening to the music, I scrolled down the page and read the comments that people had made about the clip. Several people mentioned that the original version of the song by Stevie Nicks (who wrote it) was better.

I listening to Stevie Nicks version of The Landslide and it was true, it was better, slower and more sensitive.

Yet it wasn’t the version I kept on my bookmarks.

It was the Dixie Chics’ version which I had heard that afternoon and which was indelibly engraved on my consciousness. It was this version which inevitably brought with it a flood of images and memories.

And a sudden wave of sadness, intense sadness. 

 
‘Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Mmm

And I’m gettin’ older, too’

 

The Secret – Australia

Early in the morning of Friday August 25, my mother fell out of bed.

She was 88 years old and she was in frail health. She had lived in a high care nursing home for the last 8 years.

A member of the staff found her on the floor of her room (she had a necklace-beeper but true to form, refused to wear it) and called an ambulance. She was taken to the nearest hospital, where she was sedated and then x-rayed. The nursing home phoned my brother Dave. He was at work. He had a busy job as a senior accountant at British Aerospace. He was in a meeting and had his phone turned off. When he turned his phone on during a mid-morning coffee break, there were two missed calls.

He drove to the hospital, where a doctor told him that our mother had broken her hip. The doctor had quite a lot more to add:

‘The break is serious. A piece of her hip has entirely broken off. We can operate and pin her hip together. But this is a high-risk operation. Her heart is very weak, her kidneys are barely functioning, and she has a serious chest infection. If we go ahead with the operation, I would strongly advise you to call your siblings and ask them to visit her now. It might be the last time they see her. ‘

Was it an option not to operate? Dave asked.

Yes, it was an option. Then she would certainly die and it would be long and painful.

 

None of us – Dave, my sister Lyn or I – knew anything about our mother’s weak heart, failing kidneys or chest infection. Our mother was an obstinate woman. She had grown up during The Great Depression and the Second World War. She was a proud, stiff upper lip kind of person.

Dave was placed in a quandary. It was going to be a long day.

He phoned my sister Lyn, who was living in Melbourne and had a busy job managing a pet supply business. Her son was battling cancer. She had a lot on her mind.

Dave then tried to phone me. Anya and I were in Southern Queensland and, on that very day, out in the bush on a bike ride. We had a phone with us, but it was out of reach. Dave phoned a few times and then left a message. We didn’t get it until late that afternoon, when we arrived back at the caravan park where we were staying.

Dave and Lyn consented to the operation. It took place in the afternoon. My mother survived it and was then placed in recovery, where she drifted in and out of sleep. Dave was informed that he would be able to speak to her at around 7pm that night.

He went home. He needed a break. He had been sitting around in the hospital waiting-room all day and he was exhausted.

 

When Anya and I arrived back at our tent, the sun was nearing the horizon. We knew we had to move briskly. During the day it was in the low 20’s, but at nights, the temperature plummeted to a few degrees above zero. We took off our bike bags, locked the bikes, went to the amenities block, showered and then gathered up our pots and pans and bags and packets and head to the communal kitchen area. There were bench seats and tables, a fridge and microwave and hot plates. Whilst I was cooking a meal, Anya retrieved our phone and began checking it for incoming calls. She yelled out to me and irritated, I came over.

‘Your mother has had a fall and broken her hip and is in hospital.’

Ambush!

Anya took over the cooking and I phoned Dave and Lyn. Following that, I consumed my meal, barely conscious of what I ate. The arrangement was that when Dave went back to the hospital and spoke to our mother, he would phone me afterwards.

I waited. And waited. The cold moved in, relentless.

Anya and went to sit in our old car. It was warm there. The night sky was stunningly beautiful: a blaze of stars, some close, others far distant and forming fine gossamer clouds.

 

Dave drove back to the hospital at 7pm.

As he walked towards recovery, a doctor asked him to come into a separate room – where Dave was told that minutes before, our mother had died. Dave went to recovery, looked at our mother, held her hand, and cried.

Then he phoned me.

 

What a bizarre scene.

Sitting there in our old car on a cold clear night somewhere in a rural area of Southern Queensland, head spinning around and around: ‘my mum’s dead.’

No sleep that night. No sleep for many nights afterwards.

There was no grief involved. It was shock.

None of us had expected our mother to go out like this.

In the past, she had come close to dying on at least several occasions and she had invariably staged a dramatic recovery. Twice I had flown back from Europe to be next to her in what the doctors predicted were her last hours – and like the metaphorical Lazarus, she had defied the odds and bounced back.

She was a tough old bird. 

As Dave, Lyn and I often joked: ‘The old bugger will probably outlive us!’

Behind the joke, was a shared conviction that our mother would live for at least another five years.

But the old bugger confounded us all.

She died suddenly.

Puff! Gone!

 

On Friday night she died. Early on the Saturday morning, Anya and I packed up our tent and loaded our bikes on the rack and started the drive back to Adelaide. There were things to be done; mum’s belongings cleared out of her room, a funeral to be organised, probate begun etc. But most important of all: to be there with my brother and sister.

The drive to Adelaide was a long one, especially for us: 2000 kilometres.

We had departed Adelaide at the end of March and for 5 months had driven short distances – on an average, 2-3 hours – before stopping in a small town, setting up our tent, and spending at least a day or two, sometimes a week, doing long rides over unsealed back roads and tracks. In this incremental fashion, we had made our way to the south-east of South Australia, across the border into northern Victoria, up through the west of New South Wales and then into Southern Queensland.

Now we were confronted by something we had never done before: drive continuously, for hours on end, all day.

We organised it like this: each of us drove for a maximum of two hours before changing drivers. At each driver swap-over, we pulled over and got out and walked around for at least 15 minutes. There was a long stop for lunch.

We drove south, across the border into western N.S.W, before turning west and heading towards Broken Hill and from there south-west to the border of South Australia.

It was a trip the likes of which I had never been on before. We drove through desert, the heartland of a big, arid country. The horizon was like a line ruled across a page. Small hardy trees and stunted bushes basked under vast skies. Sometimes there were no trees, just a carpet of small leathery plants and stones. ‘The tyranny of distance’ was a familiar phrase, but we were confronted by the tyranny of space, a tyranny of Nothingness. Sometimes it was impressive, other times, monotonous. Sometimes I got the feeling we were on another planet. Driving across Saturn maybe.

During our stops, when we got out and walked around, a strong icy wind, blowing out of infinity, chilled us to the bone. The same country that during the long summer months was so hot it was like Hell on earth.

The road was a long straight shimmering line.

You had to watch that line. Keep your eyes peeled.

Road trains thundered past, mechanical monsters almost as high as they were long. Dead kangaroos lay strewn all over the line and you knew that if your concentration failed or you fell asleep, you would join them within the blink of an eye.

 

 

A day after arriving in Adelaide, Dave, Anya and I went to view my mother’s body.

Formal identification had to be made before it was released to the funeral director. We arrived at the entrance of a typical large and busy hospital to be met by a Chaplain. For a moment, I wondered why he was there. We were not religious and didn’t want a religious funeral. He was dressed in normal clothes; trousers, shirt and jumper. He could have been a cleaner except for the plastic ID card hanging around his neck. We stood around in the noisy hallway talking. We had to wait for the arrival of two police; they were required to officially register our identities and, that of my mother.

‘They’re always late’ the Chaplain said.

He was there apparently as a grief counsellor and not a representative of any particular faith. Evidently some people went to pieces when they viewed the body of a loved one.

He was a nice man, chatty, affable. We talked about grief. I explained to him that on my part, there was no grief. It was, rather, a sense of disorientation; of shock. Grief was something different. I remembered a man we had met on a caravan park in Victoria who had lost his teenage son in a motor bike accident; his stories about grief counselling, of being in and out of institutions; of days when he couldn’t get out of bed.

That was grief.

The police arrived; a young woman and a middle- aged man. I felt sorry for them having to do this job. Must have been boring. We walked upstairs, navigated our way passed nurses and doctors and orderlies, and entered a small, dark room, furnished with comfortable chairs, a lounge suite and lamps: bizarre in the context of a large hospital, where sterility, disinfectant and harsh light was the norm. At one end of the room was a closed door bearing the innocuous sounding sign ‘Viewing Room’. It seemed to take forever before the door was opened. We sat there in the lounge staring into space whilst the Chaplain chatted to the police.

I didn’t know how I would react on seeing my dead mother.

I had seen bodies many times in India.

But this was different.

This was my mother, a woman who had raised me and who had been an integral part of my life. Who I had loved, sometimes hated, often pitied; who had alternatively made me laugh, driven me to distraction, and on occasions, confided in me in a way she had never done with anyone else.

On seeing her lying there on a hospital stretcher, would I cry, lose my self -control, yell, faint, or rush out of the ‘viewing room’ in an emotional fluster?

It seemed unlikely. I never cried. But I wasn’t sure.

The fact was, the only reason I had accompanied Dave and Anya was because I thought I had to; they had told me that I didn’t have to come, but I was worried about looking weak. What kind of dumb macho was this? Why didn’t I stay back at Dave’s place? Lyn had refused to come along, why didn’t I follow her cue?

There he was Mr. Macho Man. Nervous as hell.

Shit! Open that bloody door and let’s get this over!

How long does it take to take a body out of a freezer?

 

The door opened. The three of us filed in.

A long sigh of relief went through me.

This wasn’t my mother. It was her body, but it wasn’t her. It looked like an Egyptian mummy with the cloth unwound. Or a corpse in India floating on a river.

This wasn’t my mother.

The face was like a macabre mask. The skull was covered in a thin, translucent layer of skin. The eyes were closed and sunk in their sockets. The mouth open and looked like a deep dark hole.

A week later, when she lay in a coffin in a chapel, she had been made up and was wearing clothes. Then she looked like a mannequin doll. But on this viewing, there was no pretension, no intervention by the make-believe industry.

My fears dissipated. I was free!

This wasn’t my mother.

The enigma of the life force had flown – where to?

Wars have been fought since time immemorial over the answer to that question. I didn’t have any answers and never would have.

 

We left the viewing room. Anya was crying (but she had been adamant that she wanted to take one last look at my mother). The Chaplain spoke comforting words to her. Dave stood with the police, filling in forms and testifying that the body in the adjoining room was our mother.

No it wasn’t!

That was my secret.

My mother had vanished into thin air. Flown away, like a night owl.

In the following days, a funeral director was consulted and preparations made for a ceremony.

I wrote the eulogy. That was my task: after all, older brother Pete was a ‘bit of a scribbler.’

 

See following blog: ‘Eulogy for My Mother’

https://serioustravelblog.com/2017/09/24/eulogy-for-my-mother/

 

Eulogy for My Mother

Continuing from the previous blog ‘The Secret’

https://serioustravelblog.com/2017/09/13/the-secret/

 

‘How do we wish to remember Dorothy May Jenkinson (nee Werfel) as we bid her our last farewell?

As a woman of frail health who against great odds lived to a ripe old age?

As a mother who loved her children yet often left them perplexed by her sometimes strange and unpredictable ways?

All of these – and yet something more.

When we look at the full context of her life, with all its tragedies and set-backs, we discover a woman who was in her own way, a feminist pioneer, a woman who fought hard to determine the architecture of her life at a time when she was expected to do the opposite.

Let us recall the life of this woman in that light.

This is how she would like to be remembered.

She was proud and strong willed. She needed to be.

Born in 1929 to a German father and Scottish mother, Dorothy was raised in a religious, working class family where discipline was rigidly enforced and the slightest infraction was punished. She was the younger of two daughters and hence, arrived as a disappointment for her parents who had hoped for a son. In this loveless, cold family life, she found one great compensation: the piano.

In an age when people made their own music, it was normal for children to receive lessons in playing a musical instrument. From an early age Dorothy displayed great talent. By her late teens, she was good enough to be accepted by the Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide.

She never got there. Her parents made it clear that they would not support her if she attended the Conservatorium. In their view, the purpose of a woman was to get married and have children. This was the dominant mentality of the times.

We should stop and reflect on this episode.

How different her life might have been if she had been able to develop her natural talent.
And how frustrating it must have been to be denied that chance because of her gender.

If a woman was to gain employment of any kind in those days, it was in an office. Dorothy completed a course in typing and short-hand and went to work in the Harbours Board where she met her first husband and the father of her three children, Laurie Curtis.

When she got married, she was forced to give up her job. The rule in those days was that a married woman could not work. Their place was at home. A woman like Dorothy, who could not accept this situation was considered unnatural.

In 1952, her husband, who was in the Air Force, was stationed on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. Dorothy remained in Adelaide to await the birth of her first son, Peter. Then she got on a ship with her baby and did the long voyage alone to join up with her husband. The three years she spent on Malta was a time of great happiness. She had a piano in her apartment and played the organ at the church services for the Australian and British contingents.

In 1956, her husband was relocated to Australia, by which time, Dorothy was pregnant with her second child, Lynette. During the following years, life was tough as the family was moved from one remote Air Force base to the other. There were none of the conveniences which we take for granted today. Dorothy spent her days alone with her two children in temporary accommodation.

Dorothy wanted more out of life. She was too intelligent and too talented to be content with the role of mother and housekeeper. She railed against the ethos of the times. She was prone to periods of depression, hardly surprising given her circumstances. But when she made up her mind about something, she was very strong willed. She would not be defeated.

With the birth of her third child, David, she was adamant that she wanted a permanent place of residence, where she could raise her family – and study accountancy. It was due to her pressure that Laurie quit the Air Force. A permanent legacy of resentment remained, which eventually led to Dorothy and Laurie being divorced.

In the early 1960’s, it was very unusual for a mother of three to be studying at university. Dorothy was one of three women in a class of over 100 men. She did something which no one questions today but was regarded as a scandal then: she studied and she had a family. She qualified with flying colours and went on to work for a prestigious Adelaide accounting firm.

But even her time of success had a shadow side. The best and only woman friend she ever had, died at an early age of cancer. Her marriage always troubled, became acrimonious. Trying to balance her tumultuous home life as a mother and her career as an independent woman proved to be emotionally exhausting. Besides a selfish and conceited husband, there was a rebellious teenage son and daughter. There was a generational conflict and new ideas of social progress were emerging. Among them, was feminism.

But Progress came too late for Dorothy.

In the wake of her divorce, her triumph in a male-dominated world came as a bitter-sweet one. She wanted peace, and she found it with her second husband, John Jenkinson. In John, she found an enduring friendship and a time of contentment.

She and John led an active life as retirees; they worked for charities – and also travelled to Europe, Asia and Africa.

In 1991 John died.

Dorothy never really recovered from this last blow.

She spent the next 26 years dealing with the great epidemic of our modern times, loneliness. Her health deteriorated. If the great battle of her earlier life was to assert herself as a woman, in later life, it was to deal with pain. It was a battle which she ultimately lost.

But even in the twilight years of her life, all of us experienced times when she was her old self: a lively woman, with opinions about world politics and a great sense of humour. A woman capable of wise insights and always ready for a joke.

Today in Australia, the right of women to realise their potential is something beyond dispute. Let us all be grateful for that. Let us also pause to remember those women who rebelled against a sexist, male dominated society – and too often, like Dorothy, paid a high price for it.

That’s how we should remember Dorothy: a woman who was raised to conform, denied her right to develop her talents, and refused to accept her position.

And if she often seemed to us as unpredictable, up one day, down the next, let us not forget the hard life she lived and the price she paid for her right to live as a woman.

The last person she saw before she died was her son David. That is more than fitting because no one did more for Dorothy than he did. ‘

 

 

 

Twins – Part 1

 

We were on the last leg of a hitch-hiking journey to the north of South Australia.

In the distance, on our left, were the gaunt outlines of the Flinders Ranges, a series of cliffs and ridges once, long ago, higher than the Himalaya, but today, left behind by Time as a series of tired looking ridges and cliffs.

Time hung heavy on the land here and you didn’t need to be told that this was the oldest continent in the world; you could feel it.

Tired, worn down, worn-out.

 

During most of the day, when the harsh desert sun was at its strongest, the ranges looked monotonous and dull.

And that’s how they looked to us as we walked down the road, thumbs out.

No one had stopped to give us a lift, and we were just walking, walking.

On our right was a great emptiness: wide, flat plains. One of the most barren, dry, places in the world. Mind you, it had plenty of competition in that department; on the other side of the Flinders Ranges, extending a thousand kilometres west, was desert; and a hundred kilometres north, where the Flinders petered out, was what was colloquially known as the GAF: the Great Australian Fuck-All.

The Flinders Ranges, tired and worn down and worn out, was in fact a vein of cliffs and ridges and valleys, running deep into the most arid, barren area of land in the world. Hard to imagine but it was true: the Flinders Ranges was like an Ark for animal and bird life and once, for the aborigines, the world’s oldest people.

Sometimes, magic stalked this land. In the mornings and evenings, those tired looking ranges burst into a spectrum of colours, all the colours of the rainbow. It was hard to believe; it was as miraculous as the animal which lived in those ranges and had learnt to dress itself up in a coat of many colours – like the biblical Jacob – to merge into its environment: to survive and to thrive. This animal was the reason why we were hitch-hiking north.

The aborigines called the wondrous animal of many colours ‘andu’.

The white man called it ‘the yellow footed rock wallaby’.

 

There was a steady run of traffic, well, by the standards of the far north.

Mostly Japanese and Korean SUV’s (poor fellow my country: we dig up the iron and the coal and the aluminium, export it to Asia. They do the brain work and send it back to us as flat screen TVs, fridges….lots of stuff…and SUV’s).

None of them stopped for us; couldn’t blame them really. We had rucksacks, big ones. That would be enough to put off a lot of people. Hitch hiking was out of fashion anyway. People were scared of being murdered by a psychopath.

So we kept walking.

We did some calculations: if everything came to the worst, we’d reach Wilpena Pound by nightfall. Wilpena Pound was a vast natural amphitheatre. It was a part of the Flinders Ranges and a popular tourist destination. There was a large caravan park and a hotel just outside the Pound.

We’d get there. Perhaps not the nicest walk in the world but still, we’d make it.

 

Then a vehicle pulled over.

A new Range Rover. There was a couple in front, a man behind the steering wheel and a woman next to him.

‘Middle-aged couple on holiday’ I thought to myself.

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.

Girls and boys separate eh?

Not that I was going to complain. By this time we’d given up all hope of getting a lift.

Inside, introductions got underway.

Ella and Sven; they were Danish.

Ella: shoulder length blond hair, blue eyes, a round, friendly looking face; in good shape and attractive for her age – easy to see that when she was younger, she was a ‘looker’.

Sven: 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.

We got going and Sven leaned over the pushed a button and then it came, miraculous, a gift from heaven: Mozart’s symphony 31 (The Haffner) softly playing on the obviously very expensive sound system.

Wow!

I could hear the sounds of every instrument in the orchestra and yet the volume was quite low.

 

The four of us chatted for a while.

Ella did most of the talking.

She asked us where we were headed.

It was my job to do the explaining. This was a sort of de facto agreement Anya and I had made before we left Adelaide: it was my job to do the talking when people asked us where we were going and why or, in other words, to tell them about the yellow footed rock wallaby.

My job was not an easy one.

‘We’re heading to Angorichina and when we get there, then we’ll start walking ….with rugsacks and tent, following an established bush walking trail through the Flinders Ranges called the Heysen Trail…’

Then came the hard part.

Often in the past, when we’d had lifts I’d left this bit out. People didn’t want to be bored with some long spiel and it wasn’t easy to keep it short anyway. Yet somehow, I got the feeling that these people, being foreigners, might have wanted to hear about it. Maybe my own prejudices were involved too: an innate feeling of solidarity with people who listened to Mozart.

I took the risk.

‘There’s more involved actually than just walking. We’re hoping to see Australia’s most beautiful marsupial on the way…it’s called the ‘yellow footed rock wallaby’, though it’s often known colloquially ‘the yellow foot.’

Show me a word the Aussies hadn’t shortened.

‘Yellow foot…’

Ella put the emphasis on ‘foot’; it amused me. In flat nasal Aussie it was one word: ‘yellowfoot’

Next step: I told them something about the yellow foot.

The problem was keeping it short.

“In the Australia before the white British appeared there was a menagerie of weird and wonderful animals. The oldest continent in the world was also its most isolated’ (shall I tell them that the oldest rock in the world was discovered in Murchison Western Australia and it was 4.3 billion years old?’ No, don’t!)

‘Flora and fauna developed in unique ways and had aeons of time to do it in. You know all about the kangaroo no doubt. Well, let me tell you this: 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. Weird and wonderful creatures! I wish I’d been there to see them. Today, in the case of most of these amazing creatures, they’re either extinct or endangered. With the arrival of the white Europeans, a merciless devastation was unleashed upon the aborigines – and with them, the native flora and fauna. The aborigines’ way of life was intricately related to the environment. Both were destroyed by the white people and their modern system of agriculture – er yes, along with the racism and the mindless campaigns of murder….’

(Don’t ride that hobby-horse mate, keep it short!)

‘The yellow foot was wiped out but oddly, managed to survive in the Adelaide Zoo. If it hadn’t been for the Adelaide Zoo, the yellow foot would have joined the ranks of all those other beautiful, amazing creatures which no longer exist.’

I was warming to my tale when Ella interjected with:

‘What does this yellow foot look like?’

Momentarily I lost my train of thought.

It was a perfectly logical question.

What could she, a visitor to the country, possibly know about the yellow footed rock wallaby?

‘A rock wallaby is like a kangaroo only smaller and with stronger, thicker forepaws for grabbing on to cliff faces. The yellow foot is blue-grey and its hind legs and fore paws are orange-yellow. Its chest is white and there is a white stripe along its body and 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 said: ‘I like to see this yellow foot. Sound…very beautiful.’

Yep, hit the nail on the head Ella.

The most beautiful of all the Australian marsupials and one of the most beautiful animals in the world (though I admit I’m prejudiced here).

 

‘The home of the yellow foot was the Flinders Ranges. It lived in the cliff faces, inside the deep crevices and caves of its rocky habitat. This provided it with protection from the heat, which in summers can reach 50 degrees Celsius. In an area of the world where rain only falls sporadically and then often in the form of infrequent and localised thunderstorms, the yellow foot was able to dart out of its hole quickly and drink up a large amount of water in a very short space of time. It had the remarkable ability to drink up to about 11% of its body weight (and the yellow foot was one of the largest of the rock wallaby family) in seven minutes. In times of drought, it could drink saline water from creek beds with a salinity level approaching that of sea water. The reproductive cycle of the animal was adapted to meet the fierce demands of it environment. Whilst other members of the kangaroo and wallaby species carried their joeys with them at all times, the yellow foot could leave her joey in a safe spot amongst the rocks whilst she went off to feed or drink water on her own. Back with her joey, the mother was then able to feed it by direct mouth to mouth transfer – something which is not seen in any other marsupial. When there was enough food and water, the species could breed all year long. When drought came, the female yellow foot would abandon her joey. If she became pregnant during a drought, the embryo would be ‘stalled’ in her system and would not start developing until the drought had passed.

There was no better example of the yellow foot’s perfect adaptation to its environment than its unique colouring. Only someone who has spent time in the outback regions of Australia realises that the very hills and ridges which during the day, in the pitiless, harsh light of the blasting sun, seem so monotonous, so devoid of subtle colourings, undergo a miraculous transformation at dawn and evening. At those two times of the day – when the yellow foot emerged from its cave to feed – the rocks and cliffs take on a pallet of hues which make them seem surrealistic, something conjured up from a dream.’

Ella: ‘I like that…a dream…’

 

‘Before the white British appeared, there were tens of thousands of yellow foots along the entire length of the Flinders Ranges and even down south in the Mt Lofty Ranges behind today’s Adelaide – some 400 kilometres.

By the turn of the century they were almost extinct.

In the last decade, the species has been reintroduced. It is not certain that they will survive in the long term. One problem is breeding an entire stock of animals from a limited gene pool (i.e., the Adelaide Zoo). The other is the feral animals in the bush especially the rabbits, which eat the yellow foots’ food and the foxes, which attack and eat the yellow foots (especially because thanks to the rabbits, the yellow foots have got to go further to find grasses and small plants). Widespread baiting programs have been introduced to cull fox numbers. Diseases have been introduced into the rabbit populations to thin them out too.’

 

I got the facts down as clearly and simply as I could. I did alright for myself. My captive audience was captivated.

Then came the most difficult part of my spiel: the ideals, the politics.

‘Reintroducing the yellow foot into its original natural habitat’ I explained was ‘symbolic for our attempt as a nation to redefine who we are. It is symbolic of our attempt to defeat the demons from our past; the sexism, the racism, the narrow-mindedness, the xenophobia, the smallness of spirit…’

Yeah, alright mate, take it easy here, don’t rave.

‘So as you can understand now, there are plenty of reasons why we want to see this animal in its natural environment. It isn’t just because it is alluringly beautiful, it’s also a symbol, a symbol of who we are and we need to be… ‘

In another reincarnation, I’m going to be a priest or a politician!

 

As we drove down a long straight stretch of road, big blue sky above us, two different conversations got under way; the women in the back and the men in the front.

The conversation in the back proceeded at a consistent tempo, without any perceptible pauses or stops; Anya and Ella seemed to hit it off. It was amusing to hear two women, one Dutch and the other Danish, speaking English with their accents.

The conversation in the front was a different matter.

The ‘boys’ were slow to break the ice as boys often are given their lack of social skills.

Sven’s English was quite good but he wasn’t a talker leastways not at the outset. When he spoke, each word was pronounced separately, slowly.

I learnt that he and Ella were planning on staying that night in the town of Leigh Creek and were driving there via Blinman; that was good news for us because ‘Angorichina’ lay between Blinman and Leigh Creek.

At one point, I commented on how wonderful the music was. Sven pointed at the glove box and said:

‘You has a look in there…. maybe you find something you will like’

So I ‘has a look in there’.

And amongst the CD’s, I found operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini; the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven; Mozart’s string quartets and Haydn’s last ten symphonies.

Listening to my exclamations of delight, Sven said:

‘You come with us to Simpson Desert …. then you can hear all.’

‘The Simpson Desert?’

 

Following blog: Twins, Part 2

https://serioustravelblog.com/2017/07/13/twins-part-2/

Twins – Part 2

 

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.

Enough said.

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.

 

Camels!

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.’

‘Pure?

Pure feral?’

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.

Camels!

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:

‘They’re twins.’

What?

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? ‘