Hard Land

 

 

On the shores of Lake Albert, where we pitched our little dome tent, water birds were in abundance– pelicans, water-hens, ibis, and black swans.  Lake Albert was big. Standing on the shore and looking out, it seemed like an inland sea rather than a lake. The flat watery horizon was endless.

It wasn’t always like this. 

When drought came, as it always did in this country, Lake Albert, so vast, turned into something more like a pond.

Those luxuriant waters vanished.

It was a land of extremes.

A hard land. 

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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 Hill – Australia

 

After 2 days of riding across an interminable flatness, The Hill loomed up on the horizon like a mountain.

A mountain?

It was a pile of large weathered boulders 180 meters high – hardly qualifying it as a hill, let alone a mountain.

Yet seen from 20 kilometres away, The Hill loomed large, far larger than it was.

Our eyes, adjusted to immense spaces devoid of the slightest rise, the slightest dip, caught sight of a pile of rocks, a blip on the yawning emptiness, and magnified it out of all proportion.

 

I can imagine that in 1836 the British General Surveyor, Major Mitchell, fell prey to a similar mirage. Mitchell, leading an expedition of discovery, must have moved far slower than Anya and I on our bikes, enduring the flatness for weeks, if not months. He must have had times when he feared that he would never see anything else again but for that dead level horizon; like a line ruled across a page.

There’s Mitchell, longing for the sweet green hills and woods of England.

Then one day, peering through his telescope, he sees it: A hill!

He is struck by its shape. The first thing that comes to mind….is a pyramid.

He named The Hill ‘Pyramid Hill’ – as if it didn’t already have a name.

 

For his mind, conjuring up the comparison of a pyramid, came naturally.

In the 19th century, few places in the world caught the imagination of the English like Egypt. Whilst their archaeologists were uncovering the lost glories of the Pharaohs from beneath the embalming sands and unravelling the mysteries of an extraordinary civilisation, there was also a thriving industry in exporting artefacts, statues and mummies to England. Mummies were ground to a powder and sold by apothecaries as a medicinal cure-all. Countless books – both scientific and fictional – were written about ancient Egypt.

When Mitchell saw that distant goose bump on the strange and intimidating Australian horizon, he saw – a pyramid: a form, an image, which came naturally to a 19th century Englishman.

 

How did the aborigines see that hill?

They, who had lived in Australia for 50,000 years?

Virtually nothing is known about the tribe who inhabited this area because they vanished so quickly after Mitchell appeared on the scene – and white settlers followed in his wake, unleashing a pitiless destruction on the native inhabitants.

There are certain things however which we can assume.

The aborigines intense knowing of the landscape was based on song-poems.

These song-poems gave meaning to the landscape and its plants, insects, animals and geographic features. They believed that by singing their poems, they created the land anew. For them, there was no such thing as the monotony of a big flat land; they knew every tiny feature, invisible to the white European eyes.

They spiritualised the physical world. They saw themselves following in the footsteps of the spirit gods in their Dreamtime. There can be little doubt that a striking landmark like The Hill would have occupied a special place in the mythology of the original inhabitants of that area. Probably, it was the site for corroborees; for thousands of years, painted bodies danced under star-studded skies to the accompaniment of the didgeridoo and chanting sticks, whilst the elders recited the song poems of their people.

 

The closer we got to The Hill, the further away it seemed.

Our view of that pile of weathered rocks was increasingly obscured by farm houses, sheds, and trees and then, a town: a pub, a small supermarket, a café, an old town hall and behind this, a grid of wide streets lined with houses and trees. The town was 2 kilometres from Pyramid Hill and somewhat unimaginatively, went by the name ‘Pyramid Hill’.

We were given to understand that the locals referred to the Pyramid Hill as simply: ‘The Hill’.

There was a caravan park half way between the town and The Hill. We rode out there over a busy road and put our tent down. But even from the caravan park, we couldn’t see The Hill.

 

In the afternoon, we went on a short ride over some unsealed back roads. It was a meandering sort of trip, with no purpose other than to find quiet places. Once again, we noticed it: when we were far away from the town, we could clearly see the The Hill etched on to the horizon.

Late in the afternoon, following a dirt track, we came to the local cemetery.

We parked our bikes under a tree and wandered around, reading the epitaphs on the grave stones.

After a while, something struck me: at regular intervals, there were stones recording the deaths of family members in chronological order – with those of sons killed in France during the First World War being the first listed. The times being what they were, where there were no aeroplanes, the bodies of those sons could not have been brought back to Australia. They were buried somewhere in northern France. Memories came back to me of bike trips we had done in Belgium and France and seeing entire hills and plains covered in small white crosses; British, Germans – and Australians.

Hundreds of thousands of crosses. 

 

 

That evening, lying in our tent, I thought about our visit to that local cemetery.

The names of those sons on the gravestones – whose remains were buried somewhere in France – were testimony to the grief which their mothers and fathers had endured for years until they too, had joined their sons on the other side of the River Styx. It was a grief no doubt made so much worse by the simple fact that they never got the chance to bury their sons in home soil.

The grief: it was something you could see in almost every country town in Australia, in the form of statues, monuments and plaques: the grief left in the wake of the so-called Great War, when so many Australian sons – a disproportionate number of them from country towns – had paid ‘the ultimate price’.

I got to wondering:

Why would young men from a remote, end-of-the-world town like Pyramid Hill want to go and fight in a war at the other end of the world?

It seemed bizarre.

All over Australia, there were other Pyramid Hills, thousands of them, desperately small, remote places, where the same thing had happened: a lemming-like rush by young men into the trenches of France and Flanders. Into a horrific ordeal which has been endlessly documented and been the subject of innumerable novels (most notably, those of British writer Pat Barker).

A point came in my thinking when I realised that my question was the wrong one to ask.

None of the men who left Pyramid Hill ever imagined that they would end up in the murderous hell of trench warfare. If that had been the case, there would have been no mass enthusiasm – bordering on delirium – to join the army.

It was when I tried to put myself in the place of a young man growing up in a tiny, remote town a century ago, that another perspective emerged.

Until comparatively recently, most people lived their lives within a very small place. Country towns like Pyramid Hill were extremely remote in a way which is hardly imaginable today. In the period 1914 -1918, there were 200 people living in the area. There were no roads then worth the name. There were few cars. The only means of transport were horse-drawn drays and carriages and, a good way out of town, a railway line. There were no mass communications. Few people had a radio. Newspapers were the only means of getting any information about the outside world. Life was dreary and monotonous. It revolved around physically hard work, day in, day out. There was no mechanisation, no tractors or harvesters. The big events were the football on Saturdays and church on Sundays.

The only escape from the boredom was drink.

Then suddenly came the prospect of adventure, of travel – this in an age when only the rich and the privileged could ever dream of travelling.

Ideals?

Defending the Mother Country from The Hun?

Nice rhetoric, but no more than that. Few people knew where Germany, France or Belgium – let alone Flanders – were. Their idea of Europe was Britain, ‘The Mother Country’.

For young men in small towns like Pyramid Hill (bursting with testosterone and living in a prudish society where casual sex was impossible), the outbreak of war was a once in a lifetime chance to escape the narrow confines of the farm and small-town life. It was exciting, an adventure; an adventure to travel by train with hundreds of other young men to the big city (for many of them, it was the first time they had seen a big city); they were provided with a uniform and were paid far more than they had ever earned on the farm; they met other young men from other towns, from all over the country, they made new friends, they saw the city with its sophistication and its busy streets; and then the truly incredible: seeing a harbour crammed full of ships and cranes and docks and boarding a real live ship and going on a long voyage over the wide, wide ocean to the other side of the world. Few of them had even seen a ship, let alone sail on one for two months.

The sights on the way!

The stops in Indonesia, India, the Middle East…unheard of! Incredible!

And at the end of it, the grand event, the crowning adventure: war. The propaganda industry had assured them that The Hun would soon be beaten, confronted by the full might and the stupendous glory of the British Empire.

Get there whilst you can!

See some action before The Hun is pushed back to Berlin and the war is finished!

You’d be mad to miss this opportunity of a lifetime!

 

Cold wet rain, booming guns, trenches flooded with water and rotting bodies. Years of it. A meat grinder.

Your best mates dying in front of your eyes.

In one action in 1916 at Fromelles, which anyone could have seen was going to be a disaster, incompetent British generals sent the Australians over the trench parapets – and within hours, 5000 died before firing a shot.

Four years of this.

 

 

On the following day, we rode out to The Hill.

It was a curious sojourn in search of something we knew was there from having seen it from a distance but lost sight of every time we had drawn closer to it: the stark image of a pyramid shaped hill, an ancient beacon in an ancient land.

Travelling in Australia, especially by foot or on a bike – one finds places where the presence of Australia’s original inhabitants can be experienced, almost as if white settlement had never occurred. A creek at the bottom of a gorge lined with gum trees, a natural marsh land reverberating to the sounds of frogs and birds, a gathering of large boulders protruding above the bush, a night sky far distant from the cities and ablaze with stars. In such places, one can, in precious, fleeting moments, can picture them, can slough off the present and travel back into the past, can undo the horror of the white man genocide; in these places, one can imagine them singing the ancient land into existence.

These are our modern-day version of sacred places.

 

I guess I was pretty damn naïve in thinking that out at The Hill, we might experience such a place, might experience that special feeling.

The Hill close-up was a let-down.

Better by far to see it from a distance.

On one side of The Hill was a busy road where SUV’s roared passed, and on the other, was an 18-hole golf course which subsumed the base of The Hill. Yes, of course, silly of me not to have realised how good it was to tee-off with The Hill as a backdrop.

There was something about the fate which had befallen The Hill which symbolised a deeper malaise. Much had changed and for the better. But our attitude to the land hadn’t changed: it was there to be used and exploited. Mined, farmed, sold, developed.

Blitz advertising and rampant consumerism ruled the roost.

 

All sorts of strange thoughts went through my mind standing there on top of The Hill.

How many times, in the middle of that inferno on the other side of the world, did those men, whose names are engraved on stone slabs in the cemetery, see The Hill – see it like they’d never seen it before: a temple resplendent on the crest of a mountain – and yearn to be back there?

They were probably the only white Australians who had ever be able to see The Hill, really see it.

For tens of thousands of years, the aborigines had sung The Hill into existence with their song-poems. After their passing, The Hill had been endlessly profaned.

And where were the epitaphs for the horror of their fate? Where were the monuments, the statues, the plaques?

Nothing.

Only a yawning emptiness.

Yes, standing on top of The Hill, you could feel it: the emptiness.

An emptiness to rival the large, uninhabited spaces of the big flat land.

The fate of The Hill was also the fate of our huge island continent.

If only we could learn to hold it sacred. Leastways, hold something sacred.

If only we could sing this country back into existence.

 

The One Horse Town – Part 1

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Late one afternoon in the winter of 2006, Anya and I arrived in a small town called Marrabel.

 We were hitch hiking north. 

North!

 In South Australia, north could mean many things.

 Marrabel was in what was known as the ‘mid north’.  

 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. Everything was relative. Mid-north was a good country. Another 100 kilometers further north where the Flinders Ranges began it was a different matter. And 200 kilometers further north, where the Flinders Ranges petered out, well, that was something else again.

See the thing is: you could go further north than ‘far north.’ Believe me, there was still plenty of north beyond the Flinders Ranges: far too much north.

 North of far north: it was something to be feared.

 There was the biggest salt lake in the world followed by what was known in colloquial terms as the ‘GAF’ – the ‘Great Australian Fuck-All.’ Seen properly, the GAF included most of Australia really.  It was only the margins along its enormous and splendid coastline which were habitable. No wonder the Aussies had such an ironic, irreverent sense of humor.

 There’d never been a frontier to open up, an American West.

There’d only been a north, a north of north and dead center: a graveyard for Man’s capacity for dreaming big dreams, for harboring grand ideals.

 North, real north: there’s nothing out there mate.

 

  Marrabel: it was a typical Australian country town.  

 Most of the people who ‘lived’ in Marrabel didn’t live there, but rather, somewhere out of Marrabel, 10, 20, kilometers away. Only 50 people lived in Marrabel itself, so to say: near the pub.

 The pub was on a T junction. Opposite the pub was an electricity sub-station, a mass of wires and terminals behind a high metal bar fence. Surrounding this small outpost of human existence was open country: immense fields waiting to be sown and cropped.

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.

 

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 – and heavy rucksacks – in preparation for a long walk in the Flinders Ranges. We’d camped out the last few nights 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 and watch TV (Anya wanted to watch the Australian Rules Football).

 But the Marrabel pub didn’t have any rooms. We were disappointed to say the least of it.  

 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 on bucking horses and yelling ‘yippee! Rodeos went with other images: six-shooters, branding irons, John Wayne and Roy Rogers.  

 A rodeo was an American invention and I assumed, something recently introduced into Australia, like grid-iron and basketball. When I expressed this opinion, Wendy’s reaction was immediate and impassioned:  

 ‘Marrabel’s had a rodeo for 70 years!

 I hit a sensitive spot.

 ‘Marrabel’s rodeo is a part of our history!’ 

 Those last words were delivered with great emphasis.  

 I was intrigued: a town with no shops, no petrol station, whose official population was 50 – and it had a history?

   

Yes, indeed it had.  

History: 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’

 

 Before walking down to the rodeo ground, we went out and to take a look at it.

  Incredible: during our walk along the ‘main street’ to the pub, we hadn’t even seen the statue. But there it was, on the opposite corner of the T junction to the electricity sub station: a big brass statue of a bucking horse with a man precariously perched on its back shining brightly in the sun. Behind it, the long silvery threads of the high-tension wires.   

 At the base of the statue, there was an information plaque. I read: that the statue weighed 2 tons and was dedicated to the memory of a remarkable horse named ‘Curio’.

Curio was a mare raised near Marrabel. For 8 years – from 1945 to 1953 – no one could ride her. Curio had a very unusual bucking action I read, which no one could master. She became a national sensation on the rodeo circuit. Australia’s top rough riders turned up in Marrabel every October and competed to be the first man to ride Curio. This required staying on Curio for 10 seconds. Most riders were unceremoniously bucked after 3 seconds. Then in 1953, history was made when a man named Alan Woods managed to stay on Curio for the whole 10 seconds.  

 Yeah, Marrabel had a history alright. Thanks to Curio, Marrabel was put on the national rodeo map – a kind of map which I never knew existed until we stopped in Marrabel.

 An added gem of information: ‘Curio had five foals including Curiosity, Curio’s Farewell and Curio Special, all of whom became successful buckjumpers’.

 ‘Successful buck jumpers.’

 History.

We left the statue and walked down the road to the rodeo ground. Like the rest of the place, it was full of surprises.

 

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You might also like to read ‘Cold Turkey’:

https://serioustravelblog.com/2015/01/18/cold-turkey/

and

”Strays’

https://serioustravelblog.com/2015/07/09/strays/

The One Horse Town – Part 2

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Marrabel’s rodeo ground was about 200 meters down the road, behind a line of big old pine trees.

It was an eerie place.

In American horror movies from the late 1950’s, very early ‘60’s (I saw most of them as a kid), a familiar scene is a lone person wandering around a deserted fair ground. A wind is blowing, whistling down empty alleyways lined with abandoned burlesque attractions. Especially in black and white, this scene had a potent ability to create feelings of loneliness and strangeness.

And this is what I felt after we opened the gate and entered Marrabel’s rodeo ground.

There was a vast stretch of grass, covered with a liberal sprinkling of sheep droppings, and a grandstand.

Whilst Anya put her rucksack down and took a rest, I wandered around on a reconnaissance trip.

In front of the grandstand there was a ring surrounded by a wire chain-link fence. I ventured up into the grandstand. The ‘seating’ consisted of long cement ledges, one after the other, like steps. There were no proper seats as such. Sheep had wandered up into the grandstand and there were droppings everywhere. Swallows darted in and around the roof.

I descended from the grandstand and walked past the ring.

On the other side of the ring I found a large gathering of small galvanized iron sheds which served as stalls during the rodeo. The wind rattled the iron. In one of the sheds there was a loose door which banged loudly in the wind. At the front of each of the sheds was a long wooden counter. One shed had a sign above it: ‘Hot Chips’ and another ‘Barbecue Special’ and another ‘Beer’. Two of the sheds, without counters, were stacked up to the ceiling with empty 44 gallon drums. In another, there were four old ceramic bath tubs with cast iron feet.

Bath tubs?

I found the shed with the banging door and closed it.

Anya and I had just got the tent up – with the contents of our rucksacks spread all over the grass, a pastiche of bright- colored plastic bags – when a four-wheel drive appeared and pulled up next to us.

Out stepped a chubby, middle- aged man wearing overalls and a beanie. From under the beanie, long strands of hair spread over his shoulders in waves of grey.

‘G’day, I’m Worley, Bob Worley just call me Bob.’

He was on his way through Marrabel he explained when he got a call from Wendy asking him to stop at the rodeo ground and show us where the shower was. He lived 20 kilometers out of Marrabel (that was considered close). He was a kind of odd jobs man who amongst other things, was sometimes called upon to remove possums and snakes. The possums he let loose, but the snakes were a different matter:

‘Sell ‘em on to a venom lab. Milking snakes for their venom is big business these days’ he said, ‘big business!’

Images of a nouveau-riche of venom entrepreneurs.

We started talking about kangaroos, don’t ask me how. Like a lot of country people, this bloke could talk.

‘Gotta a pet kanga’, named him Mark.’

‘Mark the kangaroo?’

‘Named him after Mark Ricciouto, the captain of the Crows.’

The Crows were a popular football team in Adelaide.

Anya told him that we had seen an albino wallaby out at Irene and Ted’s. Irene and Ted had picked us up earlier in the day and taken us back to their place where we had had lunch and chatted. Irene was Polish; she had worked as a slave laborer in a Nazi aircraft factory during the war.

He knew Irena and Ted and had seen the albino wallaby.

‘There’s a big market for ‘em, albies (‘alby’ I take it is short for ‘albino’), the Japs love ‘em. I reckon if Irene and Ted wanted to they could make ‘emselves a bloody fortune breeding up them albies and exportin’ ‘em..’

Image of albino wallaby millionaires.

 

We got on to Marrabel and its rodeo.

‘I was 9 when I saw Curio for the first time’ he said rather dramatically, as if he’d witnessed a major historic event, ‘she was a legend ’

A legend as it turned out in more ways than one.

He recounted a memorable event involving the famous Curio: after throwing off its rider within a couple of seconds, Curio bolted out of the ring and ran amok:

‘There was no fence around the ring in those days’ he chuckled, ‘there were hundreds of people standing around the ring and Curio scattered ‘em like nine pins. People runnin’ in every direction….

Then she ran up into the grandstand! Bloody chaos! A couple of people got kicked. I was sitting near the front row and I thought me number was up!’

But the best bit was what happened after Curio bolted out of the grandstand. Worley loved this bit:

‘Curio ran up to me dad’s brand new Ford Falcon and booted the doors in. It was only three weeks old!

He laughed to himself.

After a short silence, Anya asked: ‘Did your dad have car insurance?’

That was a very Anya question.

He didn’t know about the insurance he said. What he did know was this:

‘There’d been a hullaballoo in those days about putting in a wire fence around the ring. Dad was all against it. ‘What’s the world comin’ to when ya’ gotta put a bloody fence around a rodeo ring? He said, ‘People wanna see the action not be molly-coddled with a fence….after he got his new Ford kicked in, Dad was all in favour of the fence’.

Bob took us over to the grandstand to show us where we could get a shower.

At the side of the grandstand near the rear end, there was door leading into a woman’s toilet (there was no men’s toilet on the opposite side of the grandstand). Worley had the key to it. He opened the door and flicked a switch. There was a long room with a row of toilet cubicles, two basins and a mirror and, incongruously, a row of old, attached wooden theatre seats.

There was another doorway. Worley opened it and flicked another switch. But the light was much weaker. We entered a room, like a cell, cast in a funereal gloom. There were stacks of toilet paper and hand paper rolls and a pile of signs on which words were painted in black: please pay at the counter, please cue, please use the litter bins etc. There were bottles of disinfectant, some brooms and a mop.

At the end of the room was a small dark cubicle with a pipe extending from a wall and beneath a wooden slat board. This was the shower.

There was no hot water.

Worley left and we took turns to shower.

With the cold nights, when the temperatures had fallen under zero, the water was like liquid ice.

But we badly needed a wash – including our hair.

Washing one’s hair in that ice water was no small undertaking; wet your hair, stand back, lather it, and rinse it out in instalments, standing aside from the water when the pain in your head got so bad you felt like you were going to faint. When the pain passes, you ventured back into the water and tried to do as much of the job as possible before having to take another rest.

What would we have given for a warm shower!

Yet afterwards, dry and clothed – thermal underwear, shirt, long pants, two pairs of socks, boots, two jumpers and a coat – and down at the pub sitting next to the open fire and drinking red wine, we felt fantastic; it was a real hit to be clean again.

 

In the evenings, the Marrabel pub got quite a few people, mostly workers, tradesmen, technicians and farmers, who drove in from the surrounding country, sometimes from 30 or 40 kilometres away.

When she brought our meal and wine, we chatted for a while with Wendy. She and her husband (his name was Robbie) were originally from the city.

‘The kids have grown up and gone their own ways. We took up the lease on the pub in Marrabel for a challenge. Its hard work running a pub, you’re always busy. What makes it all worthwhile are the evenings when all sorts of people turn up and we talk….

When we took over the pub, it was a run-down hole for pokie-addicts. The first thing we did was to get rid of the gaming machines. We wanted to meet the locals, not get them addicted to gambling. This place is for eating and drinking and talking. I won’t tolerate mobile phones either. You wanna talk on your mobile you do that outside same as with smoking…We’re going to buy the pub from the owner and build self- contained units at the back and rent them out to holiday makers passing through…’

Wendy and Robbie had their ideas about how to run a pub and what kind of pub they wanted. This was unusual. But it was successful. Their pub was for socializing. It was built around the idea of people talking to real people. It was already becoming a rare thing in those days. Today it’s infinitely worse. Few of us converse any more with real human beings of flesh and blood. All of our social contacts are via one or another form of electronic media. Speaking for myself I think an awful lot has been lost in the transition. On this night in 2006 in Marrabel I was struck by the convivial atmosphere. I’d been in enough Aussie pubs to know that I was witnessing something unique.

As the evening advanced, more and more people turned up many of them driving in from far away.

That night we heard about the animal rights activists and how Marrabel, that small town in the mid north of South Australia, had been in the news all over Australia.

This time Curio wasn’t involved.

During the last decade or so, an increasing number of animal rights activists had been turning up at Marrabel’s rodeo and staging protests – and doing a lot of filming which they later used to as evidence to have various charges brought against the rodeo organizers.

The animal rights activists were against rodeos and wanted the state government to ban them. The media had got on the trail. The politicians had got involved. Suddenly Marrabel was in the news. There was an incident when one of the animal rights activists had sat on the railing of a pen where the horses were stalled. One of the organizers had told her to get off and when she refused, he grabbed her and threw her into a drinking trough (ah, the bathtubs!) in order to ‘cool her off’. She had him charged with assault. The court had fined him six hundred dollars. The incident had made the news and been on TV talkback programs. One country state MP had created a furor when he had said that if he’d been there, he would have thrown the animal rights activist into the water trough too.

Meanwhile, the animal rights activists brought a charge against the chief organizer of the rodeo, a local farmer. He was charged with keeping a bull and a horse in the same pen, which was against the regulations for rodeos. He was fined a thousand dollars. He then quit the rodeo – it was a voluntary job – and since then, it had understandably been hard to find someone to replace him. Once, that job had been a great honor. Now, thanks to all the politics and media involved, no one wanted it. There was huge resentment amongst the country people against the animal rights activists. As one old lady I spoke to said:

‘Is a rodeo crueller than a horse race? Or a dog race? Of course not! The country’s got so little going for it. Why take this one day of the year away from Marrabel? How are we going to finance the footy and netball teams? Who do these city fanatics think they are to come and moralize to us?’

It seemed to me she had a point. It struck me that in a society where animals were raised en masse to be eaten, ‘animal rights’ was a slippery concept and that the activists had picked on the Marrabel rodeo because it was a soft target.

On the walls of the Marrabel pub were old black and white photos of the miraculous Curio and colour photos of Marrabel’s footy and netball teams. Near the doorway was a news board. It was covered in news clippings associated with the animal rights campaign against rodeos. Some of the articles were from regional newspapers, some of them from stock journals, and others from Adelaide’s main daily newspaper, ‘The Advertiser’.

The news clipping board was obviously Wendy’s idea. Each clipping had its date of publication written on it in biro.

My eyes caught a copy of the following article taken from The Advertiser and dated 11/7/06:

‘Animal Rights Activist Convicted of Mistreating Dog.’

That was a loaded heading if there ever was one. In the country, the lowest form of life is someone who mistreats a dog. An animal rights activist mistreating a dog was too good to be true: it was ample confirmation for country people that animal rights activists were twisted fanatics.

Under the heading was a photo of an old bent man in a long coat and a hat leaving court. His face was haggard and he was staring blankly in front of him. He was obviously devastated. I read the accompanying article carefully.

This man had been the director of the RSPCA (‘Royal Society for the Protection and Care of Animals’) for four years and he was the leader of the Animal Rights group which was pursuing the campaign against rodeos.

How did such a man come to be convicted of mistreating a dog? I wondered.

I read on. Here was the story: he was convicted for failing to fulfil his duty of care to his dog by not taking it to a vet. It was a very old dog. It was blind, it had lost the use of its limbs, it was incontinent and it was in constant pain. It was incapable of eating too, but it had been kept alive by its owner stuffing balls of bread containing vitamin pills down its throat. The man told the court that he didn’t take the dog to a vet because he knew that the vet would recommend that the dog be put down.

He didn’t believe in ‘euthanasia for animals’ he said.

That was a truly bizarre philosophy for someone who claimed that they were opposed to animal cruelty.

Here was a man who could get passionate about someone riding a rodeo horse for a few seconds and yet saw no contradiction in putting his own dog through years of unrelenting hell.

This was the man who had given the green light to an animal rights jihad against rodeos and Marrabel.

The contradictions fascinated me.

No doubt this man believed that in being opposed to ‘euthanasia for animals’ he was a moral being; it underlined the point that moral beings were capable of lunacy.

History!

Yes, little Marrabel had lots of history alright, a history which in its own quirky way was a cameo of the history of Australia.

Once upon a time a mare was raised near Marrabel. For 8 years men came from all over Australia to try to ride her and no one had succeeded. One day, that wild horse named Curio had even jumped out of the ring and scared thousands of people out of their wits and booted in the door of a new Ford Falcon!

A horse had put Marrabel on the map. After her, came her descendants – all of them ‘successful buckjumpers’

But Marrabel had made history and not only because of Curio and her progeny.

When the animal rights activists had appeared on that One Day of the Year to put a stop to Marrabel’s rodeo, that diminutive town had suddenly become famous. A new set of issues had grabbed the headlines all over Australia: the country versus the city, the right to hold a rodeo and the right of animals to be treated with respect. A rodeo organizer was convicted of cruelty to animals – and so was the leader of the animal rights campaign. All over the country, the old ideas of society, of right and wrong, of the acceptable and the unacceptable, were being challenged. Racism and sexism were the catch cries of a new definition of Australia and what it ought to stand for. The rights of indigenous people, women, gays, immigrants, children and animals – to name of few of the major ‘rights’ issues – were championed.

Change, so needed, like rain on a parched land, had come and along with it, it had brought its own excesses, its own contradictions, its own injustices.

I left Marrabel feeling confused.

Where was the better direction?

North?

I had a feeling it was like any other direction on the compass.

It was a place to head to, a goal, but what we would find there was another matter.

 

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