After 2 days of riding across an interminable flatness, it loomed up on the horizon like a mountain: a pile of large weathered boulders 180 meters high.
Our eyes, adjusted to immense spaces devoid of the slightest rise, the slightest dip, caught sight of that pile of rocks, that 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 distortion. Mitchell, leading an expedition of ‘discovery’, must have been moving far slower than Anya and I on our bikes, enduring the flatness for weeks, if not months. Longing for the sweet green hills and woods of England.
Then one day, peering through his telescope, he saw it:
He was struck by its shape. Like a pyramid. He gave it a name – as if it had never had a name before he appeared on the scene – ‘Pyramid Hill’.
The locals in the town 2 kilometres away from Pyramid Hill referred to it as simply The Hill.
How did the Aborigines see The Hill?
What name did they give it?
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, with their rifles and the germs which they brought with them from Europe.
There are certain things however which we can assume.
The Aborigines intense knowing of the landscape was based on their songs, which told of spirits, half human half animal, who created the land they inhabited along its plants, animals and insects; its seasons and its geographic features. They believed that by singing their songs, they redeemed the land which they inhabited. Which they regarded as sacred.
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. No wonder that they were used by the whiteys to serve as trackers. There can be little doubt that a striking landmark like The Hill would have occupied a special place in their mythology – especially given that there was a creek and a marsh near The Hill. It must have been 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, the town: a pub, a small supermarket, a café, an old town hall and behind it a grid of wide streets lined with houses. 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 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 Hill etched on to the horizon.
We rode towards it and the afternoon passed and the distance seemed interminable. Like chasing a mirage. Late in the afternoon, following a narrow unsealed road, we came to a cemetery, where we stopped to take a rest.
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, when there were no aeroplanes, the bodies of those sons could not have been brought back to Australia. They were buried somewhere in Europe. Memories came back to me of bike trips we had done in Belgium and seeing entire hills and plains covered in small white crosses; British, Germans – and Australians.
Hundreds of thousands of crosses.
The names of those sons on the gravestones – whose remains were buried somewhere far away – 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.
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’.
60, 000 dead – and how many others severely wounded both physically and psychologically? – from a population of 4 million people.
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). None of the young 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.
In 1914, there were 200 people living in the area of Pyramid Hill. There were no roads then worth the name. The main means of transport were horse drawn drays and carriages and, a good way out of town, a railway line. 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.
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.
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!
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, 5000 men died before even firing a shot.
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 sometimes 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 towns ablaze with stars from one end of the horizon to the other.
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.
But 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 where it was safe to harbour illusions.
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.
Too much was never enough.
For tens of thousands of years, the aborigines had sung The Hill into existence.
After their extermination, 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?
In every country town in Australia, the young men who had served as cannon fodder in the killing fields of Flanders – and all the other killing fields including Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – were honoured and remembered. Statues, memorials, and so on.
But the fate of the original inhabitants of this land had been erased from history.
It was as if Major Mitchell had ‘discovered’ a country devoid of human beings.
Where was the guilt?
Where was the recognition of what had happened?
Seek in vain for anything like that in the Australian country town.
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.