Return of the camel lady
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 9: Up North
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Robyn Davidson
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Robyn Davidson's biography and other articles by this writer
Darwin is coming up somewhere ahead, in the dark. Thirty hours semicircling the Earth to get here, in which time the moon has turned the right way up and summer has passed into winter. I check the internal landscape for signs of that physical happiness which, in the past, has accompanied the approach to my homeland, but there is nothing. Good. That is partly what this trip is for – to lay the ghost of Australia and to pay my respects to an old man who died before I could say goodbye.
The porthole cover snaps up and there, framed to perfection, is the Southern Cross. Happiness punches me right in the sternum.
The coastline creeps towards us, a line of darker darkness. There should be waves thundering on cliffs to overture such a landmass. But the sea is quiet and the forest slips into it modestly. Did the first arrivals come across a quiet sea at night, not knowing whether that darkness ahead marked an island as small as the one they left behind, or another world? It is now generally agreed that the first human footprint appeared on Terra Australis 50,000 years ago, give or take several millennia. However, in Aboriginal belief, the ancestors were, (and are), eternally present, and given that poetic and scientific truths need not be mutually exclusive, I have no trouble accepting both views.
South of Darwin, the fur of forest begins balding. Sand ridges form, like veins under the skin of an old woman's hand. I'm gazing down at ancient skin ... or canvas, covered in dots and feathery rhapsodic layers of polymer, an Aboriginal, Western-desert painting of the kind that now fetches big money in international art markets.
Nearly thirty years ago, I experienced a period of intense solitude in that landscape, a time that was to transform my life in ways I could never have predicted. I had arrived in Alice Springs, a frontier town in the dead centre of the continent, with nothing but a peculiar idea and the arrogant stubbornness of youth. The peculiar idea was to get myself some wild camels from the bush, train them to carry my gear, then wander around the desert with them. I had no particular affection for camels but couldn't afford a four-wheel-drive. Besides, I wanted to walk my country, experience it at the pace that existed before mechanical speed violated our perception of time's relation to space. Most of all, I wanted to learn something of the people who had translated the Australian landscape so elegantly and so successfully. I had never seen an Aborigine. They were as remote to me as the ancient Greeks.
In 1977, after two years of preparation, I walked from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean across 2700 kilometres of "desert". The emptiness, so vast and frightening at first, turned into the original garden as soon as I learnt how to be in it. But like all grand passions, it demanded I give myself to it completely. That I stay. And that I could not do.
An old Pitjantjatjara man accompanied me for a time. When I first met him, he was wearing a woman's slipper on his right foot and an enormous Adidas running shoe on his left. He was about 130 centimetres high and half blinded by trachoma, but he had what all the older Aboriginal people have, it seems: a kind of rootedness, a gravitas and a sense of humour that comes from being at home in the world. He stared up into my face, laughed, pointed to himself and said, "Mister Eddy", his only two words of English, and then we headed west together, following, more or less, a segment of his own Dreaming story – the topographical features created by his ancestor, the original dingo man, at the beginning of time.
Some part of me has never returned from that journey, so I often have the disconcerting sensation that an alien version of me, buried and shadowy, haunts my everyday life, mocking any attempt to be "normal". One of me attends literary events in London, the other belongs in the wilderness.
On one of my several visits back there, Eddy had informed me that he was being "sung" by an enemy in Perth, and that as he would die soon because of it, I should come back and spend time with him before he did. He also informed me that he had made me his "wife". I promised to return, but life got in the way. He died of cancer in 1993.
I fly over the landscape now, eight years after his death, and feel certain that my footprints are still down there, like words on a page.
AS THE PLANE DESCENDS INTO THE ALICE, OCHRES AND MUDDY GREENS GIVE WAY to the rainbow colours unique to this place. Orange sand, yellow grass, plum-red rock, violet and blue hills, jade-green herbage and the filigree silver of witchetty bushes. The sky, as usual, is cobalt. There are flocks of budgerigar flashing pin-fire opal, river red gums exploding into clouds of pink galahs.
Jenny is there to meet me in a battered old truck. I have known her since 1974 when, quite by chance, I arrived at the same time as an influx of idealistic urban youth (southern do-gooders) who came here in the wake of the Land Rights Legislation. They were anthropologists, linguists, lawyers, teachers, doctors, artists, dissidents, mavericks-and they transformed Alice Springs politically and socially. Most of that original group eventually moved on, to other jobs, other places, but Jenny is one of the few who remained, committed to her work with Aboriginal people, both as an artist and a linguist. Yet we all return, all of us, for weeks, or months, or years, because in the seventies, in the Alice, something remarkable was happening, and we were formed by it.
The Central Land Council – a little grassroots organisation housed in a dingy building – administered the act by which untenanted desert could be claimed by traditional clans, provided they could prove before a white tribunal that their "ownership" was authentic. The immense complexity of Aboriginal affiliations to land meant that equally immense quantities of academic research had to be presented at the hearings that were held out bush in the parsimonious shade of gum trees. Meanwhile, the anti-land-rights lobby – right-wing politicians, pastoralists and mining companies – organised itself. Millions of dollars were spent on scare-tactics advertising; membership of the Ku Klux Klan swelled alarmingly; Rights for Whites graffiti graced the breezeblock walls of Alice Springs.
It was a heady time and it transformed the people who lived through it. Where else in the world could one be part of such an intensely bonded community, or develop skills in all areas of life from flying aeroplanes to recording Aboriginal languages? Where else could one spend days travelling through awesome landscape, then return to town where there may well be internationally famous authors, filmmakers, intellectuals and actresses begging for one's opinion over the barbecue? But it was the direct involvement with traditionally oriented Aborigines that most marked the members of the group – the ones who stayed and the ones who went away – that continues to bring the prodigals back. It's as if we've all been sung.
Certainly, there is nothing in the town itself to warrant the phenomenon of return. Alice Springs was never a beauty, and all the facelifts in the world won't change that. But she is certainly altered. All along her streets, once empty and dusty and drear, there are smart shops selling Aboriginal art and crafts ranging from kitsch to quality. Once you couldn't find a vegetable in the whole place. Now there are vast, superabundant supermarkets. There is a gambling casino, a Sheraton hotel, and even the snake-pit pubs I once worked in have been tarted up beyond recognition. Here and there, I catch glimpses of the town I remember – props left over from the theatre of my past. Or the remains of the tiny settlement it initially was – a clutch of houses stranded in the middle of nothing, connected to the placenta of civilisation by 1600 kilometres of Overland Telegraph line.
Plus ça change.
But as we pass a bottle shop, there are Aborigines on benders, in bandages, buying flagons of wine to take down the creek or cadging money from bewildered visitors.
Plus c'est la même chose.
When I first arrived here, the Aboriginal population lived in cardboard and tin humpies or abandoned cars. Some of the pubs still had "dog windows" – outlets for blacks to buy alcohol at the back of the building. And a black man had just been found dead, painted white, in a gutter. Since then, thousands of square kilometres of desert have been returned to traditional owners. Fringe dwellers now live in houses more often than not. You can see black presenters on television; hear Aboriginal programs on the radio. There are housing co-operatives, legal services and land councils. But I watch the drunks down the creek, identical to the drunks of three decades before, and wonder if all that improvement, like the slick commercialism of the town itself, is mere surface show, beneath which little, in essence, has changed.
One thing that hasn't changed is The Conversation. That first night old friends come to supper and in no time at all, we are in the conversation up to our necks. Variations on the theme of Aborigines – Aboriginal politics, languages, religion, kinship systems, mysticism, art, relationships with whites, with each other; the predations of government and mining companies; the organisations that have been set up, the projects that have failed, the rivalries, the violence, the petrol-sniffers, the alcoholics; the "stolen generation", taken forcibly from their mothers and raised in institutions, now returning to find their families. On and on it rolls like Scheherazade's stories – tragic, hilarious, surreal, addictive. I have the queer insight that we are all controlled by The Conversation, as if it were a kind of selfish gene. We will grow old and die, others will take our place around the table, but The Conversation will flow ever on.
Everyone here knows just what Aborigines are up against – a tidal wave threatening to sweep them away. And everyone is politically galvanised because of it. But I notice, running like a quiet current through the conversation, that there is no longer the confidence or certainty that the liberal policies of the past three decades have made the positive difference they should have. And with that certainty gone, how is one to think about what is happening here? As the final moments of a unique, never-to-be-repeated human universe? Or as a cultural universe mending itself, transmuting, adapting, becoming? What aspects of Aboriginality will survive the deluge? Is it right even to ask such questions?
Certainly, no one can say if Aborigines, the subjects of so much analysis, such obsession, are better or worse off than before. Everything is in flux; an overview cannot be formed. Whichever view one takes has more to do with temperament than reality.
By the third morning, my own temperament has landed me well and truly in the "final moments" camp and I need to get out of Alice Springs, into the bush. Before dawn, I walk to Emily Gap – once such a powerful sacred site that women and uninitiated men could not go there. I am no more than eight kilometres from town, but I could be the last or the first person on Earth. I sit in the white sand and let the quiet settle in. Opposite me, at the foot of a cliff turning incandescent in the sunrise, there are rock paintings, the most dramatic of which is an ancestor leaning against the stone, noticing a cave above her and realising that this place belongs to men. Hastily, she takes her fellow women to camp away from the rock hole, thus laying down one aspect of behavioural law for all time. "She" consists of a few bold white ochre lines on a smooth facet of rock, 90 by 150 centimetres.
Not so long ago, a band of Arrernte people would have stayed here temporarily – a pause in their migratory pattern. The women and children would have set up camp a kilometre down river, and the men would have brought them water. The surrounding country would have been burnt a year or two before, so that after rain, the bush tucker and sweet grass would be plentiful. The men would hunt kangaroo, emu and dog; the women would provide the bulk of the food with small game, vegetables, honey and grass seed. There would have been ceremonies – bands coming together to reinvigorate the life force so powerfully concentrated at this site.
The Arrernte see their connection to this place as eternal, though the painting in front of me is perhaps only a couple of thousand years old. Scientists suggest that the Arrernte hit upon an efficient seed-grinding technology, which helped increase their population until they expanded into this area, pushing out the previous inhabitants, just as this painting covers over markings that are much, much older. But time, as it is conceived by Aborigines, is different from the linear/historical version of my culture, something perhaps closer to Henri Bergson's idea that it is "the ghost of space haunting the reflective consciousness".
The painting is stark, elegant, powerful, easily interpretable at one level by an eye accustomed to modernism. The true "meaning" of it is another matter. To Aboriginal people, the painting, the place, the ancestor, the ceremony and the contemporary people who "belong" to that place, are all the same.
Aboriginal world views are difficult for outsiders to understand and that is perhaps the greatest problem Aborigines face – how to educate non-Aborigines to value what might be lost. People come to the Centre hungry to learn (the town floats on the tourist dollar), but how are they to penetrate something so inherently secretive and complex? How can they see past the drunks and the misery, or the sentimentalised and kitsch, to the sophistication and beauty of Aboriginal ideas?
I look at the rock paintings and think to myself that they are like a meeting place, or a gateway. Anyone can look at them, get a sense of the richness and vitality of the culture that produced them, be astonished and moved by them. But just as I am thinking this, some tourists wander in with cameras. They stand in front of the ancestral woman and photograph her, then turn away without really looking. One of them says, "I guess they doodled like that because they were bored."