planetary mysteries

We rendezvoused, as arranged, at Alice Springs airport at midday on the Friday and went to the Avis desk to pick up the car. The young woman serving there, with a slow voice and very white teeth, came from Huntly, one of my old home towns; it was strange to be exchanging names of mutual acquaintances – Bruce Berryman, Judi Muru – in a place so far away. The car turned out to be a red Hyundai, which my companion looked upon with distaste . . . the colour not the make. I would myself had rather been given a Toyota but then I had not made the booking. We drove into town and learned at the Visitors Centre that all was well on the road to Glen Helen; so off under cerulean skies into the west we went. It is not easy to describe the landscape we passed through along Larapinta Drive. Unnaturally green, the locals said, after the recent rains. Flat, mostly, and somehow undistinguished : except for the ranges of hills that rise unexpectedly into view, linger for a while then seem to dive back into the ground again. Orange-red if near at hand, then purple as they recede; then that strange haunting blue that seems to be the actual colour of distance. Their craggy eroded forms protrude from softer mounds of ancient detritus like prodigies of an elemental imagination; the landscape is comprehensively anthropomorphized, those outstanding bluffs look like the frozen effigies of every ancestor that ever was. About forty-five kilometres out we came to the turn off onto Namatjira Drive and took the right fork. Crossed the shallow running waters of Jay Creek in a plume of spray and went on through what seemed like a gate between two trees and down to the banks of the Hugh River; which was in spate and policed by Rangers who, in that laconic, faintly derisive way that seems common in the Territory, turned us back. There goes the holiday someone said. We spent the night in a Gulag of a motel down the wrong end of town, behind high fences topped with barbed wire, a white electronic security gate, while outside dark forms drifted in the glare of lights and strange cries, of anguish and grief it seemed not rage, quivered on the air. Next day we tried again and again failed to ford the Hugh, which could now be crossed by 4WDs and larger cars but not by compacts such as ours. We went back to the turn-off and began along the 80 k drive to Hermannsburg; and got as close as 15 ks away before the torrent of Ellery Creek prevented us going further. There was a car stopped on the other bank, a family gathered watching. I shrugged, the man on the other shore shrugged in answer. Your car too small to cross! he yelled; and then summoned with a decisive gesture of his arm the metallic blue ute that had come to rest unaccountably off to the left among the trees. They drove forthright through the flood, made it over before their engine sputtered to silence on the other side. We went back to town where, in the car park of the Kentucky Fried, a helpful local pointed out that the right back tyre of the Hyundai was flat as a bean. Pierced by a thorn of mulga wood. This looked like the nadir of our hopes and so it proved. We spent another night in the Gulag and, next morning, returned to the airport where the girl from Huntly gave us a silver Toyota instead. And off we went to make our third attempt at crossing the Hugh. There was a white Nissan van stalled about one third of the way across, a young German woman up to her knees in the flood standing helplessly beside her stranded vehicle. A 4WD plumed slowly across towards us and then the bloke driving began the procedures that would allow him to tow her van out, backwards. While they were thus engaged I waded slowly over the causeway to the other side, noting how far up my calves the water came : 30 centimetres, we’d been told, was the limit. The bloke in the 4WD offered to stick around while we made the attempt and then I put the Toyota into low gear and drove slowly, but not too slowly, across. Tooted and waved and then went on into a land such as I have not seen before and will not ever forget. The next day, the Monday, we left Glen Helen and drove further into the west, 60 ks or so to place called Tyler’s Lookout, just a low hill in the flowering desert where the cries of birds seem to hang a long time in the air and a cold south-easterly wind came in gentle intermittent waves like the breath of some softly sleeping giant. From there you could see Gosse’s Bluff, only 15 ks or so away; and, more distantly, off to the north west, the blue shape of Haast’s Bluff; and, even further away, the peaks of Mount Zeil. When we left there and drove on to the end of the bitumen, it was for me the completion of some quest that began three years ago when I stood at a similar lookout west of Broken Hill and felt an irresistible yearning to go further into that whispering desert. Now, wandering under river red gums along a recently dried out creekbed, in the shadow of that prodigious crater from the collision with a comet some time in the Jurassic, I started picking up stones. Among them – though I did not realise this until later – are two ancient tools. A chopper and a blade. Had I understood at the time what they are I might have felt some obligation to leave them where they were; as it is, they’re now sitting next to me on the desk and I don’t in the least regret their presence here. It isn’t just the way they fit so comfortably into the hand; it’s also how they seem to want, indeed ask, to be held. As if their destiny as worked stones remains unfulfilled unless, or until, someone picks them up and makes them ready to cut, to chop. We couldn’t go on to explore the crater because our car wasn’t fit for those kinds of roads. Another time perhaps. We wandered slowly back to where we’d parked. The wind had ceased, or perhaps we were sheltered in the lee of the bluff; the heat was blinding. Beside the road I saw the hoof marks of a wild horse in the still soft mud. When I pulled on the branch of a small tree to examine the conical bird’s nest woven into its twiggy branches, a red-headed bird rocketed out of the aperture, literally parting my hair. It was, the manager at Glen Helen told me later, most likely a Zebra finch. We used to have a pair, caged, when we lived in Huntly. From the next tree I could hear the soft chirrupping of a pair of the yellow-green budgerigars that are everywhere in flocks out there. Further away a wedge-tailed eagle balanced the sky on its pinions. It is not often that you feel a sense of completion of quest but this was one of those moments : as if I had reached a place so far away, so long ago, that the only way on was back. Or should I say the only way back was on?


image : Gosse’s Bluff

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