Slouching through Australia.
But nothing I had learned would help me or offer relief on my sweltering sortie into outback Australia.
What I understood about the country was indeed pathetic. I knew that Australia had been settled by English convicts 200 years ago. I knew that within her enormous girth were surfers and sailors, Aborigines, kangaroos, koalas, and crocodiles. I knew they spoke English. What I didn't know when I hit the trail to her blood Red Centre was that Ayers Rock and the Olgas were deposited on the landscape about 600 million years ago, and that Aboriginal dreamtime is the time of legends, a time long before time.
I had met Noel Fullerton, an Australian bushman, in Nevada in 1987. He was racing camels in Virginia City, and we talked about travel. He used to be a road train driver, his tractor pulling four long trailers full of supplies all over the outback; at least until the time he forgot 700 miles of a single trip because he was too drunk to think. Fortunately for the others on that same lonely bitumen, he gave up drinking and driving big rigs, preferring to cameleer in the Northern Territory.
Few Australians know the Territory as well as Fullerton; even fewer know as much about camels. For decades he has been catching wild dromedaries on the Angas Downs cattle station, then training them to race and ride. He took race teams to Alice Springs and to Bordertown in South Australia and won all the available trophies. Late last year, he traveled to the Middle East to discuss camel fodder with Dubai's royal family.
Today, the Fullertons, their offspring, and their in-laws have about 70 camels at Virginia Camel Farms, which sits close to the Hugh River about 60 miles south of Alice. There is a fluctuating number of workers and visitors that Noel calls "white, black, brown, and brindle." They run 14-day s"over the Ranges," week-long treks around Rainbow Valley, and for drop-ins and bus passengers, $2 rides around their enormous paddock. But almost anything can be arranged.
For most of his married life, Fullerton has been living camels and trying the patience of his darkhaired wife, Isabel. Fortunately for him, she is easygoing. "Come on in, mate," is her friendly greeting to almost anyone who shows up. "Have a drink and some dinner." But even though she seems to be a slave to Noel (a position typical of many outback women), he would be in perpetual "dreamtime" without her. She doesn't mind that he looks and plays the part of a wild Territorian. She is proud of his flowing white beard, pigtail, bright blue eyes, and cocksure manner, She has heard a hundred times his wellrehearsed speech about camels:
"A dromedary is a one-humped camel," Fullerton states, with no desire for questions or conversation. "A bactrian has two humps. Contrary to popular belief, a camel's hump does not retain water, and he does not spit. He walks at three miles an hour and can live for days without water. He is a cudchewing mammal, so it is illegal to put a bit in his mouth. This is why we use a nose peg. We are trying to pass a law to put nose pegs on Australian women, and if we succeed, and if they behave, we'll give them 20 foot of rope. . . ."
When, placed my reservation for Camel Outback Safari's 14-day December trip, Fullerton said: "That's the bloody worst time of year to come. It's hot and dry, lots of flies, and we may not find any water." His brochure claimed the tour was ". . . for the moderately healthy." I was encouraged hy that because, at 47 and slightly porky, I could vaguely claim that condition.
It was late November when I arrived in Alice Springs. Temperatures were hovering around 100, and the Todd River, which slices the town in half, was absolutely dry. In the bottom of its broad white belly, small groups of Aborigines sat in the shade of giant eucalyptuses, ignoring the tourists along with the heat and flies.
The bush town was interesting, because even though money from big city developers and designers has successfully eliminated most of her outback charm, they have not yet crushed her spirit. I stayed at the Diplomat downtown in a black-andpink air-conditioned chamber with a wet bar, snacks, tea, coffee, and a whirlpool. My room was within spitting distance of the swimming pool, within walking distance of the Todd, Ford Center, and the Yeperenye Shopping Center (owned by Aborigines). It was close to the seat of government, tourist shops, supermarkets, several pubs, and native art stores. It was a mile from Lassater's Casino.
I stayed for a week, spending time with miners, barmaids, and ringers. I regretted later that the Alice Springs time was so short-but also that my American-style hotel preceded, instead of followed, the safari.
But, alas, the time had come. At seven in the morning on day one of the trek, an Israeli cameleer showed up at the gates of the Diplomat. He had matted hair and was driving an old VW bus with a Camel cigarette ad on the back window. After I got in, and without saying a word, he drove to another hotel to pick up a German civil servant. Juergen, 28 years old, was wearing a white shirt, jeans, and an "Aruba" hat. He said he was lookin"no civilization," and he carried a thermometer and an enormous supply of zinc ointment, From there we crossed the Todd to collect Catherine, an Ansett Airlines night attendant from Sydney. At 24 years old, beautiful and blonde, she had a wide-brimmed straw hat and sunglasses in hand. "That's what they told me to bring," she said with a smile. A beautifully gentle and ironic image-now that I know what was to come.
We headed south out of Alice as the day was getting hotter. Flies were buzzing in the VW and the air conditioning didn't work. When we got to the camel farm, we found corrals and gum trees, pink and gray parrots, and a bunch of trailers that made it look like an ancient KOA. Toilets and showers were outside, protected by plastic curtains that flapped shamelessly in the breeze. When the tour buses showed up on their way to Ayers Rock, refreshments were offered in a new A-frame shop, and young Aborigines took tourists for rides around the farm's front paddock.
After we had gulped down several glasses of lemon squash, we were introduced to our other safari companions. Pierot, 22, was a tall, dark lab technician of cheery nature who had driven up from rainy Melbourne specifically to find the sun. Gordon, a 39-year-old Scot, solid, bright, and articulate, used to run a Territorial newspaper in Katherine, "but I lost all my money, mate, so I'm working as a tour guide at Ayers Rock."
The workers included Willie, a 16-year-old Aborigine who seldom spoke, and Stevo, a tough and friendly 24-year-old ringer who was on leave from a Queensland cattle station. The cook for the trip was a gaunt but amusing American engineer named Harry who played harmonica, and at 30, had just finished a job in Antarctica. Of course, Noel was chief camel handler and guide.
Five pack camels were heavily loaded with water, food, swags (Aussie bedrolls), medicine, and tarps, and with immense trepidation, a "Good luck," and a bright wave from Isabel, we took off toward the west. My enormous beast was a pale arrogant gelding named Sandy. I had been told he was once a fighting camel and had little sympathy for humans. But after two full years of training he "whooshed" down easily, and with a tremendous jolt and violent pitching fore and aft, he lurched upward when asked, until the ground was about 12 feet below my eyes. Sandy was to carry me and my belongings, plus a metal can of water that was always hot,for 300 miles across the bush.
The Northern territory is so ancient that geological and climatic changes have created a profusion of wildlife and botany-which varies depending on whether it's in drought or flood. We lurched along the Hugh River, dry as usual, passing gulches, gulleys, and caves on either side of a wide green valley. Fullerton led us through the James Ranges, across Tidenvale Creek, to spend the night anyplace there was food for the camels,
As we slowly moved westward, Sandy would throw his big soft lips over a few thin branches and pull off all the leaves without missing a step. All day he munched as I jolted forward and back, slipping and sliding on sweat-soaked clothes, chafing everything that touched the sheepskin seat. Light in the outback is always peculiar. I watched the territory change, from the silvery green acacia thickets of the James Ranges to the vivid red and violet canyons of Finke Gorge. When the sun was close to the horizon, the colors changed ftom pink, blue, and purple to gold and a deep blazing orange. The sound was silence.
In 14 days we found water only three times, washing was outlawed in dry camps, and except for the scenery all days were much the same. We boiled the billy often, having tea at breakfast (at six), morning break (at ten), lunch (at two), and supper (after dark so the flies wouldn't take it all). Everything was packaged and canned but healthful, and it tasted better every day.
The days rolled by, as our pain and the country's beauty increased. We suffered mostly from heat. "G- d- it, mate," Gordon said on the third day. "I've got blisters on me arse and the buggers are about to burst!" And he wasn't alone. We sat sidesaddle, sometimes riding on our knees; for a while we stood on the sheepskin seats, all the time traveling onward.
We checked out some Aboriginal cave art at Scorpion Hole"Those were custodian marks. It was a sacred place in the old days," Noel said. We stayed one night in Cocky's Camp, then crossed the Finke, which Noel reckoned is the oldest and driest river in the world. "When it's got water in it, it's quite spectacular." But it was spectacular anyway, white sand glowing beneath the pale green eucalyptuses. The sunlight bouncing off the high red walls of the canyon created unusual hues. I felt as if I were hanging in endless space, a pawn in a painting, which left me with an intense feeling of inadequacy.
Our trek continued across the bush, through endless dry river beds, across bright red sand dunes, past desert oak and spinifex. Noel pointed out bones from early native slaughters and explained the carcasses of a dozen wild horses: "They must have been drinking bad water, or been shot by cattlemen." We saw parrots, a giant perentie lizard, and signs of kangaroo, snake, scorpion, centipede, and dingo.
Boggy Hole was our first sight of water. It was the third day. The long, skinny lake on the Finke was rich with birds, popular with brumbies (wild horses), and close to where five valleys meet. It has never been known to go dry. "Attitudes definitely change on this trip," Pierot said. "I wouldn't have considered drinking water from anything other than a tap before, whereas now I absolutely revel in the fact that we get to drink green slimy water with tea leaves in it. You have to change your perspective and be grateful for what you've got because there's nothing else, pal."
From Boggy Hole we watched the territory change again and followed wild camel pads among the mulga bushes. The backs of the riders in front of me were smothered in flies, soaked with sweat. On one of the hottest days, around 120 degrees, Fullerton took us on a high noon walk up some rocky cliff to see a dozen handprints of more ancient Abos. Our suffering seemed to increase his energy and glee. There was a crevice in the rock, full of water. Noel pushed Catherine in. She churned up the bottom and got covered in black mud and leeches.
At that point I refused to walk anymore. I was shaking and swaying in the relentless sun, andeverything I saw was sepia. My skin was dry, my fatigue absolute. On the way back to camp I fell asleep on my camel, and I awakened with blistered hands from holding on to the hot metal saddle frame. That night I was given a potion for heat stroke, which tasted of limes and obscure chemicals. "If you get dehydrated out here," I was told quite bluntly, "you can only live for eight hours. You should be drinking more water."
We rode up Initiation Rock, through the Amphitheater, where young native boys used to be circumcised. We passed the Oasis, then rode through Palm Valley, a peaceful and peculiar place in the outback filled with rare palms from another millennium.
It was drizzling rain when we crossed the Pound. We camped close to the remains of "a brumbie gone loco" surrounded by witchetty bush, home for the fat green witchetty grub-favore"tucker" for natives. It rained as we crossed the peaks of the Ranges. Dangerously slick for the soft, tractionless pads of the camels, the rocky trail we were following included four-foot drops.
"Keep your feet loose in the stirrups, and if the camel falls down, stay with him," Noel called back as he heard a camel slide. "He'll just go down on his knees, then stand back up again." But it sure didn't feel that easy. By the time we were off that treacherous cliff, we needed to boil the billy, so we sat in a cavern and watched the rain beat down the mulga.
"The old German missionaries used to bring their camels down that trail through the Ranges in the early days," said Fullerton with a peculiar smile. "It was an original native track, but when it's raining it's the worst possible time to come through that part. . . . I'm surprised you all made it."
On another day we rode for a while, tied the camels to some acacia so they could eat, and then walked down a rocky gorge. It ended at a cliff that dropped down into a sienna pond, too deep to wade. We swam across the lake and walked to another deep and murky pool, then swam again. Then we continued down the ancient river bed until the rock disappeared beneath our feet. The drop was 40 feet, ending in a giant muddy pool surrounded by gum trees. "This is called the Reservoir," Noel told us. "There's always water here but it's usually sparkling clear. The only way down is to jump."
"I can't stand heights but the others all jumped," Catherine said, "so I just sort of closed my eyes and threw myself off."
During lunch, Noel told us more tales of murdered whites and slaughtered Abos. He showed us more sacred and ancient drayvings. We drank endless cups of refreshing billy tea, bugs, slugs, and all. We returned via the cliffs to get back to the camels and camp.
One late afternoon we passed through Areyonga, an Aboriginal settlement in the Krichauff Ranges. While the handlers filled the water bottles, I gave rides around the town square to half-naked children. Many of them had sores on their bodies, much like the sores on their dogs. The houses built for them were empty, the natives preferring to live and sleep on the ground outside. But by this time we understood how they felt. There was a store run by a white man, and we bought ice cream, candy, popcorn, peanuts, and several cold sodas. Soon after that we felt so sick we wished we had stuck to canned Spam and veggies.
On the 13th day we took off for Wallara, our final destination. It was 47 miles, on our hottest day. Juergen's thermometer hit 120 and quit. Our rears were sore, our legs partly paralyzed. The water in our metal canteens was as hot as the day.
By the time we got to the Wallara Ranch Motel's saloon we were more than ready to quit. And I would have paid really big money for a shower. So I left Sandy in a big corral with his favorite tucker and took a motel unit. The door didn't work on the bathroom and the water dripped out of the shower head. The generator broke so the cooler was off for most of the night, and when it did come on the noise was deafening. That cost me $50; at least it smelled better than my swag.
ButI missed the stars. I missed the haunting fragrance of the bush, the soft-padded sound of the camels. I missed the sight at dawn of the Australian outback, its reds and golds and greens. But most of all, I missed the cud-chewing, twotoed Sandy.
Legends were born in Aboriginal dreamtime. The natives' own dreaming is a personal, spiritual essence of all they have known, experienced, or heard told since birth. My dreamtime was of the Northern Territory. After only one night indoors, the edges of that relentless trek through the outback were softened, and my fondest and most powerful memories became her endless space, her eerie colors, her precious plants and fauna.
Dreamtime had finally overshadowed the dirt and pain. Dreamtime had helped to finally understand the powerful essence of that splendid and forsaken place.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1989|
|Previous Article:||Outcast of the Hills.|
|Next Article:||Disney World and the four dwarfs.|
|SUMMER SIZZLER: ISN'T SHE LUVVER-LEE.|
|fashion: Bag a biggie; Large is back... but size isn't everthing, says Shereen Low.|
|YourLIFE: This week I'm loving... BIG BAGS.|
|Going for COLD; Take 3.|