Adventures in Central Australia, Mostly (Further Readings)

May was a good month for traveling. I spent ten or so hours en route from the East Coast to Denver by air, a journey roughly equivalent to flying from Sydney to maybe Hall’s Creek in distance. Another ten coming back. I had plenty of time to read as a result.

Much of my journey was in the company of Nicolas Rothwell’s amazing book, Wings of the Kite-Hawk: a journey into the heart of Australia (Picador, 2003). Wings is the story of a series of travels through various parts of Australia that Rothwell undertook in the 1990s after a long absence, part of which was spent covering the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe–a theme that enters his story from several oblique angles throughout the book. Rothwell’s journey around Australia is framed with stories of the great explorers of the continent and built of his own experiences retracing parts of their journeys. He presents us with a strange-looking glass: stretches of Australian geography and history, fragments of European and Australian lives, passages of explorers’ journals, glimpses of Rothwell’s own life and snatches of territory deep inside himself flash and flicker like a dream’s landscape.

In five parts, like the classic sonata form, it proceeds in its musical fashion through the development and interplay of motifs. Chief among these motifs is the recurring specter of the kite-hawk, the embodiment of mortality that swoops through pages that are equally haunted by the ghosts of the explorers who faced death and sometimes succumbed to the treachery of the deserts where much of Rothwell’s narrative unfolds. Like a sonata, each part has its own rhythm and tempo, themes echo back and forth among them, and the whole, in the end, is almost ineffable. My own words will certainly not do it justice; I can only hope to inspire you to rush headlong into the experience yourself. You will find it by turns surreal, sad, informative, comic, poetic, and much more.

“Leichhardt” opens the story near the Great Dividing Range in Cape York. In some ways, this is the most conventional travel narrative of the book. The author in his Landcruiser travels parts of the route Leichhardt recorded in his Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia: the Lynd Valley, Normanton, Chillagoe, Mt Isa in loops and returns bursting with characters that might almost be found in any Outback adventure story. Almost, but in truth, never. The Hungarian/Romanian refugee who runs a cafe and serves Rothwell breakfast in Mt Isa–and eats it for him too–could not be imagined in any other tale. So too Tommy Prior, the spirit double who fills the Landcruiser’s fuel tank in Chillagoe. The chapter ends with a breathless epiphany, literally at the edge of a cliff and accompanied by the call of the kite-hawk.

Echoes of Central Europe sound throughout “The Promised Land,” the book’s second part. It tells the story of three modern experts in the study of Aboriginal rock art, George Chaloupka in Arnhem Land, Grahame Walsh at Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland, and Robert Bednarik on the Burrup Peninsula, WA. This is the only section of the book not dominated by a great Australian explorer; instead three men who have reached back into the prehistory of the continent are profiled and interviewed. The reach here is not through space, but through time.

“Sturt,” who pulled a cedarwood boat through the desert to sail upon the Great Inland Sea he hoped to discover in the mid-nineteenth century, is the eponymous and presiding genius of part Three. Rothwell quotes extensively from the explorer’s Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia, detailing the hopeless months Sturt spent marooned at Depot Glen in the Corner Country, in the stony desert that now bears his name. Rothwell’s own journey through this part of the country is perhaps as surreal as Sturt’s. Certainly there is nothing else to compare to his encounter at Broken Hill with her majesty Pauline Hanson, in company with his own occasionally irascible companion, the photographer Johnson Venn. Rothwell is stunned almost speechless at the moment of the encounter (“I know who you are,” Hanson accuses). In recollecting the moment he manages in the space of half a sentence to compare Hanson’s appearance both to an Aborigine and to Odette, the courtesan-mistress of Charles Swann in the first volume of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. Johnson for his part gamely suggests to Hanson that she might like him to make her portrait, lying down with her brazen hair spread out on the red sands of the desert outside the town.

In the fourth section, “Strehlow” shares the stage with bikers from Glen Helen in the opening pages. Later, Rothwell travels east to Alice Springs, where he spends time with Daphne Williams at Papunya Tula on Todd Street. She encourages him to travel to Sydney for the opening of Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, and for a moment here the story finds its way into a defined and recognizable moment of present time. Much of the rest of the book seems to exist on the borderline of eternity. Rothwell does indeed travel to Sydney, where he encounters (by chance or by fate?) JC, one of the bikers from Glen Helen, who has come to hear Geoff Bardon speak. Rothwell’s account of Bardon’s lecture is incredibly moving and almost unbearably distressing. Afterwards, as JC departs, he presents Rothwell with a copy of Strehlow’s pamphlet Agencies of Social Control in Central Australian Aboriginal Societies. This gift eventually leads Rothwell back to Glen Helen and then on to Adelaide for the sale at auction of the Strehlow Collection.

In the fifth and final section of the book Rothwell, like “Giles,” circles the deserts of Western Australia. Ernest Giles’s attempts to cross Australia from the Overland Telegraph Line to Perth, although ultimately completed, were in some sense failures, as a competing expedition always seem to reach his goal before him. Giles was probably the first European to see the Olgas, but he was not the first to reach their base. Likewise, Forrest made the WA crossing from west to east while Giles was still trying to find his way west past the Warburton Ranges. And unlike Sturt, commemorated in Australian geography by the name of the eastern desert he failed to conquer, Giles christened the Gibson desert in memory of a companion lost out there through the cruelest twist of fate. Running short of water, Giles sent Gibson back on horseback to get help: Giles eventually stumbled back into camp after a tortured, thirsty week on foot, but Gibson lost the track and was never seen again.

Rothwell’s companion in these travels is a prospector named David Esterline, whom he meets on a plane trip to Port Hedland. The two men have a climatic encounter with a kite-hawk out in the Great Sandy Desert the full dramatic import of which is not revealed until the book’s final page. These last moments are both funereal and hopeful, and are set at the fledgling art centre at Patjarr in sight of the Alfred and Marie Ranges that foiled Giles on his first expedition.

To the list of adjectives I applied to Wings of the Kite-Hawk in this review’s opening paragraphs, I’d like to add another: majestic. It is a book of profound emotional timbres suggestive of truth that is barely within grasp. In the first section, on the tracks of Queensland, Rothwell mentions that the only music he has with him in the Landcruiser is a tape of Bach’s suites for solo cello. As fate would have it, I have the six suites loaded on my iPod, and during the flights back and forth to the Rocky Mountains last week, they provided the perfect soundtrack for my reading, shutting out the ambient noise of the jets and echoing in their combination of sombre tones and gamboling melodies the journey Rothwell was taking me on across Australia.

On returning from Denver I went back to work the next day without a book to read over lunch, and so went to the stacks, where I found Geoffrey Dutton’s biography, Australia’s Last Explorer: Ernest Giles (Faber and Faber, 1970). It is a brief, highly readable recounting of Giles’s heroism and misfortunes that adds detail to the stories recounted in Rothwell’s final chapter.

Two other works dealing with Central Australia came to hand this past month, though I haven’t had time to sit down with either of them yet. The first is a historical novel of the 1920s, A Strong Song: a family saga of the Pintupi people (Central Queensland University Press, 2004) by Colin Macleod. Macleod was a Patrol Officer in the 1950s, working mostly among the Tiwi at first and later in the Haasts Bluff region. His memoir of those years was published as Patrol in the Dreamtime (Mandarin, 1997) and I remember it as an entertaining if not terribly sophisticated account, one of the first such that I read. A small paperback, 200 pages of large print, Patrol itself may be worth a few hours’ re-investment sometime in the near future.

My second new acquisition is a great prize: Gillen’s Diary: the Camp Jottings of F. J. Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition Across Australia 1901-1902 . Published by the Libraries Board of South Australia in 1968 by reproducing a typescript transcription prepared by Gillen’s son, R. Spencer Gillen, this volume fills in the gap in Gillen’s letters that puts a large hole in the middle of the collection My Dear Spencer. I have been searching for this title for two years, and suddenly several copies have appeared in a variety of antiquarian bookstores in Australia. I’ve just glanced into the book, reading a paragraph here and there as I flip the pages, and I am impatient of the moment when I can settle in to a concentrated reading of it. Tales from the alcheringa, descriptions of ceremonies, sharp but good-natured caricatures of his companions: this looks to be an even better read than his letters to Spencer. The formal tone in which he addressed his mentor in those letters seems totally absent here, replaced by the tremendous enthusiasm of a man who is engaged in an adventure that he knows, as it is happening, to be the highlight of his life so far, a dream long deferred and now exuberantly realized. I can hardly wait to join him.

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3 Responses to Adventures in Central Australia, Mostly (Further Readings)

  1. Pingback: Interior Monologues | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  2. Angela Lowe says:

    Hi Will, I have just stumbled across your blog and am enjoying it very much. You write eloquently about Australia. I am an Aussie living in Hong Kong and have an interest in indigenous Australian art.

  3. Will says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Angela. Hope you continue to enjoy it; I certainly enjoy sharing my passion for the art (and Australia).

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