Greetings From Beyond the Pale: Fitzroy Crossing
We bid a fond farewell to the Mary River and head south till we hit the Fitzroy River; the longest river in the Kimberley and one of the last wild rivers on earth: No dams, no diversions, no vast irrigation projects sucking it dry, no factories filling it with toxic waste, no cities filling it with human excrement. In the modern world, a wonder to behold.
The Fitzroy escapes from the mountains and heads east into the pitiless desert, (gravesite of many a mighty river in this unforgiving land) but soon comes to its senses. Realising it will never reach the sea that way, it makes a turn to the south, then the west, then the North, deftly skirting the mountain ranges and finally reaching its most cherished goal, the wide open sea.
The bitumen road that circumnavigates our vast continent, hugging the coastline, lest it too is lost in the endless desert, also skirts the insurmountable obstacle of the Kimberley, so inevitably the road and the river must cross. That spot has the imaginative name of Fitzroy Crossing. A wild, unruly place. The one hotel was once notorious for its segregated bar. The front bar for Whites of course, and the back bar for Blacks, with a grill in between. The grill is long gone but few brave souls dare to cross that invisible line.
These days the blackfellas much prefer to drink outdoors in the surrounding scrub (they are outdoorsy kind of people) where they can express themselves more freely and flake out under a shady tree. Alas, they tend to have a rather lackadaisical attitude to littering. VB cans are strewn hither and yon as far as the eye can see. For those of us brought up to believe littering is one of the seven deadly sins, the site is a most unsightly sight. The story goes that the glint of so many shiny cans is visible from the space station as it passes over this part of the world, no doubt making those Russian astronauts thirsty and homesick (all Russians being pisspots, as we well know). Fitzroy Crossing has never won the Tidy Town Award, but, luckily, upon the arrival of the monsoon the Fitzroy breaks its banks and washes the whole place clean.
It is a truly depressing sight to see so many blackfellas drinking and fighting in public (civilised people prefer to do their drinking and beating behind closed doors), but it’s important to note that the town is a magnet for drinkers from a wide array of communities where grog is banned. These are the invisible places that never make the news. If you want to drink you must go to town and join a whole mob of fellow drinkers. It’s a recipe for trouble and an enormous burden on the townsfolk who must put up with this constant influx of drunkards. Statistics have shown that most blackfellas actually drink less than us Kartiya, but those that do, drink to excess. They drink to get drunk, ever seeking the sweet peace of oblivion. This is true of all oppressed and disenfranchised people the world over.
You see, it’s all about power. Before Captain Cook arrived on his world tour, every indigenous clan was completely autonomous; the law was inherited from the ancestors and administered by the elders. No one else in the whole wide world could tell them what to do. This immense power over their own lives was suddenly, violently taken from them and replaced with absolute servitude and total humiliation. They were given the unenviable choice of accepting their place at the very bottom of a vast hierarchy of power that went all the way up to the king of a seemingly mythical land far across the sea, or be exterminated. It is this complete reversal of control over their lives that indigenous people have been battling ever since, with little success.
But all is not lost, as they still get to go hunting bush tucker. I tag along on a fishing expedition for cherabin, a large freshwater prawn caught with a throw net, the casting of which is quite an art. Ideally it is thrown with such dexterity that it makes a perfect circle as it plops into the water, and is then hauled out with a rich harvest of crustations. After many fruitless attempts I finally make a decent throw and am rewarded with a seething haul of thrashing fish. Alas they are baby catfish, dozens of the little blighters, fouling the net and pricking me with their poisonous barbs. I cannot say that l enjoyed the experience but l did come to a deeper understanding of why l don’t like fishing.
Next stop: Derby (pronounced Derby), the one time bustling capital of all the Kimberley, now but a faded replica of its former self; eclipsed by the new kid on the block, Broome, with its swaying palm trees and endless beaches.
Ben Laycock grew up in the country on the outskirts of Melbourne, surrounded by bush. He began drawing the natural world around him from a very early age. He has travelled extensively throughout Australia, seeking to capture the essence of this vast empty land. In between journeys he lives in a hand-made house in the bush at Barkers Creek in central Victoria – benlaycock.com.au
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