Greetings From Beyond the Pale: Beginings
My parents were potters. Our family car was a Datsun 1000 Ute. It was blue. They said they needed a ute to carry the clay to make the pots, and carry the wood to fire the kiln. They also had four children. We all had to sit in the ute tray along with the clay and wood. Out of pity our parents gave us cushions to sit on. When it rained we sat with our backs to the cabin and pulled the cover up to our little chins. Our view of the world always ran backwards. Maybe that is why I dwell in the past.
It is in this manner that our young family embarks on a grand adventure to Tibooburra in the far North West of New South Wales, deep in the heart of the ‘outback’. Between Packsaddle and Broken Hill, through the dust and flies, I see my first mirage, a silver sliver of water hovering on the horizon, forever unattainable. I am thirteen years old. It is my first inkling that eyes tell lies.
At Tibooburra we rendezvous with Cliff and Marlene Pugh and their son Dailan, who is my age. The year is 1969. The Pughs have a brand new Toyota Landcruiser and are keen to take it where no white man has been before. I am brought along to keep Dailan company. I wave goodbye to my siblings as they disappear in the distance on their bone-jarring journey back to civilization. We set off in the opposite direction, into the great unknown.
We head South West from Milparinka into the Strezlecki Desert, heading for Lake Frome and Arkaroola in the Flinders Ranges. The track meanders from one remote cattle station to another, often no more than tire tracks in the dust. When we stop to boil the billy we find aboriginal artefacts just lying about in the sand, grinding stones and spearheads, as if the people had just walked off an hour ago. The horizon is a straight line all around that joins itself and makes a perfect circle.
We get lost from time to time, eventually hitting the Dingo fence, the longest man-made structure in the world. We are forced to head perpendicular to our intended destination, til we find a hut on the edge of Lake Frome occupied by a lonely man and his dog. He is the Fence Mender. The red sand dunes pile up and cover the fence on occasion, so he builds the fence higher. Then the wind turns and the fence is now four metres too high. So it goes.
Then there are the dingoes. Purebred dingoes don’t jump fences, but now they are breeding with wild domestic dogs that will jump a fence one metre high, so the Fence Mender has to go higher again to cope. He told us how the dingoes run down emus out on the salt lake.
Three dogs work in unison, the first one on the right keeping up with the emu, the second on the left hanging back so the emu favours the left and thus ends up running in a big circle. The third dog trots along on the inside of the circle, saving energy until it takes over from the chaser on the outside, which drops back to the inside of the circle and has a rest. Thus they eventually run down the faster animal with a sophisticated, collaborative operation.
Later, in the middle of nowhere, we come across an old house with broken windows and rusty car bodies strewn about. When we pull up a whole family of rabbitohs come out and stare at us with open mouths. They are straight out of a Russell Drysdale painting; all lanky and bow legged and cross eyed, with felt hats and faded cotton dresses and snotty-nosed kids in bare feet. Once they get talking you can’t shut them up, all ghoulish tales of life beyond the pale; a desperate housewife loses the plot, swallows strychnine, tears off her clothes, runs off into the dark night and curls up in a hollow log to die alone, and suchlike. Their only contact with the outside world is a truck that comes once a month and takes their freezer full of rabbit carcasses back to the city folks who are hungry for rabbit stew.
For days we can see the Ranges through a purple haze, just peeping over the mirage. They are slow days travelling through grinding sand. Each day the mountains rise a little higher, and become a little sharper, a little brighter. One day we wake to find them towering above us, all lit up like a Christmas tree by the rising sun.
Awesome and magnificent!
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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