If the blacks here were like the blacks there, how could a group of whites be so consumed with fear and hatred? And if they were different here, what had happened to make them that way? Tread carefully, my instincts said. I could sense already a camouflaged violence in this town, and I had to find a safe place to stay. Rabbits, too, have their survival mechanisms.
I hated myself for my infernal cowardice in dealing with people. It is such a female syndrome, so much the weakness of animals who have always been prey. I had not been aggressive enough or stood up to him enough. And now this impotent, internal, angry stuttering.
One does not have to delve too deeply to discover why some of the world’s angriest feminists breathed crisp blue Australian air during their formative years, before packing their kangaroo-skin bags and scurrying over to London or New York or any place where the antipodean machismo would fade gently from their battle-scarred consciousness like some grisly nightmare at dawn. Anyone who has worked in a men-only bar in Alice Springs will know what I mean.
To enter that country is to be choked with dust, suffocated by waves of thrumming heat, and driven to distraction by the ubiquitous Australian fly; it is to be amazed by space and humbled by the most ancient, bony, awesome landscape on the face of the earth. It is to discover the continent’s mythical crucible, the great outback, the never-never, that decrepit desert land of infinite blue air and limitless power. It seems ridiculous now, to talk of my growing sense of freedom given the feudal situation I was living in, but anything could be mended, anything forgotten, any doubt withstood during a walk through those timeless boulders, or down that glittering river-bed in the moonlight.
I wandered and roamed through my domain, my private space, smelling its essence, accepting its claim on me and incorporating every dust mote, every spider’s web into an orgy of possessive bliss. This sprawling, tattered old stone ruin…this was my first home, where I felt such a sense of relief and belonging that I needed nothing and no one.
So it was little wonder that children did not want to experience this totally alien and threatening environment. It taught them nothing they needed to know since the only job they were likely to get was itinerant station work, which did not require the ability to read or write. Little wonder that they were termed hopeless, unable to learn, sow’s ears. “Ah yes,” the whites shook their heads in sadness, “it’s in the blood. They’ll never be assimilated.”
This debilitating fear, this recognition of the full potential of Kurt’s hatred of me, and the knowledge that Kurt could and would hurt me very badly if I displeased him enough, was the catalyst which transformed my vague misery and sense of defeat into an overwhelming reality. The Kurts of this world would always win—there was no standing up to them—no protection from them. With this realization came a collapse: Everything I had been doing or thinking was meaningless, trivial, in the face of the existence of Kurt.
I was basically a dreadful coward, I knew that about myself. The only possible way I could overcome this was to trick myself with that other self, who lived in dream and fantasy and who was annoyingly lackadaisical and unpractical. All passion, no sense, no order, no instinct for self-preservation. That’s what I had done, and now that cowardly self had discovered an unburnt bridge by which to return to the past.
I made lists of lists of lists, then started all over again. And if I did something that wasn’t on a list, I would promptly write it on one and cross it out, with the feeling of having at least accomplished something. I walked in my sleep into Jenny and Toly’s room one night and asked them if they thought everything was going to be all right.
I began right then and there to split into two over Rick. On the one hand I saw him as a blood-sucking little creep who had inveigled his way into my life by being nice and by tempting me with material things. On the other hand I was confronted with a very warm, gentle human being who genuinely wanted to help me and who was excited by the prospect of an adventure, who wanted to do a good job, and who cared.
Sometimes you can see where a track is by the tell-tale blossoms of wildflowers. Those along the track will either be growing more thickly or be of a different type. Sometimes, you may be able to follow the trail by searching for the ridge left aeons ago by a bulldozer. The track may wind around or over hills and ridges and rocky outcroppings, straight into sand dunes, get swallowed up by sandy creek-beds, get totally lost in stony creek-beds, or fray into a maze of animal pads. Following tracks is most often easy; sometimes frustrating, and occasionally downright terrifying.
I had a clock which I told myself was for navigation purposes only, but at which I stole furtive glances from time to time. It played tricks on me. In the heat of the afternoon, when I was tired, aching, and miserable, the clock would not move, hours elapsed between ticks and tocks. I recognized the need for absurd arbitrary structures at that stage. I did not know why, but I knew I was afraid of something like chaos. It was as if it were waiting for me to let down my guard and then it would pounce.
Some camps on those nights were so desolate they stole into my soul, and I longed for a safe nook out of that chill empty wind. I felt vulnerable. Moonlight turned the shadows into inimical forms and I was so glad of Diggity’s warmth as we snuggled beneath the blankets that I could have squeezed her to death. The rituals I performed provided another necessary structure. Everything was done correctly and obsessionally. Before I went to bed, everything was placed exactly where I wanted it for the morning.
They were gorgeous photos, no complaints there, but who was that Vogue model tripping romantically along roads with a bunch of camels behind her, hair lifted delicately by sylvan breezes and turned into a golden halo by the back-lighting. Who the hell was she? Never let it be said that the camera does not lie. It lies like a pig in mud. It captures the projections of whoever happens to be using it, never the truth.
We didn’t talk much on the way home. I did not know then that it was merely a rule of etiquette to give some little gift at the end of a dance. I felt it as a symbolic defeat. A final summing up of how I could never enter their reality, would always be a whitefella tourist on the outside looking in.
The fire flickered on white moonstruck sand, the sky was black onyx. The rumbling sound of bulls circled the camp very close until I fell asleep. In the moonlight, I woke up and maybe twenty yards away was a beast standing in full profile. I loved it and didn't want to harm it. It was beautiful, proud. Not interested in me at all. I slept again, drifting off to the sound of bells on camels, peacefully chewing their cud.
Aborigines. Warm, friendly, laughing, excited, tired Pitjantjara Aborigines, returning to Wingelinna and Pipalyatjara after a land rights meeting in Warburton. No fear there, they were comfortable with silence. No need to pretend anything. Billies of tea all round. Some sat by the fire and chatted, others drove on home.
The job is made more difficult by the fact that the adviser is more aware than the Aborigines of the possible consequences of their decisions, and wants to protect them. Not becoming a paternal-style protectionist means seeing catastrophic mistakes being made, and not being able to do a thing about it except advise, because you know that the only way the people can learn to deal with the white world is to make such mistakes. There will not always be kind-hearted whitefellas around to save the situation and be a buffer zone.
I was being torn by two different time concepts. I knew which one made sense, but the other one was fighting hard for survival. Structure, regimentation, orderedness. Which had absolutely nothing to do with anything. I kept thinking wryly to myself, “Christ, if this keeps up it will take us months to get there. So what? Is this a marathon or what? This is going to be the best part of your trip, having Eddie with you, so stretch it out, idiot, stretch it out. But but…what about routine?” and so on. The turmoil lasted all that day, but gradually faded as I relaxed into Eddie’s time. He was teaching me something about flow, about choosing the right moment for everything, about enjoying the present. I let him take over.
And as I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and yet not fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent on a gut level. I didn’t just see the animal tracks, I knew them. I didn’t just see the bird, I knew it in relationship to its actions and effects. My environment began to teach me about itself without my full awareness of the process. It became an animate being of which I was a part.
And I thought I had done it. I believed I had generated a magic for myself that had nothing to do with coincidence, believed I was part of a strange and powerful sequence of events called fate and I was beyond the need for anything or anyone. And that night I received the most profound and cruel lesson of all. That death is sudden and final and comes from nowhere. It had waited for my moment of supreme complacency and then it had struck. Late that night, Diggity took a poison bait.
I danced until I could dance no more—I danced out everything. Diggity, the trip, Rick, the article, the whole lot. I shouted and howled and wept and I leapt and contorted my body until it refused to respond anymore. I crawled back to the camels, covered in grime and sweat, shaking with fatigue, dust in my ears and nose and mouth, and slept for about an hour. When I woke, I felt healed, and weightless, and prepared for anything.
I was now public property. I was now a kind of symbol. I was now an object of ridicule for small-minded sexists, and I was a crazy, irresponsible adventurer (though not as crazy as I would have been had I failed). But worse than all that, I was now a mythical being who had done something courageous and outside the possibilities that ordinary people could hope for. And that was the antithesis of what I wanted to share. That anyone could do anything. If I could bumble my way across a desert, then anyone could do anything. And that was true especially for women, who have used cowardice for so long to protect themselves that it has become a habit.
And here I was at the end of my trip, with everything just as fuzzy and unreal as the beginning. It was easier for me to see myself in Rick’s lens, riding down to the beach in that clichéd sunset, just as it was easier for me to stand with my friends and wave goodbye to the loopy woman with the camels, the itching smell of the dust around us, and in our eyes the fear that we had left so much unsaid. There was an unpronounceable joy and an aching sadness to it. It had all happened too suddenly. I didn’t believe this was the end at all.
I had pared my possessions down to almost nothing—a survival kit, that’s all. I had a filthy sarong for hot weather and a jumper and woolly socks for cold weather and I had something to sleep on and something to eat and drink out of and that was all I needed. I felt free and untrammeled and light and I wanted to stay that way. If I could only just hold on to it. I didn’t want to get caught up in the madness out there. Poor fool, I really believed all that crap. I was forgetting that what’s true in one place is not necessarily true in another.