Although I was born in a country town, Stawell, in the Victorian Wimmera, like most Australians I am a coast dweller. Apart from a brief stint in Gippsland and a few years in Canberra (and even there the water was only a few hours’ drive away), I have hugged the east coast. On a Moreton Bay island, at Byron Bay and in the Illawarra I have hugged it closely. I’ve never been to Oodnadatta, Uluru or Alice Springs, but I have had one outback experience.
In 1969 a friend, Tony Minson, and I accompanied archaeologist Harry Allen on his field trip to western New South Wales. We were all PhD students at the ANU and, as I wrote in an earlier column, support for doctoral candidates was generous. The Prehistory Department in the Research School of Pacific Studies provided Harry with a Land Rover, camping equipment and, in those days before ATMs and credit cards, a bundle of cash.
Tony and I were fresh from the breakup of our marriages and Harry needed company and help. We drove west up the Silver City Highway and turned off it towards Lake Tandou, about 100 kilometres from Broken Hill. My main memory of that part of the drive was of having to open and close more than 30 heavy gates as we crossed various properties.
When we reached the chosen site we pitched a tent and made camp. We had sleeping bags and air mattresses. We had fresh meat at the start, which we cooked on an open fire, and later ate mainly tinned stuff. We were plentifully supplied with coffee and I seem to remember a number of flagons of Wynvale wine – riesling and claret.
We carried two spare wheels and jerry-cans of petrol and water. There was a first-aid kit and possibly a two-way radio; memory fails me on that point but we had no need of either. Harry was investigating Aboriginal occupation of the area and collected items to do with the manufacture of stone tools and the evidence of diet and cooking. Tony and I helped him sink pipes to bring up cores sampling the stratigraphy of occupation over time.
As a city boy I was amazed at the vastness and emptiness of the landscape, at its colour and the clarity of the air. The night sky was like something I’d never seen before except at sea, and the sunrises and sunsets were spectacular. We saw vast numbers of kangaroos and large flocks of emus, all looking very different from those I’d seen in zoos and sanctuaries. They were big and fast and in their own way beautiful.
We replenished supplies on one boozy visit to Broken Hill where the scene in the pub was like something out of Wake in Fright, although we hadn’t seen the film at that time (it came out in 1971).
It was hot in the day and cold at night and sometimes dusty. I’m sure there were insects and I would have worried about snakes, but time has romanticised and smoothed away such things.
I developed a heavy cold and a fever, dangerous signs for a diabetic, and the others drove me into Broken Hill and loaded me onto a train to Sydney. I had a flask of rum and a codeine-based cough syrup that I’m sure would be unprocurable over the counter now. I spent the trip pleasantly stoned in a sleeper.
I’ve written very little about inland Australia; a few short stories and at length only in the novel The Brothers Craft, but when I’ve had to conjure up the appropriate images that trip outback has provided the material.