Tag Archives: Backpacking

my country

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On the outskirts of Charters Towers giant mango trees appear, signalling with their torrid green foliage that we’re back in habitable country. The returning sight of veggie plots and herbaceous borders quiets me. I wave goodbye to the Outback. Not long now ’til the sea.

After the parched, upstart ugliness of Mt Isa, Charters Towers is paradise: well-proportioned civic stone buildings line the streets, vying with one another for shoulder space and the largest share of generous Queensland winter sun. Tidy bakeries, hardware stores and cafes crowd the pavement, offering their assurance that, in Charters Towers, the scaffolding of a well-functioning civic community is still intact: every tile, masonry block and wrought iron bannister attests to the gravitas of the town’s rich cultural history.

The nexus of streets at the heart of town is awash with people: good, simple folk out for a stroll with dogs, or gone to fetch the morning paper for an elderly aunt or neighbour. I have a brief but compelling urge to throw myself on a pink iced finger bun; the kind you only get in really really uncouth Aussie bakeries.

Around the corner, a group of mourners spill out of a church, down the pavement, smoking cigarettes and scuffing their shoes, looking nonchalant; heedless of their grief as they keep one another company under the flimsy canopy of the bus shelter. A contingent of police stand ready, watching for signs of dissonance. In our white-man van we glide, slower than Kennedy’s black limousine, past the mourners, wondering what it is all about, who has died, and why the police feel it necessary to be present.

At this rate, there are two hours remaining until we reach the East Coast; two hours to rescind my old values and re-form my opinions of my country, myself.

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An 18-month journey is coming to an end. In a matter of days I’ll be home. The conscious process of re-configuring, re-inventing… over… for the time being, superseded by a string of expenses, reunions, outings, job-seeking, home-making. With the strictures of arrival firmly in mind I draw my awareness back to the present: to the space I am occupying in Norman’s car; to the sight of the mourners and the giant waving branches of the mango trees of Mt Isa, who have seen it all, and survived.

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ratatouille on the balcony – Couch Surfing in Townsville

The following night, on the balcony of Steve’s apartment in Townsville, Richie and I are privy to an impromptu recitation of Dorothy Mackellar’s ‘My Country’. Headmaster Kevin has put away all reserve and is up on the table amid bottle tops and discarded empties, reciting lines of Australia’s most iconic poem. After a confident first verse, Kevin loses nerve, bolstering his bravado by forcing us up out of our chairs, onto our feet, goading us to repeat after him:

I love a sunburnt country

A land of sweeping plains

Of rugged mountain ranges

Of drought and flooding rains

I love her far horizons

I love her jewelled sea

Her beauty and her terror

The wide brown land for me.

Caught midway between the novelty and splendour of this rash, drunken moment, I look about at the faces around the table, feeling faintly uneasy to be participating in such a flagrant show of patriotism. Glancing across at Richie’s animated schoolboy face I wonder, what meaning, if any, the words have to him: a visitor of 10-days to this country.

Hearing the words shouted wilfully, late, on the balcony of a suburban home feels wonderfully affirming, wonderfully Australian! I am bemused to hear the Maltese, French and English persons in our midst affirming their love of and allegiance to this ‘wide brown land’. I feel involuntarily moved by the image of my country that the poem conjures; brown foliage, dry creek beds, expansive vistas – the aspects that make it unique, different to the ‘green and shaded lanes’ and ‘ordered woods and gardens’ of the world from which my ancestors (at least some of them), came, and in some cases, fled.

Since our arrival in Darwin 10 days ago, and our journey through the Outback, Richie and I have heard a lot about what it means to be Australian. We’ve heard plenty of points of view and a fair bit of nonsense. I’m anxious about the impression my country is making on Richie and keen to make amends.

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roo balls – Richie embraces ‘Australian culture’

That night, on the balcony in Townsville, Kevin’s performance is followed by a lengthy discussion of what it means to be Australian. I’m among friends and as an absentee of six years, want to know what the hell is going on in my country; why my fellow Australians are hell bent on erecting a razor wire fence along our borders to keep the ‘good’, ‘worthy’, ‘legitimate’ citizens in, and the ‘greedy’, ‘opportunistic’ migrants out.

I hold my breath and listen to what my peers tell me.

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Luck of the Irish

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I’ll tell you something you might not know about the Australian Outback – it’s peopled by young Irish! The subtle charm of saltbush and red earth does not account for the numbers in which they arrive: behind every counter, every laminate benchtop in every kitchen, pub, petrol station, cafe and caravan park between Darwin and Mt Isa there’s a Galway or Pipe lilt-a-lurking.

Whatever the Outback lacks in emerald green it makes up for in gold: the solid gold of a hard-earned wage – the kind it’s hard to come by in Ireland. Italians and French are drawn here too, for work, but not in the same numbers as the Irish – nowhere near.

At the Mataranka Caravan Park, at the end of a long day of hitchhiking, I inquire at reception about the cost of renting a tent pitch for the night: $36! It’s terrible news but pleasing nonetheless to hear it delivered in a running-stitch of tender Leinster tones! Battling to reconcile myself with parting with $36 for a patch of earth, I inquire whether management might have a spare tent they can throw into the bargain. To which she kindly responds, ‘No’.

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That night, lying under the stars, part-way-under a shared sleeping bag, with the sound of mob politics in the background, I ponder what it might be like, as a youth from an Irish village, to find yourself, suddenly,  in the Australian Outback. I feel baffled by what might draw someone this far across the earth to take up residence in a landscape only marginally less alien than the moon, to a culture as quixotic, contradictory and idiosyncratic as a pink bus called ‘Priscilla’. Surely it’s not just the money?

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On the second night of our hitch-hike across the Outback we’re saved by the kindness of the Irish. Tess, Mike and Lee are on a road trip that will take them from Sydney to Cairns. They’ve drawn up at the Barkly Homestead in their dusty blue station wagon and are happy enough to have their tents up, cans of beer in their hands and a good part of the driving behind them.

It’s cold. As they hug their coats closer about their shoulders their attention is drawn to the two weirdos (us!) who have wandered in off the road, under cover of darkness, and are spreading a layer of cardboard on the ground in order to shield themselves from the rising damp that would otherwise cost them a night of sleep.

‘We ha a tarpaulin if ya waaant it’, one of them offers, shouting over from the comfort of his canvas camping chair. He looks appalled to be witnessing our performance of voluntary impoverishment.

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East is east

Not to touch the earth,
Not to see the sun.
Nothing left to do but
Run, run, run.
Let’s run.
Let’s run.
– ‘Not to Touch the Earth’, Jim Morrison –

The dispersing of students after the PDC brought us to the steady conclusion that it was high time to make tracks. With our new recruit, Sam, we packed bags and gathered our strength. Let’s go! “To the East, to meet the Czar…”

The train tracks ate up the miles. Shades of KLF Chillout Album as ambient sounds, lights and the sporadic music of doors opening and closing rippled through the carriage. Lying prone on the grimy floor of the 2nd class carriage. Smudgy faces through compartment windows, cigarette smoke from the toilet. Night tasting like ash and Sal, or was it Dean Moriarty, whispering in my ear… “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” 

With inertia overcome the road became our only goal. East, ever east.

Train-bus-train-bus-bus. In 31 hours we unravelled the 1,200km from Malin to Istanbul. 2 borders in 12 hours.

4am Istanbul. Nothing to do. Dark. A mist of rain. Find bearings. Coffee. Wait for the train station to open. Train tracks under construction. Change of plan. A bus. Otogar. Ankara. Peak hour traffic. Miss our stop. Run. Sweat, sweat… the Dogŭ Express. Made it! “Let this be a lesson to us,” Richie warns, “you always need longer than you think!”

Our third night since leaving Malin, our first bed: 4-berth carriage aboard the Dogŭ Express. Clean sheets and a pillow. Luxury!

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