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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 12-Sep-2009

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum

Subsection: The Critics

Page: 12

Wordcount: 2113

On the road to gentle heroism


Elizabeth Farrelly

The struggle to survive in a hostile land breeds a noble spirit, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

A WOODEN cross and stone cairn stand together in the desert, a short drive from William Creek, South Australia, a town without tarmac, population 10. Roadside memorials are as common now in the outback as everywhere else, but this one stops you. The words are few, black-on-white, red earth, blue sky: “Caroline Grossmueller, 11 Dec 1998. Perished.”

What was she thinking as she trudged, then crawled, then (one imagines) dragged herself along the dusty track? Did she feel mocked by the perfidious “creek” signs or grasp at the vacant stockyards as signs of hope? Did she scrabble desperately for shade beneath these stunted bushes? Did she, for God’s sake, have a hat?

In the four days after her car became bogged in the grabby salt sludge that is Lake Eyre, Caroline Grossmueller made 30 kilometres, almost halfway back to the main road, if you can call the Oodnadatta Track that. But halfway to safety is no safety at all. Not here.

Grossmueller broke the rules. Doing the desert in December; not lowering tyre pressure; leaving her car; walking through the day. But she was 28, strong and determined; younger, stronger, more determined than her boyfriend, who survived. She was Austrian and in Austria it’s the winter that kills. What a difference a syllable makes.

It wasn’t thirst that killed her. She walked past cattle tanks and died with water beside her, a kilometre above an aquifer the size of Europe. But in this re-radiating, 50-plus oven she died, simply, of heat.

Perished. The word suggests a frailty greater than simple death, but a frailty tinged with heroism that, in the Burke and Wills tradition, is somehow undiminished either by death, or by the failure it implies. It’s a heroism born of pathos, of the microscopic vastness of humanity’s struggle with nature, where failure is part of the point.

Of course, dying is not by itself heroic. Anyone can die. Heroism requires a certain nobility. What is nobility, though, in an age when the dominant public value is neither excellence nor godliness nor duty but simple (some might say simple-minded) equality?

Heroism, of course, is a construct and one that now, like nobility, seems a quaint relic of some bygone era. Weary Dunlop, that sort of thing. But there is nevertheless something ennobling – something heroic – about the struggle to survive a hostile land.

It’s hard to say, when you’re in it, whether Australia’s Big Empty is hostile or simply indifferent. Sometimes she feels like a mother so old and worn she simply cannot rouse herself to interest, either for or against.

But we’re OK. It’s a cloudless 23-degree winter day and we’re in a working car with water, temperature control, fridge, CD player. Even so, in this whistlingly vacant landscape, the “what if?” thoughts seldom retreat far beyond the visible. As the world changes from blinding crusted white to black gibber plain, almost volcanic in its harshness, then back to the familiar red dust, Grossmueller’s ghost is disturbingly real. Indeed, when both the lake and the pelicans vanish on the thermals, Grossmueller’s ghost is the inland sea’s most palpable presence.

When we first encounter it, we’re listening, by chance, to a Jack London story, To Build a Fire. London is usually seen as a realist but the story is really a meditation on temperature: on one man’s “frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold … “

London’s tale is like an inverting mirror of our – or, rather, Grossmueller’s – real-life experience. A story of death-by-cold in a white, dark world, it is set on two metres of ice and snow when the sun hasn’t made the horizon for days. And here we are in this glaring, blackened landscape where it’s the implacable sun that kills.

At 50 below, says London, spittle cracks when it hits the ground; any colder and your spit cracks as it leaves your mouth. It’s a different scale (50 below is a mere 30C below zero), but Caroline died at more than 50 above.

London’s hero struggles to make his frozen fingers light the fire that will save him and, in finally succeeding, loses that fire (and his life) to an avalanche that his flame has loosened from a branch. Yet here we are in this fan-assisted oven that can snuff out an entire sea in weeks, a life in days.

Heading out next morning – scuttling, perhaps, for the normalcy of the track – we play Faure’s Requiem instead, feeling its eeriness in the landscape as well as the occasion. Passing Grossmueller’s cross we feel almost guilty for abandoning her, but as soon as we decently can we reach for Johnny Cash, whose misery is at least human misery.

But Cash has his own frontierist appeal, one that drinks at the well of America’s wild-west mythos. This Clint dreaming was always an easy transplant into Australia’s bulldust-and-stockwhips heartland. And it’s a dreaming that I, despite gulfs of gender, culture and inclination, happily pull on with my Blunnies.

Our mount may be an internal combustion engine but in its rhythmic hoofbeat my subconscious hears the growl; “Get three coffins ready … my mistake. Make that four.” Around the campfire I cook beans and sip whisky (single-malt, admittedly, not moonshine). I love the crunch of boots on a dirt road and even consider taking up cigars, just to spit the butt into the dust. (Yes, sigh. I’d pick it up and take it with me. This is strictly for the inner camera).

But all this is problematic, these days. Not only is Clint-ism imported. It’s also racist (based on the black-and-white days when cowboys could shoot, itchy bums could scalp and everyone could feel good about it), sexist and environmentally unsound, so that Clint loyalists find themselves suddenly not heroes but rednecks.

It was heroic, though, in its time. Australian frontierism, despite the best attempts of Tom Roberts and Banjo Paterson, doesn’t even have that going for it. Here, the indigenous peoples were too easily conquered for anyone to cast it even as a fair fight, much less feel good about it. And the land itself was too weird – and too weary – for us even to engage with it properly.

So we gather in denial around the continent’s chattering edge, talking, inter alia, about ourselves as a nation bent on glorifying failure. Ned Kelly, we say. Gallipoli. Utzon. We don’t admire our politicians, or corporate leaders, or churchmen, or even the rich. Ask most people to name a hero and they’ll give you a swimmer or footballer. And when, as happens, that person turns out to be a thug and a boor, we’re scandalised, as if we expected higher things from someone so well-buffed.

It’s as though we’ve forgotten that heroism exercises moral muscle, not physical. So our real heroes – such as Australian doctor Catherine Hamlin or Caroline Chisholm or even Daisy Bates, who sold her property to support her work with Aboriginal people – are also all but forgotten by history.

Not all heroism is on a grand scale, of course. Some of it is simple survival stuff; the attempt to live with goodness in an inhospitable place. And the landscape of the Big Empty seems textured, criss-crossed, by the tracks, traces, bones and scats of vanished enterprise, heroic efforts turned to dust. These make up that fine veil of pathos.

For hundreds of kilometres you travel beside the remains of the old Ghan, tens of thousands of beautiful hardwood sleepers and hand-wrought iron nails half buried in the sand like some giant fossil skeleton. Now and then we pick one up for firewood; still surprisingly heavy, they burn brilliantly – although so, they say, did the Egyptian mummies that fuelled all those 19th-century steam trains.

Only when we encounter a herd of wild camels – with their wonderful, superior expressions and their zig-zag hind legs – does it dawn on me that the Ghan was named for the Afghan cameleers who did so much to make central Australia a going concern but are now largely forgotten.

Mostly Afghan or Sikh but known universally as Ghans, the cameleers earned less than a quarter of the (mostly white) teamsters’ wage. Yet their reliable, swift, soft-footed and near-silent passage (off-road, for the camels’ soft feet, and not stopping for lunch, as the teamsters did, because camels could not stand fully loaded in the heat) bespoke an intelligent approach to an inhospitable land that brought them success where both horses and bullocks failed.

For 70 years they carried wool, food and corrugated iron between outback towns, but this did not stop them being reviled as dirty, lazy and salacious, or save them from the camel-shooting laws and exorbitant government agistment fees that undermined their prosperity even before motorised transport finally killed the business.

There’s the dingo fence, a heroic gesture in itself but now only intermittently maintained and anyway, it turns out, something our native animals would have been better off without, since the dingoes keep the feral cats down.

At Waukaringa, north of Yunta, a ruined pub speaks similarly of big ideas that bit the dust. Waukaringa doesn’t exist. It does not figure on the National Public Toilet Map (and yes, touchingly, there is such a thing). It has a cemetery, somewhere, a bullet-riddled truck of some ancient Ford variety and a pub. A ruined, desolate pub.

It’s a long way from the usual gold-town shanty, this; a serious attempt at permanent foothold in a shelterless land. With 30 centimetre-thick stone walls, fireplaces in every room and deep, stone-lined tanks and basements, it turns a stout collar to the wind and opens its coat to the sun. Inhabited, some say, until the 1970s, its roof has collapsed and its life-support systems are home only to the occasional skink.

At Hermannsburg, once central Australia’s largest settlement, Pastor Carl Strehlow devoted himself to protecting the Aboriginal people from squatters and police, becoming fluent in Arrernte, Dieri and Luritja, recording 800 Aboriginal songs, translating the Bible and publishing (in German) a seven-volume account of the myths, culture and customs of local people.

Famed for its association with (and perhaps destruction of) Albert Namitjira, Hemannsburg is now a largely Aboriginal settlement but at its heart the whitewashed Lutheran village remains, its bakery, church, schoolhouse, infirmary and minuscule mortuary clustered around a red-dirt dream of desert heroism.

Further up the page, in Alice, it is clear at a glance that there are many heroic mythologies in operation; the mining strand, the pastoralist strand, the black strand and, almost totally distinct, the gallerists’ strand, like a lost piece of Paddington or Danks Street. All have their own self-talk, their own internal movie in which their shadow looms long over the landscape.

And it occurs to me that we’re doing the same. That in the snobberies of the road – 4WD over sedan, campfire over cooker and the hierarchy that puts motel, caravan, tent and swag on a ladder of ascending authenticity – there is the same pursuit, if not of heroism proper, at least of a hero-flavoured self-talk that converts hardship into a kind of nobility.

Curled up in my swag at night, with dirt beneath, stars above and my Itty Bitty Book Light a glow-worm against the dark, I’m reading Tim Winton’s Breath, a surfing novel that builds up like a great wave that never quite breaks. And it occurs to me that Winton’s Sando character – a “huge, bearded, coiled-up presence” – is really an examination of the same stuff. Of whether the desire for risk and self-testing amounts finally to heroism or just an egotistic avoidance of the ordinary.

Either way, swagging it around the outback returns ideas of nomadism and its role in generating the central Australian veil. Nomadism, say many theorists, was the last time human societies were truly honourable – so I look at the grey nomads we meet in every town and campsite, every chasm and gorge. I look at them as we overtake, feeling superior in our lightness of foot, with their folding tables and their bone china, their names – “Dawn and Jeff”, “Ken and Doris” – in careful cursive script on their Jayco Expandas and their Dreamtime Fairhavens.

It’s easy to despise these silver-folk as fuddy-duddy pensioners with nothing better to do. But you can see them in an altogether different light; as these, our elders, gather round their barbies to swap stories and photo locations, as they make their ceaseless cross-continental tracks, keeping small towns alive and agitating for environmental protections, they may be closer than most of us to the gentle heroisms that sprang originally from the belly of this weary land.


TWO DRAWINGS: Illustrations: John Shakespeare


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