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the big empty

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 30-Jul-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 819

Mile after mile of big fat nothing

Elizabeth Farrelly

Terra nullius it clearly wasn’t, not even by honest mistake. Terra vacuus maybe. Or vacua, since it’s feminine. In fact, I’d probably go with vacua vacua, like sapiens sapiens, just to make the point. Man, this place is empty.

It’s a point that remakes itself at every step of our 8000-kilometre swag through the Big Empty, from Sydney to the Alice and back. And yet, on the road, I am constantly surprised, not just by the absences, which are broadly as expected (water, life, the third dimension), but by culture’s responses.

The absences are everywhere, like rocks on a gibber plain. They’re in the ubiquitous “floodway” warnings that punctuate every outback track at 500-metre intervals, wistfully accompanied by a two-metre calibrated stick. Like, they wish.

They’re in the word “creek”, the second commonest road sign of the arid lands, which to the uninitiated might suggest discernible aqueous flow. A conspiracy of map makers perpetuates this error, habitually showing the entire outback, from Menindee to Tibooburra, intensively veined and capillaried by thin blue lines. Only on the ground do you see the bone-dry truth. Then take in the excruciation of the names themselves; Disappointment, Deception, Disaster or just plain Dismal Creek.

In fact, in Australia, “creek” really means “good dry camping spot”.

There’s the word “mount” or “mountain”, usually indicating elevation but here meaning simply non-flat. There’s “farm” or “station”, usually implying life, animal or vegetable. And there’s national park, generally mapped as green and implying perceptible plant life. Except here. In Australia, these words – indeed these geographic features – are interchangeable. They all mean the same. Big fat nothing.

There’s also “lake”, usually signifying large expanse of fresh water. Be not fooled. And if by chance you’re thinking of popping off to see Lake Eyre, the occasional remnant of our great inland sea, reputedly wettish for the first time in a yonks and brimming – nay, teeming – with aquatic life, my advice is, don’t.

All those YouTube videos showing a gazillion “breeding events” on the lake, involving whirring flocks of pelicans, egrets, galahs and Major Mitchells? I reckon they were shot on the Nile or the Amazon then dubbed with a Channel Seven reporter in Driza-Bone and tinny.

Even for the toughest vehicle there are only two ground access points to Lake Eyre. (Three if you count ABC Bay which, minus the signpost, would easily pass for sandy paddock.) There’s Level Post Bay, top right of the bottom lake (which never did have water, this time round), and Halligans Bay, bottom left of the top lake, currently evaporating several Olympic pools a day and already ablush with pink algae.

Two bays, two sleeps, one experience. White sand, whiter salt, a horizon-streak of silvered pseudo-water at positively binocular distance and viscous salt-crust that’ll be up past your knees long before the mirage fades. And half a dozen razor-voiced gulls that couldn’t cut it at Bondi.

All of which leaves the big question unanswered. Are there actually any birds here? Or is Lake Eyre the biggest swizz since Y2K?

If, like us, you are finally driven to refinance the house for the chopper flight that’ll solve this mystery, you’ll see, as we did, four cows, two galahs and the same set of Bondi seagulls. All in plan view. That was last week. This week even the galahs are probably back in Sydney. As to pelicans: you’ll see more any Sunday in Centennial Park than at Lake Freakin’ Eyre.

But that’s fine. Lake Eyre might have been the reason for the trip but really, I’m there for the dry. I like the Empty. In fact I love it. So intense – so present – is the absence I photograph it compulsively. Five hundred frames of nothing.

I hear its whispered susurrus, like some ghost host of casuarinas. And though I’ve never really bought the spiritual side of desert, we find ourselves arguing around the campfire about the delphic “know thyself” and what, if anything, it’s worth. (Personally I oppose introspection, not least on aesthetic grounds.) Only later do I remember that deserts and mystics go together like flies and doo-doo.

And so to scatology. Driven, thus, to examine the tracks and traces of life rather than the thing itself, we take up poo science. Slowly we learn the difference between goat (pointed both ends) and sheep (round at one); between spinifex hopping mouse (probably apocryphal) and the bumptious mus musculus, or house mouse; between brumby poo, donkey poo and the poo of the all-wise, all-seeing one-hump camel.

You might expect so minutely nuanced a nature to generate a culture of immense and subtle delicacy, rather than your average bushie’s ute-n-shootery. Such a culture did grow here, of course. A fine, grassy weave of song and story and sharpened intuition that held the friable soils in place for eons before we trampled them with our hard-hoofed ways, leaving just another palpable absence in an antique land.


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