The Gunn Log: Australia – Across the red center
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to http://www.wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to http://www.rickgunnphotography.com.
The sun rose before me with the glow of an oven coil, a red disc that crept from the horizon. The heat that followed nearly set the landscape on fire. A kangaroo sprang from the bush, kicking up puffs of dust. Stopping for a moment to watch its tracks, I traced it over the rocks, through the trees, until it disappeared into the distance – flat, sparse, bare.
“You don’t wanna ride a bicycle out there,” warned an elderly bushman in an outfitter’s shop just outside Darwin. “There’s nothing out there but spinifex and gum trees,” he said as he set my supplies upon the counter. “There’s no food, no water, no people at all.”
I had tried to explain to him that that was exactly what I was after – a quiet place to decompress – after cycling through the madness of Asia.
The man did not listen. Instead, he turned his attention back out over the bush, staring into the void. “There’s nothing out there,” he repeated somberly, before he turned and walked away.
“Exactly,” I replied, then left to pack my things.
Two days later, loaded with 10 days’ worth of food, 8 liters of water and two large containers of rehydration powder, I stood over my bike and watched as heat waves formed over the strip of tarmac before me. At just less than 2,000 miles, it was one of the longest continuous roads on the planet: the great Stuart Highway.
It was named in 1862 after founding explorer John McDouall Stuart, a Scotsman who had been the first to blaze a route across Australia’s harsh desert Outback. Using every ounce of life force to cross 6,400 kilometers of hostile terrain, Stuart accomplished his task – only to collapse on the far shore. On the return trip to Adelaide, Stuart had to be carried on a stretcher. Irrevocably plagued by the punishments of his journey, Stuart then went on a four-year decline into death due to scurvy.
“Now, that’s the route for me,” I said, slipping a copy of his journal into my bike bags. I mounted my bike, then set about my way.
* * *
That first morning of pedaling, superheated winds blew at temperatures of 102. Hot and tired, I achieved only 50 measly miles before coming upon a smallish river – beautifully deep, emerald and wild.
But just as I descended to go for a dip, I intuitively looked upon the banks, as if I’d seen them before – perhaps in slow motion – on a segment of Animal Planet. Just then, a road worker passed and slammed on his brakes. Running his gaze over my bike, he rolled his eyes, then shot me an evil glare.
“Afternoon,” I said as he rolled down the window, “I was just thinking of a …”
“For God’s sake, mate!” he interrupted. “Did you not see the sign?”
“What sign?” I asked innocently.
“The sign, mate, that has the picture of the man doing this,” he shouted, before he began moving his limbs arm over arm. “Or this,” he added, joining his palms and snapping his arched fingers together.
“Salties, mate! Crocs! Whatever you do … do not swim here!” he exclaimed with disgust.
Growing up to 27 feet in length, the saltwater crocodile is the largest living reptile on the planet. Easily capable of building habitats 50 miles inland, these prehistoric carnivores have a nasty reputation of snapping up humans like cocktail weenies.
“Just down the road,” the man said after he had calmed down a bit, “a Swiss man was taken by a mother croc after he tried to ‘pet’ its baby.”
“And make sure you have plenty of water,” he added, as he rolled up his window. “They found a another dead Swiss laying near his bike after he’d been missing for TWO YEARS!”
As I watched the truck fade into the distance, several questions arose within my mind: The first about crocodile etiquette, and the second about water availability. These were soon replaced by the more obvious question: “What’s up with all these dead Swiss dudes?” I thought as I climbed on my bike and continued along my way.
* * *
As it turned out, Crocodylus porosus was the least of my worries. In fact, the species that would become my archnemesis across the Outback was smaller. Much smaller. It was Australophlebotomus mackerrasi, more commonly known as the phlebotomine sand fly.
These small, plentiful, incredibly persistent sand flies seemed irresistibly drawn to the human head – tripling in number the moment you began to sweat. Using your face as an insectile landing strip, they dove into your eyes, buzzed your ears or rocketed up your nose. They were easily sucked to the back of the mouth during inhalation, so it wasn’t uncommon for me to swallow two or three flies a day.
Stuart’s expedition party were no strangers to these insects. After the expedition, one of the men recalled: “… the sandflies, the common flies, and the mosquitoes … were terrible. Our hands, wrists, necks and feet were all blistered with their bites, and many earnest inquiries were made as to who could explain their use in this world. One of the party thought they were sent to teach a man how to swear fluently.”
And swear I did at these creatures, right up until I reached an outdoor shop on the main streets of Katherine. As I walked in, the man behind the counter read the look on my face. “Let me guess,” he said, “you’re here looking for a head net …”
Proudly sporting my new accessory, I set off the next morning to Katherine Gorge National Park. There, I traded my pedals for paddles. Floating like a popsicle stick between two perpendicular rock walls, I glided lazily over sheets of liquid glass.
Reassured by rangers that the freshwater crocs didn’t bite, I plunged into waters that were bursting with wildlife. There were darters and kookaburra birds, swallowlike Fairy-Martins, snake-necked turtles and the infamous barramundi fish. There were lizards and snakes, frogs and bats, too. At lunchtime, I was preparing a feast of peanut butter and jelly when a kangaroo walked up and snatched my only loaf of bread, then ate the whole thing just inches from my leg.
When I returned to my camping spot late that night, I once again stumbled on yet another form of wildlife: the great Australian camper. Vivacious, hospitable and heavily armed with steak and beer, the Australian took his “caravaning” very seriously. And at any given campground on any given night – usually after a couple of beers – I would find myself deep within mutually incomprehensible conversations of American and Australian slang.
* * *
Waking up early one morning, I rode 85 miles against furnacelike headwinds. Stumbling and mumbling into the tiny town of Three Ways, I wobbled into the campground looking as though I’d spent the last month trapped inside a cement mixer. After using every last bit of energy to set up camp, I lay in my tent browsing excerpts from Stuart’s journals.
I came upon one of Stuart’s encounters with a group of Aboriginals. An entry for March 1861 read: “We saw natives at the upper end at a brush fence in the water; they appeared to be fishing, and did not see us until I called to them. The female was the first who left the water; she ran to the bank, took up her child and made for a tree, up which she climbed, pushing her young one up before her. … The man … ascended the bank and had a look at us; he then addressed us in his own language and seemed to work himself up into a great passion, stopping every now and then and spitting fiercely at us like an old tiger.”
Two days later – some 140 years after Stuart’s first indigenous encounters – I cycled into the Aboriginal community of Tennant Creek. There, I came upon large groups of indigenous men and women. They were drunk and squabbling, staggering in front of a liquor store, waiting for it to open.
As I looked upon the group, my mind began to churn with the terms of recent Aboriginal history: extermination, detribalization, denigration, loss of land, loss of cultural structure, exploitation, alcoholism, domestic violence, underrepresentation in the political system and overrepresentation in prison populations.
“G’day,” one of the elderly Aboriginal men said as he approached. He smiled and looked at me through gentle, opaque eyes. Though he glanced at me for only a moment, I recognized something powerful – something deep within those eyes.
What I saw were stories: Stories of a different land, a different people, in a different time, with a different way of being. For these people, these stories lead the way. Without them, they were lost. They were the cairns and waymarkers for a culture that went back 43,000 years.
I knew I needed to find these stories. Or, moreover, I needed to find those who maintained these stories. For they were the ones holding the torch, leading their people back to their heritage – blazing the path of courage, light and hope. I found these storykeepers and more in Alice Springs.
* * *
I entered Alice Springs – bustling, hot, modern and sprawling – beneath the looming McDonnell Range. I parked my bike near the center of town and entered the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). For 24 years, CAAMA has produced indigenous music, radio, film and television programs that reach more than 1 million people in a variety of Aboriginal languages.
It was here that I found emerging Aboriginal filmmaker Dena Curtis. The 26-year-old had earned a scholarship to attend the Sydney Film School as well as sponsorships from the indigenous branch of the Australian Film Commission. Among her four short films, her 10-minute documentary “Cheeky Dog,” about a young Aboriginal boy in Tennant Creek who suffers from MS, went to the Sydney Film Festival in June. After that, it aired on ABC Australia.
When I asked her why she had picked film as a medium to tell these Aboriginal stories, her answer was clear. “I think the most rewarding thing about making these films is that indigenous people get to see black faces and black stories in their own language … like they’re a part of something positive. Otherwise, the only other times when they’d see a black face on TV is when it’s negative.”
A couple of days later, I was introduced to Mitjili Gibson, an internationally acclaimed Aboriginal artist and expert naturalist. Born in the wilds of Western Australia, Mitjili is not only a painter, but also a vital source of esoteric knowledge for biologists, ethnobiologists, ethnobotanists, scientists and naturalists, as well as those working with endangered species. Over the past 20 years, Mitjili has been featured in countless magazines, books, and television and radio programs.
“She’s pre-European contact,” her son-in-law, Peter Bartlett, explained as we watched her paint in a downtown studio.
“She’s what?” I asked.
“She was born in the West Australian Bush before the arrival of the white man there,” he clarified.
Mitjili smiled, then spoke in her native Pintupi dialect. It rolled from her tongue like thick liquid velvet.
Peter translated. “Her mother and father were speared to death,” he informed me. “A tribe had killed the two of them after her father had cleared a water hole. She was an infant at the time, and the only reason she survived was because her brother carried her across the desert. He’d kept her alive feeding her from the breast of a lactating feral cat.”
Peter watched me studying the colorful concentric circles that formed the basis of Mitjili’s paintings.
“Her paintings are like diaries,” he said, “they are memories of her life. Some of the circles represent the small islands that surrounded the edge of a salt lake where she’d grown up. Others represent the holes they dug to sleep in at night – holes that sheltered them from the wind and cold.”
“I’ve always wondered how these people survived in this desert,” I asked him. “What did they eat?”
“To us, it looks like a desert,” he replied. “To them, it was a paradise. They had all the things they needed. They ate a variety of bush foods, Bush banana, bush tomatoes, bush raisins and grass seed that they combined to make a simple unleavened bread. They were also nicknamed the ‘Lizard Eaters,’ because the area where they lived has the highest density of snakes and lizards in the world.”
“They also ate these,” Peter announced, opening a small paint can that sat near Mitjili’s feet.
When I looked inside, I spied piles of wriggling insects, their abdomens bulging with a clear-golden liquid.
“What are they?” I asked.
“They’re honey ants,” he said. “Try one.”
I picked one up by the head, then chomped off its body. As I did, it released the tastes of toffee and honey. The insect was delicious.
The last group of indigenous people I met were Peter Williams Sr., Charlene Williams, Peter Williams Jr. and Nathan Eldridge, from New South Wales. The four of them formed the traditional Aboriginal dance group Thinkga. There, among the hills just outside Alice Springs, I watched as they twirled and leapt.
“I didn’t grow up with the culture,” Peter Williams Sr. told me, “but it’s nice for me to get back to my roots.”
Satisfied with my time meeting these story keepers, I cycled out of Alice Springs the following day. Thirteen days later, I finished my journey across the Stuart Highway near the city limits sign outside Port Augusta. A spectacular show of stars filled the sky during my last night in the Outback, sparkling across the heavens from horizon to horizon. As I laid on my back to watch them shimmer, I thought of my journey, then that of John McDouall Stuart.
I couldn’t help but think of his elation as he accomplished his task and reached the far shore. For a moment, I imagined him smiling over the ocean, repeating the same words I’d uttered earlier that day: “I did it … I actually did it.”
Later that night, after crawling into my tent, I opened a book and came upon this Aboriginal proverb: “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love … and then we return home.”