“Living here isn’t for everyone...” is my usual response to the inevitable and often perplexed question of why I call the outback town of Tennant Creek in the middle of the Northern Territory home “...but I love it”

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Ebb and Flow

It is, without a doubt, the most anticipated event of the year out here.  The Wet season break.  There really are only two seasons in this arid landscape - the Wet, and the Dry - and our lives are lived against the backdrop of their constant ebb and flow .  Like jealous would-be suiters, they compete in the atmosphere above for the prize of the earth below.

While the Wet season breaks suddenly, the Dry moves in with cunning and stealth around March, slowly driving the Wet home to the tropics in the north.  It’s those steady high pressure systems, rolling across empty deep blue skies that dominate the Dry.  Slowly and relentlessly, it draws the moisture from the earth below, drinking in every last drop until the red dirt is parched and set with a hard cracking crust.

The Dry brings with it day after day of cloudless skies and a warming sun that holds the mid year chills at bay.  It draws southerners out from under their drizzling clouds in search of that thawing warmth, snaking up the highway in their thousands, towing their rigs and swamping the roadside rest stops.  

For month after long month, not a drop will fall from those skies.  As the soils bake and the blustery winds blow through, a coat of dust settles.  The Dry claiming its prize.  Every rock. Every leaf and tussock of tinder-dry grass. Every rusty tin roof is veiled by the muting red dirt that is swept up from the dry and now bare earth by the spiraling desert whirlwinds.  

Come October, as the temperatures rise through the high thirties, threatening to break forty it begins - the build up and the longing for rain.  The speculation is spurred on by an ache deep in some old locals left knee as he sits at the bar in the Goldfields Hotel - a sure sign that it’s on its way.  Then there’s the denial, not wanting to hold out hope of relief.  “It’ll be late this year for sure... if it comes at all.”

As it nears the tension builds.  You can feel it.  Electric and buzzing through your skin, tripping each and every nerve ending in turn.  There’s something about living in this ancient landscape that awakens those long forgotten instincts.  That sense, a deep knowing of what is to come.  The same cues that spur the ants into defensive action and drive the erratic excitement in flocks of corellas compels you to look to the sky and search the clouds as they roll in.  

Hanging with the change in the air, that breeze just a little cooler and the very slightest hint of moisture, is the question on all of our lips. Will today be the day?  When the Wet and the Dry do battle in the sky above, will today be the day that the Wet will break the tight grip of the Dry’s thirsty embrace?

It’s not a certain victory, but the Wet is a persistent challenger and each afternoon it returns to the battlefield.  It’s billowing thunderheads reach high and dark into the sky, pushed upwards by the Dry with all its might, not yet willing to let go.

But finally when those first few drops, full and heavy hit the earth, they give the impression that gravity alone didn’t draw them there.  That it was through sheer will, grit and determination, forces beyond the laws of physics, that they pushed through the thick hot air.  

The first rains bring a promise of a new beginning and cast loose a sense of relief that sweeps through town leaving no one untouched.  They inspire a flurry of cameras clicking and Facebook status updates - “It’s here” as though announcing the second coming of Christ. It washes the landscape clean, revealing hidden colour and light, and it’s at times like this that you see most clearly those fundamental forces that truly determine the path of our lives.  You see the elements that both give and take away.  An understanding of what you truly need, basic matters of life and death, is the precious gift this ancient landscape and the ebb and flow of the seasons can give us.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

It is who I am

I’m sure it’s not commonplace to find yourself driving through the outback with a stranger from  Majorca in the passenger seat.  But then again, what is commonplace out here?  She was standing alone on the side of the highway about a hundred kilometres south of town, thumb pointing boldly up at the end of her outstretched arm.  I didn’t really want company - I prefer to drive alone - but I couldn’t just leave her there.  People die out here. 

And I don’t mean the Falconio-murder-mystery strain of death that feeds hungry media packs and sends a hint of a shiver prickling down your neck each time you pass where they say he died.  That is, of course, a risk that sits awkwardly in the back of your mind.  One exposing conversation with a weathered local sitting alone at the Barrow Creek pub is enough to lend an uncomfortable plausibility to the Joanne Lees story. 

But there’s another kind of death to be found on the side of the highway.  A far more insidious killer.

They had forecast a hot day as usual.  Forty-two in the shade, but there isn’t much of that out there exposed on the side of the highway where the temperature can push fifty.  Standing on the burnt earth, the tops of your feet sting as the sun penetrates through even the thickest of boot leather while the heat rising from the ground beneath easily breaches your protective rubber soles, slowly baking your feet right through.   The radiant heat of the bitumen hints that the molten lava at the centre of the earth bubbles not as far beneath the surface as you might think.

In that kind of dry heat it doesn’t take long to dehydrate.  You slowly lose your senses as sun stroke sets in and irrational thought overrides all survival instinct.  From there it’s only a few short steps to a foolish decision, followed by a stumble into permanent unconsciousness which sneaks up behind and snatches you unaware.   No,  I couldn’t just leave her there.

Her English wasn’t great and it didn’t even occur to me to insult her with my limited knowledge of Spanish.  “Tengo cuatro hermanos” was unlikely to be of particular interest to her anyway.  Her sentences  were punctuated with phrases that must have been in Spanish, because they sure didn’t sound like any kind of English I recognised.  But despite that, through something close to a miracle guided by charades and expressive hand gestures, we connected.  Two people from opposites ends of the earth, hurtling down an empty desert highway, sharing culture and passion in broken English. 

“I am Majorcan” she would announce from time to time.  “It is who I am.”

“It doesn’t matter  where I live. In Australia I could be happy, I could live well… but  in my gut I would always be Majorcan.”  She spoke of her island home surrounded by the crystal clear blue Mediterranean Sea as some sort of paradise.  She had a passion for their food that transcended indulgence and a ‘foodies’ pretention.  It was a passion that comes from the heart, not the head and it connects them to their homeland, their culture, to life itself in a way that I’m sure I will never truly understand. 

“Yes… I am Majorcan.”

Looking through the window at desert passing by, scrub, red earth and hot rock, I saw my own Majorca.   That I can understand.  That feeling of totally belong to a place.  That no matter where you are, a piece of you is always there.  I was not born here in this desert.  My ancestral connections lay in a foreign land I have never seen.  But I belong here.  Where ever I go and no matter how I live, this place comes with me in my gut. The sea of deep red earth that laps against the spinifex covered rocky outcrops is, in its own unique way, my paradise.   It is my own Majorca.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Australia Day

It’s Australia Day today.  It’s a day when half of Tennant celebrates while the other half mourns.  Knowing where to stand on a day like today can be tricky, so I tend to stand alone.  From the top of One Tank Hill you can look down over our town, not quite nestled in the foothills of the Honeymoon Ranges. 
Most people go there to see Tennant from a distance and be convinced for a few deceptive moments that harmony lives here.  I go there to see Tennant as it really is - an island, standing alone in a vast ocean of spinifex and red dirt.  
On a clear day you can see right to the edge of the earth, to the gentle curving horizon from up there.  Standing in the silence, it’s easy to believe that the world outside is too far removed to reach you.  That if you stretch out your hand, nothing will touch it.  That no one can reach in and touch you.  
Its a view with the power to evoke a primal fear, revealing to you just how small and vulnerable you really are.  The hot dry air sweeping up from the ancient plains below, carries with it that palpable uneasiness those first European settlers left behind - disconnected from their homeland, feeling alone in a harsh and unforgiving landscape, an uncertain future ahead of them.
Its also a view, that if you let it, can draw you into its protective embrace.  It promises to hold at bay the world outside, unable to cross that vast and seemingly endless emptiness. Standing there, its easy to understand how forty thousand years of living here could lull you into a false sense of security.  Make you believe you were safe from that inevitable invasion.
This is the original Australia.  This view.  This landscape.  This isolation. Out here you can touch our past, connect with the land that has shaped us, made us who we are.  Its easy in these times of high speed connectivity to forget that we are all islanders, that we are in this together.  But stand up there, alone on One Tank Hill, and that landscape will remind you who we really are.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Liquid Gold

They say Australia was built off the sheep’s back.  Not Tennant.  We were built off the back of a beer truck.  It’s not the first thing you notice when you come to town.  But spend enough time here and eventually you will realise there’s no creek in Tennant Creek.  
The locals call it the Seven Mile, and for very practical reason.  The highway crosses Tennant Creek about eleven kilometres, or seven miles in the old money, north of town where the old stone telegraph station still stands.  It wasn’t the only building on the creek in those early days.  This is golden country.  Settled by pastoralists drawn by the swaying golden grasses, and desperate men gambling their last hope on the promise of endless golden riches hidden in that deep red earth. 
Like all men working hard in the relentless heat and dust, our founding fathers were thirsty.  It was a thirst that could only be quenched by that other kind of gold.  Liquid gold they called it. Beer.  It must have been a fateful day, that day the beer truck broke down just seven miles short of its destination.  
Now, if you believe local legend, our founding fathers were also a resourceful lot. If the beer couldn’t come to town, then town would simply come to the beer. Today Tennant Creek still stands seven miles south of the crossing, the pub in the main street a fitting monument to that truck’s final resting place.
Gold, in all its forms, seems woven into the very fabric of this place.  That first lucky strike wave passed, as it did in so many Australian towns, though men, seemingly less desperate now, still search for the next big find.  The swaying golden pastures feed a thriving beef industry, and that liquid gold flows freely, though mostly through our blood too often spilled on the red earth in an angry drunken haze.
What do we do, in a place so intimately connected to the very thing that tears so many of us apart?  How do we extract ourselves from our history, our blood?  Someone please tell me - how do we quench that thirst that wasn’t earned through hot and dusty toil?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Rough as Guts

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s rough as guts out here.  It’s the kind of place where you can turn the corner and find a woman squatting in the gutter for a pee.  She’d have had her nickers around her ankles if she’d been wearing any.  The fences are high and the windows barred, the glass behind grimy.  Even the water is hard, thick with minerals that clog your shower-head and stain your toilet bowl.
There’s no gloss here. No ornate facades meticulously restored to the cha-ching of the Bunnings cash register.  No cafe strip.  The cappuccino’s are served flourish-free, and a large is a “mugaccino”, the pun completely unintended. 
When I first came here, I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive without coffee.  I’d been working in the city where you were never more than fifty metres from a decent cup, hot but not too hot.  It had become a basic human right.  An essential that in my opinion should have qualified for GST-free status.
But not out here. My coffee was another victim of that rock hard water and it didn’t end there.  Good quality fresh food.  Being able to buy everything on your shopping list at the supermarket.  Reading the Sunday paper... on Sunday.  Express Post.  Shopping that doesn’t require an internet connection.  The list goes on.  
Four years on and somehow, miraculously even, I have survived.  More than survived.  I’m happy.  Enjoying a lifestyle free of the pressure of convenience.  It would seem that all of those essentials come with a cost that I don’t pay out here. When the Sunday paper arrives on Monday morning, it doesn’t bring with it those glossy magazines, flaunting before me page after page of the next “must-have” that I can’t afford and won’t feel complete without.  I’m blissfully unaware and I like it that way.
But I also understand.  This living in Tennant Creek rough as guts thing - it’s not for everyone.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Coming Home

Coming home is no small feat.  I’d been in Melbourne for five weeks all up and the three hour morning flight to Alice Springs doesn’t quite get me half way.  Heading north through the ranges out of Alice with a five hundred kilometre drive ahead, I was tired and I just wanted to get home.  Why do I do this?  I’d set out at five in the morning and I wouldn’t be home until after eight in the evening.  Why do I live so far away?
But as I drove in silence, kilometre after long kilometre it happened as it always does.  There is something about this arid landscape that seems to rejuvenate me.  The red soil.  The vast open space.  The quietness of it all.  And that dry heat.  
It had been hot for a day or two in Melbourne, but it was the kind of heat that invades your personal space.  Coats you.  Smothers you.  Up here its different.  It penetrates you right to the bone.  It hits your skin and sinks right in, becoming part of you.  It rises up from the earth and in some kind of primal way connects you to the landscape that surrounds you.  
I pulled over at the half way mark for a pee.  Stepping out of the cool air conditioned four wheel drive it hit me like the heat from the oven when you open the door, the rich baking aromas rushing up to meet you. Most people hate it of course, the heat.  That’s why they visit in winter, wearing their shorts and t-shirts while the locals rug up.  Living out here isn’t for everyone... but I love it, heat and all.    

Pulling in to town as the sun set, I couldn’t help but smile.  Home.  The dirt and dust coating everything.  The long grass in the not quite kept yards.  The group of aboriginal women sitting cross-legged on the footpath, another not far away passed out on the grass. The bloody camp dogs that roam the streets... 
...and the heat.  Home.