HALF my childhood seems to have been spent in transit. Dad was in the air force and we were constantly on the move, driving up and down the east coast from Melbourne to Townsville, logging up long desultory hours on the highway. I think it’s partly for this reason that I have no great love of the Australian landscape: I’ve seen far too much of the worst of it. Show me a picture of the Australian bush and memories of ‘‘ I spy’’ flood into my mind, played in a state of travelinduced stupefaction between Mackay and Rockhampton; or Forbes and Parkes. The repertoire was quickly exhausted once you got past ‘‘ c’’ for cow and ‘‘ g’’ for grass. Not that there was much of either.
Two later experiences have given me a slightly richer appreciation of the great emptiness: the first was a week-long visit to Aboriginal schools in the Central Desert and Arnhem Land in the early 1990s. It was a pretty dispiriting venture: Aboriginal kids then, as now, seem to regard the classroom as a foreign country in which a strange and incomprehensible language is spoken and there is no fun to be had; which, when you think about it, is not far from the truth.
Yet, as the sun was setting quickly over the Central Desert on a winter’s afternoon, I had an experience just short of an epiphany when from the comfort of a Range Rover I saw a group of dusty, unshod Aborigines leave the confines of the petrol station at which I was parked and walk into that landscape — into the gathering darkness, the oncoming cold, the rusty emptiness — until, finally, it engulfed them. There could have been some entirely unromantic purpose to this disappearing act: for example, they could have been schlepping off with a container of petrol hoping to get high in private. But it struck me with some force at the time that they were going the wrong way. I felt like calling out to warn them: You come in from the dark and the cold and the emptiness; you don’t go towards it.
I was also struck by the actual and metaphorical gulf between this small group dissolving into the darkness and the mechanised world of the petrol station in its pool of yellow light, with its cash register going caching and its impersonal comings and goings. I think our alien presence on their land struck me then, as never before; and with it came a sense of their dispossession, their alienation, their tragedy, that gave a new dimension to the histories.
The most recent of these two experiences, on a cruise along the Kimberley coast towards the end of July, gave me a reason for cheer. After skidding across the water in an outboardpowered Zodiac, I set foot on an isolated point that led along a rock-strewn path to a gallery of Bradshaw paintings: attenuated ghostlike figures, a mysterious lumpy animal not unlike a wombat, hand stencils, all tattooed by time into the red, red rock. A few days later, at Raft Point, I was lucky enough to see another gallery aglow with Wandjina spirit figures. For me the most impressive part of the whole experience was not so much the Aboriginal elder who explained the scheme before us, it was the young people from the local Aboriginal community who met us on the beach, helped us on the climb to the gallery and subjected us to a ritual campfire smoking — or cleansing — afterwards.
They were different personality types, to be sure: the elder girl who addressed us was more traditional, another more Westernised, while the young man with them said barely a word. But they showed in the hour or two we spent with them how compatible a traditional way of life — for they lived just off the beach nearby — could be with a quite canny tourist concern.
I used to think cultural preservation was a red herring in the quest to improve the life opportunities of Aboriginal people, but now I think it’s the key. Cultural pride, rather than substances of abuse, flowed through the veins of these teenagers; and with it came a great openness to the efforts of middle-aged white folk to learn about the stories — their stories — stencilled on the Kimberley rocks.
Cultural preservation, and restoration, is a more valuable asset in the Aboriginal struggle than any number of Toyotas (the Aboriginal car of choice). I wish I’d learned more about this culture of immeasurable antiquity earlier. I certainly would have been more adept at reading the myth-saturated Australian landscape, and made a better fist of ‘‘ I spy’’.