THE GREAT DI­VIDE

The West­ern Aus­tralian bor­der is the long­est straight fron­tier on the earth’s sur­face. Ni­co­las Rothwell charts the line that takes the pulse of the con­ti­nent’s red heart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

STRAIGHT as a die it runs, coast to coast, un­de­vi­at­ing for 1843km, the West Aus­tralian bor­der: as straight as a line laid down by the will of God, which, in a back­hand kind of way, it was — but it’s not, in truth, a sim­ple or an un­bro­ken or co­her­ent line, nor does it di­vide dis­tinct land­scapes or dif­fer­ent so­ci­eties in the way a nor­mal bor­der does. A puz­zle­ment, a quirk of his­tory, a piece of state­craft made starkly man­i­fest, the bor­der line is all th­ese things, but above all it is a trace from the old world: the very first an­tic­i­pa­tory mark set down on the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent by Euro­pean hand.

It was fixed, at least in vague and hazy im­pli­ca­tion, in the sleepy Span­ish town of Torde­sil­las, in 1494, at the be­hest of Pope Alexan­der VI, a good cen­tury be­fore the West­ern dis­cov­ery of Aus­tralia — but this is per­haps the least pe­cu­liar as­pect of the line. It sweeps through ma­jes­tic land­scapes and through realms of mys­tery, it reaches from the lush Vic­to­ria River district to the dry flood-outs of the Tanami; from the desert cave where Las­seter died, his dreams of gold with him, all the way south un­wa­ver­ing to the flat plains of the Nullar­bor. It goes through empti­ness: it is the line that takes the pulse of Aus­tralia’s heart — though no one has ever walked its length, nor could any­one, given the suc­ces­sion of daz­zling salt-lakes that be­stride it and the man­grove mud-flats at its north­most end, where land gives way slowly to the yel­low wa­ters of the Bon­a­parte Gulf.

Upon the map per­pen­dic­u­lar, fol­low­ing ex­actly the 129 de­gree merid­ian, the long­est straight fron­tier traced out on Earth’s sur­face, it is the marker of sci­en­tific, de­lim­it­ing ra­tio­nal­ity, and the in­dex of the in­land, too: of how vast it is, how lit­tle framed or known. Only seven roads of sub­stance tra­verse the bor­der; and of th­ese only two are any­thing like high­ways, sealed with bi­tu­men. How to cap­ture this line and tell its tales — if not at random, by giv­ing in to chance and its prompt­ings, by plung­ing a pin into the map; by be­gin­ning al­most at the mid-point, with the dream-like com­mu­nity of Docker River, lovely Kal­tukat­jara, lost in the ranges and the deepred sands?

Those who drive the Great Cen­tral Road west from Ay­ers Rock re­mem­ber it. The cor­ru­ga­tions seem deep enough to tear a troop-car­rier apart. The coun­try rises up; blood-coloured peaks, dark storm-clouds, the black trunks and weep­ing fronds of desert oaks: a wild har­mony, the most haunt­ing stretch of land­scape in the cen­tre; sto­ry­haunted, too.

Great desert song-cy­cles con­verge here at the break in the range-line, near where the set­tle­ment of Kal­tukat­jara stands, home to some 400 Pit­jan­t­jat­jara peo­ple — among them artists, carvers and wood-sculp­tors aplenty, but the chief form of con­tact cul­ture that has flour­ished in re­cent years at Docker is coun­try mu­sic: elec­tric coun­try, gospel-ac­cented.

Singers and song­writ­ing stars have been a spe­cialty since the glory days of Isaac Yamma and his group, the Desert Tigers. In their train came the Wild Brumbies, masters of mu­si­cal re­fine­ment. They fea­tured Ted Ku­niya, a vir­tu­oso of the slide gui­tar, a man of tran­quil melan­choly. His songs are still played to­day on the ve­ran­das of com­mu­nity houses, along with mis­sion-era sta­ples that were first sung decades ago at Arey­onga and Her­manns­burg, a rich brew of in­flu­ences. Pa­cific Is­land, North Queens­land and Tor­res Strait tunes have all found their way into the Docker River song­book. A Fi­jian orig­i­nal seems to lie be­hind the sweet­est of the lo­cal songs: ‘‘ Far away,’’ it runs, ‘‘ near the West Aus­tralian bor­der, far away, across the burn­ing sands — it’s my coun­try, and there’s no other: come to me, and see my lovely land.’’

Nor are the lyrics ly­ing. A mere kilo­me­tre along the road, past the shady camp­ground, past the semi­cir­cu­lar camel pad­dock runs the bor­der: a bor­der strait out of Mad Max, with tan­gled, torn-down barbed wire and a se­ries of bul­let-rid­dled, rusted, dis­qui­et­ing signs in vary­ing stages of de­com­po­si­tion: ‘‘ Don’t move fruit or live­stock’’; ‘‘ Great Cen­tral Road: no leaded fuel ahead’’; ‘‘ Dust may sus­pend in the air’’. The sup­ply trucks grind past. the beat-up Toy­otas and an­cient Dat­suns full of lo­cal trav­ellers fol­low at a slower pace. The din­goes of the fron­tier, pale, ele­gant, silent, look on, on the watch for pass­ing tourists to toss them the dry, brit­tle An­zac bis­cuits they crave.

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