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
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.