WE CERTAINLY DON’T THINK ABOUT THE POPE — BUT YOU HIT THOSE POTHOLES AND YOU KNOW YOU’VE DESCENDED INTO A ROAD-TRIP VERSION OF HELL
East and west of the line the sand and spinifex run away unchanging. East and west of it the desert communities are near-identical; homes of brothers, of cousins. The border splits a single cultural bloc in arbitrary fashion. For desert people it is a line without deep meaning, their stories wind and snake across it freely — but the frontier does have real world effects, and sometimes they can be spectacular. Five years ago, Docker River fell under the harsh provisions of the Northern Territory intervention. An hour west along the track, the little community of Warakurna was untouched.
Damian McLean, resident intellectual of the central deserts and long-term president of the shire of Ngaanyatjarraku, west of the line, knows well how history shapes political boundaries, defines space, builds differences. His shire reaches from the state frontier to a disused track near Wiluna township: the path of the old, near-vanished rabbit-proof fence. It’s a shire with state regional funds, and so west of the border line the Great Central Road is like a red-sand carpet, graded, beautifully maintained; but things change with a vengeance on the Territory side: ‘‘ When we cross into the Territory,’’ he muses, ‘‘ we certainly don’t think about the Pope or the Vatican — but there is an ecclesiastical component: you hit those bumps and potholes and you know you’ve suddenly descended into a road-trip version of hell.’’ GOD’S name was to the fore, though, in 1493, when the intensely libertine art-loving Pope Alexander VI considered the changed map of the world confronting him. Columbus had just returned with tidings of a new land in the far west, at the furthest extreme of the Atlantic Ocean. But whose land was it? Did it belong by right to the Catholic king of Spain, or to Portugal, the other great seafaring power of the day? The Pope, a Borgia, a former archbishop of Valencia, Spanish-born, issued a brisk decree granting all the lands westward of the Azores islands to the Spanish crown, a piece of favouritism ill-viewed in Lisbon by King John II, who was thereby blocked from his modest short-term goal of occupying and ruling the Indian continent.
A year on, the diplomats of Spain and Portugal met at Tordesillas, near their shared frontier, held talks of their own and divided up the uncharted reaches of the globe. They drew a line of more nuanced definition, one cutting through the landmass of the Americas. To the west would be Spanish possessions, to the east, Portuguese. This schematic approach to empire-building was entrenched, a generation later, at a further conference, where the line was adjusted and prolonged around the world, tracing out an anti-meridian, a further, yet more folkloric border, demarcating the seas all round the newly discovered spice islands, the remote East Indies — and whatever strange, unknown continent might lie to the south.
Tordesillas bears scant trace today of this brief brush with world-dividing. It is low-key and dusty, a backwater. But by chance the town and its history are a particular obsession of Australia’s leading hispanophile litterateur, the manager of The Melbourne Review, Luke Stegemann.
Debonair, possessed of a sinuous style and a pronounced lean towards bleak subjects, Stegemann has long been caught up by the Tordesillas region’s most famous drama. When young and studying cinematography in Madrid, he found himself gripped by the sight of a romantic tableau painting. It was in the Prado, and prominently hung. It was from the brush of Francisco Pradilla Ortiz. It showed a scene every Spaniard knows: Queen Juana the Mad leading her husband’s funeral cortege across the Spanish heathlands. Eventually she was incarcerated in the Santa Clara convent at Tordesillas, and her tale gave rise to one of Stegemann’s long early poems, as well as a pilgrimage he made to the convent and the town. His memories of that first trip dwell on
Approaching the world’s longest line in the sand