A spir­i­tual oa­sis in the Aus­tralian out­back

In New Nor­cia, tourism, ar­ti­sanal food and Abo­rig­i­nal archival work is just monk busi­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ANNA HART­LEY

Set­ting out early, fully caf­feinated in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the quiet and empty road be­fore us, we skirt around the sub­urbs of Perth, get on the Great North­ern High­way and leave the city be­hind.

Bush land and small farms line the road, punc­tu­ated with the oc­ca­sional turnoff to some iso­lated town. There is lit­tle to look at ex­cept the trucks trundling down to Perth, yet it’s es­sen­tial to re­main at­ten­tive, keep­ing an eye out for kan­ga­rooswhoare fa­mous for jump­ing onto the road at the wrong mo­ment.

You can find some in­cred­i­ble things in the out­back of Western Aus­tralia, and af­ter about two hours of driv­ing we come upon one: a Benedictine monastery. This isNewNor­cia, founded more than a cen­tury and a half ago as a mis­sion and now one of the state’s most un­likely tourist des­ti­na­tions.

I grew up about 60 miles away, which, for this part of the world, means “nearby.” Yet I have never ac­tu­ally vis­ited. I’m back home for the sum­mer and have my for­eign boyfriend in tow, so it seems like the per­fect time to play tourist.

Round­ing the fi­nal bend, with only one small sign to in­di­cate we are al­most there, we shoot straight through the town of New Nor­cia and out the other side. It takes only a cou­ple of sec­onds.

“Whoops, I guess that was it,” I say, putting the car into re­verse and pulling a U-turn.

Af­ter find­ing a shady place to park, we stretch our stiff limbs and look around. The Moore River, its pres­ence made vis­i­ble by the belt of trees that fol­lows it, curves away to the east. The enor­mous freight trucks we call “road trains” oc­ca­sion­ally rum­ble along the high­way, send­ing white cock­a­toos screech­ing to the safety of tall gum trees. Just be­yond the town lim­its, old-fash­ioned plow­ing equip­ment silently rusts away with only a fly or two for au­di­ence. And proudly, weirdly, a col­lec­tion of build­ings in Span­ish Colo­nial

style, look­ing as though they have been trans­planted from Mexico, rise up from the red dusty ground.

To Dom Rosendo Sal­vado, the Span­ish Benedictine monk who ar­rived in these parts in 1846, this land­scape must have looked like an ex­tra­or­di­nary, alien world. Af­ter walk­ing for sev­eral days with a hand­ful of com­pan­ions, car­ry­ing only what they and a team of bul­locks could man­age, Sal­vado came to this area be­cause it was home to a large com­mu­nity of Abo­rig­i­nals, whom he planned to con­vert. He named his monastery af­ter the Ital­ian town of Nor­cia, birthplace of St. Bene­dict.

Sal­vado died in 1900, but his vi­sion con­tin­ued, and the monastery op­er­ated sev­eral schools through much of the 20th cen­tury. The num­ber of monks peaked in the late 19th cen­tury at 70 men; to­day New Nor­cia is home to just nine monks who are as­sisted by em­ploy­ees from nearby towns in man­ag­ing the build­ings and tourist fa­cil­i­ties.

De­spite its re­mote­ness, New Nor­cia is never short of visi­tors, es­pe­cially on week­ends. Those who seek it out are a var­ied bunch: mo­tor­cy­cle clubs en­joy­ing the wind­ing roads; cor­po­rate groups and school­child­ren stay­ing in the for­mer school dor­mi­to­ries; those seek­ing spir­i­tual guid­ance from the monks; cu­ri­ous day-trip­pers like our­selves.

Ca­sual visi­tors are un­likely to run into the monks, who tend to keep to the monastery com­pound, but you can ar­range to meet and share meals with them or take part in the daily chapel ser­vices. My boyfriend and I have set up a meet­ing with Fa­ther David Barry, a soft-spo­ken schol­ar­whoworked as a brick­layer and as a jackeroo — a cat­tle sta­tion worker— be­fore join­ing the monastery in 1955.

Dressed in pris­tine white robes that match his short hair and beard, Fa­ther David ap­pears at once in­con­gru­ous and ut­terly at home. Our con­ver­sa­tion ranges from the practicalities of join­ing a monastery to a dis­cus­sion about the birth of the Benedictine or­der to what life is like for him here.

“It’s above all a life of prayer,” he says. “But you can’t live a life only of prayer.” He throws in a dry joke about a now ex­tinct or­der of monks who be­lieved all they had to do in life was pray, and mostly went to bed hun­gry. “If you want to eat, you have to work.”

Most Benedictine monas­ter­ies strive to be self-suf­fi­cient, and, de­spite their small num­ber, the monks here have done a good job of com­mer­cial­iz­ing their re­sources. Ar­ti­san bread, olive oil and wine con­tain­ing in­gre­di­ents grown on the town’s land are all sold un­der the name New Nor­cia, although much of the pro­duc­tion is now done off-site by third par­ties.

Fa­ther David has de­voted much of the past 15 years to re­search in the town’s ex­ten­sive ar­chives, a trea­sure trove for his­to­ri­ans and even more for the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity. Un­der var­i­ous gov­ern­ment de­crees, be­tween the late 1800s and 1970s, thou­sands of Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­ders were forcibly re­moved from their par­ents and raised in gov­ern­ment- or churchrun in­sti­tu­tions. As a re­sult, many Abo­rig­i­nal fam­i­lies know lit­tle about their an­ces­try. From the be­gin­ning of New Nor­cia’s history, Sal­vado kept­metic­u­lous records in­clud­ing birth, death and mar­riage reg­is­ters, which have helped Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple from the re­gion piece to­gether their his­to­ries.

Af­ter our chat, the three of us walk along the dusty gravel road that hugs the side of the monastery, try­ing to stay un­der the shade of the cape li­lac trees. Be­hind a gated en­trance, the monastery is a kind of oa­sis, with na­tive plants adding a splash of color to the high, white walls. Fa­ther David stops, point­ing out the glo­ri­ous yel­low of a cas­sia fis­tula, or golden shower plant. Na­tive to the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, it is a long way from home yet thrives in the tough Aus­tralian soil. As­tatue of Saint Bene­dict watches over us from the front of the monastery, and I try to imag­ine what he would have thought of New Nor­cia, rooted in a far-flung cor­ner of a land he never even knew ex­isted.

We­meet FatherDavid again for lunch time at the refectory. As the only guests, we are in­vited to take the first serv­ings from the buf­fet trol­ley. Plates are passed, red wine is poured and we all get chat­ting. Men­tion­ing our home, Paris, pro­vokes a lively dis­cus­sion, and it dawns on me that sev­eral of the men around the ta­ble came to New Nor­cia af­ter liv­ing var­ied “or­di­nary” lives. I’m fas­ci­nated by the tid­bits of in­for­ma­tion I glean about them, but I po­lice my ques­tions be­cause I’ve no­ticed some­thing in­ter­est­ing about the way these­mentalk. The Benedictine or­der dis­cour­ages idle chitchat, so even though con­ver­sa­tion is open and friendly, ev­ery ques­tion is care­fully posed, and re­sponses are weighed.

In­deed, we are lucky to be hav­ing con­ver­sa­tion at all. If we had been vis­it­ing at any other time of the year, the meal would have been con­ducted in si­lence, bro­ken only by the voice of the des­ig­nated reader who re­cites from a work of non­fic­tion and takes his meal later. But this was the Christ­mas hol­i­day break, with about half of the monastery res­i­dents away on va­ca­tion, so prayer sched­ules and du­ties are light and rules are re­laxed.

Af­ter lunch, we leave the calm monastery, cross­ing the high­way that di­vides the town in two, and join the af­ter­noon walk­ing tour in the visi­tor’s cen­ter.

Brush­ing away flies and tak­ing great swigs from bot­tles of wa­ter, our small group of mostly “gray no­mads” — re­tired Aus­tralians liv­ing out of camper vans— criss­crosses the town. Mov­ing from site to site, we take in its history, ob­serv­ing the one re­main­ing mis­sion cot­tage, the chapel, the now empty Saint Gertrude’s girls’ col­lege and Saint Ilde­phon­sus boys’ col­lege — once thriv­ing board­ing schools for white Aus­tralian chil­dren — and the out­side of the monastery it­self.

We make our way through the large Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter, a space used to host cul­tural work­shops and out­door ac­tiv­i­ties for the vis­it­ing groups. I spot a pile of tools and branches stacked neatly on a small grassy field and learn that they are used to teach school groups how to build a tra­di­tional bush shel­ter. As we move in­side, I’m im­pressed by the ex­ten­sive and fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion about the history of New Nor­cia and its re­la­tion­ship to the lo­cal Yuat peo­ple. The dis­plays in­clude lo­cal food, ex­am­ples of tools and cloth­ing, and are in­ter­spersed with ex­tracts of Dom Sal­vado’s di­ary and notes, writ­ten as he be­came more and more knowl­edge­able of their cul­ture. He even­tu­ally be­came flu­ent in the lan­guage and cus­toms of the Yuat, and he pro­duced the only known dic­tionary of their lan­guage. Be­cause last year marked the 200th an­niver­sary of his birth, the char­ac­ter of DomSal­vado looms large over the town, and we seem to be catch­ing the tail end of a num­ber of events and ex­hi­bi­tions de­signed to com­mem­o­rate it.

At the end of the visit, I browse through the small gift shop and pick up the English trans­la­tion of Sal­vado’s mem­oirs, which will oc­cupy me for weeks to come. Writ­ten in a spare yet en­gag­ing way, it is an ad­ven­ture story told at a crack­ing pace, de­scrib­ing aWestern Aus­tralia that is both fa­mil­iar and for­eign: a beau­ti­ful yet treach­er­ous land­scape un­touched by Euro­peans and full of mys­tery.

Be­fore leav­ing town, we stop in the only build­ing we hadn’t vis­ited yet: the New Nor­cia Ho­tel. Built in 1927 to ac­com­mo­date the vis­it­ing par­ents of the board­ing school stu­dents, it is grand and wel­com­ing, with pol­ished handrails and a wide, shady ve­randa, a relic of a by­gone era. Inthe cor­ner, a group of dusty char­ac­ters re­cover from a hot day’s work out­side, and I’m pleased to see the Western Aus­tralian-made Swan Draught beer on tap. We or­der pints.

There’s a sign advertising wood-fired pizza, but that will have to wait un­til the next visit. We still have a long drive ahead of us, and I don’t want to be out on the quiet roads at dusk when those kan­ga­roos are even harder to spot.

As we drive away, I catch a glimpse of an in­trigu­ing sign in­di­cat­ing a re­stricted ac­cess road. I slow down and peer at it as we pass. It’s the turnoff for the New Nor­cia Sta­tion, a deep-space an­tenna with a 114-foot dish, built by the Euro­pean Space Agency in 2003 to com­mu­ni­cate with satel­lites.

It’s in­cred­i­ble, the things you can find in the Aus­tralian out­back.

PHOTOS BY ANNE HART­LEY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

A golden shower plant thrives in the New Nor­cia monastery’s court­yard de­spite a hot, dry cli­mate. The monastery, near Perth, Aus­tralia, is the heart of the town for the nine monks who live there to­day. Be­low, a statue of the Span­ish Benedictine monk Dom Rosendo Sal­vado.

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