Almanac Roadtrips – To Uluru: Part 3. Fried egg

This is the third part of E.regnans five-part story about their family’s trip to Uluru.
Read Day 1.
Read Day 2.

and now…

 

Day 3. 47°C. Port Augusta to Cadney Park Roadhouse. 693km.

 

Today a sense of reckoning arrives, for today we drive into the furnace. At the crossroads of Australia, coming from the east, we turn right. We turn north. And with suddenness of struck lightning, civilisation falls behind us. Desert surrounds us. Civilisation falls.

 

==

Civilisation falls. What is civilisation, anyway? Civilisation might be democratic decision-making for the greater good. Or freedoms from hunger, fear, ill-health. Maybe for the majority world civilisation never really existed.

 

==

Trinity drives. Buds chat across the motorhome table behind us. They role-play; a mother and (badly-behaved) daughter. The horizon drops before us. Big Sky Country becomes Enormous Sky Country.

 

Over breakfast we spoke about this day’s journey. We know what we’re facing. And we’re ready. Barring any mechanical mishap. As the salty plains open up, I dial for some sing-a-long music. Roaring across the salty flatlands, bearing north north west at 110 km/h, Crowded House fills the cabin with: “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

==

“Australia is by far the driest, smallest, flattest, most infertile, climatically most unpredictable, and biologically most impoverished continent.”
Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”

 

==

Inside a vehicle on the Stuart Highway, time is viscous. The concept of time is viscous. Old thoughts waft in, waft out. New thoughts spring forth. Understandings are exposed to a light so bright, so dazzling, that they must be re-made; re-created. By way of glib example, after 25 or 30 years of listening to it, on the Stuart Highway between Port Augusta and Glendambo, I hear Crowded House’s “Distant Sun” for the very first time. It brings me to tears.

 

“Tell me all the things you will change
I don’t pretend to know what you want
When you come around and spin my top
Time and again; time and again.”
Crowded House, “Distant Sun”

 

Any desert can be brutal. And today we strike the Australian outback in full force.

 

“Whoah! Check out the salt lake.”

 

Our first desert stop for diesel and dust is at Glendambo. Roadhouse Country. Out here, the Roadhouse looms as a living, breathing provider of life; a sustainer. In the men’s toilets an advertisement for mental health awareness is stuck on the wall. The ad applies specifically to fathers of new babies.

“Congratulations on making it out of the house. Becoming a new dad is life-changing. And we’ve captured the best and worst of it in Dadvice. Watch the series, take our dad stress test and get some tips for cracking this whole dad thing. Because babies change everything.”

 

It’s welcome. It’s puzzling. Back at the van, I tell the others:

“I reckon there’s a baby boom around Glendambo.”

 

We all look slowly, appraisingly, at the single piece of scorching metal that serves as the Glendambo Roadhouse playground.

“I believe it.”

 

==

“Diesel and dust is what we breathe
This land don’t change and we don’t leave
Some people live, some never die
This land don’t change this land must lie
Some people leave, always return
This land must change or land must burn”

Midnight Oil, Warakurna

 

==

 

Imagine buying in paper format a road atlas of Australia; something that you can access in digital form virtually anywhere, anytime. In 2019, a travel atlas is in some ways an anachronism.

 

“Dad, why did you want to buy that?”

 

But only an atlas can be flicked through.

“Ahh, only an atlas can be flicked through.”

 

Only an atlas can be drawn upon with sharpened pencil and yellow highlighter (“Who’s got the yellow highlighter?”) Only an atlas can be innocently and usefully trawled for wayside rest-stops by two girls as we rumble north on the southern Stuart Highway.

 

“There should be one in about 50ks or so. I think it’s called ‘Twins’.”

 

[Minutes of silence pass]

“Here it is.”

 

We pull into Twins rest area, squinting. “Twins rest stop. You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”

 

Already sweating bullets in the motorhome, we open the doors onto the fearsome Australian desert; today at 47oC. Eye-of-Sauron, waves of molten lava, shimmering oxy-acetylene torches all fall away in comparison with this. How anything lives out here is astonishing. Here we are. Alive.

 

“Whoah.”

==

“Out where the river broke
The bloodwood and the desert oak.
Holden wrecks and boiling diesel
Steam and 45 degrees…”

Midnight Oil, “Beds are burning”

 

“Midnight Oil didn’t bank on climate change, did they?”

At these outer limits of human survival, every degree seems precious. The two degrees separating 47oC from 45oC much more noticeable than the corresponding two between, say,  27oC and 25oC; more noticeable, more vital.

Breathing the very air feels difficult. We huddle under a tin roof, squinting, protected under a moving panel of shade; a panel approximately the size of king-sized bed sheet.

“Let’s see if we can cook an egg on this table top.” Trinity and the buds crack an egg on an exposed table. This table has been exposed to the sun for hours, days, maybe years.

“Yeah!”

The runny egg visibly hardens as we blink.

Back on the road out of ‘Twins’ Buddy Oon is up front with me as we traverse the continent; we reckon on a visit to Coober Pedy.

Despite the very best efforts of German engineering, the fact remains that we are now in the Australian desert, itself experiencing a heatwave, and we are sitting inside a tin can. We’re hot. Onwards we rumble; my respect for this vehicle growing by the minute.

 

==


We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart.

 Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to common law from ‘time immemorial,’ and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.

 This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature,’ and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.

 How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millenia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?

 With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

 Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

 The dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.

 We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

 We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

 Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda, the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

 We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

 In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

 -Uluru Statement from the Heart

==

 

About 100km out from Coober Pedy, I notice a new light on the instrument panel. The light is yellow in colour. Maybe amber. The light takes the triangular shape of a warning signal. The yellow-amber triangle features an exclamation mark.

 

“We have a problem.”

Bud Yum takes the motorhome’s maintenance book at the fold-down table and begins her search. She finds the page. Something about the brake system. The main message is for me to drive carefully for the conditions.

 

“Dad, drive carefully for the conditions.”

I wonder about the degree of care needed to drive through Armageddon. Piles of mining tailings dot the scalding landscape.

Giving renewed and everlasting thanks to the Mercedes Benz motor company, we rumble into Coober Pedy.

 

“Coober Pedy. You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.

“Dad, you already used that one.”

==

As a metaphor “The Dead Heart” evokes a certain grim finality for central Australia. The name implies futility, an absence of hope, the withering of love, of care. If the heart of Australia is dead, then it logically follows that the rest of our country must also lie dead.

 

I’m unsure whether the phrase “the Dead Heart” was in common parlance prior to 1987. In 1987 Midnight Oil released a seminal album entitled “Diesel and Dust,” an album of significant critical and commercial success. Many songs on the album highlighted the struggle of Aboriginal Australians. Inspiration for the songs had been found in the outback; as Midnight Oil toured the backblocks of their own country. With its commercial radio airplay and booming sales, “Diesel and Dust” significantly influenced popular culture with the message of Aboriginal Australia.

 

Track 6 on the album is called “The Dead Heart.”

 

 

==

We each take the shortest possible route from the air-conditioned inside of the motorhome to the shaded doorway of the Coober Pedy museum. This eye-watering expanse of tailings and treeless plains holds secrets. The museum is underground. The pub is underground. We are at the world’s largest opal mining reserve. This place is weird.

 

“This place is weird.”

 

Chancers, optimists, worn out or wearing out.
Everything hard, bright, sharp.
We’re into a gift shop.

“Hot out there?”

 

She stands behind the counter; underground. It’s comfortable in here. And she knows it.

“Underground is the place to be; no doubt.”

 

I wonder about this place, Coober Pedy. I wonder about the people drawn by luck or circumstance to live here. Who would choose to live here?

“How long have you lived here?”

 

Do people actually live underground? Do people idly prospect their own homes? Chipping away at the bedroom wall each night, hoping for a piece of opal?

“Oh, jeez, most of my life. We have an underground house. Well, half underground. I tell the kids if they want to get out of here, they need to keep digging.”

 

We tour the museum, we glow in the reflections of opal-based merchandise. And we’re underground. The novelty of it welcome, the climatic conditioning of it necessary.

“I don’t know how anything could live out there.”

 

None of us knows how anything could live out there.
But we’ve each enjoyed a cool drink in an underground bar. We take what we need. We’re ready to embark on the final 100km or so to Cadney Park.

 

Outside. It’s as if we’re in a Warner Brothers cartoon depiction of a kiln; a kiln on which the dial has just been turned up from “boiling hot” to “are you kidding?” My legs function, walking towards the truck. But they are slow. My mind is slow. My vision is slow. Everything is slowing.

 

Squinting like newborns, panting like dogs, we’re inside the truck, reaching for the air-conditioning vents.

“Dad, did you turn it on?!”

“Turn on the air-conditioning, Dad!”

“It’s on. Patience.”

“Come ON!”

 

“Dad, is it hotter than 46oC?”

Earlier today I had said that I could not remember ever experiencing a temperature hotter than 46oC in my life.
I take the phone from my pocket. Slowly, the screen resolves. I activate the Bureau of Meteorology app. The current temperature at Coober Pedy displays.

 

“We’ve got 47oC.”

“Woo-hoo!”

 

==

 

At the Stuart Highway intersection we turn north. Turning north across the sandstone remnants of an ancient inland sea, across rock and shale and mounds of discarded rubble. Across a shimmering landscape of unknowable heat and desperation. Further into the dead heart.

 

Everywhere the Earth seems barren, bleak, tortured. Human survival here, on this ancient seabed, is unimaginable. Is this a look into Earth’s past? Is this a look into Earth’s future? I understand the transient nature of life on Earth, for all species. For the stegosaurus, for the woolly mammoth, for the thylacine. The extinction trajectory undoubtedly applies equally to homo sapiens. At some point the Earth will have seen the last of us. And the Earth will go on.

 

==

 

“Dad what’s that black stuff on the road?”

There seems to be a black mass of shapeless mystery ahead on the highway. No other vehicles can be seen between us and the distant horizon.

 

“What do you think it could be?”

The shifting blob of darkness is a good distance away. As most things are. To our right, the sun lowers into the afternoon.

 

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s water. But that doesn’t make sense.”

We puzzle over the wavering blob; the changeling.

 

“Hmm. Do you remember the story of ‘Tintin and the Land of Black Gold’?”

We each recall wonderful illustrated panels featuring Tintin with Thomson and Thompson (“with a ‘p,’ as in Philadelphia”), wandering around the Sarah desert; battling heat-induced optical illusions.

 

“Yeah. Oh! Is it a mirage? It’s a mirage!”

 

==

 

Roaring on diesel along the Stuart Highway once again, I give thanks for the very concept of Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service. If anything should happen to this truck, if anything should happen to any of us, I’m comforted to know that we are in the catchment of the Flying Doctor. If ever anyone needs emergency medical assistance out here, in the back of beyond, it is provided by the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

And reach such people they do; many many times each week. As well as emergency medicine, the Royal Flying Doctor Service offers General Practice and routine check-up services to those living in far-flung outposts.

I look to the sky.

 

==

 

“We stayed at Cadney Park last time we drove this road, didn’t we?”

“Sure did.”

“I don’t remember it.”

 “Yeah, we did. And I stayed at Cadney Park back in 1995, too.”

 

“You always stay at Cadney Park.”

 

==

 

“Look! An emu!”

First significant wildlife sighting in a thousand kilometres.

 

==

 

“You’re very beautiful dear,” she said, “What nationality are you? Indian?”
“No,” I smiled. “I’m Aboriginal.”
She looked at me in shock. “You can’t be,” she said.
“I am.”
“Oh, you poor thing,” she said, putting her arm around me. “What on Earth are you going to do?”
Sally Morgan, “My Place”

 

==

“Here she is, Cadney Park Roadhouse.”

“Cadney Park. You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”

“Dad…”

 

Stepping outside the motorhome, atmospheric oceans of heat surge and swell around us. We’re floundering.

“They have a pool.”

 

==

 

This is frontier country.
It is easy to imagine this as a future, dystopian landscape.
At 47oC, without food, without water, the game would be up.

 

Yet along the highway, people clearly do live. Roadhouses offer sustenance. Vegetarian burgers are sold at the Cadney Park Roadhouse (“Dad this is the best veggie burger I have ever eaten!”). Life is less glamorous 100km to the east. And 100km to the west. In fact, within 100km of here in any direction.

 

In 2003 I had the great fortune to spend three weeks working in these parts. A small band of hydrology researchers and academics drove up the Birdsville Track, across the Simpson Desert and down the Oodnadatta Track. We sampled soil moisture at various study sites; intense sampling of moisture in the pasture root zone; 0-6mm. We set up field sites. We camped. We cooked. It was a unique blend of bushcraft and cutting-edge science; ground-truthing for NASA satellite observations of soil moisture. Swimming in waterholes along the Oodnadatta Track, walking the great gibber plains, watching the fleet footed emus.

 

==

 

Inside the Cadney Park Roadhouse, air-conditioning is joyously functional. We sample the cold, cold drinks. A wooden sign hangs over the bar, where walls are decorated with images of enormously long trucks. On the sign is carved this message: “YCWCYODFTRFDTY”

We order Roadhouse meals.

 

“If your head needs a bandage,
Try a roadhouse open sandwich
And dodge the waitress.
And hit the road again.”

Cold Chisel, Hounddog

 

“’scuse me mate. What does that sign mean?”

“Ahh – your curiosity will cost you one dollar for the Royal Flying Doctor thank you.”

We happily donate.

 

After dinner we walk clear of the dongers for an unimpeded view to the west. A rudimentary airstrip lies back here. And here, amid thoughts of a fiery future hell, of car accidents, of climate change and heat, we stand and watch the blistering fireball go down. We know it will be back to bake us afresh, renewed, tomorrow. We watch the nightly show; fingers crossed and thankful.

 

“How’s the serenity?”

 

Tomorrow 47oC is forecast for this district. Again.

==

 

Part 4 – Compelled
Part 5 – Right here

 

About David Wilson

Living is easy with eyes closed. Noodling away at The Footy Almanac since 2013. Twitter: @e_regnans

Comments

  1. Matt Zurbo says

    You are the best!!!!!

  2. E.regnans says

    G’day Old Dog – brilliant. Thanks very much. Love yer work.

  3. e.r.,
    re Diesel and Dust: as a music fan I am assuming it would have been difficult for you not to continually reference Diesel and Dust as a kind of soundtrack for your journey. I am glad you quoted excerpts here, and rightly referred to it as “seminal”. Not only the finished product – lauded in some quarters as the greatest ever Australian album – but the process of writing, recording and touring it. Gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

  4. E.regnans says

    G’day Smokie, yes, as you say, Diesel and Dust was on my mind for the whole trip.
    I guess we all live in our city bubbles comprised of people-like-us.
    And to leave our cosy bubbles requires a decision.
    That the members of Midnight Oil chose to take that outback road is to their great credit, I think.
    And to my (our?) ongoing advantage.
    Raising awareness of the struggles of forgotten and marginalised Australians is probably not in the handbook of How To Win At The Music Industry.
    But it would be pretty central to other more meaningful handbooks.
    Again, I wonder “why we do what we do.”

  5. Rulebook says

    OBP thank you for this series v educational and yes while far from a music expert v appropriate choices

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    ER- ‘Distant Sun’ is my favourite song of all time. Songwriting perfection by the great N.Finn at his absolute peak. And if Distant Sun is my number one, ‘The Dead Heart’ is surely top 5. The soundtrack to this trip is every bit as good as the storytelling of it!

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