Sunday, September 28, 2008

Into the Flinders

Both Leigh and I were at the end of our tether. We'd just driven from Cape Jarvis, on the Fleurieu peninsula, up north towards the Flinders Ranges. Along the way, we had to negotiate Adelaide. I've got nothing against cities, except for the fact that I really, really hate them. They are always identical; you get a bundle of suburbs that range between urban and industrial development, and then you get into the "Central Business District", a place where, supposedly, all of the "action" takes place. Except for the museums and galleries, and the occasional bit of fine architecture, cities leave me cold, and Adelaide was no exception.

We hit Adelaide on a Sunday afternoon, and, as a Sydneysider, I was expecting the "city of churches" to be something beautiful and quaint that would take my breath away. Instead, we spent nearly an hour meandering our way along a long road full of car yards, junk yards and knock shops. Somehow, we'd found our way into the seamiest side of Adelaide, and our despair was only relieved by seeing a pub that boasted "cold beer" on an illuminated sign hanging from its dilapidated facade. "Stop right here," commanded Leigh, who was really feeling the strain. We'd been away from city life for over two weeks, exploring a vast, unimaginably old, and beautiful landscape; to return to the human termites' nest was frankly excruciating.

Leigh was perfectly correct, as usual; a little pub, situated within a rabbit's warren of lunacy, provided, somehow, a respite from the idiocy that surrounded us. Coopers Ale, freezingly cold and delicious, bubbled up into big schooner glasses. A bunch of friendly, relaxed people enquired as to our health, and took great interest in our stories of exotica, mysterious places and the somewhat random variations in pub pool rules around the continent.

Partly appeased, we continued our mission to get the fuck out of Adelaide as quickly as possible. Eventually, we got onto the A1, the highway that heads north along the St Vincents Gulf coast. It was flat and humourless; a road that is, at the same time, too near a big city to be comfortable, and happily leading the traveller away from said city.

It was getting late; about a hundred or so kilometres north of Adelaide we pulled into Port Wakefield, a little hamlet that boasted a ridiculously charming array of limestone buildings from the time when the town was a major railhead for the wheat belt (defunct). We pulled into its only camping ground. As it was my turn to pay, I got out of the Volvo, walked into the office, and was promptly told by the proprietor that the camp-ground was fully occupied.

"But we've just driven around it," I objected. "There're plenty of vacant tent sites."

"Look mate," replied the owner, "when I say it's full, it's full, OK? There's a motel up the road." He went back to appearing busy with some papers on the desk. Jesus, I thought, I've finally met Basil Fawlty - he's moved to South Australia. I walked back out to the car, and considered just driving over to one of the numerous vacant tent sites and setting up. But then, with some disquiet, I remembered the "Bodies in the Barrels" murders of a year previously, a particularly gruesome series of murders in South Australia where the perpetrator had suffocated his victims (six or seven of them, from memory) and shoved their bodies into vats of hydrochloric acid. The murderer had not yet been caught, and I was starting to think that Basil a) might have a pretty good supply of pillows, scarves, etc., and b) could easily, as a camping-ground proprietor, get his hands on some fairly serious corrosive substances. We decided on the motel.

It was an excellent choice, because the motelier (is that a word?), Bill, was a charming, generous, funny and completely insane individual. No sooner had we walked into the office of the little courtyard motel, complete with water feature, than he began a series of one-liners as if he was warming up for a gig at Comedy Central. To make matters weirder, he was a grotesquely obese albino who looked as though he had just prised himself out of a coffin as the sun went down.

"You'll probably need these," he said, chucking a couple of packets of ear-plugs at us across the desk. "Honeymoon couple in the next room. They've been here two days, and I've already replaced two mattresses."

Leigh and I cast a quick glance at each other, and Bill continued. "Nah, I jest - but we do get a lot of semis screamin' through here at all hours of the night. Besides, by the look of you blokes, I'd say that at least one of you is a pretty loud snorer. Hey - you're not gay, are you?"

Flabbergasted, we confirmed that we weren't. "Only askin', cause there's a double bed in the room if you are." He seemed genuinely concerned for our comfort, and we walked out of the office feeling flattered and abused at the same time.

We cleaned up and decided on which of the pubs (all two of them) we'd patronise for dinner. We chose a tiny little limestone building that boasted a bar made of a single slab of some kind of petrified wood. It was a ridiculous thing - so pitted and wonky that it was virtually impossible to settle a glass of any description on it without the possibility of it falling over. No, I decided, the bar was simply a device to separate the patrons from the staff. Apart from that, the pub was a fascinating place, with old photographs of the town's pioneering days plastered all over the walls. The building itself was a marvel of rustic engineering - it was essentially a conglomeration of limestone rubble slapped into the shape of a pub, and quaint and delicate, for all that.

And the food was from heaven. We both decided on the "Roast of the Day", which turned out to be at least two or three pigs each, cooked and carved, and loaded onto plates the size and shape of the Hubble telescope's main mirror. One thing I can absolutely recommend to travellers in my beautiful country: eat at the pubs, because, most often, you will get good, wholesome and tasty food, plenty of it, and it won't cost the earth. Of course, if you're a cashed-up dickhead, feel free to patronise one of those uppity joints that put a leg of quail, drizzled with gold powder-infused cranberry sauce (tastefully arranged in the middle of an enormous plate) on your table, and call it "dinner". That'll be me quietly laughing in the corner as you empty your life savings into the till on the way out.

By the time we'd finished the meal, the bottle of Margaret River red, and a couple of Coopers, the horrors of having to drive through the city of Adelaide were far behind us. Life was good, and the pub even had a decent pool room, where we played a few games with some locals, and, as ever, found out lots about the vicissitudes of life in this amiable little corner of the world.

The next morning dawned hot and red. I say "dawned" quite literally, because we were up at the crack of it, a most uncommon occurrence for a bloke who has spent a good deal of his adult life actually retiring, vampire-like, before dawn. The reason for this out of character behaviour was that we had a very big day in front of us. We were going to try to get to Wilpena Pound by mid-afternoon, and along the way visit the Mount Remarkable National Park - in particular, a place curiously called Alligator Gorge. In all, there were about four hundred kilometres of driving, plus a two-hour walk in the middle of the day in front of us.

The first leg was a relatively quick 130k run to Port Pirie, at the top of the Spencer Gulf. Port Pirie is, basically, a lead smelter. Thousands of tonnes of the stuff are produced every year, giving Port Pirie residents the dubious distinction of having just about the highest levels of lead in their bodies in the entire world. We expected, as we rolled quietly through the early-morning streets, to see people with extra fingers, heads, etc. To our chagrin, the place was surprisingly normal, if unendurably odorous.

I was hanging for a really good double-shot, and to our surprise the only cafe open at 7.30 a.m. served up a ripper, perfectly doled out by an Italian guy who knew his business. I had to back up for seconds, then thirds.

By the time we got back in the car, I was totally wired. I felt like a speed freak, and wondered how that fencer at the Atlanta Olympics could have functioned with forty-something cups of coffee inside him. No wonder he was excluded from the competition; had he been allowed to compete his epee would have resembled a shish kebab skewer.

"Loz, for fuck's sake, slow down, will ya?" demanded Leigh as I valve-bounced the Volvo through the Woolworths carpark. "We're only trying to find the supermarket, not win Monaco!" He jumped out as soon as I skidded into a parking spot, and ran off into the bowels of Woolworths, no doubt desperate to void his own.

Well-stocked up on groceries and beer (and with Leigh looking three or four pounds lighter), we continued on towards Mount Remarkable N.P. This is the beginning of that most intriguing chain of mountains, the Flinders Ranges, a vastly old mountain range that stretches almost due north for hundreds of kilometres, neatly bifurcating the state of South Australia. On its eastern slopes and plains wheat and sheep are farmed; to the west there is nothing but desert, salt-lakes and uranium. (I exaggerate, of course; there's also the detritus of several nuclear weapons explosions in the 1950s which have left thousands of square miles of the desert not only naturally dry and inhospitable to humans and any other unfortunate animals that happen to wander across the rocky plains, but fatally radioactive. Thanks, England!)

We arrived at the park's visitor centre, and, being the only people the staff had seen for about thirty-five years, were treated as if we were gods who had just stepped out of an aeroplane in New Guinea in 1930 loaded with mirrors and beads. I half expected the bloke behind the desk to accuse me of some cultural blasphemy, or spirit-stealing, when I snapped a photo of him and his female co-worker. He was pretty good about it, though, and we only had to spend the next three hours tied upside down to a tree while he painted us in goat's blood and danced around rattling a very big spear.

(For American readers, I just made that last bit up.)

The rangers plied us with every sort of useful information, including several and repeated admonishments to "take plenty of water with you", a refrain we were to hear iterated endlessly as we made our way north. And you know, I think the locals were onto something. In this part of the world, water is indeed a scarce commodity, so much so that when you do come across a stream that is actually flowing (and this happened only once in the following two weeks), you feel like singing a hymn to the glory of Quetzacoatl. (I knew I'd eventually get Jonathon into this story.)

We still had a fair drive, through Nectar Brook (no water), Mambray Creek (ditto), Chinaman Creek (you guessed it), before we came to Alligator Gorge. We alighted from the Volvo, strapped forty gallons of water each to our backs, and walked into a world before time. Alligator Gorge is a reminder that there was once water, and plenty of it, flowing through this part of the world. Great buttresses of blocked sandstone, hundreds of feet high, and often only thirty feet between their walls, testify to a violent geological childhood. We wandered, amazed, between these soaring walls of rock, acutely aware of their age, which was in the hundreds of millions of years - an unfathomable time-span. The National Parks service had conveniently placed descriptions and explanations of what we were seeing along the route. At one such, we were told of the evolution of the many floral species indigenous to the area. Some intellectual, obviously better endowed than the entire scientific community, had chiselled into the metal plaque "Evoluton is bulshit. God made the wordl." It was heartening information, and thus armed, we climbed back out of that place of magic, mystery and illiteracy.

After all of that exertion, we needed a waterhole, preferably with a dining room attached. It wasn't long before we pulled into the dusty, deserted town of Quorn, and met the goddess of the Austral Hotel.

( be continued.)


Jonathan said...

Excellent post, Laurie. It's hard for me to get my head around how big Australia actually is, you do a good job of describing it.

"In this part of the world, water is indeed a scarce commodity, so much so that when you do come across a stream that is actually flowing (and this happened only once in the following two weeks), you feel like singing a hymn to the glory of Quetzacoatl. (I knew I'd eventually get Jonathon into this story.)"

Haha, excellent! :)

"It wasn't long before we pulled into the dusty, deserted town of Quorn, and met the goddess of the Austral Hotel."

This sounds intriguing- how long until the next post?

Steve Zara said...

It is a real joy to read your posts. I hope you don't find a comparison with Bill Bryson not to your taste.

Ever thought of putting all this into a book?

Sharon said...

But when will it be continued, Laurie? It's been a week and I've been a very good girl, I promise. :)

Laurie said...

Thanks for your lovely comments, folks - I started this blog as a means of just writing for pleasure. I do a great deal of writing in the course of my work, but it's almost always technical stuff to do with the courses I run. So this is continuing to be a rewarding experience as I learn how to tell a story.

Jonathon - you are always welcome in Australia, and I will personally take you on a grand tour (if you can handle the pace :) )

Steve - thanks. Don't mind the comparison. I don't try to sound like Bryson, but I suppose we have similar observational senses. Plus, he is a superb writer, whereas I'm just a doodler, really. I think I will try to get a book's worth of stories together - but lots more work yet.

Sharon - I know, I know. But I try to fit this in between work and all the other things, so it's slow going. I think I need a patron: "You just go ahead and write, Laurie; I'll look after the mortgage."

Sharon said...


I'm only teasing. I am the worst for leaving writing at the very bottom of my want-to-do list. But I do enjoy your stories and am always looking forward to the next one. As for a patron, a publisher might be close enough. ;)

phil said...

You are some story-teller, Laurie.

Zealous Meerkat said...

Hi Laurie, Really enjoyed the description, pacing and humor in this post. The Australian landscape does seem full of magic and mystery and beauty. I haven't been there personally yet, but I've seen a fair bit in film and photos and it stirs me up! I'll add you to my list of blogs, if that's alright. Let me know if it's not. I also made a post on the topic of pacifism and rdnet, so if you have time to look at that I'd be interested in your thoughts.

decius said...

Great stuff, Laurie Kerouac.

Thank you

Laurie said...

"Laurie Kerouac", Decius? Sheesh! I wish.