Sunday, October 26, 2008

The opposite of plenty

We were trundling across the South Australian mid-East, from Quorn through to Broken Hill in New South Wales. Names like "Oodla Wirra", "Nackara", "Paratoo", and "Winnininnie" slid past; dusty, featureless "towns" with a couple of houses and a combined petrol station/general store if you were lucky. The landscape, although not as dry as it had been in the far north, was still groaning under the horrible drought that had been wrecking the entire Australian hinterland for ten long years. It was depression, everywhere you looked. The few sheep that still grazed on the stubble, poking sporadically through vast gibber plains that had once been fat paddocks of lucerne, looked tired, thin and despondent. Desolated farmhouses, from which people had simply closed the front door, got into their loaded-up utes, and left the land for good, looked out at us from the roadside. For four hundred kilometres, Leigh and I had nothing much to say to each other. Cocooned inside the Volvo, we were like aliens passing through a deserted reach of interplanetary space.

Gradually, however, the sheer unflinching aridity of it all started to get to us. Like the Ancient Mariner, Leigh intoned: With thirsts unslaked, with black lips baked, we didn't have no grub; I bit my arm, I sucked the blood and cried "A pub! A pub!"

Now, my immediate apologies to those aficionados of the British Romantic tradition for that travesty. One must realise, however, the deranged quality of thought as one shunts along a dead-flat landscape with nothing but a shimmering, eternal horizon through the windscreen. The "pub" was a run-down shack of a place hovering valiantly in the middle of absolutely nothing, the nothing being a place once called "Olary". It must have once been a township, but all that remained were a few sheds leaning away from the prevailing wind and the foundations of some scattered houses. We pulled up right outside. A sign on the door said "Closed Sunday."

We drove off, forlorn, wondering what kind of wild hootenanny we must have missed on Saturday night.

On the South Australia/ New South Wales border, at a place called Cockburn, we stopped to fuel up and get a bite to eat. Four or five road-trains - prime movers with three long trailers hitched together - were parked there; a sure sign of good food for the traveller. I kept wondering what they could have been carrying; it sure as eggs wasn't produce. (It turned out, of course, that they were all carrying minerals - just about the only commodity Australia has left.) And so we said good-bye to South Australia - a place of great wonder, amazement, and the most miserable policemen in the world.

We got into Broken Hill in the mid-afternoon; we were going to stay at my niece Erin's place. She's a physiotherapist with the Royal Flying Doctor Service - about which more later. Broken Hill, itself, is a place that constantly beggars belief. Here is a city, of some 30,000 people, which depends for its existence on a mine. In 1883 a boundary rider discovered silver on the surface of the ground. A frenzied mining boom began soon after, and the Broken Hill Propriety, now the world's biggest mining corporation, started tearing silver, zinc and lead out of the ground at an alarming rate. The BHP was so good at this that there is now virtually no ore left, and a huge hill of mine tailings dominates the city's skyline, eclipsing the original "Broken Hill", which was unceremoniously dug up and plundered early in the 20th century. Funny for a town to be named for a geographical feature that no longer exists, but there you have it.

One of the more interesting features of Broken Hill is that most of its houses are made of corrugated iron. We drove through street after street of these odd-looking dwellings. "Corro" roofs and walls were dominant in the landscape. This is surprising, really, considering that summer temperatures regularly hit 45 degrees (that's about 115 in the old scale), and winters, conversely, get down to freezing for three months at a time. Hardy souls, these Broken Hillians - or, as Leigh put it, "fucking lunatics."

We drove into the centre of the city; wide streets in the Australian country town-style greeted us, and absolutely enormous, ancient hotels, ringed with balconies, plate-glass, stained glass and wrought-iron, beckoned us with their foaming surprises. Not out of character, we decided to have a beer. (After all, it had been a very long drive.) The "Royal Exchange Hotel" seemed to offer much for the thirsty traveller; its bar boasted three different varieties of beer, and not much else. We ordered a Coopers each, and retired to a couple of well-upholstered lounge chairs parked in the corner of the saloon bar. The barmaid, a woman who had seen much, noted much, and analysed much in her fifty or sixty years, came over to talk. She sat on one of the arms of the green leather ottoman facing us, and sized us up.

"So, where are you blokes from?"

We told her a little about our trip: enough to keep it interesting, not enough to bore. We asked her, instead, what was the Broken Hill story. Her considered reply is worth reporting.

"This place is fucked," she began. "The mine's just about finished, only 400 miners have got jobs, and it's gonna be a case of whoever leaves last, please turn out the lights. This pub's for sale, if you're interested."

It seemed, frankly, inconceivable that the original site of Australia's mining boom could just shut its doors, and I suggested to the barmaid that, surely, tourism must be a big money-spinner these days.

"Oh, sure," she replied "but who wants to spend their entire lives bein' a servant for wealthy tourists and grey nomads?" She had a point.

We drove back to Erin's place. As I said, she's a physiotherapist with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and spends a large part of her working week in a Piper turboprop flying to remote communities in the region, sorting out people with various muscle and joint ailments, and, I am sorry to report, quite a few women and children, victims of domestic violence, from the aboriginal communities. She told a story of desperation, poverty and substance abuse that left both Leigh and I in a cold rage. Of course, every Australian has an idea of the misery that has befallen Aboriginal Australia, but to hear the stories first-hand clarifies and concentrates what is, largely, an abstract and diffuse consciousness for most of us.

We saw, first-hand, what she was talking about the next day. Two hundred kilometres east of Broken Hill is Wilcannia, a place Leigh was looking forward to seeing, having been there once many years before. He described to me a prosperous little town on the banks of the Darling, the second-largest river in the country.

We drove into Wilcannia, and at the main intersection, a blackfeller of indeterminate age staggered out onto the road in front of us, filthy, and holding a Coke bottle half full of what was, presumably, petrol. A woman on the other side of the street shambled along, a plastic shopping bag in each hand, both containing two five-litre casks of cheap wine. A group of young black kids stood, or sat, along the walls of a decrepit building, doing nothing. There were three retail establishments trading in Wilcannia: a pub, a service station and a take-away food store. All were heavily barred with steel mesh across the windows, and impenetrable security doors. We drove around the streets, looking at dilapidated houses; there was not a library, school, community centre, doctor's surgery or, indeed, any sign that anyone was making an effort to make life more user-friendly. I've been in some pretty shabby towns around the world; this was one of the worst places I'd ever seen.

And smack bang in the middle of one of the most prosperous countries in the world. We felt ashamed - of ourselves and our countrymen. We stopped at the service-station to fill up, and I made my way past a burly security guard at the door, preposterously armed with a big, holstered handgun. He and the attendant were the only two visible whites in the entire town; when I asked him did he live in town, he answered "Shit no, mate - I drive back to Broken Hill every afternoon."

We drove across the bridge on our way out of town, and I looked down. In the second-biggest river of Australia, not a drop of water flowed. Poor feller, my country.

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