Monday, November 17, 2008

In the beginning, and in the ending

18 million or so tears ago, a dirty great shield volcano aggressively splattered a large area of northern New South Wales, in the days when the eastern coast of Australia was going through a spasm and trying to swallow New Zealand. Some have argued that it's a pity it didn't, but that's not for me to say.

This is around the time (give or take a bit) Adam was discovering Eve, who you'll remember went around starkers in those days, and Adam was getting accustomed to the enormous burden of being permanently priapic, so we can understand why he wasn't interested in arcane matters such as geology. Any decent biblical education leaves one well aware of the acres of difference in the relative values of intelligence, power, majesty and moral rectitude between God and his creation. At least God was into geology; I mean, he invented the stuff.

As I was saying, since then the effect of erosion on this mixture of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock includes fabulous and immense outcrops - and other features that simply stick up, on a grand scale, from the floors of valleys magnificent in their dense and voluptuous eucalypt forests. Blue gums, enormous in girth, build a cushion of cumulus-like foliage; the tops of the trees, viewed from above, look like nothing so much as a dense, bubbling cloud of green.

"Hey man," mumbled Leigh as we trudged along an uphill trail that threatened to, at any moment, collapse into the deep green gorges below us, "this acid is really good shit."

OK, OK, I just made that up. In fact, we were having a particularly pleasant time. Over the past twenty-five days, we had walked probably a hundred and fifty or more kilometres, and we had become pretty fit. We weren't going all the way to the Breadknife, but were climbing up to a good vantage-point to give the thing a good, close-up scrute. A mere fifteen-or-so kilometre round-trip. Tall ferns of various species gave way to ridge scrub as we climbed higher, until we were scrabbling over scree and fairly tumble-down rock platforms. 

This sort of thing convinces me further that God, if he really is around, is a bit of a shoddy tradesman. Lord, if you really care for us, you'll put in, at the very least, gentle slopes with nicely delineated pathways incorporating escalators up the more challenging stretches. When Adam was having a yarn with a couple of cherubim at the gates, Eve was being chatted up by a creature that was to become the ancestor of used-car salesmen and Republicans, unaware that her nascent concupiscence would result in thorns, childbirth and great fucking boulders that like to take your head off when you're half way up a mountain.

As always, the effort was worth it.  The Breadknife, and a couple of other ineffable gargantuans, peered across at us, rusty old fellers having their last say about the place, before wind, water and sun eventually took them down to be replaced by adolescents, emerging from their mother earth's aprons. The Breadknife could just as easily have been called "Old Silverback".

I thought of the serpent as we walked back towards camp, and, of course, we came upon a pretty little red-bellied black sunning itself by the path. Nicely coiled, with its head resting on its body like a little dog on your lounge pillow, it appeared for all the world to be blissing out.

We squatted near it and had a good look for a while, until we heard two walkers coming up the track. We said our goodays, and it was obvious they were English.

"Nice little feller we found here," said Leigh amicably, pointing to our friend by the track. The woman took one look at Blacky and hid her face in her hands, whimpering with a kind of rapid asthmatic pulmonary spasm. We looked at each other with some consternation.

"It's OK, he's just having a snooze. He's not interested in you at all." Leigh was being more than reasonable, I thought; little blackies, although poisonous, are very timid. Chris and I once had
a big feller who would park himself on the concrete doorstep on a Spring morning. We used to have to step over him to go to work.

She was disconsolate. When her husband tried to calm her by suggesting that it wouldn't hurt if she actually opened her eyes and had a look at it, she backed down the track, then turned as if to run.

"For Christ's sake, don't turn your back on it!"  I yelled.

Have you ever seen one of those ninja movies where the guys run up vertical walls? Think it's impossible? Think again. The woman got about forty yards up the track-side cliff inside three seconds. Perched on a tiny ledge, she collapsed sobbing.

Leigh realised she needed his help. "There's more of 'em up there in those caves next to you," he kindly encouraged.

We realised we could have fun like this all day, but food - and a really big telescope - called, so we bid fond adieus and left our new friend contemplating the unabashed generosity and good-will of the average Aussie bloke, and the ubiquity of Pseudechus porphyriacus in the Wide Brown Land.

Apropos of nothing at all: According to perhaps apocryphal tales, a particular species of parasitic worm, Dracunculiasis (formerly referred to as Dracontiasis), was once a fearsome killer, and the only remedy was to extract it from its host by means of a stick, previously steeped in water. The stick would be inserted into the abscess on the patient's leg where the worm made its window on the world. (Fuck, I bet that little procedure brought tears to the eyes.) Shortly, the worm would detect the moisture in the stick, gradually emerging from the body and wrapping its way around it, right to the top. This ancient treatment became embodied in the universal symbol for medicine. (The parallels with our verbillaceous mate in the Garden of Eden are unmistakeable.)

Next stop was the Siding Springs Observatory, perched atop a mountain some few miles to our east. Now, the bloke in charge of this place is a feller by the name of Fred Watson, and a heartier, more rambunctious person you'd not likely meet. As well as knowing things your granny forgot about astronomy, he plays a mean guitar. We were hoping to meet him at the Anglo-Australian Telescope for a jam; although, as he keeps musician's hours, and it was only two in the afternoon, we thought the chances might be slim.

We alighted at the car-park, and with a fierce and cold breeze blowing straight at us, climbed up to the telescope on foot. A lift took us up three flights until we emerged at the viewing platform.

I suppose there are plenty of people who would look on that thing and simply dismiss it as a vast combobulation of steel, glass, and wire. But of course, it is actually a sports apparatus - a tool for the exercise of the imagination. It is the Age of Reason wed to Romanticism.

... I always wanted to say that.

Whatever it was, it was special. Even the kids on the viewing platform sensed the imaginative power of its part in the great project. One little bloke said to his mum "But what's it for?" His mother leaned over and said "It's for learning, mate, learning about the universe."

And with that, we drove back to our camp, to spend the last night of our trip across this often inscrutable, ever bewildering but stunning country, underneath a star-studded sky, thinking about all of those things that contribute to what is our world.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Here is the link to a recording I made of the Sydney Guitar Quartet playing Philip Houghton's Opals suite: Black, Water, White. It was recorded at my studio last year, and I am thoroughly proud to say that my son, Miles, is one of the quartet's members. Enjoy.

Mind you, it's only an MP3. Sounds way better in glorious 24-bit 96Khz. For those with a technical bent, it was recorded using a pair of Rode NT2-A large diaphragm condensor microphones positioned directly in front of the quartet, and a pair of AKG C451 B condensors as overhead ambients, direct to Tascam 16 track tape (well, why not?) It was then mixed (no EQ), gently reverberated with an old Lexicon a mate lent me, and sent to Wavelab for a touch-up.
Just like baking a cake!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A brief musical interlude

A shining example of the wisdom of Frank Zappa, for all those who thought religion might have something really going for it. Televangelists need not press play.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


We limped into Gulargambone, in the early evening, looking for a place to rest our weary heads. It had been an eventful day; it's not every day that a bloke's navigator nearly has his head taken off by a kangaroo at high speed. Gulargambone was a sleepy little village lying on the plains just west of the Great Dividing Range, that long spine of mountains that separates the coast of eastern Australia from the unliveable part. We were in the unliveable part. The Volvo creaked its way into the parking lot of the town's only hotel/motel; we thankfully emerged, and without looking too carefully at the horrendous damage to our trusty steed, wandered into the bar.

We were in Gulargambone for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we intended to visit the Warrumbungle National Park, the site of some mighty fine pieces of geology. Secondly, a visit to the Siding Springs Observatory, home of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, had been a mission of mine for some years. But for now, we needed anaesthetic.

It turned out that the Gulargambone hotel/motel was the social centre for the town's inhabitants, and the hosts, Rob and Sue, a couple in their thirties, did an excellent job in food, beverage and company. I was talking to Sue, a vivacious blond, and one of the best multi-taskers I've ever seen - she was simultaneously cooking food for about twenty people, serving drinks, showing us around, and looking after two young kids and a baby - and mentioned that I was originally from Newcastle.

"Oh, me too," she replied. "Whereabouts?"

"Kotara. Grinsell Street, to be precise."

"Bugger me!" she exclaimed, "I lived in Grinsell Street until I was eighteen!"

Of course, that sealed the deal. We were immediately fast friends, and chatted away merrily with each other, while Leigh sat at another table, regaling the locals with outrageous stories (creatively embellished, of course) of our travels around the country. Every ten seconds or so, a great roar of laughter would erupt from the table. Leigh has this effect on everyone.

Apparently it was movie night at the pub. There being no cinema for a couple of hundred kilometres in any direction, mine hosts had taken it upon themselves to be the local culture vendors, and had set up a pretty nifty mini-theater in the back room. Rob and Sue were screening There Will be Blood on this occasion, so, after a great meal of swordfish cutlets, and with Sue sitting beside me, constantly replenishing my glass of red, we watched Daniel Day Lewis cover himself in oil and glory.

By about the eleventy-millionth glass, the screen was no longer in focus, so I bid all goodnight, and with a chorus of Good nights and Nice-meeting-yous ringing in my ears, I stumbled off to my room. What a great crew of people these dirt-poor, struggling farmers were. And the pub had become a lifeline (in some cases, I suspect, quite emphatically so) for a whole community ravaged by drought.

We left early the following morning, before anyone was up. We passed through a place that had nothing to distinguish itself whatsoever except for the sign that told you its name: Gummin Gummin'.  Note the apostrophe? We stopped, and spent several useless minutes pondering the virtue of putting an apostrophe on the end of a double-barrelled place name, out in the middle of nowhere. It must have been a mistake, we thought, but when we checked our map, there was that cute little thing sticking out of Gummin Gummin''s name. More bizarre than crop circles, if you ask me.

We pulled into the National Parks Centre at the Warrumbungles, and went into the main office to register. A large group of tourists from Europe accompanied us. We got to the front door, and found that someone had creatively placed there a dirty big, perfectly taxidermified western grey kangaroo as some kind of ossified doorman. I took one look, and pounced on it.

I had the thing by the throat, and was giving it a good kicking to its nether regions, all the while yelling, in syncopation with the lethal blows to its protruding scrotum, "You - dir - ty - fuck - ing - cunt - of - a - thing!" This went on for some ten seconds or so, with the stuffed object rocking back and forth in time with my blows, before Leigh quite intelligently intervened.

"Ah, Loz," he said trepidatiously, putting a soothing hand on my arm, "it's already dead, mate."

I stopped, turned around, and found about twenty foreigners standing there, rather shell-shocked, and giving me the kind of look that I imagine those derelicts in the city who urinate in public litter receptacles get from passers-by.

I straightened up, threw my shoulders back and attempted to rescue my dignity. "Well, they are cunts of things. You might think they're all cute and adorable, but just wait until one of them decides to destroy your Volvo!"

I spun on my heels and marched up to the reception desk, and, I must say, was somewhat taken aback when I was unceremoniously thrown straight back out the door by a bloke who was probably three sizes too large for his shirt. What is it with people who wear epaulets? 

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Don't talk to me about kangaroos

Leigh was driving. I'd done all the driving up until now, twenty-five days in a row. Not that I minded - driving, to me, is about as taxing as reading a book. Leigh was a superb navigator - the only time we'd been lost was in the Strezlecki desert, which is probably not a good place in which to get yourself lost, come to think of it.

We were on our way from Wilcannia to the Warrumbungle mountains in the mid-west of the state. We'd already covered two hundred kilometres, and had another five hundred or so to go, so I thought a little respite, on this day, would be in order.

The Barrier Highway was unremitting; we just drove forever into that endless horizon, with some stretches that were gun-barrel straight for thirty or forty klicks at a time. But we began to notice, by about half-way through this stretch, something we hadn't seen for two weeks: green grass. It was an epiphany; we even stopped to photograph a little patch of green on the side of the road, as if it had assumed some majestic importance to be back in a place where water had finally fallen from the sky.

We stopped at Cobar, a prosperous little town built on mining; a place that was so unlike Wilcannia, 260 k behind us, as to be unimaginable. But it was just a quick stop for food, and we were on our way.

I was driving again; the next town would be Nyngan, a further 130 k up the road. The Volvo was eating up the miles; Leigh was studying the map to determine the best route through to the lyrically-named Gulargambone. I was doing 110 k.p.h. on cruise control; we came over a railway bridge that curved gently up and back down again.

I caught a glimpse of something out of my left eye, close to the car. I had the sudden realisation that it was the head of a kangaroo. And then I hit it.

Now, hitting a 'roo at 110 can be a chancy business. Depending on a number of factors, including various vectors of velocity, direction, and mass, you can either live or die. Many people have been killed by collisions with kangaroos in Australia, either through losing control of the vehicle, or having the thing come straight through the windscreen and taking every one of the occupants' heads off. Roos are flighty buggers; they can, for no other reason than sheer caprice, take off at great speed and decide that leaping across a major highway at full gallop is a pretty cool thing to do. Which is exactly what our bastard decided.

There was an almighty bang, as the car took the body of the thing on the left front corner. Leigh, who'd been looking at his map, yelled "Fuck, Loz!"; he told me a little later he thought I'd come off the road and hit a post or a tree. The car pitched and swerved as the mudguard collapsed onto the front wheel; I wrestled the steering wheel, got back on course, and gently applied a little brake - not too hard, because I was unsure of the extent of the damage. But the screeching and scraping of tyre on metal told me plenty.

We came to a stop about two hundred metres down the road. I sat there, cursing our bad luck. For six thousand kilometres we'd been careful to avoid driving at dusk, or at night, when 'roos are around; to hit one in broad daylight two days before home seemed a vicious irony.

Leigh got out of the car. It was difficult - his door didn't want to open, as the 'roo had, in its dying throes, evidently decided to give the side of the car a good kicking as it scraped along it. Leigh came around to my window and said "That must have been a really big kangaroo, Loz - the car's fucked."

There was nothing to do but inspect the damage and see if we could get the thing driveable. The bonnet, headlights, front mudguard and both left hand doors were destroyed; the mudguard was just a tangled mass of steel with bits of 'roo flesh and fur adhered to it, all crumpled on top of the left front wheel.

But first, of course, we had to see whether the 'roo itself was still alive. We walked back to the site of the collision, and there was the poor thing, dead as a doornail, about twenty metres off the road. At least we were spared the prospect of clubbing it to death, as I'd had to do on two or three occasions in the past. Leigh estimated it at between fifty and sixty kilograms - a big one, indeed. It was horribly damaged. Irrepressibly, Leigh turned to me with a bit of a grin and said "Well, at least we should cut its legs off - waste not, want not, Loz."

At that point I wished it would just get up so I'd have the pleasure of killing it again. I had had to plead with my ever-lovin' to borrow her car for the trip, against her better judgement, which included admonishments like "But what if you have an accident, or hit a kangaroo?" I had assured her that none of these things would happen. It was going to be an uncomfortable phone call.

We found an old star-picket post by the side of the road, and did some serious panel-beating with it. We got the mudguard off the tyre, and gave the car a test-drive. Like all serious Swedish technology, the Volvo shook off this slight inconvenience, and trundled on as if nothing had happened. It was only a couple of weeks later that the damage assessment came in at twelve thousand dollars.

We were lucky; had I been a fraction of a second later, the thing might have come straight through the windscreen, and who knows what the cleaner's bill would have been for that.