Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Italian connection

Leigh was undoing his shoelaces, with the arthritic machinations of a bloke who has seriously extended himself. I, for one, was not going anywhere near mine, for the simple reason that a) I couldn't feel my feet anymore, and b) it would have been asking the impossible for me to bend any further than it took to pull a beer out of the esky beside me.

We'd just done a marathon hike into a place called "God Knows Where", by way of a canyon called "Fuck Me, You Must be Kidding" and along a mountain trail named "If You Get Through This Alive, You're Doing Well", a graveyard littered with the dessicated bones of unfortunate Germans and Japanese who had unwittingly read Fahrenheit for Celsius.

At least, this is my recollection. I can't be entirely certain, because I'd begun hallucinating by the time we'd tramped about fifteen miles through venomous scrub over rocks that resembled razor-sharp hand-grenades which exploded underfoot.

"Loz," gasped Leigh as he drank his sixth bottle of water for the day, "I'm having a great time!"

He giggled for a while, then collapsed on the ground, heaving.

Remembering that fortune favours the brave, we opted for cowardice, and bid a strategic retreat through the fields of blood to a camp-ground that at least afforded a decent burial in the case of a misadventure like slicing one's wrist whilst opening a coldy.

Of course, it was a tribute to our erstwhile enemies that they'd attempted the trek at all. Back in camp, we were comforted by a group of Italians who had pitched a tent next to us, and, rather than face the vagaries of wind and sun, had very sensibly decided to cavort in the resort's swimming pool all day, only to return to their campsite in order to quaff ice-cold chianti and graze on a variety of superlative Mediterranean foodstuffs.

I know all of this, because Leigh invited us over to their camp in order to, as he said, "determine that none of their victuals were poisonous."

They were from Florence - a mildly respectable centre of culture, that Leigh (who is a traveller of distinction), reckons is on a par with Cessnock or Heddon-Greta. "The trouble with Florence, Loz," he said with the air of the world-weary, "is that it doesn't have a smash-em-up car derby track like Heddon-Greta. Couple of good paintings and statues, though. Keeps the locals contented, although I reckon they could use a good Hoyts multiplex and a Henny Penny or two." Fortunately our Italian companions knew not a word of English, and if they did, were sufficiently familiar with irony to ignore the Barbarian Australian who was refined enough to know the value of fine wine. Besides, it's not difficult to tell when Leigh is joking. He begins to chuckle before telling you his story, breaks into giggles between sentences, then falls about laughing at himself at the end. His humour is completely infectious, and it wasn't long before the Florentines and we had become firm friends.

The following day we took them to Sacred Canyon, a tiny (by Flinders Ranges standards) cleft in granite cliffs, some twenty k from Wilpena. A dry, rocky creek bed led us, a kilometre or so, to walls of granite in pinks, reds and greys. And on those walls were hundreds of beautifuly engraved circles, animal prints, and campfire motifs. We were looking back in time - thirty to forty thousand years of it, in fact, at a civilisation that had used this little gorge, a place in the absolute middle of nowhere, as a meeting place, campfire and rest spot along a trade route that extended up into the Northern Territory and across to Cape York. These blokes must have been seriously good navigators, because this part of the country is so homogeneous that you can get lost just by looking over your shoulder.

The people of this area, the Adnyamathnha, or "hill people", inscribed these rock engravings with pieces of granite. We wandered around the gorge, inspecting everything, including a beautiful, big python that had serenely lain up in a crevice about four feet off the ground. Our friends were captivated by its sparkling green and yellow diamonds, and spent minutes studying and photographing it. To our chagrin, they were one pair of foreigners we were unable to scare silly with snake stories. When Leigh began to describe the rising panic one could expect in a victim were she suddenly pounced upon and wrapped in the python's vice-like coils, Eleanorae coolly looked down her nose at him and said "Their diet consists wholly of small marsupials and birds' eggs. We are not prey." Italians 1, Barbarians 0.

Sitting on a rock, staring up at the engravings, I began to ponder the sort of minds responsible for these at once ritualistic and practical symbols. What did they think of their world? They were, quite obviously, well beyond the simple "hunter-gatherer" stereotype our colonial ancestors ignorantly ascribed them. This was not some paleolithic graffiti. The engravings were works of great care; their draughtsmanship marvellous, and there were obvious signs that many of them marked out routes, waterholes, and food sources. This was the ancient equivalent of sat-nav and A Brief History of Time in one - a testament to intelligence, skill and tradition. Eleanorae and I sat together, enthralled. Eventually, she took my hand, briefly, and said very seriously "Laurie, you and your countrymen are very lucky." I could not but agree.

Humbled by our encounter with serious time, we returned to camp, where modernity returned with a rush in the form of several grey nomads who had parked their lurid behemoths all around our tent-site, and were busily erecting satellite dishes so that they would not miss the next episode of The Young and the Restless. Eleanorae, Rafael and we decided that culture was best promoted, instead, by that which draws the hearts of our two countries closest together - wine, and plenty of it!


Apathy Personified said...

You're doing an excellent job of selling Australia to me.

They were, quite obviously, well beyond the simple "hunter-gatherer" stereotype our colonial ancestors ignorantly ascribed them.

That's absolutely right. Jared Diamond has written a couple of good books about this - In particular 'Guns, Germs and Steel' has a chapter or two about PNG and the Aborigines.

clodhopper said...

Laurie: I've never seen engravings that old. I can imagine it a very moving experience.

Anonymous said...


Remind me sometime to show you my photographs of Fremont Indian petroglyphs and the Hawaiian Indian petroglyphs on the big island of Hawaii.

I enjoyed both your story and it's subject.

-- Gregg

Sharon said...

Another inspiration anecdote. Thanks so much.