Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Handful of Sky



The road turned to dirt, then the dirt turned to wheel tracks between mounds of stone, slowly ripping the exhaust system from our old EH Holden and leaving it to drag like an anchor beneath us. We were somewhere between Boulia and Bedourie, out on the edges of the Simpson Desert in far western Queensland. It was about 10 in the morning and getting hotter by the minute. We hadn't seen a single vehicle since dawn and none looked like appearing.

I worried that my driver was a madman and he cursed ``typical Queensland road conditions'' where there appeared to be no road at all, digressing into angry Taoist philosophy, stories of massacred Aboriginal tribes, white historical vanity and just about everything else except his hell-bent desire to head out that way in the first place.

I was convinced he had brought me there to die with him, that it was all some terrible joke. Oh, why had I hitched a ride with him?



His name was Russell Guy. It was 1991. I'd met him in Darwin and he was the only lift heading south all the way to Sydney. I thought it would be an adventure and I was right.

Russell was a former 2JJ DJ who had quit the radio station just after its conversion to Triple J, to become a training officer at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association in Alice Springs, where he produced early recordings for rock groups such as Coloured Stone and the Warumpi Band.



In other words, he'd gone bush and was addicted to driving back and forth across the country in the cause of whatever possessed him. This was someone with white-line fever in his veins. In the boot, somewhere inside the rim of a spare tyre, was a sheaf of paper bound with blackened string, hand-typed, his ever burgeoning attempt to write the great Australian road novel. Unfinished. With at least four absolutely brilliant potential titles he kept testing out on me and constantly changing as we moved along, all of which I coveted for my own.

Russell's chief claim to fame had been a radio play he wrote years before that featured the ever-so-crisp ABC newsreader of the day, James Dibble, doing the voice of a young man driving up the coast of NSW while high on hallucinogenic drugs. What's Rangoon to You is Grafton to Me was first published in the surfing magazine Tracks in October 1978, then broadcast on Sydney's Double J about a half-dozen times before being remixed yet again in stereo for the launch of a national Triple J in 1981. It was a big hit at the time and remains one of the great pieces of subversive Australian radio, twisted to the point of almost straight again. Now I seemed to be living in some extended aspect of the play with the human corkscrew. He had to be mad and we were certainly going to die. But after clanging around in the red dust and rocks for hours Russell wrenched the last piece of exhaust, plus the muffler, completely off the car and we were on our noisy way again.

That night we camped just out of sight of the roadside and he told me stories about patches of Australian highway notorious for the number of their disappearances and murders. It was well before the Belanglo backpacker killer was a news sensation, but he knew about that stretch in NSW and quite a few others as well. ``Always best not to draw attention to yourself when you're camped by the roadside,'' he said, kicking out the fire for the night. ``There's some pretty strange people out there.''

Exhausted, I watched a lightning storm moving towards us across the desert like some elemental equivalent to an atomic bomb. It was so big we spent a few hours timing the gaps between the lightning and thunder, until Russell threw his swag over his head and zipped up safe and dry for the night. As the storm closed in I felt shaken and tiny, exactly how it must be for a small boat during a mighty ocean nightmare. I found myself trying to hedge my more inferior swag beneath the undercarriage of the car, in part to keep dry and more because I was grovelling in fear at the lightning, by then striking the earth in tree-like bolts, igniting the desert blackness into shots of daylight clarity.

Still quivering, I fell into a drained sleep, car grease staining my swag, the parting heat of the vehicle at odds with the falling rain. The next day Russell laughed at my paranoia about the storm as we set off into a clear horizon. It was as if nothing had occurred the night before. We stopped at one point where he pulled out a didgeridoo and played a while to the desert spaces. He said he sometimes felt the presence of the people who had lived in these places before and this was his attempt to show some respect for those who might be still there. ``Just to let their spirits know we're passing through.''

Then we moved off again and the sky was all we seemed to be heading into. I reached out the window and grabbed handfuls of the passing breeze and looked out at forever, thinking about Russell and his way and all that he said, about these ghosts in the land and those still living, and where in the world I belonged.

I often think back to those moments and how deeply they marked me. And I wonder how my road mentor is going out there and if his book is still in the boot of his old EH. If we might unravel the black string like a strip of bitumen and see those pages like so many white lines taking us somewhere and get some new vision of this country, its wonder and horror, its blankness and possibility. And if that's too much to ask of him, if we might just take a drive and hope for the best. And see where the wide open road takes us.

- Mark Mordue




Map sourced from Bonzle:
http://maps.bonzle.com/c/a?a=p&p=1148&cmd=sp&d=pics

Story first published as 'Hard Day's Fright' in The Weekend Australian Travel section, in the Journeys column, September 27, 2003.
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