The Oodnadatta Track

At home we used to have a collection of National Geographic magazines going way back to the 70s; the earliest issue I remember was from 1979, and the cover feature was “Walk Across America”, about a man who had walked coast to coast across the US. The picture showed him wearing a backpack, baseball cap and brown flares, dating the image immediately, as he headed along some road across the Prairie. Inside, the adverts were equally historic: black and white photographs of microwaves with dials instead of buttons; enormous television sets with a tiny screen surrounded by acres of oak panelling; gigantic American cars pictured in a variety of US beauty spots: Lincoln, Cadillac, Buick. America was huge, I decided, and so was everything in it. Somewhere in that issue was a feature on Australian Aborigines, with many pictures of rock art and dancers attired in the white body paint of ceremonies. I remember one picture in particular – it was of a lizard, shot from a lizard’s eye viewpoint with the camera on the ground. Just behind it an Aborigine woman charged towards it with a large stick held aloft. The caption, with the characteristically folksy style that dominated the magazine at that time, stated: “One lizard’s lucky day. The goanna got away, so this Aborigine woman of Oodnadatta, South Australia, settled for a store-bought meal instead”.

Oodnadatta. It held the record high temperature for Australia, 50.7 degrees C (123.3 F), and wryly proclaimed itself “The driest town in the driest state on the driest continent”. I wondered where exactly it was, and found it on the accompanying map – a small black dot in an expanse of beige, connected to another distant black dot marked Marree by a dashed red line, under which were the words “Oodnadatta Track”. What kind of track? A road through the desert? An ancient walking path from the Dreamtime that followed an Aborigine songline? The magazine failed to say. But my curiosity was piqued by this strange world where women clubbed lizards to death for dinner in preference to the convenience of “a store-bought meal”, then chucked them whole on a fire (assuming of course that the goanna hadn’t got away).

The Oodnadatta Track is one of the three great Outback tracks through South Australia, the others being the Birdsville Track, which heads to the tiny hamlet of Birdsville in Queensland that comes alive once a year for the surreal Birdsville Races, and the Strzelecki Track, named after Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki who had himself named Australia’s highest mountain Mt Kosciuszko, after a Polish national hero. The Strzelecki was described in the guidebook as “the least interesting of the Outback tracks… stretching from Lyndhurst to Innamincka… rough as guts, heavily corrugated and treacherous after rain.” It was also 4WD only, as was the Birdsville Track. But there on the map, snaking down from the Stuart Highway at Marla to Marree, just north of Flinders Ranges National Park, was the Oodnadatta Track, described as being in good condition, motorable in a 2WD car, and heading in exactly the direction that we wanted to go. We decided to give it a shot.

According to Google Maps, it was a ten-and-a-half hour drive from Uluru, where we were, to Oodnadatta. This seemed ambitious, but do-able. Neither of us were particularly keen on heading back down the Stuart Highway for three days, via Coober Pedy again, and then heading back up from Adelaide on another road to get to Flinders Ranges. We filled the water container in the boot, checked tyre pressures, fuelled up in Yulara, and hit the road once more, heading for Erldunda, a small roadhouse on the Stuart Highway just before the border with South Australia. The driving was monotonous – set the cruise control to 130 (80mph) and just point the car south. The occasional road train heading south provided the only break in the tedium – cruise control off, move out to the other side of the road, speed past and then settle back into the rhythm. Eventually Erldunda appeared, and we pulled in, fuelled up yet again, and had a look round the attached cafe. Everything on the menu appeared to be fried. They even had fish and chips, which, given that we were about as far from the sea as it was possible to get in Australia, lacked a certain appeal. In the event we ended up having a picnic out of the boot of the car – sandwiches with “Tasty” cheese (I’ve often wondered just how bland the other kind is), smeared on with a Swiss Army Knife that was becoming oleaginous with margarine. South once more, heading out of the Territory, and we began to encounter signs saying “Welcome to South Australia”. There were several, so it was quite difficult to know exactly where the border was; one sign was a kind of billboard montage of Adelaide by night, the gleaming skyscrapers and artist-impression cityscape providing a strange contrast to the howling wilderness we were actually in. Another sign warned of quarantine ahead – the usual bins for contraband fruit and vegetables which were prohibited from being transported across state borders. We had some illicit strawberries, bought in Yulara, as well as a contraband orange, but, while we had been conscientious enough to deposit some bananas in the bin on our way up, we were now hardened offenders, and blithely drove past the quarantine while I kept an eye on the mirror for some fruit and veg Highway Patrol car pursuing us.

By now it was late afternoon, and after a quick turn around the car park at Marla and coffee out of a machine, we turned off the main road at a gigantic signpost proclaiming the start of the Oodnadatta Track. Adjacent to it was another road departments sign with sliding notifications about the condition of the road – all of them read “Open” in green. We were good to go. We bumped over a cattle grid and hit the dirt. The surface was pretty good at first, and we cruised along at 90kmh, throwing up a long plume of red dust behind us. Cows watched bemused from the scrubland that stretched away all around us. Another cattle grid was signposted, and we had to slow right down for it as there was a sharp concrete lip several inches high before it. The landscape was vast, and I was reminded of an account I had seen by a German soldier describing what it felt like to cross Russia during the second world war. He said that he was from a small village in the south of Germany, hemmed in by mountains, and this was the first time he had seen land that just went on like a sea, the slight undulation meaning that you never saw the horizon. Weeks and weeks they went on, in an unchanging landscape, and the other troops became melancholic, a kind of depression setting in that they would never get anywhere, the scale of the land pressing down on them like a weight under the dome of the sky, diminishing their presence to that of an ant walking up a beach. It felt similar. That sense of space which can seem like freedom to visitors from more crowded countries like the UK can begin to weigh upon you, as if you’ll never escape from it – the land will just go on and on forever, and you’ll never make any progress across it.

We could, though, measure our progress in the passage of time. The glare of mid-afternoon had subsided, and the shadows were lengthening. The sky was changing, darkening and becoming softer at the edges, and the colours had shifted from the bold burnt umber and ultramarine of noon to a subtler, flat wash of watercolour in gunmetal grey and blue. The landscape changed subtly too, almost too imperceptibly to notice until it had already happened, and you realised that the gum trees were beginning to clump more closely together, or that the endless rise of the distant horizon was in fact beginning to descend and your view was extended. We came, abruptly, to a bend in the road with a few buildings around it, and stopped, shocked by signs of habitation. Creeping forward again we saw a battered sign by the road, which read, simply: Oodnadatta.

Coming down the main street we inspected the dilapidated houses with some misgiving. Three wrecked cars lay in various stages of dismemberment outside a low clap-board house. On the porch was a sofa from whose carcass springs erupted. There was a small general store which appeared to be shut, and a lone petrol pump which wasn’t connected to anything. The outline of an old traction engine lay off to the left; was it really possible that it had been abandoned at a time when such things ran, and was still here, preserved by the desert climate? We passed a pub which looked like a shack; four Aborigines sat outside, all wearing beanie hats pulled low against the gathering chill of evening. It looked like a shebeen in some South African township. Towards the other end of town we saw a sign for The Pink Roadhouse – the focal point of Oodnadatta – and headed down an alley to the caravan park where we had booked a cabin for the night.

A series of small portakabins stood around a dusty courtyard. There were a few other 4WD vehicles here and there – one, in the very centre of the courtyard looking equipped to handle almost anything. It was an old Toyota Land Cruiser with sand ladders on the side, a heavy duty winch, and what looked to be a tent on the roof. A couple of Australian guys in their 50s were sitting in camping chairs next to it and gave us a wave as we drove in. There was a kitchen area nearby which essentially resembled a looted shack; it was open to the elements on three sides, and contained a microwave oven, toaster and a kettle. That was it – no pots and pans, no cutlery, no stove. A foul-smelling sink dripped in the corner. We had tins of food in the back of the car, but nothing to cook them in. Even the standby of instant noodles was going to be a problem with no bowl. I contemplated sticking them directly into the kettle and boiling it, and perhaps fashioning a fork out of an old stick (wouldn’t be the first time). Fortunately at that point the Australian guys wandered over. “How ya goin’?” They saw our dilemma, and offered to lend us plates, forks and so on. This was a lifesaver, so dinner that night was nasi goreng flavour noodles, a cheese sandwich, and some toast and Tasmanian honey. I remembered the Tim Tams and offered them round by way of thanks.

Bob and Rob (or similar) were both in their 50s and had driven down from the Queensland coast via the Birdsville Track. One was a surveyor, the other an artist, and they drove around the outback in search of projects to survey and draw. They were admirably self-sufficient, but expressed mild disappointment at Oodnadatta. “We stopped off for a beer at the pub on the way into town,” Rob said. “It was alright.” The way he said alright spoke volumes. “Mostly Aborigines here,” he went on. “And by the look of it,” – he nodded round the kitchen – “they’ve pretty much stripped the place.” It was the usual problem of travel in the developing world: an impoverished local population, and a bunch of (relatively) wealthy tourists camping right in the middle. There was an atmosphere that night of somehow circling the wagons, watching out for each other, which may or may not have been entirely in our imaginations. As night fell there were strange sounds just over the wall, from the broken-down shacks that lay adjacent to the caravan park. An eerie whistling, like someone calling a dog, that went on and on, and then several loud crashes like things being smashed. Perhaps it was kids throwing stones onto an old corrugated iron roof. Either way it seemed like a rather ominous soundtrack given the circumstances. The portakabin rooms were clean and had towels and soap provided, but we made sure we locked the door that night and took everything out of the car.

In the morning we headed in to The Pink Roadhouse to check out. It was quite a surprise. An English girl was behind the counter, and there were rows on cakes on display, a coffee menu, all manner of outback souvenirs for sale, and several homemade maps of the track with tips on outback driving. A lone Aborigine man sat at a table as we came in, sipping from a bottle of Coke, so we greeted him. After a pause of about five seconds, he nodded in acknowledgement, then shuffled off outside. We got ourselves a couple of coffees, and the English girl showed us the town on the map. She’d moved there from Staffordshire – from rolling green hills to this flat, sun-blasted wilderness – and seemed determined to make the best of it. Back in the car once more we drove around the empty streets, the small houses shuttered against the glare. A lone figure was visible heading north along the road: it was the Aborigine man from the roadhouse, on a tricycle with a trailer, slowly pedalling along. We gave him a wave as we went by, and again five seconds passed before he raised a hand. I wondered what his story was. A former employee who had retired? Either way he was the only living soul we saw in Oodnadatta that morning, a small figure slowly riding away into the glare.

On the roadhouse map there was a circle just next to the dam on the road into town and the legend “Afghan Graves”. We must have driven straight past it the night before. The Afghans came as camel handlers in the 19th century, running long baggage trains of the animals to supply the growing settlements of the outback. Some accounts describe them as Indians, but in fact most were indeed Afghans from the south of that country – Helmand and Kandahar in particular – as well as Balochistan, which lies in present-day Pakistan. These men were used to harsh desert conditions, and lived in their own little neighbourhoods adjacent to the small settlements, building mosques and keeping largely to themselves. The camel trains continued until well into the 20th century, when increasingly they were replaced by the railway – still called the Ghan line today in honour of the Afghans. As Muslims, Afghans would not normally have been buried in the Christian cemeteries, but had a small area nearby marking their graves. The Afghan graves at Oodnadatta were set on high ground overlooking the dam, in a little fenced off area. There were no headstones visible – just mounds of broken rocks in the scorched earth – but it was possible to see that they were all in alignment and pointed towards Mecca. It was a melancholic spot. The hot desert wind fluted and moaned, throwing up small dust devils which whirled away like tornadoes. The ground was covered in dark stones with a shiny mineral patina from the heat of the sun. Nearby lay the mummified carcass of a horse, one leg stiffly held outward. Later, in the town of Marree, another Afghan settlement, we met an old railway worker who remembered the Afghans coming through town: the jingle of the camels’ harnesses, the men with turbans above wind-darkened faces speaking Pashto or Farsi, the slop of their sandalled feet through the sand. All gone now, only these few broken rocks as evidence that they were ever here.

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The Red Centre

A pedestrian bridge led over the sandy riverbed of the Todd River, leading to the town centre. I had heard that cars parked on the riverbank were vulnerable to being broken into, as the river had become a popular spot for the local homeless to congregate. In previous years so many had camped out in small ‘humpys’ that it had become a veritable shantytown, but there had clearly been a clean-up campaign, as I couldn’t see anyone in the shelter of the straggling trees that dotted the riverbed. The Rough Guide mentioned Todd Mall as being one of Alice Springs’ ‘must-do’ attractions, and we navigated our way towards it by iphone. Outside the Thirsty Camel pub a few drinkers stood about in small groups, and opposite, on a low wall, sat a few Aborigines. They had the air of people waiting for something. Todd Mall itself was virtually closed, despite it being five o’clock in the afternoon; Aborigine children ran around barefoot, shouting with laughter, the adults slowly padding after them. A group of police stood around their van, scanning the passers-by, on the lookout for trouble. More police took the details of a group of young Aborigine men standing nearby. This was a scene that was to repeat itself often – three times that hour alone I saw police talking to young Aborigine lads. One got the impression that the town changed significantly after dark. Passing a small patch of greenery we saw several Aborigine women sitting together in small groups on the other side of the road, chatting. One of them saw me smoking and made a miming gesture, asking for a cigarette, without much hope of success.

It reminded me very much of Marble Arch in London, which in recent years has become a popular hangout with Roma beggars. I remember the shock and outrage in the British papers at the sight of women in headscarves with children begging in the streets. It was a similar feeling in Alice – with a similar theme: all the beggars were of one distinctive ethnicity – Aborigine. And it caused an uncomfortable racial dimension to their obvious dispossession. They sloped about, rifled through bins for cigarette butts, wandered barefoot through the shopping malls looking shellshocked, and seemed utterly lost. They were all dusty, I noticed. Perhaps it was due to long journeys from outlying settlements in utes, but so many seemed to be covered with a thin film of powdery red dust, like the bloom upon a plum. Outside a bottle shop a lone white policeman sat disconsolately. An Aborigine woman carrying a baby approached him, asking something – from her gestures it was clear she wanted to go in. “I can’t let you in there,” he said, wearily but sympathetically. “You know it’ll just lead to trouble.” She wandered off, looking for someone else to appeal to, her eyes briefly sliding over mine before dismissing me as a hopeless prospect.

I had heard, of course, about the dispossession, the catalogue of social ills that befell many Aborigines, but it was still a shock to be confronted with it. Mentally I conjured up an apologist, a fictional Aborigine spokesperson, saying: “Of course it’s shocking, but these people are the ones drawn into the towns, just like any homeless. Out in the settlements it’s quite different.” But in my heart I knew it was not. Some were better, some worse, but everywhere there was this sense of an historical trauma. I’ve seen it before, in different forms, in other parts of the world; the sense that there’s been a calamity that people are still reeling from the aftershock of, moving slow and dazed through a world they don’t understand and have no agency in, seeking solace in the oblivion of drugs or alcohol. I’m sure there are all manner of laudable initiatives and worthy projects, some of them more successful than others. I’m sure there are successful Aboriginal businesses, individuals, associations. And yet, to an outsider flying in with no agenda other than to record what they see, these are the first, and most visible, impressions of Alice Springs. In fact crime has risen dramatically in the town in recent years – according to the Northern Territory Justice Department’s quarterly report, cases of assault have risen 87% since 2004; sexual assaults rose by 97%. Break-ins rose 185%. The police commissioner cites most crimes as being due to drunkenness and vagrancy. And some people have had enough – increasing numbers are moving away from the town citing fear of crime. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/destroyed-in-alice/story-fn59niix-1226008040782?nk=c0bc372d301bc99faff439298fed95ec

On a small hill overlooking the town stood a gleaming white monument – the ANZAC memorial. Plaques around the base commemorated Australia’s war dead, – ’1914-18’,  ‘1939-1945’, the most recent plaque reading ‘Afghanistan: 2001-‘ with the end date left blank. A small crowd had gathered to watch the sun set behind the distant hills, and on the far side of the site a huge moon rose, shimmering in the warm air as the city exhaled the heat of the day. Some people had brought deckchairs, and there was a man with a TV camera. Apparently there was going to be an eclipse. As the moon rose we headed down the hill and stopped at an Indian restaurant for dinner, before heading back across the small park outside the hostel. Two Aborigine women were coming the other way, with a slow, swaying gait. As we drew near the older one – she had a shock of white hair – said: “Look at the moon!” Her friend glanced at it and giggled nervously. “The moon is going!”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the eclipse.”

They walked on, periodically turning to look upwards. I felt relieved they hadn’t asked for money, and then immediately guilty at the thought. I had fallen into the same trap that I’d seen other white Australians do in Alice Springs: when an Aborigine had drawn near they would unconsciously tighten their grip on their bag, or look down and cross the street. Every time an Aborigine asked for money, or a cigarette, or anything at all, it just reinforced the whole stereotype, and they became further stigmatised and still further dispossessed, regarded with suspicion, the mild tension subsiding only once they had passed by. In such insidious ways racism grows, in the fear and the suspicion, in the spaces between people, taking root in the fertile ground of mutual distrust and incomprehension.

Nevertheless, Alice Springs traded heavily on its Aboriginal connections. Todd Mall was lined with galleries full of Aboriginal art, souvenir shops sold T-shirts with the Aborigine flag on them (black rectangle horizontal above a red, surmounted by a yellow circle, representing the people ((black)), the land ((red)), and the yellow sun). There is apparently a co-operative in the town to showcase the work of Aborigine artists, although it has been criticised for elitism, only selecting well-known artists to the exclusion of others. In Yulara there was a cafe which advertised itself as a training initiative for young Aborigines – we went, and the food and coffee were excellent, although the customer service was as authentic as only a bored young person with a Saturday job who really doesn’t want to be there can manage. On entering a YHA hostel you’ll often see a plaque next to the entrance saying: “This hostel is built on land traditionally belonging to the Arrerntje people”, for example. On the SBS nightly national news the credits close with the statement: “This programme was filmed in studios on land belonging to the Cammeragyal people.” There’s an acknowledgement, at least, an attempt at recognition of an historical iniquity, without ever quite knowing what to do about it or how to redress it. Various politicians over the years have squirmed and engaged in tortuous wordplay to avoid having to “apologise” for assorted historical crimes – apologising before the media being the modern-day equivalent of the medieval penance. Initiatives are launched, projects begun, all with the best of intentions, and yet the only option available to most Aboriginal people seems to be to integrate into a predominantly white, 21st century capitalist economy which many want no part of. The week I arrived, Canberra journalist Jeremy Geia announced that he was leaving Australia while remaining on the continent; he returned his passport, driving licence and medicare card, reverted to his tribal name and went back to live in the traditional lands of the Yidindji people, in the north of Queensland, revoking any allegiance to the Commonwealth of Australia.
http://www.theguardian.com/world/postcolonial/2014/aug/26/-sp-the-man-who-renounced-australia

On the map of central Australia, three things stand out in proximity to each other: Alice Springs, Kings Canyon, and Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock). Barely an inch apart on a large-scale map, their proximity is relative in Australian terms – it is a four-and-a-half hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru. In part this is due to there being no direct road; it’s necessary to drive back down the Stuart Highway some way before turning off to Uluru. Kings Canyon lies on a branch road off the main one to Uluru, but there was a more direct route known as Ernest Giles Road a short way south of Alice. This was described as unsealed, with 4WD advised but not essential. Many unsealed roads in Australia have large billboards at the entrance with a sliding status to indicate its condition: “Open”, “Closed”, or “4WD only”. Ernest Giles Road was labelled “open”, and given that we had an all-wheel drive SUV with good clearance, we decided to save ourselves several hours by taking it. In fact the road was very good – gravel, mostly, with occasional stretches of rough pebbles and a few patches of soft sand which caused the steering to slew a little. I was a bit concerned about our tyres, as they were a make I’d never heard of – called Nixon Terror Max or something – but in the event they held up well. Some of the stones, however, would have made a nice bang; you had to constantly scan a few yards ahead to watch for fist-sized rocks shaped like little pyramids with a sharp top. Driving along in the heat of the sun, your whole concentration preoccupied with scanning the surface ahead, reminded me of the many thousands of kilometres I drove on dirt roads in Africa. This was a veritable highway in comparison. Despite some rough patches where the whole car shook over the corrugations, we made good progress, the red sand of the road stretching away into the distance beneath a deep blue sky. By mid-afternoon we saw the sign for Kings Creek Station, where we had booked a safari cabin, and we pulled up outside, next to a huge tour bus and a couple of other 4WDs.

As soon as we got out we were surrounded by flies. They weren’t in huge numbers – just enough to be annoying. We made our way across the parking lot giving occasional waves. A group of elderly French tourists stood out on the verandah wearing head nets, like a bee-keepers convention. The safari cabins were basically large tents on a wooden base, with a couple of camp beds. There was the inevitable fluorescent strip light, and a fan, which was essential – the temperature was in the mid-30s, and inside the tent it was sweltering. Outside there was a breeze but this advantage was offset by the flies. We tried various combinations, sitting inside, then out, kitted out in our own head nets. Relief only came with sundown, when, as if from a signal, all the flies disappeared. In the early cool of dawn the next morning there was a brief interlude between mosquitoes going off duty from the night shift and the first rays of sunshine which brought the first fly of the day.

Our ambition that day was to walk round the rim of Kings Canyon – advertised as a three-and-a-half hour hike. It was necessary to leave early as the walk closed at 9am due to the heat. Numerous warning signs stood at the entrance about the dangers of heatstroke, the importance of carrying enough water and so on. We had two 800ml bottles of water and a litre-and-a-half of diluted cranberry juice, which we figured was enough. The only really tough bit of the hike was the first 15 minutes or so, when you basically climbed up the side of the canyon from ground level. With sweat running down my nose and my throat parched already I wondered whether I was really in a fit state to do it – I still had a stinking cold, but hoped that walking in what was basically a glorified oven might burn it off. The terrain levelled out on top and we found ourselves in a surreal landscape of deep red rock formations which led to a series of viewpoints overlooking the canyon. The landscape stretched away for miles, sage green and ochre, tinged with a shimmering, hazy blue in the distance where it merged with the sky. At around mid-way on the walk a wooden staircase descended into the canyon, which was cool in the shade of gum trees overlooking a small pool of water – an oasis in this desiccated landscape. A signpost had a quote from an Arrerntje Aborigine elder, saying: “This is a sacred place. Refresh yourself by splashing water on your face if you wish, but please do not swim.” Birdsong trickled down through the green shade of the trees and it certainly felt like a sanctuary of sorts, away from the harsh glare of the sun and the waves of heat off the red rock.

To the south-west of Kings Canyon, a couple of hours’ drive away, lies the main tourist attraction of Central Australia – the red centre of the Red Centre, as it were. Ayers Rock, now referred to by its Aboriginal name of Uluru, is a long way from anywhere, but acts like a giant magnet, drawing quarter of a million visitors a year to this remote and harsh landscape. Now that there are direct flights into nearby Yulara airport, Alice Springs has lost its unique position as the gateway to Uluru, and the tourist trade in the town has taken a knock due to rising crime. Yulara itself is basically a gigantic resort, with a series of hotels around a small town square which contains the essential facilities – post office, IGA supermarket and a couple of cafes; it feels a little like a provincial university campus. Apart from the campsite, the only budget accommodation in the resort was the Outback Pioneer Lodge, which had a range of rooms available. It was a curious sort of place – a hostel-style kitchen for the backpacking crowd, but also a couple of restaurants on site. The bar area blasted out rock music and there was a babble of conversation from assorted drinkers congregating around it. It was an amusingly ironic contrast with the hotel’s own glossy brochure, which had a quote from an Aborigine elder on it about the importance of Uluru to his people: “The most important thing about this place is the silence.” There wasn’t much silence in evidence in the Outback Pioneer Lodge. Toward late afternoon the place emptied, and a convoy of vehicles set out from the assorted hotels to Uluru itself for the sunset. Special parking lots have been designed with angled spaces so that you can sit in your car with a view of the rock. Most people, however, stood at the low fence which lies a couple of kilometres from the rock itself, and waited with an air of expectation. Gradually, as the sun dipped toward the horizon behind us, Uluru began to change: at first brownish in colour it began to glow inwardly with a reddish hue, different patterns and textures emerging down the raked sides that hadn’t previously been visible. Burnt umber, ochre, laterite red – it went through several shades, changing minute by minute. Finally, as the sun disappeared completely, the fire went out, and it darkened to a deep chestnut brown as the surrounding landscape became monochrome and the first stars emerged in the sky.

Is it worth it? This five day drive, the heat, the flies, in order to watch the sun set at Uluru? Absolutely it’s worth it. Even without understanding any of the cultural context you can grasp why such a site would be considered sacred, purely in aesthetic terms. This monolith that dominates the flat, surrounding bushland exerts a presence that is unique, no matter how iconic the imagery, or how familiar its outline. It is one of the natural wonders of the world, as well as being a spiritual centre in much the same way that a great cathedral, mosque or temple is. Even the tourists crowding into the viewpoints cannot diminish that presence.

Despite being politely requested not to by the local Aborigine community, due to its sacred status, many people still climb the rock. It is left to one’s conscience whether to do so, which to me seems an admirable way of doing it – no official prohibition, just a type of person who decides to put their personal wish to ‘conquer’ the rock above the feelings of a group of local people who have worshipped the site for thousands of years and consider walking on it to be an act of desecration. Sections of the rock are more sacred than others, and in some areas photography is prohibited as they are still used for secret rituals by the Arrerntje. These rituals – stages of initiation into the tribe, really – are so secret that men have no idea of the content of women’s ceremonies, and vice versa. To have a lot of outsiders blundering about in the area, walking upon the rock’s surface and taking photos would be little better than an act of cultural vandalism, given the circumstances. Nothing illustrates better the gulf of understanding between two cultures – one, custodians of the land, making a polite request not to scale something sacred to them; the other, knowing this full well, selfishly disregarding those wishes in attempting to conquer, to challenge themselves physically, to overcome what is essentially just a big lump of rock, “because it’s there”.IMG_6401.JPG

A Town Like Alice

It was strange arriving in Melbourne again after my trip round Tasmania. Only 5 weeks earlier I had flown in to Tullamarine Airport for the first time, shattered by jetlag, my internal body clock still somewhere over South-east Asia. This time it was quite different. The flight took just over an hour, and I watched the patchwork fields of central Tasmania recede beneath us, replaced by the deep blue of the Bass Strait, flecked with whitecaps. Soon the coast of mainland Australia came into view – a long beach, curving around the base of the continent and away into the distance, stretching as far as the eye could see. I thought about the huge landmass that lay to the north, from this southern, temperate tip up through the central deserts to the tropical north, and remembered the comment of the boat pilot off the coast of Bruny Island a few days before: “It’s 2200 km south to Antarctica from down here, and 2600 km north to Alice Springs.” It was a not-so-subtle assertion of Tasmanian ‘otherness’, a little jibe at the mainland’s expense. Closer to Antarctica than to the red centre of Australia – and even then, Alice is only halfway up the country.

Alice Springs… it was an iconic destination. I’d first encountered the name as a 9-year-old in the library at school, where there was a shelf of red faux-leather ‘classics’. Amidst the Trollope and Dickens and Austen nestled a book whose title was picked out in gold: A Town like Alice, by Nevil Shute. For some reason it caught my attention, and I was soon absorbed in a tale set in wartime Malaya, of a group of British women taken prisoner by the Japanese and marched up and down the peninsula in search of an internment camp (based on a true story, though the women were in fact Dutch, and it was Sumatra, not Malaya). Along the way (spoiler alert) one of the women, Jean Paget, meets an Australian prisoner of war, Joe Harman. He regales her with stories of his homeland – the space of the outback, the harsh beauty of the desert, and most of all, a small town nestled at the heart of it, Alice Springs. Moved by the women’s plight, Joe steals some chickens from the Japanese commandant, but is caught and crucified on a tree. The women are forced to watch, then marched away, believing him to be dead. But Joe survives, and in the chaos of the post-war world, he goes in search of Jean. Arriving in London he learns she is no longer there, but has gone to Australia. They are reunited in Alice Springs and move to the small fictional town of Willstown in Queensland, Joe taking a job as a cattle station manager and Jean starting a number of businesses in the hope of improving the town’s fortunes and turning rugged Willstown into a miniature version of Alice Springs – a town like Alice.

Nevil Shute was British, but, dismayed by the post-war decline in his native country exemplified by austerity and, as he saw it, growing socialism in the founding of the welfare state, he decided to emigrate to Australia in 1950. A Town Like Alice was written in the same year, and reflects many of his aspirations: the hope of a new start, the creation of a better society, where through hard work and self-sufficiency people could improve their lot. Before the Second World War Alice Springs had had a population of just 500 and was extremely remote, but the town had boomed in the wartime economy and drew in settlers from all over Australia. It was too remote for Nevil Shute – he settled in Melbourne, that most European of Australian cities – but it exemplified the ideal: the rugged, pioneer spirit; the establishment of a genteel society in harsh surroundings, along largely British pre-war mores; a new life. It was the remnants of the colonial dream in a post-colonial world.

Where the Aborigines fitted into this bold blueprint for a new society isn’t entirely clear. Alice Springs is known as Mparntwe to the local Arrernte people who have lived in the area for at least 30,000 years. Referred to throughout the novel as ‘boongs’ or ‘abos’, Aborigines are portrayed as basically decent but unreliable, different somehow, using different shops and bars to the whites, as befitting Australia’s unofficial apartheid of the time. Today approximately 25% of the population of the town is of Aborigine origin, and nowhere in Australia better illustrates the collision of cultures, with consequent, highly visible casualties, than Alice Springs.

Prior to 1980, when only unsealed dirt roads led to Alice, it would have taken over a week to drive there from Victoria. Now, in 2014, Google Maps estimated it as a three day drive: eight hours to Adelaide, nine-and-a-half to the mining town of Coober Pedy, and then a seven hour drive from there up to Alice Springs. Heading west from Bendigo we passed through the endless undulating Victorian farmland, dotted with a succession of small towns – Newbridge, Donald, Horsham, Bordertown. Each was well designed for passing traffic, with a cafe or two, places to park just outside, and always a public toilet nearby. The road was called the Sunraysia Highway, which made it sound like a Cambodian casino, and it was a standard single-carriageway tarmac road, with the painfully slow Victoria speed limit of 100 kmh (62 mph). Why, in such a vast country, it is necessary for the authorities to impose a limit of such glacial slowness on motorists is hard to fathom – not least because as soon as you cross the state border the limit goes up: to 110 kmh (68 mph) in South Australia, and then a giddy 130 kmh (80 mph) in the Northern Territory (they’ve always done things their own way up there.) We were glad of it in the NT, anyway – mile after mile of dead straight road going on for hours.

I’d booked a hostel in central Adelaide called The Guesthouse, which looked to be conveniently located for the road out of town the next morning. It seemed to be a public holiday – the city was eerily deserted by the time we arrived in late afternoon, but we found the streets around the Central Market to be bustling with people out for dinner. There were a great many Chinese about – the area seemed to be the local Chinatown – and we picked up some Tiger Balm in a Chinese supermarket, then chose a restaurant called China Chilli for dinner which seemed to be popular. Deservedly so: it was some of the best Sichuan food I’ve ever had: spicy hot chilli beef with onion and peppers, and Chicken Kung Pao (or Gong Bao, etc.). As we sat outside cars growled up and down the road, and we witnessed a minor road rage incident between a white couple and a Chinese man in a large Mercedes 4WD. “Check the numbah!” he yelled at them. “Check the numbah, check the numbah!” I assumed he was referring to his number plate, which said B3NZ 001. They seemed equally nonplussed, and eventually he drove off with a screech of tyres and a sulphurous puff of catalytic converter. The crowds ambled by, and eventually we made our way back to the hostel and our room, which smelled of Harpic loo cleaner, to be serenaded by the mechanical clank of the traffic light countdown just outside the window, with its laser beam pulse sound on the pedestrian green light. It was not a restful night.

South Australia is a bit of an unknown on the map, lacking the brashness of Queensland, with its beach resorts and rugged sense of identity, or the bold frontier spirit of the Northern Territory. Adelaide itself is quite small for a city, with a population of just over a million, and there aren’t really any other major urban centres. When I asked a South Australian I had met what there was to see in the state he went quiet for a while, then mentioned the Flinders Ranges National Park. “Other than that,” he mused, “there’s a whole lot of nothing.” We contemplated the concept of a whole lot of nothing together for a while in silence, and then he said, as an afterthought, “Oh yeah! There’s Coober Pedy.” This small, improbable settlement owes its existence entirely to opals, which are mined here – “noodling”, as local parlance has it. Indeed, on the map of Coober Pedy there exists a purple-shaded area just outside the town with the description “Public Noodling Area”, which had me intrigued for a while, until I found that it meant nothing more than pegging out a claim and digging for opals. Situated in the far north of the state, Coober Pedy’s climate is so extreme that many people have taken to living underground, and this has become an attraction in its own right – hotels and hostels offer underground rooms which have a constant temperature in the low 20s C, even when it can be in the mid-40s outside.

Having driven through a whole lot of nothing for nine hours it was a relief to finally arrive in Coober Pedy. Google Maps had come up with an interesting direction: “In 536 km, turn right.” We duly did so, and arrived at Radeka Backpackers. The room itself was described as ‘budget underground twin’, though it was more accurately hollowed out from the hillside. Inside rough-hewn rock formed a glittering mica ceiling, and it was indeed cool – as well as very dark. There were apparently two options in town for dinner: a Greek place (turn left) or John’s pizza place (turn right). I had been dreaming of moussaka and Greek salad for several hundred kilometers – we found that in the desert we craved fruit and salad, both of which were in short supply – but on reaching the end of the road just prior to turning left we heard an extraordinary noise. At first I genuinely thought it was a flock of galahs or some similarly raucous local bird; it was a harsh screeching cry that went on and on. Then we saw the source – a group of Aborigine women were having a row outside the Greek restaurant. After five weeks in Australia these were the first Aborigines I had seen, and it was a depressing spectacle. They were all at it, making a tremendous row, their multi-syllable language combining to form a continual babble. All were drunk. Eventually one woman broke away from the group and made her way downhill, barefoot and clad in a dirty dress, all the while keeping up a stream of yelled abuse at the others, who returned it. A police car drew up alongside her, two white cops, one male, one female. The window came down. “Excuse me!” I heard the male cop shout. In response she lifted an arm and pointed back at the crowd by the restaurant, yelling all the while. The police car did a U-turn and pulled up next the group. It was a thoroughly dispiriting scene, and we decided to turn right and have pizza instead. Down by the pizza place, outside the entrance to a mine a young couple sat in a ute and argued loudly. “What is it with this town?” I said. “Everyone seems to be having a row.” Fortunately in the pizza place they weren’t – it was full of families who had stopped in town for the night, due to the complete absence of anywhere else to stay, and locals popping in to pick up a takeaway. All the staff seemed to the Filipino. They were quickly efficient, with the air of people who have got used to keeping their heads down, and they swiftly brought our order of frozen lasagne and oven chips with a minuscule garnish of salad, everything in Coober Pedy having to come nearly a thousand kilometres by road up from Adelaide.

The next morning, emerging blinking from our subterranean cavern, we stopped off at the IGA supermarket to pick up Strepsils and tissues, as I had become afflicted with a cold in the night. The supermarket was vast, and clearly under the management of a 21-year-old, since at 9 in the morning the soundtrack was belting out dance music which had the thoroughly appropriate shouted chorus: “This is ridiculous!” We drove around the deserted side streets for a while trying to find our way up to the Big Winch, a local viewpoint over the town, and having reached it, and admired a collection of surreal sculptures congregated in the car park (including keyboards nailed to a pole with the logo: “White Man Totem Pole”), we were greeted by a small Chinese man who emerged from a tin hut nearby. “Come in, come in,” he beckoned to us. Inside the hut were rows of display cases with jewellery made from stones he had mined locally. Very locally – he had sunk a 20 metre shaft just across the car park. He’d been in Coober Pedy since 1979, he said, and came originally from Hong Kong. He seemed glad of the company, and prevailed upon me to smoke a cigarette sitting on the porch with him, while showing us small uncut opals he’d got from the shaft. We bought two in the end, for $5 – a small white piece of stone with a cool feel to it, and another which was shot through with flashes of turquoise. The view across the town was bizarre: large pale-coloured mounds dotting the surroundings bore evidence of the “noodling”. Wrecked cars and odd, random assortments of machinery lay about, near to houses that looked as if they’d been put up in a hurry. Apparently the dystopian movie Mad Max was filmed here; they wouldn’t have needed much in the way of set embellishment.

Heading north from Coober Pedy (turn left for Adelaide, right for Alice Springs) we crept our way across the map of Australia millimetre by millimetre. The landscape was semi-arid as opposed to outright desert, with thin, spindly shrubs and beige grass sprouting in tufts from the increasingly red earth. It’s hard to describe such a sense of emptiness. Gone were the small towns of Victoria with their cafes and public conveniences; here it was several hundred kilometres between stops, and the stops themselves were service stations with accompanying motel, known as roadhouses. In these you’d get a standard 70s-style motel room with air-conditioning (essential), a jug of cold water in the fridge (you had to buy more if you wanted it as the tap water was inevitably unfiltered from deep boreholes) and a TV with a dwindling number of channels the further north you went. Mostly, though, they provided a cool and shady spot to rest, curtains drawn against the glare outside, as three-wagon road trains thundered past.

These road trains owned the road. Everything was transported on them: three wagons packed full of sheep standing shoulder to shoulder; petrol tankers; refrigerated trucks for foodstuffs. They’d go all day and all night, running the gauntlet of the mobs of kangaroos who gathered along the verges at night and who had a fatal attraction to headlights; their dismembered carcasses lay fresh along the road every morning, picked over by crows and hawks. The road trains did the same speed as everyone else, and meeting one coming the other way and feeling the blast of hot wind as it passed made me glad I wasn’t on a motorbike. Three days to Alice, five up to Darwin, then turn around and back again, perhaps veering off for another couple of days to deliver to some isolated mining settlement. I later read that Yulara, the resort next to Uluru / Ayer’s Rock, is supplied from Adelaide by three road trains a week – nine wagons in all – which bring up everything consumed there; everything from the UHT milk that accompanies your coffee through to the cleaning products used in the hotels, the fuel that keeps the whole place going, and of course all the produce in the local IGA supermarket. Everything. In return they are filled with rubbish which is then trucked back down across the desert for recycling in Adelaide. Seeing them at night, with lights strung along their sides, they did indeed look like trains heading into the darkness, twin headlights feeling their way across the blank space of central Australia.

After endless empty kilometres we began to notice small things – anything. A distant radio mast on the horizon. An unmarked dirt track leading off into the bush. A tin can placed upon a rock by the roadside. On the rare occasions that there was a road sign we cried out “It’s a sign!” like evangelists while we scrutinised it from afar. Usually it was a road safety warning, about the importance of keeping your seatbelt on or similar. Occasionally it would say “Fatigue kills. Take a break”. But where? Then a few kilometres later would be a rest stop sign, and a lay-by with a picnic table and benches shaded on three sides from the sun. Pulling into one of these we got our first taste of the famous outback flies; they descended upon us within seconds, buzzing around our heads, crawling over sunglasses lenses and generally being annoying. We developed the continual lacklustre wave of the outback, perpetually shooing them away – but as soon as you had done so they settled upon you again. In the distance a white expanse of salt shimmered – one of the many salt lakes of central Australia which had tricked early explorers with their promise of water, and were subsequently named things like Lake Disappointment.

Dully we watched the kilometre markers counting down – small green signs saying “AS 90”. Then it was 70. An age of dead straight monotonous bitumen later and we were down to 30. The landscape began to subtly change, with rock formations looming. Squinting into the glare of the late afternoon sun, sticky with barley sugar and parched in the 5% humidity, we came into the outskirts of Alice Springs. Suddenly it was all so normal. Somewhere north of Coober Pedy we had started to notice that every oncoming driver gave a wave – keeping on good terms with the people who might just save your life if you got stuck out there. Now, in suburban Alice, the waves stopped. There were many Aborigines around, walking with the slow, swaying gait of people used to saving energy in a hot climate. We drove alongside the sandy bed of the Todd River – Sir Charles Todd, whose wife Alice had been the inspiration for the town’s name. The hostel we were booked at lay on the north bank of the dry riverbed, and we staggered in to our room, drew the curtains and lay down on the beds in the cool breeze of the air conditioner. Welcome to a town like Alice.

The Southern Ocean

I had a dream last night: a giant wave welling upwards, black as obsidian, the dark heart of a chipped flint set in a lattice of silvery spindrift, torn from the crest in the whistling wind. It was real – a replay of an actual wave earlier that day that had bulged and swelled in front of us, our small craft tacking diagonally along the face of it as it ran away beneath us, carrying us higher and higher, until the top of it began to break, uncurling at the edges, pouring steadily forwards as it crashed over the bows, soaking us all. We emerged into dazzling sunlight and rainbows of spray, the tang of salt water on our lips, laughing in relief. The next wave began to build, looming ominously ahead, obscuring the distant stacks of rock that marked the southernmost point of Australia, puffs of white spray thrown upwards from them like smoke signals as the waves pounded their base. An albatross skimmed across the darkly glittering face of the wave, wings held steadily outstretched, three-and-a-half metres in width, dipping this way and that on the wind which scalloped the water, chiselling it into a thousand coal-black facets of refracted light. With a crash it broke over us once more, the passengers shrieking in delighted terror, and the ocean ran away from us on all sides, the sea-cliffs and bush-covered hills of Bruny Island coming briefly into sight again, washed fresh and sparkling anew.

I’d had a few days in Hobart to recover from the ride around Tasmania. Being without transport again imposed its own limitations, but the city is easy to walk around, which was just as well – there was a distinct lack of corner shops, so to buy milk it was necessary to walk to the other side of the city centre to Woolworth’s, some 15 minutes away down Liverpool Street. One became a regular at certain restaurants quickly, as there weren’t many to choose from. I decided to head down to the one bit of Tasmania I hadn’t got to on the bike – Bruny Island, south of Hobart. An outfit called Pennicott Wilderness Journeys ran trips down to the island by minibus and then a three-hour cruise to the southernmost tip of the island in 12m Naiad open boats, powered by three 250hp outboard motors. They had won countless awards – Tasmania’s Best Tourist Attraction in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 – posing the question what had happened in 2007? Departure was from Hobart waterfront at 7.45am, the briefing was to dress warmly, and lunch was included at Bruny Island.

I duly appeared bleary-eyed at a quarter to eight the next morning, after a 15 minute walk from Narrara Backpackers. A small crowd had gathered by the office, of all ethnicities, and with varying interpretations of what constituted warm clothing. I had on a fleece under my Barbour jacket and the woolly beanie, but some of the passengers were more attired for a cruise around an ornamental lake, not the rigours of the Southern Ocean. A Chinese man in fake leather jacket, slacks and slip-on shoes smoked furiously at the water’s edge, so I joined him. His wife soon appeared wearing jeans, trainers and a hoodie. Fortunately the company supplied ankle-length waterproof coats with hoods, otherwise, no exaggeration, they would’ve died. But the morning was warm and sunny, the forecast good. We piled into our respective minibuses and set off. An African couple took the seat in front of me, both perhaps in their 50s, the lady of ample proportions – known euphemistically as ‘traditional build’ in Southern Africa. I couldn’t quite make out the language; at times it sounded a bit like Sindebele, but it wasn’t – it may have been Xhosa. I got to hear plenty of it – they didn’t stop talking once for the entire journey, the lady giving that theatrical “eeh-hee-hee” of African laughter on a regular basis. People sat very much in their own little groups on the bus ride down to the island – Chinese speaking in Chinese to each other, the Africans, a couple of Brits and the rest Aussies – no one really interacting with the other apart from perhaps a polite nod.

After tea and a muffin at the cafe in Adventure Bay, we boarded the boats. They were open to the elements, but an overhead canopy extended perhaps two-thirds of the way along it. The pilot explained that the stablest place was at the back, so the boat filled up from the rear, with a few rows empty at the very front, where you got bounced around the most. After a struggle with the waterproofs, and passengers all dosed with ginger tablets as a remedy against seasickness, we set off, cruising around bush-covered headlands and leaving the last few isolated houses behind. It was a sparkling day, and we hadn’t gone far before we saw another of the boats (there were three in total) halted a short distance from the shore. It was a group of dolphins, fishing in the shallows. We drew closer and watched their dorsal fins arc out of the water in synchronicity, various passengers giving cries of delight. Having snapped numerous photos of blurry grey shapes we then motored on along the coast, picking up speed as we got further out to sea until we were skimming across the waves. I was sitting roughly a third of the way back from the bow, and while we were bouncing around a fair bit, it was enjoyable, like a car at speed over a humpback bridge, the pit of your stomach briefly falling away. But it was too much for the lady behind me – the Chinese woman in the hoodie. She closed her eyes and groaned. The further we went the more the swell started to hit us, and the worse she got. Soon Katie the deckhand spotted something was wrong, and signalled to the pilot to halt. “You’ve got to stand up,” Katie said. “If you sit down it gets worse. Stand up and walk with me to the back of the boat”. The woman shook her head, flapping a hand. No, no, no. Katie tried appealing to her family, but they couldn’t budge her. So we set off again, and she groaned and turned green and rested her head between her knees, but wouldn’t get up.

We were approaching two enormous sea stacks that faced each other – dark monolithic rock jutting out of the sea. The further one had a curious jagged top to it, like the spikes of a crown, and it resembled some malevolent sea-god of Celtic mythology. The waves swelled white around their base, a cascade of foam running over the rocks. Moving on we came to a sheltered bay called, imaginatively, Shelter Bay, which offered a safe anchorage for vessels caught by storms. The water in Shelter Bay was blue and benign, but the pilot announced that we would shortly be ‘turning the corner’, heading out beyond the headland to where the Tasman Sea meets the vast Southern Ocean. “Might get a bit windy,” he said with a grin. We set off once more, the ranks at the back of the boat filling up with the seasick – including the Chinese lady, who clung miserably to the handrail with eyes tightly shut. “Keep your eyes open,” she was told, and shook her head in refusal. Ah well. Live and learn.

The wind rose until it was a shrill whistle, and gobbets of spray began firing across the bows every few seconds. The water began to change, growing darker, from icy green to a deep navy blue and then, suddenly, inky black, glittering in the watery light, but unfathomably deep. The swell changed and became huge – we had gone from crossing a fairly flat sea to an undulating series of peaks and troughs that rose and fell like a mountain road. Whitecaps shredded the crests, winking for a few seconds, white on black, then gone, appearing again further away. This was the Southern Ocean alright – and it felt like a very serious place indeed. In the distance, between the clouds of spray thrown up across the bows which sparkled prismatically in the sunlight, incisors of rock were occasionally visible – The Friars, the last landfall before Antarctica, 2200km away. It was an unreal thought that we were closer to Antarctica than we were to, say, Ayers Rock in central Australia, but it certainly felt like it. Enormous creatures lay somewhere beneath us in the depths – giant squid, humpback whales, great white sharks… They would have dwarfed our boat at 12 metres. The horizon was smoked with spray, but we made our way incrementally towards the stacks, the horizon veering crazily, tipping from left to right, right to left, and making a mockery of our attempts to photograph. Then, suddenly, a huge wave loomed ahead of us, down in the very belly of the black, anthracite, jet, obsidian… I was reaching for the words as I watched it build and knew it was going to hit us. Some people screamed, and you could hear their fright in the harshness of the note, but moments later it turned to laughter and whoops of relief as we emerged dazzled and wet but alive and afloat. The next wave came and we were ready for it; I found myself laughing manically, and turned to face my neighbour – an Australian from Queensland – to find he was grinning broadly too. We cheered like people on a roller coaster as we climbed the next toppling hill of dark water, rising to a roar as it broke and we careened down the other side. Taking us in a short arc that tacked across the face of the mounting waves, we rounded a stack and the wind dropped. On the near vertical rock were a series of platforms like steps, and upon these basked half a dozen seals – New Zealand fur seals. Why they should choose to live in this utterly inhospitable location is hard to fathom, but they do. They peered at us curiously, one raising a flipper lazily in half salute, acknowledged in the click and chirp of a dozen camera shutters.

Heading back towards Bruny with the wind at our backs the going was easier. I thought, with a new-found admiration, of the sailors on this ocean – the first explorers, the fishermen, the round-the-world yachters. And then I remembered Andrew McAuley, who was determined to be the first person to kayak solo across the Tasman, 1600 km from Tasmania to New Zealand. He had constructed a specially adapted kayak with a watertight cover which he could close in bad weather or at night, and he set off in January 2007, leaving his wife and young son waving goodbye on a Tasmanian beach. He had a video camera mounted on the lip of the kayak and his sobs and crumpled face as he paddled away from the departing cries of his son – “Goodbye Daddy, goodbye!” – are heart-rending. What drives a man to leave his family and head out into the unknown like that? Into the terror and the vastness of the Southern Ocean? In bad weather you can get 30 metre waves out here. That’s like a skyscraper of water. To be lying in the dark in a kayak, hundreds of kilometres from land, carried up the slope of a building wave as if on a conveyor belt, and then dropped off the other side of it, crashing down a cliff of black water, spinning over and over, hour after hour… it’s an appalling thought.

A memory stick was recovered from Andrew McAuley’s empty kayak by New Zealand’s rescue services, which contained the footage of his voyage. The documentary Solo: Lost At Sea shows what he went through – the mountainous waves; the visit of a bedraggled migratory bird that landed, exhausted, in the kayak; the determination that he had to make it, and to see his family again. The documentary ends with a haunting recording picked up by Milford Sound Rescue:

do you copy? this is kayak one. do you copy, over?
I’ve got an emergency situation

I’m in a kayak about 30 kilometres from Milford Sound
I need a rescue
my kayak’s sinking
fell off into the sea
and I’m going down

Andrew McAuley’s body was never recovered. He was within 50 km of the coast of New Zealand when somehow – perhaps by being struck by a freak wave – he came out of his kayak, and became separated from it in the dark. I imagined what it must feel like, to be floating alone at night in the Southern Ocean, the stars wheeling overhead in cold indifference, the coast just a short distance away, perhaps even the distant winking of a lighthouse, and beneath him the dark water, down to the black abyssal depths. So near and yet so far.