Trundling across Terra Incognita ~ Gondwanaland

In 1994 I criss-crossed Australia, much of it across the expansive aridity of the so-called Red Centre, and all of that was sharing a ’79 Holden Gemini with my travel partner. A Gemini is a sub-compact sedan. This one had no air-con, and so we trundled across the expanse with the windows rolled down, and music blasting from the stereo at just below distortion levels.

Of all the music we played, Midnight Oil, Gary Numan, The Cars, Genesis, Men at Work, nothing seemed to capture the heat, the rolling, parched terrain, the roadkill littering the shoulders in quite the way Gondwanaland’s song Drought did. It’s not due solely to the presence of Charlie McMahon’s didjeridu. It’s the hollow, weepy, melancholy straining of the guitar, too. And that cicada-like buzzing of the synthesizer. There’s a weary death underlying an intermittently hopeful melody. Every now and again the guitar rises to it, yearning, only to fall back into the incessant rhythmic presence of the didge. So much like the terrain we crossed, hour upon hour.

We never got the wet, the rain that comes at the end of the song. Not until a few thousand kilometers later, upon reaching Adelaide. There, the storm raged for a couple days. I missed the desert.

I shot a lot of video on that trip, hours of tape collecting ‘visual meditations’ from the passenger seat. The landscape and its details, heat haze, and barbed-wire. Crows and eagles ascend as we approach, and as the car passes the crumpled heap on the roadside, a whisp of death invades our nostrils. Ghost gums glimmer in the afternoon sun, their white bark dappled with the long narrow shadows of eucalyptus leaves.Road trains — semi-trucks pulling three trailers on 40 wheels and more — sway and swerve on a track of bitumen one lane wide. To pass them, we pull fully into the soft red dust of the shoulder, half-glide, half-slide, gunning ahead on more hope than prayer, staying in control just long enough to regain the crumbling bitumen.

I was warned all along the civilised coastline that crossing the centre of Australia was crazy for its boredom, for the mile-upon-mile sameness, but I can truly say I never grew tired of the rich red earth, the heat, or the country side with its many inflections, its subtly ever-changing countenance.

Someday, I’ll create a video from all those hours of tape to accompany this music.

3 Responses to “Trundling across Terra Incognita ~ Gondwanaland”

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  1. karen says:

    Thanks for this post

    There’s nothing quite like listening to the hauntingly beautiful sound of the didge, and reading a description as you see it, of a place I’m so passionate about, to re-ignite the hankering to pack the car and get back there as fast as I can.

    Once the “red centre” and the “call of the Kimberley” beckons and you begin to appreciate the uniqueness and the spiritual nature of this vast, magnificent land, you just want to return again and again, not only for the sheer beauty of the place and all it has to offer, but also for the quietness and solitude that can be found.

    The deserts of Australia are unique. Nothing compares. And nothing that’s anything like them can be found anywhere else in the world. Stunning landscapes, fascinating environments, magnificent and world class gorges, the flora and fauna, even the hour upon hour of vast, rich red hues, dusty roads and savannah scrub – tire of it? Never!

    My Country

    by Dorothea McKellar
    (1885–1968)

    an iconic poem about Australia

    The love of field and coppice,
    Of green and shaded lanes,
    Of ordered woods and gardens
    Is running in your veins.
    Strong love of grey-blue distance,
    Brown streams and soft, dim skies –
    I know but cannot share it,
    My love is otherwise.

    I love a sunburnt country,
    A land of sweeping plains,
    Of ragged mountain ranges,
    Of droughts and flooding rains.
    I love her far horizons,
    I love her jewel-sea,
    Her beauty and her terror –
    The wide brown land for me!

    The stark white ring-barked forests,
    All tragic to the moon,
    The sapphire-misted mountains,
    The hot gold hush of noon,
    Green tangle of the brushes
    Where lithe lianas coil,
    And orchids deck the tree-tops,
    And ferns the warm dark soil.

    Core of my heart, my country!
    Her pitiless blue sky,
    When, sick at heart, around us
    We see the cattle die –
    But then the grey clouds gather,
    And we can bless again
    The drumming of an army,
    The steady soaking rain.

    Core of my heart, my country!
    Land of the rainbow gold,
    For flood and fire and famine
    She pays us back threefold.
    Over the thirsty paddocks,
    Watch, after many days,
    The filmy veil of greenness
    That thickens as we gaze.

    An opal-hearted country,
    A wilful, lavish land –
    All you who have not loved her,
    You will not understand –
    Though earth holds many splendours,
    Wherever I may die,
    I know to what brown country
    My homing thoughts will fly.

    • Patrick says:

      [smile] Thanks for this sprawling, passionate and informative comment!

      “brown country” and “sunburnt country” are references I’ve seen elsewhere, the latter being the title of Bill Bryson’s account of travelling through Australia. Are they original to this poem, you think? Or are these mor common. (As I’ve told you somewhere else, “brown” seems to me not so very descriptive of a country I see in greens, blues and most strongly, red.

  2. karen says:

    Sunburnt country/brown country is a term that has been used to describe the pindan which is the semi arid scrubland or desert region of Australia for as long as I can remember. I think it’s just how different people “see” the colours through their eyes. Some people don’t see the beauty. So, brown is the choice they use to describe their “view” if you like, of Australia. Then, other people describe brown as a “warm” colour, and correlate it to the weather.
    The term “wide brown land” used in the poem isn’t a good representation (especially from a poet!) though I can understand the use of that particular colour.

    The white sandy beaches, rich red-orange pindan earth, smoky turquoise waters of the mangrove swamps and vivid blues and azures of the ocean are a surreal sight, especially after the harsh and dramatic colours of desert.

    So, for me, like you it seems, I see colour, myriads of tones, rich and vibrant hues and I never see “brown” :)

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