At King’s Creek I was disappointed to find that the camel rides advertised on the internet were not available. However we availed ourselves of the more glamorous (and a lot more expensive) option of a helicopter trip over Kings Canyon at sunset. It was my first ride in a helicopter and I was a little nervous, but reassured when I discovered it wasn’t one of those open-sided jobs. The ride was really smooth and we were able to take many beautiful photos before we landed back at the Creek.
We had pre-ordered a barbeque pack, so we sat under a million bright stars chewing our meat and watching the last flames of Vaughn’s fire die away.
The next day the sealed road came to an end and we found ourselves driving on gravel. We encountered some Frenchmen in a kombi who were stuck in the soft sand. Unfortunately we had no ropes or tow bar and despite our best efforts at pushing, we could not get them out. Fortunately they had 12 litres of water and provisions, and were quite happy to sit under a tree until someone came along with the right equipment.
All the way I searched the horizon for animals. We saw some brumbies, all in beautiful condition with shiny coats. We had to ask ourselves how this could be. There had been some rain earlier in the week, evidenced by uprooted trees and shrubs, but had it been enough to sustain these animals?
We stopped for Vaughn to take some pictures of the sky as the bird he was focussing on flew away. We saw trees with trunks so white they looked as if they had been painted. And everywhere, heat, dust and flies.
The terrain changed and we saw folded hills interlocking like the teeth of a zip. Further on distinct strata, arch-shaped like children’s first writing, mmmmm.
We drove over 1500 kilometres without going through even a village, and I felt very ashamed of my comfortable life-style. I thought of the women there. How do they manage? How do they cope now, never mind fifty or a hundred years ago? At least now there are fast cars and internet, helicopters and air-conditioners.
When the current owner of Curtin Springs arrived there in 1956 with his wife and young son, there were two open bough sheds, a galvanised shed, a galvanised kitchen, a galvanised iron building called the bathroom and a galvanised toilet. During summer, the daily temperature averages around 38°C, but in winter it can get down to -8°C at night. When they arrived they had nine years without rain. They bored for water and much of it was salty. The lady of the house maybe saw another female twice a year. How soft am I?
During my life I have constantly been sustained and uplifted by the company of other women. When Vaughn and I were first married, he was very suspicious of my girl-time. It took him a while to understand that we weren’t out to chat up other blokes. Nor were we out to badmouth our husbands and partners. It was a time of affirmation, of communal chewing over of issues, and naturally, of drinking wine.
So I cannot imagine a life such as the ladies of the outback cattle stations endured. They would daily cook and wash for the family and stockmen. When all the crew were there the conversation would revolve around horses and cattle, such fascinating topics as bore maintenance and mechanical repairs, but never about children or fashion or menus.
Who would have commiserated with them when they had a period pain? And how on earth did they cope with pregnancy and childbirth? I suppose for some people that was the only life they knew. They say you don’t miss what you’ve never had.
When we were in the helicopter we could see for miles and miles. Hundreds of kilometres of red earth spotted with patches of grass and small bushes. One cattle station and one small almost hidden Aboriginal settlement. No fields, no crops, no farms as I know them. Not a sign of a town. I felt a rising panic.
And I had a sudden longing for England. For villages with individual characteristics, for hedges and trees and fields full of grass or crops, for old buildings and dry stone walls, cottages with thatched rooves, churches and pubs. For history, my history. The secure feeling of belonging that I never really felt in South Africa.
The last time I was in England I went into the bank where I still held a small account. The bank where my father banked and probably his father before him. The bank where I opened my first savings account. As I got to the teller she looked up and said ‘Hello Marian’. I looked blankly at her and she said she remembered me from school. That would have been forty years ago and it was an endorsement that I still belonged.
But I found in Australia, a culture of open friendliness. I cherished the smiles and chatter of shop assistants, the random conversations between strangers on trains, and especially the exchanges between fellow dog-walkers. One day Vaughn accompanied Einstein and me as we walked through the reserve. We came across an older couple with a fat spaniel. We greeted, commented on the day, then the lady proceeded to tell me about her sister’s divorce and how it was affecting her dog. After we moved on, Vaughn asked how I knew those people. I’d never met them before in my life. It was a perfect example of Aussie ‘mateship’ and openness, the fact that people trusted each other with their stories.