Australia: Across the red center
November 7, 2007
• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.
To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
WHERE: Darwin, Batchelor, Pine Creek, Katherine, Larimah, Daly Waters, Newcastle Wells, Renner Springs, Tennant Creek, Wauchope, Barrow Creek, Aileron, Alice Springs, Uluru National Park (Ayres Rock), Erldunda, Kulgera, Marla, Coober Pedy, Glendambo, Woomera, Port Augusta.
WHEN: Sept. 3-Oct 15, 2007
MILEAGE LOG: 18,840-20,737
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ELEVATION: Sea level-300 ft.
The sun rose before me with the glow of an oven coil. A slithering red disc that crept from the horizon.
The heat that followed nearly set the landscape on fire. A kangaroo sprung from the bush, kicking up puffs of ochre-colored dust. Stopping for a moment to watch its tracks, I traced it over the rocks, through the spinifex and gum trees, until it disappeared into the distance – flat, sparse, bare.
Two days later, loaded with 10 days worth of food, eight liters of water, and two large containers of rehydration powder, I stood over my bike and watched as heat waves formed over the strip of tarmac before me.
At just under 2,000 miles, it was one of the longest continuous roads on the planet: the great Stuart Highway.
Named after founding explorer John Stuart McDouall. In 1862, the Scotsman had been the first to blaze a route across Australia’s harsh desert outback.
I mounted my bike, then set about my way. That first morning of pedaling, super-heated winds blew at temperatures of 102 degrees.
The heat and wind continued until the moment I reached an outdoor shop on the main streets of Katherine. At lunchtime the next day I was preparing a feast of peanut butter and jelly, when a Kangaroo walked up and snatched my only loaf of bread. Grinding and jawing my midday sustenance, he mawed my loaf just inches from my leg. He just casually finished my bread, then turned and hopped away.
I rode 85 miles against furnace-like headwinds.
Two days later I cycled into the aboriginal community of Tennant Creek.
“G’day,” one of the elderly Aboriginal men said as he approached. He smiled and glanced with gentle-opaque eyes. Though he glanced at me for only a moment, I recognized something powerful – something deep within those eyes.
What I saw were stories.
Stories of a different land, a different people, in a different time, with a different way of being.
For these people, these stories lead the way. Without them they were lost. They were the cairns and markers for a culture that spans back 43,000 years.
Instinctively, I knew I needed to find these stories.
Or moreover, I needed to find those who maintained these stories. For they were the ones holding the torch – leading their people back to their heritage – blazing the path of courage, light and hope.
I found these story-keepers and more in Alice Springs.
Bustling, hot, modern and sprawl, I entered the streets of Alice Springs beneath the looming McDonnell Range.
Parking my bike near the center of town, I walked through the glass doors of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA).
For 24 years, CAAMA has produced a wide range of indigenous music, radio, film and television programs. Programs that reach more than a million people in a dizzying variety of Aboriginal languages.
It was here I found emerging Aboriginal filmmaker Dena Curtis.
The 26-year-old indigenous filmmaker had earned a scholarship to attend the Sydney Film School, as well as sponsorships to make films from the indigenous branch of the Australian Film Commission.
Among her four short films, her 10-minute documentary “Cheeky Dog,” about a young Aboriginal boy in Tennant Creek who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, went to the Sydney Film Festival in June. After that it aired on ABC Australia.
A couple of days after meeting Dena, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Mitjili Gibson, an internationally acclaimed Aboriginal artist and expert naturalist.
Born in the wilds of Western Australia, Mitjili is not only a painter, but a vital source of esoteric knowledge for biologists, ethno-biologists, ethno-botanists, scientists, naturalists as well as those working with endangered species. Over the last 20 years, Mitjili has been on National Geographic, NHK Television in Japan, the BBC, as well as in countless magazines, books and on radio programs.
“She’s pre-European contact,” Her son-in-law Peter Bartlett explained as we watched her paint within a downtown studio.
“She’s what,” I asked. “She was born in the West Australian bush before the arrival of the white man there,” he clarified.
Mitjili smiled, then spoke in her native Pintupi dialect, which rolled from her tongue like thick liquid velvet.
“Her mother and father were speared to death,” he said. “A tribe had killed the two of them after her father had cleared a water hole.”
“She was an infant at the time and the only reason she survived was because her brother carried her across the desert. He’d kept her alive feeding her from the breast of a lactating feral cat.”
The last group of indigenous people I met in Alice Springs were from New South Wales.
They were Peter Williams Sr., Charlene Williams, Peter Williams Jr. and Nathan Eldridge. The four of them formed the traditional Aboriginal dance group “Thinkga.”
Among the hills just outside Alice Springs, I watched as they twirled and leapt and danced before my eyes.
Satisfied with my time meeting these story-keepers, I cycled out of Alice Springs the following day.
Thirteen days later, I finished my journey across the Stuart Highway near the city limits sign outside Port Augusta.
A spectacular show of stars filled the sky during my last night in the outback, sparkling across the heavens from horizon to horizon. As I laid on my back to watch them shimmer, I thought of my journey, then of McDouall.
He died in 1866 with only seven people attending his funeral. Neither the governments of South Australia or England contributed anything to his burial or paid any tributes to the man. The only hint of his accomplishment at the time was the carving on his headstone.
“To the memory of John Stuart McDouall , South Australian explorer, who first crossed the continent from the south to the Indian Ocean.”
Though McDouall died as I will, in relative obscurity, I couldn’t help but think of his elation as he’d accomplished his task and reached the far shore. For a moment I imagined him smiling over the ocean, repeating the same words I’d uttered earlier that day.
“I did it. I actually did it.”
Later that night, after crawling into my tent, I opened a book and came upon an Aboriginal proverb.
“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love … and then we return home.”
To learn more about CAAMA Productions you can go to http://www.caama.com.au or to see more works of art by Mitijili Gibson you can go to http://www.gallerygondwana.com.au/Mitjili/mitjili.htm