The voice floated across my lonely motel room in Darwin. The sound of slow sweet lament suited my mood in that anonymous room in a lodging for transients. The voice sang of home, of home lost, of home dreamed and remembered. In that room, at that season – the three weeks of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple – the voice sang to me of loss, my own and the singer’s.
After a period working on Elcho Island I had arrived in Darwin at day’s end, had wandered blindly about the Darwin Festival, blindly had selected this CD of Elcho singers. Later, in the light I read their names. I recognised ‘Yunipingu’: hadn’t he been Australian of the Year? But this would be a different Yunipingu.
Only a couple of years later that floating voice had percolated through the ears of the entire nation, seeped into our being and changed us. Distinctive as didgeridoo, his voice was recognised everywhere. His solo album was the cultural event of the year. Realising how a voice had become the sound that we recognised ourselves by, I wrote. “Australia is becoming more Australian.”
Born in 1971 the singer passed away last week. He died during the three weeks of mourning. I listen to ‘Warwu’ and I feel for my country, impoverished. The singer has passed from us. So much loss, so many, so young.
click on this link to hear him singing 'Warwu': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhkMP89rRMk
0600. The rock squats, silent, a massive cupcake among the grasses. Moment by moment the light changes: dark gives way to deep blues, to a steel blue, now to a primrose glimmering. All is quiet, still. Life suspended, the plain broods, foreknowing sunrise.
0621.The rock as image is too familiar. The rock as concrete reality forbids familiarity. I emerge from my small car, and regard the great terracotta thing before me: after all these years its immensity, everfresh, astonishes me. My car winds its way to the carpark. At every bend the rock changes; every aspect surprises and evokes the overpowering question: what immortal hand or eye? My question and the custodians’ questions are the same as Blake’s. The very greatness demands a myth.
I glance at the steep wall at my side and the slope flings my gaze up, up, upward beyond my range of cervical extension. The human neck cannot accommodate the reality; only if I lie on my back can I take it in. The human ant needs a postcard.
0623. Time to start: I am alone, the sole ant. The base walk used to be nine kilometres in length. Now it’s 10.6 kilometres. The rock hasn’t grown but the people who manage the Park have decided to keep us at a distance. And I need to finish my circuit by 0730: time to start.
Every one of my years finds voice and protests in my lower back as I shamble into movement. I intended to run but for now this hobbling is the best I can do. The gravel path underfoot is soft and red. It cushions and retards. Slower going and harder. But with only a hundred metres behind me slow going and aching back are forgotten. The rock compels, demands all attention, with its folds and bends, its clefts and pits, its elegant curves, its sweep and breach, its sudden secret shades and sulci.
That face – those many faces – prefigure every expression of humanity. The rock gazes down with idle incuriosity, here it is a pockmarked teenager, here a gaunt pensioner, now a lady, elegant in her long dress that falls and sweeps and moves gracefully in concert with my passing. The rock shows the many faces that are human faces: here is calm, here inscrutability, here obduracy.
Three great gouges side by side at great height, these are eye sockets, empty: what is this sight that sears her eyeballs? The rock gazes out at our killing fields, at Crusades and Inquisition, at Babi Yar, Rwanda, Cambodia, at Holocaust, at the Armenian Genocide. The rock’s eyeless sockets see all. She has no tears. No mouth here, no words.
0630. Right on time the sun comes up, shining, burning directly in my eyes as the rockface heads me due east. The wind comes up too, blowing hot hard warnings of today’s forty degrees: you step outside from your cooled habitat, you breathe, your palate dries and you gasp. The second breath confirms the first impression.
For now the hot headwind is welcome: an early headwind promises a following wind in the later stages when I’ll head west and home.
But the sun, this sun, this blaze, this interrogator’s light right in my eyes: son of man, why have you come?
My innocent run is no longer blameless.
Son of man, what business have you here?
What? Why? What do I seek – peace? Innocence?
The light glares: What gift do you bring?
Consciousness. It is all I have.
The bright light relents, winking now, filtered by thin foliage, broken by gentle rises and bends.
At this point the run might become a chore; the vista is relatively unremarkable, the rock radiating yesterday’s stored heat, the glare, the difficult going underfoot, the headwind – all might sap a runner. Instead the mechanical affair of placing one foot before another feels charged, significant. Plod, plod, breathe, breathe, the ordinary is transmuted. It is said of William Blake that he took a visitor outside, directed him to look at the midsummer sun and report what he saw. “Bright sunshine”, said the visitor. Said Blake, “I see hosts of fiery angels surrounding the Throne, singing Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Fires in my throat. I sip my iced water. But first I recite the customary blessing over the water, an act in which this mortal congratulates his Maker on His good idea in creating and providing the mortal with water. Water never tasted better. Like everything here it is charged, touched with the sublime.
I have passed twenty minutes alone in the company of Uluru, an uncommon privilege. At my left, hidden in the scrub, is the village of Mutitjulu. Its people live in the lee of immensity. Daily they awaken to the view of deep terracotta that earlier was mine. At sunset, fire flames from the rock’s margins, the rock purples. Echoes follow me – another place, another colour scheme:
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
Around the bend now, heading south, the greens and greys relieve the eye. I can’t complain of sameness. More faces in the rock, caves that grimace, bluffs that lower, red rock that slopes down towards my feet, down, down, a slow, shy approach. The rock is within a metre of my shod foot. To step on it a profanation. I do not walk this rock. Not now.
Around another bend and another, tracing waving folds, the rock shapes here are emphatically, anatomically feminine. Inescapably feminine. Curves that flow, flow, ineffably graceful, to deepening clefts, soft in the gentling light. These mother forms beckon, embrace, call me home.
My old legs move fluently, easily. They swallow the miles. My mouth burns, it sends messages – drink, drink – messages you receive only when it’s too late. Above me rockmouths gape toothlessly, vast, cavernous, inaccessible. My eye searches the sheer face; only a mountaineer equipped with hammer, piton and ropes could reach those high hollows. But in their depths ochreous markings, patterns, declare themselves; these impossible deeps are painting sites. No white foot might imaginably intrude. Good!
Nearing the beginning of the end, here is the Mutijulu pool, a cool, shaded dell between three high surrounding walls. Its waters are permanent. But no, not so today, not in this heat. I gaze amazed at naked sands. Even dry they keep their cool, concealing water close to the surface. This dryness is a mirage; at all hands the growth is green, tender, silvan.
0715. Nearer the end and I am not alone. Cars pass on the bitumen that runs unseen, parallel to my path. Above me the rock has mouths with calcific projections, teeth that do not smile at what passes below. I look ahead: there, formicating on the slope, scores, hundreds of whitefellas climb hand over hand along a chain that will take them to the top. They will climb Uluru, they will conquer, they’ll be able to tell everyone.
At the top they’ll see the pits and gullies, the moonscape no-one below imagines, the scales and plaques of red; and the smallness of humans below.
I know what they see. I know the climbers haven’t seen or haven’t understood or haven’t cared what the owners write on the notice: Anangu do not want you to climb the rock.
I am not happy to see them climbing. It seems disrespectful. I feel it as if it were a personal sIight. I know and I care about it because I too have climbed the rock. A quarter of a century ago, I drove up, leaped from my car and ran up the slope. I did not see the notice. Hubris sped my feet: I would conquer Uluru; I would do it at the run, I would not stop.
Of course I did stop – after only fifteen metres – stopped and gasped, ran again, stopped, fought a breathlessness I had not known before. I made it to the top, saw how small we are and descended. I do not climb now.
After three months of physiotherapy and rest and exercises and anti-inflammatory tablets had failed to fix my injured knee, an MRI explained why: the outer cartilage was torn and the inner was tatty. I saw a surgeon last Wednesday and on Friday he repaired what was reparable and removed what was not.
The next day I sat on my couch in small pain, enjoying a liberal dose of self-pity. I had time and excuse to sit and live slowly. I read the ‘paper. A fellow citizen wrote to the editor in praise of Medicare, our universal health scheme. Her small daughter fell acutely ill and she hurried to the public hospital, where the waiting area was crowded and the public address announced the arrival of a series of ambulances. The delays would be long. However the sick child was assessed in Triage as urgent, was seen and treated expeditiously and expertly. By morning she was well enough to go home and her mother took up the pen in praise and thanksgiving. ‘How lucky we are’, she wrote, ‘to have such an excellent public health system.’
A second letter to the editor told the opposite tale. The writer suffered a limb injury and attended a public hospital. His injury was disabling and unremittingly painful. It was rapidly recognised as in need of early surgery. That was two years ago. His case is classified in the category of Most Urgent (elective). Every three months since he has returned to the hospital for routine appointments, where the diagnosis and the urgency are confirmed. His letter ends with a lament: ‘How can we kid ourselves we have a health scheme where Most Urgent can languish for years?’
The writer and I both suffered injuries. Both of us received expert advice that surgery was necessary. Mine was performed within days, while my fellow languishes for years. My injury was minor but it did not feel trivial. For three months it hurt too much to run. I turned to the bike and the knee felt worse. Soon I could not walk without pain. I watched the muscles of my thighs wither and I lamented. Those legs had been my pride. I contemplated a life without exercise and I knew I would not know myself.
How is it my leg improves by the day while a fellow citizen suffers a worse problem and waits interminably? I cannot doubt the sufferer subsists on medication which is neither curative nor safe. By now he is surely addicted to his opiates. Why the disparity? The answer is my private health insurance, which, by dint of thrift and belief, I afford. Not everyone is so fortunate.
Even an unbleeding-hearted economic rationalist would see the disparity as just that, an inequality. I believe there is a solution which is not a new idea, but a forgotten one. I recall a politician by name of Don Chipp who became Minister for Health in the Liberal Government in the days before Medicare was sanctified, beatified and became untouchable. Facing the disparity, Chipp proposed government would underwrite the private health insurance of the poor. All citizens would be insured, all would enjoy choice of surgeon and hospital, the private health sector would expand and prosper through efficiencies that Public Health can never match, investors would rejoice and the Liberals would be congratulated in the polls. Meanwhile Most Urgent Surgery (elective) would be performed within a humane frame of time.
That scheme, which bore some resemblance to Obama Care, never came to pass. Labor rejected the necessary Means Test as ideologically repugnant. Chipp moved out of his party and created a third force in politics, which soon became a chronic and disabling pain to Liberal governments. Decades later my fellow citizen, uninsured privately, suffers privately, where he could be cured.
I approach as the sun withdraws. There are only two of us, the Rock and me. I glance upwards: gorgeous parabolas of stone, ferrous waterways etched in rust. One convex curve of curtained rock is fretted and tinted, purnu, an Aboriginal wood carving.
Around me all is still. I feel as I did as a child when I intruded into my grandparents’ bedroom. No-one found me, but the stillness nearly undid me.
I park the car, hide my keys, and set out, running clockwise. The rock is my companion, watching me, looking down from steeps and heights, not austerely, not unkindly nor yet tenderly. Keeping me in sight, keeping an eye on me.
Everywhere I go on earth I run; I feel the place then, I connect with its earth. I breathe its air. Well, no, not quite everywhere: not in sacred places – not on the Temple Mount, not at the Shrine of Remembrance.
The first time I came to Uluru, I drove here with my Dad. I parked and leaped from the car, crying, See you soon, Dad. Just going for a run to the top.
On the way up I discovered no-one ‘just runs to the top’. Too high, too steep, too tough.
On the way down I encountered an old old man, torturously creeping, pulling himself upward hand over hand by the safety chain. The old man looked up and our eyes met. He smiled. I said Hello Dad.
Preposterous ambitions. Absurd.
Only after descending carefully to the car park did we find the Notice: Anangu prefer that you do not climb the Rock.
Over the twenty years since, I have come here and run, again and again, always to find myself surrounded by crowds drawn to the celebrity rock, the “icon”. The thought grew in me that I was running around a cliché.
But this time I am alone and – beyond doubting – the great silent rock is real, sanctity manifest.
Only self doubt now: Is this alright? Do I offend?
I run alone but doubt keeps pace: What are you doing here?
My day’s work done, my afternoon prayer said, I come at sunset, the day’s dying moment, its moment of truth. That fragment of suspended time when a great peace settles upon the wild places. The earth exhales, blows out the light. And waits for evening.
Your complexion, pitted and scarred. What was your youth, your birth? Those gouges – what violence tore out such chunks? The battered old face, past vanity, gazes down, mute. You don’t say nothing/You must know something…
Ahead and above, a gracile arc of stone, seventy metres high, five metres wide, a bow stretched by the Archer a small way from the mother rock, admits a beam of last light from the vanishing sun. It is a benison, a gift to one alone, an old plodding jogger, come to pay respect.
Around the first bend now, the late sunlight dims behind me, I run deeper into silence. The road, the paved human arteriole that links me to my comfortable world, is long behind. No-one who passes along that road will dream I might be here. Alone, with the great rock.
The walls of stone, fawn in late sunlight, chocolate as I set out, darken, deepen, solidify. The Rock, too dense now for colour, is pure form. Bulky, tremendous, powerful beyond my thought or racing fear, my companion is sheer presence. And I, grateful ant, scurry about its foot.
I can barely see the path at my feet. The stars are a carpet of light, unspeakably ancient. The sliver of new moon, a lovely silvery skullcap that sheds no light. This new moon marks the start of the month of Tammuz and the season of lamentation for Jewish people. I look at the great wall on my right: What sorrows do you weep for?
Onward, racing for heat to fight the settling chill, I hear my hard breathing, louder than my soft footfall. Onward, beyond fear of the dark – that one element left to me from distant childhood – I run. I run because I can, I run now because I must; to stop invites dangerous cooling. And were I to stop I’d hear the bush, its frightening noises.
I run, hoping not to stumble and fall and fracture a weight-bearing bone. One fall, one small break, a night alone, a body frozen and still, to be found in the morning by innocent early tourist or earlier, by carrion-feeding raptor.
The stars show me my way, I run on and I do not fall.
Shapes loom at my shoulder on my pathless left side. Unseen, the remainder of the planet keeps pace with me in darkness.
I lose the path and run blindly on. I stumble at speed, my thoughts rush before me, the sloping earth, ragged here and jagged, rushes upwards at me, my skin shrinks in foreknowledge of the tearing, the scraping. But my downhill-speeding legs keep pounding, one past its brother, now brother past the other, and legs connect to feet that hold. I do not crash. I breathe my thanks, and I slow, get my bearings and trot chastened limbs towards mother rock.
Yes, this is a mother place, sacred for women, the Mutitjulu Pool, ever green and cool, in all heat and glare.
I look up. The great bowl above me is crowded with stars. One patch alone of unlight, upon my right. Casserole shaped mammoth, you alone, you starless immensity, you must be Uluru.
You kept me company. You brought me home.
I arrive at the barber shop in an alley still dark on this winter morning. The shop is in darkness. A young woman arrives, unlocks and greets me, voice chirping, accent continental. Fair hair cropped close here, a full fall there, interesting geometry in the crosscuts, her face pink and round, cupcake cheeks slashed by straight lines of smile.
‘Good morning,’ she sings, ‘What is ahead of you this morning – do you have something fantastic to tell me like the story you tell me last time?’ What story did I make up last time? I can’t remember. I make no coherent response, but my barber needs none, smiling merrily at the great joke that is the life of cutting men’s hair in the centre of a large city.
I’ve come today to have my beard and moustache trimmed short. Johanna trims away, chatting gaily. She moves fast with smooth flowing movements. Gently she hoists a sagging jowl into the path of the oncoming mower. Deftly she mows that vulnerable Adam’s Apple region, where iron bristles have caught previous blades, making them jump and jag and cut. With swift sallies of the trimmer she shears my moustache and spares my nostrils. She darts out to the sides and mows my sideboards, somehow pulling up short of my ears which appear now suddenly larger in their emergence from the shrubbery. Sheltering beneath the nose which dominates the hairless lowlands, Johanna pounces on escapee wisps at throat and jaw.
Behind and above Johanna an image stares down at me from the mirror, mirror on the wall. The aircraft carrier chin, the pendulous ears, the imposing nose make a disturbing sight. Ready to take my leave I thank Johanna for her work but she is not done. No, no, she shakes her head, there is more. A swoop upon an unruly eyebrow, some quick nips in the caverns of nostril and past the tragus of ears, and now Johanna lays down her shears. Having ventured into realms of cerumen and snot she emerges with no sign of nausea. Her face registers the pleasure of being alive, of innocent intimacy. She turns from me, addressing a bottle of potion on the bench. Squirting sounds then her palms descend upon my cheeks, cool and moist. Softly she slaps cheek and jowl, cool palms cupping, caressing quickly. Now forehead, now scalp enjoys the laying on of hands.
The face in the mirror shines with astonished delight. Johanna croons her goodbyes. Ten dollars lighter and very young I depart in daylight the barbershop in the alley.
Warily opening the newspaper I came upon the following passage, quoted in an essay authored by Aboriginal leaders. I found it unusual.
“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst the past has thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”
This cri de coeur from the pen of former Australian of the Year, Galarwuy Yunupingu, distils the Letter from the Heart, which is the statement of Aboriginal consensus on their future. There’s a Jewish saying, words that come out from the heart (will) enter the heart.
A man accosts me in the darkened lobby of the hospital in the small town where I’m working. ‘Shalom’, he says.
He gropes inside the front of his shirt and pulls out a silver magen david.
‘Shalom aleichem’, says I.
We swap names. For the purposes of this story, his name is Federico.
Federico looks not ancient, not brand new. He’s tall, compact, has an olive complexion and he bends forward as he speaks. His accent is not Australian-made. His English is arrhythmic.
‘What are you doing In Nyngan, Federico?’
‘I live here. Thirteen years now.’
‘Will you tell me your story?’
He does so.
Before I repeat Federico’s story, allow me orient you to the remote, obscure town of Nyngan by referring you to my recent blog post (Nyngan on the Bogan).
Back to Federico: ‘I come from Mozambique. You know, was colony of Portugal. In 1976 Salazar dies. A bastard, Salazar. Like Franco, not a Jew-lover. Both of them, friends of Mussolini. Salazar dies, the blacks start to revolt and Portugal says, OK, we leave. They just run away, no negotiation, no transition. Then starts the war. A civil war. Massacres, the usual thing. First the Portuguese come to the coast in sixteenth century, they set up the port, Lorenzo Marques, a stopping place to their bits of empire in India. They go to India for the spices. They build their African colony by sending all their criminals, convicts. Like Australia. Like Australia, the same, those convicts become successful and they are comfortable. Portugal comes, butchers the blacks, in 1977 they go, then more massacres. Africa.
A nice place actually, Mozambique – for a Portuguese. But not now, not in ’77. In ’77, I know if I stay I will die. I leave my birthplace. My barmitzvah was there. In the synagogue, in Lorenzo Marques. Now I am in Portugal, a refugee, among all the refugees – from Mozambique, from Timor, from all places that Portugal runs away from. I cannot go back to Lorenzo Marques. Another Jewish refugee. History’s old story.
No-one can go to LM now. It does not exist: now the town is Maputo. And the big statue of that old colonist, Lorenzo Marques, they tear it down. Now in that square is a sculpture of a bird.
My grand-grandfather comes from Portugal to Mozambique. Now my family, all gone, all scattered. Six brothers and sisters, some in London, some in South Africa, one sister in Norway. She was the last one of the six I have seen. She used to visit me here in Nyngan, every winter of Norway. Last time I visited her was before five years. That last time, in Norway. Family all scattered. The Jewish story. Always the same. You know.
You want to hear how I come to Australia? Things happen for a reason. There is a meaning. I study history, I research. There is a reason. I believe that. So in Portugal I am safe. My grand-grandfather was Portuguese so I have citizenship. But no future, a refugee. The Jewish story. Always the same. So I wander. I work in Vancouver, I leave, my visa has finished. I work in South Africa. Many Jewish there. I work In London, in Finchley Road. Again many Jewish. I work in Norway. In between visas I work on cruise ships. Eight years on cruise ships; you don’t need a visa. On cruise ships there are Jewish. Also Barbados, every one old, everyone rich. Some Jews there too. I work In Korea. That’s where the miracle happens that brings me to Australia.
One year before Korea in Vancouver I apply for Australia. A Mozambiquean friend in Australia advises me: be careful what you tell them when you apply in the Embassy. Don’t say the wrong thing. So the embassy woman, she asks me what I will do – she means work – in Australia. I say I have qualification. I tell her I am chef. I don’t know what answer is the right answer. I know from my friend they don’t tell you what they want and what they do not want, but if you say wrong, they close the door. I answer, I pay the application. It will take a few months, the application, she tells me. Another cruise. And another. A letter arrives from Ottawa. The letter is from Australian High Commission in Ottawa. I have immigration visa. But no money. To come to Australia I must pay. So I wander on cruises and I work and I save. And I know I will leave the ships one day and I will settle and all my friends on the ship, always they will be slaves. I pay for a flight from Korea to Australia. Maybe three hundred American dollars, I go to the airline office to pick up ticket, the day before my flight. But it is a public holiday in Korea. Office is closed. I have paid, I have visa, I have no ticket. My flight is tomorrow. Here happens the miracle. I put my face against the window. I see people inside, cleaning. I make with fingers – come here please – come to window, I must ask. They come, but no-one speak English. They find someone. I tell him I need my ticket, I point to the office where the woman sold me the ticket, they go in, bring the woman out. A miracle. A public holiday, in Korea, the office is closed but I have my ticket. Things happen for a reason, I believe it.
In Australia, in Sydney, I work in Bondi Junction. Again many Jewish. I am there some years. I marry there, my wife have lymphoma before we meet. Then she is cured and we marry. Have children. Since thirteen years I am in Nyngan. I come here, I come here for the peace. I work at the pub as chef. Then the manager closes the kitchen, leaves Nyngan, manages from the city. I have no job, but things happen for a reason. I believe that. I sit in this coffee shop and the manager of the biggest hotel comes in, says, Hello Federico. Come work for me.
Small town, you know, everyone knows everyone. Good people here. My wife gets a second cancer. We drive to Dubbo, we drive to Sydney, we drive, drive. Always long drives, costs hundreds of dollars petrol. And the people of Nyngan collect money for our travel. Good people in Nyngan. Nothing happens without a reason. But my son, he’s grown up, I tell him – get out of Nyngan, no future for you here, go see the world, go build your future. You know I believe.
Will you do me a favour, Howard? I want for my doorpost the Jewish sign, for the doorpost, you know. I google but I don’t just buy. Has to be real, you. Needs the writing inside, not just the box .