Before arriving in Coober Pedy I read of The Breakaways, an accessible scenic spot of some sacred significance. Once in town I asked directions. These were simple enough to alarm me: ‘Turn right at the Stuart Highway, turn right at the signposted track and drive to the end of the road.’ And – ‘You best get there in time for sunset or sunrise, when the colours are stronger. Other times it’s bleached by the sun.’
The Stuart bisects our continent. I’ve never found myself alone on the Stuart before. The road roars with lorries and road trains that hug the tail of your smaller vehicle at their permitted 110 kilometres an hour. But this early morning my car alone moved through the dark along the Stuart. Cloud covered the stars. The car radio was silent. A velvet cloak sat upon the earth. I knew I was alone.
The kilometres slipped behind me as I raced to catch a doubtful sunrise. A tiny signpost flashed into sight and out. Had I missed the turnoff? I laughed aloud at my famed ability to get lost. But no – a few minutes on a large sign read: THE BREAKAWAYS. So-named, I read, because chunks of the planet appear broken off from the surrounding scarp. One or two locals, indigenous people, shrugged when I mentioned The Breakaways: ‘Never been’, said one. ‘Just dirt’, said a second.
The velvet was breaking up. Teal blues split the clouds, a lightening over my shoulder from the east, the dark surface now reddening, the black grasses greening. Earth awakening, but everywhere, silence, stillness. The dirt track shifted beneath my tyres, the car, tipsy, slid from side to side, my passage never quite controlled, not fully skidding. Up a rise, the end of the road. Once out the car the first sensation a blast of wind, night-cooled, but warming towards today’s 46 maximum. A wooden barrier separated me from a sudden void. The earth fell away at my feet, a vast valley, roughchopped, opened before me. The wind tore up the slopes and away. Nothing else moved. No sound. No life. Stepping forward felt like sacrilege.
I stood still and gazed, astonished. Unprepared for an encounter none could prepare for, I simply stood. My eyes flew up the slopes of table-topped massifs and followed the fall of abrupt clefts. Hills of caramel pink and nude rocks of white ochre in a repeating pattern of rise and fall, fall and rise. And no sound at all. Was this the birthplace of the world? Would that scrubby shrub at the valley floor burst into unconsuming flame?
I stood for some time as one at prayer. I knew an aloneness and a silence and a stillness that must have spoken to my soul. In time I returned to time and I took up the elements of my ritual dawn prayers and I prayed and I gave thanks. I felt kin to others who have stood here over the millennia and contemplated creation. I made my poor homage.
At length a living thing came to me in the stillness, a blowfly. The fly sniffed and sipped, and finding my skin dry, it went its ways. The wind whipped my tallith which made to join the insect in flight. Alone again, no human on earth today had better access to his Creator. If a voice had called, ‘Howard, Howard’, I believe I’d have answered, Hineni.
My prayers done I walked to the display that detailed the nearby salients. The text, authorized by a local elder, hinted opaquely at their sacred significance. The place has its true name, Kangu. Behind me at a short remove was the bearded dragon, Cadney, over there was Pupa, two dogs lying down. And in front was Kalayu, the emu, father caring for his chicks. The area is an initiation site for young boys. Its elaborated meanings are secret, forbidden. This is meet. Sufficient to be here in mystery.
A side track to Pupa beckoned and I ran. Ochreous powder cushioned my feet. The track took me down and around. Soon I was at the valley floor and the mighty forms rose up, thronging about me. This was ‘just dirt’ and I human clay, a small thing in all the greatness. I thought of the miracle of being, I thought of annihilation. So easy here, to slip, to fall, to break an ankle. In a day or two the heat would finish a crippled runner. The thoughts carried no drama, little colour. Death in this valley would be ordinary; it was living and moving that were out of the order of things.
I was alive and moving. I turned and I ran back up the hills.
To say the landscape and your writing is heart warming is to sound trite. Yet both speak to me of this beautiful land on which I was not born but feel at one with and drawn to even more so because of the window you provide with your pictures and words. Thank you Howard.
Your response relieves a nagging feeling I’ve had of having reached with words to convey sensations and an experience beyond the range of normal in my life
The experience bound me in wonder to something profound, ultimate and true
As an Aboriginal workmate described it before my visit, it’s just more dirt
Afterwards I misgave before writing: the urge was strong but truly nothing happened
I wrote and I read it out to a person not prone to my pangs of transcendence
I prefaced the reading with, ‘ I went and looked and saw, and it was empty and nothing happened ‘
My reading was a testing of the market
After I read and came to the end, my auditor waited a bit in silence, wondering if I’d really finished: perhaps there was some climax
He said, ‘you’re right; nothing happened ‘
I waited and delayed posting the piece
Eventually I did so
My family was mute
OK, I thought, you reached for something beyond your reach
I felt the silence was polite, embarrassed: my faithful kind readers decided I was wanking but they would spare my feelings
Then you wrote
And you got it
And I felt greatly encouraged to make further attempts to express a something that matters to me, that brings me to powerful truth
I knew while I was there
Continuing this meandering note, Banu:
I know while I was there the place meant much
I wanted to release that strong feeling of discovery of myself and my universe
I hoped I could share it
You showed me you did
If more stories follow, Banu, in which nothing happens as I visit some dirt, readers will have you to blame
And I – not for the first time – will
Have you to thank