Summer Stories: Just Dirt

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.

Eighteen Percent

As I ate my Weet Bix this morning I read the following email sent by my sister in the United States.

Café charges men 18% 'gender tax' to highlight pay gap

This sign lays out of the policy at Handsome Her, a Melbourne, Australia café where men are invited to pay 18% more to reflect the gender pay gap.

A café in Melbourne, Australia, is giving its male customers a side of gender equity with their lattes. At Handsome Her, men are asked to pay an 18% premium to "reflect the gender pay gap." Men earn an average 17.7% more than women for full-time work in Australia, a government report found. The difference is roughly the same in the United States.

The café, which opened its doors for the first time Thursday, is hoping to shine a spotlight on the issue. "All we really wanted was to raise awareness and start conversations about the gender gap," Belle Ngien, the café's manager, told CNN. The voluntary donations are collected during one week every month and given to women's charities, Ngien said.

But it didn't take long for the Internet to go crazy over the scheme, with some calling Handsome Her's "gender tax" discriminatory. But Ngien is unfazed: "Men have their own spaces that we're not allowed in to, so why not have that space for women?"
No one has declined paying the extra 18%, she said. In fact, a few customers — men and women — have donated more. "Eighteen percent is actually not a lot. Our coffee is $4, and 18% of that is 72 cents," Ngien said.

Indeed, men have come from across town to support the cause, owner Alex O'Brien said in a Facebook post. "We've had men travel across town to visit us and pay 'the man tax' and throw some extra in the donation jar," O'Brien wrote, adding, "Guys, you're pretty neat."
In the end, Ngien said, no one is turned away based on whether they pay extra.

"Sometimes it's hard for people to change their minds," she said. "We're not in the business of changing people's minds. They are welcome to go elsewhere if they don't want to pay a voluntary donation."

So far, Handsome Her has collected a couple hundred dollars for Elizabeth Morgan House Aboriginal Women's Service. And it's definitely fueled a conversation.

No-one gets roused to passion while eating Weet Bix. I mused and meandered and then it came to me: none of  the internet responses refers to the beneficiary, an Aboriginal women’s service. No-one is less equal in this egalitarian land than a beaten Aboriginal woman.

I can affirm that: in my present posting I was asked to give evidence in the trial of the ex-partner who took to his girlfriend with baseball bat. He injured head, eye, limbs, trunk. Bones were broken. She was admitted unconscious to Intensive Care. A huge purple discoloration on the woman’s back, the size and shape of a bat, said clearly what she could not.

I forwarded the above to friends and family. A friend, Colin Hockley, wrote in response:

Once upon a time in a far away country lived a little boy. He had a big sister. 

The little boy's jobs were to feed the chooks and collect eggs, mow the lawns, work in the huge garden, chop the kindling wood, fetch coal, light the fire, walk the dog, get up in the cold, pre dawn and deliver newspapers before school, and deliver meat for a butcher on Saturday mornings. He worked on a farm through school holidays planting or picking potatoes, peas, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, raspberries, and was the chief shouter in a gang of rat catchers.  

At home his role was to peel the potatoes every day, lay the table for meals, wash dishes, and in summer, select salads from the garden. His best job was to roam across soggy fields early in the mornings, before even the farmer was up and about and find huge mushrooms laying amongst the cow poo.

The big sister cleaned house and the little boy helped with that. She also ironed, washed dishes and was very busy with homework from school. Big sisters got more pocket money because they "have to look after their hair". They don't do paper rounds in the dark, or butcher rounds, or work on a farm. This is for the boys. 

When the little boy grew up he sometimes found himself looking into an ugly pit of resentment at these differences and the bubble of pain that went with it, threatening to burst one day. Later he began to see that everyone carries weeping wounds or scar tissue and that he could transcend pain by looking at someone with greater pain. 

Like the story of the poor woman bashed with a baseball bat. 

A special tax of 18% on baseball bats should be imposed to pay for this atrocity.  

Silent Singer

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':

From the Heart 2

Silent Companion


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.









From the Heart 1

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.


Australia Day in Doomadgee

Doomadgee, we write it
In our orthography
Really should be

No flag raising here
No speech or ceremony
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee

River runs warm
Kiddies swim and swarm
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee

Uncles bashing
In Australian passion
On Australia Eve
Here in Doomadgee

Broken hand, broken
Jaw, cut faces and more:
That’s Australia Day
In Doomadgee.

Adam Goodes
Too far away
This Australia Day
In Doomadgee

A busy day this
Australia Day
In the hospital
In Doomadgee

We plaster, we suture
Like there’s no future:
Future no feature 
of Australia Day,
Not here, no way, 
In Doomadgee

The end of Australia Day –
Quietness falls
In hospital halls
Of Doomadgee

But short the respite –
Quick! Elder sick,
Dying On Australia night –
Dying here in Doomadgee?

Quiet, quiet, his voice, his breath –
Small his smile at threshold of death –
Good night Australia:
System failure in Doomadgee

Beside him, quiet woman – or girl –
His guard and ward in this world
Trembles, faces an Australian day
Elderless in Doomadgee.

He slips away from teeming kin
Who hold tears and keening in;
A dreadful peace on Australia Day
And quiet, this night in Doomadgee.

On the Main Road

Friday afternoon, the eve of the sabbath. Riding home from my shift in the Emergency Department at Alice Springs Hospital I would have missed her if I’d been abiding by the law. Luckily I was riding along the footpath when I came upon her. She looked about fifty but I reckon her true age at mid-thirties. Her large face seemed inflated, her eyelids puffy, her lips swollen, her natural flabbiness accentuated by deforming scars and oedema. The face was bronze in colour. Her gaze was inward – even when I was abreast of her, when I addressed her, I was absent to her. 

In all our minutes together we were never more than ten metres distant from people passing in cars and on foot. But in our leaden ballet we would dance alone.
She was shorter than I and a good deal heavier. The weight differential would matter when I’d struggle to lift her. I was a metre from her when I first registered her human presence. A slender tree at my right shoulder obscured her from sight. Abrupt movement caught my eye, a straining, forceful jerking of her thick neck and thorax as if she sought to escape. In fact the opposite was the case. 
The woman’s hands worked to adjust a cord that looped once around the tree then twice around her neck. I saw the cord and stopped. With all in place she suddenly slumped. Don’t! Don’t do that! – these were all the words I found. I flung my bike aside and threw myself towards the woman. She grunted but did not speak. My arms about her did not arrest her fall. The cord tightened. I remembered the knife in my lunchbox. As I groped frantically in my backpack she thudded suddenly to earth at my feet.  
A white cord floated down after her. The cord was a lengthy bootlace, the sort you pull on to tighten your running shoes. That slender tie would never support ninety kilograms of self nihilation.
Lying on the earth her silent body did not move. Was she breathing? A wave of alcoholic air reaching my nostrils answered that question. Was she conscious? I spoke. No response. I shouted. No answer. I placed my right thumb into the small bony notch above her eye and pressed hard. This truly painful stimulus evoked no movement, not a flinch. On the Glasgow Coma scale I reckoned her score at eight of a possible fifteen.
As I crouched in all my clinical perplexity an Aboriginal woman appeared at my side. Gesturing in the direction from which I’d been riding she said, The hospital is just back that way. Did I smile as I thanked her? I don’t know.
My lady was alive, breathing, intoxicated, apparently unconscious. In the long seconds since slumping she had not moved. What harm had her spinal cord suffered in that violent moment when the bracing cord arrested her fall? I could not know. My phone: where was it? Fast fingers delved and delivered from my pocket. I rang triple zero. The voice asked, Police, Fire or… Ambulance! I shouted. Ninety seconds after giving location and clinical details the siren sounded behind me. The vehicle pulled up alongside my waving, jumping body. A tall woman blonde woman alighted. She would have been in her thirties – like our patient, and unlike her. I answered her questions. A friendly smile lit her face as she said, Big shock for you, I’d imagine. This time I did smile. After a shift in Alice’s Emergency Department I’d become inured to shocks. The paramedic crouched over our patient and I heard her say: Hello girlfriend! as I mounted and headed home for the peace of Shabbat.