When I was young and naive I believed that I was Australian.
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and vampirishly white – I was born in the Northern suburbs of Sydney and spent my childhood playing in the bush down the back of Fox Valley. The kids from the cul-de-sac got into all manner of strife scrambling over outcrops of sandstone before walking the fire trails trying (but always failing) to catch lizards. My father found a Lorikeet with a broken wing. Wolfi (short for Wolfgang) used to sit on my shoulder until she laid eggs one day and we hastily renamed her Wolfeena… The bush was our world. We knew it was dangerous but neither the oppressive Summer heat nor the stern warnings from our parents kept us from exploring barefoot every weekend.
It wasn’t until it caught fire in the late 90s that I truly appreciated the blatant indifference the country had to my survival. A firestorm engulfed Sydney and I remember standing on the street, staring at the red sky behind my house as ash and flaming gum leaves fell out of the air. The smoke gathered at my knees like fog. You could hear the roar of fire as it moved up and down the ridges, consuming our neighbours’ houses. I was rushed away to my nan’s but soon the valley behind St Ives caught alight too. It was a spiritual experience – facing down what could only be described as hell.
On holidays my parents would take me to see natural wonders. At first, it was the rainforests and beaches of Queensland where I was always begging to walk in the Glasshouse Mountains rather than the tourist parks. Geology had become a passion and although I was deeply terrified of volcanoes I couldn’t help but feel a fascination with old rocks. Though I am sure the attachment was tiresome to my parents, outcrops of dirt became the focus of our exploration.
Turns out that this is not entirely my fault. My grandfather was a great one for fossils and gold – same as my great-grandparents who walked from Sydney to Sofala to scratch a living during the Gold Rush like every other desperate Australian. Some of them are buried there in the dust. A few stones, lopsided and cracked.
We went to the Wollemi National Park where I picked up a new religion. Ancient trees from the dawn of the Cretaceous had me enraptured. For a good few years the only thing a tiny version of me cared about was the pre-history of Australia and what giant things were living here. I cried when the Wollemi Pine that I had adopted was accidentally mown over and yes, I’m still trying to work out how I can find another.
A little while later we had enough money to travel South. I spent hours glued to the left side window of the car as we drove around The Great Ocean Road where Bass Strait did its best to rip shreds off the mainland. The Twelve Apostles seemed to be missing a few members but we stood as close to the cliffs as we dared and listened to the endless violence of the waves.
Invisible beyond the grey curve lay a piece of Australia I’d not yet seen. In my mind it was an island of environmental anarchy where the tallest trees formed forests of silent giants, Tasmanian Devils attacked from the shadows and the only convict member of my family saved Old Hobart Town from a devastating fire, earning his pardon. That’s the only reason we’re allowed to acknowledge him… He, like so many, were brought to Australia against their will. Countless died but those that survived disease, forced labour and a hostile continent found their home.
I did not realise then that The Great Ocean Road was a gift from the Australian people to all those who fought in the first World War. It remains the largest war memorial ever built, providing both work for returned serviceman and an everlasting source of beauty and enjoyment for which they could be remembered. Is there anything more Australian? You may say that this coast became a spiritual monument. I would like to go back – stand on the edge and say thank you to the waves for the dozens of members of my family slaughtered on foreign shores to protect this little strip of cliff.
Some of my family were pioneers. First and Second fleeters. Our free settlers headed up the New South Wales coast. A few followed old tracks through dense bush while others sailed into harbours looking for somewhere to farm. The first maps of the area bear our name as these hopeful fools turned tiny scraps of iron-stone filled forest into a place they could survive in. These people lived in shacks built on the banks of the river with the ocean on one side and a mountain range full of iron on the other. The rains came, the river rose and everyone nearly drowned under two metres of water. Then the Summer storms arrived and the lightening shattered so thick and fierce that they thought the gods of the ancient world had found them.
Nearly two hundred years later, I still live on that piece of land. The dairy they built has been lovingly restored but we left its hardwood exterior on show – grey with age. There’s a set of tracks leading down to the river where the cream barge used to deliver once a week from the butter factory to the isolated families running cattle. Now we wave at tourists looking for fish and loft our eyebrows at brave water skiers. For a brief moment our ancestors thought there might be gold beneath them but all they found was white sand, fossilised leaves and fresh water.
One day soon I may have to sell this place to survive. Our spiritual and cultural connection to the land is irrelevant to the government and the banks. The old house and the entwined fig trees planted by our departed kin are meaningless. My grandparents died within a week of each other. They were scattered in the river but it cannot be sacred to us.
If I am here to see another flood – I will think of them.
When I am told of my ‘white privilege’ I remember my grandfather.
Picture this. A wild sweep of sand interrupted by volcanic rock, pockmarked and covered in hidden pools where sharp molluscs make the rough surface utterly treacherous. The ocean lays in front, endlessly blue and behind there are a few k’s of scrub backed by the odd rise of a large, scruffy hill. Looking left up the beach is the smoky outline of a distant mountain range so far away it may as well be a spectre.
Every now and then the ocean rushes in, gets caught inside the weathered tunnels littered through the rock before roaring into the air. The sound echoes in the caves above where a pair of young boys emerge. It is 1930-something and this may as well be the edge of the world.
Starving, the boys have decided that the best solution to their hunger is to go for a fish. This seems like a sensible solution until you realise that one of the boys is balancing a 303 rifle on his shoulder while he skids down the near-vertical rubble and the other is pacing toward a water trap aptly named, ‘Shark Hole’.
The boys take up the positions above the water. One by one they ignite sticks of dynamite and toss them into Shark Hole. The subsequent explosions shake the bedrock and leave a few stunned fish floating on the surface. One boy rushes out, hessian bag clutched in one hand as he dives into the water. He gathers up the fish and then drags the bloodied bag behind him while his mate watches on, rifle scanning the waves for any ominous, prowling shadows.
Can you you guess who elected to sit on the slope with the rifle?
Safety 101. If you find yourself on a hunting trip with my grandfather, always remember that you are the bait. He’s not hunting fish – he’s hunting sharks.
There was nothing privileged about his poverty. He saw his four young sisters to school on horse back and then across the river in a canoe – barefoot and returned to work the farms in exchange for food. His escape from rural poverty was World War II where he paddled up river and became the third person to sign up for the Australian Parachute Battalion as a sniper.
My grandmother would return to that isolated farm after the war and raise three children alone in the bush with nothing. Their wealth came from weekends catching mudcrabs and baking the odd cake (after making the butter by hand).
No one in my family has had the privilege of money of any significant kind but we always had stories. They centre around the land and its secrets.
When I was 15 I finally got to go to the greatest rock of them all – Ayres Rock, or Uluru if you like. I didn’t care about its name. I wanted to know its story. This piece of sandstone was part of a greater creature, like a dusty iceberg trapped in the desert. Essentially it was the corpse of the Petermann Ranges, a ridge of mountains that rivalled the Himalayas.
Following the track around the base of the rock, I ended up in one of the many caves. In the silence I could feel Australia’s age dripping out of the stone. There’s something elusive about our country. Perhaps it is eternally conspiring to shake us free with bushfires, floods and droughts – or maybe it is the incomprehensibility humans feel when they’re faced with oblivion and what better way to feel it than in the grave of a mountain?
The next day the rains came. Lightening struck the endless, golden flats. The rock turned violet in the afternoon light and soon waterfalls poured off its sides. It was a canvas shifting colour faster than I could sketch as though it were beating.
I was in the heart of my country and very near the beginning of its story. One day I will go West to the oldest corner where the rock has seen life wash up on the cliffs and waste aeons building odd-looking mounds in the shallow water.
Then I grew up.
I was told that I am not Australian.
My cultural heritage lies in a country I’ve never been to.
I am only allowed to have a spiritual connection to lands my ghosts passed through.
People like me, we are indigenous to nowhere. Culturally stateless. Cattle-class in the eyes of our government who have no interest in our stories.
Our virtue is a tally of our ancestors and that is a mountain I can never climb.