Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wimmera and Mallee: Day One

What if our life's meaning is rooted in the space and light of our earliest experiences, when our existence was fresh? I am a child of the Mallee. The distinctive light and space of that land is present in almost all my earliest memories. The memories are of things: stones, ants, red dust at my feet, flat horizons, giant skies.  These things are also experiences of the world: the silence and heat in the light showed this ant as something that exists, and I felt wonder at existence itself. The way the horizon recedes and blurs was full of vague longing, a promise of otherness. It spoke to something deep in me which I can never really grasp or articulate; but which is present in my love and experience of the place now, and in my love and experience of life itself.

Yet so much of my experience, both then and now, is confined to regions around Nyah. My mother lives there so I visit a few times a year. I know well the south, the east, and the north of Nyah and Nyah West. I love to ride the back roads to Tooleybuc; or Moulamein; and south takes me to Woorineen, where I lived in a caravan as a young child out the back of the farm house at Grandma’s (near the old dusty dance hall where my parents met) where many of these memories have their origin, in moments when I looked up at the horizon or down at the dirt and never forgot what I saw.

At 16, in my final year at home, I lived at the western end of Nyah West. My head consumed with all the promise that a young man feels as he prepares to leave for the city, the road heading west out of town was something I considered only from the edge of thought. Thought without enough energy to demand attention and words. Searching for them now, to me that space out west was a nothing and a mystery.

What is out there now blows about in my imagination; the words and images of desert and salt and dust push to the surface. Often I feel like I am standing before my grave, wondering where I went and what actually mattered. Sometimes I feel a kind of grief because the people I love and the small precious things in my life will pass. So many such things have passed: so many souls, so many times and places, the substance of lives, hidden and shared, beautiful and painful, different to me and just like me, have become lost. Killed by time.  Passing. I wonder where they go.

The answer I give takes me no further than my earliest memories, than my basic experience of existence which rose out of the space and light of the Mallee, the taste of salt and dust and distant desert, of heat that compressed me and light that absorbed me. The mystery which sometimes saddens me is like the place west of Nyah West: a mystery and a nothing. I know that it is timeless, outside of human invention, beyond human values. What was with it will always have been. The place has absorbed all that time and all its things, protecting them like secrets within itself, suggesting them but holding them just beyond the light of knowledge.  Dancing shadows at the periphery of my knowing, unknown but present.


I had little money for the trip and the SR500 was not running properly. So I spent $100 at K-Mart and walked away with a tent, a sleeping bag, and a mattress. That covered my accomodation. I was worried that my migraines would return without a proper bed, but travelling through Eildon National Park some weeks before I had felt that this concern for comfort was robbing me of something too important. It would also give me the freedom to take chances and know that I could get by no matter where, and at what time of night, I ended up or broke down.

Heading west from Melbourne on Saturday morning the winds were quite powerful. As I rode down the highway to Ballarat I mused on what I disliked riding in more – strong winds, or heavy rain – and when the heavy rain added itself to the strong winds I had my answer.

Drenched all the way to Ballarat, the sun came out just as I rode through the WWI arch at the Avenue of Honour. The land was green and wet and the Spring sun perfect. At Ararat I had lunch, then continued on to Halls Gap. The GR650 sung as I wound through the hills and corners, overtaking cars with sporty fire from its twin cylinders.

Here I am leaving home

Looking out to the Grampians

At Halls Gap, with the rocks humbling the town

From Halls Gap I climbed into the mountains on the road to Horsham

On the way to Horsham I had reason to pull over

The reason I pulled over was because, cruising at 95kph, the bike began to lose power in waves. It was quite noticeable, so while it was happening I shut off the engine and coasted to a stop in order to do a plug chop. Pulling out both sparkplugs, I found the same thing: it was as though they had been dipped in icing sugar! The feeling was not of the spark plugs missing, an electrical fault, so much as a starvation of fuel. Why now, after months of being unable to go, when I had just now gained the chance to take this trip?

At Horsham I had a coffee and watched four police cars range up and down the main street pulling over cruising carloads, and even arresting a gang of youths who used all manner of bogan expletives as an ineffective form of police-repellent. This place is more entertaining that inner Melbourne.

There was nothing to do but to push on, this time at 80kph top speed. This actually suits me; some people both do and conceptualise touring as a matter of achieving high kilometres, and people sometimes ask me about my riding in terms of kilometres ridden. But I find that the best touring seeks out those things that cannot be measured, compared, and boasted about. I had determined to get bigger distances achieved however – I am not criticising fast long-distance touring, but pointing out that there is this alternative, the slow way, and it offers something unique. You see more of the detail, you really get to feel a place. Throughout this trip I stopped the bike constantly to look around. But my aim was to make Nhill tonight, and on day three I intended to travel from Ouyen to Pinnaroo in South Australia, north to Renmark, then across to Mildura via back roads, and maybe to Mungo, all in one day. Right now at forced slow speed I was unsure if that would happen, and with the bike showing white plugs across the range, even at idle, I wondered how foolish it was that I was pushing at dusk into Little Desert National Park.

I stopped for some photos of a mountain range, somewhere near Mitre directly west of Horsham

And as darkness enclosed, and my bike ran badly, and I pictured myself hitting a kangaroo, and noted the distinct lack of other vehicles, I felt a little anxiety.

I have known anxiety for as long as I can remember stretching back into childhood – he is an old friend who thought that he should matter much in my life. I thanked him for the things he’s given me – an awakening call to what is dark and, by comparison, what is light in life – as well as his sensible reminder, which can indeed be useful to take on board, of all that might go wrong.  And henceforth, ignoring his chattering presence, I continued through the back roads and, to my relief, found the crossroads and entered the desert.

I was rewarded with beauty.

Pushing on for a long while through the dark, at a slower speed and with more attention on possible Kangaroos than on the sights, I found my way after dark into Nhill Caravan Park where, for $10, I had myself a campsite and amenities and very kind service.

I spent the evening eavesdropping on conversations at the local pub before enjoying a surprisingly warm sleep.

Day Two, next post….

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