Tag Archives: Nullarbor

A song for the crossroads

 

What is it that motivates us to travel? It seems we often come to it when our life is at a Crossroads – and on the journey we take time to step back and assess our options, to process things that have happened to us. Sometimes when we feel stuck in our lives, we take a physical journey, hoping it will lead to psychological progression and life change. And sometimes the more we’re at a crossroads, the more we’re attracted to extreme destinations. None more so for me than on my trip across the Nullarbor Plain at the height of the Australian summer.

When I think of that trip I remember vast flat lands and wide skies. From the Bunda Cliffs, where you feel like you could run and then just drop off the edge of the world, to swathes of sand dunes at Fowlers Bay and the vast treeless plain of the Nullarbor. When you’re wrestling internally, the vast landscape has a calming effect. And sometimes it takes getting out of normal routine to show you what direction you really want to head in, to give you motivation to commit or re-commit to something or someone.

This is the only trip I’ve been on where I’ve slept in a swag – out under the stars in a big canvas bag, where you could look straight up at the domed sky as you fell asleep (with a slight sense of trepidation about possible snakes, spiders or scorpions deciding to slip into the swag spend the night with you). The wide expanse of the sky brings perspective and context to the decisions of individual human beings.

Everyone in our original Nullarbor tour group who braved the hottest part of the journey together, travelling for hours at a time in a minibus with malfunctioning air conditioning through 46 degree days, was at some sort of life junction. An overseas student finishing studies and about to return to her own country, an interracial student couple, a single mother and her son, an accident survior and his partner from another country, a woman who had nearly died and the friend and colleague who saved her, a traveller in search of love, a rural new couple, a widow on a first big trip without her husband, a man devoted to photography and me, and our guide. As we travelled we shared our stories between bus seats and we experienced many firsts together. Posing in front of the iconic Nullarbor signs, huddling under a cattle grid waiting for a road train to drive overhead, sleeping in swags on the empty plain at Afghan Rocks, swimming with dolphins and sea lions at Baird Bay, seeing the Big Galah, spotting yellow footed rock wallabies, Running down the sand dunes at Fowlers Bay and frolicking in the welcome cool of the sea at Streaky Bay.

I just heard last week that our guide on this trip, an excitement loving, well travelled, world weary man, had died. He died living a lifestyle he wanted to live. We were such children when he guided us across the plain: in awe of the sights, questioning the dangers and he drove, cooked, advised, entertained. He could certainly tell the tallest stories. I think of the song that somehow became our bus song on that trip: Starships (a song with some dubious lyrical content that I’d never heard before that trip). Whenever the chorus came on, ‘Starships were meant to fly, hands up and touch the sky’, we’d all do actions. It almost felt like our outstretched arms were flying us across the Nullarbor. When I’m stuck at a crossroads, I remind myself, ‘starships were meant to fly’. It tells me I’m meant for something new, a new life journey, a new life experience and I’m meant to embrace it, to fly. No matter what the lyrics meant originally, in the midst of the mundane they also remind me of the highs of life, the moments in the sun. Such as those minutes spent standing atop a perfect sanddune or singing with arms stretched wide as we moved through a landscape that stretched on farther than the eye could see. And when I need the impetus to move forward from life’s crossroads, I say to myself: ‘let’s do this one more time oh oh oh oh’.

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Three songs to warm yourself by

Musician

Whenever I’m asked what the ‘most important’ something or other is, I struggle to identify it, so I just have to pick whatever comes to mind and start there. Perhaps if it comes most readily to mind then that is what’s most important to me at that time. Songs have always been important to me – songs of many genres. The first song that came to my mind was ‘Let the sun fall down’ by Kim Richey. Strangely I first heard this song when watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the song really struck me. It captured the emotion of the scene that it was pared with and it has captured my emotions at times since then. The theme of the song strikes a chord with me and provides a kind of life principle – to let in the sun – literally or metaphorically. In the song there is a line ‘that old dark cloud, acts like he knows you. He takes up too much time’. The sun is like a beacon to return to in the dark times of life when you need to actually be reminded that the sun is still there and to let it in and let it fill the room. I have never heard this song sung live, but I have had the chance to hear Kim Richey live twice and that is another thing that binds me to songs and their singers. A few singers and groups I had known for years from recordings I had the chance to hear live in the last couple of years and was not disappointed. Hearing Kim Richey’s sweet but strong voice depended my love of her music, I only wished others in the audience would have appreciated it if I’d sung along because I was so tempted to do so.

A few years ago when I went on a small group tour across the Nullarbor plain, we camped along the way near a dam at Afghan Rocks. No-one else was there but our group as the shocking heat of the day turned to the relative cool of the night and we hunkered down in our canvas swags, our heads peeping out at the wide starry sky so vast compared to the city sky interrupted by the lights of humanity and their dwellings. In our Nullarbor tour group there was a mother and her 8-year old son. In conversation I mentioned that I used to sing in a gospel choir and as night fell around our camp fire she asked me if I’d come and sing a night song to her son as he prepared to sleep. I was a bit thrown as I’m a bit cautious about singing alone and unaccompanied and I couldn’t for the life of me think of an appropriate song. Nothing literally nothing was coming to mind except panic. Eventually I thought of a song that is an easy unaccompanied one but mentioned to the boy’s mother that I’d mostly sung gospel and couldn’t think of anything else. She didn’t mind and she also dragged our Dutch male tour mate over to listen – enough to give me more desert stage nerves. The three of us stood in the dark around the lying boy’s swag and I sang ‘Amazing Grace how sweet the sound…’ and there was something mysterious and spiritual in this time. It wasn’t that we all believed the same things but there was something about the music and the night and the stillness and the haunting floating words and melody and people really listening there in the dark. Of all the places I’ve ever sung in that was the most sacred.

A few years ago I reconnected with a friend who goes to live music a lot and expressed a desire to tag along. My friend particularly devotes certain weekends of the year to significant Victorian music festivals and the the first I ever attended with his group was the National Celtic Festival in Port Arlington. A mottled band of musicians and music lovers gathers together with sword-weilding vikings and bagpipes can be heard drifting from the hillside out to the jetty where the tall ship waits to take festival goers on musical cruises. The first year I heard so many jigs, reels, polkas and strathspeys I felt like I’d come home culturally. The energy, the speed of the musicians, the uplifting melodies that somehow bring a joy and make you feel ready for anything. Again there is nothing like live music to really stir you as it thumps through you and echoes around you, as you’re stirred to sing along or tap in time. The Celtic festivals run workshops and one I’ve attended was a traditional Scottish singing one lead by a practitioner who learnt from a dying breed of Scottish singers. I learnt to really appreciate the unaccompanied true voice embracing some difficult timing and tongue twisting words. One song that has stayed with me from that workshop is ‘Mary Mac’s ma’s making Mary Mac marry me, my ma’s making me marry Mary Mac’. Such a tongue twister but also such a whirling tune as your voices are all stirred around in a frenzy of M’s and speed as you try to get your mouth around the words. Hearing about the Scottish balladeers reminded me how far my family is culturally from our Scottish family roots. But hearing and singing all these songs also stirs me to picture the Western Highlands where I once travelled and it pulls some kind of invisible chord that still ties me to Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales and the music that races on fiddle, bodhran, mandolin, guitar and tin whistle.

 

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Cat worship, sunstroke and boating without lights

Sunset at Halong Bay

Weaving the Threads

I could stare all day at the silhouette of my cat in the window, his body dark and hard to see against the light, but the sun showing up a bright halo of cream detail around each tuft of fur on his head, back and tail. He unmoving and meditative as cats appear, basking in the early morning light coming through into the lounge room. All in all, he’s not really a cat who like sun, not like others I’ve known who were veritable sun worshippers. Usually he likes dark nooks and diving under my doona the minute the daily temperature drops below 15 degrees Celsius. He’s 17 now and getting skinny and the vet says he probably has kidney disease. It’s hard to think of life without his constant (often demanding) presence, but for the moment he’s here sunning himself, and posing against the light, enjoying the sun, and the worship of his human, as every good cat should.

A few years ago I went on a small-group tour from Adelaide to Perth, across the Nullarbor plain. Some days in the bus it was a sweltering 46 degrees Celsius. In Western Australia we visited the stunning Cape Le Grand National Park, east of the town of Esperance, and camped there for a few days in our canvas swags. The clear azure waters of Lucky Bay were tantalising, with their firm white high-silica based glassy sand and the green and granite headlands to look out at. Kangaroos even frequent Lucky Bay, the only time I’ve ever seen them on a beach. The sky was blue and the sun was shining and swimming was the thing to do. That night trying to sleep in my swag I realised I’d had too much of a good thing, my body was so uncomfortable there was no good way to lie, and I started shivering. I had to get up in the middle of the night to have a shower to somehow try to address my foolishly acquired sunstroke. The time in the water had been so refreshing, swimming and splashing with others from the group, but I’d forgotten how much the sun could reflect off the crystal clear water and burn like nobody’s business. I’m glad that time has taken away the discomfort of that terrible night of painful attempts to sleep, and left me with the impression of a sun-drenched paradise.

A few years before that I had the opportunity to visit Vietnam on a very small-group tour (turned out to be only three of us and our guide). It’s sounds like a joke when I say it was an Englishman, an Irishman, an Australian, and our Chinese guide. One day while staying in the Ha Long Bay area, we opted for what I think was described as a ‘bush walk’. Well it was up hill and down dale through a forest, over giant tree routes and we in our sensible hiking gear were led by a local in his thongs (flip flops). He was indefatigable and kept hurrying us along. We didn’t quite see the urgency as we wanted to enjoy the walk and take advantage of the photographic opportunities. Anyway, at long last we arrived at a rural village and were treated to lunch outside a local house. After lunch we walked through the village at a cracking place, and I assumed we were making for the road and a vehicle of some sort. However, we ended up on another long (but much flatter) walk, passing roaming goats as we went. Just as I thought we must reach a road, we reached a dead-end jetty instead. Now the sun was setting and the light was getting low and finally I saw the urgency of it all. This next stage of our journey involved a trip on a very small, low boat that didn’t have any lights. We crossed the water and arrived at the shore of the island thankful, just as we lost all light (by the way this was not the end of the journey, they then announced to us that we would be taken by motorbike taxi back to our accommodation – and I had elected not to pay more for motorbike insurance on my travel policy, as I was adamant that I wouldn’t be going anywhere near a motorbike (let alone riding on the back of one behind a local, in the dark, up and down steep island streets). My expectations and the need for light reminded me to be thankful of what I have at home – ready access to electricity. My trip to Vietnam also left me contemplating the harm that is done to countries that now manufacture a lot of our western goods as the skies in that country were gray and hazy the entire time I was there – you could never see blue, or clearly see the sun.

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