War of the roses

She’s brave, The Russian. Opted for a road trip with the Tin Lid and me willingly, which was fortunate as I was relying on her vehicle, and, as it turns out, she makes a mean pot of earl grey as dawn lights the scritchy underside of acrylic hotel blankets.

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It wasn’t cheap, this patronage. It came with a gutteral accent and the Killing Eve soundtrack on repeat, interspersed with Dasha impersonations. But who doesn’t need a Russian in their lives? [Note: The Russian is actually Welsh but is deliciously dramatic, and frankly, the comedy circuit might be missing its star turn. Ed.]

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The road in said trip was a glorious respite from the city’s confines, studded with roadkill, low-slung sky stories, the endless hum of tyres on tar and the slake of cold beer at each day’s end. And in the slight of a winter sun, Silver City glinted promisingly from 1000 kays out, red dirt thick-coating the footwells from just past Nyngan.

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This is desert country, thick with deliverance and dirt. It creeps into everything, from folds of skin to attitudes, a crunchy layer of separation. Ian Parkes wrote of the outback landscape seizing you, but this wild sparsity does more than that. It hijacks you, twirls you into another reality like a renegade tango lead, foot-stomping you that way then this while holding you in a firm embrace. And when it has had its fun, it delivers you, wide-eyed and stinking into the arms of a new understanding, of spangled night skies and rusted treasure, endless hours, dirt on the breeze and the tick tick of life baking and cooling in an endless cycle far greater than humanity.

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This is Wiljakali country. With a history spanning up to 45,000 years, the Wiljakali have strong ties to the Barkindji people of the Darling River and Menindee Lakes, travelling ancient routes captured in song to regularly visit each other. The Wiljakali are joint managers of Mutawintji National Park, the first national park to be returned to its traditional owners in NSW, and the Wiljakali Aboriginal Corporation routinely negotiates mining deals, and Native Title Land Claims in this region. Theirs is a story as ancient as time.

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At the end of a day that stretched from a dust-strewn dawn into a miraged surrealism featuring emus, Broken Hill is a welcome sight, despite her hill no longer being broken, or even a hill. A faded showgirl with fake foliage dangling around deafened ears, a slash of greasepaint sliding south onto chipped dentures, she is resolutely attractive in the soft late-arvo sunlight.

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Billed as an oasis in the desert, this dusty queen is a sanctuary from the storm and a town with a past. Gridded streets with gritty names, legal year-round Two Up games and a pub swarming with the ghosts of drag queens departed, her history reverberates with hard-bitten words like workers’ solidarity, blacklegs, unionism, radicalism, ‘viragos with tar pots’ and lead poisoning.

Known as the Silver City, hers is a story that glitters but at its heart is a darkness that spools out like blackened thread. From the dank bowels of a mined earth to sequin-sprayed glory and back to the inevitable inequality that striates so many outback towns, Broken Hill has a two-faced tale.

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A jagged scar in the Barrier Ranges, the town is eponymously named. Eagle-eyed boundary rider Charles Rasp discovered silver ore in a topographical wound, and the rest is history. The original miners of the Hill, the Syndicate of Seven, went on to build their operations into some the world’s largest mining companies, including BHP Billiton (formerly Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited), Rio Tinto and Pasminco.

“The miners dug silver from the barren land in scorching summer heat or numbing winter cold, living in tents and rudimentary shacks, their families regularly threatened with typhoid.”

What is left of the Line of Lode ore body that dissects the town is an all-surveying silver skimp dump that slithers and creaks with mercurial intensity.  It’s the most obvious place to gain some perspective over this settlement of multiple personalities.

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Ruined mine works squat amid the blackened spoil, their memory a mournful echo of the men whose spirits haunt this bleak place, yet the contemporary rusted metal memorial that crests this rubble is fitting. With wind howling through jagged steel and a wrought sky churning above it is the antithesis to the tomb beneath in which men tumbled to their deaths like dominos.

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Rock falls, “suffocation in slime”, septicaemia, crushing, shaft fall, electrocution, explosion, air blast, toxic fumes, “no details” – the toll is heavy, 800 lives and counting, captured and mourned with flags and roses.

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The conditions, dire at best, deadly in the main, fomented into some of the bitterest industrial disputes Australia has ever seen, and Broken Hill became known for its political radicalism. Violent clashes in 1892, 1909 and 1919 led to the formation of the Barrier Industrial Council in 1923, a block of 18 trade unions designed to protect the lives of workers and their families.

“Mass picketing [was] reinforced by the militancy of women armed with axe and broom handles, and who led foray after foray against blacklegs and shift bosses with vigorous violence, to keep the scabs out.”
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Red Cross women march on Argent street Broken Hill.(Supplied- Albert Kersten Mining And Minerals Museum, Broken Hill)

Supplied by Albert Kersten Mining And Minerals Museum, Broken Hill

This militancy, factionalism and “commie” behaviour led to the introduction of the eight-hour day, the 35-hour week and penalty rates. It was driven in part by a storm of rebel women: they led marches on horseback, gathered in their masses, openly insulted police officers and established their own hospitals, and theirs was the guiding hand in the incredible social activism that is the bedrock of this remote outpost.

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It is still a worker’s world in the Hill, where unionism, efficacy and fairness are measured with pride, and schooners sunk with the privilege gained from a hard-won day. The Social Democratic Club in Argent Street, the Working Men’s Club, Trades Hall on Sulphide Street with its iron mansard roof and stained-glass roses, the Cameron Pipe Band Hall, Barrier Industrial Unions Brass Band, and the Workies Club – these are the stalwarts of this fight, a fight that is adorned with roses. Why scented florals? Perhaps they relate to Polish immigrant Rose Schneiderman’s rallying cry for women in 1911, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera house, when she said, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”.

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At the heart of this story is The Palace Hotel on Argent Street. The spectres that flit around the bar carry the scent of roses, along with a greasy boiled-mince hue. It’s hardly surprising: they’ve been here a while – miners, wanderers, unionists and temperance ministers, grey nomads travelling no further and disaffected drag queens that flounce around their forever home. Rumours swirl that ladders sunk deep in the mines led to trapdoors in the basement of the hotel, though even The Russian is unwilling to verify such haunted curios.

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The Tin Lid wastes no time making himself at home. With its curious mix of mid-century vinyl and shearling carpet, hand-painted walls and pebbledash bathroom splashbacks, The Palace invites you to step back in time. For The Russian, the ghosts inspire her to linger on the stairs and have a chat. The Tin Lid is taken by the shadows of the balcony lacework, and the echoes of Shining-esque corridors that unspool into the nothing…

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Sticky with neglect, dust piled in sorrowful corners, she groans in pain when you step on her aching joints and sighs at night as she creaks into rest. Threadbare halls offer little comfort in the sprint to the shared baths, the pipes clank and boil menacingly and handpainted wallpaper is both a scintillating talking point for a young mind and a job of such magnitude in today’s must-have-now immediacy it is humbling.

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Built as a coffee palace in 1889 by the Temperance Movement to abide by their vision of “a place for fine dining and coffee”, The Palace was set apart from the melee of less salubrious drinking establishments in the Hill for 1000 long days. But by 1892, this course was deemed singularly unprofitable, and the old girl embarked on the six-o’clock swill with gusto, a tradition that has extended to an ‘any-hour-it’s-open swill’ ever since, complete with crinoline curtains and flammable bedspreads:

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The Russian dragged us here, muttering Slavic potato curses beneath her breath. A muralist of repute, she had heard about the walls of The Palace, which are garlanded with paintings that steal both your eye and your curiosity. One-time owner Mario Celotto began the tradition, and then called for artists to match his ceiling rendition of Boticelli’s Venus.

Indigenous artist Gordon Wayne accepted the challenge and, so impressed was Mario with his talent, Gordon was commissioned to paint almost all the hotel’s blank walls with Renaissance-inspired landscapes, each with water coursing through it, to reinforce the hotel’s credibility as ‘an oasis in the outback’.

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They are beautiful and impressive, albeit with a curious bent – a face contorted, a hand splayed, an exoticism rarely seen in these parts, caught in the delicate blossom of a wattle or the knowing eyes of a mermaid…

Shirl from the bar knows about exotic though. Coiled into the very fabric of the place is a flamboyance and a ribald blue-ness that is coyly demanding, equal parts sexual liberation and tack-o-rama. The enduring legacy of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, much of which was filmed at The Palace in 1994 and which continues to act as the frilliest drawcard in town, has entrusted itself to the stories here.

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The Priscilla Suite on the first floor, where the characters frocked up for the night, is planted firmly behind a waterfall. It is also resolutely shuttered to those of us in the cheap seats, but The Russian has contacts and the slyest of deals rewards us with a glimpse within… and one fewer Cuban cigars.

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Never one to let an opportunity get away from her, Broken Hill clutched Priscilla to her well-padded breast and spawned the now annual Broken Heel Festival, which features wall-to-floor divas and spangled sass in homage to Mitzi Del Bra, Bernadette Bassenger, Felicia Jollygoodfellow, Bob and Shirl from the bar, who is a local.

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Fortunately, she is yet to embrace the potential commodification of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright, and the 1971 movie that followed, which may be the most disturbed story of its era. Set in a remote outback mining town, many believe Bundanyabba is a thinly disguised portrait of Broken Hill. The Australian Gothic undertones that lace this depiction paint a tale so bleak as to be terrorising, yet many also believe it is far from fictional.

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The Silver City has a tarnished glint, a patina that sheds like sloughed skin. The many personalities of Willyama, as this land was once known, are gendered, sexualised, politicised and commercialised, rolling in on each wave of ‘change’, and often at odds with each other.

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The Russian notes, wryly, that this is a story indistinguishable from countless other outback towns, and she is right, as ever. But this old dame, with her monogrammed pub carpets and etched glass, row upon row of workers cottages lined up like teeth, ornate gates and filigree lacework – the corsets of age – all set against the backdrop of an ever-extended horizon across red dirt and big skies… in her truest form she regal, the stories of time etched deep in wrinkled skin.

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She has outlived her names and altered her course, changed her perspective and flipped her audience. She is a shapeshifter, transitioning from one reality to another, while keeping the ghosts close to her breast.

Willyama. You are Wiljakali country, always will be. But you are also a queen in drag, your many faces the entertainment for a crowd that bays for more: the outback rogue, the wealthy widow, the mining magnate, the sequined showgirl and the back-up dancer in someone else’s film.

They all wear roses.

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On a side note, The Russian says you owe her money.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time after time

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With the neo-liberalist free-market world order staggering, sickened to its marrow by COVID-19, and the masses learning about a brave new world of social distance, reduced exposure and enforced quarantine, something has shifted – as a continent shifts on its tectonic plate, or a pole shifts on its axis.

As 2020 is forced to reconsider precisely what it was that it did so wrong, it becomes apparent that isolation is calming the heady frenetic rush of yesterday, the paranoid rapidity of “what will tomorrow hold?”. A double-shot flat white “on the double” can still be procured (at home), but its viscous virility is increasingly being sidelined for a nice cup of loose-leaf Assam.

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It’s as if mankind has gulped an anxious breath, afraid to exhale. And in this temperance of time, a steadying calm prevails.

We are ruled by a harshly benevolent mistress. Flanked and flattered by her sisters, Prescience and Hindsight, Time is regal in her demeanour, overseeing her domain with an imperial haughtiness born of knowing her time and place… every moment of the day.

Hers is a role wrapped in the ermine of control and domination, her work a feature of every countenance of life. Ritual, story, evolution; birth, death and the afterlife – all are corraled by time, the metronomic heartbeat of humanity.

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Equal parts “I must do this NOW!” and, “You should take a little time out for yourself…” almost everything we experience in life is cloistered in time. We are governed by the seasons, the tides and patterns of light. Our pulse is timed, our breathing measured, our toes are counted and ageing is incessant.

Few can exist beyond the boundaries she sets and those that do are deep within their own worlds – bare skin on a remote beach, brewing feni in the dim light of seclusion; locked up tight in a no-longer-working mind, time lost in a mental fog that grows ever thicker. Even then the staccato tap of frustration or a constant hum of fear is a giveaway that our bodies forever hold their own beat.

For the rest of us, tick tock…

“How long will it take?”

“What time is dinner?”

“Are we there yet?”

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Imagine the hallowed halls of London’s Kings Cross, Changi Airport or the steps of Sydney’s Town Hall without the parameters of time. Could they exist? Would those worlds of connection, of movement and momentum not fragment into untethered ethereal chasms of space without the steady pulse of uniformity and understanding?

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Even if mankind, the empath of constructed time, was removed, would nature not still pulse ever onwards, its sequence true, each Fibonacci ratio further evidence of its innate temporal power?

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And yet… time is slowing, stuttering and faltering.

Isolated, emptied of obligation and set free from a rabid schedule, I’ve watched veggies grow and nature rot in an elegance of unchartered time; I’ve watched the sun swell, splinter, contract and give birth to the moon, and I’ve witnessed a child learn to absorb beauty through his mind.

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I’ve seen bones contort and rust flake, shadows skitter and clouds bleed…

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And I am in thrall to the way light plays as if humoured, flitting and twirling through the sky like a child with a balloon…

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My appreciation sharpens to an acute awareness of the delicate beauty of the world’s hesitancy and unease. It is timid, delicate and curious, a lesser-known prize sidelined by the more obvious.

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Form, alignment, anticipation, repose – all take on a deeper calibration. Bodies swell with age and impending definition, canine minds romp through deep dreams, and alliances strengthen, a shared experience unlikely to be repeated.

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We coil into a new pattern of life, once steeped in response rather than reaction, a new understanding of small things that get lost in the big picture. And honestly? I love it.
I breathe differently. I sleep longer and deeper, cushioned in velvety darkness, the bleed of city lights muted, traffic stalled.

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But I know that the longer you hold your breath the louder the hammering in your chest becomes, a swelling crescendo of a beat that howls for attention. I am loath to kowtow to this bullying tone, but I am increasingly aware that the time is coming…

Perhaps, with Prescience missing in action, Hindsight will be a guiding light in how to re-engage with a world once more constricted and strangled by Time.

Under a blood-red sky

The Scooby-Doo house has history, like mangy dogs have form. An indent in the coils of the Putty Road, it is a mongrel place that wears its non-conformity with snarling pride, its stories cyphers steeped in allegation and denial.

Or it was until it burned alive.

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I used to use that phone, hyped up on bush-doof anticipation and cheap goon. Scissoring through endless tracts of land along a cursive white line, we’d slew to a halt, the trusty Falcon ticking and hissing, to use the phone. In those days, long before mobiles, it was the only way to find out where the doof was, although more often than not, by this point you could already hear the primordial heartbeat.

Seems funny to think that all those years tinged with sparkles and abandon were coordinated from a place of such repute.

This repute? It is a sub-rosa subset of anecdotal awe, tall tales, quick digs, fading memories and truckers lore. The old Fleet Wing servo, called out over the airwaves on long nights hauling; a deal gone bad, bloodied hands and a woman on the run – by the time the missing person’s report had been lodged, the body was gone; pig dogs let loose in the scrub, hounds of fury that roam far…

To us it was the Scooby-Doo house, a tatty scrabble of tin sheds and lean-tos green with age and rot, windows darkened with sacks; shrouded in the landscape, deep in thought, it had an air of malevolence that conjured Scoobs worst jitters. It was creepy as hell, hence the lack of photos.

Now it is a still, smouldering pile of ash. Twisted iron climbs from the wreckage, molten metal cooled into pools from the hubs of a hundred old trucks, and an endless ache of space where once the bush was impenetrable. The eyes that used to glare at us unseen are now gauged out, sockets rasped dry.

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The gate flaps forlornly, something ticks nearby, and blackened crumpled cans are the last vestiges of lives lived unknown. It is said there was a mob of people here, a rabble of family. We never saw them, although I am certain they saw us. In despair, they are no less unveiled, the mystery of them and the stories they have inspired stealing away, disintegrating on the air.

I heard the firies had to pull the old fella out of his bed so determined was he to remain. I wonder what he will do, his everything obliterated, scorched into the bowels of an angry earth.

It is incomprehensible. But everything is incomprehensible at the moment as fires rage through the land, soot falls from the sky and the bush echoes with the screams of burning animals.

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And I have no more words, no images that can adequately capture the horror. So I shall rely upon others:

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Australia is committing climate suicide: New York Times

Changed world puts an end to our lazy summer: Sydney Morning Herald

Mallacoota burns: ‘panic’ on the ground as Australian navy called in: The Guardian

A national disaster: The Monthly

Dear Your Majesty: You Tube

The lyrics of U2’s New Year’s Day are the inspiration for the title of this blog, but this, too, resonates:

“Though torn in two we can be one. I will begin again, I will begin again”

BUSH FIRE LOOKS LIKE ERUPTION

 

Retirement in excelsior

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A land beset by falls and gods, Burrawang is coping the only way it knows how – by coating the paths with pristine white gravel and topiary-ing the trees…

At first glance, this one-street strip is standard country fare: pub? Check. Butcher? Check. Rusted utes and verge-grazing wallabies? Hang on. No. Where are the long-downed soldiers of the road, decrepit hulks that double as kiddy playthings and brown-snake hatching spots? Where are the drought-riven wobblies who have learnt to survive by nibbling the chrysanthemums? Where, in fact, is all the country?

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A note on the tastefully curated village website reads:

First settled in 1862, the village of Burrawang is nestled in the very heart  of the Highlands. It is a village that is proud of its picturesque quaintness and its nineteenth-century charm.

Our unique cottages and country gardens are little different today than they were a century ago. The local business houses, too, are famed for their old-world charm, personal service and kind hospitality. Let our village take you back in time to an era of tranquility and peace

And with its predilection for imposing gates, bells that gently tinkle in the breeze, snowy blossoms [swept fastidiously into piles] and curt, shorn verges, that ‘charm’ and ‘quaintness’ is all too apparent.

Fat, blowsy camellias spill their load in a greasy swill of colour at every corner. Well-bred tradies have tastefully branded vehicles parked outside white picket fences, and the $8 toast is missing its butter, which the Tin Lid puts down to “old-world charm” in a pique of sarcasm that fills me with pride.

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Maplewood, Hathaway, The Folly, Kricklewood – we’re a long way from Dunroamin’ here Toto. In fact, with its robust endorsement of all things ornate and quaint, Burrawang – with its alarming appreciation of symmetry – is almost too tidy. Even the For Lease signs are cultivated with the discerning reader in mind.

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This lofty self-appreciation is appreciated by squabbles of daytrippers. It is soaked up from the front seat of the luxury SUV or sampled from a tasting platter at the General Store. Smartphones click and snap, capturing the sights for posterity, a sports car here,
a suitably aged produce box there…

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Tea is served with a hand-knitted blanket at the general store, while a nice sav blanc is accompanied by artisanal bread and an iPad-clutching waiter, intent on fulfilling every future desire you might have, from truffle-infused string fries to smashed [insert superfood here]. Its retro appeal belies a very contemporary take on country living, and while the menu is gastronomic, I miss the four’n’twenty aroma and fly-stripped flaps of the corner store, complete with grimace-faced attendant and back copies of Earthmoving Equipment moulding alongside wrinkled Granny Smiths.

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But the bunting matches the local school’s colours, so that’s a win…

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A congregation of magpies warbles from the war memorial, their head-bowing respect tinged with swooping intent, beady eyes watching every flicker of movement. They appear to be looking closely at what is on offer at Burrawang School of Arts; home to the annual Burrawang Ball and “regular morning teas,” the hall offers Sketching in the Gardens workshops and group meditation, though I get the distinct impression neither impresses the birds.

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The town’s utilities require no meditative practice at all. Lined up in military formation, they are innately themselves, considered, calm and centred, albeit itching for someone to notice…

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Retirement is many things: beyond withdrawing from active working life, it is the closing of one chapter, while another begins, it’s drophead Saabs and lunch at the golf club, or large-print thrillers and cheese sarnies in front of the midday movie depending on whether you have achieved financial freedom or must now rely on increased dependence upon the state.

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With its foodie hotspots, botanical concept boutiques, Italian homewares, an emphasis on sustainable and seasonal eating, keep cups, regional galleries, sculpture gardens, its own symphony orchestra, lash salons and a destination store for mid-century fanatics, the Southern Highlands is the epitome of life after work. It is a mid-life merry-go-round featuring fine wine and cultured conversation, manicured lawns and stylish wellies with which to exercise the Cavoodle.

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Burrawang is a sanctuary, seclusion from vagaries of old age and the indignity of poverty, loneliness, fear, despair and a loss of hope, though I am not naive enough to think this sadness does not exist here. Rather it is well hidden, shrouded in well-cut linen and cinnamon scented.

But there is something missing. And I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I want to think of the new chapter in an ageing life as the zenith, the summit of the journey to reach ‘old growth’. For many, this too-tidy town is that, the crest. But it is also an ‘experiential destination’, a hot spot for those with time on their hands, and it runs the risk of becoming contrived in its perfection, a tasting plate for retirement with too many expensive sides on offer.

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There is old growth here – gentle giants creak on the wind, their shade life-sustaining, their roots the substrate to the township. But they are kept at arm’s length, shunned from participating in the country weddings, garden symphonies and stylised eating plans.

 

Perhaps if they were allowed to creep a little closer, if the land surrounding them was a little less manicured, controlled… Perhaps if there was a frisson of gentle disobedience reintroduced, in homage to the highland heroes of whom tales are told around every fire, of cattle rustling and bareback chases, shearing battles and barrels of rum? Perhaps then I could settle into old age in a place like Burrawang.

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A place to mourn (and other joys)

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One of the worst kept secrets in Sydney, Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden is mesmerising. It is a realm invested with emotion, joy tinged with grief, peace rippling with agitation, and introspection duelling with extroversion.

It is a remembrance space, where memories swirl and glisten, tears that roll tenderly across the garden’s skin, an unearthly realm wholly of the earth and its fecund beauty.

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Autumn carousels at the edges, adorned in gold. The light filtering through is inlaid with iridescence, a sharp glint of dew prickles the retina, and the smell is gothically pungent, a damp stew of rich earth, rotting bodies and the skeletons of leaves.

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For over 20 years, Wendy Whitely has toiled here, divesting her grief into a florescence of love. Neglected and forlorn during the years she and husband Brett Whiteley lived in Lavender Bay, the garden was ripped, torn, trampled and scoured into existence following his death…

“In the weeks that followed Brett’s death in 1992, Wendy’s grief-stricken need to regain some control in her life, to clean up a mess that she could clean up, found her obsessively attacking the piles of overgrown rubbish on the large land-filled valley of unused railway land at the foot of her house. Wendy hurled herself into the site, hacking away at lantana, blackberry vines and privet, clearing up dumped bottles, rusty refrigerators, rotting mattresses, labouring till she was too exhausted to think or feel, then collapsing into sleep each night.”

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She has created a sanctuary, a healing place still raw with sorry business yet innately peaceful. Perhaps that is why people are so attracted to it, for while the foliage is exquisite, the shrubs bushy and the tall trees sentinel in their guard, there is something else here, a sense of cathartic release, a sense of pure peace.

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I didn’t realise it at the time, but I suspect subconsciously it’s why I invited The Gamekeeper…

Who is quite beside herself.

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She is communing with nature, a fleshy native among exotic orientals and indigenous stalwarts, a panoply of lush vegetation: Port Jackson figs, bamboo stands, camphor laurels, Bangalow Palms, a Moreton Bay fig that seems to swells perceptibly each time you gaze at it…
native ginger,
Acacia,
bananas,
bromeliads,
ferns,
vine-strung masts that carry a canopy of green,
and Dr Seuss trees…
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Winding gullies peel from Wendy’s elegant home at road level, scuttling fast and steep into the depths. Carved wooden handrails are a serpentine guide to bark-lined paths, the garden absorbing you as light is extinguished by dark. In the dampness near the water’s edge, a wagtail flits impatiently, its legacy as a harbinger of gossip and bad news distilled, here, into vague disquiet.

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The bird’s flitting message is poignantly clear, though. This is goodbye, the separation of a long-limbed friendship by distance. The Gamekeeper is relocating, escaping the emerald city for greener pastures.

With change comes melancholy – rakishly astride anticipation – and mourning for what will be lost. But in this sacred space, invested as it is with spirit and soul (and the ashes of Brett and their daughter, Arkie), I sense the joy in change, the possibility and expectation of what comes next.
Rubbled with white goods, tangled, feral in form and choked by lantana, the garden was cultivated into what it is by grief, yet at its heart, what it conveys is hope and refuge, which is what every traveller needs.
That and a hip flask…

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Safe travels my friend.

 

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett

 

 

Of steel and salt

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Renegade and tumbledown, Newcastle Ocean Baths are a still life in concrete and rust, skeletal girders and pockmarked slabs slick with the patina of summer: ice-cream wrappers wrinkle and skid bombing gracelessly into the depths, cream is smeared on lips and hips, its oily sheen rainbowing the water, and drifts of sand and chicken salt cling to the softest part of toes.

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An echo of a simpler life, the utilitarian beauty of the baths is scorched, degraded and rusting alive, concrete cancer a virulent viral decimator. Band-Aids swarm the drains, bawling nanas corral their ratbag charges with promises of sweaty pocket-fluffed lollies, and the lifeguards are snoozing in splintered towers.

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Clouded green shadows entice the Tin Lid and his besties in, a concrete bollard chained to the depths their end game. Snorkelled up, riots of high-vis swimmers crowd the ragged edges, soft skin splitting and weeping. Bombing, howling, stalking and raging with delight, they trawl through sun-stretched days, exposed hides pinking in delight.

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Amid a haze of saltwater, Winnie Blues and tea in polystyrene cups, ice-cream-crusted piccanins barrel into crumpled mothers endlessly searching for lost thing, while goggles get smashed…

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The cool depths of this one-time deco darling are a magnet, drawing swimmers, lovers, pirates, hippie-chicks with salt-crusted locks and old men who gamble using long-dead crab carcasses. It is a microcosm of life at the water’s edge and the epitome of cool relief on a blistering day.

Newcastle MirageShane Williams

The baths and pavilion crest the edge of the world on a wave-cut platform, a lifeline between ocean and earth. Opened in 1922, at one time this was a sparkling jewel in Newcastle’s mercantile crown. Today, authorities bluster and frown, conservation vs gentrification an epic battle of wills. The Young Mariner’s Pool was carved out of the stone for the ‘tinies’ in 1937 but was so popular with all ages it had to be extended. Today the Canoe Pool is a glorious knee-deep wonderland, crusted edges, flaky form and brimming with bodies.

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A turquoise geometry defines the business end of the baths, numbered pedestals queuing for attention, bleachers bleaching in shards of light, spectators blooming like algae on wet rocks when the races are on.

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Beyond, however, is the land of big rollers, endless pounding walls of water that drench and scour. Storm drains peel from fragments of land with bite-size jags, spewing water in effervescent efficiency, and ocean crevasses swallow your mind whole, a one-way trip to Narnia bathed in acid-green kelp.

Here council approved ‘protection from the elements’ dissolves pitifully into the raw fabric of the earth, studded as it is with razor-sharp rock, staunch in the face of crashing surf, sluicing tides and the stink of decaying flesh. This is an entirely new reality, and one the children, unsurprisingly, take to with alacrity…

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This is the land of trawlermen and surfers, back-flipping teens on the hunt for fresh-fleshed girls and a mob fishing for flatties off sea-grass rocks. Memories are enshrined, shrines memoried, and shadows cast long.

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Roachy, La Punk, the Waterman and the Cowrie Hole boys send their love.

Frilled out into the endless blue, this scratch of land holds endless adventure, roaring with sound and spray. Its depths are watery homes glanced through glass, its heights cumulus nimbus curls.

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And it is home, for a short while, a reminiscence of childhood, the immediacy of now palpable.

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Time feels inert as if stolen from another generation and laced with the narrative of a simpler story, a no-frills nuance on reality. It offers up a borrowed sense of freedom while sluicing free the anxiety and exhaustion that shackles itself to us all, the aggressive silent partner in this modern-day marriage.

With crabs clutched in salty hands, tangles of hair sucked dry, we straggle home as the light fades, the only recourse hot chips beneath a mantle of cawing gulls and teenage attitude.

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Big tree country

 

We are bound by our senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch; memory, hunger, thirst, fright, the sense of time – and while enlightenment might be scoured from a freedom from such perceptions, entangled as it is in the prosaic, in the land of the giant trees, I am willingly enslaved to mine.

Towering, reaching, pulsing with acrid sap, a blood that weeps and boils from gnarled skin, the leviathan blue gums in this prehistoric valley have stood sentinel to time for longer than I can perceive. Five-foot nine-and-a-half (that bit’s important), I am reduced to insignificance at a stroke, my heartbeat slows, my eyes gaze ever upwards, my nose is hijacked by the sharp bite of eucalyptus, muddled with dark soil, crushed bracken spores, the damp of long-awaited rain and the rich stink of spring.

In the beat of silence I hear the thrum of life, unfurling, breathing, synthesising. Spores joyride the air like bikers astride the white line, violent, determined, fighting fit. The unquestioned authority of nature, the vibration of a system locked in form and undeniable, is as far removed from white picket fences and a nicely sculpted decorative shrub as you can get.

It rips into itself, tearing old flesh from new growth and spewing it aside, the vicious denouncement of renewal. A festering carcase broils with flies, its decay too pungent to investigate further – possum, deer, wombat, bush turkey, all potential winners in the final race to the sticky loam below.

We are on Dharug land, at the very end of Weatherboard Ridge Trail, Wollemi National Park, where the scrawl of the track dips its toes into Wheeny Creek, open river land that writhes against the steep sides of a bristling ridge, rocks thrown and tumbled into precarious place a wonderland for the Tin Lid and his blonde compadres.

Lyrebirds do a roaring trade imitating bellbirds, who ignore them and continue to peal into the void, while a bush turkey named Trevor wages war on the provisions, gobbling in glee at his perceived superiority. While Trev clearly has the upper hand over the Kelpie, who, as yet, has failed in her attempts to fly, the homo sapiens have made inroads into the melee, existing on salty cheese and beer in halls made of tin:

Velvet swathes of untethered time are soft on my skin, a kaleidoscope of space and place and random thought, interspersed only by smoky tea steaming from the billy. The throng of happy noise that arises from the kids disperses into the distance, the crackle of the CB the only constant. Memory crowds in, time retracted to a distant source, another place, another country, but the same feeling, the same Lapsang taste.

I am humbled here, ploughed fallow in my humanness. The wild glory of old-growth untamed bushland exists in every dimension, a welcome assault to the senses. Straddling the skies the trees unpeel striped skin in a bark of delight. It lands, wet, at our feet, a sacrifice perhaps, revealing the pale beauty of the clean soft surface beneath. And every element is textured, organic braille to be interpreted and absorbed: moss, lichen, pine needles that pillow beneath our feet, swallowing sound;

Flames of colour lick at our gaze, the riot of life synaesthesia for the soul.

And an ochre cave cradles us in its embrace, the aeons of time etched in its skin:

The towering stands of this natural theatre are so far removed from the modern conceits of human existence as to be almost predatory. Senses twitching, nerves on edge, fight, flight or succumb – this is not a human domain but the realm of nature, swelling, splitting, oozing, leaching, as if…

As if we weren’t here.

We all deal with it in our own ways. The Cowboy spews fire into the night sky, a warrior in tune with the majesty that dwarfs him…

He insists on making chappatis to sustain us and a fire to warm us.

The Tin Lid resolves to embrace his animal instinct, mastering a low-slung holler, limbs akimbo

And me? I suck it all in, this powerful sense of human inertia and insignificance, drawn in magnetic spirals by a swarming, relentless presence. Heart of Darkness undertones slake a thirst for realism and  ‘authenticity’ – the buzz-word for an urban generation – and the concrete, diesel, asphalt and attrition of the city is sluiced free, pooling in the heaving dirt at my feet.

 

 

 

A spinster’s folly

Cloistered, sequestered, filed in time, an ornamental garden is an expression of love, carved into the rich earth only deep care, time and wealth can provide. The verdant yet contained splendour of a planned, pruned, perfected and propagated natural space is designed to pocket emotion as a thief palms a purse, to stall your pace and entice you to lie down beneath the shade of a broad-leaved tree, the velvet scent of year-round blooms syrup on the breeze.

Private gardens were designed to express the power and benevolence of the ruling or upper classes long before public spaces designed for the masses were developed. They were elite. A philanthropic badge for the well-breasted. Still are, in most cases: Tivoli, Versailles, Babylon and Kenroku-en in Japan, all known for their spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity.

Yaralla is no exception:

Rose arbours, camelia veils, sculpted cycads and canary palms set the bar high, but it is the avenue of mature-leaved brushbox – sentinel shadows akimbo – that steals the show, an entrance that cannot be ignored. Ramrod straight, we are channelled into the heart of another world, a bygone era.

The local dialect for ‘camp’ or ‘home’, Yaralla is a nineteenth-century Italianate mansion set in 37 hectares of land that fringes the Paramatta River at Concord West. It is considered an exceptionally rare and complete example of a large Edwardian private residential estate complete with grotto, spindly towers atop the front door and rural acreage, an anomaly amid the contemporised sprawl of modern cities.

From the crest, the rural idyll unpeels into the amalgam of a red-brick hospital complex, incinerators and frosted glass the destination for the whine of an approaching siren. Across the estate, a distant stripe of water glistens, a mighty river that soothes hot edges. Beyond, though, its farthest edge is cramped with little-box bowers and the whump whump whump of piledrivers, digging deep into old flesh.

The contrast is mesmerising.

Yaralla was built for the only daughter of Thomas Walker – Eadith – who lived here between 1861-1937, cradle to grave. It was her passion, a powerful display of elegance and prosperity. It was a self-sustaining destination where even the horses had plaques, Captain and Baron immortalised in an echoing space, a fox weathervane idling in the calm…

The clock tower and weathervane

Run as a feudal estate, Yaralla had its own power plant, fire station, bakery, laundry and dairy, with two river wharves catering for its bustle of traffic. Eadith had 25 servants and employees living on the estate, including a butler, nine maids, cooks, laundresses, chauffeurs, four gardeners, poultry and dairymen, a housekeeper and an engineer. There were four bulls, eleven cows, horses, hens, ducks and geese, as well as rockeries, fountains, ornamental urns, hothouses, a conservatory, rose gardens, a fresh-water swimming pool with bathhouse, a lavender walk and the infamous grotto.

The dairy

The race

 

The grotto

With the Secretary betrothed to her ongoing quest for world domination, and my attorney fighting the good fight in the war against right-wing journalism, I have seconded the Gamekeeper, a woman whose intimate knowledge of loquats pays off immediately.

It was her idea, a country jaunt in the heart of the city abreast our trusty steeds (complete with flat cap). From a long line of wild foragers, the Gamekeeper is an excellent partner in crime, notably because she also brought a picnic and tea in a thermos, which proved both fitting and filling and required leisurely repose.

We investigate salt-fringed mangroves, swamp-oak floodplain forests and rare Turpentine stands. Desert fan palms, cycads, agave and aloe strut their oriental stuff around the grotto, while cedars, Kauri pines, Moreton Bay figs, orchids, Himalayan firs, hibiscus, oleanders, camellias, Indian hawthorn and more vie for attention, a riot of colour, scent and sound, their boughs heavy with the raucous chatter of maggies, parrots and cockatoos, fairy-wrens flitting like light on the leaves.

Stands of bamboo shoulder an ancient wharf and a tangled coastal path is pungent with the stench of salt and mud. It is littered with shell middens, rock oysters the size of dinner plates testament to the riches here.

Aside from gulls ‘maaaaaaate-ing’ from a barge on the water, the tchick tchick tchick of the sprinkler is the only other noise, until a high-vis-clad horticultural crew hove into view. Once a high society hub that catered to royalty and rogues, including aviator Ross Smith, who famously landed in the front paddock and shared cucumber sandwiches with Eadith, today it is the gardeners’ domain.

Well, theirs and NSW Health.

Pale peppermint tones beneath the awnings of the main house belie its historic grandeur and lend it a vague sickliness, a pallor that extends to the quietened windows and sticky-backed plastic foyer. A ‘serious sign’ requests beaky eyes not get too close – it’s an easy request to uphold: much of the glamour has seeped away in a sluice of foamy handwash, and today Yaralla’s heart belongs to patients.

Eadith was a benevolent soul, a philanthropist like her father. Aside from the pet cemetery she dug for her dogs, upon her death, Yaralla was donated to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, to become an outlying convalescence and care unit, its cottages set aside for elderly people in need.  

Eadith was described as fiercely patriotic, loyal to the Empire and ‘a Britisher to the backbone’, despite being born and bred in Australia. Her allegiance is painfully clear in her devotion to the gardens: water is pumped and sprinkled on to the grounds day in, day out. The roses, though not blooming at this time of year, have a team of carers to disperse their needs, OH+S fluorescence a beacon of duty. Post and rail fences are taped up like limbs requiring splints, and the gates have electrical collars as if they might escape.
It is jarring to the eye. That something so beautiful can be so at odds within the broader landscape surprises the Gamekeeper, but the manicured order at Yaralla – flower picking beds, stone carved balustrades and trellises of delicate blooms – sticks out like topiary in the outback. The wild beauty of this land, as it would have been when the estate was built, is subsumed by an order not native to it… herbaceous colonisation if you will. 
And while the ornamentalism on show is captivating – a breathy respite from suburbia and better than anything other than what was – I will always question its place here and its patent need for a team of professionals dedicated to its ongoing convalescence. 

 

 

 

 

 

Laid to rest

There is purpose in his stride and a marmot backpack clinging to his back as the Tin Lid climbs the well-worn steps of the infamous Oasis Hotel. Little is known about this watering hole’s nefarious past, just that it has one, and my intrepid assistant is on the case, nose tuned to the stench of corruption and decay.

Grime-streaked stairs lead to the vacant acres of the first floor. Bathed in light, it would be a property developer’s dream… if it was zoned ‘residential’ and in the heart of the inner west.

As it is, this space is abandoned in time, a relic thick with ghosts. Something happened here, years ago, and age has wearied her. The light-filled expanse creaks and sighs and there is a nebulous trace that flickers in the air, a haunting that nags and bullies, demanding attention like a quarrelling lover…

“It happened. Right here, you know? Youse can still see the marks on the glass…”

 

“I saw it mate, sick!”

 

“He got what he deserved… fucking cop”

So much space, yet it is so filled with memory you have to chew through chunks of it to move around. It tastes like stale smoke and hard-worked grit, like sour slops and cutting loose on a Friday night. It tastes of anticipation and adrenalin, chickie-babes and gleaming muscles, of high-vis diesel stains and the tiny beads of condensation on the outside of a schooner brimming with VB…

In the heart of Bankstown, the Oasis squats inelegantly on South Terrace, a colon of a catchment that leads to North Terrace before coiling back on itself. While downstairs still manages a brisk trade, upstairs it’s howlingly empty.

According to one excited statistic from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Canterbury and Bankstown recorded the most murders for any NSW council area in 2016, ‘one life taken every month last year!

Wally Ahmad – one of Western Sydney’s most infamous crime figures – was gunned down in a brutal underworld execution in Bankstown on April 29th last year. It was a Friday afternoon and he was drinking coffee at Bankstown Central Shopping Centre. On October 25, a drive-by shooting saw Hamad Assaad gunned down in front of his Georges Hall home, perhaps in retaliation for the gangland assassination. Furthermore, “investigators believed Ahmad’s killing could have been retribution for the murder of Safwan Charbaji earlier in April outside Ahmed’s smash repair shop in Condell Park…”

It’s a deranged daisy-chain of retaliation, vengeance laced with fury played out amid the gentle sway of life in an ‘any-other’ suburb just 20kms west of the city. It’s the ripe reckoning of a cash-grab for laundered power, of extortion, narcotics, guns and control. And, in the padded excess of the 80s, the Oasis was allegedly one of the platters from which it oozed.

In 1982, strife was rife.

Downstairs, this was happening:

“Guests at a wake for a murdered criminal dived for cover last night when the suspected murderer appeared at a crowded Bankstown hotel and shot another man dead.

The gunman, described by police as an extremely dangerous hit man, ran from the Oasis Hotel in South Terrace through a car park and disappeared as drinkers were still lying on the floor. Police said John Doyle, 35, of Glenfield, ran out to fight the gunman after four shots were fired through a plate glass window into the bar area.

No one was hurt in the initial shooting, but Mr Doyle was shot in the stomach as he grabbed the gunman. Despite quick treatment from ambulancemen and paramedics, he died soon after reaching nearby Bankstown hospital.

A detective at the scene said about 30 guests had gathered in the bar at the Oasis Hotel to hold a wake for Garry Graham Riley, 32, who was found dead in a car at Padstow 10 days ago. Riley, who had convictions for assault, robbery, stealing and breaking and entering, was on remand for a charge of indecent assault when he was found with six .38 calibre bullets in his head. Homicide detectives believed they knew who was responsible for his murder.”

Meanwhile, upstairs, an even less well-documented drama was unfolding…

And dust still clings to one of the windows, ghostly prints lurching from its powdery reveal.

According to ‘those in the know’, the first floor operated as a nightclub in the early 80s; on one occasion the coppers stormed in, raiding the joint for whatever it was worth to them.  They were promptly ‘removed’ by the bouncers, one through a plate-glass window.

The downstairs drama is recorded in time in one solitary Sydney Morning Herald account, archived to within an inch of its life and buried in the fluttering reams at the heart of the internet.

Upstairs, the story is conceived in whispered motes only, an insinuation, a slight, a snippet of rumour. Was it an internal window? How far did he fall? What did he hit?

All that is known is that the copper didn’t make it. The force shut the place down, with the edict, “this place will never re-open”.

These windows look suspicious, coated in fingerprint powder and clattery to the touch. But if they are coated in dust, they can’t be the ones he fell through, right?

The rooftop makes an airy playground for the Tin Lid, who has, by now, forgotten why he is here.

In the absence of answers, we explore further. The hotel’s gauche glory is a little tarnished now, leached to the bone by the acidity of time. The paint is in revolt, blistering from every surface; the floors slide beneath you yet are sticky to the touch; and the urinals are a still-life of rancid decay. Even the pigeons have scarpered.

Out the back of the bar, where life saddens into pools of disconsolate shadows, the narks and cartels recede a little. Here, the wraiths cling, desperate to hold on to the forlorn slice of life they called their own. Once. Down a dim corridor, the boarding rooms line up. Functional and far from aesthetic, they are a grim portrait of life on the breadline.

At the mention of bread, the Tin Lid reminds me it’s lunchtime, in his own inimitable style:

The Oasis’ delinquent past steams from its cracks, like the puff of air that escapes a kerb sofa when you sit on it, musty and rank. The vestiges of a bygone era are everywhere, memories stuck in the gullet of now. But these, floated down from the walls, the tape that once held them flaky dandruff, these are more heartfelt than heinous…

Just old and faded. Although that motor has got form…

We leave in a flurry, lightsabers at the ready, intent on scoring sumac-sprinkled meat served with fresh labneh, mint and pomegranate, lunch with a middle-eastern provenance Bankstown’s other legacy.

I can’t help but wonder, though. Will the Oasis ever relive its glory days, proudly anarchic and staunchly naughty? Somehow, I doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

At the edge of the world

“Renaissance cartographers portrayed the edge of the known world as an evil, enchanted place, where storms raged and bizarre creatures lurked. Sailors foolhardy enough to venture there were believed to face certain death. Yet resolute explorers pushed the world’s edge ever farther back, until the map finally wrapped around the globe.”

Jamie James, www.theatlantic.com

This triggered apprehension is the epitome of the Australian Gothic movement – the landscape is seen as malevolent so that terror shrouds the perception of a barren land that resolutely fails to fit a romanticised colonial ideal, that of the bucolic, verdant bounty of England’s green and pleasant lands. It was driven by fear of the unknown, a storm of ‘what-ifs?’ wresting anticipation into the realm of rank foreboding.

Far from the tame, considered beauty of the motherland – coppices cradled in cropped uniformity, ‘shaded lanes‘ and ‘soft dim skies‘ – the end of the world is a helix in time, a sinkhole to the past where the light dances and skulks with staccato resonance, a brooding reiteration of the dawning of time.

“Throughout its history Tassie, as the Australians call it, has attracted a rugged breed of people who have come and stayed. The first wave of Western inhabitants, the convicts transported from Great Britain, came involuntarily; but in modern times the island has held a special appeal for visionaries, explorers drawn to the far end of the earth.”

Jamie James, www.theatlantic.com

In a world in which everything has an online representation, Mount Terra, just to the north-west of Hobart, has but an echo of a story. Its contours exist in a vortex, no name, no place, no mark. It is a whisper cast in low-level light, bound by the circles of age that can be traced on ragged skin.

A sculpted muscle on the flank of Mt Dromedary, Mt Terra rises 608m above sea level. Mists swaddle ancient boughs heavy with doused lichen. Speckled rocks and faded green moss never rouse, but an iced bite refreshes the tips of your ears.

The air is bracing – a ‘clean’ you can taste – raw oxygen pumping into your veins like a drug, a soaring invocation of life on the edge.

Australia itself is remote, tucked away from almost everywhere else, but Tasmania – a small island state that dangles like a glittering pendant from the mainland’s neck notch – is about as far from anywhere as it’s possible to go.

And then there’s Mount Terra. So close to Hobart and yet so far removed, with its escapist views and redneck tinge it is wholly of its own. Trees and reptiles shed their outer casings to litter the dirt; skins and furs line the walls of the homes, crouched around wood stoves; and time casts off its mantle, stripping itself bare beneath our curious gaze.

There is a faintly gothic taint: the land is wreathed in smoke and fog, wraith-like vapours caught in curled valleys, pink, heather and velvet-grey tones bruise a faded eucalypt haze, and weathered hulks loom from the shade. But it is playful too, a natural wonderland, rich in soul, and the Tin Lid is quick to find his realm: a shattered trunk becomes a trader’s den, founded on the principles of Bartertown, rocks exchanged for love and long sticks.

Bleached rises soar ever up, strewn with the carcasses of long-hollow timber and burnt out burrows, while the scale, from the minute to the majestic, is awing.


And within this untamed intensity, couched within the wild sparse beauty of the edge, there is a tenderness. Stoves and flames stoke a closeted warmth, and life is carved out carefully:

   

Windows open to the expanse, edges are curled in tight. Rocks and bush poles form sturdy homes that bubble with hard-won laughter and warm toes; the scent of heady wine hangs in the air and produce comes carved from the earth.

In a shiver of sunlight at the zenith of day, we toast to a new life, a world away from the roaring choked grit of the city, and devoid of convenience or clique.

Faded by trial and time, Mount Terra is where shadows race to meet each other and an ancient place exposes its bones. It exists at the edge of the world and yet it feels so familiar, home away from home.

They say that here, time is forgotten. That can’t be, not in our modern world. Perhaps, instead, it has escaped, billowing free in an endless sky.