Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Totality


Ramingining, Arnham Land, NT


After siesta I woke up with my guard down.  Out of sorts, wandering with my head in the clouds.

I was waking up to the third day that day.


The eclipse was expected to reach total coverage at 12 minutes after sunrise, at 6:14am.  We’d been up every morning for sunrise to gauge the conditions for the big day.  It was always hazy.  Dawn provoked a mist rising from the immense floodplain, as if the earth exhaled with the relief of a new morning.  It was as if we were witnessing the dawn of time.

On the day of, the mist rose well above the horizon.  We gripped our hearts & waited.

The sun rose at 90% coverage - a massive pink crescent on the edge of the world.  The sunlight came & soon enough was arcing above us, leaving us to darkness.  Crickets buzzed.  Birds flew on.  The air felt lighter beneath the Ring; everything in my body went on high alert.  I trembled with goosebumps.


It’s difficult to describe a world of surreal darkness.  Attention focused; all our breath was drawn.  Time stopped.

It was so soft.  It was the best time of day to watch the eclipse.  The sunlight was very gentle.  It was the only part of the day when the regular harshness would be subdued enough to witness without fancy blackened eclipse glasses.

The festival had been planned for 8 years.  Eclipse chasing is not a culture I had ever been exposed to.  My friends insisted that after today, I would be hooked.  No longer just for astronomers & mathematicians; a quick search on Wikipedia will give a precise calendar of when & where the next solar eclipse will be witnessed.

My plans changed sharply the week before, when I was extended an invitation.  My life is more foreshadowing than planning.

The actual event was over in a few minutes.  The sun was still rising in the sky when people were packing up camp to get back to reality.

There had never been an open invitation to outsiders to visit this part of the Aboriginal territory known as Arnham Land.  Numbers were restricted, because they were unsure how it would run.  Everything was questioned 10 times, to allow for cultural sensitivity.  Organization wasn’t optimal; it felt like we listened to soundcheck for days & drinking water arrived at 4pm after spending all day in the heat.

The first year of a festival is expected to be unrefined.  That’s not why we came.

On the last evening, the local community finally came out.  The elders had visited the previous nights, gone back & championed the event to the people.  My guard was down, & I was taken aback.  We invoked spirits that night with the locals.  A little girl smiled at me who was so genuine & beautiful I almost cried.  We played with the kids who climbed on us, danced with us & embraced us.

Who are we?  We are nobody, just 4 bastards from down the road – but we were embraced as brothers & sisters.


It took a celestial anomaly to bring us all together.

I almost sat on a scorpion, was almost hit by a fireball, & almost crushed by a tree branch.  I ate water buffalo, still cannot weave a basket to save my life, but learned a few words in Yolnu.

It was an incredibly moving experience.  I am better for it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Build Up

Northern Territory, Australia

"This is more remote than the party I went to in Siberia." - David


Crossing the line was the beginning.

We stood on the brink of the unknown, a highway leading into no-man’s land; Arnham Land, where outsiders are only allowed with special permission.  There was a line drawn across the road.  “When you cross this, you must leave all the bad spirits behind you.”  Effortless, the other 3 members of the crew stormed over – a bushman, a Christian & a scientist.  I took a deep breath to make it real.

                Is this real?

Somehow it is because of David we all got here, who brought us all together.  He’s the orchestrator of this madness.  It’s sunset.  We’re about to drive some absurd distance into the bush on a dirt track of some state to chase this solar eclipse that’s only visible from the tippy top edge of the island.  At night.  In an area riddled with water buffalo.  Surely he’s to blame.

Just before the Wet Season is a period called the Build Up; when the air gets thick with humidity & the sun turns on.  Creeping into when the sky unloads & the rain sizzles off the pavement.  Saltwater crocodiles drift inland by water access.  Some roads are 2 meters underwater.  We are on the brink of potentially being stuck where we’re going for 3 months.

On Google Maps, the track takes 21 hours.  It really takes about 8 at a reasonable speed.  Assuming you don’t roll or get driven off the road by maniacal road trains.  *A road train is a semi-trailer towing many containers.  The largest has 4 containers; 53m in length, weighing 170 tonnes.  They don’t drive, they hurdle.*

By the time we’d explored the festival site, it was approaching dawn.  Silhouettes of shelters built with tree branches emerged with the soft rosy light.  Beyond that, over the escarpment that drops out of nowhere, is magic.

An enormous wetland directly due east; the biggest floodplain in the southern hemisphere.  Even before the sun peeks, the mist comes to life, rising within the trees.  All the colours enfolded into that shade of light.  Every morning seemed like the dawn of time.

There is a massive festival in Cairns for the eclipse; estimating 50,000 people in that region.  There were 180 tickets sold to this one, with 900 people living in the nearest community of Ramingining.  Visitors have been asked to respect the local customs; including wearing a skirt past the knees, keeping some activities men only & others women only, asking permission before taking photographs, not making eye contact while speaking to someone (depending who you’re speaking with) & in particular keeping the event drug & alcohol free.  We are seasoned punters, & can imagine too well the debauchery in Cairns.  This is an amazing opportunity to experience a part of Aboriginal culture.

This event has been planned alongside the community for 8 years.  There is alot of uncertainty; everything is questioned.  It is strange for the locals to have so many outsiders invited into their land.

The others have seen solar eclipses before.  They describe the darkness, the shadows, the stars, the activity of the birds, a vibration that passes through you...  But they are all different, they are all new.  This is the only precedent to this adventure.

It is common within the Yolnu language to refer to one another without using first names.  This is exceptional.  I have 3 more brothers.

Together, we have no idea what to expect.  Heavy anticipation & excitement fueled by complete ignorance.  And so we begin.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Up The Guts

We had hitched over 3,000kms up the centre of Australia.  Around every corner, I caught my partner Matt jerking his thumb towards me saying “Hitching is so much easier with a girl;” he confided later he was also afraid of the possibility someone might say “Let’s kill him & take her!”   I cannot count how many times we’ve been asked “Haven’t you seen the movie Wolf Creek?”  One day I aspire to hitch there.

It was a long road; it was a long 12 days.  We did pretty well, & had some epic singalongs.  The wait time wasn’t too bad considering the lay Aussie thinks of the Stuart Highway as unsealed barren territory through the desert where you may come across one car a day.

Our only extended wait was between sneaking out of a resort early, & Matt’s persistence to stay on the main track instead of going 350km off towards King’s Canyon.  My mad math mind tells me we can only expect the first cars to arrive at check out time plus our distance down the road +/- an hour.  Although meeting me remains logistically impossible except by chance, I can run my own just fine.

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Cooper Pedy is a hole.  Quite literally; it’s an opal mining town.  The most interesting buildings are underground.  The underground hostel is on some list somewhere & because of this is hideously expensive.  We balk in hysterics at the prospect of camping underground – which could possibly be the least attractive idea I’ve ever come across.  It’s stuffy, quiet, you’d be sleeping on bedrock & where are the stars?

One of the most interesting drivers we had on our adventure was our first ride from Adelaide.  He was an opal miner from Cooper Pedy.  It’s fascinating to hear how it provokes him.  He describes it as ‘like hunting without killing anything’ & it sounds like hitting china plates.  Furiously pursuing the seam; they will stay down as long as they have to.  He’s not originally a local, but has gotten sucked in by the spirit.  They spend the evenings watching tv, packing their ‘sausages’ (dynamite) for tomorrow.  I wonder what it would be like to live in a town where everyone knows how to make their own explosives.

(Sidenote:  He was on his way to go visit his father who had come up with a new scheme to catch blue swimmer crabs.  Take a kangaroo carcass from the side of the highway & stake it into the ground at low tide.  When the tide comes in, the sharks & stingrays have a field day with it.  When the tide goes out, it remains knee deep in blue swimmer crabs, waiting to be plucked & eaten.)

Uluru/Ayer’s Rock feels like being on Mars, except the flies are horrendous.  We checked on the road conditions to Kata-Tjutja, another altogether less famous rock formation nearby, & the response was “It’s on fire!”  The brushfires were pretty intense & the whole area was closed while we were there.  It created a haze that diminished the effects of sunset/sunrise on The Rock, although Matt reckons it was cool he could see the flames make the clouds flicker at night.

It seems we were lucky along the way.  We only got bad news from people retreating South about the changing of the weather – how stiflingly hot it was & the increasing humidity.  When we arrived in Alice Springs it was the end of a two week heat wave; with temperatures over 40 degrees.  They had just pulled a body out of the local river, which is no more than a sand bar in dry season.

We were staying 15km outside town; Alice Springs is notoriously rough as guts.  It was a great opportunity to sleeping in swags in the outback.  (A swag is a mattress covered in canvas designed to be rolled up & is essential for a bushman’s camp.)  The stars were spectacular.  The night air, a freshness, & all the sounds that come along with the Australian dusk, when all the animals come alive, is entrancing.  The only thing we had to worry about is the neighbour’s huge dog waking us up just before sunrise, catching his nails in my hair & possibly peeing on you.  The same night, there was some sort of riot or ruckus in town, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to say we had it pretty good!

North of Alice, almost every driver offered us a beer.  We’d even heard that in the Northern Territory (NT), most vehicles have a patch of Velcro on the dashboard where they can put their stubby holder while they’re trying to roll a cigarette.  Cool story, but unconvincing - we saw no proof of this.

There used to be no speed limit in NT.  Now it’s regulated down to a breezy 130km/hr.  They used to hold Cannonball Run races where foreigners would ship in their high-end sports cars & have a go.  No one was the wiser until there was an accident with two Japanese businessmen in a Ferrari & the authorities had to suddenly piece together what they were doing in the middle of the outback.

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Just North of Karlu-Karlu/Devil’s Marbles, where we first saw a dingo & some freaky spiders, we hit the humidity.  We’d been cruising with two dudes who raced here in 3 days from Melbourne who had good music, a full esky & were shooting to Darwin for the evening.  We insisted on stopping at Daly Waters; a pub we’d heard about the whole way along.  It didn’t grab our attention the way it was described, & the walk back to the highway was an excruciating 5kms.  We sat in the shade there in resentful silence, when the man in the white van pulls up.

This man had passed us at Alice Springs with an empty van (other than a few boxes) & we waved him along.  He passed us at Ti Tree & we waved him on again.  The next morning he was the first car on the road at 730am from Devil’s Marbles, & again, he was surprised to see us.  We had to re-evaluate ourselves – what do we have to do for this guy to stop?!

The humidity makes people aggro (aggressive).  We bit our tongues until they bled not wanting to point fingers on why we weren’t at the campsite with the swimming pool, or on the road to Darwin, but instead sitting on the side of the highway in the skin melting humidity.  At sunset.  If there were ever a time we needed a ride, it was then.  He stopped & said “I said if I passed you again I’d pick you up.”  It’s about time!

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We’d spent a couple days reassessing in Katherine, to decide whether or not we’d be staying for the mango picking season.  The pay can be quite good, but among the deterrents is the acid that mango trees excrete.   One of the positives would be working alongside fruit bats the size of cats.  We threw our name in the hat & took off just as quickly.

Our ride to Litchfield National Park was a pair of Frenchmen, who had just come from picking mangoes instead of fixing the carburetor on their van.  The ride North was cruisey at 75km/hr – no hurry.  Until a few km instead park boundaries there was a hill we couldn’t climb.  Then it stalled.  We tried every angle, roll starting it from the top of one hill to gather momentum enough....but it was no use.  We surrendered to an expensive campsite just outside the park.

I kept telling Matt that ‘This was our karma day.’  We had nowhere else to be & okay, we had to put in some work, but they’d be stuffed if we weren’t there.  Ultimately this will come back to us.

The next day we met two awesome chicks from Canberra on a rapid-fire trip around the park.  We swam in the most amazing swimming holes, eating mango in waterfalls.  These are the kind of things that define paradise.  Then we rode in the back of a truck – my favourite way to travel - swam at more waterfalls, almost kissed a barramundi, saw BIGGER freaky spiders & our last ride of the day was in a Landrover named Betzi.  They’d circled around from a different route to pick us up & I was suspicious.

Aza is always immediately confrontational when meeting anyone, so if they respond negatively, he doesn’t have to help them.  Within seconds he’d told us some unbelievable story – that was probably true - & I accused him of walking on water.  I saw this gypsy train & even when I looked at Matt for his approval (to take the ride), I was already in headfirst.

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Road trains burned past us the whole way along.  (Max 4 trailers, length of 52m & 170 tonnes.)  I made it my personal goal to catch one.  This didn’t come until parting from both sets of my comrades – Matt & Aza – when I was hitching in Kakadu National Park; Croc hunting, but more like crocodile avoidance.

Kakadu was a nightmare to hitch through.  I was almost chased out of the park by the relentless flies.  Even in an empty expanse, there was no sense of peace.  Inner tumoil.

Went for a swim at the very Southern edge with my head firmly on my shoulders, hyper-aware of any signs of crocodiles.  (In Litchfield, the rangers have put up croc warning signs to keep the tourists away from the good spots.  In Kakadu, there are lots of crocs.)  I tried to slow myself down by thinking that there’s no point in fearing a croc attack.  If it were to happen, it would be over so quickly, you would die fearless.

                ...I suppose that’s the optimist talking.

The artwork was ethereal.  Ubirr is a sacred site of Aboriginal artwork from tens of thousands of years ago – keeping the generations alive.  The histories & lessons live on.  Many of the old sites have requests not to take pictures, because to see them out of context would not make sense.  I respect this immensely.

My final ride was from a Czech man who was stalking cockatoos when I met him & could speak almost as much English as he could cockatoo.  Through hand gestures we learned that we both come from hockey countries!   He is a huge fan of Jaromir Jager, so we talked about the NHL the whole road to Darwin!
I wish I had Winnipeg Jets paraphernalia!