To the Ranges

by Mark Cornell

We fly above the desert to Alice Springs. Below’s an ancient purple row of mountains folds which formed when Uluru, Mt.Connor and Katja Tjuta were thrust back up to the earth’s surface three hundred and fifty million years ago. These folds are part of the McDonnell ranges which stretch all the way back to the Alice. They’re remnants of what were, perhaps ten time larger than what they are now. The vast desert sands were created by their erosion.  The jet engines roar, we bounce on the tarmac. The airport I flew out of with my schoolmates, fourty four years ago, is closed now. I wait to pick up my spear at the carousel. I bought it at Uluru a couple of days ago. It was fifty bucks. But when I went to take off at Uluru, the Seppo,  (septic tank/yank,) Security Guard at the airport told me it was considered a weapon and I had to wrap it up in tape and plastic. I suppose he’s right, with his officious manner I did feel like sticking it up his clacker. It cost me an extra ninety quid, bugger it! I bought it because I’d bought one from an Arrernte fella, the first time I came up here, but my son Tom accidently broke it when he was toddler. I remember the way me and my mates beat our spears on the bus floor along to John Denver’s, Thank God I’m A Country Boy, when we came back into the city. We were defiant, our young souls had gone through a transformative experience that people in the suburbs wouldn’t understand. 

I’ll never forget that old Arrernte fella. When we drove into his camp; he was in a lumber jacket putting a bone through his nose for us to take photos. People gave him two bucks before they took a photo. I felt a bit guilty it was like visiting a theme park. I didn’t take his picture but bought a spear off him instead, made from the local mulga wood. I vaguely remember there was a caravan in the camp selling drinks. As I bought a cuppa, the girl servicing me noticed the gold medallion around my neck. It was given to me when I was fourteen by the original Thomas Cornell, my Grandfather. It was awarded to his brother Edward, for volunteering for the first World War. The Cornell’s ran a market garden in Mt. Waverley. Edward died just before the Armistice. He was a gentle soul. I remember the way my Pop had tears in his eyes when he handed it over to me. The girl told me she had one exactly the same, her Great Uncle had fought in the war too. I remember when she spoke how her brown eyes looked down on the red soil.  The red soil that gets into everything, your eyes, your ears, your nostrils, your feet, your blood. We’d have cornflakes and red dust for breakfast. I wish I could recall more about our conversation !

We drive through Heavitree Gap into the huge red sedimentary rocks of the McDonnell  ranges. I can see why the locals reckon they’re giant caterpillars. There’s the original Ghan on the railway track. There’s the Todd River, a dry creek bed bordered by the ghost gums. We do a bit of retail therapy in the Todd Mall. The Alice is more suburban from what I remember, back then it was a tiny town. The locals stand around and gasbag, some stare at us tourists, some  sit down, some sell stuff, like the rest of us do on this planet. At the Desert Park, in the foothills of the McDonnell’s, I see my old mate the Dingo. I remember the way he followed the bus when I was a teenager, they love company. What I love about the Dingo is they don’t bloody bark, perfect dog I reckon. My friend back in town, Linda, had one, she says there more like cats than dogs. Another reason I love them. I walk into this caged enclosure to see another mate, the Australian Bustard. As I step in there’s these noisy Spanish tourists, one of them shouts, “Australian Bustard, “ I give them a second look. This fella’s huge, about the same size and shape of an emu. He’s got a black crown, and long black wings, a long grey neck and white eyebrows. This one, like me, has got a huge gut and gives me a snooty look. I supposed I’d be snooty too, if  my grasslands were stolen from me.

Imagine a little gold and brown lizard with thorns all over him and stripes, that’s the Thorny Devil. I see a family of them. I don’t know why the call him a devil, with his phony head at his back, and uplifted tail I reckon he’s cute. When they walk, they do slow, jerky movements, backwards and forwards like they’re dancing. He uses the spikes to get a drink, in the morning he rubs against dew drops on the spinifex, the moisture runs between the spikes along grooves straight into his mouth. He’s of  cultural importance to the locals, they have dreaming stories about him, I can see why.

I walk along the park’s Mulga Track into the Nocturnal House. Spinifex Hopping Mice scamper through the darkness like headless chooks. I recall there was a plague of the little fellas the first time I came up here. The desert was carpeted in them. They used to sneak into our tents at night. One of them nibbled on my mate’s Simon’s finger when he was asleep. I cacked myself when he woke up the next morning with a sore finger.  I spy a bilby, he reminds me of my pet coney back home, there’s a quoll running through his enclosure like a madman.

Outside I see a Crimson chat, he looks a bit like a robin, except his red covers most of his body including his head. I can’t get over another little fella, the White-winged Triller, he sings all afternoon. I wonder what he’s saying. Maybe “ bugger off you tourists.” Then there’s the Splendid Fairy-wren, his blue colour is more vibrant than the  Fairy-wrens’ we get back home. Even the Australian Miners are brighter up here, they have yellow throats. At the birds of prey exhibition, the first bird to swoop down is a maggie ! I have to admit I miss my black and white friends back home. The ranger in charge of the exhibit reckons they can recognise individual faces, and never forget if you’ve been cruel to them. This Alice Spring’s magpie is as happy as Larry and sings to the desert blue heavens. I can’t help but smile, the magpie is my family’s totem. I’m a fourth generation Collingwood supporter. An Eastern Barn Owl sticks his intelligent head out of a hole in a dead tree. A black breasted buzzard smashes a huge purple emu egg. A wedge tails eagle soars toward his prey. He’s the creator god, Bunjil, back in my home state Victoria. The Kulin nations tell of a story when they were fighting each other they angered the sea, which rose above the plains and threatened to cover the whole country. The people went to Bunjil and asked him for help, he agreed but only if they stopped fighting, changed their ways, respect the law and each other. He then went out into the sea, raised his spear and ordered the water to stop rising. This is surely a memory of the time when Tasmania was cut off from the rest of the mainland when the ice caps melted about twelve thousand years ago. 
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Just over a decade of Charles Stuart travelling over the continent from South to North  the first time in 1860, the Overland Telegraph Line was built. It took them less than two years to connect Adelaide to Darwin with the “singing wire.”. It linked Australia to an underseas cable from Java. Instead of news taking donkeys years to reach us from Europe it now only took hours. The first Morse code from overseas was received in the Alice Springs Telegraph Station in 1872. It’s a pretty spekky series of colonial buildings built from local stone and lime, with huge galvanised rooves, verandas and lofty ceilings, surrounded by huge ghost gums. There’s some locals in the picnic ground vigorously playing footy and cricket. We walk along the dusty trail through the desert oaks and sticky flies toward the graveyard. There’s a small stone courtyard with two white crosses and an old head stone. A cork barked black desert oak has breached the walls and now grows in the middle of the graveyard. The headstone was for Ernest Flint, who worked on the Line and was only thirty-three when he died of rheumatic fever. The inscription haunts me, “ Should the sturdy station children pull the bush flowers on my grave, I may chance to hear them romping overhead.”  I wonder if he can hear the young ones playing sport back at the Station? Then there’s the grave of Ernest Bradshaw, he was a Melbourne boy, who suffered from TB. They thought if he came up to the Alice, the dry air and heat might be do him some good. However, he died not long after he arrived. Poor bugger. He was only twenty- seven. Back at the Kiosk I buy the book Alice on the Line co-written by Doris Blackwell, she was the niece of Ernest. If you want to get a feel of what life was like in the early days Alice this is your read. It’s a terrific read. She had a brother Earnest, there’s a picture of him as a little boy, beaming with his brothers and sisters, lined up back at The Station. He too was killed in the so-called Great War.

            Tom and I listen to the local radio station as we drive up to Simpson’s Gap. 8CCC. Community Radio Inc. 102.1 FM Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. It’s a bloody wonderful station, playing all sorts of deadly local stuff tinged with Reggae, Hip -Hop, Heavy Metal, Ballads, Blues, Gutsy Oz Rock, they even play ACDC. I get a tingle up and down my spine as I stare up into the vast blue sky and squat red lizard  hills of the West MacDonnell ranges.

The Arrernte call this place, Rungutjirpa, home of the giant goanna. We walk along the white sand bed of Roe Creek between two giant red sedimentary shoulders of mountain. There’s a pool at the end of our walk, I see the occasional round ripple of water and marvel how the Desert Grunter fish survives by burying themselves in the mud to wait for the rains to  come. The female can spawn up to 100.000 eggs, the fish grow quickly when the rains come.  I see a coot in the pongy water, there’s heaps of diving beetles here. I remember the bus driver a few days ago, telling me about the water frog, who burrows deep down into the sand, the locals when they’re desperate for water dig them up and squeeze the bladders for a drink. I wonder if there are any around here ? I hug a huge spiralling redgum, he’s so soft and cool, then make my way back, the only sound is my feet crunching the soil. On our way back at Stanley’s Chasm, I see a herd of incredibly fit and muscular hikers tread  over a sign asking people not to work over this remote spot because it’s a sacred sight.

Tom and I search everywhere for a music shop back at the Alice, but there either closed or the staff can’t help us worst bloody luck ! I drop Tom back off at the joint we’re staying at and am desperate to go to the local Op-Shop, but it’s closed too bugger it. I decide to have a beer in a pub in the main street. There’s some locals having a good laugh and a chinwag. I’d love to talk to them but feel I shouldn’t intrude. I  have another beer to myself. Here I am in the heart of my country, under a beautiful blue warm sky and redgums. I love the Alice; I love being in a town full of blackfellas. I love the way they roam through my Hotel grounds at night and wake me out of my dreams with their chatter. There’s no way I’d tell them to shut-up, after all they were here first. I feel I have more in common with them any day, than the boring aspirational farts in the suburbs back home. Maybe because my family has been here for five generations. Maybe as I tell my friend Linda back home, it’s just a matter of being a part of the land you were born in. The dust, the spirit, the culture surges through feet up into your veins. I changed my outlook towards my country when I first came up here as a sixteen-year-old kid. The red soil, the ever-expanding landscape, the people, the bush, the stars, the animals, the birds, the music…they all talk to you.   
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            Back home in misty, cold, green Heathmont my spear arrives from Alice Springs. It’s called a Winta, it’s a punishment spear. I give him a kiss after I unwrap him. I put him pride of place on my bookshelf. On the shelf below is a music stick I also bought from that probably long-gone Arrernte man.  They’re punu carvings of the Anungu, (Central and Western Desert people,)  a direct link to the Tjukurpa, or traditional law imparted by the Creation Ancestors at least sixty thousand years ago. We should be proud of the fact that we have the oldest, continuous civilization known to man. I miss the desert. Next morning, honey eaters and noisy miners welcome me back home. I hear there song differently now.     

            A weekend later, I go for my first walk down through an avenue of gum trees to Dandenong Creek. They’ve restored the grounds where the Bungadook and Dandenong Creek meet. Previously it was a smelly old swampy drain full of weeds. It used to be a permanent camp site for the local indigenous people. I remember disagreeing with a silly old codger while they were fixing up the place, he said it was a waste of taxpayers’ money, I said it now looks beautiful. The purple clouds are swollen, threatening to rain. I sit down near the bridge and take it all in. The creek weaves like a snake up to the blue Dandenong Mountains. The Bunurong people used to hunt possum, kangaroo, Black Swan, eel, geese, and musk duck, but within a decade of contact by the Europeans, they were all gone. The name Dandenong comes from the word Tungenong, which is what the Bunurong called the both the mountain and creek.  Bunjil is here too. He turned the trickster man Waang into a crow, because Waang refused to share fire with the others. Thank Christ Bunjil is still around, the waters are rising again.  I saw him the other day circling the Dandenong’s, keeping an eye out for all of us.    

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