Rambling is a good English word too sparingly used. It means to walk about the countryside. No, that is not the dictionary meaning but it is good enough for me. To ramble over hill and dale is a relaxing way to travel and the English do it easily every summer.
To see this land beyond postcards properly you have to walk across the country just as it always has been walked. One step at a time. As you walk aboriginal art will make sense. The red earth is dotted with individual items. The grass rarely intermingles with a neighbouring grass. The desert potatoes do not cohabit with the runners. The wispy flowering grasses stay aloof from the striking Sturt Desert Pea which crawls along the ground in different directions. Curiously it has big bulbous black “eyes” on each of its long red faced flowers watching the surrounds. JL a local indigenous artist says, “The donkeys like to eat that fellow.” I haven’t yet seen a wild donkey, nor have I seen a bush banana. But I am told they both can be found in numbers.
A most striking thing about walking are the number of tracks it is possible to see. The task for the uninitiated is to identify the animal, or bird, responsible for making the a track. Tracks. It is always tracks. One set of marks will be criss crossed by several others and although it is possible to follow the marks made by one animal it soon becomes apparent that the land hides tens, no hundreds, of unseen creatures. The hurried snake leaves a set of s shaped mini sand dunes to signal it is going somewhere you are not supposed to follow. The bird, I presume it is a bird, walks like a drunk going nowhere and in no particular hurry. The kangaroo determined to get to a late morning lounging spot under the trees is economical in its footprint. Bayonet mark and skid, bayonet mark and skid, six, seven or eight metres apart let you know he, or she, was running late for that date.
It is beyond the capacity of this southerner to follow human footprints for very long through the dust and grass but it is surprising just how many foot prints can be seen even well off a beaten track. Therefore it is unsurprising that those who have always lived here can find their quarry by doing just that. Some children cornered an innocent blue tongue lizard this morning without even recognising the skill they exhibited. Because their quest was so easy it was even more marvellous to the observer.
The rambler in this countryside must look up as well. The umbrella of an azure blue sky reaches from horizon to horizon in this flat land. Nearer, one notices the mulga and yet another tree species attracts your attention. It is the whitewashed bark of a eucalyptus. Of course when you inspect the beautiful bark you realise the tree has evolved to lighten the bark without human touch. It does this to reflect the intense heat of midday so it can preserve its vital fluids.
To go from hamlet to hamlet drive by all means but if you want to see the land go for a walk. It is the only way to see the unseen beauty it hides.
Footnote: Now the mean spirited of you will have consulted your dictionary and found that to ramble has another meaning that is sometimes applied to written work such as this. If you did happen to refer to the dictionary then my thanks goes to you to spare the writer and save your comment on the prose presented.
Without the hum of urban traffic the outback seems very quiet but that very quietness encourages one to listen. Ridiculously at first the silence is deafening.
The first thing one notices after that is the sound of the desiccated grass as it is flattened underfoot when walking. The blades of grass crack like broken bones when a boot compresses them into chaff. The rasping sound of the foot on sand. The left step, the right, and the scrunch of the stride, followed by the cracking sound of the grass when it steps on it is quite mediative when repeated over a reasonable distance.
Then afar one hears the sound of muffled human voices hidden from view. The very sound of another human voice raises inquisitiveness,and in the distance it is possible to make out a shade shelter made from sticks and under it men sitting in the dust chatting to one another about who knows what. Out of respect your eyes are averted and the walk is continued.
On another day the wind is up and the strings of the casuarina tree make orchestral sounds. In the wind it hums, or whistles. Further along the road the pendulous seed pods of the Elegant Acacia tambourine their unwritten tune on each new gust of wind. At first it is a subtle sound, like the sound the rosary beads hanging from the waist of an old style nun as she rounds a corner. As the breeze rises the tree vibrates. The sound of the rattling pods becomes more agitated and the whole tree adds to the sound. The wind lessens and an uneasy calm settles for a few moments as the tree awaits the next gust.
On the plains one does not have the advantage of elevation that allows you to hear sounds from all directions as you do, say, when you are aloft in the You Yangs, or the Grampians. There the screech of a cockatoo, and the sound of a crow directs your attention to a compass point first and then you search into the distance for the originator of the sound. On the flat plains the sounds emanate from all directions too but anyone on the ground can only hear a few hundred metres at best. One does not have to have good hearing to hear the Babblers go about their day. The bird is busy little chatterer. It walks, climbs and performs acrobatics with it mates all the while babbling away.
In a land of immigrants it should not surprise one to realise it also has immigrant avarian strangers. The rooster next door is availing himself of the light of the full moon to such an extent that Irish visiting teacher Sianaid could not sleep on her first night here. Her sleep was interrupted several times by his cocka-doodle-doos hours before his hens were. She could not ignore his boastful call as it was from a vantage point only a chain from her open bedroom window. Her second night was not much better even though she closed her window.
Drought is hard on birds. And as waterholes dry the native birds naturally reduce their numbers. So it was with pleasure I saw a parrot soaked to the craw under a sprinkler in the school garden this evening. So wet and bedraggled was it that it had lost all shame and it rolled, legs akimbo upside down as close to the mechanism as possible. It relished in the water as another might in a dust bed. Replenished, it just stood in the spray enjoying the moment. For not a second did it make a sound.
Another common sound in this uncommon setting is the sound of trucks crossing the cattle pit on the highway near the hamlet. Given experience one identifies cars, cars with caravans, and semitrailers. No experience is needed to recognise the rumble of yet another road train across the steel cattle barrier. Each prime mover drags three, or four, trailers. The massive weight each loaded wheel carries drums in the space separating the steel bars. All through an otherwise silent night the drums roll and echo as each vehicle continues on its relentless journey.
A visit to the outback is refreshing. Listening is improved when common daily sounds can no longer be heard.
Ps. The Elegant Acacia is not only a musical tree it is also a food source. The seeds can be cooked in a naked flame. Once peeled, eat the kernel. It’s resin is also edible as are its grubs.
It is written in the language
These words are not spelling mistakes they are words from our first people’s language. The first line is in the Warlipri language. The second line says the same in the language of the Anmatyerr.
In a tiny township about half a tank full of fuel north of Alice Springs most families speak one, as a first language, and the other as a second. Children grow up hearing these languages and by the time they start school they are multi lingual. The words can be written, as you see, but it is unusual for the language to appear in print as it does here. Each language has a printed dictionary, but first people native to the language do not need them.
This is a township in Australia so it is natural for the children to see written signs, labels, packaging, logos in English, as we all do, but generally books and newsprint are seldom seen. In time, when these children start school they do not have the years of familiar reading experience most southern Australian families provide. For these children English is their third language. Some people fluently speak three or more languages, but the majority of us only speak one language at home so we have little idea how clever these children are to grasp even a smattering of English. I dare say most of us would struggle to read fluently with this as our background.
It is for this reason a rolling pair of grandparents visit the school in the cooler months for a month at a time to help the kids learn to read. All we do is all many parents and grandparents do, we take every opportunity to listen to each child in the school read each day. It is not onerous and it is effective in relieving busy teachers, however its effectiveness in assisting children read is marginal. Oral reading does assist children reach fluency and it is commonly practiced until children reach competency for silent reading, but to be effective it is necessary to have daily practice.
We know, from our previous visit, last year’s eager readers are not alway the same children this year. Family, cultural, sporting, or just life style choices interfere with a teacher’s daily program. It really doesn’t matter which school a child attends it is just as true here as it is there. Regular school attendance helps with development especially reading. Our tiny sample illustrates the dangers of absenteeism.
This neatly brings us back to the Anmatyerr and Warlipri words at the beginning. This school, like most, has a school motto. Strong heart, Strong head, Strong spirit. The school is specialising in literacy, numeracy, and culture. The children are taught about their motto in the two aboriginal languages and in English. At my school we learned about our school motto in English and Latin. I think this learning is more appropriate.
Here are a few thoughts I committed to word when the moment allowed. Due to the poor Internet I lost two articles before they were published and became further dispirited when a most horrible form of flu took over my body. Three weeks after it started I am feeling less than brilliant and I find myself unwilling to rewrite that which I have lost. Anyway I have nothing to complain about except those that condemned me for writing prose in Facebook. You know who you are.