“Life is art, art is life, I never separate them.” Ai Weiwei (AWW)….and everything is political.
If you take the view that I do, which is that even drawing breath is a political act, then Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, in Istanbul is a great expression of the philosophy that Art is Life and that everything in life is political.
I slipped, almost literally, through the front door on a rainy, slippery, Istanbul day. For a cultural illiterate, such as I, who normally can’t tell the difference between Mahler and Wagner or between a Rembrandt and a Vermeer and who thinks a Concerto is a brand of Honda car, an Ai Wei Wei exhibition is perfect.
You don’t need to know anything about art or about Ai Weiwei. You just need to know something about life and politics. Everything else is explained.
Vases as columns against a backdrop of scenes depicting refugees, emigrants, prisoners and other similar groups
The exhibition is eclectic ranging over the Sichuan earthquake, Palestine, tigers, refugees, freedom of speech, the destruction of his studio, attitudes to power and authority, Chinese labour camps, beatings, stone age tools, war, iconoclasm, still life, traditional art.
For those who haven’t been to an Ai Weiwei exhibition here is a virtual tour……
Countries as art and political statements – as you enter you are greeted by a map of China in ceramic, it’s a form of jigsaw in a way, and it’s really reflective of the rest of the exhibition which binds together art and political statement – with interesting cultural bits of information about the use of iconography as political dissent.
Much of the exhibition utilises common place objects as a link between the everyday and the political and cultural. A coat hanger as the basis for a portrait and car window winders to demonstrate the absurdity of totalitarianism which attempted to prevent protests from moving vehicles over Tiananmen Square by removing all the window winders from cars.
Between 2008 and 2011 Ai Weiwei became the subject of political persecution by the Chinese Government, a process that began with his investigations of and blogging about political corruption that had allowed shoddily built buildings to kill tens of thousands of people during the Sichuan earthquakes in May 2008. The dead included 5000 schoolchildren killed by poorly-built schools throughout the region. AWW named each of the dead children.
There are echoes of history in his subsequent detention. His father, the famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing, who was exiled to the Gobi Desert, said in 1946: “I believe that art and the revolution must go together; they can never be separated. We are political animals, and sometimes we write as political animals. If the revolution fails, the art will fail, but in as far as is possible the artist must be a revolutionary. As a revolutionary and as an artist he must represent his times.”
Left: the earthquake zone, centre: ceramics recreating twisted metal reo from the buidings
Ai responded to the deaths in Sichuan with a series of angry blog posts, and by the next year had set up the Citizens’ Investigation on Sichuan earthquake. The police responded by making a threatening visit Ai’s home, and a few months later, when Ai was in Sichuan to attend the trial of an earthquake activist, police broke into his hotel during the night and beat him. He was left with a cerebral hemorrhage and required emergency brain surgery.
AWW filmed part of the earthquake zone and superimposes a series of negative responses from officials that he received when he tried to get information on the impacts of the earthquake and who was responsible.
A part of the exhibition uses the beating and the brain scans that led to surgery as as the basis for two ceramics using a scan of his brain.
It was during this period that AWW was arrested, as he was boarding a flight to Taiwan, and then detained for 81 days. Subsequently he was barred from overseas travel and the studio he had been invited to build was torn down by the Chinese Government.
In literally 24 hours the entire building was demolished, razed to the ground and the rubble trucked away so that not one shred of evidence of the buildings existence remains – a sort of instant re-writing of history (at left, below, the building before demolition and then the paddock shown after the building’s removal at right, below). AWW documents the process in a video.
From here the exhibition moves on to document a series of images of AWWs response to authority in a very simply and symbolic series of images of iconic buildings which in some form or other represent wealth, power or images of a society’s culture…such as, in the case of Australia the opera house. In each AWW stands with finger raised as we all wish to do to authority figures, much of the time.
Similarly he uses images such as those of massed crabs to document mechanisms of secret protest against authoritarian regimes. Chinese people use the word for the crabs as a synonym for censorship as it sounds similar to the Chinese word for “harmonious” and refers directly to Chinese attempts to create a harmonious society via censorship.
Following AWW’s arrest and detention he was put under house arrest and then had his passport removed so he could not travel abroad, specifically, in the beginning, to prevent him receiving his nobel prize. His resistance to the removal of his travel rights is documented in a series of images of flowers (perhaps resonant of the famous 1967 images of George Harris and Jan Rose Kasmir using flowers in the face of the rifle barrels of National Guardsman.
Jan Rose Kasmir (left and centre photographed by Marc Riboud) and George Harris (right photographed by Bernie Boston) – at a rally of 100,000 against the Vietnam war
Over a period of 600 days Ai Weiwei placed flowers in the basket of his bicycle to protest against the loss of his passport. His use of flowers as a symbol of protest is repeated in a number of works in the exhibition and the centrepiece (centre, below) is a wall-papered room showing each of the bunches of flowers that were placed in the bicycle basket.
The rest of the exhibition follows similar themes using a variety of artistic mechanisms to document his views on Palestine through his videos of the last tiger, starving in Palestine’s zoo following the Israeli blockade (the tiger was later saved) and documenting the treatment of refugees and other groups around the world (bottom images).
The historical information in this blog is accurate so far as I can recall. However others are welcome to add comment which correct any factual inaccuracies and the blog will be updated as people do this.
February 13, 1988. BHP’s team had been drilling at Coronation Hill near Kakadu for months. More than enough time for us to carefully prepare to confront the crew from the Big Australian, as it was then known. In 1982 the preparation for the Franklin River blockade had taken months, with hundreds being trained in non-violent protest, with offices and communications plans carefully laid.
Occupying the drill rig while BHP staff debate what to do
Richard Ledgar relaxes on the rig
But in the NT, we didn’t do things like that. No, the plan was laid a couple of days before over a cafe latte and a bowl of pasta at the Roma Bar which was, then, the only place in the NT where, mythology had it, you could get a decent flat white. It was also the meeting place for all things ‘left’ in the NT.
Here with a single good bomb you could have wiped out most the NT Labor Party (if you could call it left), most of the leftie-stirrers from the Northern Land Council (NLC), every progressive lawyer in Darwin and anyone else with pretensions to undermining civilisation as the NT Government, the miners and the pastoralists saw it.
“What’ja doin’ next week?”. The question forced out through a mouthful of good Italian pasta and parmigiana was, it turned out, a leading one. No invitation to a good party or a day at the beach. Or this remains the legend of how this blockade was planned by a few of us.
Using a chopper to try and blow the camp away
Being interviewed by Darwin TV
No the invitation was to appropriate a leased NLC vehicle, obtain an access permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority, with the consent of traditional custodians, chuck in a couple of blue tarps and swags, an esky with enough food and drink for a week and rack off to Coronation Hill, which lay in the middle of the proposed Stage 3 of Kakadu National Park.
Kakadu is one of Australia’s best known and important national parks. For many years Governments had been promising to incorporate a third stage into the park, the areas comprising the old Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral stations. This would protect the headwaters of the South Alligator River and the famous Yellow Waters.
The discovery of gold, platinum and palladium in the old uranium mining areas of the South Alligator River Valley had started the Commonwealth Government backtracking. The Wilderness Society, ECNT and other organisations had been campaigning to ensure that the Commonwealth Government kept its promise.
The Wilderness Society had recently obtained a legal opinion written by barrister, Tim Robertson and fortified by that and a few beers later that day, the idea of occupying BHP’s drill rig was agreed.
The plan was to…well…go the exploration area. We had no plan about what we would do, no idea how many people BHP had working there, what their reaction would be, how long we might have to stay. There was no plan B in case of illness, violence or police arrest. It was the ultimate fly by the seat of your pants action.
In fact you could say…strategy preparation: nil. Planning for potential confrontation and violence in an isolated area, 150 kilometres from the nearest help? Don’t you worry about that. Communications strategy?..nope. Breakdown or injury? She’ll be right. Arrest potential and strategy? WTF. Exit strategy? What? But we were well armed with hubris and over-confidence.
At this stage there were two of us, Richard Ledgar and me who had agreed to go. Not sufficient for our major intervention. We carefully fished around for a third person, making certain that we didn’t know them or anything about them, just to be certain that we could increase the margin for error as much as possible. We found Scott Wootten who agreed to accompany us on our meticulously well planned confrontation with what was then Australia’s largest company.
Richard and I knew each other well but we’d only just met Scott. So there was clearly no risk, under stress, for internal tension between the three of us. Our only contact with the outside world, was two way radio, powered by car battery. In the event of that failing, we planned to resort to carrier pigeon.
So, backed by the Wilderness Society (TWS) and fortified with local support from the NT Environment Centre (ECNT), the moral backing of the traditional custodians and sanctified with the legal opinion provided to TWS, which said that the drilling at Coronation Hill was illegal, off we went into the night.
Late on the 13th a white land cruiser, with our team of three, approached the first locked gate on the road on the road to Coronation Hill. The least organised, most impromptu and most poorly resourced “blockade” in Australian history was about to start.
We were armed with our permit from senior Jawoyn traditional owner, Peter Jatbula, and keys which allowed us access to Coronation Hill an area designated a sacred site by the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority. Other than that we had no right of entry and had to pass through several locked gates. The keys we had – issued as part of the Aboriginal permit, would open some, but for the rest our key was a bolt cutter.
Our legal opinion written by Wilderness Society legal counsel advised that the renewal of the mining exploration lease at Coronation was invalid as it had been incorrectly renewed. This was to be brandished at the unknown number of BHP workers, a bit like a wooden stake or cross at a vampire in the absolute knowledge that they would instantly admit defeat and pack up and leave.
We planned to occupy BHPs rig and other equipment to highlight the illegality of the lease, to denounce the proposed gold mine in what had been promised by the Hawke Government as Kakadu National Park’s 3rd stage, and to condemn the desecration of Jawoyn sacred sites.
We had food for a week and expected to be arrested within a couple of days; we hoped the occupation and our arrest wouldlead to national media coverage on mining in and around Kakadu, an issue that had already been highly controversial and frequently covered by the mass media, and thus force the Government’s hand.
Our only means of communication with the outside world was via VJY, which was a short wave radio network which provided communications between remote areas in the territory. In the event of accident or any conflict with BHP staff we were more than 150 kilometres from any friendly assistance from comrades in Darwin.
Members of the Resource Assessment Commission visit Kakadu – to report to the Government on the issue
Members of the Federal Government appointed Resource Assessment Commission visit Coronation Hill to inspect and report back to the Government
Just on dusk we passed through the final gate onto Coronation Hill itself, which we unlocked with our special key obtained from the hardware store. No illegal BHP chain shall go uncut!!
The proposed gold mine was the site of an old uranium mine and was part of what the Jawoyn traditional owners saw as “sickness country”. The boundaries of sickness country coincided almost exactly with the areas which had produced uranium deposits and had been mined subsequently.
Traditionally Bula, the spirit that inhabited this area, would create sickness if disturbed and this was one reason that local Aborigines were so opposed to further mining.
The drill site was quiet, with no security and no BHP employees present; everyone had knocked off for the night and were down at the main camp about 100 metres away. We did a quick recce and then set up camp just above the drill site and next to the front end loader. Camp was simply the vehicle, a tarpaulin, fridge and basic supplies, plus three swags and the radio. Satisfied that no one know we were there we turned in for the night.
It was a dawn call in the morning as we were uncertain what the movements of the workers on site would be, but we were certain that they wouldn’t be offering us café latté from their BHP funded espresso machine.
We occupied the drill rig and then went to find the employees. In essence BHP had two pieces of equipment essential to their operations, the drill rig and a loader/backhoe. Due to our careful strategic planning we had just sufficient blockaders to occupy both and have a spare person to guard our camp, radio and to prepare food.
Neither machine could be left unattended at any time, so we could only change shifts when there were no BHP staff present. This left us all plenty of time to relax comfortably in the tropical sun with nothing to do and no one to talk to for hours on end, as clearly envisaged in our strategy.
We arrived in their camp and presented them with the legal opinion and a media release, as well as a notice stating that they were in illegal occupation of a sacred site and therefore liable to prosecution. All this was done with some degree of trepidation. Paranoia told us that had they so chosen the workers could have quietly murdered us, disposed of our bodies in some old mine shaft and then denied all knowledge of our arrival.
They were requested to cease operations and leave the area. The employees were clearly gob-smacked and didn’t know what action they should take. They returned to the accommodation area to discuss the unforeseen arrivals.
As it turned out in the long-run, we might just as well have pierced their entire operation with the metaphorical vampire stake since the legal opinion and the subsequent publicity that the occupation generated led directly to the abandonment of the entire mining proposal.
We returned to the drill pad and called the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) to update them and give the go-ahead for the first media release. This set of a storm of action at our media centre under our blue tarp with numerous calls from national and local media. The media centre consisted of a portable radio and battery extracted from the NLC vehicle.
The use of the NLC vehicle and radio was another stroke of brilliant planning. From the point of view of the NT Government, which behaved as if the proposed Coronation Hill mine was the only thing saving the NT from the next great depression, this implicated the NLC.
Monsoon forest at the creeks on the way to Coronation Hill
To the NT Government the NLC (which was the regional representative organisation of the traditional owners) was the Great Satan which continued to seduce the naive Traditional Owners from their rightful path – a path which would lead them to untold mining riches and, of course, more wealth for their white brethren.
So our use of NLC equipment, even though it was leased to Richard and technically entirely under his control, was a gift to the government. The end result being that a week later, on our exit from Coronation Hill, he lost his consultancy contract with the NLC. In our brilliance and careful planning we failed to foresee something so bleeding obvious.
But, ironically, it was our almost entirely non-existent media strategy and threadbare equipment that proved our greatest strength. Every broadcast over VJY, which is an open radio network, every media interview and every communication with our comrades in Darwin were monitored by anyone caring to listen including the Commonwealth and NT Governments, the NLC, the media, BHP and, no doubt, the intelligence services, among others. Normally one might think this a great disadvantage but it proved to be the opposite.
BHP’s chosen strategy was to intimidate us with their presence and sheer numbers. So whenever we called anyone or anyone called us, they would crowd around the radio to listen in thinking this would prevent us being able to talk for fear of communicating our deadly and secret strategies.
We quickly realised it had the opposite effect because we could bullshit away about how great our media coverage had been, or how the NT Government couldn’t intervene because it was Federal Government land and how the Federal Government had received legal advice that we were right about the leases having been incorrectly granted. For the BHP staff, listening in, it was quite demoralising.
To our support crew back in Darwin we’d tell them of our plans to stay as long as necessary, despite having no clue about how we could possibly do that since, after a week, we’d be reduced to three rice crackers between us; leaving aside the likelihood that we’d either die or heatstroke or boredom or both.
Our greatest satisfaction was knowing that our small effort at preserving Kakadu was being broadcast to the world to the world at remarkably regular intervals via a string of calls from national and regional broadcasters.
This included one ABC reporter who greeted us one day with “How is it going, Comrades?” completely unaware that every right wing philistine who thought the ABC was a nest of communist vipers was listening, and that his comment simply reinforced their prevailing views about the ABC.
Apart from this we resorted for entertainment to a range of unorthodox recreation. Among those, for me, was sitting up on the drill rig trying to learn to whistle effectively. I sat there inserting my fingers into my mouth at various different angles for a couple of days while various siffling and snuffling sounds emerged, much to the bemusement of the gathered BHP drillers, until one day a clear high pitched whistle emerged.
For the next two days I continued to practice while both my colleagues and the drillers became increasingly annoyed at being subjected to a variety of meaningless piercing whistles for no apparent reason. But at least now I could attract attention when needed.
Aside from this and reading, there was little to do except drink tea and coffee. We were ill prepared for our week long sojourn. And of course even had there been reception in this remote area of Kakadu-to-be there were no mobiles and no computers in this epoch.
By day four a sort of somnolent truce had settled over the place but on day five the BHP management decided they needed to get rid of us. This involved variously increased efforts at harassment including verbal and physical intimidation and culminating in hiring a helicopter to hover over the camp tarpaulin in an effort to blow it down and away.
Unfortunately for them, they were unaware that I had a private pilots licence and was well aware that the pilot of the chopper was acting in breach of all aviation rules. A quick call to the ECNT, assisted by the eavesdropping of the BHP interlopers, in which I said that I planned to make a formal complaint to the aviation authorities, at which point the pilot was at risk of his or her licence and the chopper quickly disappeared.
By day seven it was reasonably clear that we had successfully stopped work and elevated the issue up the national agenda. We had done this to the degree that we were shortly thereafter invited to Canberra to discuss the issue with then Resources Minister, John Kerin. Nevertheless it was clear we were not going to achieve our recently decided goal of getting ourselves arrested and therefore further elevating the issue in the public eye.
The NT Government could not arrest us because the mining lease was on Commonwealth Land and the Australian Government, we believed, was unwilling to do so because having clearly indicated that we believed we were legally on the lease, we had also earlier declared publicly that we would prosecute for unlawful arrest if anyone tried to arrest us.
By the end of day seven we made the decision to leave, leaving only the issue of how to get out of the place. The problem being that the NLC had decided to reclaim its vehicle leaving us stranded with no transport. So we had to arrange to get picked up by our colleagues in Darwin.
In keeping with the rest of the occupation, our exit from Coronation Hill was met by yet more unplanned eventualities. As we proceeded down the road back to Darwin, travelling at our normal speed of about 110 km, I was driving David Cooper’s landcruiser when I glanced out the window to see a wheel accelerating past the passenger side window. Moments later the vehicle lurched and their was a great grinding and tearing sound.
The bolts holding the rear passenger side wheel had sheered off, leaving us stranded 150 kilometres from Darwin in the middle of the night. So ensued a trip back to Pine Creek to get a new wheel and wheel studs. A glorious end to our brilliant campaign.
Postscript: While the Coronation Hill occupation elevated the issue a step or two higher on the national agenda it took another two years of vigorous campaigning by environmental and Aboriginal organisations before the Government even reduced the size of the exploration area (which it euphemistically called the “conservation area”) and until 1991 before the Commonwealth Government stopped the exploration and included the area in Kakadu National Park.
It’s clear that Australians whose daily out outpouring of bile against Muslims, refugees and strangers, in general, have never experienced the generosity, warmth and welcome of strangers in strange lands. Had they done so it is hard to believe that they would behave towards people with different values, skin colours and religions as they have been doing.
My childhood homes for 16 years, from the age of 6 weeks, were all in countries where people had no reason to feel friendly towards white, blond haired, privileged and wealthy children but my experiences and that of my family were overwhelmingly positive.
One Bhuddist country, Thailand, two Muslim countries, Egypt and Iran and one Apartheid country, South Africa, all provided a welcome which puts Australia’s xenophobic, racist and cruel Government to shame and where the welcome and warmth of the citizens of those countries is in sharp contrast to the outpouring of bile by a minority of Australians.
Those experiences, of so long ago, are not isolated or historical. More recently, I have spent weeks or months in Egypt (2014), Turkey (2015), Jordan (2014). In every circumstance, both historical and recent, I have experienced no hostility, no racism or xenophobia and an overwhelming inclination from everyone to be friendly and helpful and to understand and be open to people from other cultures – and not just from those who might stand to benefit from the spending of tourists but more broadly from the person in the street. Perhaps I have been lucky but I like to think not.
We lived in Egypt between 1960 and 1965. This was just four years after the Suez Crisis when Israel, Britain and France had invaded Egypt in response to Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. So there we were, a British family (I was born in Britain in 1955 just before my family left for Thailand), living in a country which only four years previously had been invaded by the British armed forces. Despite this, the Egyptians were overwhelmingly welcoming. I had the same experience in 2014, during protests and repression in Tahrir Square when Egyptians would invite me to their homes for tea, despite their knowledge of Australia’s role in the Middle East and about its attitude to refugees.
We moved to Iran between 1966 and 1969, to a country where the west, in the form of a CIA inspired coup had deposed the democratic, and popularly elected, Mossadeq Government in 1953, a mere 14 years previously and had restored the repressive Shah Reza Pahlavi to power. Despite this Iranians were welcoming and friendly.
We lived in South Africa between 1969 and 1972, at the height of apartheid, where no black or brown person had any reason to feel remotely friendly to people with white skin and yet, as a teenager, experienced no sense of hostility or racism. Compare this with the abuse of people of all ages, including teenagers in Australia, just for looking or being different
Compare this with the hostility to French people during the protests against nuclear testing in Mururoa – a small island 8700 kilometres distant. As an example in Darlinghurst, Marc and Murielle Laucher, a couple with dual French-Australian citizenship, found the windows of their cafe, La Petite Creme, smeared with faeces – which was not an isolated incident.
More recently, I have been in Turkey, a country on the frontline of the hostilities in the Middle East, and which is dealing with hundreds of thousand of refugees. This is a country where an Islamic-leaning Government has encouraged a less secular society and where negotiations over many years to enter the EU have not exactly endeared many Turks to “western” oriented societies. Never mind Gallipoli and the history of conflict between the Ottomans and the west.
Yet every person from the most secular to the most religious was welcoming and friendly and there was no sense of people being prejudiced due to the alleged clash of western and islamic values. In fact the sense of a reconciliation of those values (women in bikinis and headscarfs) was far stronger than in Australia. None of this is to say that no racism exists in these other societies or that minorities in all societies don’t behave in the same way as the racist bigots in Australia but it seems less prevalent and less obvious.
There is something peculiarly obnoxious about the toxic mix of political conservatism, xenophobia, racism which is making Australia a less pleasant, less open and less welcoming society than many of consider it to be. It’s a subject about which we need a national debate. How do we combat this? How do we change the politics of fear that allows this prejudice to thrive. And what can every citizen do to assist?
From Purnululu we head for Kununurra which will be our next rest day after Katherine. Our first stop, for fuel and refreshments is Warmun (formerly Turkey Creek). Here we meet, John, another intrepid cyclist. He is from New Zealand and is en route from Darwin to Perth. His wife has abandoned him for the trip as she considers his passion for riding long distances over main roads to be something only explicable in the average asylum.
His two main loads are 30 litres of water and a bird book the size of the average car fridge. He expects to be in Broome, some 700 kilometres away, in two weeks. His trip has been a positive experience with passing motorists offering, water, lifts, tea and cake. He notes that women are much more positive about his trip than men, with the women offering praise and enthusiasm and the men offering assessments of his sanity. John suggests that men feel that their masculinity is threatened because they are cruising comfortably in four-wheel drives, so they feel compelled to belittle his achievement.
The scenery as we travel east is a mixture of spinifex plains and low mountain ranges topped by escarpments. The Goddess of Weird Excitability at Very Small Things Indeed (GoWEaVSTI) is agog. If we still used cellulose film instead of digital there would scarcely be enough cellulose to sate her enthusiasm. As we broach a rise in the road a low range of hills appears as a pimple in the distance. It is surely topped by a very nice escarpment! “Stop, the GoEaVSTI urges us, “scarcely a more glorious range of hills has ever been seen, it must be photographed immediately”
A collective rolling of eyes occurs. “But, GoWEaVSTI, it is very similar to many other such ranges and will, indeed, not be capture-able on the implement for capturing such images. It will be simply a line on the horizon.” But captured it was. And, lo, it was a line on the horizon.
We roll into Kununurra, which advertises itself as the gateway to the Kimberley. It is packed full of tourists along with a few intrepid travellers, like ourselves, who are exploring where thousands have gone before. We find ourselves ensconced in the Kimberleyland Holiday Park.
Unfortunately the lakeside site which we should have had is denied us when Roger appears unable to choose between a beautiful, green lakeside side with views of sunsets, birds, water and numerous other upmarket facilities and a dusty, non-lakeside site, with no views, directly on the toilet block and hence passed by several dozen visitors each five minutes. As an added bonus we are mere feet from the kiddies playground which, I should add, does not change my view on involuntary euthanasia for noisy children.
Forced by Roger to consult and achieve consensus over such a difficult choice we find ourselves gazumped by the next arrivals, who for some reason, unlike Roger, are able to see, on the map, that the site indicated as being by the lake is, indeed, by the lake. Our camp plot is lost. Some compensation is achieved by the fact that we are adjacent to a very pleasant family from Macedon, Victoria, called the Royals. The Royals pass us important and confidential information about destinations which are, of course, not available to other tourists. This includes secret information such as the most popular camping spots around Wyndham.
Since it is late and no one feels inclined to cook we go for dinner across the road. The food is passable but the décor of a variety of female crotch and tit shots leaves something to be desired. MONA it is not.
Our days in Kununurra are dedicated to business and provisions, as well as a brief lunch with Lloyd, Lynda and two friends who are traveling with them. But first order of business is locating the town’s best coffee shop which is the Mango Tree on the corner of the main street. We also have to get our temporary repair to the sump crash plate fixed.
While the car is being fixed I retreat to the library. It is a beautiful new library and I am apparently funding its entire construction costs in the amount I am paying for access to the internet. At least it is a good investment since I am able to respond to my tax accountant about some questions he has about my tax return. He is unconvinced that by using the local coffee shop in Byron for work, I can charge all my 365 morning coffees against my tax.
We replenish our food and alcohol supplies. Licensing rules in Kununurra limit us to one bottle of spirits per person, so we need three separate purchases. The most important additional purchase, over and above the gin and tonic, is a bottle of Baileys to add to the morning espresso. For the uninitiated this is an essential component of camping trips which I discovered on freezing cold climbing trips in Joshua Tree and Red Rocks in the US. When you get up, sit in a chair facing east, in your sleeping bag and watch the sunrise while drinking coffee and Baileys. Apart from being a perfect day-starter, it has the added advantage of relaxing one enough that one’s climbing techniques improve considerably. On this trip it improves ones dexterity while climbing on the vehicle to put the tents away.
A part of our alcohol allocation permits the purchase of six bottles of apple cider for Jill, who promptly gets drunk on one bottle. Jill observes that alcohol does not really agree with her. Jill’s tendency to be a cheap drunk has a very problematic downside on the morning that we leave Kununurra, when Kaylee and I are outraged to discover that she has given away the rest of our communal bottles of cider because she can’t cope with the entirely predictable side-effects.
Roger and Jill are out canoeing on the lake when Lloyd and Lynda turn up. Kaylee and I meet them in the Mango Tree. They are travelling in an identical hire vehicle to us, albeit that, because it is not a one way hire, they have been able to leave the surplus swag, chemical toilet and other encumbrances in Alice Springs. The vehicles are equipped, unlike most similar four-wheel drives, with two double tents constructed one roof.
I observe to Lloyd and Lynda that the main drawback is their proclivity to roll around like a ship in a storm when anyone moves. There is no need for Kaylee and I to move if we want to have sex. One person simply lies on top of the other and we simply wait for Roger to turn over, at which point the swaying motion of the vehicle accomplishes everything for which one might otherwise have to exert oneself. There is the added benefit that the only thing Roger and Jill notice is that Roger has turned over. It is the perfect sexual technique for shared vehicles.
Saturday morning sees Kaylee and I go kayaking on Lake Kununurra. My paddling technique is somewhat limited since I managed to put my back out due to Roger’s night-time movement, but it’s an easy and short paddle surrounded by a plethora of water birds. It is one of the bizarre eccentricities of bad backs that you can spend three weeks walking, lifting heavy boxes, climbing on vehicles, crawling under vehicles etc with no ill effects. On the other hand one tiny movement, with no apparent stress, and ones back decides to pack it in for three days. I am consoled by the thought of cooked breakfast at the Mango Tree.
While Kaylee and I are breakfasting, Roger does the shopping. This later proves problematic since, according to Jill, Roger is foolish enough to actually follow the shopping list. Jill’s technique, according to her own words is to waste a considerable amount of time writing a detailed list of requirement and then completely ignore it.
You then go shopping randomly adding anything you feel like and increasing or decreasing the shopping list accordingly. To quote, “I just add at least a third more things to any list to ensure we have enough.” The logic of writing a list seems to have passed Jill by. After our breakfast I visit the chemist to replenish my reading and sunglass supply. I have a reading glass consumption rate of about 2 pairs per month and, regrettably no amount of efficiency efforts have managed to reduce that.
Our final job is to explore getting rid of surplus gear to make packing easier – we plan to freight the chemical toilet and spare swag to Perth. We ring the local trucking companies – only one is open on a Saturday morning. They need to check on costs and delivery schedules and promise to ring back. But by the time that call comes we have already left and are out of reception range.
We are now officially on the way down the Gibb River Road which branches off from the road to Wyndham. But first we plan a quick detour to Wyndham. It is one of those towns on which one gets mixed reports. But like Halls Creek it’s sum is greater than its parts. Many of the alleged attractions of the town are closed, such as Look Sea Fishing Charters, the crocodile farm, the botanic gardens, the Lee Tong’s Oriental Grocer, the video store and the war memorial gardens. The town is also a tad overwhelmed by a constant stream of road trains carrying ore from the nearby mine.
Having had a poke around the town we stop for afternoon tea at the Rusty Shed, where, as with virtually ever other place we have visited, we are served by a French woman on a working holiday. It seems our hospitality industry is sustained by visitors on long-term holidays. We meet Fred there who recounts his life history as a emigre from the Netherlands and a long-term resident of Wyndham. Fred is fascinating and has strong links with the Aboriginal community. His father was part of the resistance during World War 2. He recounts the difficulties of surviving the war with virtually no food and getting arrested for cutting down trees for firewood.
He says that even in the fifties there were massacres of Aboriginal people occurring; he quotes a case where a black tracker, from one clan group, assisted some people to kill a group of other blackfellas from a different clan group.
On Wyndham’s positive side there is a thriving and well managed caravan park, a great cafe, The Rusty Shed, an impressive Aboriginal memorial which is hidden in the back blocks and is half dignified and half kitsch. Nearby there is the fantastic five rivers lookout from which you get a Panorama of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf where the five huge rivers meet on an enormous flood plain.
Leaving the Five Rivers Lookout we pick up fuel and head out down the road to the Gibb turnoff. En route we stop to photograph the “boot tree”, which appears to be a random tree into which passing motorists have thrown their worn out boots. It is at the top of the hill on the other side of double white lines. I insist we stop to get a photograph of this phenomenon and my insistence persuades Roger, just short of the crest of hill, to swerve at high speed across the double white lines in order to meet my request. Mission accomplished, Roger is advised by Jill that crossing a double white line at speed is risky and out of character and that he has been in my company for too long.