The Calder Highway: a road of dreams
We are back on my road of dreams, one of the roads I can almost chart on the back of my hand. Its a road into Australia’s interior, the edge of it at least, the Calder Highway, which begins timidly in Melbourne’s outer suburbs but which, close to 600 kilometres on, drives flat through the mother country desert, sister, brother pitted with the incongruous, remarkable orange groves of Mildura and surrounds.
To drive this road, and it only takes eight hours or so, is to enter another place, to watch the transformation of place from urbane major city to solitary tundra, red dirt and tough, sinewy shrubs, into a country that for me is holy with personal longing and significance. We all have these roads of dreams, and their holy destinations.
I’ve made the pilgrimage here often. I used to come with the inner-city bohemian tribe painters, musicians, dancers, writers, lovers of life. I’m still surrounded by those who love life but were a different vintage now; three families with growing-up daughters, a swag of them. We’ve three of our own and the other families have a daughter each. And it’s Easter. Were on another pilgrimage this time to the Hattah Lakes District, down the turnoff I’ve always left behind as I headed further on through Mildura into southwest NSW and the alluring plains and dunes of Lake Mungo.
We set off at dawn on Good Friday. You have to leave at dawn. To watch the day ripen along each side of the Calder highway a highway in the old-fashioned sense, the route of early exploration and gold-discovery carved deep by wheels of two centuries is a pure experience. Today the clouds are heavy; they almost touch the road. On other trips I’ve watched the pink dawn illumine the entire sky, touch by touch. It’s a prayer to see that.
We’re back on the road of my dreams and the towns lick by like familiars. Travelling in convoy excites the children greatly and gives a sensible, family rhythm to the drive, with regular stops around good, healthy food. A jeweller friend, Karl, one of the dads, has his espresso maker perched on the back of the ute outside a fuel stop. It’s already hot, too. Crikey, I think, being immensely impractical and of-the-moment I’ve packed a winter wardrobe. For the rest of the holiday, I wear a miniskirt borrowed from my teenage daughter and, no, it doesn’t flatter me as it once would have (but more on that later).
First stop on this camp tour will be reached around mid-afternoon. Were heading for the banks of the grand river, the Murray. We had planned to go via Hattah Lakes but a gut instinct in Karl has us heading just further north, to Colignan, to a turnoff to the right and 10 kilometres or so on to the Murray River.
I challenge anyone to view the Murray River deceased those derelict grand masters of the waterways, now permanently adrift in deep, unwatered ridges, massive barges and boats abandoned as the river simply disappeared and not weep to themselves: a long, sorrowful kind of baying sound within for what we as colonising humankind have done to this magnificent river.
As we turn off the main road and head along the maze-like dirt river-tracks, campsites tacked right along the rivers edge for miles from Mildura through to Corowa, this funereal sight is the first we have of the Murray. And of the irrigator cabins perched along the edge, too, regularly, periodically even, taking water from this great waterway to plump up the fruits we eat, the citrus, grape and olive orchards for which this area is renowned. It’s hard not to see them as a scourge, created from ludicrous intentions to irrigate this kind of country! even as we remember the good hearts of rural folk and their concern for reform in irrigation matters.
How then, with all this scarring, the imagined drone of the pump-stations pulling water up from the guts of this denuded, polluted river, the dinosaur-scaled skeletons of the abandoned boats filled up surrealistically with reeds, a cabin-crew of papyri, does the essence of the river, its magnetism, live on?
For the next week, I spend every minute, waking, sleeping and dreaming, on the edge of the river, and I find its enduring beauty a remarkable secret that almost imperceptibly unfolds. Thus our camp tour, which was to forge forward to Lake Mungo, perhaps even the Flinders Ranges, comes to a permanent stop here.
Camp Escargot and the slow life
Dawn, 5.45am. A meditator, I’m up and at it, ecstatic. Not blissed out that’s not my way. Just smitten by the deep, strong contentment of the river, within and without. Its icy in the nights and mornings, despite the 30-degrees-plus days for our entire stay. Camp Escargot, which we have fondly named the camp due to a large snail-embossed tarp donated by a friend, which acts as outdoor dining room, is set up on a wide beach. Pure white sand. Gentle dunes. The girl-tribe, almost fully naked, play on it for days on end.
Frances, 15, Poppy, 8, Coco, 6, Esther, 5, and baby Brigette, 4, alternately sprint and loll around the edge of this beautiful river. The drought has stripped it back; regardless, the children adopt it as their home. Brigette acquires a sand rash five days on, after going naked for most of them. One day, one of the mums, Jane, and my husband, Laurie, paint them with food dyes, using fine twigs as brushes, with glorious mermaids and ritualistic patterns; Jane, phenomenally creative and a livewire, plants feathers and natural bits in their hair. They’ve gone feral, mate, we all laugh.
As the sun sinks and the stars come to life, in their jarmies they plot intricate dramatic games together all independent spirits before the adults collect them one by one for sleep time and stories told by the fire.
Laurie collects fallen timber most evenings, dragging the logs to the fire, carving tiny rivers in the sand. He and the other two men gather enormous columns; sculpt a line of these sentinels Laurie intends to fire up at some point… Instead, they become another frame for the children’s play. A solid energy, Laurie’s intimacy with the elements earth, fire, wood grounds me daily. He and his childhood friend, away together for the first time in years, dig the open-earthed camp toilet together, collect interesting pieces of barked wood and turn it into a piece of organic architecture, something to admire, even when performing the most basic functions.
Baby river red gums speckle the beach; it’s a species the river is and hopefully ever will be mutually folk lored with. Here they have sprung up where inundation allowed germination but where the water flow seems unlikely to reach again. The human population, even at Easter, is sparse. Isn’t travel in Australia just incredible for this? We spend a week seeing only a few other campers; for our time there, we have this stretch of beach entirely to ourselves, except for the extraordinary natural and water life, of course.
Which is abundant? Carp, as is well known, is way too abundant. Its a pest and we watch the ever-present fishers, who turn up to drop and check their lines with such regularity one can set your watches by them, take these poor wretches out of the water to be left to die, as is the law. The mythologised, giant Murray cod is still sought after in these parts an older couple, she a buxomed, woolly-jumpered matron at the bow of the boat, almost unmoving day after day, like a fixed part of the river scenery, an immense traveller narrating the time of day, tell us that’s what they’re after. The fisher people are out even after dark, setting catches by torch, out again at meditator time, predawn, checking their luck. We speculate that they’re commercial enterprises. Could anyone be that routine for private pleasure. But we’re never to know.
Later in the week, when Laurie and I swim across the river to NSW exhilarated, just like children, really I’m aghast when he pulls up one of the lines. A live yabby has been pierced through the gut; its wriggling like mad and I feel sick to my gut. It’s already been there for hours. The poor things in such immense pain, but I can’t quite get it. Not that I’m being puritanical each to their own but the image of this staked-out creature, the unconscious cruelty of it, haunts me for days and I just know it does not please the river, either.
You get to know the river, just a little, when you spend time alone with it without interruption, shops, newspapers, television. Over-idealising? Not really. Something does happen in the bush, doesn’t it? Things get so simple. Meals fall to regular times. The children get put to bed at the last call of the kookaburra each night, according to the camping rite of Margaret, an immensely practical, wonderful person and partner of Karl. It becomes a rhythm for the girls, bedtime creeping closer to 7pm each night, and adult sleep time, too, gets closer to the girls. It’s a good life.
Karl turns out to be a most wonderful cook. It’s a little like chez Karl on the Murray. A seasoned traveller of Italy and India, his camp-tucker suits Camp Escargot: healthy, simple and wonderfully seasoned or spicy. Mornings start with a freshly brewed chai. He even dons a long black apron and kerchief headpiece each late afternoon as he starts food prep … after a good, long siesta, of course.
Each night we are treated to a little unexpected pleasure like the lightest table rose wine, or after dinner a Tuscan handmade panforte that has us reeling under the full banner of stars with delight. Our other two friends are excellent cooks and companions, too. Life takes on the scent and colour of a dream spent with the best of friends.
I am committed to really stabilising a steady meditation and yoga practice up here. I do it in short bursts in between all the everyday tasks, as many people do. We bathe in the river each day – were easefully scrupulous about soaping a good distance away and then bucketing ourselves from stainless-steel dishes with the still-cold water. It becomes another riverside ritual, as does washing the clothes, like women on the edge of the Ganges, while the men hunt fresh water supplies and grog in Mildura.
I am committed to really stabilising a steady meditation and yoga practice up here. I repeat that. A practice does become a repetition, with so many variations, including so many unexpected experiences, old feelings, new journeys. It’s close to dusk halfway through the holiday. My heart feels like its breaking there’s a pain opening the dam inside, right there, yes, right there. I go to a log where I’ve been spending a bit of alone time. It has a perfect view of the river, away from camp.
I listen quietly to my breathing. I watch the river. This immense pain simply takes me over and I sob, sob, sob. It’s an old part of me that I used to love and that I’m not any more. It’s the young mum with the great figure and a light-hearted approach to everything that I don’t have any more. I look at my late-thirtyish bod, my 10-kilo-heavier frame, my stretchmarked tum, and I heave with sorrow for the loss of this youth. Its the final landmark on what has been quite a long journey in regard to this a real change in self-image and self typing.
Of course, I know I am none of this. That’s the power of meditation. But I also know that where I do live at the physical level, there’s been this huge leap of identity. I am an almost-serene, steadied personality; I am an adoring wife and very devoted mother (read previously bohemian, exciting, lithe poetess, artist, writer, lover) who has sacrificed much writing time and the recognition and career-ascendancy that goes with it to domesticity.
I feel I have lost so much. Despite all the gains, in that very moment, I cry for every speck of myself that I have lost in this journey, every grain of self. It palpably wrenches me apart to my gut, I feel nauseous, I’m sobbing into my guts, and I want it all back. And I can’t have it.
I remember Herman Hesses Siddhartha and his final role as the ferryman who devotes the rest of his life to the river, to listening to the river, to hearing all the sounds of the river. Something happens in this pain that is like starting to listen to the river, to this river, this still-magnificent river, and it does tell me: in its powerful passage despite its diminution, its currents are so strong still it tells me to let the pain be, to just let it be, then to let it pass on. Like a movie, it brings up what I have found in the past 10 years, it shows me that. And then that, too, passes on. And again I am left with nothing but the self of the river, the self of me, the self of the rivers pulse, and the self of my own hearts pulse.
At the dining tent, smoke is rising. Karl’s opening another light Italian red and I just know that everything is going to be all right. Breathing right on. Flowing right through this spectacular, unexpected pain, like the way you breathe through and yet barely survive the surge of birth pangs, before the river before me.
I’m plunged to somewhere else in myself. I’ve plumbed myself deeper. I do become, for the rest of the journey, closer and closer to this river. Because she really does accept me and she knows all the moods of life, just like Siddhartha says, without saying anything at all, because silence is the rivers constant, favourite companion, her shadow. Which is why it has taken me so many words to get to here, after all … words should lead to silence, don’t you think?
Thank you, the great Murray River.
Jacinta Le Plastrier Aboukhater is a Melbourne writer, poet and energetic healer/counsellor. She also teaches meditation. She can be contacted at email@example.com