Words and pictures by Peter Papathanasiou
We pulled up at the pub. Jack ordered us beers and a late lunch. We ate out back in the beer garden, surrounded by large white men in alternating shades of fluorescent yellow and safety orange. Their clothes were rough, covered in salt stains and assorted mineral crud. Their bearded faces had orange dust traced into each furrow in their foreheads. In a T-shirt and shorts, I felt decidedly overdressed.
Obscenity-riddled conversations encircled me. The cook’s sulphur-crested cockatoo, its snow white feathers dirty with brown dust, repeated the same bawdy phrases. I struggled to keep up, my profanity quotient was dangerously low. Everyone seemed to know Jack and everyone called him ‘a bastard’.
I had never seen such gargantuan T-bone steaks, as expansive as the land on which they were reared, dished up in aluminium trays as long as canoes. The cook had grilled them on a barbeque cocooned in a fly wire tent to protect the meat from flying cockroaches the size of small birds. Thick-cut chips as long as timber planks, boiled vegetables as big as fists. Horizontal food, sprawling cuisine, not petite morsels and porcini mushrooms stacked atop tiny medallions of veal. Puddles of gravy, not drizzles of jus. Big food, real food that tasted rough and raw like the continent. I inhaled it all and went back for seconds.
We continued driving. In every direction, all I could see was dirt and low, dry bushes. Jack put on a CD with ballads about stockmen and drovers, drought and dust and pubs with no beer. The fuzz of red noise conspired with the food and beer in my gut to make my eyelids heavy.
‘Hey. You awake? We’re here.’
Jack’s big country hand was shaking my shoulder. I opened my eyes and peered through the grubby windscreen. There it was, carved into the land, the edge of the world. The almighty gorge disappeared beneath me and left me short of oxygen. A curved red wall formed a natural amphitheatre and after so much rain, an ice blue waterfall plunged down its face forty metres into an emerald rock pool. The walls rose up in strips of varied colour that made them look like ancient temples built to worship the sun. Signatures driven into rock in natural amphitheatres commemorated the Dreamtime; drawings of kangaroos, turtles, thylacines, emus, crocodiles.
The explosions had ended. At dusk, the earth was painted over with four brush strokes: brown for the land, a thick layer of crimson for the horizon, a thin strip of gold above the red, and cobalt blue for the sky. Within a half hour, the land turned a vibrant umber and the chocolate ranges became deep purple. A zillion stars appeared overhead. Jack and I sat by the gorge and cracked two cans. It was the coldest, most delicious beer I’d ever tasted. Another can was dinner: cold chili, red kidney beans to match our outback surrounds. Handing the can between us, we each took our own slurp of chunky sauce. A real man’s meal, alpha male grub. A sound echoing up from the gorge soon tickled my ears.
‘That’s a pied butcherbird,’ Jack said. ‘They sing every night from behind a black executioner’s hood.’
Peaceful and haunting, tumbling over granite and sandstone, the resting bird’s delicate whistle nestled in my brain. It seemed to whisper to me. Its silvery tones spoke of the palpable sense of space, of quiet and calm. It told of an unhurried existence, of the intangible. On a rocky slope below, a mob of black-tailed wallabies fed, their movements dislodging small stones. A barn owl flew unseen overhead, its call echoing against the rocks. Seconds later, a bat making a chipping sound. Tree frogs croaked asynchronously, crickets chirruped incessantly. And then, without warning, everything fell silent. Even the waterfall seemed to stop trickling. I felt momentarily giddy, with no sound to stimulate me, to support me, the world spinning. Was it the beer? It couldn’t be. I hadn’t had that much to drink. What was it?
It was the Pilbara. For a collective instant, it had stopped, stepped back, and was now watching me sitting, listening, and watching it.
Jack rolled out swags. We camped. The lingering warmth in the earth against my back dissolved my aches and dried my skin like an electric blanket on low setting. Despite my initial reservations about the northwest, I had never slept so soundly.