Lyndhurst by Graham Akhurst
Graham Akhurst is currently in his last semester of a Bachelor of Creative Arts in writing at the University of Queensland. Prior to this he completed an Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts where he studied music, and wrote and co-created several performances that were held at QPAC. Graham is of Aboriginal descent and hails from the Kokomini tribe in Northern Queensland. Graham currently resides in Brisbane, and has ambitions to further his study at the University of Queensland as a postgraduate student in writing.
The wind crept through in the early morning, blowing a gust by the time the sky was blackened. Dust etched its way into everything including the protective goggles I was wearing. It was impossible to stay clean in the desert. Our journey had led up to this moment, darkness in the middle of the day. I wondered if the couple of thousand people around me felt the same way I did. Awe at the beauty and scope of the natural wonder, but also a sickening for humanity.
We’d left Brisbane a week earlier, and we were proud of the Queensland license plates attached to the banged-up Mazda 323 we were traveling in. Others from our state were not so keen to traverse almost 2500 kilometres to go to a festival in the middle of nowhere. After two days on the road, all three of us had our right arms blistered, burned, and tanned from hanging them out the window as we took turns driving. We had all grown up together but travelling the long distance by road gave me a sense of freedom and solitude. The roads emitted a wave of heat that reflected the sun, which became hypnotic after a time, and seemed to conjure conversation with more substance than what we had been used to. The nights were peaceful, cold, and the clear sky and stars provided a reflective end to a day’s drive.
We were on our way to a small town called Lyndhurst, part of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. It’s home to one pub, one hotel, one house, and is surrounded by a desert so dry and unforgiving that each member of our party suffered from heatstroke. The symptoms of dizziness, fatigue, vomiting and confusion gave our travels a barbaric edge, and we developed a man versus nature attitude. We were lucky enough not to all come down with it at once, so that each time others of us could help the fallen. I must admit though that a lot of this danger was rightly avoidable. If it weren’t for the copious amounts of drugs and binge drinking, I wholeheartedly believe that we would’ve been completely fine. But don’t get me wrong, it was hot out there. Really hot.
The year was 2002. The eclipse was due on the fourth of December, and a festival had been organised. Over fifty international and Australian DJ’s were to perform. The Flinders Ranges evoked a nothingness that was both haunting and beautiful. The festival itself was a violation of this.
We arrived in the late afternoon of the second of December, and needed to scalp some tickets. Matt, my friend from high school, wandered off with five hundred bucks and returned three hours later, drunk, broke, and with three tickets that would have originally cost 75 dollars each. He spent the rest of the money on various forms of drugs that we took over the next three days.
The festival campsite was a cesspool. It consisted of gluten-free, wheat-free, overindulgent, drug-taking, fire-twirling, vegan people to the far left of any political scale, so far left it was almost to a fault. They were dirty, but that couldn’t be helped; we were all in the same situation when it came to cleanliness. I’d never before or since gone so long without a shower. There were three-pronged barbed bindies everywhere; each barb an inch long. To walk around barefoot was not to be advised. There was no safety in wearing thongs, as the barbs would go right through them. Our daily dress was solid shoes, shorts, and long-sleeved shirts. We started to soak t-shirts and wrap them around our heads like turbans for some small relief from the elements. Then, as night hit, we would put on layers upon layers. The temperature dropped incredibly quickly as the sun faded over the horizon.
I talked to an old Aboriginal man who was camping next to us. He played didgeridoo, and tried to teach me circular breathing – which I failed at comprehensively. He told us he had great knowledge of the land, although he was not from this area. He was adamant to assure us of this, which made me doubt it. He knew of the traditional owners of the land, the Adnyamathanha, which means ‘hills’ or ‘rock people’. I sat with this man, and drank beers with him under a tarp, dust floating in from the incessant wind. He became very quiet after we passed around a joint, and we listened to the thump of techno floating in and out with the direction of the breeze.
The ancestor spirits from the dreaming stories took on human form, and as they travelled the land they would create rocks, animals, lakes, rivers, plants, and all forms of life and geography. They created the relationships that groups and individuals had with the land and with each other. Once they had created the world, they took on the form of trees, rocks, stars, and other objects. The places that they now rest, in whatever form they have taken, have become sacred.
People danced, some naked except for sturdy shoes, in the marketplace at the centre of the festival. They were most obviously on drugs. They bounced around to thumping beats coming from a 10-foot-high sound system, and they worshipped a young man with long hair who would throw his arms up, and twist a knob on his DJ equipment every so often.
We walked past the marketplace on our way to the pub, stopping first at a mobile food stall to grab Chiko rolls. It was run by a smiling Greek lady, who was either that way naturally disposed, or excited by the riches coming her way. The line for her stall ran for 30 metres. We’d been lucky to get in line just before the long-haired DJ’s set had finished. As we were being served the line grew, and we overheard praise for the music in a fanatical tone. A religious experience was had. There was a swollen appreciation and joy for the thumping beats, made larger by narcotics. The faithful were now lining up for V drinks, lollipops, and hot chips.
The pub was not immune to the festival either. The festival crowd went to buy cartons over the counter, or take refuge in the one place accessible to them with air conditioning. There were locals present too. It was odd to watch so many young liberal-minded people darting between and around the small group of local barflies. All had worn skin from hard work in the desert, and from years of heavy drinking. We had walked in just as a raucous clamour went up in the pub; all eyes were on the small television above the bar. The inhabitants of the pub were on the screen being interviewed for a news piece about the festival. Their reactions to all this attention, given this isolated part of the world, was the focus of the story. I observed their surprise as they saw themselves on television; the embarrassed smiles, the jabs, the humorous remarks about having become famous, and the pride they exuded at the partisanship of being so unique in their remoteness together. To see their faces so alive in the midst of an expedition in which I was a witness rather than a participant felt fake.
We grabbed a carton and climbed up to a ledge overlooking the festival. We weren’t the first to seek out this viewpoint. There were empty bottles and refuse scattered around as evidence of that. Security patrolled the rock faces adjacent to the festival; it would be a dangerous prospect to venture out there without the proper equipment. They were there to monitor, as well as to remind us of the world we had left behind.
We settled and watched the sun set. It was the most vivid sunset I can recall. Sunsets are not things you remember. But the surrounding events forced this particular sunset to the top of my consciousness. I remember my growing disillusion, made stronger as I watched a man in black survey the land with binoculars. The temporary city bustled in front of me, to the soundtrack of my brother vomiting behind a rock. It was his turn to have heatstroke.
The next afternoon, people slowly gathered atop a long, man-made dirt wall, which acted as a barrier between the festival and the camping grounds. All were holding protective goggles for the eclipse. It became awkward on that hill. People were waiting to be awed. But such events take as long as they take, and the crowd was becoming restless. It reminded me of public transport. Then, as the eclipse slowly revealed itself, I felt anguish and a panic initiating. I wondered if the people around me felt the same as well. The pulling away from reality, the confusion of the mind, the nagging of identity. By the amount of yahooing, and the drugs being passed around, I doubted it.
I had never really thought about being Aboriginal, about really being Aboriginal until this moment. On a desert plane, upon sacred land, amongst a city of tents with a bone-dryness in the air, the weight of my ancestry cemented itself in the form of the dust enveloping me. This was such an affront. A sea of liberal-minded people, most of whom would have supported Aboriginal rights and freedoms, were themselves unthinkingly using Aboriginal land to take drugs and party, while watching a natural wonder at the cost of nature itself and the sacred element of the dirt beneath their feet. Each head tilted upward, each eye focused skyward was an admission of guilt. Just before the sky went dark, I turned my head away from the eclipse; some small gesture of rebellion against a sea of diminished respect.