Living in the Environment, The Australian Identity

The Australian Identity

Author: Alistair Knox

The histories of European countries have in modern times been largely formed through their royal lines or the great heroes that they have produced. It was .man against man, country against country, ideology against ideology. In Australia it has been different. Apart from the original convict settlements it has been man against the elements rather than man versus man.

The colossal power of the natural environment was the great implacable enemy of all who pressed out into it. It was stronger than man, the anvil on which the Australian character was forged. Every true Australian still feels this when it comes to the test. He is by nature an innovator, an adaptable character, casual but practical, laconic yet aware. His search for a national identity is automatically related to the timeless landscape. It is in the silent vastness of mountain and desert that he discovers his historic position.

This was the underlying reason why the artists John Perceval and Clifton Pugh and I set off to see the Snowy River High Country of Eastern Australia. Cliff and John also intended to do some painting and we all wanted to see the landscape. As a sideline, John was looking for the old Australian hotel. We still had romantic visions about it and the strong men who came in from the edge of eternity.

The first night was spent at Tumut, in the oldest and no doubt the worst pub in the town. We found some solace when we discovered a billiard room where we played snooker until 3 a.m. in the morning. We felt the marker must have been Australian at least. He showed us how to lock up and left us alone in our glory at about 11 o'dock.

I had been regaling John and Cliff about Talbingo and Yarrangobilly and Kiandra. We set off next morning to fulfil those inner longings that still persist in the Australian male that somewhere out there, Barcroft Boake, Clancy of the Overflow and the Man from the Snowy River are waiting to welcome him home.

It snowed intermittently and by three o'clock it was practically dark when we reached Kiandra. The only official establishment was the post office. The door was half open but it appeared very dirty, as though unattended for some years. Its timber walls were painted brown and deep stone in the best 19th century tradition. Next to it was a large, badly constructed shed-like building, with clothes hanging everywhere. Inside it a great crackling fire was spurting out of a fortyfour gallon drum. Smoke rumbled up the chimney with ominous ferocity. It was a scuffy, grimy, unwelcoming scene. Somewhere in the background a large diesel motor provided off-stage noises that consummated an epic of anti-mateship. No one noticed us as we entered, or if they did they kept ignoring us as if they hoped we would go away. We did. John said, 'I can't stay here tonight Alistair', to which Cliff and I agreed instantaneously. We pressed on to the summit to Cabramurra camp which was inhabited by European migrants working on the hydro scheme. John believed that we would find scintillating night life there with bright-eyed European girls dancing to guitars and squeeze-box music.

As we approached through the snow, the canteen building emerged against the barren skyline background. It was crudely built of weatherboards punctuated with small war-time type windows. As we eased into it, we were struck by the silence. The building was well filled with men, but there were no delicious girls. A couple of Australians were running the bar and collecting the glasses. Along the far wall the men were queued up waiting for their two schooners each. After gaining the ice-cold fluid, they would move off and lean against the other walls because it was too cold to sit down. Conversation was absolutely minimal, as they desperately tried to find warmth and comfort drinking in the unheated recreation room. The only real signs of animation were from the purveyors of the schooners and the collectors of the glasses who worked like demented men. The empty glasses - all schooners (the only glass available to go with the only drink available) - were stacked one on to the other till they reached about six feet in height. A good collector could manage four stacks of these at the one time. They were whirled back to the bar for re-use. John solemnly drank his schooner and then said sadly, 'I can't stay here tonight Alistair'. And so we went quietly back to the car and set off for Adaminaby.

I was apologising for that once quaint old township that had been submerged in the Snowy River scheme and telling them how the old buildings appeared as though they leaned down the hill as you drove in to the town. We resented the new town shops that had been erected in red brick and cursed the new hotel which called itself The Snow Goose. Snow Goose indeed! Who did they think they were kidding? In fact we refused to go into it for hours.

We bought some very greasy food for tea, then found the one activity that existed in the town that night - a travelling book salesman who had set up his wares in the municipal hall further up the hill. Later I have thought of that man up there, hopefully waiting for the bushman intellectuals to come to town to purchase his imagination developing volumes. Did he expect a Joseph Furphy or a Banjo Patterson to enter with old world grace and to discuss Shakespeare and horses? Perhaps he had thoughts that we were the beginning of a night time rush for culture in the outback. Finally it all got too much for us. We admitted defeat and entered the Snow Goose.

It was brightly lit and beautifully warm. The appointments were good and practical with a sense of quality we had not seen in any of the old pubs. A couple of people were sitting at the bar talking to an unhurried smiling barman. A few others were at tables drinking tea and coffee. John brightened up in spite of himself as he relaxed to do a little gracious drinking. We kept up a pretence of hating it all as we spoke to each other, scoffing at it and inferring that it was unctuous and suburban. But it wasn't really. It was satisfying and pleasant. The only fault we could find with it was that it was new. When we went to bed upstairs, we gazed out over the snow covered landscape outside and felt warm and relaxed, but abused the heating system for making a slight sound as it blew hot air into our rooms, protesting that we would be kept awake all night. We even objected to the excellent mattresses and the crisp new blankets in loyalty to old times. John kept warning us that it would all be tremendously expensive. As I remember it, I was the only one who had any money at the time, although it was arranged that finally we would all pay our own expenses. It was an attempt to prevent ourselves admitting there was no old Australian hotel any more.

Next morning breakfast proved abundant and delicious. Everyone had his own large silver teapot. We drank gallons of tea, having decided to hang the expense of a couple of refills. When I paid the bill it was exactly 30 cents more for each of us than the worst pub we had found on the journey. It is interesting to meditate just how much of the myth of the man and the land was actual and how much was imaginary.

The next time I did the journey was with Margot. We left Tumut and passed through the once exciting climb out of Talbingo with deep disappointment. The single width road that once rose so sharply from the valley to the mountains had now become a graded highway. The magic had gone. The snow however bucked us up as it began to lie thicker the higher we climbed until we came to a point where the road was still being widened. The narrow path was in the original state as when I first passed over it twenty years earlier. It was the Manaro in all its folk-lore glory. Just off the road lay a fallen hollow tree about five feet in diameter and about forty feet long. It had been set alight to clear it for the road widening. A great fire was burning along ten feet of its middle section. Road workers were sitting around in the snow drinking their billy tea and munching thick meat sandwiches for morning lunch. I leapt out of the car to talk with them and snapped some shots with a shiny new camera I had purchased to build up a slide collection for lectures I was preparing on the Australian environment. Needless to say the film stuck and I never got those shots. Margot, meanwhile, was sketching brief pencil notes on her drawing pad for painting subjects. We set off with light hearts until we reached Rules Point, a somewhat concave point above the snowline and devoid of trees. It had been a racecourse the last time I'd passed that way.

On that occasion I had spent the night as a guest of a man by the name of McDonald who told me, as we sat before his bright snow gum fire, of the races that were held periodically on that far away and lonely landscape. Who knows but the colt from Old Regret that got away might have won the same race in '92.

He was, amongst other things, the postman who delivered mail once a week by pack horse to the old settlers of the district. In addition he was a guide who conducted royalty and other important visitors into the vastness of the mountains for fishing holidays. When we went out in the morning to see the racecourse, it was only under his pointing forefinger that I could make out a precipitous track that wove in and out of the basin shaped plain. It was pimpled with little hills, rock outcrops, and the other impedimenta of the high country scene. Now thc house was gone and only the ghosts of the riders and the postman guide lingered deep in the mind behind the eyelids. Margot, however, had caught this mysterious majesty in a series of paintings called 'The Man From the Snowy River'. She did them recollectively. One was of two horsemen galloping in the snow between hummocks that has preserved them for posterity.

When we arrived at Kiandra it was under deep snow. The undulating plain was divided here and there by a fence and two or three buildings. Underneath the ground that had once been so industriously turncd over by the gold seekers, was pack in the womb of eternity. Man's action had come and gone and the timeless land had reclaimed her own. This is the spirit we seek, we Australians who refuse to let the mechanistic society cut us into chaff.

More recently, Peter Glass and I tried to return from Canberra through the Brindabella Mountains by a back road to Kiandra, to spend the night at Jindabyne. The road gradually became worse till we reached the Brindahella homestead over the mountains, about 25 miles from Canberra. We stopped for a moment, hesitating whether to go on, beside a bullock wagon that was silently disintegrating beside the track. Our pioneering courage urged us and I thought that I had done some brilliant driving when we managed to slide down a muddy hill and still keep upright. We knew we could never return that way for at least a month. The die was cast. We went on for about 13 miles when finally we got stuck in the mud, wedged against a tree. Night was falling. In the distance the sound of the Canberra-Melbourne plane reminded us of the disparity of our predicament and the convenience of modern living. We settled down for the night and wished for the day. It was the middle of winter.

At first light in the morning it was decided that I should walk back to Brindabella Homestead, because Peter was limited through an earlier illness from walking any distance. The first few miles were gallant and exhilarating, but as the sun rose higher, it began to seem a long way. Unused muscles started to make their presence felt and it was with some relief that I finally knocked on the door. The owners greeted me very graciously. I was plied with hot buttered toast and gallons of tea. I lingered a little over these despite some concern about Peter out there eating his last square of chocolate, which was the only food we found in the glove box.

The station owner turned out to be a well-known reliability test driver, who had come second in the first Reliability Trial around Australia. This was an activity that became a major sport for a few years after the war till the VW's won them so often that the other firms gave up trying. We set off for our car over back roads in his well-used work horse Volkswagen. We forded rivers and mud patches and almost impassable roads with reckless abandon. The driver spent half his time in reverse at top speed, as he threaded back and forth through the difficult landscape. His.sons followed in the tractor.

When we arrived back at our station wagon, Peter was sitting contentedly on the tailboard looking at two landscapes he had painted in my absence. I suddenly felt stiff and tired as I remembered that long walk back. During that time he had been painting a couple of $300 canvases. I suggested very firmly that we should give our rescuers the smaller one and I would pay for the frame. There is no better travelling companion in the world than Peter Glass. He will go anywhere, share everything, and do anything with a wit and perception and true appreciation of the well-being of life. He was delighted to present the painting. We spent the rest of the day at Brindabella, eating, looking at the painting collection, observing the well-worn edition of Shakespeare and talking to the family. How sensible and objective they were. How free from the clutter of suburban living. How able to contend with all the contingencies of life. The house itself had been built in pise de terre or rammed earth. It had once been burnt down. The only effect it had on the earth walls was to bake them into a mild stone through which the owner assured me he had the greatest difficulty in making a doorway. It was with a sense of reverence that I discovered the disintegrating bullock wagon which we had seen the day before was the same one that had hauled the supplies to Kiandra in the old days. It was hard to imagine how they ever made it up those hills. I felt that in some way I had finally found my way home amidst that heap of rotting spokes and rusty iron tyres. I had gained access to the myth of the man and the mountains. I had won an Australian identity.

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