Written by Tanya Heaslip
The ochre painted ranges of Central Australia loom large as the sun slips to the west. The intense glow subsumes its rocks and plateaus and ridges, one by one, into a wall of fire. It is pure, iridescent gold.
Sitting long and high, running east to west as far as the eye can see, the MacDonnell Ranges are impenetrable and ancient, a marker separating the landscapes of the north and south. They kiss the horizon, which in turn is framed by a huge blue bowl of sky, still shining and splendid – even at sunset.
The human world around me is falling apart with Covid19, but these ancient ranges, steep and rocky and high, touch the sky and the sun – or is that that the sky and the sun touch them? – as they have done for millions of years, and continue to do so every morning and night. They offer the inexpressible comfort of longevity, of strength, of survival – of things that last.
I pick my way along a track. The ground underneath is flat and sandy, curving around the wide, dry Todd River bed, flanked by huge, white ghost gums. The ranges tower overhead. I feel my heart swell, burst, at their beauty and dependability.
So yes, the world is in crisis, but for the moment I am held, bathed in the reassurance of this landscape.
People dramas come and go, but this former inland sea remains unchanging.
Covid 19 has changed our lives. We now live in fear of a little virus that has the capacity to wipe us all out. We no longer travel as we did, or mingle as we once enjoyed, or connect with friends and family far away.
Distance has always been a challenge for those who live isolated lives, particularly in Central Australia – one thousand miles to the north and south from the nearest capital cities – but now enforced distancing is cruel on those who otherwise live cheek by jowl in cities like Melbourne and Sydney.
Isolation has taken on a different meaning for everyone. You do not need to live in the middle of nowhere to be isolated from friends and family – you just need to be frail and vulnerable and confined to an old folk’s home, or stuck inside an apartment in a huge block of flats, or on the wrong side of a state border. For the first time in a very long time, Australia now understands isolation in a very different way, and is impacted by it at every level.
We see it on our evening television news every night.
Of course, Australia had always known isolation – we live at the bottom of the world, a long way away from most other continents and countries. We have grown up with the myths of outback legends, who roamed the plains and the empty rivers of the inland, moving cattle on horseback, surviving where others didn’t. Including explorers like Burke and Wills. And most Australians know that in the centre of Australia sits a huge rock called Uluru, and that Uluru in turn sits in the middle of an empty, red desert.
It’s why most people live in the city and on or near the coast. One thing to look at the outback in a glossy photo, or even visit it on holiday; another entirely to want to live in it. Our landscape is too harsh, and too far from the luxuries of life now taken for granted – good coffee shops (good shops generally), good medical health, good schools, good restaurants. It’s one thing to learn the Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson poems at school – even the Man from Snowy River – another to venture inland, much less live there.
And Australia is a generally dry and dusty place, even if you don’t live in the outback. Remote and regional areas face equally tough isolation issues. With climate change, our country is getting drier, and more difficult to live in. We only need to look at how bushfires and drought have ravaged our remote and regional areas with increasing ferocity. We’ve seen fires destroy places once considered immune: seaside villages, dairy valleys and forest hamlets. Even – unbelievably – the fringes of city suburbs. Who could forget Western Sydney, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, under threat from the huge bushfires earlier this year? Previously unthinkable. And similarly, the outer suburbs of Canberra, which also went through terrible bushfires back in 2003?
Australia entered 2020 in shock and grief due to these fires, and those woes have been compounded by the mental and physical and emotional impacts of a new form of isolation.
Once such problems were mostly rural and regional; a young mum stuck out in the middle of nowhere, with little children and no support, going crazy; a farmer committing suicide because he’s had to kill one too many of his dying stock during one too many years of dreadful drought. Now towns and sea-hugging cities around Australia are now facing their own form of isolation.
No one could possibly have imagined how that would have played out.
At the start of the year it was impossible to think that you couldn’t even walk to your neighbour’s house and chat together, hug your friend on their birthday, hold the hand of a grandmother locked up in the care facility, or jump on a plane and visit a dying loved one. In fact, jump on a plane and go anywhere for any reason. Who would have imagined you’d now need papers to get across borders (like occupied Europe of old), assuming you could get across the border at all.
In particular, who would have imagined that in Alice Springs there’d be blockades on each road leading out of town? That you’d need permission and papers to get to certain places? Even daily checks from the police and army to get from one side of a cattle station to the other, split by a road heading north?
At least those of us who live in the outback, and remote and rural areas, have an understanding of physical isolation and experience in how to manage it. But now people in the most confined spaces in the busiest cities know it, feel it, without having any experience at all. The mental health toll of lockdown will be played out for years to come. Families locked down in suburban houses, staring endlessly at walls, children going crazy. Families not being able to see, much less say goodbye, to their dying loved ones. Especially in confused and unhappy circumstances like old folk’s homes. The ultimate indignity, tragedy, grief.
Yet we are also lucky. Australia’s population is relatively small, because of our harsh landscape and isolation from the rest of the world. As a result, our trauma is so much less than the densely occupied countries, and especially the impoverished, densely occupied countries. When I think of the terrible photographs of bodies being heaped one on top of the other in mobile morgues in not so impoverished countries – think Greece – I’m reminded of the terrible images of the Holocaust, and can hardly believe this is our world in 2020.
So I remind myself it is good to be thankful, despite the challenges we face. It prompts memories of Mum saying to us as kids: “eat your vegetables, think of the starving children in India.” My siblings and I would mutter under our breath, “let ‘em have ‘em.” But now, we are all inextricably intertwined, in some ways further apart than ever, in other ways closer – and the impact of isolation as impacted the world forever, and Australia is no different.
I wish I could give my vegetables to not only the starving children in India, but the increasing number of people in impoverished countries who already so badly impacted by this lockdown. And then of course it’s local. What about the people in that apartment block in Melbourne who struggled to get food for a while? Bless the Indian community – largely the Sikhs – who turned up in their vans and sent food up into those apartments, curry by curry.
Our world has changed with Covid 19. Great and wonderful and heroic acts have taken place during this time. And quiet and humble ones as well, such as the Sikh community, who also did the same thing earlier this year, feeding the exhausted bush firefighters and traumatised Australians who’d lost everything in the fires.
This year is too wearying, appalling, sad. We switch off the television, turn away from the news, turn back to what is simple and over which we can have some control.
Try to hope it doesn’t happen to us next. Or people we love.
And try to work out how to live in this new world of isolation – a new type of aloneness, loneliness, distancing – loving friends and family, without touching.
Even in the bush.
That’s why when I walk at sunset, along the curving, dry creek bed and gaze up at the magnificent, glowing red MacDonnell Ranges, I think how lucky I am.
And how lucky bush people are generally.
First, because we grew up in the outback and live here, we understand isolation and have many skills to cope with its downsides. Education of children at home is the norm – not the exception.
Secondly, we have this magnificent landscape to nurture and sustain us. It has seen untold numbers of humans come and go, but here it remains in all its splendour – largely untouched and unchanged. In the bush, I’m not locked inside a suburban house, going stir crazy. I have a big blue sky and fresh air and sunshine – and my beautiful MacDonnell Ranges to gaze at and soak into my soul.
There’s something about being very small in the presence of nature’s grandeur to give a sense of perspective – and then, from that, hope and gratitude.
The land gives us strength. Aboriginal people have known that for millennia. We can draw the land into our beings, up through our boots, through our bodies and into our hearts and heads, hold it and thank it. There is nothing as strong or as powerful (to me, at least) as our outback Australian landscape – and especially our MacDonnell Ranges – which have seen humans come and go, yet daily put on a glorious show of colour and power.
So, for however long we remain isolated in these different ways, I will be glad and grateful for those ancient MacDonnell Ranges, and the landscape on which they sit. Their message to me is one of resilience, of courage, and of never giving up.
And, of course, I will remain grateful for my vegetables.