“… but the incidents, though so romantic, are mainly authentic;
for these lives have been lived and these deaths have been died.”
(Paving the Way, Simpson Newland, 1893)

I grew up in the country of Simpson Newland’s historic novel about our pioneering past. The young woman whose story he describes and who got lost in the bush – her body was found on our neighbour’s farm! She was buried there, under an old River Red Gum by the Finniss River not two kilometres from our house. Later, her remains were removed to the old cemetery at Currency Creek. Her real name was Sara McHarg. When I was a boy, we passed through Currency Creek whenever we went to the beach at Goolwa. Goolwa was a small town still stuck then in its declining history*, as a once prosperous river port for the paddle steamers. They moved produce up and down the Murray–Darling Rivers and across Lake Alexandrina. These river boats had to dock at Goolwa’s wharf and unload their cargoes onto the steam train from Victor Harbour, as the River Murray mouth is essentially un-navigable.

Goolwa back then was hardly recognisable from what it is today – an old fishing village and one-time river port. Now, it’s a tourist and holiday town with service stations, holiday houses, yards full of pleasure boats for sale, delicatessens and restaurants, with a new bridge over to Hindmarsh Island and palatial holiday shacks built over the sand dunes, behind which is the sea.

Back when I was growing up, the old wharf was run down and dilapidated. Tied up to it was a rotting hulk of the ‘Captain Sturt’ paddle steamer, a shabby run down relic of its former self, as one of the great river boats. In front of it were the sunken skeletons of the barges she would have towed, once loaded with cargoes of wool, being shipped downstream from ‘up north’ or taking supplies back to the farms and stations of the inland. By the time I first took notice of her, it just wallowed shamefully and broken down like an old dying dog in a dirty puddle, tied up to the wharf.

With old decrepit things such as that decomposing boat and broken down early settlers’ houses and machinery, it’s a shame to see them rusting and rotting away, uncared for and unattended. Yet history seems more like history when one views it like that, in a state of decay and disrepair. It’s a paradox! Because when you renovate and restore, or even rebuild, it seems as though the old ghosts dwelling within or about the structure are driven away!

Then with all those old ghosts gone, in the splendour of the newly restored, there seems to be no life left in the thing – to me at least! For it to be history there has to be ghosts of the past.

The new generations don’t seem to care though. They are more interested in computers and the fun of the future. Perhaps they have got it right? I certainly wouldn’t want to say they are wrong! Yet as I get older, I seem to become more divided into two worlds. The past, with its fond but receding memories and the trepidation of the advancing invincible future.

The future is inevitable and also your life still to live; so one should greet, or prepare to greet it with pleasure. But it’s hard and I can’t shake off the sadness that clings like paste, that is all that’s left of the past. I like ghosts and why shouldn’t I? You can talk to them and they never answer back, or rarely do! They never sneer or contradict or appear to be telling you ‘you’re an old has-been’ and ‘not with it any more’. So with them at least (the ghosts that is) you can feel superior. Until of course, when your time comes to join them!

Back when I was young, to get to the beach and ocean at Goolwa, you drove up and over the sand dunes on a very rough rubble road. About three quarters of the way over, the road terminated with a few extra truckloads of rubble graded and rolled to park your car or enable one to turn around, out of the sand, to go back. That’s all there was!

Very few people ever went there. The surf comes pounding in from deep down in the Great Southern Ocean, washing over and expending its energy on a wide sandy beach that stretches away endlessly to the south-east, disappearing in the sea mist that blotted out the horizon. Even here there are the ghosts of shipwreck victims, all along the coast. People pounded to death by the great storm waves that broke over them.

Almost nobody went swimming here then as it was considered unsafe due to the undertow of each retreating wave. But we did, as Dad and Mum stood in the water watching and forbidding us to go any further than knee deep.

Most of those who did come here were usually seeking the sand cockles, to eat or use for fishing bait; you could take as many as you liked. Nobody drove a vehicle on the beach back then, as the only Four wheel drives were Landrovers and the only people who owned one of these were farmers and a few others whose occupation required a four wheel drive vehicle.

Today..! Well, every second person seems to have one, except that now they all seem to be expensive imitations of the real thing, which brings me to my story!

Like so many other Australians today, I like to travel into, see and experience the ‘outback’ and wilderness areas of our country; to go on ‘four wheel drive’ trips. I don’t go very often, unfortunately, but this trip was to see Lake Eyre. The easiest way for most people is to drive north from Marree, past Muloorina Station and you reach the great salt lake at the bottom of Madigan Gulf.

From leaving Marree, one travels over a bare, red and barren plain, occasionally obstructed by scrub-covered sand ridges running approximately east-west, with the next ridge on the horizon. You don’t really need a four wheel drive as the track has rubble over the sand. I don’t remember how many ridges there are, but the last one doesn’t have scrub on it, just intermittent clumps of cane grass and perhaps a few spinifex plants.

One drives up and over the last dunes just as it was at Goolwa, on the rough rubble track and there it is – the sea, minus, of course, the exquisite shades of blue water, the waves and the roaring white surf. There is a beach though; and salt too! Looking north (instead of south) a vast blanket of silver white salt, flat and smooth stretches to the horizon and beyond.

Although the horizon is blotted out, not with a sea mist but the reflected glare from the sun. But in the right light, with the sun at a certain angle, the salt plain appears to be water, a whole sea of it, breathtakingly calm, the bleached skeleton of a onetime inland sea, the calmest sea in the world! The vegetation on the sand dunes here isn’t the same as on the south coast, but it looks remarkably similar at a casual glance, clinging to the tops and ridges, with rippling wind-blown sand between each clump.

There is a roar like the surf here too! Only much softer. Not as loud as the breakers of the Southern Ocean. A roar nonetheless. But it’s the blood in your own head, rushing past one’s inner ear. You hear it because it’s otherwise so quiet, so gaspingly silent as one stands on the beach between the dunes and the salt sea. A silence more dominating and intimidating than any surf.

There are no ghosts here to comfort you and no reassurance of anything familiar, no romantic history, only a past of long, long ago, with transient visitors like myself. Even the first explorers came and left – disappointed to find no water in the sea of their dreams. Like me, they came and looked then just went away. The salt, the sand, the silence and the glare in place of the surf mist, saying they don’t need you here. Then after the sun goes down (in the dark) there is only the silence. One can’t believe or conceive of how powerful absolute silence is, until you experience it. It intimidates and digests everybody and frightens many away – they quickly retreat back to where something makes some sort of noise. But here…! No! Here one has to learn to cope and accept the deprivation of noise.

I did! And so camped for the night**. Next morning, as light preceded the rising sun, I heard the soft but high pitched whistling call of a pair of Cinnamon Quail- thrush. So they were the little devils who made those tracks in the sand dunes, that I noticed yesterday! They were running from one clump of dry vegetation to another, occasionally stopping in the bare sand between, or wandering about looking for this or that. They were down near the beach. As the day got warmer they retreated to what vegetation was thick enough to conceal them and stopped calling to each other. So then the silence wrapped around everything again and even the blue sky didn’t dare come all the way down here. With the white glare keeping between it and the horizons.

That’s the thing about Australia, our history is so short that, like me, many people can still reach back and touch it; and its ghosts are still real to us. Then there are so many places such as here, vast isolated areas where there is no history of substance between us and the land around us, not even any historic caravan routes crossing the deserts and wilderness as in other desert countries since time began. Just deserts and wilderness from before time was ever thought of! Places with a pressing depressant silent past of long, long ago, where everybody is so small and insignificant and there are precious few, if any, romantic stories, no lives lived or deaths died and so no ghosts to help brace oneself against a silence and the empty glare.

It was, or would have been a lonely place to camp, there on my own, if it hadn’t been for hearing those Quail-thrush. Anyway…, my point was, it was a most unlikely place to be reminded of trips and holidays to the beach as a child!

Nov-Dec 2010

* The correct definition of the term history is when a society accounts for its past in writing. It’s not to be confused with handed down legend passed on verbally or culture or dream time.

** You need a Desert Pass to camp here legally. Available from the RAA and some four wheel drive retail stores.