“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place and let the
dry land appear: and it was so …… and the evening and the morning were the third day”.
(Genesis 1: 9 & 13)

Recently I gained a new acquaintance, who lives in British Columbia (Canada). I have never met her and she has not been to Australia. So in my first letter to her I gave a brief description of South Australia.

As other personal business had a priority, I kept my ‘word picture’ to just two brief paragraphs. The second paragraph is the inspiration for this article; but as I mentioned I had to be brief. Today I am writing for you the ‘extended’ version.

‘…I have seen pictures of British Columbia and it is a remarkably beautiful place. With its rugged coast line, slashed with deep inlets and rimmed by high cliffs. Its tall dense forests and majestic mountains, abounding with vast streams, rapids and waterfalls to take one’s breath away.

South Australia isn’t totally devoid of mountains, forests and streams; but there is no comparison in grandeur; and that would be an understatement.’

Our somewhat dubious claim to fame is the fact that South Australia is the oldest, driest and flattest state in Australia (which is the oldest, driest and flattest continent in the world). I have been to places in the north of the state where one can stand on the roof of your vehicle and, in any direction you care to look it is flat, all the way to the horizon. There is nothing to see except the red-brown stones that cover the ground, which is the same colour. From where one stands you can’t see anything growing and the only movement is the occasional illusion created by a mirage. On a calm day these places are so silent the only noise one can hear is a ‘distant roar’; which is the sound of the blood running in your own head. If however, your hearing is acute and one listens carefully, a soft rhythmic thudding can also be detected; that is the valves closing in your heart. The view may not be considered as awe-inspiring as one from the Rocky Mountains; but, if you have ever been in such a place as this, you would be aware that it can take a grip on your soul. And you will know the meaning of isolation, like you have never known it before.

There is something else about this place, this view, this particular area on the earth. Everywhere else in the world the landscape has been shaped and re-shaped, time and time again, by earthquake and volcanic eruptions. Consequently the soil has been kept fresh and fertile with constant recycling. The Rocky Mountains themselves are relatively new by geological standards. Even the Grand Canyon is just a pre-school child, despite its appearance; it’s merely a piece of relatively new ground that is starting to erode.

But here, in this flat place of silence, here in this state of apparent barren nothingness, here in this place of isolation, you are looking at the earth when ‘the waters were gathered unto one place and the dry land appeared’, on that ‘third day’. No other country is so old, so very old. Nowhere else in the world can you find the earth at its origins.

Then you can drive on for some miles and come across something different. Such as a dry salt lake, or a sand ridge covered in low scrub, a worn down outcrop of rocks, or a dry watercourse lined with stunted trees that resemble overgrown bonsai’s.

One may stop and look with some interest that cannot be explained, except perhaps because of the sheer and vast ‘nothingness’ that surrounds. It’s all a matter of perception, isn’t it? But, do you know what? That dry creek bed is the remnant of a stream that may well have been flowing along the bottom of a ‘grand canyon’.

That worn rock outcrop could be all that is left of immense cliffs that once wrapped around the stream, at the bottom of this one time vast chasm. The salt lake is the remains of a huge inland sea; while the sand ridges mark its shrinking foreshore.

It might well be the land of ‘the third day’, but that was a long time ago and there have been a few alterations since then. That grip on your soul remains. Not because of, as one might suppose, the desolation; rather it is because the age of the surrounds reminding you, unconsciously, of just how insignificant one is. And how short your life will be.

If you look carefully at the photo you can see, on the horizon, on the right, the sand dunes that line the southern end of Lake Eyre. Running along the remainder of the horizon one can just pick out a line of stunted trees, that indicates the presence of a dry watercourse. So I have indulged in some ‘poetic licence’ with this picture (for which I make no apology) as it isn’t flat ‘in any direction you care to look’.

Apart from the ‘water’ course and sand ridge on the horizon, there is a rocky outcrop about one hundred yards or so behind me. It rises some twenty or so feet above the immediate surrounds; and I mention this because the ground level here is about twenty feet below sea level.

Paradoxically, the area embraced by this photo can contain more different species of plant and animal life than an equivalent area of tall magnificent forest in North America. And it is because of and not in spite of the harsh and barren environment. But that’s another story.

Anyhow, it wasn’t all flat, in the foreground you can see the edge of the track. It wasn’t silent, under the bonnet of my truck it was creaking as the engine cooled. And as for isolated, well, about half an hour’s driving south, as I left Lake Eyre, I passed another vehicle going north!

Jul-Aug 2004