Wednesday, May 26, 2010

At the End of the Gulf

Last weekend, we drove my sister out into the desert, to where the earth is deeply sunset colored and the rocks are streaked black with iron, and the horizon is pushed closer by the Flinders Ranges that rise up blue and olive in the east. We turned towards them and we drove to the very top of the Gulf -where the enormous gulf winds into a narrow tongue of water, and eventually, salt marsh and a muddly tidal flat. At this narrow point the highway that leads, eventually, to Perth crosses over the water.
            Every time, I anticipate this crossing in a very six-years-old sort of way: sitting up in my seat, saying 'Well then - !" in tones of benign and placid satisfaction, and INSIDE, yammering " Did you SEE that? We DROVE across it! Across the water! Practically magic, yeah? Bet you couldn't do that! I DROVE in a CAR across the GULF!"

This last navigable stretch of water was, before the road trains, a major terminus for cargo coming and going from the interior. We stopped and ate lunch on a massive and venerable timber cargo wharf - whole forests must have gone into building it, and old iron railroad tracks wound down its length, cutting figures-of-eight through the bleached timber decking. Between the planks, we could see deep water far below our feet, that boomed and echoed as it lapped darkly at the pilings.

The iron tracks have rusted to a plum-colored patina, flaking slips of ocher where the plum-colored crust has been worn away. The strong lines that the rails drew through the bleached silver wood dissolve at close range into a heavy, detailed field pattern -

I took photographs.

Mr Tabubil helped.

We turned back toward home. Crossing the gulf again, the road splits, with a sign pointing in two directions: Perth and Coober Pedy. Seven hours of driving, or four days, straight across the Nullabor Plain, a sobering reminder of the distances that Australia plays with out here.
            We turned down the Perth track: a thin ribbon of tarmac, two lanes and a painted white line, rolling out across the rainbow-colored desert. A road-train rollover diverted us onto a buckety little secondary road that ran parallel to the highway. Our little silver car was waved through but the little road was too buck-and-roll-ish for larger vehicles; solid men and women in Akubra Hats and neon vests waved long-haul trucks onto a graded clearing by the side of the road. There were dozens of them.

I'd never seen so many road trains in one place- all their smoke and blare and roaring penned up and shut off. Drivers paced and leaned on fenders and smoked cigarettes, their arms crossed and their legs coiled. They smoked steadily, almost languidly, but the thin twisting smoke was like a pilot light under the low, heavy sky - standing outside our car, staring down the noses of the silent trucks, the place felt as though one spark, one touch or rain or cloud from the heavy sky would release all of the ferocious barreling energy of this huge, silent muster.  It was a worrisome thought.

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