Friday, March 23, 2012

Travelling in Australia with a Baby who is Teething

Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   
I have three words for you, and they are magic:  Australian Shearing Songs. 
            Australians don't have a wild west - not the way North America did. White Australia was a convict colony, pure and simple. There was no war for independence.  There was no indigenous populations sufficiently well enough organized to fight back against us.  We didn't need a manifest destiny.  
            We had Bushrangers for our outlaws, and because the police weren't always much nicer, we built them up a bit, but there wasn't anything more than wistful ambiguity about what those boys were up to. There was just the land - dry, dusty, marginal land spreading out everywhere you looked and with nothing we counted worth considering in our way, we spread out across it. With sheep.  We white folks sent sheep inland by the millions and colonized the continent on their wooly backs.
Guess what our folk songs are about?  Waltzing Matilda, Ryebuck Shearer, Click go the Shears, Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport - they're all about those dusty, snaggle-backed sheep and the men who worked them. 
The songs have got Heroic Ringers, (the fastest shearers in the shed) and Dying Swaggers (the old worn-out men that hung around the place and died there, knowing the ways of the sheep and the shears through to their fingertips) but mostly, they've got the thousands of miles of dusty outback track that the shearers walked on their way between the stations.
            The Sproglet loved every single song.  Preferably played at fifty thousand decibels on the car stereo, with all of us singing along at the tops of our voices, waiting for the tired, grizzly howling to stop and the poor child to fall asleep.
            "Only two hundred more kilometers to Gundagai!"  We'd sing.  "'There's a track, Winding back, to an old-fashioned shack-"
One evening, at the end of a night cruise on the Katherine River, the Sproglet decided that she'd had enough.  Of everything.  Right on the edge of a dusty camping ground.  The smile vanished, the eyes squinched shut, the mouth opened and she roared.  She'd been battering around Australia strapped to a child seat in a van for weeks without any sort of proper schedule or proper bath-times and she wanted to tell us every single thing she thought about every single bit of it.
            It was late in the evening - almost nine o'clock. Australian camping demographic is mostly over 60. They tend to retire early.
            In a fit of desperation, I opened up my own mouth and joined her. 
            "Give me a home among the gum trees-"
            "-With lots of plum trees"  Pippa sang. Then Sandor, then Thea and Mr Tabubil  -
            " -A Sheep or Two and a Kangaroo-" 
            We belted the song out into the night. Fumbling with the door handle, Sandor wrenched open the driver-side door and rammed the key into the ignition slot -
            And fifty thousand decibels of bush band roared out of the car stereo across the darkened campsite
            We staggered backward, stunned into silence by the sheer volume of the sound.
            "Get in the car!"
            For a moment, her eyes popping with disbelief, even the Sproglet stopped howling, and then she opened her mouth again and let the world know.  
            "An OLD Rocking CHAIR" We bellowed right back at her, pitching her headfirst into her car seat and snapping the buckles shut.  Sandor turned on the car lights to look for the volume knob, and there we all were - spotlit like singing angels as we threw ourselves into the van, night-blind.  At any moment we expected mobs of campers with torches and pitchforks to surround us, screaming Australian imprecations and explaining what they thought of things.
            Pippa and Thea manhandled the van doors closed at the same time that Sandor found the volume knob and for the campsite, at least, the volume abruptly ceased.  Sandor wrestled the van into gear and we got the hell out of there in a choking cloud of Northern Territory Dust.
            And the Sproglet fell asleep. Just like that. While we wrung the sound out of our ears. It's a good life, being 14 months old.

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