13th March 2009
For the last six years I’ve been getting off the plane in Darwin, either coming or going, to or from Europe, always trying to recapture some of the elusive strangeness of the bush that I’d first felt thirty years ago. Even though the bush I remembered in SE Qld had not been tended by Aboriginal people for a long time and is very different to the top end where indigenous people still have some influence on their environment.
I met Peter within a week of arriving in Sydney in 1974, we were more or less living together after a year and up in the Queensland bush a couple of years later.
He showed me what he thought was beautiful in the wild, wild bush, and what I remember thinking is how godforsaken it all looked and what was I doing there anyway and not passed out on a London street in the life I’d exiled myself from.
Now all these years later I’m very glad that I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, which I later came to realise meant that there was a snake in the vicinity. Glad that I heard a cat bird crying in the rainforest, always thinking it was a baby. Glad that the native mice and rats ate all my tampons (unused) and left the paper in a pile in the corner.
There’s a photo of me in getup from that time - a bikini top, trilby and jeans - standing in my very messy vegetable garden with a machete. Probably with no shoes on if it was before I felt the snake sliding under my right foot, I can feel it now.
There were so many crazy things going on up in Qld in the middle/late seventies including a very hand made information service - the old bush telegraph which worked it’s way up and down the alternative communities in Northern NSW and Qld.
We had no phones, mail, newspapers, electricity and this was way before mobiles, so mainly news came from people who sometimes travelled up and down between the communities of outsiders living in the forests of the East coast. There was one man who moved about through the bush with his horse and swag.
So of course there was rumour, misinformation and just plain figments of. But I for one had stopped believing what the media said anyway, they didn’t speak to or for me, this was the time after the Vietnam war, the ousting of Gough Whitlam and some pretty draconian and silly happenings in Qld.
There were stories of Vietnam vets armed to the teeth living in isolated valleys, stories of altars in the bush with sacrificed pigs and other paraphernalia (but whether that ceremony was down to Them or us was never clear). And there were rumours of police raids both ways over the Qld/NSW and possible disappearances.
These stories came together in a painting of a NSW pig farmer fucking a pig. He was possible the worst Foreign Minister Australia has ever had and was so embarrassing it seemed only right to have him in an embarrassing situation. It now lives in a cupboard in Orange.
Arriving in Qld in 1977 to live in two leaky wooden shacks on an illegal subdivision in Johland surrounded by lots of lethal snakes and angry policemen was way beyond what I’d ever expected to do when I escaped from London. I remember ringing the zoo in Sydney to ask if they had a mongoose (Rudyard Kipling came in useful for something) available for snake protection, they didn’t even laugh.
The shacks were built with off cuts from the local outdoor sawmill, a lovely place with King parrots flying thru and a gentle, old, barefoot saw miller. Anyway the roof shingles were rotten by the time we got there so the first project was to replace them with good solid tin and found that we had a roof full of snakes living just above us all the time.
Luckily there was a born again Christian man living next door, who in between talking in tongues would pass by and take the snakes home to live in his kitchen cupboard. But living in an alternative community wasn’t all snakes and subtropical nudity, there was also The Hall. This was a community venture and you were expected to go to moon dances and work on the building/fixing the place for moon dances. The whole thing seemed rather arcane to me as we had no electricity and all sorts of things seemed to take place in the dark corners beyond the candle power.
There were lots of things that we recognised then like sustainable living, treating the planet with some respect, freedom and responsibility to each other, things that are now out there in the collective consciousness. It was a sort of utopian training camp for life as an outsider. It seemed obvious that something was happening with the planet, but not being scientists it seemed safer to blame mutated vegetables and very wet seasons on French nuclear testing.
And we lived on an illegal subdivision in a police state and had no structured political will or power, not much money and no back up. I have a lot of photos of that time and we looked poor and dirty and all the beautiful, exotic clothes had fallen to pieces in the tropical heat, I still don’t understand why They were so scared of us.
There was quite a high level of police harassment in Qld in the 70’s and 80’s, firstly by Chinooks with men in uniform at the doors, flying over at tree top level, some days it was like Apocalypse Now. There was much debate about whether they were taking photos or not, and this proved to be the case later, I remember thinking at the time that they just wanted to see some naked people.
However Qld was a police state then and any weird people in the bush were at their mercy, the Qld blue boys could turn up at any time just for fun. So it was usually at 5am, but they were too fat to walk anywhere and the road was kept in great disrepair. They had to really struggle to get to get thru the bush with any dignity.
At one point the local council decided they’d drown us out. The valley was just the right size and shape to dam to supply water for all the golf courses in the area, so it was a plan to kill two birds with one stone. At about that time I became an Australian Citizen and at the ceremony in Nambour, over tea and scones, somebody sat me next to the Mayor. I think I spent a couple of hours haranguing the poor man about our plight, I don’t think that was why the flooding didn’t happen, but at least he met one of us and could see that we were reasonably civilized, and even wore shoes.
The ceremony itself was pretty bizarre in that you had to deny all other allegiance and then swear allegiance to The Queen of Australia, who for British subjects was the same person. But I went along with it partly because I didn’t want to be deported, I hadn’t smoked dope for a while but the police had a nasty habit of planting drugs in the house and then finding them during their visits. I was also very proud to be an Australian Citizen - like adopted children being told that they had been chosen by their parents, I’d chosen to make a life in this beautiful, new country where change was possible.
But I had no idea how unbelievably badly Australian indigenous people were being treated at the time and ashamed that I didn’t make an effort to find out. They just were not visible in SE Qld. While talking to a great Aboriginal man from Hopetown, when I was in Cooktown last year, he pointed out that his people were very grateful to Joh because he got them back to their land after they’d been moved from north Qld during the war. All we could se was that our white, liberal rights were being infringed because we were different, not seeing the tragedy of a people who’d lost all their rights and their country.
I gave Peter a big painting of himself at that time, standing pale and alone in our vegetable garden with a Chinook in the background. I don’t know where he’s lost it, but maybe he still has it. Paranoia in Paradise.
Apart from the police there were also Born Again Christians sweeping through the area. A particularly nasty lot from America who practised some horrible education on children. One man was so incensed by how they’d destroyed his family when he wouldn’t join them, that he got a jerry can of petrol and managed to set fire to 5 churches in Nambour before he was caught. Direct Action was one way to go straight to jail.