Years ago, travelling across America on a Greyhound bus, I found myself astounded when we came upon big inland cities.
I could have told anyone, myself included, that our route would take us through major metropolises, the capitals of many states. The rational, intellectual knowledge was there.
Yet viscerally. Sky-scrapers. I leaned in sideways to get my eyes close to the very bottom of the bus window, in order to peer upwards at these unlikely constructions of steel and glass and concrete, rearing above me. All rising from the land, from the land only.
But where, I thought, is the sea?
Australians are coastal dwellers. Australia’s cities are strung around the seaboard and 85% of us live within sixty-five kilometres of the ocean.
A photo of me: 1953, Apollo Bay. It’s a shot from a Box Brownie, tiny, two centimetres by three, black-and-white, my mother’s neat handwriting on the back.
At three years old, I sit in my bobble-cotton bathers, my feet in the hole I have just dug down, to water. Miraculous the way it was always there, waiting, ready to fill in the dams I erected for it.
I smile to camera.
That was the record of Australian summer holidays. Parent implicit behind the camera, happy to record happiness, child smiling, sand, sunshine, water.
Australia is the driest continent on earth.
About 35% is effectively desert. 70% of the mainland is arid.
This is to quote the Australian Government’s Geoscience report, a seemingly authoritative source. In tiny print, however, I note that the data comes from 1994. Before the millennium drought, or the drought which officially commenced in 2017 and, it is speculated, may not end before some time in 2020 or later.
In 1844 Charles Sturt set out from the south on an expedition into the centre of Australia. With him he took a whaleboat, so sure was he that they would find an inland sea. Eighteen months and nearly five thousand kilometres later, overcome by dehydration and malnutrition, he struggled back into Adelaide.
It is a little unclear whether Sturt hoped to find a lake, with drinkable water (which would have had practical use for travellers and stock) or if he simply regarded the inland sea as a Great Thing to be discovered, just for the hell of it, an achievement he wished to claim for himself.
Mapping the coastline of Australia some forty years earlier, Flinders wrote that should anyone ‘discover a creek or opening likely to lead to an inland sea or strait’, it was worthy of exploration, since there might be some body of water like Mediterranean; or perhaps the continent was really two islands divided by sea.
The most precise map of Australia’s inland sea was produced by Thomas Maslen, in 1827. A retired East India Company officer living in Yorkshire, he had never set foot in Australia. His map of the country is filled with topographical information which is detailed, reassuring, inviting, and utterly fanciful. Multiple mountain ranges traverse his version of the inland, from north to south, all across the western half of Australia, and these ranges give rise to vast river systems. (This area is, in reality, largely flat and arid.) A waterway so wide it must be an inlet or gulf, rather than a river, begins somewhere near Derby on the northwest coast, and leads east-southeast across the continent, culminating near the corners of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory, in an expanse of water about the size of Tasmania, into which rivers from the eastern side of the country flow.
The rivers leading westward tempted European settlers arriving by ship on the eastern coast. Where could they be going?
Sailing with Cook up the east coast of Australia in 1770, Joseph Banks wrote, ‘It is impossible to conceive that such a body of land, as large as Europe, does not produce vast rivers.’
The western flowing waterways in fact go only as far as the Darling River, which turns sharply south, meeting the Murray and flowing into the sea in South Australia in a mouth which is somewhat obscured by delta and shifting sand dunes.
Most European explorers were simply seeking good pastures, with some water: a perfectly pragmatic plan.
But, somehow, the search for the inland sea lingers in the Australian psyche. What does it say about us if the vast interior heart of our continent is so empty, so barren, so unsupportive of life?
Tackling the inland, explorers were not met by active dangers – wild animals, dangerous tribes, volcanoes, earthquakes. They were challenged, often killed, by absences, by lack. Striking out for the centre, whole expeditionary parties simply disappeared. Gibson lives on only as the name for the desert, in which, somewhere, he perished from thirst. There also is the mysterious and total disappearance of Leichhardt and his team, the basis for Patrick White’s Voss.
This is, of course, to speak only of the European Australian psyche. Indigenous Australians lived inland perfectly successfully. At about the most northerly point of his journey into the central deserts, Sturt came upon an aboriginal community of several hundred people – well-constructed huts, amid native grain. They took pity upon his party, offered food, water, a comfortable shelter in which to sleep. Young men, who as Sturt acknowledged could never have seen horses before, carried large wooden troughs to ferry the creatures water.
This was all in Sturt’s journal, yet neither he, nor any contemporary, paused to consider those people living there, to ask, with respect and interest, quite how that was done. Only very recently have historians, such as Bruce Pascoe, paid proper attention. When I was in school, Australian history told us only the tragic, foolish, heroic tale of Sturt’s expedition and near death in that country. On our maps the area is marked as Sturt’s Stony Desert.
At primary school, I learned of explorers and desert travellers seeing what appeared to be oases in the desert, riding towards them with hope, joy and relief, only to find that the image would disintegrate and disappear, all a mirage. At the time, I imagined such oases with palm trees, Bedouin tents and small pleasure palaces waiting for weary travellers. And perhaps with full-blown delirium brought on by heat exhaustion and dehydration, those are the kind of things that might have been conjured up.
But the illusions produced by mirage are usually no more than the effect seen on hot highways, the distant shimmer in which the cars’ reflections appear and then break up, in disconcerting pieces, like a hall of mirrors at a fair ground.
Both the sea and the sky have their colour because the shorter wavelength of blue is absorbed less than the rest of the spectrum in water, and is mostly scattered by molecules in the air. The sea is not a reflection of the sky, though the colours may be similar – sea blue, sky blue.
The heat haze of a mirage has no colour of its own, but creates a mirror. On a clear day it would reflect the cloudless blue sky. Mirages are most effective on very hot and very flat ground. Travelling desert plains your eye might be offered some vast expanse of water, blue against red earth, miraculous and tempting, which, as you approached, would shimmer, become unstable, turbulent as water can be, before breaking apart and vanishing.
It is in conditions where you most crave water that this illusion will occur.
When seeking signs of life beyond Earth, scientists look for water.
Could subsurface environments on Mars, or Jupiter’s moon Europa, contain the beginnings of microbial life? Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, may have the remnant of an internal ocean.
Astrophysicists on television become excited about the possibilities.
Water is a prerequisite for life, certainly life as we know it.
In need of water for stock, Joseph Canning captured a group of Martu men, kept them chained together by the neck, fed them salt, and waited till their thirst drove them to reveal local water holes.
The Canning Stock Route runs from Halls Creek in the Kimberley of northwest Australia to Wiluna in the mid-west, through deserts where the summer temperatures exceed 55 degrees. Over fifty wells were drilled along the way. At over fifteen hundred kilometres, this is the longest stock route in the world. Yet it has not been much used.
The water holes were sacred to the people of the Western Desert. Consequently, many of the wells were sabotaged; the structures of wood and metal invading holy places were pulled up and cast aside.
The first mob of bullocks set out from Halls Creek in 1911, but the three drovers were killed a few days into their journey. The punitive police expedition – vague on the exact details of their activity – was deemed a success owing to the fact that at least ten aborigines were killed. Drovers remained discouraged, however, and in the twenty years between 1911 and 1931 only eight mobs of cattle were driven along the route.
Recently it’s been opened for tourism – ‘An Unrivalled Outback Adventure Down The World’s Largest Historic Stock Route’. The tour company offers us hot showers and flushing toilets. On the Internet you can see the full route, which leads, in that Western way, clearly from one point to another. Indigenous maps are more complex. You get some sense of them in aboriginal artwork, those networks of concentric circles representing water holes, the tracks between. Increasingly, galleries will display these paintings laid out upon the floor, since this is how they were created, and how they are best understood.
The knowledge of such a map of water holes was critical in the Martu Native Title claim. For such claims to be successful it is necessary to demonstrate continuous connection to country over time. The last of the Martu came in from the desert in the 1960s, so living elders were born on country, before contact with Westerners, and still have memories and a mental map of the country from oral history. They can guide observers to water sources.
In an area so vast and rough, this was frequently done by helicopter. Once in the air, the elders sang songs that followed walking lines they would have used, taking them from one rock hole to the next. The helicopters flew low and slowly, so that the features of the landscape, called up by the songs, could still easily be observed.
Once located, each water hole was recorded with a GPS position, and added to the digital database to be used for the land claim.
The elders are dismissive of the Australian government’s supposed possession of this territory. Could the Queen of England, or any of her servants find water here? Without such knowledge, what claim to country do they have?
So far, 1,491 water sources have been identified in Martu land.
In 2002 the Australian government awarded the Martu rights to more than 13.67 million hectares of land, about twice the size of Tasmania.
After downpours in the central deserts, there are often reports of fish falling miraculously out of the sky.
In fact, these come from ground level, hardy creatures which can survive in the most limited marshes or bores, and which appear with rainfall, filling shallow ditches, even swimming along ruts left by passing vehicles, in an exodus seeking new territory.
Desert shrimp grow to three inches, with an elegant curved cape-like shield across their heads, scaly bodies, forked tails. The eggs can remain dormant for years, may blow about the desert, surviving extreme heat, cold and lack of water; then, with heavy rain, they come to life.
Just as unusual wet conditions bring this uncharacteristic proliferation of fish, the unusual dryness of the last decades has left around the country an increasing number of landlocked boat clubs. They are forlorn, abandoned, somewhat foolish, standing in open ground as if fallen from the sky.
In 1956, I was taken to see the Olympic rowing races held on Lake Wendouree in Ballarat. It contains some water at this moment, but for most of the millennium drought, from 2000 to 2010, it was completely dry. Jetties stretched out, surreal, over dry mud. Stranded boathouses began to lean in, as if pulled towards the water’s absence.
‘New Members Welcome,’ says the weathered sign on The Colac Yacht Club. ‘Learn to Sail.’
The front veranda is wide and the boat ramp slopes down to a plain of dry grass.
In the Australian Museum in Sydney there is a fossilised skeleton of a pliosaur. Beneath the display lights, it glitters. It is opalised.
Pliosaurs were small marine mammals, about the size of a seal, from the Early Cretaceous period. This one was found at Coober Pedy over six hundred kilometres inland from the nearest coast.
Fossils like this have merely a coating of opal, a sheen. But there are mussels, and shark’s teeth, a lobster’s claw, and gastropods – exactly like the periwinkle shells found commonly now on many beaches – which have been turned to solid opal. They gleam – pearly, pale green and turquoise, iridescent blue – the colours of the sea.
It is possible to find marine fossils in other continents, thousands of kilometres from the ocean, lifted by the movement and buckling of tectonic plates. The Himalayas are rich in ammonites. But it is only in Australia that they turn to opal. Water eroding sandstone – all that sand of the interior – releases a silica solution that may flow into an empty space left by a shell or bone that has rotted away, like jelly pouring into a mould, leaving an opalised cast of the original life form.
It could be said that Charles Sturt, searching for his sea, was not in the wrong place, but the wrong time. One hundred and twenty million years earlier much of Australia was covered by the Eromanga Sea, sometimes stretching all the way from north to south, across the present northwest coast near Broome, or the east, near Brisbane. The water levels rose and fell. The continent was at times divided in two, or was sometimes an archipelago of islands in the ocean.
When the seas fell, they left behind the bones of the fish and aquatic animals that had swum there, and the shells and molluscs, the traces of sea grass and sea lilies. And they left behind salt, making deserts.
When colliding tectonic plates lifted up the seabed to become the Himalayas, rainfall washed the salt down the slopes and back into the oceans.
The continent of Australia is shaped almost like a wide saucer. The mountains are modest, Mount Kosciuszko being about a quarter the height of Mount Everest. Australia’s average elevation is 300 metres.
As the sea level receded, Australia retained the salt, like the residue of some experiment in a Petri dish.
Safely locked into layers of subsoil for millennia, salt may be washed loose by well-intentioned irrigation schemes. Rather than just turning the desert to a garden – orchards, market gardens, vineyards – rising salinity also kills off even hardy native vegetation. Swathes of Murray River Red Gum, over one hundred and forty feet high – dead, white, skeletal – mark out the course of the river.
Song of Artesian Water
Now the stock have started dying, for the Lord has sent a drought,
But we’re sick of prayers and Providence – we’re going to do without,
. . . .
But it’s hark! the whistle’s blowing with a wild, exultant blast,
And the boys are madly cheering, for they’ve struck the flow at last:
And it’s rushing up the tubing from four thousand feet below,
Till it spouts above the casing in a million-gallon flow.
. . . . .
It is flowing, ever flowing, further down.
In the dry years of the late nineteenth century, bore water was seen as the miracle resource that would save Australian sheep and cattle stations in arid country. There are glass plate photos of farmers standing proudly beside bores which fountain high into the air, an entirely profligate flow, to perhaps three times the height of the men.
The Great Artesian Basin is the largest artesian basin in the world, underlying nearly a quarter of the continent, more than 1,700,000 square kilometres, from northern Queensland to South Australia. It would have been beneath Sturt’s feet, for most of the northern half of his expedition – this inland, but underground sea. The water is drinkable.
There is debate about where the water comes from. Is it replenished, quite slowly, by rainfall? Is it plutonic, trapped within layers of volcanic rock over millions of years ago, not replaceable at all, entirely finite? Either way, it is not ever flowing.
Many of the aboriginal water sources in the desert were artesian springs. Sometimes the water would bubble slowly to the land’s surface, but it might be necessary to dig down, as much as ten metres. These tunnels were dug at an angle to prevent water needlessly evaporating.
With European technology it was possible to drill down a kilometre, a kilometre and a half. Depending on pressure, water might spurt upwards in a continuing geyser. Much of it wasted.
The basin once contained between 65,000 to 87,000 million megalitres of water, enough to fill Sydney Harbour 130,000 times.
Before European settlement, water was taken out at such a modest rate that the basin remained for all practical purposes unchanged, a reliable source for the aboriginal people for the tens of thousands of years.
At the rate we have been using it, if very great care is taken, the Basin may last another hundred years. If not, it may be gone in a couple of decades.
An Aboriginal Dreaming story tells how once, in a time of drought, all but one of the people’s water holes were dry. One night, two greedy men, Weeri and Walawidbit, stole all this water, in a skin water-carrier, and ran away across the plains.
Next day, the people gave chase. Warriors threw spears, which made holes in the water-carrier, causing it to leak.
Weeri was turned into the first emu and ran off across the plains. Walawidbit was turned into a blue-tongued lizard and crawled away to hide in rocks.
Wherever the water had leaked there were billabongs and water holes. And that is how the water got to the plains.
Aboriginal culture is full of stories warning against greed. Do not waste. Do not take more fish from the river than you need. Leave stock there for those who will come after you. Do not waste or over-use the water. Resources must be shared and preserved.
Aboriginal culture sees individualism as a bad thing, a transgression against common good, both now and in the future.
Indigenous elders speak of themselves always as custodians, care-takers of the land. We do not own the land; the land owns us.
They do not – as western economists always do – speak of Expansion and Growth.
The European mind-set is inclined to characterise indigenous cultures as primitive, superstitious, irrational. But what else are we doing here but being irrational, indulging in magical thinking? How is this growth and expansion supposed to work? We are expecting the planet will grow and expand?
Australian indigenous people have handed on the land from one generation to the next, preserved, conserved, continuously supporting life for around 65,000 years.
The bushfires in Australia this season have burnt through over 46,000,000 acres. England is a little more than 32,000,000 acres.
The inland is running out of water to fight the fires.
Dozens of country towns, some of over 60,000 residents, must have water trucked in to them.
The Murray-Darling basin, the food bowl of Australia, is in the grip of a drought so savage that there has been talk of the government compensating farmers to walk off the land.
The Darling River, stretching fifteen hundred kilometres from Queensland down the west of NSW to the Victorian border, is dry. Television news footage shows local farmers walking down the clay bed of the river, its banks rising high on either side. Last summer saw the fish killed in the Darling river pools and the connected Menindee Lakes, millions of native fish – golden perch, bony bream, Murray cod, a metre long or more, weighing over 100 pounds, decades old.
In the future, it is difficult to imagine what percentage of Australia will be arid or desert. It is difficult to see how the inland waterways may recover.
The Great Barrier Reef is dying.
Per capita, we are the highest emitters of carbon dioxide among advanced economies. The Australian government has no policy to restrict carbon emissions.
Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) is a post-apocalyptic novel and movie set in my hometown of Melbourne. Arriving here, Ava Gardner is reported to have said, ‘What a perfect place to make a film about the end of the world.’
On the news, children sit near the water line huddled up in towelling to protect them from radiant heat. Surrounded by the fires, they await rescue by boat. They are in the east of the State, a few hundred kilometres from Melbourne. A father holds his swaddled infant. Faces are obscured by masks. The light is red, apocryphal. Watching these reports, it is easy to feel that this cannot really be happening. It must be fiction, produced by CGI, special effects, from some movie, sci-fi, fantasy, a dystopia. A film about the end of the world.
After this summer, these images will always be with us when we think of Australians on the beach.
I spend summers in a place where native bushland comes all the way down to the sea. By pure good fortune, we’ve not yet been hit by the fires this year.
The holiday-makers are still here.
There is the theory that human life evolved from communities living on that borderline between sea and land. And I find this is easy to believe, watching us here, peaceful, amicable, at ease in the extravagantly beautiful landscape and seascape.
Folk bask and doze like peaceful sea creatures out of water for a little, too bemused with heat to contemplate aggression.
Families play cricket on the sand. The teams and rules are loose. Does anyone know who is winning and does anyone care? There is quite a bit of cheering and laughter.
Children dig dams down into the sand to find water.
And there are the young men with tiny babies, carried delicately in strong arms. The fathers curve towards these tiny beings, with intensity of focus, with reverence.
Watching all this, it is possible to feel we are a species worthy of survival.
The title page of On the Beach includes lines from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’.
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.
. . .
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
The world will not end, this side of extremely deep time, though it will be changed. Hard to say, for example, quite where its beaches will be.
As heat melts the icecaps and glaciers, sea levels may rise seventy metres, giving back to Australia the inland sea, or returning the continent to an archipelago of islands in a wider ocean. All that time back, or all that time onward, and Sturt’s sea would be just where he expected to find it. This change may take thousands of years, though it may be a lot sooner the way we are going. Once warming gets to five degrees, scientists speculate, it would be hard to see how the melting would stop.
It will not take seventy metres to disrupt most of Australia’s cities. The first three to six metres will pretty much take us out. My house, only very slightly above present sea level, would go early. It is about half a kilometre inland, but built upon reclaimed sandy wetland. The water may even now be seeping through some lower level of the ground beneath my feet, imperceptible but there, collecting around the foundations, waiting, ready to move onward and upward.
Marine life may evolve and change, adapting to oceans, which are not just warmer, but more acidic. Shellfish, krill, coral, will not do well. The creatures of the future seas may cruise above what was once our central desert, leaving their bones with life forms that have preceded them; those of the land, the introduced European stock, native fauna, all the generations of humanity, the odd lost explorer; and beyond that, with the bones of the pliosaurs and ichthyosaurs.
The world will not end, but humanity may do. Scientists’ predictions about our chances are very mixed. But most of them argue against relinquishing hope, without which it is impossible to think or act.
So, let me hope that there will be human communities on those islands of some future archipelago. They will also have had to change and adapt. It is suggested that major crises in Australia’s always challenging environment – the great drought of thirty odd thousand years ago, for example – produced the mindset of indigenous people, understanding that we must see ourselves as part of the world, with which we must co-exist. The land owns us. Perhaps this is something humanity may have learned. It is necessary to hope for that.
In that future, will adults still take their children down to the sea, to make them an offering? Here, my child, is the sun, the sky, the land, the water and the world.