Catching a bus or a train through a landscape is a different experience to flying or driving. When flying, the land beneath you (if you can even see it) exists as a sort of backdrop or postcard, as in nature documentaries when they have panning shots of mountain ranges, or an establishing shot of a forest.
Yes, it’s there, but not as a story in itself.
Driving is a little like this too, and one tends to be travelling too quickly or be focusing on the road or be chatting with others in the vehicle or be driving along a fairly ugly road whose flanks are strewn with litter. The drive along the highway between Canberra and Sydney, for example, is not one to lift the soul.
Catching a bus or a train is different, as they tend to go slower and one tends not to be the driver. Buses are higher than cars, so there is a view over the safety rails and above other traffic. Trains wend their way through the landscape on their own terms with such sweet charms (even the demonstrably rubbish ones we have in Australia) that you simply cannot argue with them.
So why this exploration of different modes of transport?
Well, one day late last year I found myself on the Canberra-Sydney bus once more. Usually I eat a book on that trip (like the memorable afternoon I started Oil and Honey shortly after leaving Central and had finished it before crossing the border) but this time I elected to simply stare out the window and try not to be too upset by that raspberry thicket, that paddock of African Love Grass, that deep scar of an erosion gully, those rabbits …
It struck me then – New South Wales exists. Australia exists! The whole, enormous country, every sunburnt square centimetre of it is out there. Not just as a backdrop, or something you fly over, or a vague notion of space between the cities; no, every blade of grass, every rabbit twitching her nose, every pebble, every billabong, every dirt track, every cattle station, every mountain.
They exist. For millions of square kilometers around me, the country was breathing quietly as it has done for so long.
I think Conrad was wrong – a central theme of Heart of Darkness is the white spaces on the map. As a child the protagonist sees all the blank spaces that cover Africa and his heart is taken by the desire to fill them in; to cover this blankness with lines and symbols and things named after various monarchs. Creepy colonialism aside, it’s just wrong, really.
Think of New South Wales. It’s a bit boxy, has Sydney in it, it’s Australia’s most populous state but gets very hot and dry very quickly when you get west of the mountains, so most of them live along the coast. You may imagine it like this:
Well sure, but two years ago I was at the Macquarie Marshes, which are here:
I had no idea that such a beautiful, biodiverse place existed in NSW. I had never even imagined it. When we were there the storm clouds were rolling in and the air was electric with it and the light was watery and orange in that soft afternoon way and I nearly wept because it was so damn beautiful.
I’ve also been to Eden, on the south coast. We saw whales, dolphins, and turtles. We caught wallabies, pootoroos, possums, Antichinus, rare birds, and lizards in our traps. We saw seals lying on the rocks and playing in the waves and I squealed like a four year old because they were just so sweet.
I haven’t been to Broken Hill yet, or any of that desert country.
I will though, because blank spaces on the map aren’t blank spaces, they’re just bits of country you haven’t seen yet, haven’t smelt or touched or swum in yet.
Soft afternoons, bright mornings, hot suns, crashing waves, breaking ice, trees whistling in the wind, rivers rushing, blue moonlight, rocks covered in snow, stinging desert sand, the cloying smell of rain hitting the tarmac at five o’clock of a summer evening. Every tiny bit of the country exists and sometimes that thought just blows my mind.