It’s clear that Australians whose daily out outpouring of bile against Muslims, refugees and strangers, in general, have never experienced the generosity, warmth and welcome of strangers in strange lands. Had they done so it is hard to believe that they would behave towards people with different values, skin colours and religions as they have been doing.
My childhood homes for 16 years, from the age of 6 weeks, were all in countries where people had no reason to feel friendly towards white, blond haired, privileged and wealthy children but my experiences and that of my family were overwhelmingly positive.
One Bhuddist country, Thailand, two Muslim countries, Egypt and Iran and one Apartheid country, South Africa, all provided a welcome which puts Australia’s xenophobic, racist and cruel Government to shame and where the welcome and warmth of the citizens of those countries is in sharp contrast to the outpouring of bile by a minority of Australians.
Those experiences, of so long ago, are not isolated or historical. More recently, I have spent weeks or months in Egypt (2014), Turkey (2015), Jordan (2014).
In every circumstance, both historical and recent, I have experienced no hostility, no racism or xenophobia and an overwhelming inclination from everyone to be friendly and helpful and to understand and be open to people from other cultures – and not just from those who might stand to benefit from the spending of tourists but more broadly from the person in the street. Perhaps I have been lucky but I like to think not.
We lived in Egypt between 1960 and 1965. This was just four years after the Suez Crisis when Israel, Britain and France had invaded Egypt in response to Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. So there we were, a British family (I was born in Britain in 1955 just before my family left for Thailand), living in a country which only four years previously had been invaded by the British armed forces.
Despite this, the Egyptians were overwhelmingly welcoming. I had the same experience in 2014, during protests and repression in Tahrir Square, when Egyptians would invite me to their homes for tea, despite their knowledge of Australia’s role in the Middle East and about its attitude to refugees.
We moved to Iran between 1966 and 1969, to a country where the west, in the form of a CIA inspired coup had deposed the democratic, and popularly elected, Mossadeq Government in 1953, a mere 14 years previously and had restored the repressive Shah Reza Pahlavi to power. Despite this Iranians were welcoming and friendly.
We lived in South Africa between 1969 and 1972, at the height of apartheid, where no black or brown person had any reason to feel remotely friendly to people with white skin and yet, as a teenager, experienced no sense of hostility or racism. Compare this with the abuse of people of all ages, including teenagers in Australia, just for looking or being different
Compare this, also, with the hostility shown to French people, in Australia, during the protests against nuclear testing in Mururoa – a small island 8700 kilometres distant. As an example, in Darlinghurst, Marc and Murielle Laucher, a couple with dual French-Australian citizenship, found the windows of their cafe, La Petite Creme, smeared with faeces – and this was not an isolated incident.
More recently, I have been in Turkey, a country on the frontline of the hostilities in the Middle East, and which is dealing with hundreds of thousand of refugees. This is a country where an Islamic-leaning Government has encouraged a less secular society and where negotiations over many years to enter the EU have not exactly endeared many Turks to “western” oriented societies. Never mind Gallipoli and the history of conflict between the Ottomans and the west.
Yet every person from the most secular to the most religious was welcoming and friendly and there was no sense of people being prejudiced due to the alleged clash of western and islamic values. In fact the sense of a reconciliation of those values (women in bikinis and headscarfs) was far stronger than in Australia. None of this is to say that no racism exists in these other societies or that minorities in all societies don’t behave in the same way as the racist bigots in Australia but it seems less prevalent and less obvious.
There is something peculiarly obnoxious about the toxic mix of political conservatism, xenophobia, racism which is making Australia a less pleasant, less open and less welcoming society than many of consider it to be. It’s a subject about which we need a national debate. How do we combat this? How do we change the politics of fear that allows this prejudice to thrive. And what can every citizen do to assist?
From Purnululu we head for Kununurra which will be our next rest day after Katherine. Our first stop, for fuel and refreshments is Warmun (formerly Turkey Creek).
Here we meet, John, another intrepid cyclist. He is from New Zealand and is en route from Darwin to Perth. His wife has abandoned him for the trip as she considers his passion for riding long distances over main roads to be something only explicable in the average asylum.
His two main loads are 30 litres of water and a bird book the size of the average car fridge. He expects to be in Broome, some 700 kilometres away, in two weeks. His trip has been a positive experience with passing motorists offering, water, lifts, tea and cake.
He notes that women are much more positive about his trip than men, with the women offering praise and enthusiasm and the men offering assessments of his sanity. John suggests that men feel that their masculinity is threatened, because they are cruising comfortably in four-wheel drives, so they feel compelled to belittle his achievement.
The scenery, as we travel east, is a mixture of spinifex plains and low mountain ranges topped by escarpments. The Goddess of Weird Excitability at Very Small Things Indeed (GoWEaVSTI), aka Jill, is agog. If we still used cellulose film instead of digital there would scarcely be enough cellulose on earth to sate her enthusiasm.
As we broach a rise in the road a low range of hills appears as a pimple in the distance. It is indeed topped by a very nice escarpment. Stop! the GoEaVSTI urges us. Scarcely a more glorious range of hills has ever been seen, she exclaims, it must be photographed immediately and multiple times.
A collective rolling of eyes occurs. But, GoWEaVSTI, we say, it is very similar to hundreds of other such ranges we have seen and will, indeed, not be capture-able on the implement for capturing such images. It will be simply a line on the horizon. But captured it was. And, lo, it was a line on the horizon.
We roll into Kununurra, which advertises itself as the gateway to the Kimberley. It is packed full of tourists along with a few intrepid “travellers”, like ourselves, who are exploring where thousands have gone before. We find ourselves ensconced in the Kimberley-land Holiday Park.
Unfortunately the lakeside site which we should have had is denied us when Roger appears unable to choose between a beautiful, green lakeside side with views of sunsets, birds, water and numerous other upmarket facilities and a dusty, non-lakeside site, with no views, directly on the toilet block and hence passed by several dozen visitors each five minutes.
As an added bonus we are mere feet from the kiddies playground which, I should add, does not change my view on involuntary euthanasia for noisy children.
Forced by Roger to consult and achieve consensus over such a difficult choice we find ourselves gazumped by the next arrivals. They for some reason, unlike Roger, are able to see, on the map, that the site indicated as being by the lake is, indeed, by the lake. Our camp site is lost.
Some compensation is achieved by the fact that we are adjacent to a very pleasant family from Macedon, Victoria, called the Royals. The Royals pass us important and confidential information about destinations which are, of course, not available to other tourists. This includes secret information such as the most popular camping spots around Wyndham.
Since it is late and no one feels inclined to cook we go for dinner across the road. The food is passable but the decor, which consists of photographs of a variety of female crotch and tit shots leaves something to be desired. MONA it is not.
Our days in Kununurra are dedicated to business and provisions, as well as a brief lunch with Lloyd, Lynda and two friends who are traveling with them. But first order of business is locating the town’s best coffee shop which is the Mango Tree on the corner of the main street. We also have to get our temporary repair to the sump crash plate fixed.
While the car is being fixed I retreat to the library. It is a beautiful new library. I am apparently funding its entire construction costs in the amount I am paying for access to the internet. At least it is a good investment since I am able to respond to my tax accountant about some questions he has about my tax return. He is unconvinced that by using the local coffee shop in Byron for work, I can charge all my several thousand coffees against my tax.
We replenish our food and alcohol supplies. Licensing rules in Kununurra limit us to one bottle of spirits per person, so we need three separate purchases. The most important additional purchase, over and above the gin and tonic, is a bottle of Baileys to add to the morning espresso.
For the uninitiated this is an essential component of camping trips which I discovered on freezing cold climbing trips in Joshua Tree and Red Rocks in the US. When you get up, sit in a chair facing east, in your sleeping bag and watch the sunrise while drinking coffee and Baileys.
Apart from being a perfect day-starter, it has the added advantage of relaxing one enough that one’s climbing techniques improve considerably. On this trip its function is to improve ones dexterity while climbing on the vehicle to put the tents away.
A part of our alcohol allocation permitted the purchase of six bottles of apple cider for Jill, who promptly gets drunk on one bottle. Jill observes that alcohol does not really agree with her. Jill’s tendency to be a cheap drunk has a very problematic downside on the morning that we leave Kununurra.
Kaylee and I are outraged to discover that she has given away the rest of our communal bottles of cider because she can’t cope with the entirely predictable side-effects of alcohol.
Roger and Jill are out canoeing on the lake when Lloyd and Lynda turn up. Kaylee and I meet them in the Mango Tree. They are travelling in an identical hire vehicle to us, albeit that, because theirs not a one way hire, they have been able to leave the surplus swag, chemical toilet and other encumbrances in Alice Springs. The vehicles are equipped, unlike most similar four-wheel drives, with two double tents constructed on the one roof.
I observe to Lloyd and Lynda that the main drawback is their proclivity to roll around like a ship in a storm when anyone moves. There is no need for Kaylee and I to move if we want to have sex. One person simply lies on top of the other and we simply wait for Roger to turn over, at which point the swaying motion of the vehicle accomplishes everything for which one might otherwise have to exert oneself. There is the added benefit that the only thing Roger and Jill notice is that Roger has turned over. It is the perfect sexual technique for shared vehicles.
Saturday morning sees Kaylee and I go kayaking on Lake Kununurra. My paddling technique is somewhat limited since I managed to put my back out due to Roger’s night-time movements but it’s an easy and short paddle surrounded by a plethora of water birds.
It is one of the bizarre eccentricities of bad backs that you can spend three weeks walking, lifting heavy boxes, climbing on vehicles, crawling under vehicles etc with no ill effects. On the other hand one tiny movement, with no apparent stress, and ones back decides to pack it in for three days. I am consoled by the thought of cooked breakfast at the Mango Tree.
While Kaylee and I are breakfasting, Roger does the shopping. This later proves problematic since, according to Jill, Roger is foolish enough to actually follow the shopping list. Jill’s technique, according to her own admission, is to waste a considerable amount of time writing a detailed list of requirements and then completely ignore it.
Having written your redundant shopping list you then go shopping, randomly adding anything you feel like and increasing or decreasing the shopping list accordingly.
To quote: “I just add at least a third more things to any list to ensure we have enough”. The logic of writing a list seems to have passed Jill by. After our breakfast I visit the chemist to replenish my reading and sunglass supply. I have a reading glass consumption rate of about 2 pairs per month and, regrettably no strategy, such as tying glasses to fixed objects, has managed to reduce that.
Our final job is to explore getting rid of surplus gear to make packing easier. We plan to freight the chemical toilet and spare swag to Perth. We ring the local trucking companies. Only one is open on a Saturday morning. They need to check on costs and delivery schedules and promise to ring back. But by the time that call comes we have already left and are out of mobile range.
We are now officially on the way down the Gibb River Road which branches off from the road to Wyndham. But first we plan a quick detour to Wyndham. It is one of those towns on which one gets mixed reports. But like Halls Creek its sum is greater than its parts.
Many of the alleged attractions of the town are closed, such as Look Sea Fishing Charters, the crocodile farm, the botanic gardens, the Lee Tong’s Oriental Grocer, the video store and the war memorial gardens. The town is also a tad overwhelmed by a constant stream of road trains carrying ore from the nearby mine.
Having had a poke around the town we stop for afternoon tea at the Rusty Shed, where, as with virtually ever other place we have visited, we are served by a French woman on a working holiday.
It seems our hospitality industry is sustained by visitors on long-term holidays. We meet Fred there who recounts his life history as a emigre from the Netherlands and a long-term resident of Wyndham.
Fred is fascinating and has strong links with the Aboriginal community. His father was part of the resistance during World War 2. He recounts the difficulties of surviving the war with virtually no food and getting arrested for cutting down trees for firewood.
He says that even in the fifties there were massacres of Aboriginal people occurring He quotes a case where a black tracker, from one clan group, assisted some people to kill a group of other blackfellas from a different clan group.
On Wyndham’s positive side there is a thriving and well managed caravan park, as well as the aforementioned Rusty Shed which a great cafe, There is an impressive Aboriginal memorial which is hidden in the back blocks and is half dignified and half kitsch. Nearby there is the fantastic Five Rivers Lookout from which you get a Panorama of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf where the five huge rivers meet on an enormous flood plain.
Leaving the Five Rivers Lookout we pick up fuel and head out down the road to the Gibb turnoff.
En route we stop to photograph the boot tree which appears to be a random tree into which passing motorists have thrown their worn out boots. It is at the top of the hill on the other side of double white lines. I insist we stop to get a photograph of this phenomenon and my insistence persuades Roger, just short of the crest of hill, to swerve at high speed across the double white lines in order to meet my request.
Mission accomplished, Roger is advised by Jill that crossing a double white line at speed is risky and out of character and that he has been in my company for too long.
See the Flickr archive from which these images were taken: