In this lockdown, gazing up through the grate of our oubliette at the caerulean blue sky above, I thought about the place in Australia where I’d rather be more than anywhere else. After all, we love the West Coast of Tasmania and I love driving out from Broken Hill at sunset and seeing the Mundi Mundi Plains spread out below me; the small dust speck of a car streaking across the plain lives in my memory.
I could ramble on and on – Jacob’s ladder in the Indian Ocean at Broome; the total eclipse of the sun at Ceduna and even my first adventure in the bush when I, still in kindergarten, climbed up Little Joe – and so on – wallowing in the reminiscences of being privileged, able to travel around Australia.
No, the place that I would rather be is sitting at the edge of the river where the Darling River empties into the Murray River, near Wentworth. It is the epitome of serenity, where all you have to do is just watch as these two major arteries which maintain life in the Southern Part of the Continent sustain life, come together.
It is not as though being there you are far from civilisation. If you you’re your gaze away from the rivers you can see through the river red gum foliage a collection of nondescript houses, a recreation reserve and even paved streets. The hospital at Wentworth, essentially a nursing home of 22 beds when I was last there, lies on a spit of land near the junction of the rivers – unfortunately the rooms at the hospital do not have a river view. There is also the disfigurement of a viewing tower. Fortunately, that and the buildings do not contaminate my view of the river.
What is beautiful is being able to shut all that out at the water’s edge. Just watching the rivers move; one having flowed from the Snowy Mountains, the other from Queensland, picking up many a tributary along the way – as a giant imperial force, until it finds that the real emperor with its own of tributaries from NSW and Victoria justly receives its homage as the Darling salutes her, not as a rushing torrent but as a genial meeting of the waters. Yet there is always the vulnerability of the Darling river being bled until in parts it is reduced to pools of water.
I have seen where other giant rivers come together, such as the Missouri and the Mississippi at St Louis and the Rio Negro entering the Amazon at Manaus. The first conjunction is not spectacular – just one meandering around low marsh land as though accidently meeting. The other is more spectacular, bringing its distinctive colour, seemingly black at a distance but in reality umber, to be dissipated by its mighty tawny relative. “Mighty” is the word attached to big rivers. I had a colleague who always prefaced Murray with “mighty”.
Shaded by the river red gums that provide the arcade through which one moves towards the other there is a certain tranquillity, which even the sulphur crested and the black cockatoos screeching above, cannot disturb. Their noise enables me to block out the sounds of the dusty dirty city to coin a phase. Their racket is counterpointed by the black swans noiselessly passing by and the wild ducks which move with the merest splash.
Near the open space there is patch of long reed and sedge, which has to be negotiated if you want to wander down the river to get a better vantage point. I have always watched for snakes because water and tiger snakes go together in Australia. Fortunately, there is a narrow path cut through the reeds, but unfortunately I cannot pivot this story. I have never seen a tiger snake there.
I found a relevant scrap of paper to complement the above reminiscence. In the past, I would jot things down, but did not have the time to do anything more with them then. However, I tend to find them tucked away. This is the story of my life. I once wrote a series of short stories, which I labelled Outlines in numerical order. I remember giving them to the late Brian Johns and he gave them to someone to assess. The reviewer came back and said they sure were outlines – implying how little content there was. I thought that somewhat cruel, but I shrugged; I had other outlines that needed attention – and these short stories ended up in my chaotic filing system.
I have been thinking about that criticism as I‘ve being doing an archaeological dig through my existence. Maybe that has been the description of who I am – an outline that has drifted along through a series of those undulating hills – perhaps towards that “green hill far away”. Anyway, enough of that!
This scrap of paper which was obviously written for some long-forgotten speech as it floridly commenced: “I was festooned with gown and caduceus” as the rather awkward opening gambit.
When I worked onwards through my notes, it described a route I travelled very rarely, between Broken Hill and Mildura. Mostly I drove the Silver City Highway, which was a sealed road. That was never a guarantee against the odd kangaroo, so I tried to avoid driving at dusk. But the early morning was also a dangerous time. I was somewhat shocked to see this grey furry blur disappearing under the left headlight and how I missed it, God only knows – as well does the kangaroo.
The other route from Broken Hill to Mildura is partially sealed. Driving to Menindee, the road is paved. Menindee is a strongly aboriginal township, but without the notoriety of Wilcannia.
When I would reach Menindee, I usually sat down for a beer in the internal courtyard of the hotel. Here was where Burke and Wills stayed, but since that time the pub has burnt down, losing that authenticity, and that single hibiscus which grew in the courtyard.
When I was there then, there was water in the Menindee Lakes because rainfall had been moderate in the early 1990s. I since have seen the lakes waterless. I found it distressing because dry Menindee Lakes signal a distressed river. Near the four Menindee Lakes, there is a sign that says Burke and Wills camped there; well, they had taken 18 men with them, and those that had not resigned stayed by the Lakes. Burke and Wills were ensconced in the inn. The journey from Melbourne had taken two months to arrive there with their wagons, horses and 22 camels. As I sat in the courtyard drinking a beer and looking abstractedly at the walls, I wrote down “…we all have magnificent obsessions, for in the end we are a long time dead”.
In the annals of Australian exploration the Burke and Wills expedition was a gigantic “cock-up”, but as with the Gallipoli disaster, it is a part of the national psyche to not only remember but also venerate these occasions.
From Menindee to travel south, I drove on to Pooncarie, also on the Darling River. The road between the two townships was just bulldust then. Not only does an oncoming vehicle create a sandstorm, but what may appear to be a smooth sandy roadway can be a cover for large craters. A nice little trap for those who want to “fang” along. If you want to deviate away from the delights of Pooncarie, population 48, you can drive towards Mungo National Park, named after Mungo MacCallum whose forefathers inhabited the region before they anglicised their name to Wentworth, that nearby town standing on traditional land.
Va bene, I have been known to pull the end of a leg. But MacCallum inherited certain of the Wentworth traits.
Anyway, apart from being back on the Darling River, Pooncarie has a pub, a community health centre and an airstrip – but not much more. The fact that the Pooncarie Cup in October is the highlight says a great deal about these tiny settlements. This is not a value judgement, just an observation. If it is not an annual race meeting, it is a rodeo. The next step up are the annual shows or field days – I don’t quite know where to rank the B&S Balls.
Wentworth and Mildura are not that distant from one another – the orange groves surrounded by arid land soon appear. After a drive through the waterless land, citrus groves are civilisation. They have proliferated all along the road. This is the Sunraysia District.
The road is sealed and it has been the work of the then local member of Parliament who, as he always did when he was determined, had the road made some years before, after a time when the township was cut off by floods and a pregnant woman died because she could not be evacuated in time.
The medical service at Wentworth was appalling at the time I was there, but that was the problem with rural medicine. Out there were a number of weird doctors, who survived because they were often in single person practices and nobody was watching them. Wentworth was one of these captured townships. As I found out, it was almost impossible to get dysfunctional doctors deregistered then. Wentworth residents had some solace of knowing that Mildura was only 30 minutes away. However, as was demonstrated, Pooncarie was a township too far. Needless to say, its population did not justify a doctor.
Then again, I am sitting here in my favourite place where the rivers run together and as I watch silently, I recall what Yeats once wrote:
“…Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.”
I have always been wary of snakes. As I wrote above, I always look where I am putting my feet. The reason is that when I was about 14 years old, I went to retrieve a football which I had kicked over the fence into the long grass. I was wearing thick socks and football boots. I forget why I was kitted up – but fortunately I was, as it turned out.
It all happened in such a flash. I was about to pick up my football when I felt as though I stood on a pipe, there was this sting in my leg and a saw a greenish brown body of what I presumed to be a snake slithering away.
When I went back over the fence to home, I pulled my sock off revealing two distinct puncture marks in my calf. The ambulance was called; I don’t remember much after that – until the ambulance arrived. I know my father, who was a doctor was not there. Somebody in the house may have tried to tourniquet my leg. There was nobody there to try do anything much with the puncture marks apart from washing it.
As I remember it, nothing much happened. The ambulance drivers arrived with polyvalent antivenene. First, they had to give me a small amount to test my reaction. I had a major local reaction. They did not give me the full dose. While this was going on, minutes were ticking over and I remained symptomless.
I had been bitten, that was clear. Why had nothing occurred? The snake was later to be identified when a few weeks later, workers clearing the site for the construction of a telephone exchange killed an eastern brown snake. That would fit the fleeting picture I had.
Ever since I have speculated while I had no systemic signs. Perhaps the football sock absorbed the venom; or as does happen, the first strike often does not contain any venom. The eastern brown snake is very venomous, and even though its fangs are short, they were still able to imprint my leg with the tell-tale puncture marks.
Anyway, that is my snake story. Anticlimactic but true. Come on, do you know anybody who was bitten by a snake?
Not a household name
Allyson Felix won her 11th career Olympic medal Saturday, combining with her American teammates to finish the 4×400-meter relay in 3 minutes, 16.85 seconds for a runaway victory.
The team of Felix, Sydney McLaughlin, Dalilah Muhammad and Athing Mu was never in jeopardy in this one. Poland finished second, 3.68 seconds behind, and Jamaica finished third.
Felix, who became the most-decorated woman in Olympic track history when she won bronze in the 400 the night before, now passes Carl Lewis with the most track medals of any US athlete. Of the 11 medals, seven are gold.
No doubt an amazing feat, but she is hardly a household name in Australia. Similarly in USA, who had heard of Emma McKeon, certainly not the NYT.
The Olympic Games has been used by the venal to justify their existence by these fleeting illusions. Unfortunately, it is a drug for politicians to cloak their venality in collaboration with the dark forces of the IOC.
Yet the Olympic Games has spawned for each nation a pantheon. Even re-telling the story behind the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their arms in the Black Panther salute in the 200 metres victory ceremony, Americans fail to recognise the role of the whitefella on the podium with the human rights badge. He was Peter Norman, and his intrinsic solidarity with the two others was victimised by a spiteful hierarchy which foreshortened his career. When Norman died in 2006, both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral. Needless to say, these three men have been belatedly recognised for what they did. However, the essential humanity of this trio have been brushed away by the Olympic seigneurs with their “joy-boy” vassals that still roam the upper feudal reaches of the “sporting family”.
Perhaps the man most associated with the Olympic ideals was Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. The story is well known of his friendship with the German athlete Luz Long, who assisted Owens in his long jump style. Long’s name dissolved into time as he had been killed in World War 11 in Italy. His legacy, a letter to Owens re-affirming his friendship, was written just before his death on the battlefield.
However, there is a lesser-known story about Owens in Berlin where he was befriended by one of the Finnish sprinters, Toivo Sariola. When Owens said he felt unsafe in the streets, Toivo said Owens should join his group and thus the Finns would protect him in the city. Owens greatly appreciated Toivo’s gesture. After the USA’s victory in the Men’s 4x100m relay final, Jesse donated the USA team’s baton to Toivo and wrote on it “With friendship to Toivo Sariola”.
From 1912 to 1928, Finland was never lower than fourth in the medal count and, in 1924, finished second with 14 gold medals. This was the time of the distance runner Paavo Nurmi, who was always mentioned in the same tone of reverence as Owen. At the 1924 Paris Games, Nurmi made history by becoming the first athlete ever to win five gold medals at a single Olympic Games. Over four days, Nurmi won the 1,500 metres, the 5,000 metres, the 3,000 metres team event and the two cross-country events. He was prevented from competing in the 10,000 metres because officials thought it would be too much. Nurmi broke the record for the 10,000 metres very soon after, a record which stood for 13 years.
But how times change. In 1924, Australia sent 37 athletes; the Finns 121. In Tokyo 2020, Australia sent 472 and the Fins 45.
At the 2020 Olympic games Finland won two bronze medals. Since 2000, Finland has only won one gold medal – in shooting.
Helsinki was due to hold the Olympic Games in 1940 and, although the Finns had built some of the venues, it was a difficult proposition to hold the Games and at the same time battle what we would term today as “the Russian variant”, while the whole of Europe was succumbing to a much more virulent “Hitler variant”. Compare that with Tokyo today, and if the world had been able to visually enhance the virus particles so it could be visible, I doubt if Tokyo would have gone ahead. After all, Spanish flu did not disrupt the Olympic Games cycle in the 1920s for perhaps the same reason. It was unseen.
One the major scandals to have coloured the modern Finn’s view of sporting success has been in 2001 the Finn Nordic skiing team being caught systematically doping. Six top Finnish skiers were caught and disqualified. They were using a plasma expander to mask erythropoietin usage, for which there was no reliable test at the time. The scandal was covered in the national press as a matter of public shame, and there was a sense of collective embarrassment in the country.
As one commentator said: “For the Finns, the worst thing about the doping scandal was not, however, the scandal itself. The worst thing was that, along with the facade of honesty in sports in general, the myth of the honest, hardworking Finn came crashing down.”
Yet before there had been the Finnish runner, Lasse Viren, who dominated distance running in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. He claimed reindeer milk and running long distances in the snow and at altitude was his secret. He never admitted to blood doping, which was then not illegal (until 1986). One reflection:
Scandinavia had helped pioneer the practice for winter sports, particularly cross-country skiing. It was very much in vogue in Finland at the time of Viren’s arrival on the world stage, and that he only seemed to peak at the major competitions added fuel to the speculation that blood doping had to be part of his preparation.
Even though it was legal at the time, to some people it offered a clear and unfair advantage, while others reckoned it was merely a more scientific form of say altitude training, and simply used the body’s own resources in a more productive manner.
The Finns are intense people with a dry sense of humour. One of the bids for the 2032 Summer Games was from Salla in the very north of Finland, one of the coldest places there. The bid for 2032, was based on the climate with global warming being just right for Salla holding the Summer Games. One Finnish word for this parodic exercise is ironinen.
Helsinki did eventually hold the Olympics Games in 1952, using those facilities which had been built pre-war. Even now they are impressive. One source has stated there is no way of telling even the approximate cost of these ventures. One figure was an “on books” cost of 1,580 million finnmarks and the Committee reported a 49 million mark loss.
It is significant that for Tokyo, the Finns sent their Minister for Science and Culture, Antti Kurvinen, who was there to discuss the themes of education and competence, especially from the perspective of the digital transformation, research and innovation. Not sport. He is a significant figure in the Finland Government, being also head of the Liberal Party Parliamentary Group. The Finnish words for “political junket” are “poliittista roskaa” (literally political rubbish). One would be forgiven for thinking that is the overall Finn view of the Olympic Games.
There is one fact that has got lost in the ebullience of Brisbane overcoming the sturdy opposition of Salla, that Finnish megapolis within the Arctic circle of 50 people. There has been no announcement for the 2030 Winter Olympics. Yet. The Washington Post has wryly commented that: “you’ll notice an unprecedented hole, the 2030 Winter Games, still looking for a home. There’s a reason for that. The world has caught onto the ruse and the Olympics need to respond by acknowledging their process is outdated and unnecessary.” To use that new collective noun, it may well be that there is an inadequacy of bidders, or perhaps serious bidders.
But wait! What about Canberra? What a great idea! Could use that Parliament House foyer for curling. Come on, Scotty what about it? Worth a few media releases. Send the hares running up the ski runs at Perisher. But be prepared for those “over coates” to guard against that pending reign.
For Finns, silence is golden; talking is silver.
This was demonstrated to me when I met my cousin Hiiri dragging a large vial of vodka across the sauna floor.
He motioned to me to open the vial, and I poured each of us a thimble. Before each thimble in honour of his presence, I would cry “Skål”. Hiiri remained mute again. I raised the thimble and again cried out “Skål”. Hiiri said nothing. Again… and again. Skål. Skål.
Even though he said nothing, I could see Hiiri was getting irritable.
Then suddenly Hiiri burst out: “The trouble with you Australian mice, you talk too much.”
That was ten words.