I'm eating moussaka and grilled prawns at Tom and Mary's Taverna, the only place I know worth eating at in Coober Pedy. This is a 'choice' place, as one of my best teenage friends would have said (she was from Wollongong): it's got a glow-in-the-dark fake bonsai tree, a fake fishtank full of fish, and that Iconic Greek photo with the white house beside the blue sea.
I made it to Coober Pedy by dusk. It would be more impressive if I didn't have to put my watch forward by an hour. I''ve had two half hour stops, but otherwise, I think I've made 780 km in seven hours...an average of 130 kmh. No wonder I'm going through so much petrol.
The first leg of my journey, 200 km to Erldunda Roadhouse, was very familiar to me from the Kings Canyon Cruise, which I've done three times. I kept remembering downhill runs, the looming shapes of hills, stop-offs with the snack van, and snatches of conversation that accompanied various landforms. Like: Dr Geoff talking about his sports watch that could do 5,000 things and Fred telling me how they would have constructed the culvert across that river. Ah, memories! The only thing is: it's all more verdant now than it's ever been, because of the recent rains.
I reached Marla at about 2.30 pm. This inspiring location (pictured) boasts not only the beginning of the Oodnadatta Track (dirt road that takes you further into the bowels of 'the Outback') but also the infamous Roadhouse. I say infamous, because of some of stories I've heard told about this otherwise unprepossessing place. One of them claimed to have had a thr&&s@me in the tub at Marla Roadhouse; but because she was an Unusual Overwhelming Alice personality, I tended to take this story with a grain of salt. The other, a straight woman, said she dreamt that a large woman had mounted her in the middle of the night (she saw as a sign that she was leaving the energies of the Centre). Notwithstanding, I elected to stay further down the road at Coober Pedy, a troglodyte opal mining town.
Marla had other memories for me, because I turned off here with a small team six and half years ago to head into the AP lands on a research trip. I remember being told we should to drink our last beers if we wanted, because most of the communities we were visiting were dry. One of my companions was a gay man who was about to turn 38 in the same week as me. As we drove out of Marla, he began weeping about the fact that he would never have children. At the time I thought, what is wrong with this picture? Shouldn't it be me who's crying? Later, having brought cream pants to wear in the red centre, he began to ask whether there would be a laundromat at Amata (Amata being a small remote community).
This time while I drove, I listened to the Raj Quartet--The Jewel in the Crown. I never managed to watch the whole series when it was on TV (like, 30 years ago). I couldn’t quite face the prospect of a High Brow Talking Book for the road: not that there are that many of them in the local library and I had Anna Karenin etc on my iphone, anyway. The Raj Quartet has been a strangely perfect choice in many ways, given the anxieties about white liberals and the old Raj that it explores. In some ways, it seems a more overblown and at times overwritten version of A Passage to India. I could relate to many of the cringesome thoughts expressed by Miss Crane, the school teacher in the first volume, who feels closer to the mixed descent than the full descent Indian people and worries about the ‘bump’ she always feels present between herself and Indian people.
When this book came out as a series on TV, I remember there being a great stink about the fact that the actor Art Malik, who played Harry Kumar, wasn’t full descent himself. This was I suspect around the time when subaltern literature was taking off (the early 80s? I was in year 10 or 11 when The Jewel in Crown was on TV). Interestingly, while the first book in this quartet is told mainly from the third person intimate perspective of Miss Crane, the second book seems to be shifting between the third person intimate perspectives of white female characters and Indian male characters. The Indian perspectives are often ‘managed’ by providing dramatic monologues of various sorts.
Now listening to the Raj Quartet in an era that emphasises the need for postcolonial literatures often not just to be written by minorities but in some senses controlled by them, I wonder if what’s missing is the space for fiction to explore the fractured consciousness of the ‘coloniser’. I’m not saying space to dominate, but to ruminate about about relationships with other ethnicities. It exists to some extent in non-fiction (e.g. Balanda) but I’m less sure about fiction.
Driving into Coober Pedy, with the egg-carton crenellations of slag heaps on its outskirts, I was reminded strongly -- as indeed I was repeatedly throughout central and south Australia -- of Utah, and its white cliffs and worn-down mounds of rocks beside the highway. Unfortunately, no pictures I take ever seem to do justice to the Coober Pedy slag heaps. Coober Pedy still seemed to have that sense of stillness and air about it that is so much a feature of central Australian towns and communities. This eerie quietness was also present when I drove round the back blocks of NSW.
Coober Pedy has a reputation for underground dwelling, including houses and churches. I'd seen these before as a tourist, so I didn't visit them again. The room in the hostel where I stayed was at least a storey underground. I was chaperoned down to my slot in Hades by a bloke who'd no doubt delight British tourists: a 'real Australian' with a huge bushranger beard, sun-wizened limbs, a blue singlet, stubbies and boots. (I remember being accused of 'not being a real Australian' by some of my co-workers in Britain, along with being asked if I'd ever been to Summer Bay.) Believe me, there's nothing romantic about being underground. It's like being in someone's basement. My room was windowless but quiet. Being a TV tragic, I had my TV with me (in case I ended up for a couple of weeks in an unfurnished flat). But I couldn't get any reception so I watched the end of the second series of The Circuit, which was great in the way that second series can often be great in building momentum. Much to admire about The Circuit in bringing the reality of bush courts to TV. Have to say I was disappointed to see that our protagonist seemed to end up with the Boring Trophy Blonde with Sloping Shoulders and A Nothing Haircut, rather than the feisty Bella…tho that could be revisited in another series, I guess.