TUMBY BAY - I’ve got a bird feeder in my backyard. I built it out of scrap wood. It’s got a platform where I put bowls of seed, fruit and other stuff for the birds and a roof over it to keep off the rain.
It looks quite picturesque but the only customers seem to be sparrows, starlings and the odd blackbird.
An occasional galah drops by and a few New Holland honeyeaters go past on their way to the blossoms in my flower beds.
If I drive to our nearest large town of Port Lincoln I pass through paddock after paddock of wheat, barley and assorted other crops like sorghum and canola.
The roads are lined with trees, mostly low scraggly gum trees and she-oaks. Up in the hills the same roadside trees coexist with blackberry bushes and the odd golden wattle.
In some of the paddocks sheep and cattle graze. Occasionally you will see a kangaroo or emu but at night there are no dingos, just foxes ghosting past your headlights.
All-in-all, the birds, trees and crops are very reminiscent of the English countryside.
The sparrows, starlings and blackbirds are all introduced species. So too are the blackberries and the flowers in my garden bed.
The gum trees, she-oaks and wattle are native but they are set along the roads and between the paddocks in much the same way as English hedgerows.
If you are looking for the real Australia, the place that the tourists come to see, you would be hard pressed to find it in this part of the country. I suspect it is the same in most of the settled areas of Australia.
I once wrote that Port Moresby is not the real Papua New Guinea. To see that you have to go well beyond the cities and big towns.
What Port Moresby and the other big towns represent is ‘the land of the expected’, as opposed to ‘the land of the unexpected’.
In Australia the contrast is much more profound and more widely spread. In the settled areas what you see is a landscape remarkably similar to any other landscape in the western world.
Settled Australia looks a lot like settled Europe and North America. You could drop the area in which I live into California among all its eucalypts and it wouldn’t look out of place at all.
In a similar way you could drop the town-fringing ghettos and many of the modern forms of rural village in Papua New Guinea into Equatorial Africa or South America and not see much difference.
To see the real Australia you have to travel well off the beaten track. In doing so you have to avoid the carefully designed fake Australia that caters for the above-mentioned tourists.
It’s the same in Papua New Guinea. The few tourists who visit are invariably channelled through carefully designed bits of fake Papua New Guinea.
These thoughts occurred to me while I was reading a new book about the remarkable Yolngu actor David Gulpilil*.
David’s story is one of tragedy. He is a man caught between two cultures and two different Australia’s, the old one and the new one.
He hasn’t been able to live successfully in the new one and his links to the old one are mostly gone. In Darwin parlance he belongs to the long grass, those refugee camps for the dispossessed on the outskirts of the city.
Unfortunately he is not even in the long grass any more. He’s stuck in a unit in Murray Bridge in South Australia slowly dying of lung cancer.
No doubt David feels like a stranger in his own land.
I wouldn’t seek to claim an understanding of what this means to him but sometimes when I manage to get away into the real Australia, the old Australia, I wonder what I am doing there.
I have a great affection for the bush but I’m still a white man standing in what is essentially an alien environment. My natural environment is Europe, not Australia.
We white Australians have worked very hard to turn the country into a copy of Europe and we have wrought immense destruction in the process, not only to the landscape but also to the people who rightly inhabit it.
The same uneasy feeling occurs when I am in the bush in Papua New Guinea. I am there but I am not part of it. In Moresby I’m okay but in the bush I feel a lot like an alien.
I doubt very much whether all the white people and all the other people from overseas who live in Australia, no matter how many generations they have been here, will ever really become part of it in the sense that indigenous people are.
What they will become part of is an artificially created country that bears only a marginal similarity to the original.
Sing as we will about being one in our Australianness, the truth is we occupy a place that we brought with us and transplanted here.
The tragedy is that what we created has also changed the country to the extent that it is unrecognisable to its first inhabitants. They too now live in an alien place.
It is entirely possible that the same thing will happen to Papua New Guinea.
* Gulpilil by Derek Rielly, Pan Macmillan, 2019. There is a macabre warning at the front of this book that it “may contain images or names of people now deceased”. The only images in the book are of David Gulpilil