Escaping the big smoke (the place, not our site) for Kangaroo Island unveils a dramatic landscape where nature openly mocks art.
All Sydneysiders espouse the necessity of leaving the city and breathing fresh air. As we scaled the Giant Stairway, each suffering our own personal heart attacks, we were given respite by the hordes of tourists clogging up the first flight.
This is not escaping the city.
The experience made me long for my recent holiday to Kangaroo Island. This South Australian escape is not unpeopled, yet it invoked the mouldy and myopic nostalgia of the Australian Frontier of which I was told stories in primary school. It’s a large strip of land off the coast one and a half hours south west of Adelaide. We drove from tip to tip in about two hours. Remembering Kangaroo Island involved visions of golden grassed hills, seals with their snouts regally raised and regularly sprinting toward the cold aquamarine waters of beaches, mostly devoid of human settlement.
One of my favourite memories of the place is heading down Snake Lagoon Hike to an unnamed beach. While it is an easy walk, only 2.5 hours return, the asphalted path quickly devolves into a goat trail leaving you to forget the car park and maps.
Kangaroo Island has its own species of kangaroo. Shorter and squatter than your typical Eastern Grey, it has a dark nose and a grey coat that perfectly camouflages with the surrounding stone. We disturbed two that we hadn’t noticed and they leapt ahead of us down a dry river bed. A hundred metres away they stopped and turned and I could barely make them out from the rock they stood upon.
The river bed was sharply buckled and lined as busily as a topographical map. I imagined it as a sculptor’s rendition of the waters that must flow over it. This idea became a theme and it permeated the place. The geology often seemed as if it had come under the hand of an artist. As we came to the end of the river mouth, the valley opened up onto blinding white sands and pounding surf framed by rusty-looking granite. There was no one on the trail and there was no one here. Even near the shore the water looked dangerous, crashing in distorted shapes.
Unusually, while there is evidence of Indigenous settlement in ancient times, when Flinders pulled up scratching his scabies, he found the island deserted. Some ten thousand years earlier, the former peninsula been isolated by a dangerously active strip of water that prohibited Indigenous sea craft from crossing. The barren nature of the place had precluded settlement by both Europeans and the Indigenous, which lead to it attracting pardoned criminals in search of isolation. These former convicts often kidnapped Indigenous women as wives. It was renowned as a cruel place.
While we visited, one side of the coast was mostly free of surf while the other was pounded by thick ridges of swell stretching to the horizon. At one lookout point, a few kilometres of cliff face was ringed with a cloud so heavy that it was not immediately apparent that this was a phenomenon of water. While my mind struggled, it replaced the most reasonable answer with a giant white snake in soft focus, blurring into the coast. Exposure may have set in by this stage – the sun is biting this far south, nestled by the hole in the ozone layer and as I was later informed, at an angle to the sun that allows for deeper UV penetration. Take your sunscreen, people. By this stage, I was also lost. Nature was clearly mocking art.
This state of mind was perfect for visiting the Remarkable Rocks. The title needs no imaginative flair as the experience filled that space. Every other headland we rounded was indistinguishable from the next until we reached this geological phenomenon, the origins of which are described as very similar to that of Uluru. At the tip of this headland, a grey granite dome slopes away into the ocean and resting on top are a dream-like set of bright orange and grey stones that are not big enough to baffle comprehension but large enough to carry the authority you can feel from imposing architecture. There is a strangeness about the Remarkable Rocks though that really ignites my paranoia of nature mocking art. The rocks took shapes as if I was staring into clouds: there was a comical set of disembodied nostrils, a grumpy cartoon character staring out to sea, a massive helmet of alien origin and a human head, its face collapsed against the earth with its ear intricately chiselled into the side.
This story is about an escape from humanity. What happens to your mind in isolation is a revealing personal experiment. At these times, I am always reminded of my grandmother, the ultimate social isolate and country girl. Our first camp site was populated by her kind of people. We saw wild wallabies, koalas, kangaroos, echidnas and countless bird species. Even the most renowned surf spot on the island had not a fish and chip shop or a makeshift surfer’s shack. Yet the track to the beach was lined with what resembled immaculately tended gardens of succulents, nestled in sandy spaces in the sharp volcanic stone. I could not get out of my head this idea of a ghostly human sculptor.
I love Sydney life. Unlike my grandmother, I pull people around me like a security blanket. The hordes of Town Hall station rarely make me feel the need to escape, however, I think it’s important for everyone to peel back that cover and look underneath every now and then. Come from behind the screen, out of the house, away from the job and look into the bush as you would into a starry night sky. It won’t just clear your lungs, it will clear your head, but then you all probably know that. I’ve found that a starscape can make you feel pointless and adrift, whereas the land beneath your feet can feel a part of you. Is this a white man’s attempt at the Dreaming, imagining stories in the landscape around him? Whatever the answer, during this time on Kangaroo Island I came to a simple conclusion.
That while I am dirt, dirt is art.