‘This ancient parched landscape, kissed awake by a deluge of rains, is teeming with life, busily celebrating its rebirth at the pace of those who know they have much to do in an uncertain lifespan…germinate, grow, flower, seed, breed and deliver the next generation, before the sun sucks the desert dry again.’ – Janet Hawley, Hotel Du Lac Eyre (1989)
In 1989 the Lake Eyre basin, which covers almost one-sixth of the Australian continent, was filling with water. Kylie Minogue was snuggling with Michael Hutchence and I was coming to the sour end of a long-time obsession that was juddering to a miserable denouement, leaving me in a state of hate rather than adoration. Not delectable and noble love-hate, just hate. Jardo: that Jesus-man, slim-hipped Viking. I was so confused by him that I could not even settle on consistent imagery. He was funny and tall and lithe. He played in a band, was the lead singer – all qualities that made him irresistible. In the beginning.
It’s strange how you can let yourself be carried along by unrequited ardours quite happily until the realisation that they are never going to love you back means that you have to face the pain of not being wanted. It is personal; it is you. So it was that I had begun to scorn Jardo with as much zeal as I’d loved him. It was a terrible idea to ask him to come to Lake Eyre with me.
The genesis of my Lake Eyre idée fixe was an article by legendary journalist Janet Hawley, which appeared in a weekend news magazine in July of 1989. I have it here with me now. I couldn’t get the details of Hawley’s reportage out of my mind, nor the photos. The way she looked, that particular kind of smug-happy that we all know when we see it, sitting there in a chair with her bare feet immersed in the soft waters of the ancient lake, its bone-dry sands liquored up with the gushing inflow of the northern rivers. Papery desert flowers erupting into widespread and violent bloom. I looked at the photo and thought, the lucky bitch. What a job.
I studied that damned photograph for days. In it, a group of people at sunset, a white-clothed table, wine glasses and bottles, flowers in some sort of make-do vase. A man stands to the left in white shorts and a white suit jacket and bow tie. He holds another bottle of wine. I squint, it looks like a Penfolds. Janet is poised, the only woman in the group. Her companions are an artist, a bushie-businessman, a restaurateur and a chef. All of them are shin-deep in water, raising wine glasses, their table plonked in the inland sea.
It was that image, that magazine photograph with its bleached and pale palette that wormed into my brain and grew fat. It competed with my Jardo-obsession and I began to think I might go to Lake Eyre. I would assemble my own tatty crew: one teacher, one lawyer and one bank worker.
We can yearn for something unknown, and things imagined can be intensely desired. And so I yearned for Lake Eyre.
Even before we leave Port Augusta, Jardo is giving me the shits. As I sit on my hotel balcony thinking I need to buy a hat, I can hear his voice down on the street, talking to someone, dropping his g’s and saying ‘dunno’ as often as possible. His speech is a constructed façade, filled with ockerisms that don’t match his birth, upbringing or education. Why does he craft this faux working-class persona? Maybe it’s to rebel against his conservative upbringing; maybe he thinks it makes him more attractive to women. It certainly doesn’t make him less attractive, this I know. I sit on the balcony and feel his masculinity penetrate between my thighs like an echo and all the while my brain is shouting no at me, telling me he is a dick.
His navy singlet is supposed to be ironic, the carefully faded blue, the way the edges are unpicking. He probably sits with nail scissors to make it look like that. I look down to the street from my balcony. I’m sick of his shtick but if I’m honest with myself, if he suddenly decided he wanted me, I wouldn’t say no even now. I search the sky for clouds. There are none.
There is no ice that day at Marree. There is no bread. The petrol is at a then horrendously expensive 70 cents a litre.
At the first sight of water, I forget Jardo and his singlet and the springy blonde hairs on his arms and legs. There, over there, is an inland sea with no horizon, flat and shimmering through the waves of heat. In the backseat I lean forward so that my head rests against the window, my forehead bumping on the glass as the car vibrates along the corrugated dirt road. An inland sea, just like Janet said.
We follow the track by the water and find a spot to make our camp before a beautiful sunset over the lake, a liquid wash of blues, purples, and pinks. I climb the sand dune and sit; this can be one of my life moments and I’m not going to spoil it by wrangling with canvas. I think if I sit here and be inspired and artistically remote maybe they’ll put my tent up.
When I walk back down there are two tents standing instead of three and Jardo and Neil are sitting drinking beer. Neither of them looks at me.
‘You sleepin’ out tonight?’
Jardo’s voice is sardonic, artificial. I shrug and say that maybe I will. Jardo cooks curry and we drink a bottle of red wine. We have candles and some dozing wild daisies in a beer bottle. We sit and eat, and above us, there are stars stars stars.
The next day, Jardo decides to go back to Marree, to hopefully get ice and beer. I’m happy to stay with Neil. A few months ago I would have craved spending four hours alone with Jardo in a car. I could have put my hand on his thigh as he drove, could have moved it higher and laughed at my wild audacity. We could have pulled over and pashed on the side of the road with only cattle skulls as our witnesses.
While Jardo shakes his way to town, Neil and I slurp into the lake, the dark, oily mud pulling us in to our knees. We lie and roll, slither like black-skinned fish. It is strangely erotic. I think about Jardo and how I didn’t mind his lankiness or too-long nose before I started hating him. How I used to be able to ignore his pretentious Norseman hair, those eyelashes pale like a sickly camel’s.
Neil is incapable of talking about anything superficial, rather he is drawn towards topics of depth, and his tangential, labyrinthine mind takes me places I have never been. Also, he has good legs, a sincere smile and his eyes twist with humour. I want to stay in the mud forever and be taken down to the deep earth’s centre where I can be patted and healed and released.
Back at the shore, the wet glop dries and reptile-scales form on our skin. I sit and watch as mine turns hard and brittle and grey. I chat with Neil, waiting until Jardo comes back. We drink a beer each, and smoke, and shell peanuts, our wet tongue tips sneaking in and out of our mouths. A couple of times I look up to see Neil watching me. Maybe it’s the blue lace bathers I got from the op shop in Melbourne. They’re old-fashioned, with boy-legs and a cross-over strap, and my boobs keep almost falling out. I start to wonder if he thinks my bathers are daggy.
After Jardo comes back, with ice, I cook spaghetti with vegetables and sand. We sleep on the dune that night and there is a susurrus breeze. Crickets chirr and the fire we’ve built casts a gentle glow. The stars are close as the flames burn low making dim the shapes of our fingers as we smoke our rollies. Our lips are wet with beer and there is happiness on that sand hill, enhanced by the broad sky and the silence. In the dark we have no bodies and our voices are small in the mighty expanse. It’s possible that we’re inaudible even to each other and are just whispering to ourselves.
My face is a sponge turned towards the sky. Starlight reaches down. It rips through the darkness and I am below sky without end. I am in the void, an infinity filled with movement and detail and life. I have crawled from the lake, grown legs in a day. I am reborn and wake to find myself bathed in moonshadows. As we wake on top of the hill a sky-wash of pink and lavender splits the grey of dawn. We get ready to go, stopping to take long looks at the water, and eventually we leave.
I’m no longer friends with Jardo or Neil. Life has moved, as it does. The lake has recently filled again. Hutchence is dead but Kylie lives on. I’m two husbands (and several other silent crushes) past my Jardo obsession and I’ve lived my life well. I can say I’ve been to Lake Eyre, have seen her watery expanse and rolled in her womb of mud. I really don’t think Janet Hawley would have rolled.