When I was young and naive I believed that I was Australian.
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and vampirishly white – I was born in the northern suburbs of Sydney and spent my childhood playing in the bush down the back of Fox Valley. The kids from the cul-de-sac got into all manner of strife scrambling over outcrops of sandstone before walking the fire trails trying (but always failing) to catch lizards. My father found a Lorikeet with a broken wing. Wolfi (short for Wolfgang) used to sit on my shoulder until she laid eggs one day and we hastily renamed her Wolfeena… The bush was our world. We knew it was dangerous but neither the oppressive Summer heat nor the stern warnings from our parents kept us from exploring barefoot every weekend.
It wasn't until it caught fire in the late 90s that I truly appreciated the blatant indifference the country had to my survival. A firestorm engulfed Sydney and I remember standing on the street, staring at the red sky behind my house as ash and flaming gum leaves fell out of the air. The smoke gathered at my knees like fog. You could hear the roar of fire as it moved up and down the ridges, consuming our neighbours' houses. I was rushed away to my nan's but soon the valley behind St Ives caught alight too. It was a spiritual experience – facing down what could only be described as hell.
On holidays my parents would take me to see natural wonders. At first, it was the rainforests and beaches of Queensland where I was always begging to walk in the Glasshouse Mountains rather than the tourist parks. Geology had become a passion and although I was deeply terrified of volcanoes I couldn't help but feel a fascination with old rocks. Though I am sure the attachment was tiresome to my parents, outcrops of dirt became the focus of our exploration.
Turns out that this is not entirely my fault. My grandfather was a great one for fossils and gold – same as my great-grandparents who walked from Sydney to Sofala to scratch a living during the Gold Rush like every other desperate Australian. Some of them are buried there in the dust. A few stones, lopsided and cracked.
We went to the Wollemi National Park where I picked up a new religion. Ancient trees from the dawn of the Cretaceous had me enraptured. For a good few years the only thing a tiny version of me cared about was the pre-history of Australia and what giant things were living here. I cried when the Wollemi Pine that I had adopted was accidentally mown over and yes, I'm still trying to work out how I can find another.
A little while later we had enough money to travel South. I spent hours glued to the left side window of the car as we drove around The Great Ocean Road where Bass Strait did its best to rip shreds off the mainland. The Twelve Apostles seemed to be missing a few members but we stood as close to the cliffs as we dared and listened to the endless violence of the waves.
Invisible beyond the grey curve lay a piece of Australia I'd not yet seen. In my mind it was an island of environmental anarchy where the tallest trees formed forests of silent giants, Tasmanian Devils attacked from the shadows and the only convict member of my family saved Old Hobart Town from a devastating fire, earning his pardon. That's the only reason we're allowed to acknowledge him… He, like so many, were brought to Australia against their will. Countless died but those that survived disease, forced labour and a hostile continent found their home.
I did not realise then that The Great Ocean Road was a gift from the Australian people to all those who fought in the first World War. It remains the largest war memorial ever built, providing both work for returned serviceman and an everlasting source of beauty and enjoyment for which they could be remembered. Is there anything more Australian? You may say that this coast became a spiritual monument. I would like to go back – stand on the edge and say thank you to the waves for the dozens of members of my family slaughtered on foreign shores to protect this little strip of cliff.
Some of my family were pioneers. First and Second fleeters. Our free settlers headed up the New South Wales coast. A few followed old tracks through dense bush while others sailed into harbours looking for somewhere to farm. The first maps of the area bear our name as these hopeful fools turned tiny scraps of iron-stone filled forest into a place they could survive in. These people lived in shacks built on the banks of the river with the ocean on one side and a mountain range full of iron on the other. The rains came, the river rose and everyone nearly drowned under two metres of water. Then the Summer storms arrived and the lightening shattered so thick and fierce that they thought the gods of the ancient world had found them.
Nearly two hundred years later, I still live on that piece of land. The dairy they built has been lovingly restored but we left its hardwood exterior on show – grey with age. There's a set of tracks leading down to the river where the cream barge used to deliver once a week from the butter factory to the isolated families running cattle. Now we wave at tourists looking for fish and loft our eyebrows at brave water skiers. For a brief moment our ancestors thought there might be gold beneath them but all they found was white sand, fossilised leaves and fresh water.
One day soon I may have to sell this place to survive. Our spiritual and cultural connection to the land is irrelevant to the government and the banks. The old house and the entwined fig trees planted by our departed kin are meaningless. My grandparents died within a week of each other. They were scattered in the river but it cannot be sacred to us.
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