Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1990
Space * Meaning * Politics
Edited by the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University

NO ROAD
(Vague Directions for the Study of Tourism)

Stephen Muecke


Starting from point zero, two parallel lines extending infinitely into space never meet, at least that is my experience. Friendships are like that, even in the stars. So are cultures trying to co-exist in the same country, the same space. My friend Gloria Brennan died in 1985. Our lines started in Nedlands, W.A. in 1974, while I was beginning a curious path of inquiry into Aboriginal English, a path marked by irony and hilarity - at least when I spoke to Gloria about it. She carried out quite serious political work (that was her line) with amazing good humour, against all odds, and never made me, as a naive white boy, feel I was getting in the way.

So I wanted to thank you and tell the story you once told me, so that in one respect your line could continue, as memory, which is really language spoken once again.

It was about when you went up to the Top End on some ex-Canberra project. In Darwin you were charmed by one of the local men, he was from an outlying community.

'Good place is it?' you asked, referring to his home country.

'Ooh, very good place, you should come out there to visit us.'

'Is there a road out there, is it a good road?

This puzzled him a bit.

'Road? No road ... no road. Bitumen all the way. Bitumen all the way.'

Bitumen All the Way

The joke plays around the anxieties of 'modernist' and 'postmodernist' Aborigines. Gloria, from a corrugated iron mansion in Kalgoorlie, via a house in Canberra she used to share with John Dawkins, finds herself in the Top End where she makes a cultural assumption about the (poor) state of the roads, only to run up against a guy who is quite enthusiastic about the progress being made by the Main Roads Department.

They can laugh, these Aborigines - even in the face of disaster, they are surviving through laughter - so we are told. These white-fella artefact - roads, motor cars - are amusing, hardly serious, disposable, ludicrously weak when it comes to the forces of Nature. They are all ephemeral - white fella might still go away if we give him a bit longer.

So this time we, Pru, Joe, me, Hugo, took a different line, we started touring again, as a family, touring for Cultural Studies. This time it was to the Eastern Kimberleys, the Bungle-Bungles - a mistake no doubt. It turned out to be a big mistake, rain washed us out of the area, a badly timed Wet along with arguments about Romanticism and the feeding of children with my old friend the Artist.

On the way I kept looking for a fragment of text I had lost, somewhere in my papers. I had a copy of Cultural Studies with an article by Meaghan Morris, a paper by Jennifer Craik and Paul Carter's The Road to Botany Bay. The piece of paper was a torn post-card from Gloria, from Nigeria or maybe West Germany, and I could only remember a bit of the text. I think it began: 'In time maybe they will understand ...' then something about 'night clubs and gum-boot dancing ...' And so we drove on, this Newtown nuclear family, into the Bungles.

The Bungles is a vast area of siliceous sandstone, curious only for the horizontal bands of colour and the 'bee-hive' shape of the hills themselves which have been there for 350 million years, ever since they closed the book on the late Devonian Era. The alternate bands of orange and black are bound together, in a very fragile way, by skins of silica and algae. Under each hill there is a heart of huge diamonds which the mining people at Argyle are desperately after, and will pay anything to the (Aboriginal) Purnululu Corporation to get them. The area also has a shameful history, even recently the murderous. Herr Schwab, the first actual tourist-terrorist, was careering down the highway from Kununurra in his four-wheel drive loaded to the roof with an arsenal of weapons bought over the counter in Brisbane. It's a free country, and thank heavens the good old boys from the Police Station in Fitzroy Crossing had enough fire power to ring-bark the trees as they brought him down in one of the loneliest spots in the country.

In the Early Days the Bungles was a hide-out for the Aboriginal outlaw Major, also hunted down by the police like his comrade from the Central Kimberleys, Pigeon, in the 1890s. Then it was 'rediscovered' in 1981 by the mayor of Kununurra, the owner of a couple of caravan parks and a few planes useful for making money ferrying tourists over the site when they are too old or time-bound to make the difficult eight-hour drive into the place. Recently Wim Wenders and Peter Carey were spotted wandering around there researching locations. The discourse of tourism has created an object for itself to squander, an object hopefully grand enough not to exhaust the hype and the dollar power, a permanent shrine of the North and another site for touring tourists primed on Crocodile Dundee.

There is no doubt that the bitumen goes all the way, the tourist route has been opened up via the North South road (Adelaide, Alice, Katherine, Kununurra, Halls Creek), or through Central Queensland (Burke, Cunumulla, Longreach, Winton, Mt Isa, Katherine). Metaphorically, the space is smooth, no sand ridges to be traversed, endlessly repeating themselves. There is rather the punctuation of towns, hamburger stops, beer stops, piss stops, a smooth traversal of space also in the kinds of stories that can be told of exploration in terms of celebration of White Male endeavour, hardship to be overcome, the search for the logocentre, the inland sea or source: disappointment. It's all been done before, but still the country has to be 'opened up' for further interests: after cattle, administration and tourism. But who are the heroes of tourism? After the legendary stockman and the homestead, we now have the cowboy and the motel.

This presents fantastic images to anyone wanting to rewrite Western Australia as an Avocado Western: Sam Shepherd and Harry Dean Stanton marching in straight lines across a kind of Texas landscape. Motels! What will the new ones be like? A million versions of the Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach where postmodernity is supposed to be spectacle enough to ally the morbidity of the concept: a cenotaph for an industry which now only lives in a particular fashion - Akubra, R.M. Williams, Driz-a-bone.

These speculations run up against rocky ground when we are confronted by Krim, my painter partner from Reading the Country1days. We meet in Broome, after much anticipation, letters, arranging things. He and his French friend Grace have a Land Rover with a sticker on the back - some Coca-Cola campaign? - it reads 'Freedom Machine.' The iconography of the vehicle, traditional colonial (Rover, not Toyota) bought on the proceeds of a Fremantle house traded in. A suburban mythology replaced by a sub-colonial one. Nomadism for fixity, supposedly. But our argument is Aesthetic, he has a Romance of Nature a la John Olsen and Fred Williams, but with enough politics only to have the effect of draining out the nationalism and replacing it with the exoticism of his 'native' colours of Morocco. I have a Postmodernism which would like to see images of motels sketched against the other landscapes, layered, no real Nature, only palimpsests and impositions. Thus, the extensions to the Halls Creek Hotel, a short flight to the Bungles, are perfect Dallas, Southfork ranchero style added to the old colonial pub, and with elements of the glass 'postmodern' arch thrown in.

Krim gets drunk and laughs at me for living in the city, for having a mortgage, even for taking a bus to work. I despise his boorishness, his 'Freedom Machine,' which only generates a different set of constraints. The city is moving in on the country, he can feel it. He is outside our tent at five AM yelling at me to get up, to have a talk. And I tell him it's finished, we are going home. And Prudence and Grace are talking on top of each other.

'My mother always made sure I ate all the food on my plate.'

'Will you just listen? ... FUCK YOU!' says Prudence.

And we reverse out into a tree, go home somewhat dented.

Time

Perhaps I should have used arguments mobilized by researchers in the past, in order to get more money and more time. Anthropologists wanting to get research funds to study Aboriginal communities have often used the rhetorical ploy that time is running out for these people, that such and such a community is the very last to have a particular ceremony or song cycle and if it's not studied quickly it will be all gone. Such a waste of 'cultural capital,' which if collected will be used for ... what, exactly? How does one justify the transformation of lived culture into museum culture without this desire for preservation, and this need for researchers to keep working?

The other side of argument opposes the long answer to the short one, with Aboriginal people asserting the immutability of their 40,000 year-old traditions, and because they have been there for so long in this instance, they are sovereign and the recognition of their sovereignty is long overdue. Therefore their cultures should be allowed to emerge - out from under oppression - without necessarily being studied at all.

Where, then, is the accidental intellectual situated? Wanting to study tourism in relation to the exploitation of a newly 'rediscovered' site (poised to become the most important in W.A. if the National Parks people can get the cooperation of the Purnululu Corporation at Turkey Creek, including Raymond Wallaby's family, the traditional owners2), needing to justify one's relationship to these people in non-touristic ways, but how? Anthropology? Surely not. But who funds Cultural Studies, and where is it supposed to find its political rectitude? In British post-marxism? The only other line to follow is the one I might follow up, to work as a writer for Purnululu, work at producing a book according to their specifications.

But for the moment I was a tangential tourist, refusing to do 'disciplined' research in favour of the interdisciplinary mode of enquiry. That seemed to call for a judicious mix of the anecdotal/banal backed up by the 'solidity' of theory so that one can relativise the position of theorist in relation to the so-called objects of research. But at the same time having to remain rigorously cynical and disenchanted with the 'usual' tourist spots, an attitude typical of the 'bourgeois' traveller.

Uluru

Ayer's Rock (here can begin the necessary digression which the fragmentary narrative of/on tourism demands, texts no bigger than post-cards), Ayer's Rock seen on the way to the Bungles is a mere pimple on the face of Australia, but it is vested with such significance that it draws 40 million tourist dollars a year (the Aboriginal Community get only one percent or $130,000 of that)3. Here the Philip Cox-designed Yulara complex with sails, ochre paintwork and resort hotels stands in juxtaposition to the 'natural' monument, Uluru, thirty kilometres away. About the same size, it is like a self-contained village, or rather a space station in which the engine rooms do nothing but produce cold air to condition the alien environment. Every day thousands of gallons of water are drawn up from the Earth for tourist baths, while outside the little nocturnal moles and rodents are so economical with water they scarcely piss. Somewhere out there lurk the real Aliens, who for this narrative can only be the local Aborigines. They have a camp discreetly hidden from the tourists, but we saw one of the Anangu who looked like he'd been in a recent fight helping a neatly-uniformed ranger empty rubbish bins at the Rock. But these rangers and the other staff at Yulara don't have time to degenerate, go bush or look normal; they take the shuttle back to Earth regularly for R & R.

What Goes Around Comes Around

'I can see that Fitzroy River in my mind' and 'Back again some day ...' sing the Warumpi Band.4 For the Romance, the lines somehow become circular or concentric and double back on themselves. There is no longer the tracing of parallel paths. These two figures represent a confrontation of methodology between, on the one hand, the romantic aesthetic of participatory ethnography, in which subject and object merge phenomenologically, and, on the other, the desire to retain cultural autonomy and difference - a parallelism of both subject and object. You either mix with the people and by becoming 'one of them' produce a realist ethnographic text in which the identity of the writer is subsumed for the moment only to re-emerge later when the work is published, or you strand your text beside the text of the other so there is a parallelism, perhaps only accidental encounters, like we attempted in Reading the Country. Is this second version the textual equivalent of a 'nomadic' romance? At Fitzroy Crossing, as at many other 'sites', there are necessary confrontations which you can attempt to close with language. Like when we say this is what assimilation means, as a policy, or that there is what multiculturalism is all about. At Fitzroy the road and the river cross. It is a place where you can catch a glimpse of the Other in this land of the Divided Text.

This river which I have seen many times before, which can tear away 20 kms of bitumen as it sweeps thousands of bullocks to the sea during a strong wet. In the dry it reduces to a series of water holes with a trickle passing between them. We camped by the Fitzroy in a spot not far from town and set up our tent and other things. Had lunch, wandered down around the river. I go into town to go to the post office and get some cold drinks and when I got back there was a party going on at our camp. A group of Aboriginal artists had joined our romantic friends. Artists in crime: they were the Rebels of Rrudjala, a local community, had just made a sale of paintings and had been celebrating at the pub. Having found our friends at their favourite drinking spot, the driver tore off up the embankment to get more supplies, churning the wheels of her Toyota, threatening to turn it over. I refused to join this party as people chundered off to one side, pressed their hands upon you as you approached, pressed local knowledge upon you.

'You want to take photo?'

'You got video?'

'This my husband, dis one 'ere, artist.'

'Drunk now, too much gnoora, he be alright by an' by.'

'FUCK YOU! Don' you swear in front of Prudence, white lady, cuttim bullshit.'

'Come on Stephen, chuck away that lemonade.'

And then later:

'You caan stay here.'

'Danger place, plenty people bin get kill here.'

'Rain comin' now, river might come up.'

'DANGER, this place no good, I tell you, DANGER, you don't know.'

'Two, three people bin get kill here.'

'Stick, kill-im gotta stick, tommyhawk '

Sidelong glances from my friends. This Sydney guy is not only 'city' he's a fuckin' wowser as well. He's supposed to get on well with Aboriginal people, know something about them: this imperative to participate for the sake of letting go of one's inhibitions. Only thus can a spontaneous knowledge be achieved, one untrammelled by 'science,' history or whatever might distort sublime truth, or rather the sublime Emu Bitter, the real item of trade in this particular economy. The cops got their share too. The next day we saw Nancy, the Toyota driver, and she recounted how she had been picked up for drunken driving.

Sites

'... our aim is to keep theory "moving" ' (so says the Routledge journal New Formations.) 5

In Broome, Lord MacAlpine, Europe's 10th wealthiest man and Tory party treasurer, has created the Broome Preservation Society and has restored the town to a point less than zero. Basically, he has taken the town 'back to the future': 'He discovered it [Broome] about seven years ago, when it was roadless (sic!) and MacAlpine was tired of what he had seen of Australian cities'.6 In the old part of town, Chinatown, places like the open-air Sun Picture Theatre and Jimmy Chi lane are 'restored' to a version of their original style. It is the same phenomenon which Tony Bennett described for The Rocks, in Sydney, which after 'restoration' is less an historical or 'lived-in' site, than a commercial one which:

... furnishes the locale for the development of a sanitised and mythical past, which, in its commitment to eradicating all the marks and signs of an area's settlement which cannot be harmonised with the glittering facade which (in its officially instituted form) the past is obliged to wear, functions as an institutionalised mode of forgetting.7

So having 'forgotten' the sordid opium dens which were once housed in Johnny Chi lane, we are called upon to 'remember' just how many flavours of ice-cream can be had at the ice-cream parlour there now. Just what kind of tourist is Broome trying to attract? Then again, some more radical Aboriginal restorers or preservers might be tempted one day to take the site back to an even more pristine condition by razing the buildings and coaxing back a few shade trees.

On the way home I thought I glimpsed Meaghan Morris in the Henry Parkes Motel in Tenterfield (as we flashed past in the Telstar). She had made the Motel into an intellectual site, intermezzo because while trained in the academy, she is not of it, maintaining a critical distance. This is a stance which enables her to write in an un-disciplined way, to have something of the romance of the road about her work (which I have been at pains to copy) as well as something of the intellectual organic purity of growing up in the true Australia and turning back to write about it in later years as she condenses the nostalgia of that spread of time, drawing out a richer drop and finding a new function for writing in the Henry Parkes Motel.

... with its peculiar function as a place of escape yet a home-away-from-home, the motel can be rewritten as a transit-place for women able to use it.8

Up in Brisbane Jenny Craik was going to tourism conferences, trying to show how, even on its own terms, the exploitation of North Queensland sites is often miscalculated, or geared up for only short-term gains. Work like hers stands to have actual effects in those tourist industries, and such academic writings run the risk of being co-opted as critical voices9. These voices, from the point of view of the industry, could at first hearing seem somewhat dysfunctional, but it could turn out later that they are a necessary corrective to the less than subtle gung-ho style of capitalist exploitation of 'natural' sites.

In Tourism Studies the 'discourse of exploitation' will no doubt continue to be a back beat, like the Drums of Mer, booming out a message of late capitalism's last phase, now known as the Jamesonian Era by the retro-prophets of postmodernism. We are just out of Winton and the river is up, the Julia Creek. As a local entrepreneur with a truck is piggybacking the car across the river for $25 I finally find the scrap of post-card from Gloria. 'Mary-Anne,' she says, 'is off to Harvard to do a PhD.' And I remember the occasion now when Gloria told the No Road joke and Mary-Anne from Broome told hers:

A family of white tourists is travelling across the Nullabor Plains on Highway 1. They are flagged down by an Aboriginal family in a big old station wagon - back full of dogs, kids on the roof-rack (the kids have to go up there because they can hang on, dogs can't), mother, father, grannies, the whole works. The white family agrees to tow them to the nearest petrol stop, and so they hitch up the tow-rope to the old car and off they all go.

When they finally get to Eucla or Nullabor or wherever, and are stopping for a bit of a rest, fuelling up, and so on, the garage manager makes a quiet gesture, and takes aside the white driver.

"Listen mate", she says, and grins a bit.

"What?" goes the other.

"You know that Aboriginal family you helped out on the road?"

"Yeah."

"You know, their car, the only problem with it is, I mean it goes alright, the only problem is, there's no motor in it. They've been travelling this road for years and years, backwards and forwards in that same old car."

In camp I kept reading The Road to Botany Bay next to the bitumen (or next to the road)10. By travelling the archive, Paul Carter has covered the same roads as Cook, Mitchell and all the other explorers, but found new details, new angles. The traces that the archive produces are open to reinterpretation in the way that he does so well. But these traces don't yet come from the other side of the frontier, he is taking off from those bitumenised surfaces directly into outer space.

From here on in I guess it's Back to the Future, in which film it is said:

'Roads? Where we're going we won't need any roads.'

(To be continued)


Notes

1 Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country, Fremantle, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984.

2 The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 'Report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation: Protection of Bungle Bungle,' March 1985.

3 'Rocks to Riches: The Lost Dream,' Tony Hewett, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 1989, p1. Reporting the work of economic analysts Greg Crough and Bill Pritchard of The University of Sydney's Economic and Social Policy Research Unit.

4 Warumpi Band Jailanguru Pakarnu, 'Fitzroy Crossing,' (Murray/Butcher), Alice Springs, C.A.A.M.A.

5 'Travelling theory, ' Editorial, New Formations, no 3, Winter, 1987, p.4.

6 'A stiff English upper lip softens in Broome,' The Sydney Morning Herald, August 15th, 1987, p.9.

7 Tony Bennett, 'History on the Rocks,' in Don Barry and Stephen Muecke (eds) The Apprehension of Time, Sydney, Local Consumption Publications, 1988, p.6.

8 'At Henry Parkes Motel', Cultural Studies v.2 no.1, 1988, p.2.

9 'Tourism Down Under: Tourism Policies in the Tropics,' Institute for Cultural Policy Studies (Griffith University): Occasional Paper no. 2, 1988.

10 Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, London, Faber and Faber, 1987.


New: 2 February, 1996 | Now: 12 March, 2015