cross country Tuesday

After a tedious runway delay and a routine take-off, we ascend westwards out of Tullamarine Airport across outer-suburb escarpments, quarries and farms, turned exotic by the morning sun. Half an hour in we are sailing above red-brown earth, arrow-straight dirt roads dividing the land into geometric blocks, occasionally messed up by a more ancient pathway or wayward river. The billabongs are full after more than a year of rains, glistening like tiny crystals across the landscape. Later, larger lakes cluster together on the flat expanse, turning the nearby land shades of moss-green.

Deeper inland where three states converge, an ancient meandering river feeds giant organically-shaped crop fields. The edges of the lazy river blur into a turquoise haze as ox-bow lakes are discarded and simpler paths carved. Three larger rivers converge on a dammed lake, the only man-made structure for hundreds of kilometres.

The land ripples into mountainous ridges, giving the illusion of a blanket of red-brown clouds below, not the crumpled rock it is made from. There are no roads now, just an infinite stretch of veined red and green, the vegetation clumped together in dots, the earth sculpted into short wave-like patterns. At last, those indigenous abstract paintings make sense: they are not abstracts after all but landscapes.

An hour later the landscape has changed again. The wavelets on the ground have lengthened into flowing lines, making the desert earth look more like scorched tree bark. Soon, even those lines disappear as the Red Centre really takes shape. Flat, featureless red sand is occasionally ripped by an artist’s gash of black paint. It is so easy to understand where some of those Dreamings originate.

The red canvas is abruptly torn by the confluence of two large rivers, which have inexplicable turned their trapped wedge of land a curious blue-green colour, contrasting with the red. Slowly the two colours merge and marble together as the terrain grows hilly again, and perfectly-formed ridges and valleys emerge.

Every fold, every infinitesimal pushing together of the land appears to be visible to the naked eye, pristine and new. Branches of river systems reach towards each other like fractal designs and horizontal oak-tree sculptures.

Suddenly, a farm or homestead appears, surrounded on four sides by a rough-hewn square dirt track, and connected to a roadway running perfectly east-west. A few more roads stretch away north-east and south-west; perhaps we are closer to civilisation than it appears.

A meandering yellow dry river bed is home to a long garden of trees, stretching south-eastwards. The earth still doesn’t know whether to be wearing red or aquamarine. Near the limit of my vision, I am convinced I catch a glimpse of a flash of sunlight on a truck mirror.

As the land softens again, a nearly-dry lake bed hosts a flock of large birds. Flamingos? I cannot tell from this distance.

An hour or so out of Darwin, the grassfires have begun. Snake-like curves of billowing smoke leave blackened earth behind them, burning slowly in isolated patches. The increased cloud cover hints that we are approaching the tropics, and signifies the likelihood of a late afternoon storm as forecast. For once, I have remembered to pack an umbrella.

Soon, the marks of civilisation appear: the black tarmac of the Sturt Highway cuts through, criss-crossed by simpler dirt roads leading to a few scattered homesteads. The vegetation gets thicker and the colours darken to muted greens and browns. More and more land is given over to agriculture, the formality of the crop fields a stark contrast to the wilderness beneath us these past three hours.

The plane turns slightly to the north-west and we commence our descent. Soon, the outer reaches of Darwin appear, smaller fields of market-garden crops and the chequered squares of suburban gardens painted jewel-green by the rains. We loop around past Shoal Bay Coastal Reserve, the flatlands in stark contrast to the man-made landscape alongside it. We are here.

Later, I stand on my balcony watching yet another spectacular Darwin sunset, a fitting technicolour end to my cross-country journey.

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