PsychoGeography #27: Riding waves on the land down under

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I've been in minor earthquakes a couple of times in my peripatetic life. The first was in 1983 when I was working in Darwin for the Lands Department of the Northern Territory of Australia. My dad had fixed this up for me, and with the true fervour of the remittance man I'd gone after it like a greyhound chasing a lure. I'd pitched up in Canberra - where Dad lived - on the run from my bad habits in London, but amazingly enough I soon managed to track down plenty of ne'er-do-wells in this idealised garden city of a capital. Surely, I reasoned, Darwin would be far enough from anywhere for me to avoid serious trouble?

A lot of other addicts manqué had had exactly the same idea, and I soon fell in with them. We slaked our thirst for intoxication with six packs of Emu Export and bushels of domestic weed. It was a decade after the hurricane which had devastated Darwin, and the town was still clambering back up from its knees to its feet. Along with people on the run from the southern cities, the gaff was full of civil servants on padded salaries, egregious rednecks in from the sticks, and enigmatic aboriginals who sat in familial colloquies under the thick tropical foliage on the median strips of the town's sleepy boulevards.

My job was to assess the demand for building land in the Northern Territory. This was not exactly scarce, given that it's six times the size of the British Isles, and the population was then under 100,000. A cursory examination of the stats told me that the population - and hence the rate of household formation - rose and fell in line with the federal subsidy, my report could've consisted of this sentence alone. However, I was drawing a generous salary for a four-month contract - why rock the boat? My nominal boss seldom appeared in the office, preferring to pathway plan his yacht, or play at being the Austrian Consul, a comic operetta role for which there was no more requirement than his laughable services as an economist.

I took to attending the office with Proustian legerdemain, preferring to spend most of my time in the Swan Hotel reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and downing stubbie after stubbie. So it was quite by chance that I happened to be on the sixth floor of the government building - which was at that time the highest thing in Darwin after the casino - when a Force 6 earthquake burbled up from the bed of the Arafura Sea some 500 miles to the north-east. The white walls supporting the Sasco Year Planner bulged, the vertical textured louvres riffled, we shirt-sleeves headed as one for the emergency stairs.

In the street I was astonished to see the roadway, the pavement, the verges, all undulate as if they were a giant carpet being yanked up and down at one end. Visible waves moved through the solid earth, lifting the gaggle of guvvie workers up and down as if we were surfers waiting in the swell to catch a big one. The quake can't have lasted for more than four or five minutes, but it was long enough for me to appreciate the complete transmogrification of matter implied by its very ascription. Land shouldn't "quake" - or undulate for that matter. Land should sit there, the prosaic basis of all that is, rigidly and uncompromisingly supporting the leisurely lifestyles of types like me, just as it supports Ayers Rock, or the Parthenon. If earth was going to quake, then what next? Locust plagues? Parting watercourses? Would the air turn into a crystal and suffocate us all in its infinite refractions?

But the most peculiar thing about the quake was the response of some Tiwi Islanders who formed the extended family of one of my most eccentric colleagues. John, a native East Ender, had arrived in Australia in the 1960s, after riding a moped most of the way there despite being crippled by polio. He was pretty much shunned by the rest of the Department because he chose to hang out with the blackfellers. The contrast between small, white, bespectacled, balding John, and the magnificently tall and shaggy-haired Tiwi Islanders (who are really the Watusi of Native Australians), was something to behold. A couple of nights after the quake I was hanging out with them all when some of the Tiwis became agitated for no reason I could discern. When I asked John what was going on he said: "They've just heard some of their people were killed on Cape York during the quake."

"Heard?" I queried. "Heard how?"

"Oh, the usual way," he grinned, "meaning not by phone."

It was all of a piece: the satirical statistical job, the liquefying earth, and the telepathic trunk calls that took two days to place. It was with some relief that I returned to the Boulevard St Germain.