Below is an excerpt from a piece of my creative non-fiction, first published in the fantastic Tincture Journal, and subsequently shortlisted for the Woollahra Library Digital Literature Award. You can read the full text here.
Terrain: An Exploration in Two Parts
“We need the tonic of the wilderness… We can never have enough of nature.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
We rattle off the bitumen and onto the rutted dirt road, stones blasting against the underside of the car. It’s a mid-90s Citroën, effortlessly, incrementally disintegrating after years of subtle neglect, paint disappearing off the bonnet and roof, slowly offering itself to year after year of summer sun. And though the airy, French suspension is still a dream on covered roads, as we plough through potholes using the middle of the road to keep clear of the thicker gravel, it’s clear that the car is a long way from home.
In reality, my co-driver, Billy, and I are only one and a half hours outside Adelaide, near Rapid Bay, South Australia, on the western side of the Fleurieu Peninsula. We’re making our way to a plot of land—48 acres of untouched coastal bush—owned by a mutual friend, Björn, the idea being to help with the ongoing construction of his homemade shack with whomever else Björn has invited. Truthfully, Björn in no way needs our help; a transnational upbringing spanning the deserts of Africa to the ice of Northern Europe has left him a hands-on savant. But he’ll know how to put extra limbs to use and, to be honest, there’s something intoxicating about the idea of helping to construct this Crusoean outpost. When I was invited I agreed without hesitation.
Up to this point Billy has been charting our progress, the stuttering movement of a blue dot on an iPhone screen, giving directions as subtle forewarnings—“In about a k you’re going to need to turn right.”, “We’re going to be coming up on a T-junction.”—ensuring that I’m prepared for what each turn brings. But as we bounce along this final stretch, the directions become less certain, the car floating unpredictably over the vagaries of the road.
“Coming up on a right.” I can see the beginnings of the arc, but a patch of scrub obscures the rest. As I direct us around, keeping clear of the sharp elbows, a hill rises before us. Sealed it wouldn’t present much of a problem, but the wheels begin to stutter underneath us. Rectal tightening. I drop gears as we slow, trying to keep the revs up and the momentum forwards. If we had any illusions before, we can see clearly now: this is four-wheel drive territory. I seesaw the accelerator, feeling the tyres slip and grip, hopping from one hold to the next like stepping-stones across a rushing stream. We are delivered over the crest of the hill. Nervous laughter.
The track we’re travelling along is called ‘No where else Road’—a name so Hollywood in its portentousness that we joked about expecting to see a sign hanging limply, riddled with bullet holes; and somewhere in the distance a pock-faced man in overalls chewing on a stalk of wheat, rocking chair concealing roughly sawn-off 12 gauge. But when we made the turn there was nothing marking the spot. Only cool, humourless Google Maps to assure us of our direction. It seemed like a missed opportunity.
Now, as we scan for the turnoff to Björn’s property—so recently plotted as to be missing from Google’s ever-growing grid—we’re searching for something else unsigned. On our right are rolling hills of the bucolic Australian grazing land, punctuated by wary kangaroos, paused mid-chew. But we’re looking to the left, where untamed bush scuttles outwards as far as we can see. Look for the two posts, reads Björn’s text message. Anything unbent and upstanding has us glancing at each other, eyebrows raised. When we realise that, yes, the ones we just passed are the ones we’re looking for, we make a seven-point turn, double back, and leave the road, heading in.
The land falls away from the road into a valley. As it does, sculptural vegetation begins to punctuate the swaying grass. The approach that has been cut into to the property is one of least resistance, descending in a meandering parallel path rolled flat by tyres. We weave between gums, wattles, and unidentified knots of wood and leaves, down towards a small clearing. Nestled in the low canopy of gums ahead is the gable roof of Björn’s fledgling shack, suspended by the narrow legs of a reconstituted carport. At least we’ve got the right spot.
Through the frame of the car windscreen we get a shaky look at other details, piecing together a camp site as the native grass brushes against the underside of the car. Someone has set up a tent in the shady, barren land under a weeping canopy. Despite these signs of life, the area seems absent of people. Moments later, the track ends, and we come to a stop. Björn’s four-wheel drive is nowhere to be seen.