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CAMP

Men lay sprawled amidst a tumble of swags and cooking gear. A camp fire battled the night chill, feebly throwing shadows through the ruins of an abandoned cattle-station, carving the stockyards into shards of gold and black. A grizzle of Tasmanians commandeered the fire, standing guard lest any heat reach their companions; clumps of new pals dotted the clearing, bonding cheerfully, setting up chairs, searching for backpacks, unrolling swags and waiting for tea. From somewhere in the dark the distant squeal of a windmill, the rusty scrape of corrugated iron, a buzz of voices from the kitchen, the crash of tin plates, the smell of baking bread. The station seemed to be shrinking back in horror at the invasion, leaving a bleak vacuum for the men to plunder.

Scotty was being talked to very seriously by Greg and Ranald. His shoulders slumped and he was nodding in a defeated manner. No amount of blame sharing or joshing would shift that father’s curse from his back – he got lost; ergo he was dumb. Now Greg was adding fuel to the fire.

Swami Greg knows the bush.

‘There’s stuff out here that can kill you. One mistake – you die. Stay alert.’

Spooked by his surroundings and the prospect of ten days in the desert bonding with this lot, Dog felt uncharacteristically shy, kept a low profile, leaving the others to blather. Their cheerful new age bonhomie rankled, their softness, their limpness of spirit got up his nose, their soft Paddington smugness wore him down. The smell of burnt scrub lingered in the air as a crisp black night settled on the intruders, blissfully unaware of their trespass.

‘This is a weird place, isn’t it?’

Andrew was friendly and just as lost as me.

‘Yeah,’ I said slowly, ‘I guess it is.’

*

From the distance a low moan. I thought he’d been struck with a sudden fit of the black plague. Darisha lay stretched out on his swag moaning, staring blankly into the universe with Ranald and Greg crouched on either side, hands on his chest. A man called Joseph was called over with hissed urgency; a colorful rug unfolded and reverently laid over the shaman’s prone form.

Ranald appeared to be caressing the big man’s forehead with a feather. Feathers work wonders for shamanic conniptions, I guess; Valium would have been quicker. In the background Joseph plunked out a soft African tune on some arcane instrument from the wilds of Byron Bay.

Swami Greg moved up to Darisha’s head and seemed to be plunging his fingers into the flesh, drawing them out with a swoosh of breath and flicking them into the blackness, as if to rid himself of whatever demons were invading the grand master. There was humming and growling and strange magic from Ranald as he produced his little suitcase of shamanic treasures. The feather, a piece of string, a few bits of black material, colored beads, all allies in the shamanic ghost busting; for Darisha wasn’t just throwing a tantrum – apparently he was processing the malevolence of the land, taking it into his body and transforming it into less dangerous force so we mere mortals could spend the night un-monstered.

The old guy was taking one for the team; a veritable pounding all for us – unless, of course, he was on some unusual shamanic drug cocktail. By this point, anything was possible. I must never do this kind of thing again.

*

Big D sat up uncertainly and sighed.

‘Phwoow! That was one hell of a ride…’

He beckoned for chai and that swami rug was draped around his tragic shoulders. As the others ate he stayed on his swag recovering from his psychic confusion then, after a while, stood up and moved towards the men. I could feel a speech coming on.

‘This is a very powerful place, guys. I just want you to know that.’

Darisha stood on the balls of his feet in the middle of an open area looking around anxiously to see that everyone was present. Somewhere in his mid-sixties, he was a powerful man, cool and calm in a crisis. Now he was agitated, full of fear, a brisk edge to his words; a faraway, kinda crazy look in his eyes.

‘If any of you are feeling anxious, angry, confused, feeling any pain, headache or unease it’s very likely to do with this place.’

He paused. This was great theatre. Moses came down from the mountain. He’d spent all of forty minutes in the wilderness, lost in darkness in the presence of God. God to Darisha was any number of things. Right now she was Aboriginal. That seemed appropriate, seeing as we were camped on their land.

‘I suggest you sleep close together tonight.’

Anxious men’s groupies huddled in pairs lest a stray tendril of intelligence whisk them away.

‘Don’t head off on your own, stay close to the fire.’

As if on command everybody moved just a little bit closer.

‘Don’t underestimate the strength of this land. We are on the intersection of three dreaming tracks here…’

He tailed off meaningfully, looked slowly at the faces around him and sighed.

‘Stay alert. Powerful forces out here tonight.’

*

Swami Greg stood by Darisha’s shoulder, a solemn expression on his face.

‘We’re on the Land now,’ he said. ‘Since that river bed at Piltati Creek where we had lunch we’ve been on Pitjantjatjara land. Only a very few white fellas are allowed out here, so don’t screw up your opportunity. I mean it.’

He surveyed the silent men gathered around him, their eyes reflecting the dancing flames of the campfire, glinting stranger-danger in the night. This was Greg’s territory. Twenty years of traveling with the locals, countless hours spent listening and learning had given him a sense of authority and the wisdom to know when to defer to forces greater than he knew. He seemed taller now, somehow older, his face thrown into sharp relief by the flames, a calming centre to the confused masses around him.

‘We’ve been traveling along the Wanampi dreaming track,’ he said solemnly. ‘Now we’re at the meeting place of three important stories, a very strong collision of masculine and feminine dreaming that can create a lot of weird feelings. As you see we’re already had some casualties…’

‘Some of you may be able to feel the energy passing thorough us in this place. If you can, go with it. We want you to experience it without an explanation for tonight, see which of you are alert to the dreaming tracks, who can read the land. But this is serious business, men.’

He paused to let the strength of his words sink in.

‘I urge vigilance – be prepared for anything while we’re out here, none of us know what might happen.’

‘And if you’re feeling fear ladies, front it, ‘Ranald chimed in. If you’re feeling joy, go with it, if you’re feeling nothing at all – don’t worry about it. This is not a psychic test – it’s a barometer.’

Pixillated, feeding off-the very air, Ranald was full of life. The spirit of the place was in him, he danced along the black edge of our darkness, eager to jump in. I felt a shiver scurry from the small of my back to my neck.

‘Shamanism is about opening yourself up to the unexpected; placing yourself on the edge and leaping; leaving your other self behind and approaching your magnificence. That’s why we’re here. To assist you to make the jump – and this is the place to do it.’

*

‘I’ve been feeling very queasy since we arrived,’ one man volunteered.

He looked pained, hunched forward, scratched one knee nervously as he spoke, a rat’s tail of concentration on his brow. ‘’I get a kind of uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that seems to be more intense when I stand over there…’

He gestured into the darkness behind him. All was black where he pointed, just a sparking fire lit the group as we stood quietly soaking up the night.

‘I’ve had a very strong spiritual sense that something’s happened here, something profound…’ hissed a voice from the crowd.

‘I saw an old black man standing over there!’ someone blurted, ‘standing silently in the dark…’

This is like a student production of ‘The Crucible’.

‘I’ve been feeling strange!’ another voice piped up.

‘Something must have happened here…’

‘Who’s sleeping by the fire tonight?’

‘Me! Me! Me-e-e-e.’

I didn’t believe a word, found myself listening to a parade of the most ludicrous guff as, one by one, the group catalogued their vague feelings of unease, half imagined apparitions amplified beyond all recognition by their willingness to please.

We’re out here in the desert somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Central Australia, in a strange, dangerous and alien environment, four days into this swami men’s group thing, finally at our destination – forty-four dirty, unshaven, sleep deprived pilgrims thrown inside a traveling bubble of myths and monsters, in a climate of extreme emotional confusion.

By now the ghost of Carlos Castaneda could be conjured on demand.

*

‘You know…’ I heard my voice saying dreamily, ‘a skeptical mind might suggest you could be making all this up.’

Heresy.

The rest of the group stopped dead in their tracks and immediately turned the full force of their attention on to me.

‘Dogster, we-re not making this up,’ said Darisha, a hurt tone in his voice, ‘what makes you say that? It’s all real, it’s all around you. Can’t you feel it?’

‘I don’t think anything should be taken at face value, mate – not checked for bullshit and bunkum as a matter of course. Clearly I’m Robinson Crusoe on that score.’

‘You were in many different kinds of danger out there tonight, my friend,’ Darisha added evenly, ‘that’s why I came after you – in case I had to fight.’

‘I know where he’s coming from,’ Ranald jumped in.

Phew.

‘We both lived through the seventies,’ he said, looking at me, ‘before I started on this path I used to look at all this and just think – well, that’s just hippie crap – and a lot of it was…’

That’s when Dog and the Ranald first met, in the midst of the sweet sturm und drang of counter-cultural Australia. Seventy-three – or was it four? Nobody can remember anything. We’d had an on and off connection ever since. Ranald was the kind of guy who popped up every five years or so. We’d resume the conversation as if not ten minutes had gone by since we last met then, sated, both of us would disappear back into our destiny. We’d collided again.

‘We both saw it all happening around us and a lot of crap some of it was…’

He was right; every loser, loony-tune guru, second-rate talent and outcast was given the floor; the minorities ranted and raved, suddenly empowered and vocal. What is worse, in the spirit of the times, we had to listen to them.

‘But you know, for all that, I grew to realize that my attitude of hostility and anger was just fear.’

Ranald was actually talking to forty people, not just Dog.

‘Fear of going there, fear of the unknown, fear of myself, fear of what I might find…’

He loves a speech.

‘…and that when I broke through the fear and dared to think there might be something more, that’s when I set out on the path, that’s when l started to travel.’

‘I’ve got a bullshit detector too – but it’s trained on the outer world, not the inner one these days. Right now it’s trained on you.’

Ranald looked at me with the evil eye and smiled sweetly.

Nobody was getting out of here alive.

*

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