Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Freo Days, Part II

When I found the motivation to drag myself away from the couch on the verandah, it was usually to go to a gig. Ahhh, Freo gigs - how I miss you. 

I'd hop on the pushy and roll in the last light over the old traffic bridge. The golden sun sank into the ocean, leaving the black outline of the stacks of containers and mechanical dinosaurs at the port, and the train rattling by with a handful of straggling commuters on board, and the swirling Swan River below me all continuing their business in the darkening evening. 

Mojo's was the venue most nights. Bright on the outside, gloomy and dark on the inside, I leaned against a wall to watch the band. Barefooted Charlie Parr with his big grey beard and tangled grey hair played his frantic hillbilly tunes to a baying crowd. I saw local reggae dub maestros The Sunshine Brothers quite a few times, including one of the last nights before I left town. They joked with each other in between songs as though nobody was listening. 

Down opposite the abandoned Woolstores, with all the graffiti and where the kids skate all weekend, is Clancy's Fish Pub. Full of friendly vagrants and colourful eccentrics, you can't feel out of place there. Free gigs on Friday nights and a variety of tasty beers to drink and seafood to soak it up with. The T Shirts they sell say We put the beer of God  in you, and it could be true. 

Summer Sunday afternoons found me on the shady lawns of the Freo Art Centre. Free gig from two til four. People lay on picnic rugs sharing bowls of nuts and cold beer from the esky, gurgling toddlers escaped the half hearted grasp of dad to run around and dance up the front, the acoustic tunes floated up and around and into the trees and people smiled at each other. In my memory it was pretty much paradise. 

There were so many more venues - world music upstairs at Kulcha, where you can step outside to lurk on the balcony and watch the drunks stumble round on the main street below, indie tunes in the cramped Norfolk Basement, Gomez rocking at the Fly By Night Club, comfy retro lounges to sprawl in at the Little Creatures Loft (continuing the local knack for a catchy phrase with their slogan Open Up A Little), the Blues and Roots Festival in the park - oh the music flows richly in Freo. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Freo Days, Part I

For three years I had a house in Fremantle. When I say ‘had’, I mean I rented it of course.

It was smallish and oldish and each of the rooms was painted a different bright colour – yellow, red, blue, purple, green. The wooden floorboards creaked in places and the ceiling fans ticked a little as they spun.

I first came to 49 Forrest Street on a summer afternoon in response to a housemate wanted advertisement. I propped my pushbike against the tree out the front and knocked on the door to meet Alena, whose friend had left at short notice. After a few days she let me know I could move in, I was the least strange of her applicants. Must have been some real weirdos turn up.  

My favourite thing about the house was the verandah. It was wide and shady and had a decrepit lounge on it.  The fabric of this lounge was torn and faded and the frame wobbled and groaned when anybody sat down.You got to know the comfortable spots to sit, away from the poky bits or saggy spots.That lounge and I spent some time together over the years. In the hot dusty afternoons, in the late evening light, in windy squalls, in winter rains I sat on the verandah and read and watched and thought.

I liked the feeling of being outside, yet sort of inside. I had shelter from the biting West Australian sun, but felt the cool benefits of the daily Freo Doctor (the sea breeze that calls every summer afternoon to make people feel better).  As a storm arrived from the coast I would get splashed by the rebound of fat raindrops from the railings. The trees alongside the footy field bent sideways in the howling southwesterlies. 

I could hear the music from my stereo inside, yet I was part of the world outside. I could smile or say hello to people walking past; the lady with purple hair walking her sausage dog, the families with young kids on scooters, the teenagers delivering advertising brochures who had to pass by our stickered mailbox. Or I could choose not to engage with anyone at all and just read.  

I don’t know how many books I must have read sitting out there. Stories from around the world, stories from across the centuries, characters come to life in my mind in colour and adventure and anguish and happiness and confusion, living their lives as best they knew how, bringing a zest and new perspective into my little old Freo life.

When Alena moved out for a new beginning in Albany she took all her furniture but left the lounge on the verandah. It was decaying further, exposed as it was sometimes to rain and sun, and it wasn't a specifically outdoor lounge. I didn’t mind though, I still ate dinner there often enough, had some serious kinds of conversation there, I liked to sit there and await guests for a warm greeting, and I was there early that Thursday morning when I got the phone call about Foz’s passing.  

When I decided to leave Freo earlier this year, I gradually emptied the house of its contents. Most of the things I’d scavenged from kerbside pickups, so was happy to return to the kerb and let the circle of life continue. Some I sold for cheap on gumtree. Off went the barbecue, the stereo, the bed and mattress. But nobody came for the lounge. Nobody knew its value like I did so it sat there until the day before moving when there was nothing else for it - we wrangled into the back of a ute and tied it down as though it might have known the hole in the ground where it was headed and tried to escape. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Storm

I’d say everyone in Perth would remember where they were during the thunderstorm of March 22, 2010.

It was the most demonic in living memory.

The brutal weather marched into the city from the north, pelting the suburbs with giant hail stones, dumping around sixty millimetres of rain in half an hour, and ripping through the streets with winds that could have stripped paint from cars. The suddenness and violence of the storm, the drumbeat eruptions of thunder and the sight of the natural world in a mania had the inhabitants of the isolated city cowering.

I know that I remember, and I have a feeling the Ntumba-Mata family in Thornleigh will remember. They had only been in Australia for a couple of weeks and were in their Government-supplied temporary accommodation watching the dark arrive at four in the afternoon. After spending a dozen years in a refugee camp in Kenya you’d think it would be hard to shock the Congolese family with anything. But the deep purple cloud advancing on the skyline and the eerie dull glow of the afternoon light had them transfixed at the window. Something biblical was afoot and they knew it.

The diabolical rain and the wind and the hail descended upon their street, and the family were tense and anxious. Jojo, the four year old, whimpered. Obed ,ten, stared out silently at the scene and Annie said “Stevie, what this? No good, no good.”

The power went out and the safety we felt from being secure inside was eroded. The rain was heaving down with such force that it felt as though the roof may collapse, and then it looked like it did. From around the window and door frames, water came into the house. First it seeped down the wall, but in seconds it was gushing uninhibited like a waterfall following its natural course. It poured downwards and pooled, spreading wider and wider across the bare living room floor. Annie called out to Obed and he ran out of the room, returning in a second with a small towel – just a bathmat really. With this flimsy cloth he tried to stem the tide.
I tried asking Annie about more towels or a mop, but the language barrier and the shock that both she and I were feeling, made communication difficult. She had a dismayed, defeated air to her. She had dragged her family from the seat of misery and desperation in Africa, leaving her dead husband behind, to begin a life of light and hope in Australia. She was here with her teenage kids, her young boy Obed and grandson Jojo, they all relied on her. She thought she had turned a corner. But what was this, this violence sent from the devil himself to crush her and sweep her family away once more?

Without power there was nothing to eat. The only food in the cupboard was the maize flour and relish which needed to be cooked in boiling water. Jojo was crying and the house was in darkness, there was water everywhere.

The two older kids still weren’t home so I took Obed with me and went in search of some food.  The worst of the storm had passed but the streets were underwater, many impassable. Cars with windscreens smashed and panels dimpled by hail were ploughing through puddles of uncertain depth, others turning around where they could. Trees were fallen, power lines lay tangled and roofs were smashed. I found a way through to the shops but there was no power anywhere, nothing was open.

I felt shaken and couldn’t think straight. I could feel the chaos in the air, people driving on the wrong side of the road, some wandering out of their houses to stare at the damage. Without much of a plan, but knowing I wasn’t much help there, I dropped Obed back and drove down the Leach Highway towards home. I hoped that Guelor, Annie’s nineteen year old son would come home soon and take charge. He’d at least be able to communicate with her, which I couldn’t. I had only recently signed up as a volunteer to help the Ntumba-Matas learn English, and settle in to their new life in Australia. I wasn’t equipped to deal with this, and well I guess I freaked out and needed some space to think.

As I got near Fremantle the shops were lit up again, and when I got home I found the power on. I had a quick cup of tea, gathered my wits and grabbed a mop and bucket, some candles and drove the thirty minutes back down the Leach Highway. With these supplies and an armful of greasy fast food I arrived at the Thornleigh home to find that Guelor had arrived and had brought some reassurance. The storm had passed and they’d be alright, of course they would.

On a happier day with Jojo and Obed

Sunday, 25 November 2012

They say mine

They say "mine"

Gina Rinehart. Net worth approx $29 billion

First half-year profit in 2011/12, approx $9.2 billion

Annual revenue approx $4.3 billion. Pushing to construct world's largest gas plant at James Price Point in the Kimberley region of Western Australia

Clive Palmer. Net worth approx $975 million

Market value approx $8.7 billion. Aggressive proponent of controversial coal seam gas mining throughout Australia.

We say "ours"

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, under threat from development of several new ports for exporting coal and coal seam gas. Courtesy of mining giants such as Rinehart and Palmer.

James Price Point, proposed site for Woodside's industrial gas development 

visit here:

Friday, 16 November 2012

Timbuktu Days, Part III

On the morning of festival day there was an exodus from Timbuktu. I negotiated a ride in the back of a truck out to Essakane, where it would all happen. It’s two hours from Timbuktu, further into the desert. My feet hung over the edge of the flatbed truck and they were whipped by low scrubby grass which grew in tussocks in our path. The track soon turned to sand and we cruised up and around dunes on the way to Essakane.

The place had an air of chaos. There were loose-robed Tuaregs riding camels here and there, the rugs and halters of the camels brightly decorated in coloured woven fabric. The riders sat on wooden seats and rested their feet comfortably at the camels’ neck.  A more modern variety of Tuareg was criss-crossing the site at breakneck speed in dusty landcruisers. Tents made of canvas and hessian were set up in rows, selling food, locally made jewellery, clothing, fabrics and artwork. I noticed one stall selling decorated swords and shields.

Tuaregs are no strangers to conflict; armed with broadswords and daggers they put up a fierce resistance to French colonisation early last century. And since independence there have been uprisings, as they have fought for recognition and justice for their nomadic way of life.

This festival is their celebration. The stage was at the base of a tall, curved dune, providing a natural amphitheatre. I sat at the top to take it all in. The aroma of spicy food wafted on the air, and I wandered amongst the softly lit tents in search of a meal. Inside crouched Berber men pouring glass after glass of sweet green tea, and women stirring large pots of hot food. I was beckoned in to one and was served a bowl of cous cous and spicy goat meat. 

As darkness fell, fires were lit in drums and the music began. The festival is a showcase for Tuareg music and there were traditional chants and dances. The stage was crowded with groups of twenty singers, swaying and clapping as they sang. There was also music from across Mali, Africa and around the world - blues, hip hop and jazz. Ouma Sangare’s bewitching voice, Toumani Diabate delicately plucking his kora – the African harp whose lilting notes drifted with the wood smoke into the night sky -  and Afel Boucomb appeared, but most anticipated was Tinariwen.

Comprised of former rebel soldiers trained by Colonel Gadaffi, the members of Tinariwen have traded their guns for guitars, and these desert poets have now captured imaginations across the world. With vocals switching between rapid-fire spoken word, harmonised haunting wails, and call and response between male and female singers, their music speaks of the struggle of the Tuaregs. Their battle for survival in harsh desert lands where they are oppressed from all sides but do not give up their spirit of resistance. Tinariwen do it all – they fight, they philosophise and they make music that breathes like wind in the dunes. The loping beat of their rhythmic electric blues is said to be based on the gait of a camel walking.  The night exploded in light and dancing.

At three I went to bed – a mosquito net hung from a branch with my sleeping bag rolled out on the sand beneath. At four the harmattan began blowing. It penetrated tents, bringing fine gritty sand into eyes, mouths and noses. People emerged in the morning brushing the sand from their hair and face, but with the wind still blowing, it was pointless. In a daze they walked around bent against the wind, turbans wrapped around heads, eyes squinted and wondering if this is what the end of the world looked like. It was grey and miserable and there was nowhere to hide. The wind blew until mid afternoon, when it finally eased. The night sky, when it came, was speckled with stars, the air was still and everyone was ready to celebrate the final night of the festival.

With the recent death of local legend Ali Farka Toure, the patron of the festival was now Habib Koite. He took to the stage with his band Bamada and played his joyous Malian griot music, with the talking drum and the harmonica, the balafon and the calabash, and the beautiful vocal harmonies brining the night to life again. The drums were beaten and the playful notes of the balafon (West African xylophone) rang out and the crowd responded with cheers and smiles. Atop a Saharan sand dune, beneath a glowing sky we danced to this music of the earth; a vibrant collection of people blown in from all corners of the globe to this desert enclave lit up in the African night.    



Habib Koite

Monday, 5 November 2012

Timbuktu Days, Part II

The buildings of Timbuktu were made of the very earth on which they stood – low, flat-roofed mud dwellings with open doorways giving a glimpse of the dark and cool within.  The streets were sand, and there was a sandy grey haze in the air.

The mosques stood tall and proud. They were spiked with wooden struts, used as steps for the re-coating of mud after the annual rains.

Here and there were large domed tents with goats ambling around. The nomadic Tuaregs used these as their homes while in the city, in between trips into the desert. The Tuaregs, in their distinctive blue robes, are nomadic desert people whose territory crosses the borders of Mali, Niger and Algeria. They walked the streets, or sat in their tents drinking sweet green tea. Some rode camels.

The African City of Gold is more humble than it was during the fifteenth century when it was a centre for Islamic scholarship -of the 100,000 population, a quarter were scholars. A mystical city, it lured European explorers many of whom died in their attempts to reach it. The Scottish Gordon Laing was the first to make it, but was murdered two days after leaving the city in 1826. The Frenchman Rene-Auguste Caillie disguised himself as an Arab to reach the city in 1828, and returned to Europe to claim the prize offered by the Geographical Society of Paris. 

At the time of my visit there were plenty of westerners around, more than usual because the Festival au Desert was on in a few days and lovers of African blues were arriving for the show.

I suspect the entire city was transformed by the coming of the festival. I arrived in Timbuktu four days before it began, in time to observe the build up of mayhem.

A cheap hotel gave me a mattress to put on the floor of their covered courtyard. I left my stuff and walked out to see what there was to see. Imposing mud mosques, carved wooden doors, an atmosphere of restrained excitement.

I was befriended by an enthusiastic local called Issa who was eager to tell me all about the city. He took me to his sand-floored house to drink tea. It was cool and dark inside and his little radio had African blues crackling out. Children wandered past the open doorway. Issa’s mum walked in and out giving me a dubious eye each time she passed - apparently she hadn’t got festival fever like Issa. Three teenage girls with large tubs of rice on their heads came in. One took off her tub to scoop some rice out for Issa’s mum, and the other two began dancing to the song on the radio. With tubs balanced neatly on their head they moved to the lilting music, spontaneous and unrestrained.

I spent hours on the flat roof of the hotel, looking down at the sandy streets. From three floors up I observed the tourists being pursued by salesmen; they were followed from their cars to their hotel, from the hotel to the bar. These days before the festival provided opportunity for the persistent businessman to make a years’ wages in a short time.

I saw Doug, another Australian I had met earlier in my travels. He told me how he’d been in the back of a truck driving into town when it occurred to him that this was no way to enter Timbuktu. He called out for the driver to stop, and jumping off with his bag he found a donkey laden with firewood, whose owner was willing to put Doug on top. So he entered the city on the back of a donkey.

With Issa and his friends we ate dinner at a makeshift restaurant on the street. There was an oil lamp on the table, and dishes of brochette, chips, salad and bread. Sharing a meal in the warm evening air, the lamp light flickering off our faces, shadows dancing on the wall behind us, people from opposite sides of the world laughing together... there was a lot to be thankful for. Afterwards we wandered the streets in the dark evening, looking for perhaps some music. We found instead a group of men watching a dubbed kung fu movie on a small tv on the street and we stood to watch with them.

Then a blackout. Lights out all over the town. Doug didn’t know how to find the place he was staying. It wasn’t a hotel, just a guy’s house and he had no name for it, only a picture on his digital camera. He showed some of the men who had been watching the kung fu, asking them if they knew where it was. They laughed, wondering how these foreigners survive in this world, but one of them recognised it and offered to take him there on his motorbike. Timbuktu days were full of the unexpected.  


Monday, 29 October 2012

Timbuktu Days, Part I

Timbuktu isn’t the easiest place in the world to reach. On the southern boundary of the Sahara Desert, and at the northern extreme of the habitable part of Mali, it’s a city in the middle of nowhere.

There’s the overland option, which involves a day or so in the back of an overcrowded Landcruiser on shifting, ephemeral sandy tracks. Or there’s the maritime route. The Niger River flows right by the city’s doorstep, and a four day cruise through the Sahel sounded like my kind of travel.

In Mopti I found a Lebanese family and a couple of French girls who were thinking the same and together we hired a vessel, a long thin pinasse, and a couple of crew to take us there. With the small motor chugging, we set off north towards the desert and straight into the stiff harmattan wind which was blowing with a chill off the water.

Drifting into the grey unknown...the air was hazy with sand and the sun shone through a veil, the wind relentlessly bending the eucalypts which lined the river as we sailed through the barren landscape. The harmattan is the trade wind that blows from the Sahara southwards for several months of the year, blustering without reprieve, dropping temperatures down low. In this bleak no man’s land we occasionally passed another pinasse, with sails made of plastic or cloths pieced together, billowing in the wind – desert pirates who waved as they passed. The river cut through the harsh surroundings.

There were villages on the banks, the mud huts blending into the harsh grey scenery. Dusty children waded into the water to wave at us, goats scrambled on the banks, people sat and fished and worked. We pulled in at villages to buy fish and were surrounded by bubbling mobs of kids. They stared, they asked questions, they demanded gifts and they gave high fives as we left.

The days passed gradually. Talk a little, eat a little, doze a little. I sometimes climbed up onto the roof to escape the engine noise and splashing water. I was struck by the kindness and love the Lebanese family showed to each other, and the way this extended to me and the French girls and the skipper and deckhand. There was warmth and laughter on our little boat as we edged towards Timbuktu.   

I was full of expectation for this mysterious place. For several hundred years from the 12th century, Timbuktu was a wealthy trading city. I envision scholars writing poetry in cloistered mud dwellings, merchants wandering the marketplaces checking on their produce and griots playing music to all who would listen. Before European ships sailed the coast of Africa, Timbuktu was the final link between West Africa and the Mediterranean. Gold, ivory, salt and slaves were marched across the desert in camel caravans. Even today, salt which comes from the mines of Taoudenni, 740km to the north, arrives in Timbuktu in large slabs carried by camels. The distance is covered in sixteen nights, with rest during the day.    

We camped out at night, the crackling fire keeping us entertained into the evening, and on the afternoon of the fourth day we docked at the port in Korioume.  We had arrived. The river had delivered us.