We drove along station tracks into Andamooka, an opal town of hillock and tin and dopey whack-a-mole hope. There was a buzz in the pub because the SA Governor was coming to town. I asked a local woman what sort of bloke he was and she glanced around to see who was within earshot before whispering, “Vietmanese.” And that isn’t a typo.
A dishevelled welcoming committee hung around the pub door tugging at its cuffs and fingering its collars. But when he arrived they were abashed by his magnificence and struck entirely dumb. This was no way to greet royalty. It was more an inadvertent shunning than a welcome. So I called to him, “Welcome to Andamooka, your honour.”
The Governor assumed I was mayor and came over and shook my hand and said he liked our little town and I said we were very proud of it, though here, as elsewhere, shitheads abound. My brother and I bowed and saluted the beautifully dressed first lady, and he apologised to her for our smell and explained we’d been sleeping in creekbeds and hadn’t washed for many a long day.
I watched the royal couple scramble to process this, a shadow of doubt crossing their faces. Andamooka is a wretched scree, but surely its dignitaries might’ve bathed for the once-in-a-blue-moon arrival of South Australia’s royal representative. His excellency and I chatted awhile of opals and other things we knew nothing about. He asked questions about Andamooka and I made up scandals for him. The official welcoming party stood patiently by the pub door slicking its many self-inflicted hairdos. Eventually my wife crossed the road and hissed at me, “Give him back. Now.”
Then we drove on up to William Creek and flew out of there in a Cessna across Lake Eyre, marvelling at the patterned and painted land and the vast shallow body of water that had flowed from the cyclone-riven north to this place where it will parch to pure salt. But before that the fish will come out of the creeks into the lake, and then the waterbirds will mysteriously arrive, crossing unlikely distances from the coast. Won’t they? They’ve always come before.
The lake lies there waiting. But perhaps the wetlands the birds once came from are now housing estates. People wonder, will they come this time? The syncopations of global migration are breaking down like the dance steps of a drunk.
Driving home, outside the closing town of Leigh Creek, we hit an emu. It came out of the mulga fast and amid panel-boom and feather-storm its whiplashed head pecked a crater in our car bonnet. We pulled over and I walked back to it. The great bird was laid out with everything broken, muscle memory shaping a piecemeal locomotion, leaving semi-circles in the gravel, one bloody eye touching earth and the other ogling me from death. It looked an ancient, lonely thing. I dragged it off the road, into the shade, and said sorry.