Marree Visit

My family had known of the Far North town of Marree, for my grandmother was a governess in the area in the 1920s and the assumed ‘frontier’ living had often been a topic of discussion. One has to drive for eight hours to reach Marree from the capital city of South Australia, Adelaide. If you leave early in the morning there will be hardly a car to be seen on the furthest roads. There is a large geological feature to pass, the Flinders Ranges, but once you are away from the tourism infrastructures there, you enter a more ancient, self-reliant world. Marree sits over the world’s oldest reservoir of artesian water; an ocean of water that lies beneath, perfumed with sulphur and full of mineral suspensions. The landscape surrounding Marree is desert, dotted with low growing shrubs. Stones of red, white and black colors sit on the red sand. Large scratched granite stones have been previously deposited by glacial movements, and solidified blush-colored cannonballs of old lava sit beside oceanic or forest fossils. The ground can crunch underfoot, much like a seashore. The stones sit silent and undisturbed across most of the land for it is often too hot, too dry or too freezing cold for comfortable human habitation.

Ribbons of olive colored trees on faraway, purple horizons are indicators of the flow of life here. The flocks of birds, some large and many small, also suggest where water is to be found in this arid environment. The artesian water rises to the surface in a series of mound springs throughout the district, and those same springs have trailing tails that ‘draw lines’ upon the land. It was one such spring that marked an important source of water in pioneering days and led to the early settlement of Marree. [1] I feel this somewhat difficult local water cycle holds a metaphoric consideration.

It can be easy, perhaps, to assume that such an isolated town, in such challenging geographical conditions would be the destroyer of domestic stability. In July this year I was able to sit quietly in my accommodation to draw and cut stencils of the day’s sights. Over many hours the cold night air was punctuated by the sound of convivial laughter, The next morning I was able to explore the next street in an effort to understand the joy that hung over the town the night before.

There are perhaps only a dozen streets in Marree, and I have photographed and painted daily scenes of each home. The ‘house of laughter’ had already left a deep impression upon me, for its early architecture had evolved into a screened structure that allowed little of the dust, heat or cold winds to enter. It was a home that was perhaps built in the 1870s, for its weathered brick chimney speaks of an earlier Victorian time. My more recent visit noted that a round blackened site for a warming fire was to be found near the front door. I have not used the term ‘front garden’, as only a lone shrub stood within the sizeable expanse of sand that stretches in all directions from this home. Instead there were sociological purposes that contributed to the landscape of the garden. There were two armchairs positioned away from the prevailing winds, beside the fire’s delineated area. Nestled closer to the house’s frontage were two trestle tables, where some supplies could still be seen: drinking water, plates, mosquito repellant for instance. The fire may well have been a site for baking potatoes (food choices were very selective at the general store), but I suggest it was the facilitated story-telling function of the place that was its main purpose. A passerby told me “ There is always someone to talk to at night if you go walking in Marree.”

The interior furniture within the front yard was mirrored by a row of metal sinks and benches at the back door. I imagined dishes being attended to very late in the evening during summer, where a faint breeze would make the task more enjoyable. The dwellers were regular short-stay visitors. They had previously worked at the local school but now had found themselves returning several times a year, to the groundedness of the township’s people and the peaceful feel of the earth. Their school age children also yearned to return to Marree, to be shaped and enriched by the lived experiences there. They did not need to offer apologies for their modest but very practical domestic arrangements, for their outdoor living had rippled out across the town and ‘shaken’ my urban routines. This could be an example of those enduring complexities of place that cannot be preplanned when travelling.

The backyard was graced with a semicircle of tents and caravans for guests. I could liken it to a seaside, summer, caravan park, but Marree is not so easy to reach and has to be approached in specialized vehicles, with far greater consideration of risks, with an insurance policy ‘in one’s back pocket’, so to speak. (The wedge-tailed eagles that may be feeding on road-kill kangaroos may not move out of your car’s way. It may be you who must slow and veer away from their huge wings, for they do not seem to want to move for you. The kangaroos, alone, can cause car accidents when they leap across the roads at dusk.) The encampment was also a reminder of the lure of this ancient landscape, and how it has the potential to refresh and inform the visitor, especially the regular visitor. There was a second fire circle in the backyard with further foldable tables, but it will have to remain a mystery how and what was used there. The owner did tell me that when they arrive in Marree they always leave a small purple tricycle near the front gate, just to let other townspeople know that they have arrived.

When we choose to consider aspects of a long duration of living in the one place, we may need also to consider many different viewing positions, if understanding is to be grasped. The aesthetics of the houses in Marree do not easily compare to English country farm houses, nor lakeside log cabins, but they have a beauty all their own. They are celebrations of enduring supply lines, of pooled resources and attending to vernacular alterations with what materials are available. Perhaps just the sheer survivability and ability to laugh in the face of life’s challenges is the town’s ‘inner beauty’. Reg Dodd, the local Aboriginal elder at the Arabunna Aboriginal Museum and Gallery, took us to see the sun rising just south of the town. After many discussions he gently took my shoulder and quietly told me, “ This [Marree] earth means everything to us; it is our soul, our identity, it is everything within us.” I feel we all have the capacity to develop reciprocal relationships with the natural world that go beyond tokenism, but, instead, ask us to consider more carefully the inseparable aspects of place that endure. Laughter by the fire, under the Milky Way, as the flocks of birds listen in the nearby trees is something to grasp firmly in Marree, for it is not easy to reproduce the same level of experience on the urban patio, with the city lights glowing and the budgie asleep under its cover. Urban living is perhaps just the beginning.


[1] Marree was originally named Hergott Springs, after the botanist travelling with explorer John Eyre, but renamed Marree after World War One, as other South Australian towns were.

Sue Michael