Essay

Border tales

THE ROAD TO the Queensland-New South Wales border turns through former dairy farms and tropical fruit plantations, many now abandoned and disappearing under a canopy of camphor laurel and regenerated rainforest: hoop pines, figs, quandongs, even young cedars press in on the narrow road. The way continues past rocky streams, home to platypus and kingfishers, through open eucalypt country and past old farmhouses and new tree-changer cement-rendered abodes. In season, fruit stalls – bananas, avocadoes, mangoes – tempt drivers negotiating sharp bends and narrow lanes to swerve to a stop and take advantage of the home-grown bargains. From Currumbin Valley, the road heads for the old logging pass of Tomewin, where a cattle grid marks the interstate boundary. A futile sign prohibiting livestock and fresh produce is the only official notification; an ageing mannequin dressed up as a fireman presides, silently beseeching drivers to throw a few coins into a rusty tin for the rural fire brigade. Were it not for the unexpected quirkiness of the whole set-up, many people I'm sure would drive straight through the boundary, not knowing that they had passed from one state into another.

Many years ago, white men with fob watches and curled moustaches defined Australia's state boundaries on the basis of geographic features or meridial lines, underpinned, of course, by economic concerns. The everyday practices of people living in the borderlands, both Aboriginal and colonial, counted for little against bureaucratic concerns. Laying out a physical reality for the lines on maps, however, proved a difficult task for nineteenth-century surveyors, unaided by helicopters and global positioning devices. Consequently, most state borders err in practice from their legally defined trajectories. Between 1863 and 1866, two colonials – Francis Roberts of Queensland and Isaiah Rowland of New South Wales – surveyed the meandering border that divided the two colonies and which was defined nonchalantly in letters patent as ‘following the range ... which divides the waters of the Tweed, Richmond, and Clarence Rivers from those of the Logan and Brisbane Rivers'. Beginning at Point Danger on the coast, they headed westward but soon had a falling out over the precision of each other's interpretation of where the border should lie. They proceeded to chart separate courses; in the end, the records of Rowland, who mysteriously found other work to do just as the party was about to enter the roughest part of the ranges, were destroyed in a fire, so those of Roberts prevailed.

The mountains and escarpments of the Gold Coast hinterland are easy enough to locate from a distance – many exceed 1000 metres in height – but travelling over them is another matter. The surveyors' foibles and bitter disagreements resulted in digressions that continue to impact in mundane yet important ways on the lives of those who live near the border – from the time of day, to the price of petrol, to the age at which children start school. Discrepancies of up to 200 metres exist at some locations – meaning, for example, that the town of Jennings on the New England Highway should actually be in Queensland rather than New South Wales.

 

I GREW UP on a property about a hundred metres north of the state boundary in semi-rural Currumbin Valley (in my lifetime, the full conversion from rural to suburban will doubtless occur). The region is an intrinsic part of my life story – I know it well. The border is marked by two parallel fences of rusty barbed wire and termite-eaten posts, running ten metres apart and delineating a liminal no-man's land. The bushland on either side looks exactly the same: the branches of huge tallowwoods and she-oaks reach across the limbo and live simultaneously in both states. Exploring the state border is easy enough in these parts; roads and walking tracks follow the line closely. The twin-peaked Mount Cougal rises at the head of the valley in Queensland and on its south face drops dramatically into thick New South Wales rainforest over an escarpment some several hundred metres high. The border follows the landscape: Queensland is at the top of the cliff, New South Wales at the bottom. To scale Cougal, one takes a track that follows the border fence. The climb through rainforest thick with the grabby tendrils of lawyer vine is steep and exhausting – Judith Wright's ‘way of the bleeding hands and feet'. Some large trees still bear the marks of the early surveyors.

Rowland and Roberts' journey up and down this mountain must have been incredibly gruelling. One can imagine the two men sweating and swearing as they scrambled over rocks and up steep banks, keeping their distance from each other, no longer talking but watching suspiciously. The small party of assistants and luggers would have rolled their eyes, bitten their tongues and continued silently up into the mist, hacking at the wall of jungle, watched by the lyre birds and the Yugambeh people who had lived in the area for millennia. The surveyors and their party were almost certainly the first white people to enter the Border Ranges.

The traditional owners, speakers of the Yugambeh language, would have known the whole area intimately, mapped through stories and defined organically by shifting, overlapping and intermingling edges, rather than vainly precise boundary lines. The labourers who came afterwards to erect the border fence following Roberts' line must have suffered even more than the bickering surveyors, lugging coils of barbed-wire, tools, pickets and fence posts, cursing the ignorance of the colonial arbiters in the parlours of Sydney and Brisbane. When they reached the summit, both the surveyors and fencers must have looked out upon the rugged landscape and despaired: the steep sides of Springbrook and the Lamington Plateau lay before them, the greater part of the scenic rim of the Mount Warning caldera awaited.

Standing on the eastern peak of Cougal today, my view is not much different from what they would have seen, despite the arrival of agriculture in the valleys below: dramatic lines of green and blue overlap and tumble into the horizon. Nevertheless, their tracks came before mine and the rickety fence marks the way. On top of this, I have the technological capability to interact with the landscape in a manner totally divorced from the walking stick and magnetic compass. When I go home to Brisbane, I can sit in my bedroom and, via wireless broadband on my laptop, survey the same country with Google Earth, marking the border by the shadows of the overhanging escarpment.

Google enables me to glimpse boundary lines all around the world: thousands of cars queuing on the San Diego Freeway waiting anxiously to enter the United States from Mexico; commuters travelling to work over the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden; the ruined fortresses of Hadrian's Wall covered in snow; the Dome of the Rock overlooking Israel from the West Bank; gargantuan container ships travelling up the Panama Canal past open-cut mines amidst disappearing rainforest; carefree tourists visiting Checkpoint Charlie and the remains of the Berlin Wall; and patchwork farmland abutting either side of the North-South Korea divide.

By observing these boundaries from space (like a disembodied eyeball), I transcend their political reality – a reality that has shaped and still shapes many lives. Though I see Jerusalem, I do not learn what it is like to catch a bus knowing I may be blown up on my way to work. Though the Korean farms look essentially the same on either side of the border, the map will not show me that those to the north are government-run agrarian communes, while to the south independent farmers compete in free-market enterprise. These nuances cannot be gleaned from the satellite, despite the wonders of the zoom lens. Nevertheless, the internet – as we all know – facilitates interaction at an instantaneous global level, where it ignores, trivialises and ultimately negates borders (though certainly not nation-states and their technologies of control).

In contrast, the nineteenth-century project to map, fence and divide seems oddly physical, yet no more real. The key implication of the internet is the mass engagement of people electronically and much of this engagement is basically a performance of real-world possibilities. In many ways, we can envision the internet as an infinite frontier and so draw attention to its apparent absence of borders. Authority peters out into a zone of uncertain and contested relationships. With borders, we simply identify against what lies on the other side; with frontiers, the immediate locus positions us far, far away from the civilisation of powerful cities.

The border fence that marks the route up Mount Cougal exemplifies the effects of demarcation; through time, the site has signified many things. The Yugambeh people living in the adjacent areas identified the stories of their ancestors actively creating the landscape. For the early surveyors, it was an uncivilised frontier of conflict and struggle, while for the state of Queensland the site still delimits sovereignty. The ridge happens to divide the waters of several major rivers, a key economic determinant. For the Aborigines and pre-separation settlers and explorers, being in the place was established by certain landmarks: known or mapped mountains, rivers, boulders and trees. While the Aborigines looked on the landscape as dwellers connected to country, the surveyors' gaze involved radically different processes of power; the gaze perceived a terra nullius and Her Britannic Majesty's imperial representatives supposed that the act of surveying and mapping demonstrated their incontrovertible acquisition of it.

The legacy of the acquisition of the borderlands remains in a political and legal division which completely disregards ecological and cultural parameters. As I traverse the line of ridges, the symbol of the dividing fence presents the simplest means of positioning myself, reminding me not only of the geographical but also of the psychological and political distinctions it enforces. The fence represents the serious efforts of demarcation and differentiation by the early colonies, while highlighting the permeability and weakness of the endeavour. The gaps between the wires are easily cleared and the fence's ramshackle condition points to the tenuousness of Australia's mainland divisions and the imbroglio surfacing around federalism.

 

ON AND OF the boarder, the city of the Gold Coast exists on the edge in many respects. So close to New South Wales, its residents are the loudest proponents of daylight saving. A thin strip of intense development, the ‘Coast' is intrinsically littoral and liminal, a border outpost mutated into a holiday metropolis. Nevertheless, the concrete roundabout monument that marks the border at Coolangatta-Tweed Heads symbolises much less than the decrepit fence running along the south ridge of Currumbin Valley and up into the green mountains. Without force, the fence still retains authority.

What's more, the old fence's presence reminds hikers of the imagined communities that lie to either side. Though not a follower of the Rugby League State of Origin games, state identity nevertheless shapes who I am, and legally determines how I live my life. Benedict Anderson's concept of the imagined community applies just as well to intra-nationally bounded lands as it does to international nation-states. Anderson's theory holds that, as the citizens of a state can never know all the citizens over which their government presides, the community is imagined, insomuch that it exists psychologically and the distinctions between ‘us' on this side of the border and ‘them' on the other are hegemonic constructions. In Australia, our state identities operate as important distinguishing factors in people's identification of themselves and of others, established categories in which individuals may be easily packed up. Despite their quotidian importance, the relevance and power of state boundaries diminishes when we bring the internet back into our focus. Though the internet may incorporate barriers (e.g. user-pays access or government-produced net filters), it operates more or less borderlessly; therefore, as an additional platform from which people may act out certain (and no less important) aspects of their lives, it offers tantalising prescience of a borderless world.

The online game Second Life represents the most fully realised manifestation of the internet as an ulterior universe. An immersive, three-dimensional virtual world, or metaverse, Second Life incorporates real financial transactions, including a virtual currency that trades for a bit less than half a US cent. Users own property and conduct business, socialise, recreate, even pursue religious concerns. What's more, real-world organisations (including some governments) have established offices in the metaverse in order to engage users in an even more interactive manner than websites. Though philosophers and physicists have long supported the possibility of alternate realities or parallel universes, the transition from clunky and pixelated ‘virtual reality' games of the 1990s to ever more credible and intricate ulterior universes makes for interesting philosophical debate. So it was that an intriguing headline in the New York Times (online, of course) caught my attention in August 2007. Entitled ‘Our Lives, Controlled from Some Guy's Couch', the article discussed the hypothesis of Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom that our universe may itself be a computer simulation. He believes there is at least a one in five chance we are the product of a devoted gamer using the latest Apple MacBook to pursue a hobby in the library between classes, some time in the future. Putting aside the credibility of Bostrom's theory, it is difficult to doubt the possibility that (provided there is no environmental apocalypse) humans will before too long develop the technology to build a supercomputer capable of simulating a universe as intricate as our own.

 

STANDING ON MOUNT Cougal, looking over the rugged remains of a volcano millions of years old, I forget all these things pretty quickly. The border fence gives out exhaustedly amidst a cluster of giant spear lilies, their large red flowers blazing in bright spring sunshine, a hundred or so metres down the path from the summit. Though television-transmitting towers top the hills to the east, planes fly noisily in and out of Coolangatta, and I am almost always within sight of circulating satellites, the simple fact of my being in and experiencing this place – a region in which my personal story is ecologically embedded – trumps all other concerns, even if only temporarily. As I stare down a cliff face a few hundred metres high (in some parts, bare grey rock; in others, festooned with wind-shaped plants) and down at the thick canopy of manifold greens below, down into a self-losing, oblivious and tangled complexity of rainforest, the fact of the interstate border in that moment counts for nought. Gary Snyder wrote that ‘the world is places': it consists of experiences of being there. The impacts of borders in our lives are a part of these experiences. Snyder's point rings true for me: no matter where I am, the place I am from and the one I am in ultimately determine who I am.

 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review