Selected for The Best Australian Essays 2015
I THOUGHT BATAVIA was the story I was carrying on my trip to the Abrolhos in the first weeks of spring. You know the one – the Dutch East India Company ship that ran aground there in 1629, delivering 316 people to a cluster of tiny islands in the northern part of the archipelago where some endured a murderously mutinous attack at the hands of their fellow travellers. Only 116 arrived safely in the Spice Islands, half a year later.
I thought it was that ship, that story, those people who underscored how I approached this place, the way I saw it and what I experienced. It took me some time to fathom the truth.
Perhaps it’s a writer’s worst habit, carrying narratives around to fit to new places, or having unexpected ones rear up in places that should be fresh and free of all associations. Their eyes always open for a scene, a sentence, a moment to steal for a story they don’t yet know they’ll tell. I’m with Hilary Mantel when she says: ‘Insights don’t usually arrive at my desk, but go into notebooks when I’m on the move. Or half-asleep.’
Which probably makes me awful to travel with – or sleep with.
IT DISAPPEARED SO quickly, the enormous heft of Australia. It was spring and, in the striped blue thickness of the Indian Ocean below our tiny plane, whales surfaced and frolicked – a spray of water, a raised flipper, the giant splash of a breach. The occasional vessel appeared: trawler, cruiser, carrier. There was so much space around each that the chance of any one intersecting with another seemed impossible. The chance of intersecting with anything seemed remote.
Yet more than ninety boats’ lookouts are known to have failed at their post in this place, leading their vessels to run afoul. Below the plane, we saw the boiler of a recent wreck (the Windsor, 1908), the remnants of the Zeewijk (1727), below which was, perhaps, the Agtekerke, lost two years earlier in 1725 but only – possibly – revealed in 2012. For almost four hundred years, for all anyone knew, the Agtekerke could have fallen off the face of the earth.
It’s an A to Z of submarine detritus, drawn to – and destroyed by – the Abrolhos Islands, this exquisite scatter of reefs, shoals, shallows and 170-odd ‘islands, islets and above-water rocks’ that covers eight hundred square kilometres of space about seventy kilometres off Australia’s western shore. This spotty archipelago, a smattering of limestone and coralline punctuation spread across a wide, wet canvas.
You do not just happen across the Abrolhos. There’s a small seasonal crayfishing industry and some aquaculture operations, mainly pearl farms: the oysters here can produce a pearl the colour of an indigo dusk. But there are no public jetties and no marinas – only private access ways and a handful of public moorings. There are three airstrips and one local helicopter company has the right to land anywhere it can set a chopper down.
If you do get there, you’re not supposed to stay: there’s nowhere to book a room; nowhere to camp. The chance of sleeping over comes by working with the fishermen or pearlers and bunking in one of their huts – or by being invited to stay, as we were, in the Department of Fisheries’ dormitories on Rat Island, in the middle cluster of these outcrops, the Easter Group.
And so we came, a handful of visiting writers – offered the chance to be somewhere, see somewhere, as writers sometimes are – and we stared across the shape of this small piece of land, its vast blue sky busy with the sounds and swoops of birds.
More than two million birds breed throughout these islands: terns and noddies (including the only Australian breeding population of Australian lesser noddies, Anous tenuirostris melanops) and gulls. There are populations of Larus pacificus here, the heavier, more cartoonish gull that lived around Sydney until it was out-competed by that smaller, harsher-voiced kelp gull with its red beak and beady eyes. There was the possibility of sea lions too – the Abrolhos is the northern limit of the breeding population of Neophoca cinerea, and one was known to come and play.
Beneath the sounds of the birds lay the strange wuthering the wind makes where there’s not much for it to play against – sounds a usually busy mind could easily spin into something like a noisy road on a wet day. A thing so far from real: the island was deserted but for us and our stomping, two out-of-season crayfishers working on their hut, and what remained of Giuseppe Benvenuto, who drowned in 1929 when his boat went down nearby. The view beyond the headstone of his neat and obvious grave gave way to limitless west.
There was something compelling about the water beyond that grave. Close by, where it turned against the sandy shore, it sometimes rested – completely still, like a millpond – for the better part of a minute, even more. There was not the slightest ripple or wave, and then, like a breath, some pulse would return; a small fold, another and another. There was no discernible pattern to this, no logic, and far out against the western horizon the high white walls of breakers rose up and shattered against the raised ocean floor. Too far to hear their noise; too far to gauge their size or weight or power. They were a suggestion, or a threat, perhaps, like a misplaced loop of film disrupting an otherwise serene line.
Those waves evoked the phrase long-ago sailors used when they left charted waters: they spoke of ‘sailing out of the world’. Out there was the far shore that closes The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – the far shore that opens Twelfth Night. Out there were lost stories and undiscovered lands.
The clouds took on rose-gold and apricot as the sun began to set and the light went down. Out at the edge of the world.
I’M AN UTTERLY east coast creature: I grew up with my feet in the Pacific Ocean and a clear stretch between me and Chile – had I been able to see that far. All my life, the sun has risen out of the ocean, illuminating a coast spotted with the colonial busyness of familiar British names: Cook and Banks, Bass and Flinders.
On the west coast, where the sun falls into the sea, the names are more exotic and the narrative of colonial exploration is at least a hundred and fifty years older. Dirk Hartog nailed his silver plate to a tree in 1616. Willem de Vlamingh, more than seventy years later, coasted from Rottnest Island up to Hartog’s landing site near Shark Bay, replacing the original plaque. In between came Frederick de Houtman, charting the constellations of the southern sky along the Dutch East India Company’s route between Europe in the north and the Spice Islands – as Indonesia was known – in the south.
In the days before the reliability of longitude, the smart navigational money was on tracking east from South Africa until the coast of New Holland – or Australia – appeared. Turn left at the place now called Kalbarri, the thinking went, and you could track north-west to Batavia (Jakarta).
But Frederick de Houtman found a suite of reefs between his vessel and the sea cliffs of Kalbarri in July 1619. He named them for a common seafaring phrase – abri voll olos: ‘keep your eyes open’. Hoping no one else would stumble on them as he had.
But here came Batavia, in the early hours of 4 June 1629.
I thought I saw the sea breaking on some shallows, said the ship’s lookout.
I thought you saw the moonlight on the water, said her skipper.
And the ship ran aground, her hull gouged.
Of the 316 people aboard, forty drowned. The rest made it to shore – even the panicky second-in-command, Jeronimus Cornelisz, who spent the last twenty-four hours of the ship’s life clinging to the bowsprit because he couldn’t swim. You know what happened next. There are novels and non-fiction books; there are operas; there are films.
The ship’s skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz, and its commandant or ‘upper merchant’, Francisco Pelsaert, slunk off under the cover of darkness with a subset of crew and passengers and the two small extant boats, first to search for water and then, failing that, to attempt the three thousand kilometre open-water sail to Indonesia to effect a rescue. In their absence – deemed treacherous by the abandoned survivors – command devolved onto that unstable apothecary, the ‘under merchant’ Cornelisz, a man who’d been planning mutiny well before the reefs of the Abrolhos appeared. He began separating the remaining passengers and crew; he began ordering them killed – more than a hundred of them were, and the skeletons of some were found, centuries later, in shallow graves. When Pelsaert returned – having been unable to find the islands for a month, thanks to the dubious calculations of latitude and longitude taken by his now imprisoned skipper – Cornelisz was tried. He had one of his hands amputated – some reports say two – before he was hung alongside several other mutineers.
It’s a grisly tale, told and retold. Its first incarnation as a book was published in 1647 and became an immediate bestseller. But the recitative of its horror notwithstanding, perhaps some fates are worse. The abecedary of known shipwrecks encapsulates many hundreds of lives cut short – but what of the unknown lost, those ships whose fates aren’t known? As Simon Leys calculated in his own elegant essay on Batavia, of the ships that sailed to the East Indies, one in fifty never arrived. On the return voyage, the odds dipped to one in twenty. ‘Most of the lost ships,’ he wrote, ‘disappeared without a trace.’
‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ as the famous Joan Didion quote goes, and perhaps it’s our stories that keep us alive when we’re gone – a stab at immortality. But if a story cannot be told – if its last teller disappears beneath the last wave with the crumbling bowsprit – then the shape of its narrative is necessarily upended, incomplete. Who knows what has happened or where? Someone has to survive; the longboat or the yawl has to make it back. Otherwise the story sinks, forgotten, into the ocean.
ON THE ABROLHOS the moon rose out of the sea as bright and as orange as the sun. It was two fingers above the horizon by the time I reached the foreshore, swung up so fast and already apparently diminishing. Someone knew the trick of holding your thumb against its disc to undo the illusion that it rises large and begins to shrink, and we sat there, measuring the moon and measuring our misperceptions.
This demonstrable difference between how we see things and how they are was irresistible. We joked about it. We joked about the creepiness of this empty island with its empty huts. We joked about the ghosts we didn’t want to see – the worst of them just over there, twenty-seven kilometres to the north, where Batavia went down. We talked, we told each other stories. We turned ourselves towards sleep.
We know that we sleep differently to our ancestors (they often slept in two blocks a night, waking in between to eat, pray, love – even to burgle, brew beer, or pop out to see a neighbour). We know, too, that different cultures still sleep differently to each other today (from the famous southern European siesta to various African tribes where no one is ever told to sleep and where the boundaries between waking and sleeping are described as ‘very fluid’). So can different landscapes generate different experiences of sleeping? Can different landscapes generate different dreams?
Twice I skidded out of somnolence, jolting awake with a shock, like a step taken with no ground suddenly beneath it. The second time, I know I cried out too. The night was ringingly quiet and the sleep that finally arrived was tessellated so that I seemed only to dream that I was awake when I knew I must have been dreaming and woke as exhausted as if I’d never closed my eyes.
I did dream of Francisco Pelsaert’s mother, dispossessed and punished via the decision that her son was partly culpable for the mess of Batavia because he had left his ship and sailed for rescue. I dreamed of walking into a depth of water that suddenly levelled out, shallow and only chest-deep – and I dreamed of walking across to Australia’s mainland through this flat and silvery rime. Batavia was reckoned to have a top speed of about four-and-a-half kilometres per hour; I could walk faster than that and reach Geraldton in ten hours, top speed.
And then I slept, deep, dreamless, as if I’d disappeared from my own imagination.
I woke, though, with the unsettling thought of Cornelisz’s amputated hands. Lying on my front, my left hand was gripping at the fingers of my right while the full weight of my body pressed onto both; they’d been numbed and dulled of all sensation. I managed not to cry out again – my roommate was still asleep.
Through the window the morning was the blank silver of the time before sunrise when the world hasn’t yet found its colour, and the gulls rose silently to hover on thermal streams, as if to regain their wings after a quiet night on the ground.
I shook the feeling back into my hands and sent the power-mad apothecary away. The sun shone a straight line across the water to the end of one of the jetties, just as the moon had the night before, and the real world seemed far off.
‘I had such a wonderful sleep,’ said my roommate, smiling and stretching towards the beginning of her day.
Hours later, as our plane rose up from the airstrip and cleared the land’s friable edge, my phone clicked back into range and immediately started to ring. I sent an automatic message – ‘can’t talk now’ – wishing I could shout instead, over the engine’s roar. ‘You’ll never guess where I am; you’ll never guess at the beauty I’m seeing.’
Keep your eyes open; tell something from this place.
OF COURSE IT’S a compulsion, the need to convert time and space into stories. A bunch of writers on a speckle of island, a limestone platform undercut by the movement of water so that it hovered like a tree on its trunk: we couched it in terms of longing to be marooned in a place like this; the fear of being marooned in a place like this; whether or not we saw a snake, a lizard, or a seal; whether we could ever have enough of the exhilaration of a land’s edge.
Days later, my plane home east still seemed determined to collude with the primacy of that famous and brutal accident as the story that defined this part of the world. The map of its flight path indicated each state capital, plus Darwin – and ‘Batavia, 1629’, with a small dot for the site of the wreck, out there on the reefs.
But it hadn’t been Batavia and its souls who staked a claim on my imagination during my time offshore. What came to rest there were the truncated arcs of the 239 stories that seem to have disappeared entirely – further out, further down in the unplumbable depths of the Indian Ocean, beyond my millpond and its distant wall of waves. Not centuries ago, but on 8 March 2014, when MH370 disappeared off the face of the earth. Without the wreckage we expect from such impacts. Without the last-minute phone calls we expect from such moments. Without the careful lat/long pinpointing we expect from this century. Without an explanation to lament; without a fate.
This was the story that had found me, on the edge of those eyes-open islands at the edge of the world.
Further out, further west. Under the infinite vastness of all this blue.