Saturday, August 25, 2007

The joy of maps

I am a map-nerd. But please don’t get carried away with my admission. The male nerd gamut – sport, cars, computers, trains, sci-fi, DIY etc – otherwise leaves me cold. So the torque of a passing locomotive exactly matches that of your home-made coffee-table, crossed with a Holden alternator, and multiplied by Bradman’s batting average? Get. Me. Out. Of. Here.

Map-nerdery is a better sort of nerdery than any of the others, IMO. It is definitely useful when travelling – who needs Lonely Planet’s track-beaten and overweight guidebooks (yet another 70s’ boomer relic overstaying its welcome), when a single thin map contains most of what you need to know? I love a good contour and gradient – otherwise known as a view. Urban high ground is, surprisingly enough, generally more expensive. Where you have a tantalising choice of routes, the most indirect one will usually be the most scenic – but if in doubt, always follow a ridge.

The map-nerd’s holy grail is not, however, some distant and exotic place. One only ever goes, physically or in an armchair sense, somewhere that’s been mapped, remember – and that’s pretty much everywhere. Rather, the joy of maps is in discovering something one had previously overlooked in one’s own backyard.

I have made two such discoveries in recent months, although neither through actual map-gleaning. Both came from the writings of Nicolas Rothwell, who seems to be a specialist in finding improbable and numinous corners of Australia, and in telling the compelling human stories of these corners. As a map-nerd, I am naturally primarily interested in the geographic angle, so I should stress that Rothwell is not himself also an apparent map-nerd, but rather a people-nerd – if not a nerd’s nerd (which is a high compliment).

Here’s Rothwell in yesterday’s Oz, writing an extended obituary (aka prose elegy?) for rock-art ratbag Grahame Walsh:

His last wish was to visit tiny, distant Browse Island, in the Indian Ocean, about 200km from the Kimberley coast: the island of mortality in the Wandjina tradition, the place to which the soul flees on death, only to be shocked by the cold water and cast back to land as a rock painting. A helicopter conveyed him there and he duly found it rich in ancient stone arrangements”.

Sure enough, my Reader’s Digest Complete Atlas of Australia (1968) records Browse Island, due north of Derby, and about half-way between Derby (and Broome) and the Indonesian island of Roti.

Browse Island’s geographic significance is probably something only a map-nerd would get, so bear with me. Other than Ashmore Reef and neighbouring Cartier Island, which are part of Indonesia in all senses but legal sovereignty, Browse Island is the only stepping zone, or interim land, between the closely-settled parts of Indonesia (which come nearest to Australia at Roti) and the Australian (Kimberley) mainland, including for present purposes, the large number of islands just off the Kimberley coast. Browse Island is appropriately enough a transit-stop for the dead – it uniquely has a geographic foot in both Asia and Australia, and despite or because of this, it is little-visited, or even known (if a middle-aged map-nerd has never heard of it, that’s obscure).

The other striking place Rothwell has recently written up is what my Complete Atlas of Australia records as Ryan Buttes, in the east Gibson Desert, 700 km due west of Alice Springs:

Deep in* the Hickey Hills, a plateau of dune and mesa north-east of the Gibson Desert Nature Reserve, a pair of ridges twist round to create an enclosed valley system, bisected by a deep trap-rock channel”.

- Another Country (2007) Black Inc p 272

Wow – a painted desert, a la the US-southwest, combined with some improbable kind of gorge. Map-nerds can gorge on gorges – but that’s nothing compared to finding out that Australia has it own mesa and buttes landscape.

Rothwell goes on to describe a location apparently in the vicinity of Ryan Buttes and Hickey Hills as a “kind of terminus for the Western Desert’s most potent ancestral tracks” and a “Grand Central of the sand-dunes”. (Another Country p 280)

All aboard the night-train! (Some things transcend maps, even for a map-nerd, once you're in the general area.)

* "Deep in" is a poetic, but most un-map-nerdy, phrase (unless you're literally referring to going underground). The expression one would use after perusing the Reader’s Digest Complete Atlas of Australia (1968) is that Ryan Buttes are "just north of" the Hickey Hills.

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