Sand swallowed up our every footstep as David and I approached the desert compound. The man shrouded in shade continued on his path towards us. I was anxious to see him in the light – curious about what he looked like and wanting to confirm he wasn’t carrying a weapon. Alas, an old man emerged from the shadows wearing sandals, shorts and a faded orange cutoff, which barely covered his protruding belly. His face was mostly hidden by wildly growing facial hair and the shade provided by a floppy camouflage hat. But, it was undoubtedly him, the humorously unkempt and thankfully unarmed local legend, Mr. Talc Alf.
David called out a greeting and explained our interest in looking at his art gallery. Alf looked us over for a moment, then nodded and told us to follow him. Underneath the roof made of things he clearly found, we discovered an intricate workspace. Though there were plenty of chisels, drills and other cutting devices, I felt quite certain he wasn’t going to use them on us. While clearly a bit off, the old hermit was surprisingly amiable and welcoming. Talc Alf didn’t seem the type to murder us, steal the car and dispose of our remains in a barrel of acid. He seemed more like the type that lives in a cave and confides his feelings in a volleyball.
Alf’s art was made from the soft white stone, Talc (big surprise, I know). His sculptures and etchings, admittedly, were very good. But, his theories and ramblings were even better. For the first thirty minutes, I listened intently to his explanations about written language, boomerangs and spaceships. After an hour, Alf transitioned into speaking about the beauty of life and reality of death in the outback. As his mind wandered aloud, my thoughts drifted back to something that happened the day before…
It was late afternoon and we were driving out of the mountains on a dirt road, just an hour before roads in the outback become hazardous. Back home in Texas, you have to watch the evening roads for deer. In South Australia, you have to avoid kangaroos, wombats and, especially, large wild camels. Small flocks of birds, however, won’t damage your vehicle, but aren’t a joy to barrel into either. Out of the blue, one smacked against David’s windshield and vanished into the dust behind the car. We pulled over and found a little zebra finch, like the ones from pet stores, lying dead in the road. David cupped the tiny bird in his hand and looked as if he had just run over a dozen sick orphans. We buried the finch in the red earth before heading to the pub where I met this cute bartender who —
“And that’s why if you put the letter ‘B’ on its back, it looks like a woman.” A voice interrupted. I snapped out of my daydream and noticed Talc Alf looking at me expectantly. Obliging his wisdom, I gave a gratuitous nod and made impressed noises. He seemed satisfied with this and continued. If it were a movie, Talc Alf would have been the rambling old man that nobody listened to because they thought he was crazy, but ended up being right about something that would save everyone. But, this wasn’t a movie and he was probably just crazy. David purchased a small carving and we thanked him for the hospitality.
Leaving Mr. Alf as we had found him, alone and scheming against the government, we left the compound and drove back to the highway.* Traveling south, we stopped at a coalfield overlook off the main road. It was quite a scene, just not a pretty one. There was an information board, a chain link fence and a hole in the ground the size of Manhattan. Here, man’s impact on the environment was undeniable and impressive in its own right. David stared at the open-pit coalmine for a long minute, before turning with an air of disgust.
In the first hundred or so years of Australia’s European occupation, the outback was notorious for taking human life. “Out on the wastes of the Never Never – that’s where the dead men lie!” Read the opening lines of a famous 19th century poem. So, I guess you could say the coalfield near Lyndhurst is just our way of evening the score.
Walking away from the gaping wasteland, we got into the car and headed back towards the National Park. The sun was setting on the golden horizon as we turned onto a familiar dirt road. Remembering the bird incident from the afternoon before, David said “I better go slower this time, I don’t know what would happen if I hit a kangaroo.”
Immediately following that statement – no exaggeration – a large Western Grey Kangaroo bounded in front of the car. David braked hard, but the animal crashed against the front bumper, flew up a little bit and tumbled to the side of the car. The vehicle skidded to a halt. David and I looked at each other with equal amounts of horror. In the side mirror, I saw the kangaroo flailing around in the dust, looking as if it might just lie down and die in an instant. I glanced back at David, who said, “We might have to kill it.”
I nodded and mentioned the large knife in my bag, which, up to this point, mostly served a vegetable-cutting purpose. As I searched for my knife, David stepped out of the car only to find that the kangaroo had vanished. After searching further, we saw no signs of it. “Maybe it was just a little shaken up.” I said, hoping to make David feel better. But we hit the animal going 70 kph and later found out it caused $2,000 in damages to the car. We both knew, in all likelihood, it limped out into the desert and died. As much as David and I wanted to think of ourselves as environmental stewards, we had just racked up another point for mankind.
It was a sad and upsetting way to conclude the day. But, as Talc Alf would say, it’s a part of life in the outback. You have to accept the good with the bad: the fun night at the pub with the headache the next morning, the unique art gallery with the hour-long explanation of the letter ‘B’ and the prosperous coal industry with the mile-wide eyesore. And at the end of the day, I had to be thankful for two things: the first was that we hit a kangaroo and not a camel. The second was that I was soaking in a nice warm shower and not a big barrel of acid. All possibilities considered, our day in the outback went pretty well.
*I’ve since found out that Talc Alf’s real name is Cornelius Johan Alferink. He was born in Holland in 1945 and he lives with his wife, who he married in 1974.
Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing