For a few years after arriving in Melbourne, a painful nostalgia, a feeling of terrible loss – loss of family, friends, community, and ‘Country’, as the Aboriginal people call it, would catch me unawares.
But, one night in 1999, Joan Sutherland sang at the Sydney Opera house, bidding farewell to her career. We sat listening to her in our lounge in the house we rented in Perth.
BHP had just cancelled a project I had been working on – the company brought me from South Africa to work in their synthetic fuels business. They decided that it was all in the ‘too hard basket’. It was a tough, emotional time for us all – having settled in Melbourne, put some roots down and bought a house.
I had to start over again with a company in Perth – where there was some interest in the synthetic fuels business. That evening, emotions were raw, and stress levels were high.
As the opera ended, the curtain went down, and the lights went out. When the curtain rose in the darkness, there in a black, sequin-encrusted gown of thousands of stars stood Joan Sutherland. The audience stood and shouted, whooped, cheered and stamped for a long, long time. We were spellbound – after a fantastic performance.
She stood there – as the ovation went on and on. She smiled and waved – her eyes were moist. Then the rest of the cast joined her on stage. The ovation slowly died down to a whisper, with a solitary clap here and there. Then came the evocative sound of a solo oboe!
Joan sang ‘Home sweet Home’;
‘Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there
Which seek thro’ the world, is ne’er met elsewhere
Sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home
There’s no place like home!
We wept with the audience in Sydney. But we wept for all those people and things left behind. Had that trek that our ancestors embarked on been in vain?
That night I believed not.
Wayne Dyer, the author of ‘Your Erroneous Zones’, said: ‘If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change’. That night, listening to Joan Sutherland was an epiphany for all our family. We had started the final leg of a very long journey, and we would call Australia ‘home’ in every sense of the word.
Our Afrikaner ancestors, wandering into the African interior, were very religious people looking for ‘home’. A place they could call their own. They believed that ‘home’ was what God would give them – a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’.
God’s promise to them was that to Moses, ‘And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey’.
Our ancestors settled in places that would become our ‘homeland’ – a ‘homeland’ like the US, where Theodore Roosevelt compellingly said, ‘Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage for your children and your (sic) children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, riches or romance’.
‘My Homeland’, composed by Czech composer Smetana, depicts the beautiful Bohemian countryside, history, and legends – evocative, nostalgic music – of a proud and culturally rich region of Europe – it could have been composed for me!
When I hear that music, I see my South African ‘homeland’ through the eyes of my youth – pristine, perfect and a ‘lucky country’. But I now see my second ‘homeland’ through the eyes of an old man as ‘a land of milk and honey’.
First Nation Aboriginal people add many more dimensions to the meaning of a ‘homeland’, or ‘Country’ when they talk of the land they lost in colonial times.
To them – they were one with ‘Country’. ‘Country’ is not just the physical environment, the rivers and creeks, rocks and stones, hills, mountains, and the sky. ‘Country’ includes all living creatures; people, plants, birds, animals and insects. It embraces seasons, the planets and stars and otherworldly bodies.
Woven into ‘Country’ are stories about their relationship to all else. It is a place of belonging and a way of believing. They often look puzzled when confronted with our understanding of our ‘homeland’. To them, ‘Country’ is a ‘person’ they sing to; worry about, long for and belong to!
‘The land is the mother, and we are of the land; we do not own the land; rather, the land owns us’, says. Dennis Foley, a Gai-mariagal and Wiradjuri man, ‘the land is our food, culture, spirit and identity’.
The enormity of our decision to leave South Africa only struck me when boarding a Qantas flight in Harare, Zimbabwe, in October 1987; tears streaming down my face as I remembered my mother’s brave attempt to ‘be positive’ at my farewell in Johannesburg.
Well-meaning friends farewelled me at Jan Smuts (Oliver Tambo) Airport with the meaningless ‘good’ advice to never look back – only forwards! Unfortunately, the rest of the family would only follow in December – I would miss them terribly.
The euphoria I had experienced since receiving news from the Australian embassy in Pretoria that Australia had accepted us as migrants to Australia had vanished and gave way to sadness and a sense of abandonment – and abandoning my ‘homeland’.
As the ‘Flying Kangaroo’ reached into the sky, heading east, I watched the long shadows creep over my beloved ‘homeland’, which I knew then that I would probably leave forever.
The ‘Flying Kangaroo’ pierced the interminable night until morning, cautiously crossing the jagged foaming white line separating land and sea. Finally, we approached the low line of hills that separated Perth from the rest of the Great Southern Land. We landed. I arrived – very depressed and anxious.
I was to board the flight to Melbourne in the evening – so I had time on my hands. I decided to leave the main airport building and wander across the carpark to a line of ragged Eucalypts interspersed with Grevilleas that separated the carpark from the main road out of the airport.
All I could hear above the cars leaving the carpark were the striking, jarring calls of a Magpie and the strident ‘cookay-co’ of a Wattlebird hanging on to a red flowering Grevilia. Then, a ‘mad’ Kookaburra started to laugh hideously from the branch of a Blue Gum nearby. My misery was profound – ‘what sort of a place is this, I asked myself – a bloody bird that sounds like a Hyena? To this day, the ‘cookay-co’ sound of the Wattlebird reminds me of trying to restart a running car!
That night I boarded the plane to Melbourne – it took several VB beers to dispel the sense of foreboding and the jet lag that had started to set in.
That was 35 years ago.
After that night in Perth, when Joan Sutherland sang ‘Home Sweet Home, a time came when I experienced joy and relief when coming home – and that home had become Australia. Then there would be joy when the ‘Flying Kangaroo’ crossed the jagged white foaming line that separated land and sea, approaching the low hills that separated Perth from the rest of ‘country’.
I no longer see an Australian landscape that is ugly, colourless, and formless. Instead, I see gentleness and subtle beauty in this geologically ancient land and the environment that has so successfully adapted to aeons of harsh, hot and unforgiving circumstances. I learned to love the strangely beautiful animals, the gorgeous birds and the rather malignant creepy crawlies – the snakes, spiders, and bull ants!
I see bits of what the Aboriginal people say. They say that everything should fit harmoniously, like a jigsaw puzzle. Everything has its place – the red earth and blue sky; the eucalypts, wattles, and the myriads of wildflowers; the magpies, wattlebirds, and kookaburras; the echidnas, kangaroos, wallabies – all seamlessly fitting together!
I have become aware that many early colonists pushed Britain for settlement, as they were astounded at the beauty of the place. One said. ‘The cheerless grey-green seen at a distance changed to the most vivid hues, mingled with brilliant flowers of every kind, in untold numbers. I roamed around this world of colour as if intoxicated’.
Something primitive within me understands what the Aboriginal people meant by their love of ‘Country. Was this love the same that the San people in South Africa had for that ‘Country’ – people who had lived there for tens of thousands of years?
In his book,’ The Biggest Estate on Earth’, Bill Gammage gives a compelling account of Australia before European settlement. He describes how colonial settlement altered the immense grasslands so that virtually no cultural memory remains of that ancient landscape. As a result, many are unaware of the extraordinary beauty of the land, with the diversity of plants, animals, flowers and colours and sounds – that existed before settlement.
Contrary to the myth that this was a barren and ugly land – the early settlers had the highest praise for this country. Accounts have it that the countryside was like a ‘gentleman’s park’ or ‘estate’. Large trees were carefully situated within immaculately kept grassland, providing sustenance and shelter to people and grazing animals.
As I write this, through my window, I can see the Wattlebird hanging from a Grevilia, trying its best to remain upright – I am waiting for the lovely ‘cookay-co!’ In some symbolic way – I believe that we as a family were led to this ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ – in a final trek – but it took a change of heart to see it that way.