Outback books- “Sacred Site” and “Left for Dead”

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Sacred Site by Chris Matthews (Peregal: 1993)

Left for Dead: How I survived 71 days lost in the outback by Ricky Megee with Greg McLean (Allen & Unwin 2007)

“Sacred Site: the story of Australia’s spiritual awakening” is rough and tumble satire. It’s full of scatological puns and double entendres so basic that they’re really single entendres. Only those with a sense of humour no higher than the puerile level of “Viz” magazine would do so much as titter. I, of course, was rolling around on the floor laughing my ass off.
Matthews is relentless in mining his fictional place names for chuckles – Buggarree, Uppaninya, Cunnalinga, and, a site for a potential uranium mine, “Awanka” (so that the Greenies are all shouting “Save Awanka”- geddit?). He generously extends this naming policy to characters. For example, the object of the protagonist’s “affections” is a buxom journalist called … Fiona Titley.
Does this all make a hydrogen bomb look like a rapier thrust? Yes. Is everyone in the book either venal or incompetent? Yes. Does the white male perspective dominate? Yes. This is satire, not socialist realism. And I loved it.

“Left for Dead” could not be much more different. Straight from the Readers’ Digest “incredible tales of survival” genre, this book tells the story of Rick Megee. Who he? Well, I’ll let the blurb do the talking.

In April 2006 the news broke of an amazing feat of survival by a white man in one of the most inhospitable areas of Australia. Ricky Megee was found sheltering by a dam on a remote cattle property in the Northern Territory. After being abducted on the Buntine Highway and left for dead, Ricky had walked for ten days in bare feet through unforgiving terrain in blistering heat. Stumbling upon a dam, he set up camp there and survived for almost three months on leeches, grasshoppers, frogs and plants, losing 60 kilograms in the process.

Written with a journalist who became a friend, the book gives a brief summary of Megee’s life (classic broken home, fractured schooling, dizzying array of jobs and fortunes made and lost). By his own admission he had walked some legally grey areas –

One day in the late 1990s one of the feds pulled me aside in a suburban McDonald’s carpark, and gave me the option of coming to work for them to infiltrate some of the organisations I worked for, otherwise I would end up dead or in jail. I chose Option D, which was to go straight home and pack my bags. I knew it was time to leave town quietly, and without question.
Page 17

After this he ends up in jail in a different city, and then in hospital after a 7 metre fall onto rocks. He had, by his telling, turned his life around when, on the way to a good job in the country, he was drugged by a hitchhiker he had picked up, and abandoned in the desert.

Finally he makes it to a dam, and for a while things are as OK as you could expect them to be. But, he comes to realise he is too big a strain on the resources at hand –

My energy levels were depleting and so were my food sources. When I first arrived I could catch six to eight big frogs a day without too much trouble. But by about my third week at the dam, could manage two or three smaller ones. And it took a lot more time and effort for this petty harvest.
I thought I must have eaten all the parents and was quickly gobbling up all the baby froggies. In the hope of getting their numbers up, I gave the frogs a rest for a while. I stuck to grass hoppers and my bush tucker vegetarian diet.
Unfortunately, the leeches also appeared to have left the building.
Page 158

The trouble for the book – and for books of this genre generally – is the huge gap between what is being reported – thirst, starvation, pain, anguish – and the comfortable conditions the tale is being read in. And after a while, you run out of interesting ways to talk about thirst, starvation, pain and anguish. Megee (who sounds as tough as nails – the tooth-pulling scene is virtually unreadable) and McLean mostly get away with this, and the post-rescue travails are interesting too. He is mostly not believed by the police, and it was when I read correspondence from a white woman with a lot of experience in the Outback, in a recent “Quarterly Essay” that I really understood why:

The last group of whitefellas I have observed are what I call the ferals. Remote communities attract white no-hopers, usually men, but some women, who would not get a job anywhere else. Some of them ingratiate themselves with the community and because of their better understanding of English and Western ways, they develop a power base in the community. They pick up jobs because they are prepared to live in rough conditions. Paul Toohey, in his book The Killer Within, describes this breed of men who roam the outback: “They are tattoed, white, like to appear as if they work and indeed, take on the appearance of working men but may only very occasionally lift a spanner or sledgehammer… They usually rely on sickness benefits. They get themselves pensioned off in their forties, with some concocted or grossly exaggerated illness… They occupy little outposts in small outback towns. They are the associates of outlaw gangs and provide resting points for colleagues moving amphetamines and cannabis around the ever-enthusiastic drug-fuelled nation.” The permit system fails to keep them out and they are often the conduit for alcohol into dry communities.
Julie James Bailey Correspondence Quarterly Essay 31

For the sake of clarity – I am not saying Rick Megee was a “feral”, or that he was doing anything illegal that led him to be ambushed. I am saying that I can see why the police, given his background, would assume that he was a “feral.”

Both these books were interesting reads, and achieved what they set out to do. ’nuff said.

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