Spinifex Baby’, a book not to be left off your reading list. Having not known a lot about the Simpson Desert, other than the fact that it is full of sand and heat, I wondered what would draw anyone to want to move to such a remote and hostile place to live.
To understand the ‘why’, I had to first understand the writer. Karen Harrland writes exceedingly well and being an environmentalist, (something close to my own heart) has an understanding of life in this place, far exceeding the average person, including me.
Karen and her partner Al Dermer, are two most dedicated people with such desire to care for, assist and promote the life of the land and creatures of the environmental reserve which was once Ethabuka Station, set out in the middle of the Simpson Desert in outback Queensland.
I can only imagine their arrival at the little house at Ethabuka (which I would have termed a shack); in the middle of nowhere, covered in that red dust inside and out, which the Simpson is known for. Having come from the lush green island of beauty, Tasmania, it would have taken some getting used to, particularly when the red dust gets into everything, including the pockets in your clothing.
Karen describes often, the beauty of the desert, the creatures there which have lived for thousands of years yet are so endangered, and the animals introduced by man which have destroyed so much of this unique part of Australia, in only about 200 years.
Herding camels and cattle to remove them from the property in order to allow the native flora and fauna to regenerate and build in numbers must have been such a frustrating and ongoing chore. Mend a fence one day, then return the next to fix it up again…in the searing heat, is no dream occupation for anyone; frustrating and annoying, and expensive in the long run.
Trying to make vegetables grow in the hot sand, must have been so challenging and defeating both at the same time. Being a gardener, and wanting to have fresh vegetables could have easily turned Karen into a teary mess when they’d germinate and then either die off or have some dastardly animal eat then off at ground level. How depressing. And how difficult to not have fresh vegetables every day, when they only got to the markets once every couple of months or so.
However, to unexpectedly find herself pregnant, then not, then yes she was, then no she’s not, then hello, yes she really is, must have been one of the most frustrating and upsetting weeks for both Karen and Al. It was totally unplanned and suddenly put a completely different perspective on the plans they had intended on carrying out on behalf of the nature reserve of Ethabuka. But nothing could have ever prepared them for the terrible condition of morning sickness which took such an enormous toll on them both. I just can’t imagine being in their position out there with no support whatsoever.
It wasn’t just weeks Karen was ill, it was months. The weight of the workload then fell on Al’s shoulders and that made Karen feel even worse. Theirs was a partnership position as managers of this property and she felt many times, she was letting Al down, particularly as it had been her idea to take on this position in the first place.
Then when time was near for the impending arrival they had to leave the property for a full 3 months and go back to Tasmania and await the arrival of bub. However, life doesn’t always go to plan as we all know, and this was no different for Karen and Al. They went back to the Simpson to continue on where they’d left off their lives before the arrival of the baby. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing either.
Karen suffered the insidious condition of post natal depression, one I can seriously relate to. Poor Al; he really didn’t seem to understand it, and neither did Karen. It changed her in so many ways and affected their relationship to the hilt, but I must take my hat off to them both for hanging in there.
With occasional visitors and life having to carry on, and the cooler weather arriving, Karen slowly began feeling better and life could start to pick up pace a little better for both herself and Al.
Rains would bring an immense change in the landscape and where once there was nothing but dry clay pans, suddenly there was water, and wildfowl, and creatures either arriving for the water or to breed, or spring from their dormant state in the dry mud, into life and take as much of life as they could until the harsh sun dried it all back up again, and those little creatures would then go away or back to dormancy in the mud until the next rains, which may not arrive for several years.
Karen paints a beautiful picture with words, of the landscape, the life and the colours of the Simpson Desert, and she calls a spade a spade. The many adventures, misadventures and really special moments she and Al shared in their time on Ethabuka, are explained and woven so eloquently into this book that the reader is left only with an imagining of what it would all be like in such an isolated and climatically hostile place.
Karen and Al are extraordinary and special people to have such a passion for the environment they would even consider moving to such a place, but from my point of view, I am so glad Karen put their adventure into words because without them, I would be all the less rich in knowledge of how life in a desert really is.
I do hope she writes more books of the life experiences she has in remote places, because many of us will never get that opportunity to do the things she and Al and their children get to do, see and experience in outback Australia.
And congratulations to Karen on winning the 2014 Finch Memoir Prize for this most worthy book. Thank you so a seriously enjoyable read.