Writing this back in the hills east of Perth but just reading or thinking the name evokes a huge expanse of white drifting out to a very blue, flat and big horizon, muddy chocolate at the pan edge and increasingly bleached towards that horizon as the footsteps to the statues decrease with distance equating to an increase in heat and glare.
The morning I travel out to Lake Ballard sunrise has already peeped through curtains and it is only 5am! Apparently sunrise is the best time to watch the light rise on Antony Gormley’s Insiders on the lake and have already missed that but hope to catch the long shadows and changing salty colour as the sun rises. Out in the lock up at the back of the Menzies Hotel where the car is parked a fellow pub dweller is perched in the cab of his van, smoking and reading a paper , waiting to leave for his day of road grading. A young lad, born in Sandstone…just up the road, only 250kms or so…. and he was here in Menzies when AG came in to town on one of his trips, in mid summer and ‘slapped on the back of the head by a bit of two b four’ by the heat…. Menzies may have been a bit of a slap on the head too.
What with breakfasts at the roadhouse, a little gem of a building clad with car number plates from all over the world and metal backed posters, a meeting with a local Aboriginal elder who gave permission for the project to proceed and an insight into the area’s dreaming story and then the creation of the Insiders it must have been a remarkable journey. And that remarkable journey continues, just by driving into Menzies and having breakfast at the Roadhouse..Chris, who runs the place with generosity and incredible patience, has a rogues gallery of photos of a stream of famous and infamous who have ventured through the place..and then heading out on the corrugations and dust of 51 kilometres to arrive at the lake shore and the 51 insiders who now dwell there.
Lake Ballard is a large, ephemeral ‘sump’ lake scattered with islands of varying sizes in deposits of salty sand, silt and kopai (an impure gypsum) situated in the Yilgarn basin underlain by very very old rocks at least 2.5 billion years old. The islands are that of a women’s dreaming, the Seven Sisters the stars in the sky (the Plaiedes??) who in this telling came across the lake and stopped here to play. The largest island, the one that greets those who walk onto the lake is the oldest of the sisters and this particular story of the dreaming is that when they came down to play a man chased the youngest one and they hid in seven rock holes at the lake’s edge, coming up through the lake where they became the islands there. The Seven Sisters must be very important in this area and I see the story in art in Laverton and Kalgoorlie and hear different versions though there is a thread that is common to all the stories.
I reach the lake shore with shadows still long and expecting to be there pretty much alone come across a little community of quiet beanied souls, sipping from thermal mugs having seen the moon set and sun rise. A great little camping spot and what a way to start any day. No mud and no wellies needed, it’s amazing what two weeks sun will do, and as I walk out onto the lake and follow the myriad of footprints, some crusting with salt lumping in little crystal domes and others the shape of boots and runners amongst a trail of real footprints, little and big and paw prints skittering in a pattern through the whole, the wind starts to blow and howl! A narrow, edge hugging mountain goat path leads to the summit where a stumpy tree clings to slipping rocks that tumble to scatter on the salt in an inky halo and brave little succulents hold tight in little pockets of earth. From the hill top the pan stretches around in all directions, the statues, tiny standing matchsticks linked by trails of footsteps swirling across the surface. Without wanting to quote chapter and verse…thanks to RoadHouse Chris and her book on AG..on the whole concept of the Insider, in essence an Insider is a core rather than a skeleton and is to the body what memory is to consciousness. In an attempt to allow them to endure with time they are made of a base element iron…’the earth has iron at its core and these are like the cool and revealed magnetic load cores of the body.’
They are beautiful, elegant and raw weathering steel and iron rusting in the elements, their sex and age evident in form and set in a pattern where no Insider ‘looks’ at another. The furthest is 7km out on the lake and I meet a soft spoken couple who walked those seven kms out on the salt to the last, a little girl reminding the man of a Tom Roberts painting of a child lost in the bush. Theirs were the only human footprints out this far and they crossed the prints of camel, goats and kangaroos crossing to who knows where.
And yes, there is more…beneath the surface of this expanse of salt are billions, nay trillions and probably whatever the multizillions equates to in numbers are briny shrimp, lying dormant and waiting, and there are very long waits, for some serious water to fall for shrimp eggs to hatch providing a gourmet feast for knowing birds. The birds in question are Banded Stilts, the flamingos of Australia, whose breeding habits were a bit of a mystery until 1995. Cyclone Bobby dropped 380mm of rain in the Goldfields and before the rain had stopped Banded Stilts had arrived from 1000kms away on the west coast and decided this was the place to be with shrimp feeds, shallow warm waters and islands to nest on. 5000 nests were scraped in the rocks and sand, the first eggs appeared within 12 days and within weeks 70,000 birds had set up camp on Lake Ballard. Babies hatched and collected into crèches, parents teaching the babes from very early on to feed on the shrimp…all this a very special event as in the 200 or so years of ‘settlement’ the nesting habits of the Banded stilt had only been recorded 20 times.
As well as birds landing some ‘lady pilots’ involved in a cross Australia flying event, The Powder Puff Derby…I kid you not… crash landed on the lake, in the late60s early 70s perhaps??, when they decided to follow the railway line and followed the Leonora line rather than heading south. They were rescued by a search crew and one of the hapless rail followers was the President of the NSW Flying Association who promptly resigned. A neighbour remembers the PPD which was a big deal at the time.
Back at the Roadhouse for a well earned bacon butty and Menzies is coming to life with a procession of vehicles fueling up. An ancient, rusting jalopy creaks in disgorging a trio of Aboriginals who make an art form out of squeezing a couple of dollars of fuel out of the pump drop by drop while having a long conversation with a gaunt, stubble chinned man I had met the previous night in the bar. Well ‘met’ perhaps not the right word as he had sat at the other side of a table where I munched fish and chips, swaying, clutching a beer bottle surrounded by bags of frozen meals from the previous three or four nights that he had ordered and forgotten to eat. He wanders in , still swaying, to greet Chris shuffling change onto the counter and swaying out again.
“A sheila travelling alone’…yes the next part of this story…says the bloke at the other pump and so comes the invitation to visit a gold mine, back out past Lake Ballard and another hour or so further up the track. Arrive at the mine camp, quiet and deserted, buildings shimmering in the heat while air conditioners buzz away and telephones ring unanswered. As I decide to leave a stocky, akubra wearing fellow strides down from a separate building hand waving and irritable. A tad miffed that Ray, of sheila fame, would offer this invitation to visit while he was heading in the opposite direction, courtesy demands of this perky 73 year old I should be offered at least a cuppa having travelled all this way. Very reluctant to say much and hearing the word geologist doesn’t help, however some shared experiences and a cuppa later and a chat with a couple of geos who have returned to camp Marie Celeste we load up into his truck and head off to discover the old workings and sites of Copperfield. Didn’t feel I could take the camera along as not really sure where we are going so it’s memory pictures rather than digital ones that record a fascinating couple of hours.
Rumour has it Copperfield was named for Dickens’ David Copperfield in the pack of a prospector in the area. A shrug and rolled eyeballs indicates John thinks perhaps not…the area has a heap of copper! Doh!! In the old townsite, still standing in collapsing metal panels and wild growing gardens, he shows me one house, the back of which is literally an old bus outside of the town confines and built by one of the miners who had married an Aboriginal woman. This in the times…not that far gone… when Aboriginals were excluded from town limits after curfew hours and considered part of the’ flora and fauna’ so although she participated in town life during the day her curfew required they lived outside of settlement limits. John shows me their garden still evident in the green peppercorn trees, clumps of succulents and lumps of quartz outlining now scrubby, red dirt beds. The house, like all those in the area, is collapsing, strewn with tumbleweed , bleached bones and dust that has blown in over the decades. We visit some old mine workings, an impressive steep sided hole in the ground bottomed with pea green water and a windmill site, now a pyramid of rusting metal lacking its revolving blades, cattle pens and the willow like pepper trees and I see the first group of chocolate brown, white blaze faced donkeys, fat and comfortable grazing on the rough stubbly pasture. A group of big red kangaroos rest and stand tall and strong under a broad spread acacia and as the 4pm deadline arrives and time for me to head back to Menzies we return to camp, stopping en route to talk with a lean bodied, shy eyed prospector returning to his camp after a day of scraping earth from one of his licences. He drives a big bulldozer towing a Landcruiser and will the following day return to his patch of earth.
Perhaps a foolhardy adventure to embark upon but am a great believer in going with hunches and first impressions and this seemed just an occasion to do that. Big, empty and impenetrable country for those who don’t know the way around and who knows in another time and place could have ended up another lost soul floundering about in a pea green lake, but not so this time. Back at camp and fortified by more tea and a plate of nibblies, John and I part company. He to catch up on the business of the two hours he has spent guiding me around yet another special pocket of the Goldfields and me to return on the corrugations to Menzies, a cold beer and hot shower, a giant plate of steak, salad and chips and a conversation with Rusty and his mate and the treasure map they give me to discover some rubbish dumps on the next part of the trip.