The following is an excerpt from the beginning of 'Drifting Down the Darling' by Tony Pritchard, and is subject to the same copyright protection as the book.
Little campfires, with flickering orange flames and red coals, allow you to stare and dream, and that’s why they were invented. You can even do small jobs like re-position the billy, but these will not break the trance, nor will you remember making these small movements. Just your mind and a little campfire. Little fires only allow good thoughts in; this is a fact. There is no way that you can feel bad. Your spirit will travel into the coals and absorb peace and tranquillity; no worry or anxiety will enter. Of course, spirits don’t ever burn; they can take any sort of pain and will remain unscathed. Watch out for your fingers, though. And when you take your leave, you will walk away a free man, or a free woman; although other options may present themselves later. Any hopes and dreams you have, any aspirations for reparation, for poetry, any words of love, they are yours forever once you depart a little fire. It’s also a good idea to pour water on your campfire once you’re done dreaming.
In 1976, I stared at many small campfires on my way down the Darling River. I drifted over a thousand miles down this old river in western New South Wales in a ten-foot, flat-bottomed boat. I had no motor, no oars, just a paddle to get me to shore. The trip took around eighteen months. I went fishing and birdwatching, I stopped at towns, did a bit of station work, met some of Australia’s finest people and all the while looked for adventure and answers to life’s question about where I belonged; if indeed I did belong somewhere.
At that time, being a confused twenty-four year-old, my attitude to life was based on denial and my accompanying mental state was a bubbling stew pot with the lid on; waiting. Not waiting to explode in a frenzy of angry meat and potatoes but to implode in a recognition of its real ingredients; a fear of facing up to life, suppressed emotions and a non-acceptance of all of the above, including myself.
When I was a teenager, my mum died, I stuffed my knee and couldn’t play football anymore, then my back disintegrated and I couldn’t do my trade. A mature reaction to these events was called for. So I ran away. Overseas travel gave me respite from the losses and developing loneliness, and I stumbled on something called depression. London almost gave me a place to belong, and I then lived on a kibbutz. I returned to my home town, Dubbo; and I did not belong. So I did the only thing I knew that would ease the self-imposed blame-others anguish; I ran away. This time down the Darling River.
I drifted through the Macquarie Marshes to join the Barwon River, which then becomes the great Darling River. I passed through Brewarrina with its amazing Aboriginal fisheries, through Henry Lawson’s Bourke, learned about life in Louth, met the living-forever people from Tilpa, led with my head in Wilcannia, then turned off below Menindee to go down the Great Anabranch. The trip was partly about love; something I feared. Marvellous what you find when you’re not looking. Then after a visit to Melbourne to see my girl, I spent most of 1978 living alone in an old farmhouse next to the Macquarie Marshes. Right at the end of that year some things came apart and some came together. I think these days a mental breakdown is referred to as a spiritual awakening or a learning experience, but never mind, I did find something I had been looking for; right under my nose.
The most exciting thing I do these days is decide if I can make it to the mailbox and back – in the one day. A lifetime of sleeping on riverbanks, drinking Pilsener and telling lies to myself has left me a little crumbly at the edges, and I consider getting out of bed each morning a major achievement. But back in 1976 I was the man. I was handsome, tough and brave; although some have indicated that I was ugly, soft, and that I tell lies. To prepare for eighteen months of sleeping rough, of dodging pigs, snakes and incoherent thoughts on the old river, I had excellent training. There was no strict diet, no daybreak rises followed by arduous army-type exercises, and certainly no abstinence from alcohol or naughty thoughts. No; I had survived growing up in Dubbo, in country New South Wales. If you’re not busy this weekend, go for a visit. Make sure you leave a note on the kitchen table so the authorities will know where to search for your body if you don’t make it home. In West Dubbo, my side of town (clearly the more upmarket area let me tell you); you can still get anything you want; surface to air, a choice of things to yearn for, or early edition Phantom comics. Great place West Dubbo; I miss it terribly.
I have tried to describe what this trip down the Darling meant. I am still trying to decipher the complexities of solitude, the reason I howl at a full moon and why reflection can be a dangerous pastime.
Had I known that being charged by wild pigs was a part of the search for belonging, I would have stayed in Dubbo and continued to drag my knuckles. Had I been aware that crying myself to sleep did not count as adventure, I would still be sitting in the bar at my favourite hotel, communicating in an endangered language that has been referred to as ‘white-trash with an accent’.
I have travelled to seventeen different countries, walked, hitched or crawled in nearly all Australian states and territories, and I still say the 1970s Darling River trip was the most exhilarating travel experience I have ever had. It was a mixture of the daily goings on that happened on the river and aspirations of a dreamer who did not know his place in the world. These aspirations were a combination of what is and what might be, sort of like faith I guess, and they both seeped into my whole body through each bend, each bird, and each bush character I met; until they became the making of me.