I’ve been gone nearly as long as I lived there. Like the cliché, I left as soon as I could, at 17, heading south for university. I only applied for degrees that would put at least a day’s drive between me and the place I grew up. Fifteen years on, it’s only curiosity or the odd wedding that can lure me. It’s been two years between drinks, this time.
I was feeling dislocated from life. I wanted to run. God knows it would have been cheaper to fly to Singapore or Indonesia or New Zealand but I wanted to go somewhere that felt small and familiar.
On Wednesday, I rang the only friend who still lives there that I am in regular contact with.
“Can I come and stay?”
I was on a plane Friday morning, travelling back. Back north. Back there.
It wasn’t a bad place to grow up. It was just … small. Isolated. Brisbane is an eight hour drive south. Townsville is ten hours north. Nothing bigger or more exciting interrupts the drive, except the odd place to stop for a pie with mushy peas.
In the small plane, in the cloudless, electric blue Queensland sky, I fly along the coastline. Civilisation thins at the Sunshine Coast and then it’s just cobalt sea and brown land. Even though it’s only 9am, I’m getting sunburned through the aeroplane window. I press my nose to the glass as we approach. Central Queensland was in drought for all of my remembered childhood. To see it cast in tones of green makes this view completely unrecognisable. Long brown rivers that were dry twenty years ago now snake through expanses of green. This isn’t the patchwork of neat paddocks of different crops and livestock of the south. This is grazing land, all of it. It is so utterly flat but for an enormous mountain range that rears suddenly from the landscape, with a town of straight, wide streets built at its feet. This is Rockhampton.
Rockhampton is like the Truman Show, insulated from the outside world not just by incredible distance but by its own shell. This shell is a shimmering mirage of heat that traps the population. Upon landing, I immediately become a source of water, sweat springing and trickling from every pore. I stay coated in this glistening dampness for my entire visit. The airport suggests I might like to spend my time here visiting a crocodile farm or the bullring.
All my teenage insecurities come flooding back when I come here. In this way, I travel back in time. I wasn’t good at sport, I tried really hard at school, and did band and choir and musicals and debating. At least I didn’t panic and get a fake tan before this visit. Ahead of my last visit I did, and my sweat carved white rivulets through my orange topcoat.
Rockhampton is a regional centre for industries that thrive on remoteness: cattle and mining mainly. There’s huge support for the Adani coal mine here: locals are desperate to find a way back to the excesses of the resource boom, desperate to stop the good times disappearing, clinging to the sweet nothings promised by what would be one of the world’s largest coal mines. If you try to bring up the environmental impact on the nearby Great Barrier Reef, or that the Chinese economy is no longer a rapacious consumer of our raw materials, or even that investment in renewables is a more sustainable project, you’ll be told you don’t understand what it’s like in the real world.
Anti-abortion and One Nation billboards line the roads. The locally-produced, Murdoch-owned newspaper skews popularist and the only other paper available around here is the Murdoch state publication, which adopts a fiercely anti-intellectual tone. Nothing progressive permeates the Truman heat dome, resulting in a parochial and suspicious mindset. You can’t go into a newsagent and buy any paper that would use the words ‘feminism’, ‘indigenous affairs’, or ‘climate change’ without massive doses of scepticism, derision and condescension. They think Rockhampton is the real world. Whenever I visit, I am stunned by how completely different it is. My views find few allies here.
The friend I’m staying with has a heart of gold and a nonchalance about everything, which I find incredibly comforting. He’s one of those characters that could exist in any small town drama who, without fuss, can quietly see the truth about any situation. He’s been a meatworker since we left school and has been saying that he’ll move to Brisbane next year for just as long.
Everybody likes him, which means while I’m with him I can be assured of running into an excellent representative sample of the local population, resulting in conversations that have my friend shooting me tense glances and me clenching my teeth and taking deep breaths.
Here is a list of things that I try to carefully, but unsuccessfully, persuade my conversational partners of:
- That gender and sex are different and why genitals are not relevant to gender (the Courier Mail’s front page that day was having a “political correctness gone mad” implosion over Queensland removing gender from licenses).
- That Australia Day is a fraught and traumatic concept (mainly, the divide was over whether or not to boycott Triple J’s Hottest 100 due to their capitulation to lefty pressure).
- That Indigenous Australian culture is far from primitive.
- That the commodification and exploitation of women’s bodies in Southeast Asia is a really serious issue, therefore calling out “how much?” to your Asian neighbour is not funny.
- That referring to anyone that isn’t white as “they” reveals subconscious – if not overt – racism and discrimination.
- That a circulating Snapchat video of a disabled person is exploitative and dehumanising.
What the hell is this place? How can a group of white men sitting around a table defend their constant incidental use of sexist and racist language?
I ask how people voted in the postal survey on same sex marriage. And everyone, bar one guy who had never enrolled to vote so didn’t receive forms, shrugs and says it doesn’t bother them. They wanted people to have the same rights (this electorate had voted for changes to the Marriage Act by a small margin). I proffer that it was great they could recognise legal barriers to equality, but what about social barriers evidenced by the fact that most gay people I knew from Rocky had only come out after moving far, far away.
“But paying people out is a sign of acceptance,” is the reply.
I plan short trips to Rockhampton, partly because I cannot endure the heat for more than a few days but mostly because I always feel great sadness here, amongst those who stayed. The future seems to stretch out as flatly as the landscape. Staying in a town like this you’ll always see the same faces in the same bars. The passing of years are marked by the same sporting events amongst the same teams, by weekends spent piggin’, huntin’ and fishin’. Everyone says how boring it is. But to leave? That would be rejecting comfort and certainty. Many have left, of course. And I can’t work out a common privilege or characteristic amongst this diaspora. Perhaps a desire to be a part of a bigger world? A comfort with being a small fish in a less predictable pond?
I don’t fit in here. The insecurity of my teenage years was born from trying to contort myself into a mundane ideal, reacting to omnipresent social pressure. Now when I come back, having lived away from that pressure to be less intellectual, less argumentative, less independent, my time in my home town is teeth-grindingly, eye-rollingly, tongue-bitingly dislocating. It’s like playing a video game as a different player: the physical space is so familiar but my new certainty of self makes me being here in this place feel radically different.
I don’t know where the real world is: if it sits beneath that hood of heat that surrounds Rockhampton, or in the messier cities I feel more at home in. But when politicians utter their inane soundbites, or distance themselves from progressive politics, I know who they’re thinking of. I hope places like this are the last bastions of patriarchal certainty and white confidence: surely truth and cosmopolitanism and human rights can permeate even the most remote locations? But much of Australia’s politics seem to be made for this audience. Maybe to know the future is to know Rockhampton’s version of reality.
On Saturday night we go to Rockhampton’s second-nicest bar. One of the guys exposes his penis to me. Everyone laughs. “Hashtag me too,” I mumble, darkly. No one gets it. It’s time for me to go home.
Naomi Barnbaum is a Canberra-based public servant, having fled more humid climes in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Relations (First Class Honours) from the University of Queensland. Naomi’s writing has appeared in Feminartsy, and she musters her musings on www.naomibarnbaum.com. Outside of writing, Naomi loves dogs, books, music (both as performer and spectator), and truly terrible television.