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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review: Greater Nowheres

Greater Nowheres: A Journey Through the Australian Bush
By Dave Finkelstein and Jack London. Foreword by Philip Caputo. Harper & Row, 1988, 313 pp.

The challenge of traveling in the Australian bush is written in the names of its locations: “Skeleton Point,” “Disaster Bay,” “Foul Point,” “Disappointment Bight,” “Useless Loop,” “Point Torment.” Inhabited by lethal snakes and insects, afflicted by weatherly extremes, endowed with a landscape typically described as desolate, bleak, and stark, and so underpopulated that the unprepared traveler risks dying unaided, Australia’s vast Outback is not a destination for the frivolous tourist.

Undaunted by the challenge, Dave Finkelstein and Jack London, two “middle-aged dropouts”—the first a former lawyer and China specialist turned sometime journalist, the second a former college instructor turned fisherman—set out to tour the bush. Wangling free tickets from respectable magazines to write about Crocodylus porosus—the man-eating crocodile—and barramundi, the longtime friends had no major ambitions for the trip. They wanted an adventure, and, as “misfits” themselves, they thought that the Australian Outback, reputed to be a land of misfits, “sounded like our kind of place.”

In fact, the crocodiles and barramundi make only cameo appearances in Greater Nowheres. It is these misfits, eccentrics, and individuals who have gone their own way, who take center stage in the book. As the authors travel through deserts, mining ghost towns, stations, and ramshackle coastal towns, they chat with hotel owners, mechanics, drovers, kangaroo hunters, fishermen, town mayors, and a host of would-be entrepreneurs with cockamamie schemes. One of these dreamers is convinced that Marble Bar has great tourist potential because it’s the “hottest town in Australia,” boasting 160 consecutive days with temperatures over 100 degrees. Another has invested in Mt. Augustus, believing that the huge rock, “situated in one of the most remote and climatically inhospitable regions of Western Australia”—and nearly unreachable—will successfully compete with the popular Ayers Rock.

The authors, good-natured and very funny, have a talent for drawing people out, and the Australians prove to be a varied and fascinating lot. Some have arrived by chance, others by determination, women have followed their husbands, for better or (mostly) worse. Some are miserable and long to leave, while others have been “sung to the land,” as the Aborigines say, and, whatever their living conditions, wouldn’t live anywhere else. A few have found good lives in this unconventional world, notably two women—one, a hotel owner in Cue, once a thriving gold mining town and now much reduced but still surviving; the other a fisherman (fisherwoman?) who represents the better side of Karumba, a Gulf town so rowdy it has earned the phrase, “He must be from Karumba” to describe "a despicable person whose behavior was so boorish it didn’t even meet bush standards.”

I’m sorry the authors made no room in their work for individual Aborigines, noting them merely en masse and describing them, with neither sympathy nor empathy, as impoverished and mostly drunk. This dismissiveness contrasts with the attention they pay to so many characters, and I couldn’t help wondering why their curiosity didn’t extend to these original inhabitants of the Outback, a people who didn’t find the bush daunting.

Greater Nowheres is an entertaining and provocative book. The brevity of the chapters keep the pace moving as we cover Australia’s vast territory, and the two voices of the authors—who write individual chapters—mesh well while offering an interplay of viewpoints on their experiences and on each other. Their portraits, though brief, feel full and make us think about lives lived in such extreme conditions and about the powerful allure of the Outback with its forbidding desolation and danger.

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