Stranger Country is Monica Tan’s story of quitting her job and driving 30,000 kilometres – alone – through the Outback in a quest to learn more about Australia’s ancient heritage.
I found this book absolutely fascinating, honest and confronting. Tan is a curious person and natural storyteller, which together made this book a real joy to read.
At the age of 32 she packed in her job as a journalist at The Guardian, packed her Toyota RAV4 with camping gear and left the city to travel near-deserted roads for six months. She often slept in her car or near it.
At one of the first towns she stopped at, she enquired at the visitor’s centre whether they had any information about the Aboriginal culture of the area.
‘No,’ was the only answer she was given.
As a Chinese Australian, Tan felt particularly drawn to learning more about the ancient culture of Australia. She saw parallels with the ancient Chinese culture which formed part of her own heritage.
The stories she has brought back from her travels were huge eye-openers for me.
I’ve heard repeatedly the incredible numbers since I was a child – Aboriginal Australians have lived on this land for 40,000 years. More recent evidence suggests it’s even longer – 60,000 years.
Yep, a really long time.
A little over two hundred years ago white settlers came from England, took over the land and wrought havoc on the indigenous population. But here’s the thing we seem to forget – that two hundred years is a teeny tiny blip compared to the thousands and thousands of years that stretch back in time beyond 1788 (or whichever year you care to hang your hat on).
That’s what really blew me away about Tan’s travel memoir: how important and rich that pre-1788 history really is.
To give you a sense of the magnitude, let’s talk about petroglyphs (rock carvings) for a moment.
Karratha, in northwestern Australian, is a seaside town. There you can find 20,000-year-old carvings that show ancient land-based animals like macropods and thylacine, but no sea creatures.
They do, however, sit alongside 7,000-year-old carvings of fish, turtles and dolphins.
Why so different? Because over the intervening 13,000 years sea levels near Karratha rose 130 metres (yes, metres!). There was no sea near Karratha when the older carvings were made, so no sea creatures to be found or recorded.
This story alone absolutely blew my mind. Can you imagine living in the same house your ancestors lived in for thousands of years and waking up every morning to see a picture they took of something that happened 13,000 years ago? I simply cannot fathom that level of cultural continuity.
If you want to gain a new understanding of this land we live upon – in the context of climate change, colonial history, modern social issues and cultural identities – I highly recommend picking up a copy of Stranger Country. It’s worth it for the gorgeous descriptions of magnificent scenery alone.
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.