Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring/Summer 2003

The complete story of our DUFF journey must be reserved for our trip report. But I can’t resist sharing moments of Oz’s magic ... such as this one. Believe me, it was

NO PICNIC AT

Guy Lillian

The Hanging Rock is a spectacular volcanic uprising on the plains below Mount Macedon [in Victoria, Australia], of special interest to geologists on account of its unique rock formations, including monoliths and reputedly bottomless holes and caves ... It was thought at the time that the missing persons had attempted to climb the dangerous rock escarpments near the summit, where they presumably met their deaths; but whether by accident, suicide or ... murder has never been established, since the bodies were never recovered.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

          Bill stepped on a patch of wet grass and his feet went flying. He crashed onto his rear end. A backpack containing his thermos and other expensive gear hit the slope and slid, slowly as a turtle, towards the edge of the abyss, in the midst of Hanging Rock.

         “Guy!?” Rosy cried. “Get it!”

         I stretched my hand towards the sliding pack. It felt as if I were reaching through molasses. The pack escaped me by inches, reached the edge - and went over. I watched it skid to a halt fifteen feet down, inches from yet another chasm - still deeper and even more inaccessible. One of us, obviously, would have to go after it.

         Bill Wright couldn’t, of course. He is a large man, hearty with exercise, but pushing 70 and still learning to master his diabetes. He really shouldn’t have tried this trek up Victoria’s famous mamelon, known from Peter Weir’s masterful film Picnic at Hanging Rock, and which absolutely had to be the first item on our DUFF trip agenda. But he was a great fanzine editor, an enthusiastic friend of the Down Under fan Fund, had generously appointed himself our guide, and couldn’t be refused.

         Rosy volunteered - after all, she said, she was the lightest and we could easily haul her back to safety. As if. I didn’t risk insanity on a 14½ hour transoceanic plane ride to send my wife over a cliff and into peril. I had to goArtist: Charlie Williams. I had to descend into that pit - and worry about getting back later. So over I went, following the pack, sliding on my personality into the unknown.

         I reached the pack and tossed it easily back up to Rosy and Bill. Now what? Below - where the pack had almost fallen - was an impenetrable jumble of grey stone. The only way out was up. How? The sides of the pit were about ten feet at this edge - and shear. No hand- or footholds.

         Above, a thin white sapling grew by the edge of the rock shelf. Rosy bent it down to me. I grasped its rubbery limbs and began to haul my heaviness up, hand over hand., my feet seeking purchase on the featureless sides of the crevice. The roots of the tree gripped into the Rock’s thin layer of soil. As they bore my weight an inch - two - ripped free. I took a great interest in those roots. If they gave way, down I’d crash, and there would be no way for Rosy and Bill to get me out. Like Miranda in Picnic, I’d stay there.

         Not to mention the fact that we were lost. Lost ... on Hanging Rock.

 

H

         Our road to Hanging Rock began, of course, in the early ‘80s, when laudatory word-of-zine from west coast fandom propelled me to see the movie. I was living in North Carolina and the other theatergoers must have thought the title referred to the Hanging Rock there. They may have been disappointed, but I wasn’t. I was enraptured.

         Peter Weir’s poignant and subtle parable of death and nature was a new thing in so many cinematic ways. The subtext was both spooky and insightful. The message was both serious and heartening. The metaphor was powerful and compelling. Amidst the stones of Hanging Rock - and the pages of Joan Lindsay’s novel - Weir found an acceptance of nature, and death, that was neither cynical nor despairing. To compensate my sensitive first wife for making her endure the violent insanity of Apocalypse Now, I took her to Picnic at Hanging Rock, a sane, comforting, beautiful reconciliation with life.

         Which was also Australian. Aside from its substantial value as a metaphorical movie, Picnic also introduced me to downunder film making, then in genuine renaissance. I glommed onto every Aussie flick that opened, from The Road Warrior and Weir’s extraordinary The Last Wave to The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and My Brilliant Career. I noted as much the landscape on which the films were set as I did the actors - although who would notice turf when Judy Davis is on screen. A vague desire to go there began to percolate - not that I’d ever get the chance to, of course.

         There matters rested.

         Until I married Rose-Marie and found there was something in life that could overcome my fear of flying. And, propelled by la belle’s conviction that “it would be fun,” we ran for DUFF.

         The movie was on my mind from the very start of the campaign. In our flyer, remembering one of my favorite scenes, I promised “to climb Hanging Rock, and bring [fandom] down a scrap of calico.” When the Down Under Fan Fund race came out in our favor, two ambitions were foremost in my mind: tour the Sydney Opera House - and keep my promise.

         So here we were.

H

Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic in Hanging Rock - a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees ... and bees murmuring above the pansies.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

         This didn’t seem a propitious day for a picnic. As we trundled into downtown Melbourne to catch our train, we eyed not only the red “rake” river sculpture and the huge FCUK sign on the department store (French Connection United Kingdom, that is), but the sky ... which was thick with clouds. If there’s one thing a picnic doesn’t need, it’s rain.

         Bill Wright, who met us at the train station, didn’t seem deterred. Bill is one of Australia fandom’s senior zine editors, publisher of Intermediate Vector Bosons, and during the DUFF race had helped both us and our rivals distribute campaign material. He had met us the day before at the house where we were crashing, and had hosted our first dinner downunder with Rose Mitchell, Paula McGrath and Alan Stewart. His offer to guide us to Hanging Rock had been gratefully accepted, and getting us onto the train to Woodend was the first step. N.B.: he carried two thick backpacks of picnic goodies. We brought cameras - and in the pocket of my coat, a two-inch fluff panda with one eye and a red bow tie: Mib, whose adventures have been many.

         The hour’s train ride north of Melbourne was a revelation - our first look at the Victorian countryside. The low hills and sublime greenery delighted me with memories of North Carolina, as the sheep fled in droves from the train. But the beauty of the surroundings and the joy of travel on a clean, spacious train (we scored a private compartment) were all but lost on me. Clouds hovered. Rainspecks tickled the windows. Would our picnic be inundated? If so, would this be our only chance at Hanging Rock? Wright still wasn’t worried. Mindful of the hole in the ozone overhead, his main concern was that Rosy slop enough sunscreen onto my baldness.

         When we reached Woodend Bill plowed off through the touristy town in search of transport to the Rock. Ladies at a stationery store showed typical Aussie friendliness, letting us check our e-mail and Bill call a cab. The day remained cloudy, but sunshine still broke though, in the form of our taxi driver. Her name was Sue. She and her mother ran the Woodend cab company, and it must be the jolliest business in Australia. Her smile was constant, her chatter was happy, and her word was “YEHHHHHHHHH!!!” See for yourself - I run her photo on a later page. YEHHHHHHHHH!!!

         I rode with Sue in the front seat - grabbing instinctively for the steering wheel, which wasn’t where I instinctively felt it belonged, on the left. I was enjoying her talk so much - YEHHHHHHHH!!! - that Hanging Rock sneaked up on me. Suddenly there it was, to our left.

While they were talking the angle of vision had gradually altered to bring the Hanging Rock into sudden startling view. Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. [They] could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

         Sue dropped us off at the gate to the Reserve, and we walked up the road toward the rugged hill before us. Playing in my mind, the haunting melodic theme from Peter Weir’s movie, “The Pipes of Pan”.

         Hanging Rock is a mamelon, an extinct volcano, some six million years old - a whelp by geological standards. It rises 105 meters, about 345 feet, from the forest at its base. Its rocks loom from the Earth - as if newly awakened from eons of sleep. The stone, we learned, is solvsbergite, lava rich with soda, which accounts for the rugged appearance of the dark grey rock. We tarried a moment at the gift shop, and then headed up along the path.

         “Miranda!” I shouted. A joke. Everybody calls for Miranda, one of the girls lost on the Rock in the Lindsay novel and Weir film. She’s never answered.

         The path wound through verdancy thick and wild. No resemblance, here, to the trimmed and tamed and civilized landscapes surrounding America’s parks. Up a steep slope, and then the bottom stand of rocks were visible. I rushed forward - groaning at the obscenity of a soggy tennis ball and a beer bottle underfoot - and put my hands into the moss covering.

The immediate impact of [the] soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb. The splendid spectacle ... was brilliantly illuminated for their inspection. On the steep south facade the play of golden light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, others grooved and fluted by prehistoric architecture of wind and water, ice and fire. Huge boulders, originally spewed red hot from the boiling bowels of the Earth, now come to rest, cooled and rounded in forest shade.

Picnic at Hanging Rock



         The stones of Hanging Rock are enormous, but not smooth. The lava is pockmarked and uneven, and if you’ve any imagination, those marks form faces for you; so it seems, as you ascend along the steep path into the monoliths, that you’re climbing into a cluster off of Easter Island: half-graven moss-swathed images of the gods of the Earth, solemn, benign, ancient, and calm; utterly indifferent.

         Wildness is endemic to Hanging Rock. There are no signs warning the traveler to restrain his steps to the paths, nor rangers to enforce restrictions and keep you safe. The tempting canyons and passages that open up as the rocks jumble around you are your own risk to explore. So on the way up I clambered into puddle-floored caves and scrabbled over leaning pillars - keeping Rosy and Bill within earshot, of course.

         We found ourselves at a wide stone plaza, and Bill broke out the grub. We chowed down on roast beef and chicken sandwiches, and even tried the Australian sandwich staple, Vegemite. No comment. While Bill and Rosy ate, I wandered off. A couple and a few teenagers had joined us on the rock shelf, but solitude as sure as outer space was as close as around the nearest boulder. Behind it, out of the wind, a single strand of spiderweb stretched along the lava, and the moss wasn’t even cold.

         We were still low on the mountain. Above us the trail grew steeper, the stones crowded in even thicker - here and there, reminding me somehow of the English boy’s notepaper flags, fresh plantings stood wrapped in wire mesh and orange fabric, straining into the wire with the wind. The trail was marked with tamped earth and a handrail; we followed it, upwards, towards the summit.

         High on Hanging Rock the trees from the forest below surrender to the sky, and the view is clear, and far, and spectacular. The clouds had gone on their way for a while, so we could see far out over the green world, to Mount Macedon, and the “Camel’s Hump”. Up there, with such a view, the Rock is serene, and you think, surely this beauty is the reason you’ve climbed this far, and you can’t help but feel that in the beauty, there is safety. As you wander through the highest monoliths, pushing aside branches of gnarled gum saplings growing somehow in this rocky soil, you have about you only sky, around you only loveliness, and by the time you discover that you have squeezed through one too many narrow gaps, clambered over one too many boulders, sneaked through one too many natural arches, crossed one too many abandoned fences, and now have no idea of the slightest kind where the path is or how to get down - it’s too late.

Everything if only you could see it clearly enough, is beautiful and complete - the ragged nest, Marion’s torn muslin skirts fluted like a nautilus shell, Irma’s ringlets framing her face in exquisite wiry spirals - even Edith, flushed and childishly vulnerable in sleep. ... The others were awake now and on their feet. Miranda was looking at her strangely, almost as if she wasn’t seeing her. When Edith [spoke], she turned and began walking away up the rise, the other two following a little way behind. ... To her horror all three girls were fast moving out of sight behind the monolith. “Miranda! Come back!” Edith took a few unsteady steps toward the rise and saw the last of a white sleeve parting the bushes ahead.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

         The girls who vanished in the book and film of Picnic at Hanging Rock were symbols more than anything else, just as the Rock was, just as their disappearance was - elements in a beautiful and poetic metaphor of death and nature. But we weren’t symbols, and this was no metaphor - we were three people lost in a clutter of blocked pathways and dead ends. There were no rangers in Smoky hats on patrol, and no one knew we were up there. It was also clouding up again.

         In the midst of this trouble, I was unutterably impressed by Rose-Marie. The woman showed cool worthy of Emma Peel. This route was impassable? Try this one! This way leads only in circles past the same old buried fence and worthless avenue? Climb atop the highest of high boulders at the apex of Hanging Rock and take a good look around. Truly, my wife showed no fear in the midst of the Rock. 27 years I’ve known the woman, and she continues to surprise me. I was, after all, better off than the tragic picnickers of 1900 - I had someone precious to carry down. There you go, Rock: real life answers the terrors of impersonal nature. In Rosy I had a living face to pit against the indifferent stupor of the rock gods - a reason not only to climb Hanging Rock but to conquer it.

         And we had help, nothing angelic but simply human, appearing from back the way we’d come: a smiling man, Arnold, and a smiling woman, Diane, Australian tourists. They had just left the path, and were more than happy to show us the way back. Two smiling ordinary folks, more than happy to lend a hand to disoriented neighbors, two Americans and a brother Aussie, just the thing any good Samaritan blokes would do, ‘ey? Just turn this way instead of that, take a few steps past the place where before you’d stopped - and no worries, the way down was clear.

         Awaiting us at the bottom was a happy snort (which we bought) with our saviors, who owned a small winery in South Australia, a souvenir binge (including, for Rosy, a special photo-illustrated edition of Lindsay’s novel), and a hilarious ride to the trains with the mad cabbie, Sue - YEHHHHHH! She searched in vain for wild kangaroos for us (‘roos are stupid beasts, she said, but solid on one’s bumper) and on Draw’s Lane, cut off the engine ... and let her cab roll uphill. Just part of the mystery of the Rock, she said.

         YEHHHHHH!, I believed it. Mystery abounded at Hanging Rock - the mystery of nature, beautiful and wild and deadly and indifferent - and the mystery of frail human beings, helping and guiding one another, because we weren’t indifferent. All during the rest of our journey Rosy and I talked about taking another stroll up among the grey, silent stones of Hanging Rock - but just as we’d feared, we never found the time. Well, this day would do. The passionless gods of the Earth had made their point. But so had we.

 

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Challenger is (c) 2003 by Guy H. Lillian III.
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