Judy Nunn on Spirits of the Ghan

In 2001, in the Red Centre JudyNunnof Australia, the long-anticipated railway connecting Adelaide to the top of Australia nears completion. Jessica Manning is sent as a negotiator to reassure the Elders that, during the construction of the track, their land will be protected and respected. But tensions are high and cultures collide, as in order to move forward the road workers are forced to destroy parts of the sacred Never-Never. Judy Nunn talks to gr about her new book, Spirits of the Ghan.

How would you describe the Red Centre to someone who’s never been?

I would say it’s an exceptionally spiritual place. Even if you don’t follow spiritualism, you will most certainly have a great sense of the spiritual when you’re there. Aboriginal people share their beliefs and their great knowledge of the land there, and they share the whole of the Dreaming, and while you don’t place yourself within that spirituality you feel very privileged that for the moment that you’re in the Red Centre you feel that you share something that they have. It’s a very moving experience particularly for someone who loves this country as I do.


You’ve set other novels in the desert as well, like Maralinga, so is this, in terms of that spirituality, the first book which you’ve really explored that or was that an element in your other books set in the desert as well?

I did touch on spirituality from an indigenous perspective in Maralinga, most certainly. I have an artist, you know, a white person, in Spirits of the Ghan who specialises in painting the outback and in the desert areas, which is in the Red Centre in this case. She talks about the play of the light on the surface of the Earth that how it makes you feel as though the Earth itself has a pulse, as if it’s breathing. I have mentioned this actually other books too, and I definitely lean towards these really remote areas of Australia where I do feel a great kinship with the land that is definitely bordering on a feeling of the spiritual.

Have you travelled the Ghan railway yourself? Did you revisit the land that you’re writing about for this book?

Yes absolutely. And I most certainly went back for research trips, two or three times. I did know Alice Springs and I’d been to the Red Centre well before I did my trip on the Ghan. Then when I did my trip on the Ghan I realised that I really wanted to base my book in the Red Centre around the building of the northern section of the Ghan from Alice to Darwin.

Did you talk to many Aboriginal people from that area?

I spoke with a lovely indigenous woman who is actually quite a position of power there and I talked very much about her life, because the book has flashbacks to the 19th century. The prologue’s actually set in 1876 and something rather horrific happens. And there are flashbacks to this incident throughout the book where I needed to actually have knowledge of the lifestyle of indigenous people living in that period of time, a very traditional life. It was a nomadic society, travelling with extended family, and I learned quite a few traditional rituals from the lovely indigenous lady to whom I spoke.

Have you had any feedback from any indigenous people that have the read the book yet?

Just the other day there was an Aboriginal woman who spoke to me and she said that she had read Maralinga, which is the previous book where I had leant very heavily upon a an indigenous viewpoint, and had read Spirits of the Ghan too and she said, ‘I love the way you talk about our people so respectfully and truthfully’. I felt wonderful of course; naturally because you do approach these areas with a certain trepidation because you think, what right do I have to be talking from this aspect about a culture that does not belong to me? But I do have indigenous friends too who have been very encouraging over the past year, who have actually said ‘Jude, you can do it. You’re allowed to, you can.’ But I always am very wary not to tread beyond a certain level, even if I were to read a great deal about it. I don’t feel I have a right because I feel it wouldn’t be paying due respect, so I was very thankful for that lovely lady’s beautiful comment. It felt great.


What about people, indigenous or otherwise, who were involved in the construction of the railway?

Well of course this section of the rail from Alice to Darwin didn’t take place until the early 2000s as opposed to the southern area from Adelaide to Alice was finished in 1929, so it was fraught with every known difficulty. The government wouldn’t come to the party, neither Federal nor State; eventually it was a private consortium that actually got money together and then eventually the Howard/Fisher government (Fisher being the treasurer) finally matched that amount of money. I don’t go into the politics in the book, but actually it was a great dream that took a long time to become fulfilled and a great area of frustration. When it was finally built in the early 2000s, completed in 2004, it was a dream come true but it was again fraught with a great deal of cultural difficulties because it had to cross indigenously-owned land.

There was; it had to be very naturally aware of not intruding upon any areas of sacred sites, there had to be agreements lain in place with all the indigenous land owners, and you must bear in mind that even with this clash of cultures, you can’t halt progress. That line had to be built. It was crazy that we didn’t have a rail that went from the south to the north. We had an East/West railway for years, so it had to happen. But when you bear in mind that when you build a railway like that you don’t just put the tracks out there and lay some gravel on the sleepers and off the trains go. You have to annihilate the landscape. There has to be about sixty metres of a great rail corridor; you have to blast through rocks, you have to build bridges and culverts. So this immense channel churned its way through that wilderness and it was the biggest engineering feat since the Snowy Mountain Hydroelectric Scheme, so you had thousands of men in little Dogger house-ships that would house up to 300 people dotted all through that wilderness with kitchens and ablution blocks; it was a whole military exercise. All of that I found very logistically very interesting.


Is the ‘clash of cultures’ you talk about the main conflict of the book would you say?

Yes, it’s the main aspect of the book. The book deals most specifically in the years 2002 and 2003; that is the present day era of the book, compared with the flashbacks where you get the history of various other events that happened in the Red Centre. It touches upon the cameleers that transported the equipment to make the Telegraph line, the loneliness and the isolation of the telegraph operators stationed in these one-man little stations across the country. You get these flashbacks to this but the main section of the book is just those early couple of years when they were building the corridor. So that it’s mainly a comment – the actual route of the railway line had been done years and years previously while people were frustrated and waiting for it to be accomplished. The actual route had been agreed upon twenty years earlier and then nobody would come up with the money, the wherewithal, all of this.

I have an very well-educated indigenous young woman called Jessica Manning, who is employed as one of the many negotiators to keep the peace amongst the indigenous landowners to assure them that everything is going according to plan and that sacred sites are being observed. Then I have my surveyor, Matt, and so obviously there is interaction between these two who come from very different cultures, and then we enter into the area of the title, the spiritual aspect of Spirits of the Ghan. I can’t go much further about the spiritual part because that would be giving things away a bit too much!

How does the book begin?

The book opens in the prologue in 1876 and it starts out with the words, ‘James McCulloon knew he was a dead man’. That’s the first sentence of the book and it’s in 1876. Now he has actually been bitten by a king brown, a lethal snake, and he’s there with his 16-year-old daughter taking her north to show her his newly acquired cattle property and the station that he’s just built there. She has to ride to get help and he prays that she won’t get lost going back to the homestead. He knows that, as he encourages her to leave and get help, that there is no point in her getting help because he will be dead before she could possibly get back but he doesn’t want her to panic because if she panics she could get lost.

That’s the opening of the book. Something obviously does happen to Emily and it all happens in that prologue and then we open with the parents of my two characters – Jessica and Matt – and we embark two chapters later upon the building of the Ghan and how these people are brought into contact with each other – my negotiator and my surveyor – and through flashbacks we get what has happened in the past. But the interesting part is that my characters in the book never get to find out what happened at all which is an intriguing different aspect I’ve taken. The only person who gets to find out what happens ultimately at the end of the book is actually the reader.


Find out more about Spirits of the Ghan here. Judy is currently on a national tour – to check if she’s coming to a town near you, click here.

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