Saving Ningaloo and other meditations

Review: Vivien Horler

The Boy Behind the Curtain, by Tim Winton (Penguin)

Anyone who has read Tim Winton’s recent novel The Shepherd’s Hut knows that he is a phenomenal writer.

He would seem to be best known in his native Australia for his 1991 novel Cloudstreet, but The Shepherd’s Hut (reviewed by The Books Page on October 14 2018) is the first of his books I’ve read, and I thought it was brilliant.

Which is why I bought The Boy Behind the Curtain, a collection of essays, on a recent visit to Australia.

Winton has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice, and has won the Australian Miles Franklin award four times – that award is named after the author of the delightful and quirky novels My Brilliant Career (1901) and My Brilliant Career goes Bung (1946).

Winton grew up in suburban Perth, and he still lives on the Western Australian coast. As well as being a writer and a family man, he is an environmental activist, and in 2003 won the inaugural Australian Society of Authors medal recognising his work in the campaign to save the Ningaloo Reef.

This campaign is described in his essay The Battle for Ningaloo Reef. You, like me, might have never heard of Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, a 13-hour drive from Perth, but it is now a World Heritage site and stretching 260km is Australia’s longest fringing coral reef. It is also a lot healthier than the better known Great Barrier Reef.

The problem with Ningaloo, he says, is its proximity to the shore makes it very vulnerable. “At many points you can wade out to it, flop on your belly and be instantly amongst it.” It’s home to endangered turtles, dugongs, 300 species of coral and populations of whale sharks that visit every year.

In 2000 a A$200 million 2 000-bed resort was proposed at a small beach settlement called Maud’s Landing, along Ningaloo, which would include a 240-boat marina, a golf course and 250 residential blocks.

But marine scientists realised that any tourism benefits resulting from the resort “would come at a drastically disproportionate cost to the very things that drew people to the region”.

Winton said the fight for Ningaloo became a battle of world views. On one side were supporters of what he calls the lingering settler ethos that nature exists to be exploited, while the other side believes nature has value in its own right and needs to be protected because its systems are finite.

Winton used his profile as a writer to be part of a community campaign to save the reef from development, but says their chances of success were minute. “Our hearts might have been in the right place, and our cause just, but the forces of money and influence were massed against us. We were a fart trying to fight a cyclone.”

But against all odds, they won. The development was canned and the reef protected. In 2011 the entire reef was declared a World Heritage site.

With Friday’s international demonstrations to save the planet in mind, reading this essay is an encouraging reminder that hundreds of thousands of people are able and willing to rally to a good cause. “You can still appeal to people’s better instincts. People do believe in the common good. For that they will make sacrifices.”

Other essays deal with Winton’s growing up as the son of a policeman, the devastation his family went through when his father was almost killed in a car accident, walks on the beach at low tide, the slow rescue of drought-stricken Western Australia, his religious upbringing in a happy-clappy church where the boisterous hymn singing inspired joy – “the genteel wheezing of Anglicans and Catholics will never do”. He writes eloquently of the joys of surfing, his dislike of hospitals, the perils of political correctness, and a much loved university lecturer.

What do we care, across the Indian Ocean from Perth, about Winton’s Australian preoccupations? Well, apart from the fact that reading great writing is always a treat, his concerns are in many ways our own. We also have a heating world to worry about, nature to protect, and people to care about.

In a month when dreaded xenophobia has once again engulfed some of our communities, we could take the message from his essay Stones for Bread, about Australia’s appalling treatment of its refugees, thousands of whom languish on Nauru and Manus islands.

The problem, he says, is that Australians – you could substitute South Africans for Australians there – are afraid of strangers. “Yes, this big brash rich nation trembles. When people arrive with nothing but the sweat on their backs and a crying need for safe refuge, we’re terrified… This fear has deranged us. It overturns all our civic standards, our pity, our tradition of decency, to the extent that we do everything in our power to deny these people their legal right to seek asylum.”

Sound familiar? I had tears in my eyes when I reached the end of the essay: “Children have asked us for bread and we have given them stones… So turn back, my country. While there’s still time. Truly, we are better than this.”




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *