Alex O'Brien

International

A spiritual oasis in the outback

A spiritual oasis in the outback

Setting out early, fully caffeinated in anticipation of the quiet and empty road before us, we skirt around the suburbs of Perth, get on the Great Northern Highway and leave the city behind.

Bush land and small farms line the road, punctuated with the occasional turnoff to some isolated town. There is little to look at except the trucks trundling down to Perth, yet it's essential to remain attentive, keeping an eye out for kangaroos who are famous for jumping onto the road at the wrong moment.

You can find some incredible things in the outback of Western Australia, and after about two hours of driving we come upon one: a Benedictine monastery. This is New Norcia, founded more than a century and a half ago as a mission and now one of the state's most unlikely tourist destinations.

I grew up about 100 kilometres away, which, for this part of the world, means "nearby". Yet I have never actually visited. I'm back home for the summer and have my foreign boyfriend in tow, so it seems like the perfect time to play tourist.

Rounding the final bend, with only one small sign to indicate we are almost there, we shoot straight through the town of New Norcia and out the other side. It takes only a couple of seconds.

"Whoops, I guess that was it," I say, putting the car into reverse and pulling a U-turn.

After finding a shady place to park, we stretch our stiff limbs and look around. The Moore River, its presence made visible by the belt of trees that follows it, curves away to the east. The enormous freight trucks we call "road trains" occasionally rumble along the highway, sending white cockatoos screeching to the safety of tall gum trees. Just beyond the town limits, old-fashioned plowing equipment silently rusts away with only a fly or two for audience. And proudly, weirdly, a collection of buildings in Spanish Colonial style, looking as though they have been transplanted from Mexico, rise up from the red dusty ground.

Salvado’s Vision

To Dom Rosendo Salvado, the Spanish Benedictine monk who arrived in these parts in 1846, this landscape must have looked like an extraordinary, alien world. After walking for several days with a handful of companions, carrying only what they and a team of bullocks could manage, Salvado came to this area because it was home to a large community of Aboriginals, whom he planned to convert. He named his monastery after the Italian town of Norcia, birthplace of St Benedict.

Salvado died in 1900, but his vision continued, and the monastery operated several schools through much of the 20th century. The number of monks peaked in the late 19th century at 70 men; today New Norcia is home to just nine monks who are assisted by employees from nearby towns in managing the buildings and tourist facilities.

Despite its remoteness, New Norcia is never short of visitors, especially on weekends. Those who seek it out are a varied bunch: motorcycle clubs enjoying the winding roads; corporate groups and schoolchildren staying in the former school dormitories; those seeking spiritual guidance from the monks; curious day-trippers like ourselves.

Casual visitors are unlikely to run into the monks, who tend to keep to the monastery compound, but you can arrange to meet and share meals with them or take part in the daily chapel services. My boyfriend and I have set up a meeting with Father David Barry, a soft-spoken scholar who worked as a bricklayer and as a jackeroo - a cattle station worker - before joining the monastery in 1955.

Dressed in pristine white robes that match his short hair and beard, Father David appears at once incongruous and utterly at home. Our conversation ranges from the practicalities of joining a monastery to a discussion about the birth of the Benedictine order to what life is like for him here.

"It's above all a life of prayer," he says. "But you can't live a life only of prayer." He throws in a dry joke about a now extinct order of monks who believed all they had to do in life was pray, and mostly went to bed hungry. "If you want to eat, you have to work."

Most Benedictine monasteries strive to be self-sufficient, and, despite their small number, the monks here have done a good job of commercialising their resources. Artisan bread, olive oil and wine containing ingredients grown on the town's land are all sold under the name New Norcia, although much of the production is now done off-site by third parties.

Father David has devoted much of the past 15 years to research in the town's extensive archives, a treasure trove for historians and even more for the Aboriginal community. Under various government decrees, between the late 1800s and 1970s, thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were forcibly removed from their parents and raised in government or church-run institutions. As a result, many Aboriginal families know little about their ancestry. From the beginning of New Norcia's history, Salvado kept meticulous records including birth, death and marriage registers, which have helped Aboriginal people from the region piece together their histories.

After our chat, the three of us walk along the dusty gravel road that hugs the side of the monastery, trying to stay under the shade of the cape lilac trees. Behind a gated entrance, the monastery is a kind of oasis, with native plants adding a splash of colour to the high, white walls. Father David stops, pointing out the glorious yellow of a cassia fistula, or golden shower plant. Native to the Indian subcontinent, it is a long way from home yet thrives in the tough Australian soil. A statue of Saint Benedict watches over us from the front of the monastery, and I try to imagine what he would have thought of New Norcia, rooted in a far-flung corner of a land he never even knew existed.

Careful conversation

We meet Father David again for lunch time at the refectory. As the only guests, we are invited to take the first servings from the buffet trolley. Plates are passed, red wine is poured and we all get chatting. Mentioning our home, Paris, provokes a lively discussion, and it dawns on me that several of the men around the table came to New Norcia after living varied "ordinary" lives.

I'm fascinated by the tidbits of information I glean about them, but I police my questions because I've noticed something interesting about the way these men talk. The Benedictine order discourages idle chitchat, so even though conversation is open and friendly, every question is carefully posed, and responses are weighed.

Indeed, we are lucky to be having conversation at all. If we had been visiting at any other time of the year, the meal would have been conducted in silence, broken only by the voice of the designated reader who recites from a work of non-fiction and takes his meal later. But this was the Christmas holiday break, with about half of the monastery residents away on vacation, so prayer schedules and duties are light and rules are relaxed.

After lunch, we leave the calm monastery, crossing the highway that divides the town in two, and join the afternoon walking tour in the visitor's centre.

Brushing away flies and taking great swigs from bottles of water, our small group of mostly "grey nomads" - retired Australians living out of camper vans - crisscrosses the town. Moving from site to site, we take in its history, observing the one remaining mission cottage, the chapel, the now empty Saint Gertrude's girls' college and Saint Ildephonsus boys' college - once thriving boarding schools for white Australian children - and the outside of the monastery itself.

We take our way through the large Education Centre, a space used to host cultural workshops and outdoor activities for the visiting groups. I spot a pile of tools and branches stacked neatly on a small grassy field and learn that they are used to teach school groups how to build a traditional bush shelter. As we move inside, I'm impressed by the extensive and fascinating exhibition about the history of New Norcia and its relationship to the local Yuat people.

The displays include local food, examples of tools and clothing, and are interspersed with extracts of Dom Salvado's diary and notes, written as he became more and more knowledgeable of their culture. He eventually became fluent in the language and customs of the Yuat, and he produced the only known dictionary of their language. Because last year marked the 200th anniversary of his birth, the character of Dom Salvado looms large over the town, and we seem to be catching the tail end of a number of events and exhibitions designed to commemorate it.

At the end of the visit, I browse through the small gift shop and pick up the English translation of Salvado's memoirs, which will occupy me for weeks to come. Written in a spare yet engaging way, it is an adventure story told at a cracking pace, describing a Western Australia that is both familiar and foreign: a beautiful yet treacherous landscape untouched by Europeans and full of mystery.

Last stop

Before leaving town, we stop in the only building we hadn't visited yet: the New Norcia Hotel. Built in 1927 to accommodate the visiting parents of the boarding school students, it is grand and welcoming, with polished handrails and a wide, shady veranda, a relic of a bygone era. In the corner, a group of dusty characters recover from a hot day's work outside, and I'm pleased to see the Western Australian-made Swan Draught beer on tap. We order pints.

There's a sign advertising wood-fired pizza, but that will have to wait until the next visit. We still have a long drive ahead of us, and I don't want to be out on the quiet roads at dusk when those kangaroos are even harder to spot.

As we drive away, I catch a glimpse of an intriguing sign indicating a restricted access road. I slow down and peer at it as we pass. It's the turnoff for the New Norcia Station, a deep-space antenna with a 114-foot dish, built by the European Space Agency in 2003 to communicate with satellites.

It's incredible, the things you can find in the Australian outback.

Written by Anna Hartley. First appeared on Stuff.co.nz.

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