During the summer of 1992, I went to Australia with a group of friends. The trip had been planned with a dual objective: to see some of the continent’s natural wonders, and to visit the region immediately to the north of Melbourne, where in the mid-19th century 2,000 of my compatriots from Ticino sought the illusory fortunes promised them by emigration agencies from north of the Alps.
The extraordinary impression left by the red deserts and the bush with its countless varieties of eucalyptus, contact with a native civilisation conditioned by the overriding need to stay on the move in order to survive, together with the accounts of my ancestors who had lived here among the kangaroos, confirmed my conviction of a profound affinity between mountain and desert.
The trip satisfied the desire to see for myself, reawakening the passion of my youth, when in 1976 I had published two books devoted to migration from Ticino to Australia, together with 350 letters written by the gold diggers.
Australian and Swiss history became entwined almost by chance. Aborigines and Swiss – a likely tale! will be the response of those whose knowledge of history is limited to a few shreds of local folklore. The aborigines and the gold diggers do at least have one thing in common: both belong to the great family of the defeated. The former were victims of those who misappropriated the wealth of Australia, exterminating almost 300,000 peaceful eaters of spiders and lizards and the occasional meal of kangaroo. Their womenfolk and children gathered wild millet seed by seed among the eucalyptuses (which lose their bark but not their leaves) and shrubs burned by the sun and torn by the wind.
Because they could not scrape together the fare for the return journey, many Ticinesi who emigrated to Australia were never able to comfort their mothers or dry the tears of their ageing sweethearts.
I went to find them at Eganstown cemetery, Victoria, just a few miles from where they had dug in vain for those golden nuggets.
Ayers Rock is Australia’s finest cathedral, erected in the centre of the continent by the same irrepressible force that painted the deserts. The gigantic mass of red sandstone, veined with grey and crimson feldspar, rises more than 300 metres from the desert. It is more than eight kilometres in circumference and its summit is pitted with deep holes. During the rainy season, these are the source of a series of waterfalls that have cut deep into the walls of the sacred mountain. Ayers Rock is continually abraded, smoothed, hollowed out by the wind, by the driving rain, by constant changes in temperature. On its surface, you find almost miraculous patches of red flowers, clinging to the rock like dried-out scale insects.
Before the gold rush, Ayers Rock had another name: Uluru. It was a religious centre, which helped the Aborigines to survive in one of the most hostile environments on earth. Here they sought fertility, maybe with a vitality never expressed so powerfully anywhere else. But they paid the price and were expelled from their colourful cathedral.
For those who conquered the deserts with their aeroplanes, or four-wheel-drive vehicles, it was simple enough to convert this gigantic sandstone monolith, smoothed by the windborne sand and hollowed by the providential dream rain, into a national symbol. So Uluru has been obliged to fly the flag of the descendants of the colonists who arrived here barely a century and a half ago. Though it continues to change colour every season and hour of the day, it is no longer part of the heritage of those who slaked their thirst at the last pool sheltered from the blazing sun and suffocating wind.
My trip to Australia in quest of the Ticino gold diggers and the places where they laboured also led to my discovering “dreamtime”: the view of the world held by the Aborigines, victims of colonization. An important lesson for understanding the history of migrations.