I GOT a lift this afternoon without even trying. I’d been dropped on the highway at the turn off to Port Pirie, about three hours north of Adelaide, and I was standing in the dirt, head down, scribbling in my notebook.
I’m in the practice of writing the names of each person who gives me a lift, together with a few choice details. So I was writing: “Andi and Jim, Port Wakefield to Port Pirie, maroon Mazda 323, nurse and plasterer, heart arrhythmia and bipolar, Coca Cola beanie, adult kids, the golden rule tattooed on his left forearm, Jim wants ‘to go on an adventure, hey’, like me…” when a white van slowed and stopped up ahead.
It was Harm (pronounced, to my ears, something like Harem). He’s balding, with a thin grey ponytail, and great joy in his face. The great joy is always there – of that I was sure very quickly – but he was particularly chuffed right then, thrilled by my means of travel.
We talked enthusiastically. He reminisced about his wandering days, and picking up hitchers past, and how he and his wife, Tinky, ran a hostel where they live, in the big old ship workshop in Port Germein. Now they run a small gallery, called Germein Art Focus, where they show Harm’s work and that of six other local artists.
Harm and Tinky have re-furbished their building, which dates from the 1880s. He took me there to visit. It is magnificent: stone walls and huge wooden doors with the original doorknobs and locks.
When they bought it, there was a hitching post on either side, Harm told me. He was just describing the building, but to me the detail seemed significant. They’ve created something that people – locals and wayfarers alike – want to attach themselves to.
He brewed coffee and told me about how he’d arrived in Australia on the last of the migrant boats from the Netherlands and talked his way into a surveying job, almost on the spot. “Anything was possible then,” he said.
Port Germein was once Australia’s largest grain port. There’s not much to the town now, besides the quiet, and a long wooden jetty, which reaches 1500 metres over the shallow Spencer Gulf, towards Whyalla on the other side.
I walked out, and by gee, it sure is a long jetty. At the end a few gnarled dudes were fishing. One had ridden out on a pushbike, rigged with plastic pipes to stow his rods. “Caught anything?” I asked.
“A squid and a crab,” he said. “So far.”
By the time I returned, the sun was setting. It glowed pink on the silver timber of the jetty, and the Flinders Ranges in the distance.
Over our coffee earlier, we’d fallen to discussing nearby Melrose, which has become a popular mountain biking destination, through the vision and efforts of a few residents. I commented on the way they’d changed their small community.
“It is slow,” Harm said. “It takes a long time. You have to keep on going.”
He showed me an aerial surveyors’ photograph of Port Germein in 1988. It was a dustbowl. “I counted 168 trees, and that’s being generous,” he said.
In the decades he and Tinky have been here, they’ve grown thousands of indigenous trees from seed, and given them to locals. The town is transformed. You still couldn’t call it lush, I don’t suppose – the rain shadow from the Flinders Ranges rules that out – but its houses are now nestled among foliage. Behind the gallery, hundreds more seedlings are growing.