|S E Jenkins||
THE KOOKABURRA BIRD
Extract from CHAPTER 10.
Jon Cadwallader and his Aboriginal friend, Curly, have been travelling deep in the outback for several days and have arrived at the base of one of the ranges.
When Jon woke, water was already bubbling in the billy. Curly threw in a handful of dried leaves and watched the concoction simmer. Scattered at his feet were green, yellow and red feathers. Mulga parrots! A couple of birds were already skewered onto a cooking stick. Breakfast!
‘Where did you find them?’
Curly nodded behind him towards the mallee scrub, a dense thickety mass of silver-grey brush that stretched as far as the eye could see along the base of the plateau.
‘Is this an ancestor footprint?’
Curly waved his arm indicating different directions. ‘This big place, many ancestor footprints. Clans meet and sing the Dreamings.’
‘Bloody hell, Curly! You mean it’s a sort of crossroads, right here, in the middle of nowhere? Is this Ayers Rock or something?’
‘Nah,’ said Curly, ‘that one’s up by Alice.’
After they’d eaten Curly led the way through the mallee brush to a wide cleft in the base of the ironstone escarpment. They followed a dried-up creek bed, walking in single file into deep shade through a network of purple-blue gorges and then they climbed to a vantage point high on the plateau.
A hidden paradise lay in the gorge below them. A necklace of pools followed a watercourse that seemed to rise from the rock. Majestic ghost gums were dotted along its length and jewel-bright parrots sat among the branches like ripe fruit.
‘Where does the water come from?’
‘Underground, where the ancestor sleeps.’
‘Where does it go?’
‘Back to the ancestor,’ said Curly, pointing to a clump of eucalyptus at the edge of a rocky outcrop far below them at the other end of the gorge.
High on the plateau the temperature was hovering around the hundred-degree mark, Jon could feel the sun biting through his shirt, below him, on the shady side of the gorge, it looked cooler, inviting after the heat of the desert they had crossed.
He batted away the flies circling his sweaty brow and flopped his hat back on his head wondering how the great rent in the rock had been formed, an earthquake perhaps, back when the earth was still young and then maybe water eroding the softer stone – was there any way of telling? Far in the distance more dark smudges on the plateau suggested other gorges formed part of a chain along the flattish backbone that he and Curly were standing on.
Jon leaned over and peered down. A hundred and fifty feet below he could see the first of the pools.
‘How do we get down there?’ he asked as he scanned the sheer sides of ironstone layered like streaky bacon.
‘Folla that path,’ said Curly, nodding in the direction of a precipitous route down into the canyon.
‘Is it safe?’
‘So long as you don’t do anything daft,’ said Curly, a grin splitting his face.
‘No helter-skeltering then,’ said Jon.
‘Like we did at the green pool…on Jarrahlong,’ he added when he saw the puzzled expression on Curly’s face.
Curly’s face cleared. ‘That what you call it?’
‘Yeah, what do you call it?’
‘It don’t have no name, mate,’ said Curly over his shoulder.
Jon followed Curly as he picked his way down to the bottom of the gorge. Even on the sunny side Jon was conscious of the temperature dropping from the baking heat high on the plateau to pleasantly warm the closer they got to the canyon floor.
When they reached the bottom they stood on flat rocks and there Jon saw carvings of lizard footprints and zigzags scratched deep into the stone.
‘Perentie Man,’ said Curly when he saw Jon tracing his fingers over the man-made marks.
He led Jon down towards the first pool. It was no bigger than a basin with animal and bird tracks baked into the mud at the water’s edge. Ten yards away another pool, this time the size of a bath, led the eye to yet another and another meandering along the gorge.
‘The creek’s dry,’ said Curly. ‘Sometimes it’s full.’
Jon recalled the marks on the rock and saw the perentie footprints, the dragging tail and imagined Perentie Man making the zigzag of glittering silver water in the Dreaming.
‘Where does the water come from?’
Curly turned and pointed to the canyon wall behind them, to the water seeping out from between the strata. It glistened against the red rock; tiny rivulets of water sparkled and cascaded down to the next layer, bounced off a ledge, caught the light and fell again to the next, and the next.
‘Pretty dry now but it’s always wet, usually it pours out.’
‘Like a waterfall?’
Curly nodded. Jon looked up at the rock face again, to the level where the water was seeping through the rock a good hundred feet above them; it would be some waterfall, he decided. Even now in the middle of a drought he could hear the water tinkling as it cascaded and bounced its way to the bottom and collected in the first of the pools.
Curly touched him on the shoulder and led him along a well-trodden path through the grasses and bushes growing beside the water’s edge, past a profusion of butterflies and huge dragonflies that flitted across the glistening surface.
They pushed through thicker growth into an open patch of scrubby grass leading to a sandy spit. On their right a pile of large, red ironstone rocks banded in gunmetal-blue provided a sunning spot for two rock wallabies. High above was the scar in the rock face from where the stone had fallen.
The canyon took Jon’s breath away; it was an Eden in the middle of a desert. He sat down on one of the blue and red rocks and soaked up the beauty of the place. Above him, high overhead in a ghost gum, a muddle of rose-splashed galahs chattered. There was nothing like this back home and no Dreaming. The sounds in Australia were also different; the harsh calls of the parakeets, galahs and corellas were nothing like blackbirds and robins. And the smells were different too: the singeing dry heat, the peppery-oily scent of eucalyptus, the sweet acacia flowers, and the arid, red earth. Even after seven years the country was still alien to him, and strange, and yet it had a beauty of its own. At sunset the colours were deep vibrant orange-reds, purple-blacks and eye-watering blues; in contrast, at midday, the sun leached out the colour leaving paler tints that shimmered in the unrelenting heat.
He pinched his eyes and turned away, scanning the rest of the valley, letting his eyes follow the strange question mark shape of the gorge.
‘What’s that?’ Jon squinted in the bright light. ‘Over there.’ He pointed towards another large rockfall further along the canyon. ‘It looks like mirror or glass.’
‘A plane,’ said Curly.
‘Ten years back, maybe. Some fella tried to land on the plateau and ran out of ground.’
‘Anyone in it?’
‘You mean the pilot’s still in there?’ The idea of a dessicated corpse still strapped into the pilot’s seat fascinated and horrified him.
‘Nah, reckon he had a go at walkin’ out.’
Jon thought of the distance they had travelled and of the inhospitable terrain. ‘Did he make it?’
‘Don’t reckon. He never came back for his clobber,’ said Curly as he collected wood for a fire.
Jon wanted to see for himself. Leaving Curly behind him he scrambled down from the rock he’d been sitting on and skirted the mulga thicket between him and the far cliff where the crumpled wreckage lay. He clambered over more rocks and as he approached the remains he saw the nose was flattened and the wooden spars were kindling. The plane had cartwheeled after it nosedived onto the rockfall and had slithered the rest of the way on its back ending up close to the gully floor. Both wings, smashed to smithereens, littered the surrounding boulders. One wheel, still attached to the axle, hung at a drunken angle. Red dust covered the whole apart from one half of the windscreen that had survived the impact, its surface wiped by the scrubby bush next to it. It was amazing it had survived the crash as well as it had and the pilot had been lucky to get out alive.
Up close Jon saw it was small, a single-seater. He crouched down to look inside the cockpit. Old webbing from the seat belt dangled down like spirals of dirty flypaper. The wooden dashboard with its fuel and altimeter dials was splintered, the glass broken. He twisted over and lay on his back looking for clues, something to tell him who the plane belonged to. He traced a brown smear with his finger – blood? – then probed, feeling for stowed maps, documents, anything. In the space between the floor and the bottom of the brittle leather-covered seat something moved – a small box. It wouldn’t budge. He fished for his penknife. The extra leverage helped and eventually he waggled it free.
He laid it carefully on his stomach, and wriggled out of the confined space.
The tin box had rusted a little. The once blue label was almost unreadable; he could just make out ‘London’ in small print. There was no hinge, only a tight fitting lid, a bigger version of the tins containing Oxo cubes that Mam used to buy.
He flipped open his knife again and with care inserted the blade under the lid flap and dragged it along to loosen it, lifting as he did so. When he least expected it the lid popped off and clattered on the rock. He jumped and then laughed at himself.
Inside the box were pieces of ore, irregular in shape and the size of sugar cubes. Gold! He was sure they were gold nuggets – unless they were just lumps of fool’s gold. The lads back at Karundah told tales of prospectors who had paid a fortune for a stake and ended up with a worthless seam of iron pyrites. He counted out the nuggets. A dozen in all plus two lumps of black rock that looked different from the others. In the strong sunlight they glinted like fire. He turned the two stones over and watched the red, violet and green facets change and glow, the vibrant colours reminding him of blue wrens, red-tailed black cockatoos and parrakeets on the wing. They weren’t emeralds or rubies, nothing like, but they were pretty.
Swan matches and an unopened packet of ten cigarettes like the ones Mam smoked were also in the box. He caressed the cellophane. His mam bought Craven A for the lucky black cat. Odd the pilot hadn’t taken them. Lastly, in the bottom lay a piece of grubby paper. Unfolded it revealed a neat hand-drawn map. He recognised it instantly. It showed the zigzag creek not yards from where he was sitting and in the top corner were map references and obscure notes written in some sort of code.
He packed everything back into the tin and went looking for Curly. He found him down by one of the dried-up pools where he’d built a fire to roast yabbies and a few dusty, brown roots that looked like shrivelled carrots.
Curly looked up. ‘What y’got?’
‘A tin box, found it jammed under the seat.’ He opened it and tossed Curly the matches.
Curly grinned. ‘Y’might have fetched ’em sooner, mate. Easier that way.’
‘Look at these. Reckon it’s gold.’ Jon picked up the nuggets and tossed them up like jacks and caught them. The gold gleamed in the sunlight. If it was gold he’d have more than enough to get back to Liverpool. ‘We can go halves.’
Curly turned away. The silence lay heavy between them.
What had he said? Jon dismissed the uneasy feeling that swept over him and dropped the nuggets into his pocket. Perhaps he should hand them in, claim a reward, it didn’t need to be a lot, just enough for a one-way ticket back on a boat – steerage would do. ‘We’ll tell the authorities then.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Reckon he’s forgotten by now,’ said Curly. ‘If the fella’s dead it don’t matter, if he’s good he’s had plenty time to come back for it.’
‘Maybe he doesn’t know where to look.’
‘We ain’t sayin’ nothin’, this is ancestor place.’