After traversing hours of potholed tracks through the rugged landscape of Far North Queensland, my husband and I enter an oasis of paperbarks and palms along the banks of a river.
Effervescent waters lap over the rim of the concrete crossing like the ‘morning glory’ clouds that will come to the Gulf of Carpentaria in spring. Green algae backdrop the water-lilies with their floating pads and splayed petals while little egrets and white-faced herons strut through the sedges.
Pete accelerates through the shallows, spraying fountains that cool the air. Splashes on my arms wash away tiredness and dust. We pass through white-painted rails that mark the boundary of Riversleigh’s home paddock, a thousand acres where the stock horses roam. The southern section of this million-acre cattle station is framed by the limestone-capped ridges of the Constance Range to the west. Rippling shoulder-high grasses of the Barkly Plains edge the southern boundary. The black alluvial soils of the Gulf Savannah Plains wrap around to the east and north, encasing a region of great beauty and world heritage significance.
A cluster of buildings invites us to a sanctuary in this remote and challenging country. Pete and I have come to escape the snows that will blow drifts around the poa tussock on our mountain home in New South Wales. Having already spent two winters living in a shed while we build our dream home, our old bones complained at the thought of another season of below zero temperatures. With our love of the outback and a strong desire for warmth, we didn’t hesitate to accept jobs here for the dry season. I will be the gardener and Pete the handyman.
The homestead is cupped in the confluence of the Gregory and O’Shannessy rivers. On arrival, we tour the grounds—the tamarind tree sheltering the potting shed, the citrus orchard with its promise of continuous fruit, the copse of river red gums offering shade. Exotics mingle with natives, an array of colours and textures that abound in the tropics, so different to our southern home.
The wet season storms have taken their toll; there will be a lot of work to restore the flowerbeds and lawns, vegetable patch and fruit trees. I take note of where weeds have won, branches need to be pruned, and vines have to be re-trained. I relish the opportunity to plunge my hands into the alluvial soil to bring forth food and flowers.
We wander down to the river pump, provider of house and garden water, guarded by an African rain tree brought here as a seed by a Boer War veteran. The barren earth is well-trodden beneath its cavernous foliage. Nearby, tangles of yellow-striped bamboo, three times the height of a man, provide a natural fence. Vertical banks drop metres deep to underwater limestone crags. Aquamarine pools shelter northern snapping turtles and archer fish, their tell-tale bubbles radiating across the surface, chasing the water beetles skimming their haphazard paths.
As we pass the bloodwoods that shade the horse yards, I poke the sticky resin squeezing from crusted trunks. I wonder if these scarlet tears will capture unsuspecting insects and build the next millennium’s discoveries in amber. The squeak of the gate hinge announces our entry into the inner domain of the formal garden. A stately ghost gum lords its fellows, limbs as gnarled as my grandfather’s hands. Leaves rattle in the wind and branches gesticulate as if accompanying an oft-related story. What has passed beneath its steadfast limbs, its twisted branches, its fluttering leaves? Stretching, splitting, and flaking off an annual layer of bark, a fresh chalk coating will be revealed that in turn will uncloak a pistachio skin. Pete and I can barely join arms around the trunk. I stand beneath its protection, strengthened by its solidity.
The majority of my work involves raking. In March, the rich scent of mown lawns spins from the mower’s blades into windrows of mulch. As the dry season declares war, grasses grow seedhead soldiers ready to battle the winter and provide new recruits for the front line of sward in the year to follow. Scythed into temporary submission, the bristles stand stalwart to re-shoot each week.
By July, the morning dew on damp earth draws forth memories of my childhood, rustling in Wellington boots through piles of golden leaves. As the northerly breeze swings westward, seed pods fall from the poinciana and twigs scatter as if for a game of pick-up-sticks. A shower of chocolate discs spill like cascading coins from the bush bauhinia, carpeting the dormant grass with confectionery. Twisted gum leaves drift into every niche, playing hide-and-seek from my attempts to turn them into compost.
An unseasonal gale rips dead fronds from the cabbage tree palm. I drag the discarded fans to the waste bins, careful to protect my un-gloved hands from the stems’ defensive serrations, and cram the spined leaves into the smouldering ash. Hot gasses ignite with a ‘pff’ as flames streak skywards. A blur of wings escapes ahead of the rising smoke, a tiny body vanishing before I can identify the fleeing animal. Concerned that others may be hidden in the fronds, I rifle them with care. A pair of pin-prick eyes stare out. Cupping the warm body in the cage of my fist, I feel the leaf-nosed bat trembling, its soft fur brushing against my palm. Transparent ears twitch and tiny claws grasp my skin. I transfer the captive to the dark interior of a bottle-brush and hope that it will fly off to find its companion.
While combing dried grass away from under our cottage, I am startled to see a gaping mouth. After my initial surprise, I reach out to untangle the prehistoric limbs from the rake, thinking the creature dead. An eye blinks. I withdraw my hand as if bitten. With a careful backstroke, I free the Gilbert’s dragon from its prison. The body stays rigid, tail stiff like a rawhide whip frozen mid-crack. Did I imagine the movement of that trowel head? I hope the lizard’s vigour returns with the coming warmth of the day. When I check several hours later, I am pleased to find only claw and tail patterns in the dust.
In September, leaf buds erupt in lemon and lime, as refreshing as an iced drink. It is hard to imagine the frosts at home that make my arthritic joints swell. Here, my body feels invigorated with each dawn, only sagging as the mercury rises into the forties, every breeze a welcome respite. New life thrums the air—birds warble higher and crickets saw faster. The rain tree swells and buzzes in a shimmer of bees. Saffron bolls bombard the parched ground, clumping in a wind-driven fleece—a burst of vigour in desperation for renewal. Bark splits and peels off swollen trunks and limbs, shedding winter’s skin for spring clothes, dressing for summer. Mating rituals commence and old nests are relined. Dry timber crashes to the ground, startling the white-eyed honeyeaters into flight, readying for the onslaught of the wet season.
At weekends, we head out in our four-wheel-drive to explore the property. Bumping along the corrugated track, my tongue dries from the metallic bull-dust, a taste that will forever remind me of the outback. A willy-willy spirals along the roadside, snatching plant matter into its vortex and stripping bare a wavering path as the sun burns my fair-skinned arms through the open window.
Our previous experience of cattle stations is of seas of Mitchell grass rippling to the horizon. Here, I squint to view escarpments of crumbling sandstone. Olive parasols of acacia shade the slopes, protection to insects, birds and lizards; each bush a world of its own. Black algae cross-hatch the cliff’s striations, the ruined mascara of a face that’s witnessed too much. The ancient grottoes reduce my homesickness for the mountains. I have never craved the ocean like some; sharp peaks and secret valleys hold far more appeal for me than sand and surf.
Budgerigars flash in front of the windscreen like a school of mackerel. The flocks will merge as the dry strangles the country until tens become hundreds, hundreds become thousands; a shoal of feathers. As we ford a sparkling creek, I spot a stalking Jabiru. With stork legs submerged, he appears to float, his black wings tucked to his sides like a magpie goose. Unconcerned by the vehicle, he continues to watch for fish, his heavy beak incongruous on his slender neck. His partner is nowhere in sight, unlike the ruby-capped brolga that visit the homestead every evening, never seen one without the other, much like Pete and myself.
Reaching a waterhole, we park beside the tangled roots of paperbarks clinging to maintain their hold on the ever-changing contours of the river’s path. Wet season floods have torn at drowned trunks, forcing the supplicant trees to pay obeisance to the storms. Pandanus palms fan over the banks, providing shade under which fingerlings vie for safety in the shallows. The gravel base tickles my bare feet as I wade into the spring-fed stream. I plunge into the enveloping water, barely noticing the wetness as the temperature matches my own. I wouldn’t do this in the rivers at home! I float on my back, listening to the music of the falls and watching a wedge-tailed eagle glide in lazy circles overhead. Refreshed, I return to the bank to bask.
As I look around, another world is revealed. Ants parade along a predetermined path. Spiralled shells, less than half the size of my smallest fingernail, and mother-of-pearl bivalves glisten against the buff sand. A solitary leaf parachutes to the water, concentric rings overtaking a floating branch that swims the current like the freshwater crocodiles that inhabit the area. A black bream hovers at the base of a boulder where the limestone crevices provide shelter. A pair of dragonflies dances out of reach, hovering then darting in the freedom of three dimensions. I revel in the absence of human intrusion.
The scent of smoke assails my nostrils. The sapphire sky saps to an amber haze, blurring the tree-line with reflected flames as if they are above, not below, the horizon. Only a faint breeze stirs the leaves—I am relieved that animals will have time to run, slither and hop ahead of the bushfire. The land will be renewed from a feed of ash rather than devastated by a conflagration.
Unlike our southern home with long summer evenings and short winter days, night arrives with little warning at this latitude. Only those that understand the evensong of the blue-winged kookaburras are prepared as light drains over the horizon like milk from a split coconut. Back on the road, we travel over elongated tree shadows. Pete brakes as one moves—an olive python traverses the track, its head reaching the nearside verge with its tail on the other. While we wait for it to cross, I marvel that this land can sustain such a creature, and where there is one, there must surely be others.
As we drive on, I listen to the night’s orchestra. Crickets creak and brittle timber snaps with the passing of unseen wildlife. Barking owls hoot their ping-pong ‘woof woof’. As if in protest of these canine mimics, a dingo howls, causing all other sounds to cease. Then the chuckle of a nightjar leads a crescendo back to a full symphony.
I peer for kangaroos nibbling on tender shoots along the verges. Eyes reflect the beams as a male jolts erect. With a tail thrust he escapes, landing metres up the bank. A female with a joey at her side bounds towards our car. I tense for a thud that doesn’t come. Unscathed, they leave only scuffle marks in the dirt, not a corpse to be torn apart by the scavengers in the morning.
As the country dries out, wild animals congregate around shrinking waterholes, cattle huddle near troughs, and pigs wallow in turkey-nest dams. The shriek of the whistling kites as they gather nesting material sounds shriller. No longer do the birds of prey soar and glide for sheer joy; there is work to be done. Wings folded, they swoop to snatch a skink or frog, talons open and poised.
Late afternoon wakes the agile wallabies from their shade under the bauhinia to slip under the wire fence, deviating from their path to the river to take advantage of the mown lawn. With tentative hops they venture into the garden, ears swivelling to detect threats, front paws lifted like a begging dog. The marsupials ignore the familiar ‘pht pht pht’ as the sprinkler strews emeralds, sapphires and rubies—a necklace of precious water.
A helicopter drones in the distance. Buzzing like an oversized dragonfly, the aerial herder announces the arrival of plodding cattle keen to reach the yards and a long drink after muster. Horsemen lead a dust cloud of Brahmans—old cows with dewlaps swinging, heifers racing with tails in the air, and young bulls vying for position. Stockmen turn to chase escapees, their horses shouldering recalcitrant beasts back in line.
I sip a cold beer and enjoy the evening spectacle. A rainbow bee-eater taunts me from the fence, defying my attempts to capture its iridescent plumage on camera. The giant ghost gum sinks into darkness as the sun’s rays slant through the wafting foliage. Stockhorses splash and snort in the dam, their labours done for the day. A buckskin mare sinks to the ground and rolls in the shallows. Standing, she shakes from forelock to tail, sending red-winged parrots squabbling into the snappy gum, vanishing in a camouflage of shadow-dappled leaves.
Behind me, moths beat powdered wings against the window. A ‘smack’ resounds as a frog pounces and lands against the weatherboard, tongue retracting around its prey. Geckos cling to the walls with ridged feet, snapping up midges that attempt to penetrate the fly mesh. A micro-bat clicks and swoops around my ears, perhaps the one I saved from the pyre.
Diamond stars hint at other worlds light years away. I contemplate our planet orbiting the sun, our inconsequential place in the galaxy, and the infinity of the universe. Never to be underestimated, this country puts life in perspective. I am only a cell in the earth’s body, born to function for a short period of time and die as the planet ages.
As the year ends, clouds elbow each other aside. The building humidity makes every movement an effort, every breath threatening to drown. The air is stiff with tension as thunder rumbles like an old bull, announcing the arrival of the wet season. Tempers flare like the flashes of lightning that bisect the sky. It is time for us to head south, back across the concrete crossing and its oasis, back to our southern home. Revitalised, we will return to our beloved mountains, until the outback calls again.