Held hostage by Pilliga forest farm life- unlikely genesis for spacefaring homo sapiens.
|The Caveman Stargazer
Rob could hear voices. A girl.
“What? No. We…no, we need help. I didn’t take it. It’s… my cousin is, he… the cave…”
A man spoke.
“Where'd you nick it from? Who are youse? Where are yer? Mate, if you don’t give it back I’ll…”
Tinny squawking pierced Rob’s ears. He recognised the sound as a mobile phone on loudspeaker. Not many people had mobile phones. Even less on farms. And here? Karen?
“Please help us. It’ll be flat soon. I found it here. No it…can you...”
The tousled haired ten- year- old shifted restlessly, eyelids fluttering, nose twitching in a pre-sneeze wrinkle. He became aware of Karen’s presence somewhere nearby. His erstwhile cousin’s conversation and tone though distant was rousing, urgent, disturbing. There shouldn't be other people here. Why? He tried to call out. But the sound wouldn't come, and his mouth felt dry and blocked. The voices were adult men clamouring, shouting. Karen's reedy rejoinder rose above theirs, asking, and pleading, demanding, and then screaming. Rob wanted to know the reason and protect his companion and friend. But he sank back into comforting nothingness of unconsciousness.
Six kilometres away, their dad’s farm known in those times as "King’s Crossing" was a rectangle shape with the creek forming a half moon on one long side. On the south eastern corner of the Pilliga Forest lay a geological formation, a low hill hiding a series of caves. Over countless ages, millennial wind currents had eaten away at the loose grains of sand between sea-worn lumps of conglomerate until what was left became known as the Sandstone Caves. Perhaps someone in heaven, or from the Dream-time, knew how long since the sea had crashed on the shore at this altitude, across this semi-arid land.
Six kilometres was too far for anyone to hear a scream, especially screaming muffled within a feverish nightmare. It was a challenging distance for two skinny farm kids. The hazards of deep sandy gullies, aggressive snakes, cunning bulls and bull ants on an unwise wandering path rarely used – the hazards were dismissed by tough yet inexperienced rural kids. Horse riders mustering, or a farmer repairing a phone line, a fencing contractor; these dusty folks may have travelled here ten years past.
Vast areas, five thousand acres of scrub land just on King's Crossing, were dotted with a surprising array of interesting landmarks. There was even a haphazard collection of gravestones, mournful reminders of others who had perished — the families and children of long ago — drowning, ill with typhoid fever, cholera, polio, an accident with stock horses, or wagon, broken neck after being pitched headlong from a bolting sulky, tree felling, dying of thirst, lost in the bush, crushed behind a Dodge steering column.
Death was lurking.
Grandma had warned us of various scenarios, one way tickets to our personal plot in the cemetery. Add to the world of the living the misery of flies, stinging nettles, and sweat from the heat.
They trudged non-complaining yet thirsty (they had brought no water, their hats were lying in the shade of their bedrooms back in the farmhouse) – only their breathless banter spurred them on.
Now there was no banter.
Rob awoke shaking. He sat up from his recline on sand that smelled of wallaby poo. He remembered. A phone speaker and voices. And back further, earlier, the slippery slope, scrabbling fingers, his handhold crumbling away, falling. End over end he’d cart-wheeled and then came the sickening impact metres below. On the way down he’d hit his head. He saw stars in monochrome, tasted blood.
Now, dragging himself to a lower cave lip from where he'd lay, Rob felt the throbbing lump on his bleeding scalp, gingerly touching matted hair. His legs were numb. He jerked with recall and wrenched around to look over the edge. Cousin Karen was surely in danger! And those voices...
He could see a barbed sunlight spear shafting through the twisted white gum leaves against the afternoon sky. Karen was also dozing. There was no one else, no men, no voices or argument. She was half sitting against the sandstone cave wall, unharmed except for tracks where tears had cleaned the dirt from her cheeks. He knew they had to move to the shade.
The farm boy stilled his wheezing breaths for a couple of seconds, listening. A breeze stirred a leafy screen hanging near the cave's mouth - the only noise. Nature was calm, and the bush land gave him no answer. Did the voices and screaming echo from his fitful sleep? He’d heard speech like this; aboriginal children who boarded the school bus close to town.
The wind moaned through the shallow labyrinth he knew as the "lick-hole", a familiar sound soothing his racing mind, slowing his pounding heart, but there was no relief. His lower limbs had lost their numbness.
Pain bloomed like a red misty flower garden, an orchard of torture, and ripe blood plums of agony hung within arm’s reach. He sank back against the hollow of the rock where he could hold down his panic, and breathe slowly. He wondered what the dream meant. He’d talk to Karen when she awoke.
The trees stirred in sympathy with darkening shadows warning a change in weather, a gale, a storm. And as the storm of his injuries clamoured to be heard, Rob stretched forward to take his pick of red misty blossoms bunched across his forehead, and sank forward into oblivion under the glaring, baking solar rays.
New South Wales. Australia.
Back in nineteen-sixty-nine, people of the farming, forestry, and tourism community of the town of Coonabarabran paid closer attention to the stars and planets. These television watching inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere of Earth were glued to their seats in the lounge room. They saw the men step out of their Saturn V rocket lander module, and tread on the moon.
The “Coona” residents became excited to see the moon. No aliens, just a place devoid of atmosphere, people, farms, and school children. A peaceful place, but lifeless.
Grumbling schoolchildren of the Pilliga looked up in the frosty dawn, scrambling out of bed so early the stars were still loitering. These children protested the injustice of travelling so far to school, and did not notice the twinkling ratbags of starlight. Those were aeons distance away. The clock and a Vauxhaul Velox were much closer. And farm gates in the icy dawn.
The heavenly bodies, these floating orbs, revolved in immense incomprehensible ellipses, twinkling cogs turning within a mammoth galactic gearbox, motion so vast and distant it was stationary, like a stationary engine in the shearing shed.
Astrophysics, far above their bowl haircuts and pay grade, revolved free of charge and didn't give grief at taxation time. Rural people’s busy lives continued with the routine security of something that always existed. Yes, all earthly inhabitants, even country dwellers in society's back blocks of the Pilliga Forest knew this without being told with exception of the blind…and Rob.
Rob didn't notice. Rob needed to be told. Rob was told by his Dad and siblings and cousins who lived on the farm. Rob was told by his Grandparents at Rocky Glenn and his Uncle K and Aunty M who lived in a caravan next to the farm home. Rob was told by his teachers, told by books, at School and in the town Library. But he still needed his awareness raised. In nineteen sixty nine Rob was old enough to notice, and carefully pilfer, elliptical orbs within a toddler's reach - hens' eggs from the chook yard nests in Castlereagh and Dalgarno Streets Coonabarabran. But he wasn't old enough to comprehend profits, or prophets, and had no clue of celestial observation and musings. Rob was short on comprehension and physical stature in Nineteen Sixty Nine. He needed assistance to reach even the biscuit tin. He could predict who would spoil him with a biscuit but could not foresee the future activities of people such as Elon Musk, SpaceX or colonisation of Mars. He lay unconscious in a cave but never dreamed of the locals of Coonabarabran becoming an interplanetary dwelling species.
The edges of his vision cleared and there was Karen squinting through the dust, squirming toward his oddly angled legs. She didn’t speak but she made a keening sound, as if she searched for her next breath, a breath that wouldn’t come. He swung his neck and peered up towards the light. A car door slammed in the distance, the thud muted by tree trunks and deadening sandstone outcrops. He needed to get them both in the shade.
We didn’t drive here. I’m not allowed to drive. Karen’s not old enough either.
Darkness returned, demanding Rob’s surrender.
The Star Trek
Rob felt himself float up into the sky. When he looked down he didn’t see his own body, he saw memories.
The early 1970's brought cousins to live with Rob's family.
Everyone's eyes worked quite well, even Rob's - often told to open them. They saw the stars in the sky, but dreamed of escape from farm chores, away from farm food, away from boring school and agricultural life. Stars were not such a priority for young isolated farm children in the '70's, Yaminbah Creek edge of the Pilliga State Forest. Mum and Dad discussed with all the kids the moon landing they saw on the next door neighbour's black and white television. Mum and Dad didn't have a TV set. For Rob this was momentous. Mum and Dad were watching TV! He wanted to watch TV, not lifeless moon dust! Rob was old enough to learn a stark lesson; to focus not on TV, not on the stars above, but firmly on the weed infested ground.
Step For Mankind
First rule of the Pilliga Scrub? Wear shoes!
There are small spiny pin cushions that thrive on the sandy soil in this region, known locally as American Burr Grass. In other regions they are named Gentle Annie, or Innocent Weed.
While astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped out of the American rocket on the moon, he’d never stepped on American Burr Grass in The Pilliga Forest.
King’s Crossing was accessed from the Narrabri Road via a lonely turn off 30 kilometres from Coonabarabran. There were no mountains near the farm, few hills where a view could be gained above the tops of the eucalyptus and iron bark trees. Here there was just claustrophobic bushland full of things trying to injure or kill you.
The Sandstone Caves is a breeding habitat for eagles, and the site is culturally significant for the Gamilaroi people and their descendants. Everyone enjoyed this rocky outcrop of higher visage for bush walks and picnics.
We wanted to see further than American Burr Grass or Stinging Nettles, further than the farm. We longed to soar above the Pilliga and understand. What lay beyond the trees?
We noted the eagles, galahs, cockatoos, crows - all the bird life and their effortless flight, their superior vantage to us plodding farmers’ children.
In the beginning, I became aware of astronomy as we all sat around the huge farm house table, every Wednesday night, and took turns to read a verse from a chapter in the Holy Bible.
I became aware during these intimate family sessions of the existence of a living God who was above the chook sheds, above the trees, above the Pilliga, above the stars, above all. According to these teachings by which Dad would have us abide, this God was kind, forgiving, merciful, and aware of each one of us. He knew things; our thoughts, secrets, things we tried to hide in our heart and soul, and under our beds. Things we knew were wrong but did anyway. This God was a provider, controlled our future, and the weather. Dad's leather strap was love. And God was love.
God had one son, we learned, who had come from that heavenly paradise, to earth, to show us how to live whereby we might be fit for entrance into God's kingdom here on earth, and later after our bodies gave up the ghost, in heaven. This heaven was not the sky. The sky and it's lights was drawn across that universe by God, the maker of everything, like mum would draw a curtain across our farmhouse louvers - if we'd had curtains. There was nobody way out here in the Pilliga Scrub, in the late 60's - early 70's, who would be peering in those apertures. No, if there was a bogeyman foolish enough to be outside in the dark he'd be eaten alive by mosquitoes or bitten by one of the Kelpie farm dogs.
One day, Dad said, God would be finished with the great physical habitat he had made for us to live, and he would pack it all away like last month’s Christmas tree decorations, stick it in a very large tea-chest or wool-pack, and maybe put it in a clearing sale to be sold with all the other worn out used up universes. They'd probably only bid five bucks for ours. In the meantime, Dad reminded us, we should obey our parents, and love this superior God with everything we had, so that Dad wouldn't have to correct our bad ideas, and give us a "clout". His life lessons might seem old fashioned these days, but I think we had the best Dad. He would also tell us to look at the stars above the farm, twinkling so brightly and so close we could easily reach out and touch them, and not need a Saturn V rocket or Cape Canaveral. We lived far from town, across a couple of mountain ranges from any light polluting city. We lived on the edge of the Pilliga Forest. We lived within the Dark Skies region of Coonabarabran, the Astronomy Capital of Australia.
And, Dad reminded us, the flaming stones of Sodom and Gomorrah would fall on our heads without (much) mercy if he came home from shearing and found out we'd been mucking up under mum's care.
Rob looked down through the trees and saw his own body, abdomen twisted, cousin lying nearby. His mind drifted…
Karen didn't arrive. Every afternoon when school finished, we'd all walk down the slope of John Street, Coonabarabran's main street that doubled as the Oxley Highway. We'd all walk to a car parking area behind one of the pubs, sit in Mum and Dad's Vauxhaul Velox, (later upgraded to a HR Holden) and wait for five o'clock when mum would finish her book keeping job.
But today something was wrong. One of us hadn't arrived.
Karen, the youngest cousin a little older than me was missing. She'd never done this before. Mum kept calm until she shrieked suddenly over the back seat. Fury was a rare emotion with Mum. So now her worry was contagious, and we did “all shut up”. Because of a misunderstanding with mum, and other things I didn't grasp, Karen didn't arrive at the usual car park rendezvous. We drove around town looking, asking. We returned to the Primary school when it wasn't school time. Then as the sun abandoned all hope and sank behind the Warrumbungle mountain range, behind the Siding Spring Observatory, and behind other telescopes sticking up on the ridge, mum parked the Vauxhall next to a place we all feared.
The Police did more than listen.
A missing child, even if she was level headed, was alarming. For me, replacing the missing child, the missing sun, and mum's wits, there came into the unclouded heavens through our Vauxhal windscreen the cruel ice cold stars in their usual regiments. I'd been told the patterns they represented ——
"It's not a saucepan; it is Orion, silly head!"
On that night, whatever the star shapes were named, to me they just represented something unreachable, immeasurably cold and distant, unthinking, uncaring. And probably even now witnessing Karen crying hysterically as she was forced into some strangers car boot. Or slapped into silence on the bench seat in some "man’s” car. It was always a "man".
That "bad man" my grandmother told us about. Watch out for him. He'll come in the night and get naughty boys and girls. He'll put sand in your eyes. He likes to walk about under the stars, in the night time. But you don't know his face. It's just blank. A black hole. And if she ever saw him, she said, she'd use her twenty two rifle, kept under the bed, or propped next to the wardrobe, or laid carefully on top of the dresser in the dining room where kids can't reach it - kept there in case of snakes. Yes, she'd do him in alright. The man. No nasty bloke would be walking about with our grandmother wielding her bolt action popgun, stars or otherwise.
Now the stars were out and we weren't home having tea yet, and mum was struggling not to go crook at us, trying not to let us see her get emotional. We'd all run out of patience waiting for the "constable" to report from his highway patrol paddy wagon.
Karen and I were fierce rivals most days, fighting over whose turn to wash up or wipe, fighting over stupid things, jealous about stuff that didn't matter, tired hungry naive country children. And now she was missing, and I kept my head down behind the Vauxhaul bench seat hiding the same stuff as mum, leaking out of my eyeballs. All this at the end of a very long work day, and a long drive back home to King's Crossing...
But, Karen was found. She'd managed to walk a remarkable distance out of town, almost to the Newell Highway turnoff to Narrabri. Yes, it took a whole lot of convincing by a random off duty constable, travelling back from another town, for her to get in his unmarked police car. In normal circumstances her stranger danger radar would have been warranted. Today nothing made sense, and she must have been terrified. She planned to walk home to our farm, over thirty Kilometres distance, in the dark. Would she have resorted to navigate by the stars, by the saucepan, by Orion, or the Southern Cross?
I learned that sometimes a man, even a boogeyman, can be the best thing. They aren't all nasty.
We were deeply grateful to the policeman that night. He'd stopped up mum's tears, and quietened Karen, a double achievement that is still a mystery to this day.
Back To Earth
"I dreamed you were screaming. There were aboriginals, their voices. Men. You were asking lots of stuff."
Karen didn’t respond. Just stared at my legs and rummaged in her pocket.
We'd walked to the Sandstone Caves near the Narrabri Road. And now we had to get moving, get walking way back to the farm, to get there before dark. I kept still so reality would delay its return and I could cope, keep the moment close of sitting with my cousin at a favourite place.
"Well, I dunno. I don't remember any dream. Sounds like you've had a nightmare. You got worms or something?" She yawned and wiped muck off her cheek.
"I think one of those mongrel green-ants bit me. It's aching bad up into my thigh". She rubbed at her leg and stood up and fell down. There was blood on her lip. She held her stomach and coughed. She wept and her face was white. It dawned on me that she was covering up unspeakable pain. My world of softness and cloudy absence, my hiding place of unconsciousness was wriggling out of my mental grasp and sharpening knives ready for slaughter – my legs hurt and wouldn’t obey, I delayed trying to move - just a few more breaths and a little more conversation before we faced the inevitable.
“We could just stay here in the shade, lower than the bushwalker path. No one will bother us here. I’m too puffed to walk all the way back”.
"Rob. Don't be a dingbat. It's not far, unless you're a weak boy. A sissy. Are you a sissy?" She turned her back, stifling her own vulnerability. She crouched and fiddled with something just out of sight. Poking at wounds? She acted like an adult. But I could hear desolate mewing sounds and knew it would soon be time to admit what we had both realised in the last few dawning horrific seconds of grimness. She interrupted me and I was thankful.
"Hey, Rob". She must have felt a bit guilty for name calling.
"You remember Doug?"
We spoke simultaneously.
"Remember that time..?"
Karen face lit up, and she retold the story as we put off the fear of pain, of my injured legs and panting, thirsty tongue. We didn’t want to solve the adult puzzle of survival yet. We didn’t want to face the truth of our mortal danger.
Sometimes, stories are a more effective anaesthetic than morphine. Our way of coping in extreme duress can morph into a shared dreamlike state…
Rob was not sure if Karen told the story or he was the narrator.
Dad (Uncle K) called the first Kelpie Doug and he was a brown short haired dog. He died permanently. That one was bitten by a snake and by the time Dad climbed off his stock horse and grabbed the dog, spun him around by the tail thinking it was a bait, he'd already died. That's what happens when you don't know the reason for the fits, and the frothing.
I saw him bite a bull's hock, one day, and he, Doug, held on like a G clamp. The annoyed bull kicked like a bikie starting a hog, but Doug just flapped around like a rag doll and wouldn't let go even when the Bull bellowed and snorted.
Doug died of snakebite.
That happened in the top paddock, in summer when snakes are about. It was probably a red bellied black. Or maybe a king brown, Dad said. I hardly remember Doug. I was a little tacker back then. It was about 1974 or something.
But I remember Coke clearly, and the story Dad told us at tea time. We didn't have power at our house yet. So tea was by kerosene lamp. You know the type? Use them for camping? You pump before you light them. They have a cotton mantle. You don't mess around with them or the mantle, because it's so brittle, falls off. Then Dad comes home and gives you a clout. He's grumpy because you touched the Kerosene lamp when he said not to. Then he has to muck around finding a torch and the ice-cream container with mantles in it. He had to locate packets of them amongst the screws, fly paper, aerosol spray cans of WD40 and Aero-start.
We all sat around the big table in the dimness, the lamp making a lot of white noise, it's glare attracting a few moths flying and plopping around. Someone had sprayed Mortein or Pea-Beu insect spray under the table to get rid of the mosquito.
Dad sat at the head. All our plates were now empty except for a couple of bits of pumpkin skin or a mutton bone. You don't know what's good for you not eating that skin - too well fed. The tea pot had been topped up from a black kettle simmering on the stove. The stove was a Ward dual oven wood range.
Dad had never seen anything like it in all his life. He sounded a little bit shook up, yet happy. As if someone had given him a big bill, then a box of hundred dollar notes to pay it with. He'd been riding around the "Angle" paddock, across the creek. There was a mob of sheep that needed a new paddock, theirs was eaten out. So with the chore of moving them onto fresh tucker done, Dad led his horse back towards the creek to return to the homestead on our side. It was a hot day, Dad said, and the horse must have kicked at a March fly, even though it wasn't March. Well, the poor old dog, Coke, copped the hoof fair and square up the chops. He fell down dead like a sack of wet wheat.
Dad's heart nearly broke right then, like it did when Doug died. It took him months to get over losing Doug. Now here was Coke, the same brown Kelpie breed, with a bit of "barb" in him, that's Dingo. Just enough Dad sometimes advised, to give him a bit of spark. That's why Doug held on to the bull's hoof. And why Coke had no fear of danger by walking so close to the horses. So Dad did the thing that farmer's do when their dog dies.
It's a big moment.
He carried Coke his faithful dog across the sandy wheel ruts of the road, across the almost bare paddock. He laid him carefully in the shade of a Kurrajong tree and paused to have a rest. After a while, Dad said, (after clearing his throat) he'd left the dog there and led the horse down the track again, aimed for home.
So, he'd crossed the creek that was just a trickle, it being a dry season. As he trudged up the other side toward the gate, deep in thought of his lost dog Coke, he suddenly realised that behind the horse, right next to the hoof that had clocked him one, was Coke. There he was, trotting along behind the horse again. He had only been unconscious. And the horse must have kicked him so suddenly, or he had concussion and didn't remember what had knocked him out.
All of us laughed for a long time about this.
We laughed with relief more than humour. Coke was tied up at his kennel; a 44 gallon drum, tipped on its side and the bum cut out, down among the trees. Now, as we sat next to each other at the base of the Sandstone Caves, Karen said,
"He wouldn't understand what the fuss was about. Not Coke. That's a dog for you. A resurrected dog. A star dog."
"And you said "bum"."
"Yeah, well don't tell Aunty H!"
Rob awoke to aboriginal voices calling through the scrub. Karen was slumped nearby, ragged catchy breathing. There were bits of pink foam on her chin mixed with dirt and snot.
She didn’t rouse to his shout. But others did. Farmers? Tourists? Campers? No.
“Hey! Look over here, look?!”
“What in heaven’s name...? Aunty Lorna! Look. She’s got my lost phone!” One of them pointed at Karen.
“Are youse all right mate? Billy! Get over here!”
“Lucky she mentioned the cave eh?”
Rob heard voices. The same voices he’d heard talking to Karen. He pointed towards his injured cousin. He tried to focus on the surrounding Coonabarabran locals, their concerned frowns, worried brows, but his eyes were blurry. He understood their emergency response, their rapid discussion and decisions. He had no idea where Karen had found their phone. But he thanked his lucky stars for people who loved the Sandstone Caves, visited their tribal landmark, and who had lost their mobile phone here.
As he felt himself lifted and carried, and saw Karen brought as well, he bit his bottom lip and grunted, feeling like he’d been speared in both legs. His arm flopped loose and his shoulder joint grated outside the socket. Once more his world faded away.
We ate icy cold watermelon on summer nights, safe family nearby, conversation punctuated by the odd explosion of homemade ginger beer bottles stored under the house. Dad's advice and warnings were as true as his capabilities as a father and guardian. We all sat on cast iron "plough seats", spitting the melon pips onto the burrs and cat-head strewn Cooch grass "lawn", and laughing. The dusk of the Australian night drew a curtain of friendly shadows across the Pilliga, like God scattered the stars in the heavens to guide our eventide journey. Under this part of the world, in the Southern Hemisphere, we were privileged to view more clearly than most the magnificent eternal aeons, particularly the Southern Cross. Dad, my siblings, and cousins, would all subtly try to dominate the conversation, and regale me, the youngest, with details of different constellations, of their bits and pieces understanding of the moon's make up. They would try to explain how distant the moon to our shiny eyed gaze. They would name the planets. They would warn about looking at the sun too long, not to look at it at all if there was an eclipse.
"You'll go blind as a bat if you do that. So don't even try, not even once. Just don't, all right?" Dad would extrapolate. The sun was glorious, omniscient, and reliable as winter frost. But it was also dangerous, chronically painful, destructive, debilitating, and as terrifying as American Burr Grass. And the Orion constellation, the saucepan, comforted me as I dreamt of something delicious cooking on the Ward dual oven, slow combustion stove. I looked at Karen, who had fully recovered from me landing on her in cave fall, and she looked at me – my broken legs healed, collar bone back in place.
There were stars in our eyes.