After a cuppa we climb back into the 4WDs and driven with our gear a short distance from the homestead to the bush huts. It is clean, simple and uncomplicated. A bed with overhanging mosquito net, an adjoining open air shower and toilet, is my home for the next week. The walls and roof are corrugated iron. There is no ceiling. The open rafters and wooden slats that make up the roof and flooring are no barriers to creatures that call this land home. A tree attempts to give shade over the roof in the heat of the day.
A shower under a clear sky is luxury. A quick change of clothes and we are ready for the evening. The young boy, no more than 11, is stoking the campfire. I watch him burn the grass under the drum with a lit stick. His 9 year old sister reads my silent gaze accurately and informs me he is making sure there is nothing to alight should embers rain down. In the city, the combination of fire and child would ignite adults into action. Not here. He is clearly in charge of the chore and trusted to do it well. His sister respects his ability and responsibility. So do I.
Soon more people have gathered around the fire, freshly showered, some with beer in hand. The cowboy, the men and women, who have worked all day, have the distinctive tan of this region. Their skin is leathery, brown, and deeply creased. The cowboy plays his guitar. He has spent the day riding a horse into ever constricting circles. His “hup, hup, hup” sometimes loud and instructive and at other times, gentle and soothing. He holds no grudges against the horse that bucks. Someone else tells a yarn. There is laughter, music and comfortable conversation. We have become a group of intimate strangers. Metal on iron, the dinner bell is rung. Like an ocean to shore, people move towards the food in waves.
We head to bed by 8 pm. This is a working cattle station. We are all early risers.
The first night is pure apprehension. The walk to the hut by torchlight through grass seems longer than I remember earlier in the day. Surprisingly, there are few mosquitos in the hut at night. The geckos know this. They scurry outdoors on approach.
I had left behind an expensive hotel room in Kununurra where I made attempts sealing up the door with towels to keep a tiny gecko out of my room. I was unsuccessful and only fell asleep each night out of sheer exhaustion. Here in my hut I felt vulnerable, a flimsy net providing an illusion of safety. I used my headlamp minimally to keep insects (and preying geckos) away and climbed into bed in record speed. When I catch my breath I find the air is cool. Once in bed, I dared not get out to find my socks, so I wriggle my feet vigorously against each other to generate warmth.
In the dark my hearing is acute. I hit record on the phone. It is the only flask I have to carry the elixir with me when I leave.
I hear the resident emu, Marilyn, grooming her feathered quills with a long, sweeping motion. The horses and wallabies chomping grass almost at my ear aroused the child in me. I wake to every sound, curious, darting the flashlight to catch a glimpse of whatever it was. A flock of birds! The sound is similar to the Tour de France racers. The lengthy winged zoom tells me there is a canopy above the vast paddock. The brolgas, probably somewhere near the King River, with their distinctive call. I close my eyes to see them lift their wings in slow motion, circling each other in elegant dance. In the far distance, a dingo howled. The horses have been spooked. Now in fast gallop, there is urgency in the sound of hooves. I fall asleep, waking intermittently, to gentle rhythmic snoring from the men on either side of my hut.
In this alien landscape I burrow deeper into skin that breathes. I am alive. It has taken me a long time to get here. I find a smile in the darkness. Still clutching it, I birth new from this wondrous womb, at first light.
May you wake to find your True North, too, some day.
Until next time,
a dawn bird