[While painting this scene of a group of older men gathering to admire the glowing walls of Standley Chasm, I was reminded of the T-Team’s trek in 1977 with Mr. B. This wealthy man used to comfort and luxury, took on the challenges of roughing it camping with the T-Team. This stunning chasm is about 50km west of Alice Springs and is one of the first of many beautiful sites to visit in the MacDonnell Ranges.]
The T-Team With Mr B (26)
Mr. B slowed the Rover and eased it into a park joining the line of cars, land rovers, and buses awaiting their owners’ return. The T-Team piled out of the Rover and in single-file, followed Dad along the narrow track heading towards Standley Chasm. In the twists and turns of the trail that hugged the dry creek bed, I spotted ferns in the shadow of rock mounds the colour of yellow ochre, and ghost gums sprouting out of russet walls of stone. Hikers marched past us returning to the car park.
‘G’day,’ they said. ‘Well worth it.’
Dad checked his watch and quickened his pace.
I ran to catch Dad. ‘Have we missed out?’
‘We better hurry,’ Dad snapped.
A leisurely short stroll became a race to the finish as we struggled to keep up with Dad; scrambling over boulders on the track, squeezing past more tourists going to and from the chasm, Dad snapping and cracking the verbal whip, and Mr. B moaning and groaning that “it’s not for a sheep station”.
The crowd thickened, stranding us in a jam of people, fat bottoms wobbling, parents hauling their whinging kids, and men clutching cameras to their eyes for the perfect shot. Dad checked his watch and then shifted the weight from one foot to the other.
‘Are we there yet?’ I asked.
Wrong question. Especially when asking a grumpy Dad.
‘Not yet!’ Dad barked.
‘I reckon we’re not far away,’ I said. ‘All the tourists have stopped. Must be some reason.’
Dad screwed up his nose. ‘I dunno, it doesn’t look right.’
‘Excuse me! Excuse me!’ Mr. B, one arm stretched out before him, parted the sea of people and strode through.
We followed in Mr. B’s wake and within twenty paces, there it glowed. Standley Chasm. Both walls in hues of gold to ochre. Dozens of people milled around its base.
Dad gazed at the chasm, and then squinted at the position of the sun. ‘It’s not there yet.’
‘How long?’ I wanted to know.
‘Not long, just wait.’ Dad paced towards a white gum that bowed before the grand wonder of the chasm.
‘Wait! I’ll take a photo of you,’ I said.
‘Do you have to?’
‘We might miss the walls turning red.’
‘They turn red that quickly?’
Dad leaned up against the tree. ‘I s’pose not.’
I dug out my instamatic camera and photographed my grumpy Dad.
Then we waited. The tourists snapped their shots and then filtered away.
‘When’s it going to turn red?’ I asked for the fourth time.
‘Be patient,’ Dad said.
‘This is boring,’ Matt mumbled.
‘Let’s see what’s the other side.’ Richard tapped Matt on the arm. The two lads scrambled over the rocks and I watched them hop from one boulder to the next over a small waterhole.
Dad paced from one wall to the next while Mr. B photographed Standley Chasm from every angle.
I watched mesmerized by the sunlight playing on the walls. They turned from a russet-brown on one side, gold on the other, to both glowing a bright orange. But by then, most of the tourists had left, thinking the Chasm had finished its performance for the day.
As the other wall turned in hue to sienna, Mr. B packed his camera in his leather case and stood back admiring the view.
‘Get some good shots?’ Dad asked.
‘I reckon I did.’ Mr. B patted his camera bag. ‘You know, once the crowds thinned out, I reckon I got some good ones.’
‘Ah, well, I’ve seen Standley Chasm put on a better show in the past.’ I think Dad was trying to justify not having a functional camera.
‘Well, I enjoyed it,’ I said. ‘This place is amazing!’
Dad patted me on the back. ‘Ah! Lee-Anne, you haven’t seen anything yet. Wait till you see Ormiston Gorge.’
‘By the way, where are tha boys?’ Mr. B asked.
‘Looks like we have to be patient and wait for them now.’
‘I hope your son doesn’t get ma boy lost.’
Dad laughed. ‘No worries. There they are, just the other side of the chasm.’ He waved at the boys.
Richard and Matt scrambled through the chasm to join the T-Team on the hike back to the Rover.
The T-Team with Mr B— In 1977Dad’s friend Mr Banks and his son, Matt (not their real names), joined Dad, my brother (Rick) and me on this journey of adventure. I guess Dad had some reservations how I would cope…But it soon became clear that the question was, how would Mr B who was used to a life of luxury cope?
In this episode, the T-Team experience one of the hazards of camping in a creek bed.]
The sun peeped over the horizon, its rays causing the river gum leaves to look like they’d burst into flames. The creek was alive with a conference of birds, screeching and chattering over breakfast. I sat up in my sleeping bag and stretched.
‘Did you have a good sleep, Lee-Anne?’ Dad asked.
‘Yes, I did. I had a wonderful sleep. It’s just like you say, Dad. The hip hole made all the difference.’
During the night, since my air mattress had gone flat, I had dug a hip hole. Dad recommended doing this in place of an air-mattress. He said that the aborigines did this when they slept.
‘That’s good,’ Dad said and then tramped over to the Rover.
When he had disappeared behind the vehicle, I unravelled myself from my bedding, pulled on my boots and shuffled over to the fire joining Richard and Matt, spreading hands over the warmth to continue the process of waking up.
‘Oh, no!’ Dad cried.
‘What?’ Mr B sat up in his sack. He looked like a red caterpillar with slits for eyes.
‘The Rover’s bogged,’ Dad yelled from behind the Rover.
‘How can you tell?’ Mr B asked.
Dad sighed. ‘Ooh, it doesn’t look good. Told you we shouldn’t’ve camped in a creek bed.’
‘Pff!’ Mr B wormed his way out of his sleeping bag and then sauntered over to the Rover, vanishing like Dad behind it.
The men talked in low tones, their voices muffled.
Richard grabbed his .22 rifle and nodded to Matt who then picked up his. ‘Just going to do some shooting,’ he said and then the two boys walked down the creek. I started to follow them.
‘Lee-Anne!’ Dad called.
I stopped and looked back. ‘What?’
‘Come and help us dig out the Rover’s wheels, would you?’
I put my hands on my hips. ‘Oh, al-right!’
Then I stomped back to the Rover.
Dad huffed and puffed as he shelled out the sand with his bare hands.
Mr B used the camp shovel. ‘I hope this has been washed and sterilised thoroughly,’ he grunted.
I muttered, ‘Why do the boys get all the fun?’
Both men stopped their shovelling.
Dad glared at me. ‘What did you say?’
‘Er, um, nothing,’ I replied.
‘I don’t want to hear any grumbling, you understand?’ Dad’s voice had an edge to it.
‘You should be thankful for the privilege,’ Mr B added.
‘Yes, I am.’ Where else would I get the joy of digging the Rover out of a bog of sand? I continued digging.
Mr B stepped away from the Rover. ‘Try the Rover now.’
Dad gathered some green leaves and placed them in the cavities under each of the Rover’s tyres. Then he hopped in the driver’s seat and turned on the ignition. The Rover’s engine puttered to life. Dad sat in the idle Rover while it chugged. Then he engaged first gear with a crunch of the clutch.
He stuck his head out the window. ‘Get behind and push.’
Mr B and I laid hands on each side of the Rover’s back end and as Dad pressed down on the accelerator, we pushed. Four wheels spun. Sand and leaves sprayed us.
‘Push, girl!’ Mr B shouted.
‘I’m pushing!’ Sand smattered my face. ‘It’s no use!’
Dad switched off the engine. He jumped out the Rover and marched to the rear tyres. He then knelt and dug deeper under the tyres. ‘Get some more leaves and small branches!’ he cried.
Mr B and I scrambled up the bank and gathered armfuls of fallen branches. When we returned, Dad was smoothing out the holes under the back tyres. He also had placed twigs and small branches under the front tyres. We added our offerings to the holes below the back tyres and Dad patted them down. He’d also deflated the tyres a little.
Dad climbed into the driver’s seat. ‘We’ll try again.’
This time with Mr B and me pushing, the Rover’s tyres spun, then caught and jerked out of the bog. Dad sped up the dry river bed and parked on firmer ground. He then returned. Dusting his hands, he said, ‘Alright, Lee-Anne, after I’ve pumped up the tyres again, we’ll be ready to go. Go get the boys. We’re off to Alice Springs.’
In this episode my dad, Mr. T comes up with a rather unorthodox anduniquesolution to the bull-dust in the back cabin problem…]
The Curtain of Springs
Sometime along that rough-graded road, we crossed over the Northern Territory—South Australian border. We passed no sign but the road, though still just a dirt track, really, became smoother, wider and much kinder to our poor trailer. But the bull-dust that billowed into the back cabin of the Rover wasn’t kind to Richard, Matt and me. We were squashed together like sardines amongst the piles of extra luggage and boxes that Dad had relegated to the Rover in order to lighten the trailer’s load. The dust filtered into my lungs and I coughed. And coughed. And coughed.
And Richard complained, ‘Would you mind not coughing all over the place?’
‘I can’t help it,’ I wheezed. ‘I need some fresh air.’
Matt held his throat and rasped, ‘I can’t breathe.’
Mr. B glanced back at his son. ‘What’s that, boy?’
‘I can’t breathe,’ his son said.
I coughed, extra loud to emphasise our discomfort.
‘I say, David, old chap,’ Mr. B tapped Dad on the arm, ‘I can’t have ma son dying from suffocation in tha back of tha Rover. We need to sort this out.’
‘Aw, it’ll be alright, it’s just some bulldust.’
I coughed, a deep barking cough.
‘I say, David, old chap, ya girl’s not sounding too good.’
‘She’ll be alright, it’s just a cough.’
Matt clutched his throat and gazed with big pleading eyes at his father.
‘Look, David, my friend, I really don’t like the way ma son’s looking.’
‘Well,’ Dad said, ‘what about you sit in the back and your son sit in the front?’
‘What about me?’ I barked through another cough.
‘Ma son first, girl,’ Mr. B said.
‘Great! I have to share the back cabin with Mr. B!’ I whined.
‘Lee-Anne!’ my dad scolded.
With my head bent down, I muttered, ‘Sorry, Mr. B.’
‘Well, anyway, David,’ Mr. B said, ‘I was thinking, I could drive and you could have a turn in the back.’
Dad’s lips thinned, and he frowned. ‘Er, um…’
‘Come on, the road’s not so bad now, so I reckon I can have a shot at the wheel.’
Dad slowed the Rover to a stop and we evacuated the dust-filled Rover. Richard paced over to the trailer and stooped down to check the axle. Dad shuffled to the rear of the Rover and looked up at the roof-rack. Secured to the front half of the roof-rack were a few boxes and some extra luggage. The rest of the roof-rack was empty.
Dad kept his gaze on the rack and squinting, screwed up his nose. ‘We could use the roof-rack.’
‘I’m not moving the luggage again,’ Mr. B said.
‘I mean, we’re in the middle of the desert, no one’s going to know,’ Dad said.
‘But I will.’ Mr. B had to be practical and down-to-earth. ‘We want to get the Curtain Springs before dark, don’t we? We want to get there to fix the trailer, don’t we?’
‘It’s better than sitting in the back of the Rover.’ Dad coughed as if anticipating his own discomfort. Dad’s lungs were not the best since he suffered pleurisy some years ago.
‘What? You mean you’re thinking of camping here?’ Mr. B asked as he edged to the driver’s side of the Rover.
Dad looked at Mr. B. ‘No, no, no. I mean the kids can sit on the roof-rack.’
I jumped up and down and clapped. ‘Yay!’
‘Alright!’ Matt said.
So, Matt and I took up residence on top of the Rover while Dad continued as the designated driver without any protest from Mr. B. Richard enjoyed the extra room afforded him in the back of the Rover. Without so many corrugations, travelling up on the roof-rack was an easy ride. So liberating with the wind in our hair and a panoramic view of spectacular desert scenery. Ah! The freedoms we had in 1977! Even so, Dad took care that we only rode on top of the Rover in unpopulated areas, as Australian road rules did not allow the riding on top of vehicles.
Without any further incidents, we reached Curtain Springs which lies 50 miles (80 kilometres) from the South Australian—Northern Territory border. Dad parked the Rover in an area to the side of the store where the two elders launched into action to repair the trailer.
Richard hovered around the dads who wanted to be heroes. ‘Do you need any help?’ he asked the men’s backs.
Neither Dad nor Mr. B responded.
Richard shrugged and joined Matt and me as we wandered off to check out the nearby aviary. A white cockatoo in a cage bobbed its head and squawked, ‘G’day.’
‘Hello cocky,’ I replied.
My darling brother insisted on taking a photo of me in front of the parrot cage, my braces matching the bars.
Following the bird inspection, we sauntered in the shop. I drifted over to the souvenir section. I admired the miniature renditions of Mt. Conner and aboriginal dot paintings on boomerangs carved out of mulga wood.
‘Richard,’ Dad called, ‘Can you come and help us fix up the trailer?’
‘Finally!’ Richard murmured and then followed Dad out of the store.
Rich’s mechanical prowess, lead to a successful resolution to the trailer’s woes. Mr. B rejoiced and celebrated by buying all of us an ice-cream. After a bland diet of damper, rehydrated rice and egg soup, the ice-cream was the best that I had ever tasted. With Matt and me again perched on top, we progressed to our next camp for the night.
In the magic golden light of late afternoon, we foraged for firewood. The land, now called the APY (Angu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands, is not at all what one would call a desert. Hardy plants that can survive months or maybe years without rain, grow in this country. Desert oaks with their straight black trunks and grey-green leaves like feathers, grow tall amongst the spinifex bushes, salt bush and acacia bushes. Mulga trees with their gnarled and twisted trunks also dot the landscape. Since there had been a drought, a number of the trees appeared dead and void of leaves. Good for us as we found plenty of firewood.
With my arms full of sticks, I tottered back to the camp. Some mauve flowers peeped out from a tangle of twigs. The petals appeared so delicate, like crepe paper. I knelt down and picked a couple. These flowers would go in my diary. My not-so early morning venture to find the spring, had been disappointing. In fact, all the promises of “spring” had failed to deliver. I mean, did we see the springs of Curtain Springs? And was it the “springs” on the trailer that weren’t working so well causing the trailer to crack up again? But this sunset fossick for wood had its reward—the desert rose.
After tea, Dad gave a devotion thanking God for our safe passage into Northern Territory and covering our trailer trials. In the midst of our suffering over the trailer, he encouraged us with a verse from the Bible like Job 1:21 saying, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
1977, August, mid-winter and I was excited. Dad had never taken me camping. Then, when I turned 14, he decided to take the risk and allowed me to join the T-Team on a Central Australian safari. Dad’s friend Mr. Banks and his son, Matt (not their real names), joined Dad, my brother (Rick) and me on this journey of adventure. I had gathered from Dad’s reluctance to invite me on previous adventures out bush, that he had some reservations how I would cope…
In this episode, the stony plains of the desert, called Gibber Plains, posed their own problems from finding a comfort station (toilet) to comfortable sleeping arrangements…
Challenge Number 3: Where do you go when you have to go?
We travelled constantly for most of the day, stopping to stretch our cramped legs or go to the loo. The road was hot and dusty, and it was hell to sit in the back. I must add that dunnies were scarce in the desert and mostly a bush in the distance had to do. On such occasions, when a toilet stop was necessary, the boys took advantage of the opportunity to stretch their legs and do some shooting. The general rule was that shooting must be done in the opposite direction to avoid any rude shocks during someone’s quiet contemplation.
William Creek—Challenge Number 4: Finding a Campsite
Having taken the Oodnadatta Track, we rolled through William Creek with one and a half hours remaining until sunset.
‘It’ll be getting dark soon,’ Dad said, ‘we have to find a campsite.’
No easy task, I soon realized. Our heads swung left and right as we scanned the gibber plains for a clear patch of ground for camping. The land was barren except for stones; dots of umber that spanned in every direction to the horizon.
‘We’ll camp near a creek,’ Dad said. ‘So that we have firewood.’
‘Surely we can camp in the creek,’ Mr. B said. ‘The sand is soft in the creek. I want a decent night’s sleep. I mean, the sky is clear, so I doubt we’ll get flooded out.’
‘The rain and floods could be hundreds of miles away and then come on us without warning.’
‘I doubt it,’ Mr. B said. ‘I think we can take the risk.’
‘Where are these creeks?’ I asked.
‘You’ll see,’ Dad said. ‘The highway is crisscrossed with dry creeks. You see a row of trees, that’s where the creeks are.’
Sure enough, I saw them in the distance. ‘Hey, there’s a creek, we can camp there.’
Dad slowed the Rover down as we crossed the dry creek—as dry and rocky as the gibber plains surrounding it.
‘Not this one,’ Dad said. ‘Maybe the next one.’
For the next half an hour we passed a parade of promising treelines, only to be disappointed when we passed them. Some had a few stagnant puddles, but mostly these riverbeds were filled with rocks and not much sand. Dad explained that the water was underground, and the roots of the gum trees drank from a subterranean supply.
The sun sank like an orange squashed at the edge of the world.
‘I guess we’ll just have to take what we can find,’ Dad mumbled as we approached a thick row of gum trees.
Dad drove the rover parallel to the trees, and when far enough from the highway, parked. We hopped out and all helped to clear the area of stones.
As the light faded, Dad raced around the site as if hyped up with coffee, lighting the fire, ordering me to chop the vegetables, getting Matt to fill billy cans with water, and then boiling the water. Dad then stirred the pot with much huffing and puffing as he cooked up the stew.
While Rick organized the bedding for the night, Mr. B scrambled down to the creek-bed to set up his own bedding. Half an hour later, a disappointed Mr. B reappeared complaining. ‘It’s too stony. How can a man get a good night’s sleep around here?’
‘Oh, no!’ my brother moaned. ‘A puncture!’
Matt with his rifle, hopped over to Rick. ‘You ready to go shooting?’
‘In a minute,’ Rick replied. ‘I’ll just fix the puncture while there’s still some light.’
By the time my brother had repaired the blow-up mattress, the land of stones was shrouded in dusk. However, nightfall did not stop Rick, Matt, and Mr. B from venturing out for some shooting again. I guess they had plenty of rocks to aim at.
I stood up to follow the shooting party.
Dad called out. ‘Lee-Anne, you stay here and stir the custard.’
‘Be thankful,’ Dad said. ‘This is the day the Lord made.’
All alone, I fidgeted. How long were they going to be? Where have they all gone? I edged towards the height of the gully and looked over. A loose stone skittered down the cliff. I retreated to the safety of the gully and waited. I bit my nails. Had they all fallen to their deaths? Do I join them? I stuck my head through the gap, then my shoulders, and finally my whole body. I placed my hand on the granite. How did they get up here? My height-challenged frame failed to reach the footholds and niches necessary to climb this rock wall. How did they do it? I stood on tiptoes, trying to reach a notch. Just too high. Just my luck, I’ve been left here all alone.
My brother’s head poked over the ledge.
‘There you are!’ I said.
He grinned. ‘Where did you think I was?’
David R appeared beside him.
‘I don’t know. Splattered on the rocks at the foot of the mountain.’ I reached for my brother. ‘Where have you been? Where are the others?’
‘At the top,’ Richard, my brother said.
‘But what about me?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll help you.’ My brother scrambled down. ‘Now climb on my shoulders and David will pull you up. Then you’ll be right. This is the hardest part.’
I did as I was told. I steadied myself on my brother’s shoulders and from there David grabbed my wrist and pulled me to the next level. Then I negotiated the rock-pile obstacle course on my own and made it to the summit of Mt Liebig a second time. My arrival recorded at 9:28am.
Older cousin (C1) perched himself on a flat stone and wrote his diary. Rick fiddled with his spinifex shin guards and muttered, ‘Fat lot of use they were.’ He picked at cunning spikes that had slipped past the guard. Younger cousin (C2) munched on an apple. Dad peeled an orange and with hearty slurps sucked its juices. David wandered around the summit, gazing at the land below, and then examining the cairn of stones.
‘We are on the right peak, aren’t we?’ Dad wiped the orange drips from his beard. He pointed at the other peak. ‘There’s a cairn of stones over there.’
‘Hmmm.’ David stroked his beard. ‘I think so. That one’s used for surveying.’ He picked up a rock and then as if by magic, extracted a rusty old can from the cavity. Without saying a word, he pulled out a roll of paper. He unfurled the paper and his eyes darted from right to left over the page.
C1 paused in his journaling to ask the question. ‘Well, what does it say, David?’
‘Some people by the name of MacQueen and Smith of Alice Springs climbed Mt. Liebig on the 27th of August 1977.’
‘You’re kidding!’ Dad lifted the yellowed paper from David. ‘We climbed Mt Liebig in 1977, but a couple of weeks before.’
‘Maybe they picked up your quart can,’ I said.
Dad frowned. ‘I don’t think so.’ He looked at his watch. ‘And what’s the date today?’
My brother shrugged.
C2 scratched his forehead. ‘I don’t know.’
C1 hunched over his diary.
Dad stepped over to C1. ‘What’s the date?’
C1 ran his finger along the top of the page. ‘The 27th of August 1981.’
Dad counted on his fingers and then said, ‘Well, fancy that! Exactly four years to the day.’
‘Must be the date to climb Mount Liebig,’ C1 said and returned to scribing in his journal.
We remained at the summit at least an hour, engraving our names with the amazing date onto a stone, and celebrating our Liebig conquest with fruitcake for morning tea.
[Note from the author: We ascended to the summit, not two weeks before that Dad had calculated, but one day before Mr. MacQueen and Smith summited. We climbed Mt Liebig on August 26, 1977. Read our adventures in the series Travelling with the T-Team: Central Australia 1977, particularly our previous venture climbing Mt. Liebig, “We almost Perished”.]
By the time we left camp to climb Mt. Liebig, the sun peeped over the horizon, and the nose-shaped hill leading up the mountain glowed in crimson.
Dad looked at his watch and said, ‘The time is 7:05 am.’ I imagined him continuing with “Captain’s Log, Star Date the 27th of August 1981…” But Dad’s focus switched to negotiating the lumps and bumps of the make-shift road ahead.
We parked near the foot of the range and then hiked through the second gully from the north-eastern edge of mountainous waves jutting up from the plain. We trekked up and down four ridges until we arrived at the base of the gully nearest Mt. Liebig. The lads bounded up the gully while I lagged behind with Dad.
My father seemed to be dragging his feet. He looked left and right, and every so often screwed up his nose.
‘You won’t find it,’ I said.
Dad kicked a spinifex clump. ‘No harm in trying.’
‘You lost the quart can last time we climbed four years ago, way before the gully leading to the summit. Besides, we went a different way.’
‘Oh, I thought it was around about here… You never know.’
Dad scanned the prickle bushes, loose rocks and red sand for his beloved quart can. How Dad survived the intervening years between 1977 and now, without his quart can, I’ll never know.
‘I remember that ghost gum,’ Dad said and pointed at the gum as if its pure white bark set against the blend of purples in the cliffs shadows held special powers to cause Dad’s quart can to materialise.
We rested under the ghost gum, eating apples, sucking lemons to find strength to continue, but we failed to locate Dad’s trusty old quart can. Dad gazed over the valley of silver slopes of grass, his mouth downturned, and his glasses fogged over. He missed that quart can. He stood and patted his pockets. ‘Ah, well! We better keep on going.’
One by one we hauled our packs on our backs, and loaded up as pack animals, we picked our route over rocks, loose stones and sharp spinifex spears. My brother wore home-made vinyl shin guards. Much had changed since we last hiked up here in 1977; boulders had fallen down, the spinifex grew in more abundance, and effigies of burnt trees dotted the terrain. Single-file we mounted the steep ascent until we reached the pair of five-metre-high walls at the top of the gully.
Dad shaded his eyes and squinted up the barrier of rocks to the west. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. Some of the ledges on the cliff had crumbled.
My brother sprinted up through a gap in the boulders. We waited for his return and signal to proceed.
The wind whistled through the alley of cliffs. I looked through the crevice between the rocks. No sign of My brother.
‘I hope he’s alright,’ I said.
More minutes passed. We sat poised to move at any moment as if sitting on spinifex, yet we remained calm, mesmerized by the emptiness of the landscape, and the silence.
I looked through the gap again and asked, ‘What’s taking him so long?’ Then I slumped onto a large stone. Visions of my brother falling off the cliff plagued my imagination.
‘I’ll go up and have a look,’ David R (our guide) said, and then he disappeared through the hole.
More minutes ticked by. I glanced at the hole that had swallowed up David. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Just be patient.’ Dad seemed content to sit staring at the scenery. ‘They’ll come back.’
But they didn’t. Instead, the hole drew in older cousin (C1), followed soon after by younger cousin(C2). I peered into the tunnel of no return.
Dad hovered at my back. ‘Don’t go up there.’
‘Why not?’ I replied. ‘Everyone else has.’
‘Let me see,’ Dad said as he nudged me away. He crawled further in the hole and traced the granite wall inside with his fingers.
‘Don’t you leave me behind.’ I saw Dad place his foot in a crag and lever his way up to a ledge. ‘You tell someone to come back and help me, you hear.’
Dad called back. ‘Don’t you move.’
Easy for him to say. ‘Yeah, okay, but don’t forget about me.’
Have been reviewing The T-Team with Mr. B, the prequel to my first travel memoir, Trekking With the T-Team: Central Australian Safari 1981. The updated manuscript has been resting long enough for me to revisit Mr. B and his intrepid adventures with the T-Team. Ready to publish…Maybe in the new year.
The sun sparkled through the gold-green leaves of the river gums, and a flock of white cockatoos chattered in the branches. The air hinted warmth and enticed me out of my sleeping bag to explore. Dad had mentioned we’d be probably camping near Curtain Springs on our journey to Ayers Rock (now called Uluru). But this morning I wanted to check out a spring closer to camp.
I ambled down the soft sands of the creek bed, past Mr. B wrapped up in his sleeping bag of superior fibres for warmth. He smacked his lips and snored as I trod to the side of him. Matt and Richard stood like the risen dead warming the cold blood in their veins by the fire, offering no help to Dad who stirred the porridge.
‘You sure that’s porridge?’ I asked Dad.
‘Of course it is!’ Dad snapped and then peered into the billy to be sure.
‘Can never be too sure, after egg soup last night,’ I said and kept on walking.
Richard and Matt laughed. First sign of actual life from the boys I’d seen that morning.
Dad called after me. ‘Er, Lee-Anne, where are you going?’
‘For a nature walk.’
‘Oh, don’t be too long, breakfast is almost ready.’
I patted my camera bag. ‘Yes, Dad.’ Just after I’ve checked out the spring to see if the scene was worthy to be photographed. No need to tell Dad that information. He’d just try to persuade me to have breakfast first and then I’d miss the not so early morning photo opportunity.
The creek narrowed, and I scrambled over rocks, pushed through reeds to the spring. Anticipating a pretty pond, with waterlilies, ducks and a kangaroo or two drinking the fresh clear water, I was disappointed. The spring, if you could call it a spring was little more than a pit of slime. A puddle at the end of our driveway at home was more photogenic than this hole filled with muddy water.
After a glance at the so-called spring, I tramped back to camp and ate cold porridge for breakfast.
After our “business trip” to civilisation, Ernabella, where we collected the trailer, had a shower, filled up with petrol, water and replenished our supplies from the store, we began our travels to Uluru.
On the way a large flat-topped mountain emerged through the red sand dunes.
‘Is that Uluru?’ I asked Dad.
‘It’s Mt. Conner. Remember we saw it from Mt. Woodroffe?’
‘How come it’s higher than the land around it?’
‘In Central Australia’s prehistoric past,’ Dad explained, ‘this piece of land kept its integrity while the surrounding area had eroded away. It’s called a mesa.’
I was fascinated by this monolithic plateau. ‘Can we stop and get a photo of it?’
‘When I find a good place to stop,’ Dad said.
He kept on driving up and down the red waves of sand hills, winding left and right, the mesa appearing and disappearing, never quite the perfect view or park for our Rover. We rolled onto the plain and in the distance, Mt. Conner rose above the dunes. Dad parked the Rover at the side of the road and we jumped out. I hiked further up the road. The flat-topped mountain looked so small in the viewer of my instamatic camera.
‘What?’ Mr. B asked.
‘The trailer’s cracked up again.’
‘Not again!’ Richard muttered.
‘I’m afraid so,’ Dad said. ‘Can you fix it, Richard?’
The men gathered around the trailer, once again sinking into the ochre sand and leaning on its side.
‘It’s the springs.’ Dad circled it like a shark. ‘Can’t take the rough track.’
‘Hmmm,’ Mr. B grunted, his hands on hips and elbows akimbo.
Richard lay down on the ground and peered up into the trailer’s underside.
Dad sighed. ‘We better unload the trailer, I suppose.’
While the men relieved the ailing trailer of its load and bound up the fissure with some rope, I scaled a small rise and took several shots of Mt. Conner. Then as the males in the T-Team stuffed most of the luggage into the back of the Rover and then with the light left-overs, reloaded the trailer, I gazed at the mesa, this top-sliced mountain in an expanse of yellow grass and sienna dunes. Boring! My photos needed a human figure to add interest. Richard and Matt, having completed their trailer-duties, wandered up the road.
I ran down the hill and chased after Richard. ‘Take a photo of me.’
Richard gazed up at the cobalt blue sky. ‘Oh, alright.’
Positioning myself on the side of the road, I looked at Richard. ‘Come on, I’m ready.’
‘Just wait, move to the right,’ Richard said.
I did and then noticed Richard’s finger hovering over the camera lens. ‘Move your finger.’
He shifted it, but as he snapped the photo, I thought his digit remained too close for comfort to the lens.
To ensure I acquired at least one good shot, I photographed Matt, then Dad and Richard as my humans in the foreground of my mesa muse.
‘Careful you don’t waste your film,’ Dad warned.
‘I won’t,’ I replied without telling him I’d already “wasted” several frames on the wonder of Mt. Conner. How could I resist?
I climbed in the Rover and asked Dad, ‘Can we visit Mt. Conner?’
‘Er, um, not this time.’ Dad had places to be and trailers to properly fix. So the next vital destination on his agenda was Curtain Springs.
[Last week safety in South Australia was threatened by that all too familiar nemesis Co-vid, and again restrictions were put in place. Many activities were “verboten”, including singing. Having weathered the latest threat, I recalled forty years ago in the remote centre of Australia where trespassing on the “verboten” could spell disaster…]
[Extract from Trekking With the T-Team: Central Australian Safari 1981]
The Consequences of Changing One’s Mind
Back at in Hermannsburg, Mrs. R presided over the kitchen bench.
‘How did the ice-cream-making go?’ I asked.
She flitted to the fridge and opened the freezer section. ‘C1 and that nice girl, J have both gone, but not together.’ She sounded far-away in the land of the fairies.
As if I wanted to know what my older cousin, C1 was up to. ‘Did it work out,’ I asked.
‘Hmm, maybe.’ She remained distant, still in fantasy land. ‘Possibly, give it time.’
‘I mean, the ice-cream, are we going to have fried ice-cream for dessert?’ I rose, walked over to the fridge and peered over her shoulder. ‘Is there fried ice-cream in there?’
‘Oh, no,’ she spoke with a dead-pan expression. ‘We ate all that. Just ice-cream for you folks, I’m afraid.’
I believed her and assumed we’d have plain old ice-cream for dessert. J returned unannounced. ‘Oh!’ She put her hand to her mouth. ‘Just stay there, don’t go away.’ She vanished out the door.
Lamenting the loss of the fried ice-cream experience, I comforted myself with a cup of tea. Dad buzzed around the kitchen, chopping vegetables, boiling rice, deep frying shrimp crackers and splattering oil all over the walls. I knew I should help but I just sat, sipping tea and wishing I had stayed behind. Now I’ll never have fried ice-cream. Anyway, Indonesian fried rice is Dad’s domain, his glory, and heaven help anyone who offers to help. Our job was to taste its wonders and compliment him. I could do that.
J reappeared with a small postcard-sized paper in hand. ‘It’s a photo of you.’ She handed me the image of me looking shocked by the camera flash at the sing-sing. ‘I think it’s a rather nice one of you. Don’t you think?’
Not particularly. I accepted the picture of me appearing ghost-like on a bad-hair day. Never did like pictures of me. The camera picks out all my faults. ‘Yes, thank you.’ I rose and then headed for the room holding my luggage. ‘I’ll put it in my diary straight away.’
While Mrs. R departed for business with J, and Dad slaved over a hot stove of many fry pans and saucepans creating his Indonesian meal, I wrote my diary and then retreated into the world of Wuthering Heights.
‘Dinner is ready!’ Dad rang the brass hand-held bell. ‘Come and get it.’
I left my Heathcliff to brood on the moors, and drifted into the kitchen-dining area for the auspicious Indonesian meal. Seven o’clock and three young ladies, two pretty blondes and a stunning brunette, accompanied C1 and C2 to the round white table decorated with knives, forks and plates. The atmosphere bubbled with excited chatter and introductions. In one corner, the fellers, my brother, C2 and C1 fidgeted and grinned, and the girls giggled and squealed as they stood in the other corner and checked out the talent. I sat in the middle like the referee at the table. I clutched my knife and fork upright in each hand and glared at Dad bustling at the sink.
‘Okay, I’m here.’ I glanced from one corner to the other. ‘Where’s the dinner?’
‘Don’t be so impatient.’ Mrs. R hurried past me carrying a tray of glasses. ‘Go and talk to the girls.’
I pointed from the boy group to the girl group. ‘You couldn’t find a partner for me, could you?’
‘Lee-Anne!’ Mrs. R said. ‘This is Hermannsburg, not Alice Springs!’
‘No stockman or lonely explorer, then?’
‘No, this is as good as it gets.’ She placed the glasses on the table. Besides, the blokes up here, I don’t think they’d be your type.’
Then I’m destined to be an old maid then. I sighed.
The young people gathered and selected seats at the table. Dad presented his massive bowl of Indonesian fried rice to a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. The girls’ eyes widened at the sheer enormity of the rice project. The boys licked their lips and breathed in the aroma of cumin, cardamom, turmeric and chilli. Dad had excelled himself. He puffed up his chest, and strutted around the kitchen.
C1 charmed the ladies with his dry humour and subtle flirting. Stuck in their own shyness, MB and C2 remained spectators, while C1 did all the entertaining with the girls. I sat back in my chair observing the interactions, piling my plate full of rice, and shovelling the stuff down like I hadn’t eaten in weeks. The ladies opposite me, picked at miniscule portions of the fair. So what! I can make a pig of myself! No one for me to impress. Not like I had to diet. Someone’s got to show Dad his food is good, not just tell him with platitudes. Besides, got to make the most of it, only boring old ice-cream for dessert. The young lassies each passed up offerings of seconds while I was on my thirds. I bet they were full from eating all the fried ice-cream. Well, serves them right. Polishing off the plate, I felt full and bloated. There was a lull in the conversation. C1 had run out of things to joke about.
Mrs. R moved to the fridge. ‘Dessert, anyone?’
All at the table put up their hands except me.
‘Lee-Anne?’ Mrs. R pulled the ice-cream container from the freezer. ‘Sure you don’t want any?’
‘Nup, I’m full.’ Boy, they are a sad lot wanting plain boring vanilla ice-cream.
‘You’re quite sure?’
‘Yep.’ Why is she making such a big deal about it?
Mrs. R opened the lid and spooned out frittered balls of ice-cream into bowls.
Hey, just wait a minute. I raised my hand. I’ve changed my mind.
‘Changing your mind is verboten,’ Mrs. R announced.
‘Oh, but—she, Mrs. R lied.’
‘Now, Lee-Anne, stop grizzling,’ Dad hammered his index finger at me, ‘you said you didn’t want dessert, those are the rules.’
Everyone at the table looked at me. Heat, burning more than curry rose to my face. ‘Mrs. R said there was none.’
The boys joined Dad in dumping brick-tonnes of scalding and jesting at my expense. C1 played the condescending parent and elicited a laugh from the girls. ‘Now, there’s no need to make a drama out of it.’
‘You should see her when she plays games like ‘Chook-Chook’, almost breaks down the house with door-slamming,’ my brother chuckled, followed by more roars of laughter.
‘She did nothing the whole trip, just eats all the food in the camp,’ C2 snorted. More roars of mirth. As if on a roll, he added, ‘And she’s always changing her mind.’
‘A woman’s prerogative,’ I muttered.
‘Not in this household,’ Mrs. R pointed at me. ‘My three-year-old behaves better than her.’
As they all scored points at my expense, I went off in my mind to Austria and The Sound of Music and the trouble with Maria. Perhaps one day I’ll go off into the Alps with my Count von Trapp. For the moment I was trapped, demonised by the perpetuation of false perception of my image. I felt like no one knew who I really was. Glad there weren’t any eligible males for me to witness my humiliation. I held my tongue and my position at the table. Anything I said would be held and used against me.
Mrs. R served up the fried ice-cream. A bowl appeared before me.
‘Thank you,’ I whispered. I kept my head down and eyes fixed on the ball of fritter. I waited for further remarks and comments about how undeserving I was of this peace-offering, but they had moved on.
After relishing the sweet crunch of cornflakes for breakfast, the T-Team drove back to Ormiston Gorge. We hiked through the gorge admiring the red cliffs, ghost gums and mirror reflections in the waterholes, and took less than an hour to reach the end with the view of Mt. Giles, lumpy and sapphire blue.
Settling near a waterhole framed by reeds, Dad built up a fire on the coarse sand while our family friend, TR rolled up his trousers and dipped his toes in the pool. ‘Hey!’ He pointed and did a little dance. ‘A fish! I see a fish!’
Our cousins, C1 and C2 raced over to TR. ‘Where?’ They peered into the pond. I trailed after them, hunting for fish through the plumes of muddied water near TR’s white calves.
‘There!’ TR waved his finger at the middle of the waterhole.
C1 squinted. ‘Oh, yeah.’
C2 waded into the water and peered. ‘I don’t see anything.’
Richard hunted and fossicked through the cooking equipment Dad had scattered around the campfire. ‘You got a sieve? A net? Anything?’
‘What for?’ Dad asked.
‘Ah, you know, those fish can lay dormant in the dry creek bed for years and when the rain comes, they spawn.’ Dad just had to tell us.
‘Well, this little fishy is going to be our lunch.’ Richard snapped his fat fingers together like crab claws. ‘I’ll catch it with my hands if I have to.’ He strode into the pool with such force the waters parted like the Red Sea. ‘Now where’s that fish?’ He said as he sank up to his waist.
‘There it is!’ TR gestured. ‘To your right.’
Richard glanced, his smile faded. ‘Oh, is that all? It’s just a piddley little thing. Not enough for lunch.’ He was neck deep in the water and prepared to swim. He shot up. ‘Ouch! Something bit me!’
‘Better watch out, might be Jaws,’ I said.
‘You didn’t tell me there were yabbies.’ Richard bobbed up and down, then reached down to catch his feet. ‘Ouch! It bit me again!’
‘Why not yabbies?’ C1 said.
‘Now that’s an idea.’ Richard replied.
‘Ah! Shrimp!’ C2 waded towards his cousin. ‘I love the taste of shrimp.’
‘Hmm, yabbies,’ Richard said. ‘We used to catch yabbies all the time when we were young.’ With an explosive splash, he submerged in search of the yabby that had bitten him.
Dad, TR and I waited for the damper scones to cook and watched Richard and C1 turn bottoms up like ducks in the water in their quest for yabbies. C2 waded in the shallows of the pond, a roughly sharpened stick in hand ready to skewer any hapless water-creature.
Soon we breathed in the sweet aroma of baked scones. Dad flipped the foil wrapped balls out of the coals. ‘Lunch is ready!’ He clustered the silver spheres together using a small branch as if they were balls on a snooker table. Empty-handed the lads dragged their soaked bodies from the waterhole and schlepped to the fire place to collect their consolation prize of damper scone.
Richard held his stubby index finger and thumb in the form of the letter “C”. ‘I was this close to getting a yabby.’
[Extract from The T-Team with Mr B: Central Australia 1977, a prequel to Trekking With the T-Team: Central Australian Safari 1981.
The T-Team with Mr B — In 1977 Dad’s friend Mr Banks and his son, Matt (not their real names), joined Dad, my brother (Rick) and me on this journey of adventure. I guess Dad had some reservations how I would cope… But it soon became clear that the question was, how would Mr B who was used to a life of luxury cope? And would my brother survive?]
Our truck lumbered over the designated four-wheel drive track-come-dry Finke Riverbed to Palm Valley.
Dad turned to Mr. B and chuckled. ‘How would you like to sleep on this riverbed?’
Mr. B pouted, folded his arms and looked out the window.
We continued to bump over the rocks and sand where two-wheel drive vehicles fear to tread. Dad recalled his days travelling by donkey along this same track when he explored Palm Valley with his Arunda students.
‘O-oh!’ Dad uttered as the Rover’s underside scraped over some boulders. When our vehicle continued to move, though slowly, we all sighed with relief.
‘O-oh!’ Dad gritted his teeth and sucked air through the gaps in them. The Rover jolted to a stop. The engine screamed. The body rocked. The wheels spun. ‘O-oh! I think we’re bogged.’
Mr. B groaned, ‘I hope that doesn’t mean we’re sleeping on this god-forsaken creek tonight.’
‘Okay—oh, better put it into four-wheel drive. Now, for one more try.’
Dad readjusted the grip of his fingers on the steering-wheel and pressed his foot on the accelerator. The Rover leapt out of the bog-hole.
‘Good thing you remembered that the Land Rover has four-wheel drive,’ Mr. B muttered.
We crawled along the creek bed for a few more minutes, until confronted with formidable boulders where we were forced to stop. Dad reckoned we were a mile or two from the valley, so we had to hike the rest of the way.
Rick raced ahead. As was his habit, he lost us.
We entered the land that time had misplaced, forgotten and then found preserved in this valley. Lofty palms swayed in the breeze. Fronds of green glittered in the sun while their shadows formed graceful shapes on the iron-red cliffs. Here a cycad, spouting from the rocks, there a ghost gum jutting from those same deep red walls. This sanctuary for ancient prehistoric palms, which had existed there since the dawn of time, distracted us from my errant brother. We trundled over the stone smoothed by the running of water several millennia ago, admired the mirror reflections in the remaining pools, and breathed in the tranquility.
Then, as if the ancient palm spell was broken, a frown descended on Dad’s face. He stood up, tapped his pockets checking to feel if his keys and small change still existed, and then marched down the valley. When he’d disappeared into a gathering of palms, I asked Mr. B, ‘What’s my dad doing?’
‘I think he’s looking for your brother,’ Mr. B replied. ‘He seems to have a habit of getting lost.’
Matt, Mr. B’s son sniggered.
Still in the zone of swoon, I sat beside the billabong in the shade of the palm trees and changed my film. Then I stretched, and leaving Mr. B and Matt to their rest, I ambled along the stone-paved bed looking for Dad. Again, time lost relevance in the beauty and wonder of the palms: tall skinny ones, wiggly ones, short ones, clustered ones and alone ones.
I found Dad, but there was no sign of my brother. The sun had edged over the western walls of the valley casting a golden-orange glow over the opposing cliffs.
Dad huffed and puffed. ‘It’s getting late. I s’pose Rick has gone back to the Rover.’
‘Better head back, then,’ I said.
On the way, we collected Mr. B and son. They had not seen my AWOL brother either.
We waited back at the car for Rick. Dad’s concern turned to annoyance, then frustration. Dad had plans for a picnic, but as the sun sank lower, his well laid plans were becoming remote. Dad paced the sand, hands on hips, and muttering discontentedly. Trust my brother to spoil a perfect place and time for a picnic tea. The idea of proceeding with the picnic without Rick did not occur to Dad. I guess the thought that some peril had befallen him had sabotaged any appetite. Dad nervously tapped his right pocket; at least his keys hadn’t gone AWOL.
Every few minutes Dad paused in his pacing. ‘Ah—well!’ he’d say. Then sucking the warm air between his gritted teeth, he’d resume pacing.
An hour passed as we watched Dad track back and forth across the clearing.
‘I swear you’ve made a groove there in the sand,’ Mr. B said.
Dad halted and narrowed his eyes at Mr. B.
I peered at the sand, straining my vision to pick out the path Dad had created.
A branch cracked. Footsteps, thudded. Distant. Then closer…louder.
Dad turned. All of us in the clearing froze and we fixed our gaze on the path leading to Palm Valley. The prodigal son stumbled into the clearing.
Contrary to the parable, Dad snapped, ‘We were going to have a picnic tea. But it is 5 o’clock, now. We have to get going!’
So, with less than an hour before darkness descended, we navigated the bumpy Finke River ride, and Dad’s grumpy mood, back to Hermannsburg.
After tea, Dad recovered from the grumps as we played cardgames; first “Pig”, followed by “Switch”.