The day of the kan­ga­roo

A child­hood mem­ory of a puz­zling event at WA’s Fitzroy Cross­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STEVE GOME

IT is the Dry Sea­son. Some­where out the back of Noonkan­bah. A cou­ple of Toy­ota LandCruis­ers packed full of peo­ple shud­der down the road. Dust reaches into the sky like smoke.

It’s the white­fel­las who call this time the Dry Sea­son. The time of year when the sun gets stronger, the rivers dry up, and the old road across the riverbed at [Western Aus­tralia’s] Fitzroy Cross­ing is used as a cross­ing and a div­ing plat­form. In the Dry Sea­son, the wa­ter at the top of the river is warm. The swimmers seek out the pock­ets of cool wa­ter be­neath the sur­face cur­rent. When the white­fel­las came up here, it didn’t take them long to re­alise that the Kim­ber­ley is hot and dry.

The rain can come in only a cou­ple of months in any year — or it might not come at all. The white­fel­las dis­cov­ered they be­came in­creas­ingly cranky in the weeks lead­ing up to the time when the rain might fall. So they called this time the Dry Sea­son and gave it cap­i­tal let­ters to show how much they were look­ing for­ward to the Wet Sea­son.

On this par­tic­u­lar day in the Dry Sea­son out the back of Noonkan­bah, the mobs from Kur­nangi and Gogo Sta­tion are go­ing fish­ing. They have taken a cou­ple of Toy­otas, some nets and some lines. They have also taken along a kar­tiya fam­ily who have been liv­ing in Fitzroy for a few months. Al­though it was a long time ago, I re­mem­ber that day very clearly. Ev­ery time I re­play the scene in my mind, the frames are so dis­tinct I can re­trace the steps of each thought I had.

I was sit­ting be­hind the driver of the sec­ond Toy­ota, look­ing out the win­dow at the col­umn of dust ris­ing from the car in front. A kar­tiya (white) boy; about 10 years old. I had just started go­ing to school in Fitzroy Cross­ing. The car was full of ex­cited peo­ple laugh­ing and speak­ing in a lan­guage that I couldn’t un­der­stand. I was a lit­tle bit sleepy and I was day­dream­ing as I watched the shim­mer­ing haze around the spinifex. Through the win­dow, the haze looked like a sil­very halo. And then I would fo­cus my eyes and see the spinifex that I knew — spiky and mean.

Think­ing about the spinifex in that way made my legs tin­gle with recog­ni­tion. And so a game be­gan. Re­lax the eyes; see the sil­ver. Con­cen­trate, see the spikes and feel the tin­gle. The chain of LandCruis­ers came to a halt. Ev­ery­body was talk­ing with ex­cited voices and jab­ber­ing fin­gers. Kan­ga­roo. ‘‘Over there, see ’im. You see ’im?’’

Across the road, nes­tled among a clus­ter of shrubs, a kan­ga­roo stood in the shade of a large tree. Bend­ing, chew­ing, graz­ing. Un­hur­ried. Over on the pas­sen­ger side of the car, a big fella — well over six feet — with a curly black beard and sleepy eyes, rolled qui­etly out of his seat and stood in the mid­dle of the road. He be­gan cross­ing the road very slowly, shuf­fling pur­pose­fully. His clothes were earth-coloured, and they had the colours of the earth on them. A loose, faded shirt that may have once been green, and bat­tered cords smudged with dust. Even in white­fella clothes, he looked like part of the land­scape. This fella had a ri­fle by his side . . . All our eyes rested on his back. Would the kan­ga­roo see him? What would he do next?

The kan­ga­roo pauses for a mo­ment. Stops eat­ing. Lifts up its head and looks around. It sees the hunter com­ing to­wards him. And the big fella keeps look­ing at the kan­ga­roo. He keeps mov­ing. Like a shadow, keeps mov­ing closer.

As I watch, my mind is rac­ing: What is hap­pen­ing? I don’t un­der­stand, there’s some­thing wrong. Why doesn’t the kan­ga­roo run away? I don’t think I’d ever seen a ri­fle be­fore. I know I’d never been hunt­ing. Apart from flies and mos­qui­toes, I’d never seen any­thing killed. And I knew that I was about to see the kan­ga­roo die.

But that was not what was un­set­tling me. The kan­ga­roo is tame, I thought, maybe he was some­body’s pet. This isn’t hunt­ing. An im­age from a tin of short­bread, of men in red coats on horse­back and packs of bay­ing hounds, ap­pears in my mind. I am an­gry, want­ing to yell at the hunter: ‘‘The kan­ga­roo doesn’t have a chance if you get so close. You’re sup­posed to give it a chance to get away.’’

Now the hunter is stand­ing at the base of the tree. Out in the bush. They are still look­ing at each other. It looks to me as though he strokes the kan­ga­roo’s shoul­der with the back of his hand.

The ri­fle comes up slowly, and the kan­ga­roo falls to the ground. And sud­denly, it all gets in­cred­i­bly noisy. Shrieks of ex­cite­ment, laugh­ter and con­grat­u­la­tions greet the hunter as he re­turns to the car. He car­ries the kan­ga­roo over his shoul­der.

When the kan­ga­roo is placed in the back of the LandCruiser, I notice its blood smeared against its skin, and how the blood causes patches of fur to clump to­gether. The ve­hi­cles start up again and we continue out along the road to­wards the fish­ing spot. I go back to look­ing out the win­dow.

I re­mem­ber lots of talk about the kan­ga­roo and the hunter. I over­heard peo­ple in the car chat­ter­ing about what had just hap­pened — maybe in the Wal­ma­jarri and Kriol lan­guages first, and then in English.

I’m sure that night, as the day was be­ing di­gested around the campfire, peo­ple were still talk­ing about the kan­ga­roo.

And I was lis­ten­ing, tick­ing things over, let­ting things min­gle with pri­vate thoughts.

Three decades have passed since that day out the back of Noonkan­bah. But the mem­ory of it re­mains strong. The mem­ory of watch­ing an Abo­rig­i­nal man hunt­ing a kan­ga­roo in the bush, and hav­ing im­ages of bea­gles chas­ing foxes flash through my mind. Of hav­ing no ex­pe­ri­ence of hunt­ing, but a clear sense of what proper hunt­ing was.

I can’t be cer­tain it was the big fella who I heard speak­ing in the car — or that I heard ev­ery­thing that was said, but it’s his face I see when I hear the voice ex­plain­ing: ‘ ‘ I was sin­gin’ to the kan­ga­roo spirit. Tellin’ him who I am. Where I bin come from. I was sayin’ thank you for giv­ing me his life.’’ Steve Gome lived in Fitzroy Cross­ing with his fam­ily dur­ing the 1970s. This is an ex­tract from Kim­ber­ley Sto­ries, edited by Sandy Tous­saint (Fremantle Press, $24.95).


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