Gulf country

by Stephanie on June 6, 2010

It’s May 14. Our lantern has run out of batteries, so I’m writing this in the amenities shelter in the campground at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. I’m writing on lined paper in a fine blue pen and I have to stop every couple of words to brush the moths off the page and pick beetles out of my hair. The fluorescent light is on a timer. After 15 minutes or so it flicks off and I am plunged into darkness again, and have to feel my way up the wall to the light switch.

Ever since we left Cairns people have been telling us to come here. It has been on our itinerary from the start, however—Cadie’s grandmother was born not far from here in Elizabeth Creek, one of the tributaries to the watercourse that flows down the Boodjamulla gorge. Her uncle Noel reckons he once found the exact spot, but no other family members have seen it. For me, the earliest memory I have is of canoeing up that same gorge with my mother and father, gazing at the sunstruck red cliff-face and dark water. I was three years old.

Algae turns the creek a shifting olive green in the sun, deepening to emerald as it stretches out and curls slowly through the shadow of the gorge. The light twists as it ripples around the lilies and water plants. It’s beautiful to look at but high levels of calcium make it no good to drink and the idea fascinates me: water that only makes you thirstier.

In spite of the crocodiles we decide to float down the gorge in nothing but tyre tubes. We are excited at first, especially after trudging up the slope in the hot mid-morning sun. The water is the perfect temperature to cool off but not cold enough to cause goosebumps, and fish suck at our calves by the jetty and scatter when we try to touch them. The cheerful tumbling of the falls initially has us in good spirits, but as the noise of them fades so does the novelty, and soon we are the only people on the water and we cannot see the bottom. We are walled in on either side for a kilometre and a half by mangrove trees and cliff-face. The water moves so slowly that foam, palm fronds and insects gather in the slightest curves in the rock wall. The wind is whispering at us through the cracks and neither of us wants to think about the fact that I’ve seen freshwater crocodiles four metres long. We try to swim as quietly as possible, our hands as paddles, our arms aching. I can feel bubbles pushing up around my waist.

Sometimes I think I’m just trying to get lost, pushing myself further and further away from what I know, taking less and less precaution. Except that the more remote I go and the less people there are around me, the clearer the world becomes. Blood and dust. Grass and sky. Rain and sun. Eat and sleep.

If you cross Boodjamulla Creek and edge your way along the shadow of the gorge you come to a rock art site called Wild Dog Dreaming. The carvings on the walls are an estimated 30,000 years old, so of course we want to see it. Cadie is lagging behind, however, and I reach the site alone. Hot afternoon sunlight angles directly at the wall where there are three sets of arches painted on the rock in yellow ochre. Sitting underneath them is a bright yellow snake. Its head is reared up, it’s halfway to strike position and it’s looking me right in the eye.

For the Waanyi people, Boodjamulla was a ceremonial place—Rainbow Serpent country. When you look at the sky in the evening, you can see it stretching from west to east—a yellow head and an orange neck, pink and purple and green along its belly, the tip of its tail a wet blue-black. And I run along the red dirt road towards it, flies on my back and sweat on my lips, wondering if I will ever be lost enough.

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