Saturday, the fourteenth day of October, 1922

IT WAS half past two next morning when Theo was wakened by the sudden blazing up of the restoked campfire and the talking of Njitiaka and Lornie, who were rolling up their blankets. The waning moon, which had risen almost two hours earlier, was now lighting up the landscape sufficiently to allow the journey to be resumed. Titus, riding bareback on his horse, was already bringing in the donkeys. Their hobble straps and chains had been taken off their feet and put around their necks; and the clinking of these hobble chains blended with the muted notes of the bells whose clappers had been slipped sideways into holes punched into the ends of their neck straps. Theo rolled up his swag, while his three companions harnessed up a fresh team of eight donkeys.

Then the gruff voice of Njitiaka barked out at the donkeys, and the van moved away from the cheery blaze of the campfire into the moonlit sandhill silence. The resinous scent emanating from the bulging tufts of spinifex which the donkeys kicked with their plodding feet was not as overwhelming in the cool night air as it had been in the heat of the previous evening; but it nevertheless pervaded the whole atmosphere with the unmistakable menace of its aroma. For here as elsewhere in the Centre this resinous fragrance drew attention to the deep loneliness and the dangerous waterlessness of the huge inland sandhill regions. The lushness of the spinifex tufts, now heavy in ear, showed how abundant the rains had been in this normally rather dry region during the previous year. Even Henbury had recorded thirty three inches of rain during the period of twelve months beginning on 1st July, 1920, and ending on 30th June, 1921. Since no water could flow or drain out of the sandhill regions, all this amount of rain had soaked into the ground. But it was not only the spinifex which showed this lushness of growth in its great tufts and tussocks: the trees too – desert oaks on the dune slopes and crests, and ironwoods and mulgas on the numerous clay-flats between the dunes – were all clad with luxuriant foliage. The branches of the mulgas were densely covered with greyish-green leaves; the ironwoods with their drooping branch-tips had come to resemble river willows; and the continual sighing of the magnificent desert oaks in the soft night breeze indicated the extraordinary length to which their jointed needle-like leaves had grown. No longer did the strong moonlight conjure up a delicate tracery of dark lines and ribbons on the ground below the trees: the almost unnatural heaviness of growth in all foliage produced heavy and completely opaque shadows similar to those normally cast by the European trees. Theo was overwhelmed by the silence and the resulting sense of haunting loneliness that was brooding over these moonlit sandhills. It was easy to fill the scene with the spectre shapes of the iliaka njemba that had frightened him in his childhood, just as they had terrified the minds of the younger Western Aranda children at Hermannsburg. These iliaka njemba had been the legendary grim emu-shaped phantoms that stalked over the sandhill wastes at night and devoured children who had dared to move away too far from the campfires of their parents. Though, like his dark teenager friends, he had long since ceased to believe in the grim fairy-tales told to shivering small children, he realised how perfectly these evil emu-like phantoms would have fitted into this eerie landscape. A more realistic fear that entered his mind while he was staring at the moonlit scene was the apprehension that from somewhere out among those deep tree shadows a wild bull camel might emerge and pursue the van in its rutting season madness. For a few wild camels did live in these sandhill wastes; and a bull camel “in season” was a terrifying and dangerous beast, if it took it into its head to chase an animal or human being that had come into its domain while it was in this state.

But nothing happened. The donkeys, unswervingly pursuing the winding, twisting camel-mail pad, gave short snorts every now and again, the gruff voice of Njitiaka and the low-pitched calls of Lornie rang out from time to time, and the van creaked its way forward over the spinifex tufts, cutting deep grooves into the heavy, colourless sand between them. Afraid that he might go to sleep on the seat of the van, Theo had decided to walk during the night hours so that he could chat to Njitiaka and Lornie. He walked barefoot according to his normal habit. So far he had, most unwillingly, put on boots only during the eight midwinter weeks each year in order to protect his feet against the heavy morning frosts and also against the freezing winds of cloudy days.

He knew that these were his last few weeks of barefooted freedom. After that he would have to accustom himself to having his feet encased in imprisoning footwear for the rest of his days. Since the donkeys were pulling the van with real will and determination, it was easy for Theo to chat to Njitiaka and Lornie, and to ask them questions about the road that lay ahead of them. About what time would they emerge from the sandhills? Where was the next water? When would they be likely to reach Idracowra Station? And so on. Theo enjoyed listening to Njitiaka’s replies. Njitiaka, whose name was generally abbreviated to Njitia, was a man only about five foot five inches tall, and of moderate build. He came from Ungwatja on the Finke River, below the Palmer junction, and belonged to the emu totem. His bushy black beard, streaked with many grey hairs, gave him, in Theo’s eyes, a somewhat gnomelike appearance. But what he lacked in girth and inches he more than made up for by a powerful, gruff, and rasping voice. He always talked very loudly; and his speech, instead of flowing smoothly in the normal Western Aranda manner, showed rather the somewhat staccato pattern that was so characteristic of Lower Southern Aranda speakers, but which was found also among some of the Upper Southern Aranda folk. From his contacts with the Henbury visitors at Hermannsburg Theo had become aware of at least some of the dialectal differences between the speech of the Henbury and Hermannsburg Aranda groups. These differences had always led to much good-humoured mockery and banter among the children: everyone loved mimicking the speech of their dialectal neighbours, and then laughing at it. Theo was frequently amused when he heard Njitiaka talking, and the latter retorted by passing derogatory remarks about Theo’s Western Aranda manner of speaking. It was only occasionally that Theo and Njitiaka were unable to understand the meaning of individual words in each other’s speech. Then they would ask and argue with each other about these words, with Njitiaka bluntly protesting that he had difficulty in understanding the “corrupt” dialect of the Western Aranda. He had Theo at a disadvantage here – a boy of fourteen could not repeat to a middle-aged man the stock Western Aranda reply that the harsh, broad, and halting chatter of the Southern Aranda was an utterly stupid and ridiculous kind of expression.

The black forests of desert oaks, whose moon-silvered crests were shimmering so brightly, kept on exciting Theo’s intense admiration; for he had never before travelled through sandhill country at night. Eventually he passed a remark to Njitiaka concerning the brightness of the moon, referring to it by its Western Aranda name of “taia”. Njitiaka, in true or wilful ignorance, failed to understand Theo at first, and when the latter finally pointed at the moon, he exclaimed gruffly, “Why don’t you give the thing its proper name? You don’t want to talk to me like one of those stupid Western Aranda men who don’t know their own language.” Then he explained to Theo proudly, “We Southerners alone have kept the Aranda tongue in all its purity as it has been handed down to us: the Western men have corrupted the speech of their forefathers. “Talpa” is the only correct word for what white men call the moon; as for “taia”, I do not know what that means: I have not heard my fathers using such a word.”

Theo made no reply: though a white boy, he had long since learnt not to be rude to the older dark men. He merely smiled to himself, and reflected that probably people everywhere regarded any social customs and any forms of speech that differed from their own as being for that very reason inferior to their own. And in the Southern Aranda area it was only natural that Southern Aranda social customs and forms of speech had to be accepted as the correct local norms by all visitors.

Slowly the hours passed, and mile after slow mile was put behind the travellers. Theo was glad that the luminous dial of his pocket watch enabled him to work out the distance covered from the time taken in travelling between points.

Gradually the dark eastern horizon became tinged with grey. The blurred and shapeless tree forms began to reveal their limbs with increasing clarity. The eastern sky became overspread by a reddish-yellow tinge, and finally the spinifex tips on the crests of the sand-dunes began to glow in the first rays of the rising sun. As the sun soared over the horizon like a ball of fire, the sudden burst of warmth that accompanied its full revelation foretold that the day now begun would be, in local terms, “a real scorcher”. To Theo it was a relief to know that so many miles of sandhill travelling had already been completed; for there were no dense stands of timber in this region for keeping down the midday temperatures. These soft red dunes, that still looked so beautiful in the morning light, would soon turn searingly hot in the fierce overhead blaze; and the air above them would then singe the bodies of beasts and men like a blast from a heated furnace.

At seven in the morning a cloud of dust rising about a mile to the eastward showed that the buggy party was just leaving their night camp. Half an hour later the van reached the same spot – a flat on the edge of a shallow, dry watercourse, studded with some box gums. The van halted in the shade of one of the larger trees. The campfire of the buggy travellers was quickly stoked up again. Soon billies filled with water from the galvanized iron canteens were boiling at the fire, and a quick morning meal of damper and steak grilled over an ample bed of coals by Lornie satisfied the hunger of the party. The stop lasted about three-quarters of an hour.

Then the journey was resumed; and the donkeys, still unfed and thirsty, patiently plodded on without protests or jibbing into the heat haze that was now spreading its ugly grey veil over the country.

Like other Central Australian sandhill regions, the Britannia Sandhills did not form an unbroken waste of dunes. A number of small rocky outcrops rose up out of them, and sometimes low hills ran across the track of the travellers. There were quite a few clay-pans as well to ease the strain on the donkeys that had to pull the heavy van. For the camel-mail road over the Britannia Sandhills followed more or less in the wake of the mythical trail left by the fish ancestors, – a trail which had already provided the party with a gap at Iltjanmalitnjaka or Parke’s Pass. During the night the van had passed two hills lying north of the road. These hills symbolised the head and the body of an ancestral ntapitnja or bony bream, while the clay-pans over which the road made its way represented the lagoons once formed by the mythical flood that had carried these fish on towards Uratanga. Some low hills lying across the camel road also figured in the fish myth, and one ridge symbolised a fish weir cast up at the beginning of time. But for the most part the camel pad followed by the van led through heavy sandhill country.

Had the travellers taken the normal wagon road which kept to the Finke Valley between Ekngata and Talpanama, they would have passed a long line of important Upper Southern Aranda ceremonial sites, each linked with a magnificent waterhole. All of these waters contained fish, for they were permanent pools, fringed with long banks of green reeds. Even if an unusually long drought should have succeeded in drying up one or the other of these waterholes, the next flood would have brought down fresh fish from Irbmangkara or from the deep gorge holes in the MacDonnells that had always defied even the longest and driest seasons ever experienced in Central Australia. The first of the more important of these totemic sites was Peiterama, situated at the confluence of the Palmer River with the Finke, where an evil eagle ancestress, who had stolen a young eaglet from the Upper Southern Aranda eagle home of Pmoierka on the Palmer south of Henbury, had paused for a rest on her way back to her own home at Jora (or Joara). The frantic parents of the eaglet had tried in vain to recapture their fledgling: the daring Jora robber had turned herself into a wildly rushing whirlwind which had successfully evaded the hysterical attacks made with beaks and talons by the swooping, screaming, pouncing parents.

The next waterhole was Iltiriltutnama, where the two rain ancestors from Pututunga, south-east of Irbmangkara, had crossed the Finke while travelling to the Eastern Aranda rain centre of Ujitja. Before reaching the Finke, these two rain ancestors had proved their terrible power by wiping out a group of foolish and unbelieving arkara bird men at Arkariwala on the Palmer River. They had destroyed them by unloading huge hailstones on their flimsy saltbush rain-shelters and then drowning them in a cloudburst. The next site was the far more important ceremonial centre of Ungwatja, Njitiaka’s personal totemic site, where one of the box gum overflow channels of the Palmer known as the Waijowa Kringka entered the Finke from the south at the base of a mountainous red sand-dune. According to the local myth, the Finke flats at Ungwatja had been populated at the beginning of time by vast numbers of ancestral emus, all of whom had originated on the nearby clay-flats of Ilbungka Woputa from blood poured on them from the veins of the original emu sire. This sire had finally ripened his chest in order to pour out his very life-blood so as to create an abundance of new emu life. Because of the numerous mythical figures revealed in its sacred performances, Ungwatja was a centre honoured in a cycle of acts which took many weeks to stage in full. It was linked with a large number of ceremonial centres, both major and minor, in other Aranda and non-Aranda areas. It was associated in this way with the minor ceremonial site of Taltjiltja, several miles downstream from Ungwatja, where a huge grinding stone was believed to have disappeared into the water-logged quicksand bed of the Finke. This grinding stone had rolled down under its own power from Tnjanawala, near Alitera, pursued by a group of ancestral teratera bird men. Each evening it had come to rest, only a few inches below the surface of the ground, at a convenient campsite; and the pursuing bird men had dug it up and ground their gathered store of grass seeds on it. But when Ungwatja had been reached, the teratera bird men had refused to allow one of the local emu ancestors to use this self-propelled stone for grinding his own grass seeds. In revenge the offended Ungwatja man had sung dark spells over it. The huge grinding stone had, as a result, begun to vibrate and to move ominously when the teratera men approached it. It had then spun away from them wildly, like a heavy, rolling stone disc, which they were afraid to touch lest it crush or maim them. All they had dared to do had been to pursue it as far as Taltjiltja, where it had sunk out of sight for ever. Another important Upper Southern Aranda ceremonial centre was located at Ultjua, on the third major Finke loop downstream from Taltjiltja. Ultjua was one of the most important carpet snake ceremonial centres in this area; and just as Ungwatja had been associated with several other emu sites, so Ultjua was linked by myths with a number of other carpet snake sites, such as the Lower Southern Aranda centre of Erulitna or Old Crown Point on the lower Finke River, the Antekerinja centre of Ananta on Lilla Creek, and the Matuntara centre of Waltanta, whose soakage had been appropriated by white cattlemen and converted into the central station well of the Erldunda property. In the flanking box gum flats of Ultjua began the extensive stands of giant saltbush which stretched from here to Idracowra and beyond.

The pioneer settlers had hence built a stockyard at Ultjua for use during periods when the cattle which were grazing on the middle Finke reaches were being mustered and branded. They had given Ultjua the name of “Main Camp”, since it was the main cattle-holding camp on the combined Henbury, Idracowra runs.

At Ultjua the Finke turned north-east for some miles till it hit one of the most mountainous sandhill ridges situated at the eastern termination of the Britannia Sandhills. This towering ridge turned the river back in a south-eastward direction once more. The salty waterhole of Uratanga, which was situated at the extreme northern point of this bend, marked the final point in the travels of the Unmatjera-Aranda fish ancestors. The Uratanga dune ridge symbolised the fish weir of gum branches thrown up by the local ntapitnja fish ancestress Palupaltjura, which she had used in order to trap secretly the larger fish that had been swept down by the northern floodwaters from distant Ankurowunga. Palupaltjura, who could assume the guise of a female ntapitnja fish, had turned into a woman whenever she caught and ate other fish. She had been so successful in her surreptitious trapping activities that the great crayfish ancestor who had come down in pursuit from the north, and who had been wondering why he could secure only small fish with his fishspear, decided to lie in wait for the unknown poacher. One day he surprised Palupaltjura, who was too busy catching fish to notice his approach. He took up his stance at the northern end of the high Uratanga sandridge, at a place later marked by a tall bloodwood tree, stabbed Palupaltjura in the shoulder with his long, slim fish-spear, pulled her up from the edge of the pool, and flung her – all in one action – into the sandhills lying north of the Finke bank.

In addition to these larger waterholes located on the middle Finke River between Ekngata and Talpanama, there existed numerous smaller permanent pools in the river bed, and all of these had mythological episodes attached to them. This wealth of sacred traditions had been comparatively easy to preserve during the pre-white days. The wide and fertile Finke flats carried a profusion of the larger game animals, in particular of kangaroos, emus, and rat kangaroos; and the sandhills were rich in carpet snakes and all those smaller marsupials that stood in no need of drinking water. Since the Britannia Sandhills had, in the old days, yielded these additional highly prized food supplies, the middle Finke Valley dwellers had once been a very numerous group. There had never been any dearth of males who could be called upon to preserve the rich local heritage of myths, songs, and ceremonial acts from one generation to the next.

The depth of this wide river valley could be gauged from the fact that the Hermannsburg travellers who had taken the road from Takalalama to Talpanama across the Britannia Sandhills could catch no glimpses of the Finke or its gums from any point along the camel track. Theo, moving forward slowly by the side of the creeping van, was aware only of the apparently limitless vastness of undulating red sand all around him.

On a sunny winter’s day the dune country would have looked beautiful because of its rich colourings. The flourishing desert oaks, standing well-spaced apart, looked magnificent. Their straight, dark, ridge-barked trunks rose to an average height of from twelve to fifteen feet before the first strong, crooked branches were reached; and the many hundreds of young desert oaks which soared up around the big trees in the form of slim, straight saplings showed that the Britannia Sandhills had enjoyed a long run of good seasons in recent years. Had successions of droughts been a normal occurrence in this area, this would have been revealed by the crookedness of the saplings and by the low height of the trunks of the full-grown trees. The fresh bluish-green needles of the desert oaks contrasted with the shiny dark-green leaves of the willow-foliaged ironwoods, and with the grey-green leaves of the mulgas. The spinifex tussocks on the flats between the dune crests, expanded by a succession of excellent years till each spiky clump touched its neighbour, were in full ear; and the swollen spinifex seed-heads closely resembled the heavy ears of a waving, ripe cornfield. On the sides of the tall dunes the spinifex clumps were spaced apart rather more widely, permitting the rich colour of the sand to peep through; and the bare crests of the dune tops shone a blazing red in the full light of the sun. The wind-rippled sand on the crest tops was intricately patterned as by an artist’s hand; and all animal and bird tracks on it stood out clearly, revealing to an experienced hunter’s eye whatever movements had recently gone on in the sandhill country.

Emus, kangaroos, lizards, snakes, rabbits, crows, hawks, dingoes: all of these creatures had their homes among these dunes, and roamed over them in quest of food. Some of these birds and animals had to turn back south to the Finke Valley from time to time to slake their thirst; other species had learnt to live without water when they adapted their habits to their environment. To the eye of a white man the sandhill country might have looked a useless waste, almost devoid of life; but the nomad Aranda hunters living at the middle Finke waterholes had once found the bordering dune country to be a rich source of food. But on this particular morning Theo was conscious only of the heat and the menace of the dune country. It seemed to him a merciless, intimidating waste; and as he pulled out some spinifex ears in order to suck the sweet base ends of their stems, his one wish was to get out of this cruel red land as quickly as he could. By ten in the morning the blazing heat of the sand, which had begun to burn the tender parts of his feet between his toes, compelled him to climb back on the van. He sat down on the front seat with a gasp of relief, and watched the iron-shod wheels relentlessly cutting two deep parallel furrows through the sea of red sand and spinifex tussocks; it was about midday when the party reached the end of the Britannia Sandhills. Njitiaka stopped and pointed south to a long and mountainous red dune which overtopped all other sandhill crests by scores of feet. “That is the Uratanga sandhill,” he told Theo. “The Finke is just on the other side of it, and there is a large waterhole here, the Uratanga waterhole, which the whites call Salt Hole.” Uratanga, which marked the end of the trail of the ancestral fish travellers, was more than two hundred miles distant from Ankurowunga, their original mythical starting point. The high sandridge that rose so menacingly into the air against the southern sky fell down with sudden abruptness towards the Finke on the other side. Both its shape and its position made it a perfect symbol of the final fish weir cast up against the mythical flood at the beginning of time. From the point where the sandhills ended the country sloped down noticeably. Soon a box gum watercourse was struck which came down from the northern plains and turned eastward towards some strikingly shaped purple hills, the largest of which was a high table mountain rising from a rounded base. The track followed this watercourse for a short distance, and then the van passed through Ankarinta Tuatja, a “gap” between two low edges of rock. Here some old, white-bearded totemic ancestors, who had travelled down from Albeitinta, a hill north of Takalalama, had gone to their last rest, according to the local myth. The white man’s name for this gap was Hell’s Gates: this name had almost certainly been given to it by one of the old pioneers who was leaving the shady Finke Valley on a hot summer’s day on his way westward into the Britannia Sandhills. The track leading from Hell’s Gates to the Finke passed quite close to the high and striking, round-based table mountain.

Theo enquired after its name. “Its correct name is ‘Karalananga’,” replied Njitiaka, “but the young folk of today insist on calling it ‘the Talpanama mountain’. That is because our young people spend all their time with the white folk, and grow up just as ignorant as the white men. Otherwise they would remember that ‘Talpanama’ is the name of a clay-flat north of the Intjinjera waterhole where we will be stopping shortly for our meal. That waterhole, too, the ignorant young people today call ‘the Talpanama waterhole’.” However, since the name “Talpanama” meant “(Where) the moon is”, it seemed to Theo most appropriate that such an unusually shaped mountain should be associated with the moon in the minds of the younger generation.

Three miles on from the edge of the sandhills the Finke came into view. After completing, in a long series of gigantic loops and twists, its wide sweeping course around the southern border of the dune country, the river had begun to head northward once more. It was now reaching forward to the Talpanama complex of hills, where it would end its long northward sweep and turn east again. The donkeys began to move more briskly as soon as they reached the shady expanse of the flanking box gum flats: the thirsty animals had already begun to sniff the welcome scent of water. Some minutes later the van descended into the broad white sand of the Finke at a point close to the most advanced point of its northward curve. Njitiaka guided the donkeys across the heavy sand to the further bank and pulled up the van under a magnificent gum with wide-spreading branches. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and the hottest hour of the day.

As soon as the donkeys had been unharnessed from the van, they made their own way to the wrongly named waterhole of Talpanama, and joined their loose mates, who were already slaking their thirst. After that they rolled about in the sand and then lay down for a quick midday rest. Only their heads and tails could not remain still because of the vicious flies. During the whole of the midday halt the swishing of their tails and the noisy clapping together of their long, stiff ears showed the extent to which the donkeys were being annoyed by their fiendish tormentors. Similarly, the constant angry hand-swipes of the travellers as they were hurrying through their quick midday snack afforded unmistakable evidence of their fly-ruffled tempers. Talpanama was only one of several open Finke waterholes in this region; and a considerable proportion of the cattle on Idracowra Station were grazing in this part of the Finke Valley. In consequence the swarms of local flies had assumed near-plague proportions. Theo and his companions had a difficult time in waving the flies away from their food and their faces. Their hands could not remain still for a minute while they were having their meal. Nevertheless, it was a refreshing break for them to sit in the shade of the large gum tree and look down at the long waterhole stretching against the northern bank of the river. After the sun-scorched furnace atmosphere of the Britannia Sandhills, the much lower temperature in the shade of the tree, though undoubtedly still high in the nineties, felt like a pleasant cool change to the travellers; and the sight of the commonplace, reed-fringed waterhole turned the midday rest camp for them into a soothing place of refuge in a weary land. Talpanama seemed a place infinitely more beautiful than the finest oasis shown in the desert landscape pictures of other countries.

But with Idracowra Station still twelve miles away, the midday rest could not be a long one. At a quarter to three in the afternoon the donkeys that had pulled the van on the previous day were once more harnessed to it, and shortly afterwards the travellers continued their journey.

For the rest of the distance the road ran through wide box gum flats, first along the northern, then along the southern side of the Finke. This portion of the Finke Valley was beautifully wooded country. The wide, loamy flood flats were densely studded with flourishing stands of twisted, brown, rough-barked box gums. So thick was the timber that the Finke Valley at times looked almost like forest country through which a broad white ribbon of sand kept on running and shimmering. Even at this distance from their source in the northern mountain country, the swift-flowing floods that came down as far as Idracowra, perhaps at two-year intervals or even less frequently, were still sufficiently powerful to rip out any young gums that had shot up in the main channel during a lengthy dry period. In between these major floods portions of the river bed were sometimes filled for a distance of ten or twenty miles by the red-brown waters contributed by the numerous small box gum watercourses which came rushing down from the adjacent plains and low hills after cloudbursts. Flourishing patches of giant saltbush ran through these box gum stands, particularly in the southern river flats. This flood valley was flanked in the south by towering red dunes, among whose brilliant fires the luxuriant shapes of hardy desert shrubs raised their green heads, challenging and defying the soft, drifting sand crests to drown them. On the northern flank a number of low and barren stonehills approached close to the river over the first six-mile stretch below Talpanama; then the sandhills encroached upon the northern bank of the river also.

A maze of cattle pads traversed this region; for the Finke Valley was first-class grazing country, with the saltbush providing a safe standby in dry seasons to eke out the excellent herbage which in normal times grew both on the flood flats and on the sandhills. With this proliferation of cattle pads came a great increase of dust; for the whole country had been powdered and churned up by the twin-clawed hoofs of hundreds of wandering cattle. The strong smell of the cattle and their droppings kept on increasing with each mile that brought the travellers closer to Idracowra.

When the sun was sinking low in the west, the red-and-white cattle could be seen moving through the box gum flats towards the waterholes in bellowing mobs, with the beasts normally advancing in single file. Most of them were in prime condition. The larger mobs usually had a heavy, broad-shouldered bull, with red-rimmed eyes, lumbering ponderously in their rear. Sometimes a bull would stop and give out three or four short, high-pitched calls to the cows, after which he would lower his voice to a menacing growl, ending on a long-drawn-out bass note. If answered by another bull, he might pause, lower his magnificent broad head, and begin to throw dust over his flanks with his powerful front hoofs in token of his challenge and angry defiance. After that he would go on, taking slightly longer and more hurried strides till he had caught up with his own mob again.

The sun was about to touch the western horizon when its evening rays lit up yet another low hill standing close to the northern bank of the Finke. Though Theo was not given its name, this hill was called Tjina, and it sheltered in two of its caves the sacred tjurunga of the Idracowra local group.

For it was at Tjina that the local gecko ancestors were believed to have originated at the beginning of time; and it was from Tjina that the fierce gecko ancestor Itirkawara, wearing a bunch of red-and-black cockatoo tail feathers, had set out on his long journey north-east towards Queensland in order to fight his hand-to-hand battles with other totemic ancestors, each of whom he finally cut in halves at the waist with his sharp stone knife.

Shortly afterwards the sun sank like a blazing, fiery ball below the western horizon, giving the tortured land a most welcome respite from its searing heat. Soon darkness had fallen on the box gum forest. The tired donkeys continued to plod on gamely. Sometimes they panted a little louder than they had done when they had first been harnessed to the van; and the clouds of dust now being stirred up by the cattle made them snort and clear their noses at more frequent intervals. But the strong-hearted little animals never faltered in their resolute steps. They took no heed of the bellowing cattle around them; and the intertwined network of cattle pads, which sometimes followed the road and sometimes criss-crossed over it, could not disturb their vision or confuse their sense of direction.

It was a little after half past eight when the kerosene lanterns and the campfires of Idracowra Station finally began to show up on the northern bank of the Finke. The van moved from the southern box gum flats across the Finke bed, here roughened into thousands of pits and bumps by the multitudinous feet of milling cattle, over to the open northern bank of the river. A loud chorus of welcoming voices greeted the weary travellers. Heinrich moved out from one of the log-houses, holding a lantern high in the air to show where the van should pull up for the night. The figure of an elderly white man could be seen standing under the verandah of the same log-house. This man was Allan Breaden, the manager of Idracowra Station. As soon as the van had halted, Allan came forward. His eyesight was very poor, and he had to move about carefully at night since the light cast by the storm lanterns was rather too dim for his vision. He invited Theo to come in for a late evening meal, and instructed his half-caste spouse Jessie to give Theo’s companions their food to take over to the camp with them. At this moment Mrs Strehlow came out from another log-house and greeted her son affectionately. Then she hurried back to her sick husband. “Your father has had a shocking day,” explained Heinrich to Theo, “and Mr Breaden has given up his own log-house to your father and mother. We will have to rest here tomorrow to see how your father is getting on. And now go in and have your meal.” Theo, who had met Jessie at Hermannsburg, lost no time before going in and enjoying a hearty meal after his long day’s journey. When he came out, his swag had already been unfolded and put down on an iron camp stretcher in the open air alongside the log-house kitchen where he had eaten his meal. Heinrich was lying on his swag on a second iron stretcher about ten feet away, and Allan Breaden’s stretcher stood a few yards further on. His son, Johnson Breaden, was already sleeping soundly on another stretcher placed around a corner of the building.

Soon all three of them were sleeping soundly under the steady light of the blazing stars, utterly unmindful of the charging noises and the loud bellowing of the thirsty cattle at the station troughs a couple of hundred yards away.

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