This story is taken from my fourth novel tentatively called Life Sentence. It’s fiction based on fact, starting on Rottnest in 1899 and involving the imprisonment of an old Ngalawangka language group man. Some of those working on Rottnest believe he’s been wrongly held for years beyond his original sentence and decide to do something about it. If you want more details, go to NOVELS and LIFE SENTENCE or click here. The story of non-Aboriginal settlement of the Pilbara in this story, around and south of Roebourne, is as factual as I can make it except for involving the Ross Family and a pastoral lease called Biyuluyurra. The family and the station name are fictional but all else along the Fortescue River, or Manggurdu in Yindjibarndi language, is accurate. But in Yindjibarndi, biyulu means “yellow” or “yellow ochre” and yurra means “sun”, so in Life Sentence, the cattle station name means “Yellow Sun”. Wayijbalas is the Yindjibarndi term for white people.
One photo below is of a hill called “The Pyramid” which is south-east of Roebourne. It is the symbol and name of a cattle station along the road to Millstream. Another is of an amazing stretch of water maybe two kilometres in length along Manggardu or the Fortescue River . The pool is known as Nhankangu in Yindjibarndi and Deep Reach Pool in English. Warlu is a spiritual serpent who lives at Nhankangu. The final photo is, I believe, of the natural spring just near the homestead at Millstream which gave the station it’s name.
This story takes place, obviously, in the Pilbara after a journey the characters make from Rottnest t. Duncan is the son of the owner of Biyuluyurra Cattle Station, Charlie is a clerk who was working on Rottnest for the Prisons Department, and Georgie is a teenage girl running away from Moora. Duncan is the story-teller.
There was laughter as Billy pointed at the faces of Charles and Georgie and exclaimed, “Manggurdu waama Charlie mundu Georgie.” Fortescue River scares Charlie and Georgie.
Their expressions were responses to a sight that appeared as if by magic. After seven weeks and hundreds of miles across red, rocky plains and valleys carved through red, rugged hills, every now and then a river would appear weaving through startling white sand, or a pool with green surrounds where they’d swim and wash. But none had matched this sight: a river flowing into the distance nearly a hundred yards wide with lush greenness on either bank. It reminded Charles and Georgie of rivers in their part of the world.
Duncan laughed loudest. “I said a few days back, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the Fortescue Valley. Then you’ll know beauty.”
He told them the Yindibarndi name was Nhankangu, a permanent pool maybe two miles in length which wayijbalas believed was fed by a spring. Charles’ reaction was to whoop excitedly which resulted on Billy and Sunny each making their sign for quiet.
Duncan quietly murmured to Charles, “Nhankangu is a special place to Yindjbarndi people and, I think, to Tucker’s Banyjima mob as well. They believe Warlu, which means snake, is a huge serpent living here. They’re always quiet and respectful at this place so they don’t make Warlu angry.”
“Sorry,” Charles mumbled,
Duncan told Billy and Sunny in language what he’d explained to Charles and his response. Serious nods conveyed the importance of the site and the rules for behaviour around it.
“Will Warlu let us swim in there?” Georgie sounded relaxed.
Duncan translated again and Billy and Sunny both said, “Yuu,” but with fingers pressed to lips and Billy added, “Mirda ngurnjirri.” No noise.
Duncan added, “And stay safe. Don’t dive: walk in and feel your way.”
Seeing Nhankangu had moved Duncan too: his memory of Margie’s love of the place and how they’d often ride to it, sometimes to bathe but more often, just to be together in what they felt was the most beautiful place on earth. And images of Marranga Cousin which Nhankangu conjured moved him too: of swimming here as children and as adults. Thinking of Marranga as they’d left Robe Pool and travelled at the pace demanded by Georgie had often caused him to silently reiterate the promise to bring Marranga home to sleep peacefully in his mother’s arms.
But even those thoughts didn’t dampen his increasing excitement from Robe Pool to Nhankangu, matching that of the blackfellas. For them all, they were home with mother and family once more. Apart from grieving over Marranga, all else uplifted, visible in the sparkle in eyes and smiles on faces.
Duncan chose to camp at Nhankangu tonight mainly because it was the last time they’d be together in this way. He’d justified the decision as resting the horses and plenty of water and freshwater food, but he knew his emotion was the main reason. That thought made his eyes cloud, partly from relief in being here against such odds and partly in sorrow for those missing. While he knew that reaching Biyuluyurra was only a step towards the ultimate goal, reaching it was a massive achievement. As he stood with that thought in his mind, Joey’s voice echoed about the luck of the Irish, and he smiled gently.
“Right,” he announced, “let’s camp here tonight: rest for the horses and food for us. We’ll head for Biyuluyurra in the morning.”
They found a clearing about fifty yards from the Nhankangu. Georgie, Charles and the blackfellas watered the horses, then brought them back to camp to feed on the grain Duncan had brought from the station.
With that done, Georgie and Charlie headed to swim. Duncan went with them to ensure they followed the blackfellas’ conditions, which they did. For him, it demonstrated how they now comprehended the Yindjibarndi values of respect, trust and obligation. They were values which had surrounded and were now woven into his thinking and life, and values which complemented his own family upbringing.
Watching Charles and Georgie relate also brought a sense of satisfaction. The strategy devised by Charles to improve their connection seemed to have worked well. He hadn’t heard them snap at each other for quite a while and could now see there was more between them than perhaps even they realised.
And each had a strong, though different relationship with the blackfellas. They’d often tease and poke fun at Charles in a brotherly way, as they did with him, but acknowledge Charles for his skills and all he’d done for them. With Georgie, on the other hand, it was a caring relationship, treating her always with something close to motherly respect.
But connecting them all, now and always, were the common bonds of a love of horses, and all they’d shared from Rottnest to here: the successes, the trials, the humour, the sadness, the joy, the pain, the gains and the losses.