This story is taken from my fourth novel, still tentatively entitled Life Sentence. It is fiction based on fact, starting on Rottnest in 1899 and involving the imprisonment of an old man from the Ngalawangka language group . 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 the www.aussieyarns.com website, then to NOVELS and LIFE SENTENCE. Note that all characters, apart from brief mentions of Sir John Forrest, his wife, Sir John Winthrop Hackett and the names of various governors of the colony of Western Australia, are fictional.
On the other hand, the backgrounds of Rottnest as an Aboriginal prison in 1899, the Midland Railway (Midland to Walkaway) and non-Aboriginal settlement of the Pilbara in this story, specifically around Roebourne and the Fortescue Valley, are as accurate as my research and historical facts allow. The exceptions are the name Biyuluyurra as a cattle station and the Ross family as leaseholders.
Biyuluyurra (“biyulu” in Yindjibarndi language is “yellow ochre” and “yurra” is sun) is situated along the Fortescue River, or “Manggurdu” to give its Yindjibarndi name, near what were Millstream and Middle Creek stations. Wayijbalas is the Yindjibarndi term for white people.
The story is presented on the website and photos in it are of an amazing stretch of water maybe two kilometres in length on Manggardu. The pool is known as Nhankangu in Yindjibarndi and Deep Reach Pool in English. Warlu is a spiritual serpent that lives at Nhankangu. I acknowledge Wangka Mia Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre and its production of the Yindjibarndi—English Dictionary for these translations.
The section of Life Sentence which follows takes place in the Pilbara after a journey that the characters make from Rottnest. Duncan is the son of the owner of Biyuluyurra Cattle Station, Billy and Sunny are two escapees from Rottnest prison, Charlie is a clerk who was working on Rottnest for the Prisons Department and Georgie is a teenage girl running away from Moora. Joey and Marranga are characters no longer with the group. Joey was a whitefella who was instrumental in the success of the escape but was captured, and Marranga was a prison escapee who died on the journey to the Pilbara.
Their expressions of the two wayijbalas were in response 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 both Charles and Georgie of rivers around Perth, Northam and York.
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 in 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 that Nhankangu conjured moved him too: of swimming here with him as children and later 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 Nhankangu. Georgie, Charles and the blackfellas watered the horses, then brought them back to camp to feed.
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 own thinking and life, and values which complemented his family’s values.
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 were the common bonds of a journey that created the indefatigable spirit and unity they’d now shared despite their cultural difference: a oneness of spirit born of the successes, the trials, the humour, the sadness, the joy, the pain, the gains and the losses from a journey of a thousand miles and infinite memories.