Carnarvon Gorge, Qld. Thursday, 1.20pm
There’s a heap of kids at the Art Gallery. Some of them are my grandchildren. They’re flush-faced and tired. It’s not your regular art gallery…
‘Can we have lunch now?’ they say, pulling faces as they flop onto the wooden seats that line the boardwalk in front of the sandstone wall where the Aboriginal art stretches for at least 15 metres.
Parents point out the artwork – stencils, carvings, drawings – that covers the wall. The kids take a momentary interest, but it’s lunchtime and they’re hungry.
‘Grandpa said there’d be a shop here with hot chips.’
‘And ice cream.’
I smile at them.
It’s been a long walk for the kids – about seven kilometres traipsing up Carnarvon Gorge, rock-hopping across the creek six times. It’s beautiful country, sure, wild and wet, set like a shining sapphire in the dull gold of the drying farmland that rings it, but we’ve been walking for hours. I’m exhausted too.
‘Can I have lunch now?’ I ask one of the adults (who used to be one of the kids), feeding her kids. She gives me a boiled egg. I sit next to a little girl, part of my gang. She’s eating a mandarin, staring at the hunting boomerangs stencilled thousands of years ago in red ochre on the wall.
Peeling the egg, and putting the shell into my pocket – it just doesn’t feel right to chuck stuff into the bush here, even if it is organic – I lean back against the seat and let my eyes wander.
My family is not the only people here. Despite its isolation (about 900 kilometres north-west of Nimbin), there are a dozen people either lolling on the seating provided by the national parkies, or strolling the boardwalk in front of the artwork. A fence separates the boardwalk from the art, protecting it from vandals. (It didn’t stop Tom from Newcastle from scratching his name into a stencilled boomerang in 2008.)
The kids are noisily eating, talking, laughing, whining… except for the girl next to me. She sucks on her mandarin, swings her legs slowly under the seat. She tilts her head, moving her gaze from the hunting boomerangs to the hand stencils. The hands and the boomerangs belong to the Bidjara and Karingbal peoples, who share custody of this place. Back in the day, nobody lived in the gorge. The first people acknowledged it as a special place and for thousands of years, they skilfully managed the gorge and the land around it. And painted this wall.
‘Can we go now?’ asks the bigger boy of his father.
‘Yeah, I’m tired,’ says his younger sister hanging her arms down and hunching her shoulders forward, stumbling towards her father like a walking dead. She will be an actress, I reckon. Her brother pushes her. She stumbles, then turns and hisses at him, showing her teeth like a cat, her exhaustion gone.
The girl beside me, unmoving, engrossed in the wall, starts to hum. It’s a soft sound, a bit like the burble of the creek below us, a bit like the sighing of the wind above us.
Around us, walkers in hiking boots and sensible hats take photos of the artwork, kids chase each other and spill chips onto sacred ground, teenagers giggle at the vulvas engraved into the wall, and silver nomads eat sandwiches while listening to a ranger.
But they are the dream.
The girl and I, we are floating on a song, beckoned by hands, caught in an ethereal red net cast by artists across a river of time. She raises her hand in front of her, poses it like those on the wall, and sings.
She is waving back.