The Last Waterhole
North-Western Australia—circa 1885.
Nundru sat resting in the shade of a gnarled river gum and watched as the two men drew closer. For some time now he had observed their halting progress from above as they trudged westward, following the base of the escarpment, and leading a strange-looking animal laden with what appeared to be tools of some kind. Now, as he watched them draw gradually closer to where he could see their faces, he realized just how weak and hungry they obviously were. They had eaten little in the three days since he first spied them. They also hadn’t drunk today, so clearly they were out of water.
He’d heard of these strange light-skinned men who sometimes ventured through his land, but until this day he’d never seen one. Fascinated by their appearance and the strange clothing they wore, despite the searing heat, he had followed their progress from the top of the ridge. As they drew closer, he could see they were near the limit of their endurance.
Nundru was tall, even among his own people, and his fresh-faced good looks and trim physique gave the appearance of an overgrown boy. He still lacked a man’s beard, except for light stubble, and even sported a few freckles. The fresh zig-zag scars on his back and chest, however, and the missing front tooth, showed him for what he was; a newly initiated man of his tribe. His shock of unruly hair had a tinge of redness that glowed in the sunlight like a tangle of rusty steel wool, whilst his eyes mirrored the dark browns of the ironstone cliffs that towered overhead.
Nundru’s time of solitary reflection was nearing an end. Tradition demanded that all men of his people spend one transit of the moon alone to connect with the spirits of the land in order to complete their initiation. Tomorrow, he would return to his family; no longer a boy, but a man.
Picking his way carefully down the slope, his gangly appearance belied by his sure-footedness, he determined to approach these visitors. They clearly had no idea how to find food or water. They had walked straight past two goannas and a wallaby already today. Even the youngest children of his tribe would cope better than these poor individuals!
As they neared what would be the last waterhole they would encounter for several days, the strange animal stopped suddenly. Raising its head and sniffing the air it made to turn toward the cliff. One of the men yanked on the halter, shouting at the hapless beast and dragging it away to continue on their journey.
Nundru was at the base of the incline now. When the newcomers grew close he stepped into the open and called to the men, telling them they should go back.
“Water there,” he said, pointing with his boomerang. “No water that way, you will die there,” he added, pointing eastward.
The two men stopped abruptly. They exchanged glances, speaking to each other in a language Nundru had never heard. Not one word was familiar. In fact, to his ears, it sounded more like animal sounds. He wondered if these were really men or some strange race of spirit people.
Nundru gestured again, repeating his warnings and waving his spears to stress the importance of his message. He was careful, however, to keep the points toward the men, lest they think he was about to fit his woomera and attack them.
“You must go back. Over there.” He pointed again, this time more agitatedly. “You will die that way.” He pointed east again. “No water there.”
The strangers looked at each other again, speaking in their strange tongue.
Suddenly, one of the men pointed a stick at him. There was a loud crack! and a puff of smoke. Something (a hot stone?) struck Nundru in the side of the neck, almost knocking him to the ground.
He dropped his spears, bringing his hand up to his neck, and saw blood oozing through his fingers and down his forearm, dripping from the elbow.
Unable to speak, and struggling to breathe, Nundru stood swaying for a second before first dropping to his knees and then falling back against the gravelly slope.
“Fuck me, did you see that, Bill? He’d have killed us for sure if I hadn’t got him first.”
“Too bloody right, Mick. You can’t trust these savages. They’d kill a man as quick as look at ‘im.”
“Should I finish him off?” asked Mick.
“Nah, save yer ammo, he’s done for,” Bill replied. “C’mon, let’s keep going. See that outcrop about a mile ahead? Where that boab tree is? There’ll be water there for sure. Trust me, I know how to read this country.”
“The black prick was probably tryin’ to stop us before we got there,” Mick said as he slipped the rifle back into its holster. “Like you said, ya can’t trust an Abo.”
As they moved away, Nundru tried to raise his hand and speak but could do neither. The last thing he saw before his eyes glazed over was the three figures moving off through the shimmering heat—away from the last waterhole and toward the arid desert.
The wedge-tailed eagles and crows would begin feasting on his body before sundown. Tomorrow—or the next day—they would feast on the two white men and their horse.
As I said in my earlier message, this story was inspired by a dream I had one night when I was camped atop a ridge in north-western Australia. I tend to dream vividly. My wife says I have a twisted mind and an over-active imagination.
That may, or may not, be accurate but I’m not one to argue with her.
When I think of Nundru I can see him standing before me. I hope you can too. I got his name from a small town in South Australia called Nundroo. The town, Nundroo, is about 1,000 kilometres west of Adelaide, on the Eyre Highway not far from where the Nullarbor Plain starts. (When I say ‘town’, though, it’s really nothing more than a roadhouse and a couple of houses)
The next story I send will be longer, I promise.
‘Til next time…
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