The Last Waterhole
North-Western Australia—circa 1885.
He sat resting in the shade of a gnarled river gum, and watched as the two men drew closer. Oblivious to his presence, they plodded toward him, 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 time since he first spied them. They also hadn’t drunk today, so clearly they were out of water.
For over three days now Nundru had observed their halting progress, keeping pace with them from above and following the line of the ridge as they trudged westward. At night, they would light a fire bright enough to be seen almost from the horizon but they cooked nothing. They talked, though he couldn’t understand their words, and they seemed to place embers to their lips and blow smoke out into the air. Was this magic of some kind?
Nundru had heard of these mysterious light-skinned men who sometimes ventured through his land, but until this day he’d never seen one. Intrigued by their appearance and the strange clothing they wore—despite the searing heat—he had followed their progress from above with fascination.
That morning, as they neared what would be the last waterhole they would encounter for several days, the strange animal had 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 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 black 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, Nundru would return to his family; no longer a boy, but a man.
Earlier that day, as he made his way carefully down the slope—his gangly appearance belied by his sure-footedness—he’d determined to approach these visitors. It seemed they had no idea how to find food or water. They had trudged straight past two wallabies and a goanna already today and completely ignored the quondong trees and their fruit. Even the youngest children of his tribe would cope better than these poor individuals. Clearly, any magic they possessed was not strong enough to overcome hunger and thirst.
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 westward.
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 again 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 west again. “No water there.”
The strangers looked at each other again, speaking in their strange tongue. The man who led the large animal walked over to it and took a long oddly-shaped stick from the load on its back. Parts of it gleamed in the sunlight as he placed the blunt end at his shoulder and pointed it at Nundru. He was shouting now, as was his companion.
Despite not understanding the words, Nundru heard fear and anger in the man’s voice. He turned to leave. Suddenly, 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 dropping to his knees and 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 fer,” Bill replied. “C’mon, let’s keep going. See that outcrop about a mile ahead? 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 and drank his water,” 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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Many thanks. Thomas.