for Margaret and John Kilpatrick
As the plane flew north up the western coast of Bribie Island I saw beneath us a lake shaped like a raptor. A velociraptor, to be precise. It seemed improbable, yet uncannily exact, and I gave myself a crick in the neck watching it recede way down below. More sand islands loomed up, one so fantastically blue and green, as if whipped out of whirls of cloud cream, that I could not rightly say what was land, what sea and what something else, birthed out a J G Ballard novel: The Drowned World perhaps. The black dot of a motor boat left a tiny arrow of white in its wake as it made its way up one of the aqua channels bisecting the next island, probably Thooloora, north of Donnybrook. I remembered my friend who, as an adolescent, happened to stray into Ian Fairweather’s camp on Bribie Island and was chased away when the painter came, brushes in hand, roaring out of his studio. We are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, Ballard wrote, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. And it was over that great sea, or rather a tributary of it, that our plane glided down until, at the very last moment, the tarmac at Maroochydore Airport rose up bumpily to meet us. I had not been to the Sunshine Coast, so-called, before: there was a storm swirling clockwise to the east, forty knot winds blowing in across the land, grey mists of rain over Coolum Beach as we drove through on our way inland to Yandina for lunch at the pub. It was a family reunion. But not my family. They were Irish and Scots who came here from Belfast or from the Low or High lands to get timber—cedar, beech and bunya pine—and then to grow sugar cane or arrowroot, ginger or macadamia nuts, run beef or dairy cattle on the cleared land. There’s a cheese factory. When gold was found at Gympie, to the north, the Cobb & Co. stage coach route ran through here too. My remote connection is with the Irish end of this Irish-Scots match; and there they were in the Yandina Hotel, with their bulbous noses and canny eyes, their talk of horses and of luck, their kindliness and their scepticism, their love of a drink and a yarn. Lock up your daughters, one of them said, was a literal instruction issued, and observed, when the Hall boys came to town. After the session we went up to the local graveyard and there, shading the last resting spot of a scion of the Campbell clan, was a hundred year old gardenia, twiggy and gaunt and yet still putting out the ruffled white flowers with their sweet nostalgic scent lying upon the rainy afternoon air. On the hill behind the graveyard is the ancestral family home of the Lows, Koongalba, a big old wooden house with an iron roof, spacious verandas, lovely gardens, rope swings hanging from the trees and kids running about everywhere. It was jacaranda time so the mazy purple flowers drifted down and carpeted the ground. The local historian’s name is Audienne Blyth and she greeted us bright-eyed at the door and said Come in, come in! Koongalba, place of clean waters, is the original name of Yandina; it’s in Wharf Road, so-called because in the early days timber was floated down the Maroochy River to the sea. I was amazed to learn, talking out on the veranda to one of the daughters, who was gathering up her kids to drive them back to Toowoomba before the rain really started to come down, that these are the same Blyths who helped settle my own home town of Ohakune away across the sea. Joe Blyth was (1908-1940) headmaster at Ruapehu District High School, later Ruapehu College, where my Dad taught in the 1950s; Joe ascended the mountain, it was said, 147 times before his demise. Audienne’s husband is Jim Blyth, son of Jack, son of Joe. He had large teeth and a shy manner. Proud, though, too. We stood in the darkened hallway of the house, surrounded by colonial ghosts, contemplating this mystery. The Blyth family held a reunion, over 150 of them, in ‘Kune last year, around about the same time as I attended the inaugural, perhaps unique, Ruapehu Writers Festival there. Then it was back down to the flatlands, driving through low swampy fields surrounding, like moats, isolate bush-covered volcanic cones called collectively (by James Cook) the Glasshouse Mountains. Occasionally I saw a remnant pine, Araucaria bidwillii, of which more later. At Coluum we checked into the hotel and then went round the road for dinner in the Bowlo, where another Ian told me that a/ Koongalba stands on the site of an ancient bora ground; and b/ that he is a tribal King, and owns a breastplate, which he inherited from his grandmother, Christina, after she had done an unspecified someone an undescribed act of kindness. It’s worth about $200,000, he said, touching his chest, as if he might have had it on under his blue nylon shirt. The Aborigines know I’ve got it. I have to decide what to do with it after I die. Ian is 77 years old, unmarried, childless, reputedly wealthy, garrulous and unregenerate, kindly, roguish, essentially unknowable. He was never without a drink in his hand. Every step of the way, Audienne said, the treatment of Aborigines was a mistake. We should have known better. We knew how this worked in other places. The bunya trees were chopped down—Maleny (south west of Yandina) was where the original bunya festival was—and so many caught white people’s diseases. She doesn’t say this, but there were also mass poisonings, when offerings of food laced with arsenic were left out as gifts. Later we pass a turn-off to a place called Murdering Creek. When the cones on the Araucaria ripened, at anything from an eighteen month to a three year interval, local Waka Waka sent out messages of invitation to people hundreds of miles away. It was indigenous Australia’s largest event. Thousands came and stayed for months, feasting on the bunya nut. The gatherings, which were also an armistice, included ceremonies, dispute settlements, marriages and the trading of goods. Some tribes would not camp amongst the trees; some said a bunya was never to be cut down. An early missionary attempt at an interdiction upon their felling, and the establishment of a native kingdom, failed around 1860. That’s when the clearances, the poisonings and the sequestering of survivors upon reserves, began in earnest. Coastal people were the Gubbi Gubbi, their inland neighbours, the Waka Waka. The basic distinction between the two language groups was the word they used to say ‘no’. Waka Waka were the No No people. They had the bunya. Next morning, early, a friend rang from Sydney to say that Legend Press has finally returned copyright in Albert Namatjira’s paintings to his family, where it belongs. More than half a century too late, but still. Better late than never. I did not have time to contemplate the tiny part my own efforts might have played towards the attaining of this goal. I had to read the final proofs of The Expatriates. The publishers were going to print on Monday. They were awaiting the last outstanding permission, from a librarian on Rhode Island, the great-grand-daughter of a Russian aristocrat who had written a biography of her husband, a New Zealander with astonishing linguistic abilities. It bucketed down, on and off, all day long as I read. 100,000 words or more. I found sixteen (16) errors. The roar of the rain mixed in with the roar of history. There were two Norfolk pines framed in the window, denuded of a plentiful growth of foliage by the incessant sea spray. Bony as a bunya. Next morning I went down early to the beach for a swim. The wind was still blowing from the south-east but it wasn’t raining yet. An endless ochre strand, a warm and choppy sea, a rip it wouldn’t do to ignore. A uniformed surf life saver was slowly rocking, with his foot, the iron spike of a flag pole down into the muscular sand. Four girls in bikinis giggled past me as I came out of the water. One was as comprehensively freckled as the heroine of Eucalyptus, the Murray Bail book. Even her eyelids had freckles upon them. From the boardwalk I could see pandanus and boronia, sheoak and bright yellow daisies. The pandanus fruit as full and fecund as I imagine bunya pine cones to have been; but nobody eats the almond-flavoured pandanus nuts anymore; they’re too hard to get at. The aerial roots clustered round their trunks like fat straws. I have always loved beaches in the rain. The culmination of the weekend, that day, Sunday, was a barbecue at Ken’s place in Noosaville; but before we went out there we visited Keith’s to see the Boer War and Great War medals of the progenitor of the line, J D: there are four and some mystery attends them. I think we solved it but forget the details now; yet I recall the severe profiles of the monarchs on their backs: Victoria, Edward VII, George V. Those Australians who served in the mounted regiments took their own horses with them to war but none of them ever came back. Except one, belonging to a commanding officer. They shoot horses, don’t they, I thought, irrelevantly. Or not. At Noosaville a couple of dozen people gathered under an architectural canopy next to a magnificent stand of paperbark trees. The rain continued to sigh down, to sigh and to roar. A contingent of Fijians joined the Scots-Irish or Irish-Scots or Celtic Australian or Aboriginal or whatever they are to be called. Queenslanders. In the laughter of beautiful children it seemed we might indeed be able to begin again, somehow, after the drowned world has finished with its drowning. Or not. On the way to the airport, later on that afternoon, in the pelting rain I saw, before a bank of green-grey mangroves, black swans in a lagoon, dipping their bright bills into the silvery water. Maroochydore, I learned, comes from the Yuggera word Muru-kutchi, meaning red-bill; such as the swan does have. They are common around here. The black swan of trespass on alienated waters. Robber of dead men’s dreams. It took ages for the incoming plane to land and then, cowled in slumberous heavy air, we boarded through the dense warm slanting rain. Arriving in Sydney I felt I had indeed been plunged back into the archaeopsychic past. Something I did not suspect a weekend in south-east Queensland might do for you. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom. It is still raining up there as I write, floods inundating the land, drowning it beneath a fresh or salty deluge. And yet I know that once the storm is over it will emerge again pristine, newly washed, paradisial, with a rainbow arching from Coolum Mountain to the coast. Or not. And our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. Yes.