Pilbara Coast, Western Australia. 5th January, 1980
Dust blew into Brian Hudson’s face. Holding Rachel on
his hip with one arm, he used his other hand to paw at his eyes for a moment,
in an attempt to dislodge the grit that had blinded him.
He felt the familiar kicks from his daughter, impatient with the desire to walk on her own. He blinked until he could see clearly. The gorge below was changing colour in the afternoon, and the sun low in the sky told him that they were at least an hour from sunset. They had time. He wanted them to see the view that waited at the top of the ridge. To see what he knew could be found, when they trusted his instincts. That his own childhood memories held rewards like this.
“I want to get down, Dad!”
“Almost, sweetheart. Let’s just get to the top of the path. I don’t want you to get tired.” Brian stepped with patience along the rocky trail, careful not to lose his footing on the loose stones. He turned to check on the other two. His wife walking behind his son was taking up the rear. She was puffing with the effort of the walk.
This family holiday was Brian’s idea. In a few weeks, Rachel would start primary school. The exhaustion of family life had been mounting, and Brian had resolved to try something new to refresh their spirits. Rachel’s medical needs had taken their toll. Matt needed to be taught how to light a fire, pitch a tent and all those things that men were meant to teach their sons. Perhaps, he now realised, a camping trip was too much. His wife had been tense since they packed the car. She was a cannon waiting for the fuse to disappear and Brian had constantly needed to tread carefully between her glances and pointed comments.
At the top of the ridge, he found the view he remembered. Letting Rachel down, he patted the red arching rock with his hand. The same open cavern waited for them, like a giant natural window in the clifftop looking down onto the gorges of the national park below.
His own father had brought him here as a young boy. Coming here was like passing a baton. His arrival at this rock was an effort to play out his own father’s actions for his son, and in doing so, prove to himself that he was capable of this job − fatherhood.
Matt caught up to his father, and stood beside him. He laid his hand on his son’s shoulder and guided him to the cavernous rock. He heard Beth issuing cares and concerns to Rachel. She was busy untying and retying her daughter’s shoelaces.
“See, Matty. Look but don’t touch. It’s rock art. How long do you reckon that’s been there?”
His son watched as his father explained the finer points of the shapes, and what he had been told they meant. After a few seconds, as he waited for these new thoughts to settle in, he pointed out towards the ocean in the distance. There was nothing but a glimmering blanket of open sea. His ten-year-old son was quiet. Brian knew that Matthew’s silence meant that he was impressed. He watched as his son crept carefully to the edge, where the gorge dived sharply below. He gave him the space to find his confidence.
“Not too close, Matthew. Please!”
Brian glanced over at Beth, catching her breath at the top of the path, with her fists on her hips. He remained quiet.
Brian held his hand out to his daughter. “Come here, Rach.” She did as she was told. She hugged her father’s waist, holding on to him, not sure of the cliff edge below, but trusting him. Brian looked down onto the descending gorge. He imagined for a moment his own body, falling and landing like a bulky sack on the glistening rocks below. The seconds of silence on the way down. The dull thud. He pictured the shocked faces of his two children who would remain peering at him from the cliff edge. For a moment, he could hear the wokka wokka of a chopper, scanning the ground below for those olive drab uniformed bodies, the black stain that blood could make on a uniform. His mates were faceless now in his dreams. He shook away the image, still fresh in his mind after so many years. Not today. Today was for making good memories for his kids.
“Wait there and let me get the camera out. I have to make this climb worth something, Brian.”
Brian held out his arm to his son, and watched as he joined him in the open cave. Behind them the view took in the red gorge below, the glinting ocean that met the river system some kilometres away, and the pockets of water that remained from recent rainfall. Brian dug at the memories of his own childhood. Safe and sure postcards from his early life. The same view, the timeless vista that he knew would comfort him. Following his own father up that ridge. The security found in seeing 40,000-year-old paintings done by a man perhaps the same age as him, with his own son watching on.
“There’s a big ghost gum just under us, Dad. Just below in the gorge wall.”
His father nodded. “It was here when I visited at your age, too.”
“Brian, how do you get this thing of yours to work on its own?” Beth was fumbling with the Minolta in her hands. Brian did not answer her. He didn't have that kind of energy anymore. Instead he sought to let her find the answers herself. After a few moments, Beth placed the camera on a small rock not far from where the rest of the family now sat.
“Quickly, quickly! Move over. I think it gives us ten seconds.”
Matt preferred to stand up on the other side of his father, where he could stretch his small arms up and just touch the top of the rock shelter, leaving more room for the other three to crouch together in the small cavern. Brian reached out with his arm to place it around his wife’s shoulders. She brushed at it with a small squeal.
“Oh. Sorry love. I thought it was a bug.”
Brian looked away from her, and the whir of the camera buzzed faster. He glanced down into the gorge below, listening to the tick of the camera speeding up and in some shallow defiance of his wife, chose to ignore its impatient demand. Turning to look at his daughter seated in his lap, he found a little of that feeling he wanted to find here. The Minolta snapped.