Authors: Joanne Van Os
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including printing, photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Castaway: A Brumby Plains Adventure
ePub ISBN 9781742745336
Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney, NSW 2060
Sydney New York Toronto
London Auckland Johannesburg
First published by Random House Australia in 2007
Copyright © Joanne van Os 2007
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
National Library of Australia
van Os, Joanne.
Castaway: a Brumby Plains adventure.
For confident readers aged 9+.
ISBN 978 1 74166 246 7 (pbk.).
1. Refugee children – Juvenile fiction. I. Title.
(Series: van Os, Joanne. Brumby Plains; bk. 2).
Cover photography by Getty Images
Cover design by Ellie Exarchos
Internal illustrations of the green tree python and map by Joanne van Os
For my parents,
Martin and Therese van Os
It was so cold, so bitterly, painfully cold. The air hurt to breathe, and it froze their fingers and toes inside their gloves and boots. They trudged in single file through the narrow pass, stumbling with exhaustion on the ice-rimed boulders and floundering through sudden drifts of deep snow. As one fell, another would stop and haul him to his feet again, any encouraging word whipped away by the merciless wind. Every so often worried looks were cast over shoulders, even though the world behind was a formless white void. If they were being followed, they wouldn’t have known it.
The scent of warm yeasty bread wafted across the water to where Sam and George McAllister were fishing in a small dinghy.
‘C’mon, Sam, let’s go back. These stupid fish aren’t hungry but I’m starving.’
The reel hummed as George wound in the line, drops of water spraying out in the early morning sunlight like tiny diamonds. Sam cast out one more time, sending the lure flying across the swirling brown water towards a hidden snag and reeling it back in, flicking the rod tip
so the lure popped across the surface like a little bait fish, just the kind of breakfast a barramundi liked. But not this morning. They had been fishing since first light, and nothing was interested in their bright colourful lures. Not even the crocodile soaking up the sun on the opposite bank was interested in them.
Sam snapped the lure out of the water and jammed his rod into the holder beside his brother’s. ‘Yeah, let’s go – smells like breakfast is ready, anyway.’
They untied the dinghy from the roots of a half-submerged tree trunk and started the motor, puttering their way back to a rough landing close to where the river flowed into the sea. George throttled back gently while Sam grabbed onto one of the posts which jutted out of the mud. He tied the dinghy to it as George shut down the motor.
Using a pair of wire hooks, Sarah McAllister was lifting a camp oven out of a hollow in the ground next to the fire. She brushed the coals and ashes off the lid as Sam and George arrived from the riverbank. A blackened billy was just coming to the boil on the fire, and she threw a handful of tea-leaves into the water and lifted it off the flames before bending back to the camp oven.
‘No luck?’ she asked as the two boys leaned their fishing rods against a tree and hovered around the fire.
They shook their heads, watching intently as she lifted the lid off the oven, revealing the golden crust of the bread inside. The aroma was heavenly.
am I hungry!’ moaned George.
‘George, you’re always hungry.’ She smiled at him. ‘Spread that tea-towel on the table for me, and I’ll turn out the bread. Sam, can you get the pannikins out? The tea’s about ready.’
‘Where’s Dad?’ asked Sam as he rummaged around in the tucker box looking for the enamelled mugs.
‘He’s gone for a walk along the beach. He’ll be back any minute, so we’ll start some bacon and eggs while the bread cools. Get them out of the esky, will you please, love?’
A tall lean figure with a friendly weather-beaten face beneath a big felt hat appeared over the top of the dune. Angus McAllister – known to all as Mac – grinned at his two sons as he dropped an armload of wood beside the fire.
‘Hey, guys – catch anything?’
‘Nah,’ said Sam. ‘Not a bite. It’s really quiet out there this morning.’
‘Yeah, hasn’t been much of a Wet so far. The fishing might not be that flash this year.’ He poured four pannikins of tea and squinted into the northern sky, where low clouds were massing along the horizon,
faint tints of pink from the sunrise staining the edges of them. ‘Still, there could be a bit left in it. We’ve had good storms in May before this.’
He added some more wood to the fire and George found the frying pan while Sam opened a packet of bacon. Sarah chopped some tomatoes to add to the rashers in the pan, and soon the air was full of delicious early morning smells – fresh baked bread, sizzling bacon, soft familiar wood smoke, and the background tang of salt and seaweed.
The McAllister family was having a holiday. The monsoon season was nearly over, and in a few more weeks the station work would begin again in earnest. They were camped beside the mouth of the McDouall River, which formed the western boundary of their buffalo station, Brumby Plains, about two hundred kilometres east of Darwin. Further upstream the river wound lazily across the bright green flood plains, curving back in on itself in great muddy loops so that it flowed north, and then south, and in every other direction as it meandered down to the salt water. As if it couldn’t make up its mind which direction to take, the river divided into a maze of mangrove-choked channels before it finally entered the sea.
Its main flow was through the easternmost channel, and here the river ran wide and deep. The western
spread of the river delta was covered in mangroves as far as the eye could see, but high sand ridges had formed along the coast to the east. The dunes were held in place by stands of native casuarinas and pockets of twisted old tamarind trees planted centuries ago by visiting Maccassans. On the eastern bank where the brown river muddied up the blue sea, there was an old campsite which had been there as long as anyone could remember. An ancient brick oven stood to one side, and bits of rusted iron and other debris showed it was a place someone had used often in the past.
It was a spot the family could reach nearly all year round, thanks to a ridge of high ground running across the station right through the flood plains. Mac had erected paddock fencing along it, and Sam and George regularly offered to check the fence so that they had a good excuse to go down to the Point and toss a line in the salt water. At low tide, a reef of coral and sharp black rock extended for almost half a kilometre out from the river mouth. The eastern side of the river was known as Deception Point, in memory of a ship that had foundered on the reef nearly two hundred years earlier.
‘I reckon if you could ignore the crocs and go poking around that reef, you’d find traces of more old ships,’ Mac had said one time. ‘Old sailing ships used to come
across this bay headed for Darwin, or down the west coast. They could’ve been blown off course sometime, or tried to get into the river mouth to wait out a cyclone, perhaps. They wouldn’t have known the reef was even there at high tide …’
After he’d eaten, Sam put down his knife and fork and leaned contentedly back in his folding chair. Life was pretty good, he thought. Early morning fishing, bacon and eggs for breakfast, and nothing to worry about for the rest of the day. Worrying was the thing that Sam was very good at. He was a tall, lightly built thirteen year old, with sun-bleached blond hair and serious grey eyes. He was also a crack horseman, wonderful with animals, and had a gentle, sensitive nature. But he was a terrible worrier, always certain that something would go wrong, or that he’d make a stupid mistake.
His younger brother was totally different. George was shorter and stockier, and he had red hair and green eyes. Far from being a worrier, George was an eternal optimist, confident and good-humoured, and always able to see the funny side of just about anything. Right now they were both feeling well-fed and sleepy after their early morning start.
‘I thought we might go and check out the rookery, what do you reckon?’ said Sarah, tossing the tea-leaves out of her empty mug.
‘That’d be excellent!’
‘Okay then, let’s clear this lot away and get going before it’s too hot.’
They motored upstream, the engine purring along quietly and the dinghy barely making a wave on the shoreline. A few kilometres upriver, Mac veered left into a large creek lined with dense mangroves. They could hear the birds long before they reached the rookery. As they drew nearer, the noise was incredible. The sound of the boat’s motor was lost among the screeching and calling from a hundred thousand throats. Parent birds, little fluffy chicks and gawky adolescents clustered and squabbled in the trees, and swooped overhead. As the dinghy passed along the creek, the inhabitants of the nearby trees would shriek loudly, rise aloft in a flapping white and grey cloud, and descend again as the intruders motored by.
If the sound was incredible, it was almost over-powered by the smell of rotting feathers and bird drop-pings piled in thick odorous mounds along the tops of the creek banks. Feathers floated across the surface of the creek and decorated the mangroves like snow.
‘Phew,’ gasped George, holding his nose. ‘Looks like there’s been a massacre in the chook pen!’
Mac stopped the boat on the far side of the rookery and cut the engine. They sat in the dinghy and watched the colony for a while. Gradually the birds settled, and within ten minutes they had forgotten about the dinghy and its occupants, and returned to their base level of noise, which was merely deafening as opposed to head splitting. They squabbled over their territory – cattle egrets, little egrets, great white egrets, pied herons. Young birds were making their first awkward attempts at flight, which basically consisted of launching themselves off the edge of the nest platform and hoping their wings would function before they hit the water. The number of crocodiles lying in wait beneath the overhanging mangrove branches was a sign that flight was not always the outcome of the attempts.
‘Well, I guess the crocs have to eat too,’ said Mac when Sarah voiced sympathy for the young birds that ended up inside one of the armour-plated reptiles. ‘Besides, if they’re here eating birds they’re not out on the river eating our barras!’
They watched the birds for a while longer, and then headed back. Sam and George wanted to try for a fish at the junction of the rookery creek and the main river, the point where the two streams met, the tea-coloured water from the creek mingling with the muddy brown river water. Mac took the boat out of the creek and into
the river, and steered it into the side of the bank out of the main flow, facing the creek mouth. He steadied the boat while the boys flicked their lures out into the eddies and swirls. It was a good spot. The fresh water draining off the flood plains attracted schools of mullet and other small fish, and voracious barramundi hunted them in turn. Every so often Sam and George could hear the muffled underwater ‘boof’ of a barra feeding.
Sam felt something bump his lure and tensed, waiting for the run. A few seconds later, the line screamed off his reel and a big silver fish exploded out of the water, churning and thrashing it into foam. It leapt and bucked and then ran away with the lure.
‘Let him run, let him run!’ shouted George. As soon as the reel slowed, Sam wound in as fast as he could, bringing the barra back towards the bank. In a split second the fish took charge of the lure again, drops of water spraying out from the reel as it hummed and vibrated. Again the reel slowed, and Sam wound in furiously, dragging the barramundi a little closer each time, then letting it run as it took the line out again, leaping and fighting whenever the tension was back on. Finally, exhausted and beaten, the fish allowed itself to be pulled towards the boat where George leaned over the side and scooped it up with the landing net.
‘Good fish!’ said Mac with a grin. ‘He’s a keeper for sure – must be at least eighty centimetres.’
Sam and George unhooked the lure and were busy admiring the catch when suddenly Sarah gave a shout, and they turned to see a big vee moving fast in the water and pointing straight at them.
‘Hang on!’ yelled Mac as he ripped the pull-start cord and gunned the motor. The dinghy shot forward, with Sarah, Sam and George crouching low and clutching the sides of the boat. As they plunged away from the bank they could see a huge scaly head come to a stop right where they had been moments before. Mac throttled back and the boat slowed down in the middle of the river.
‘Whoa – that was a bit close.’ He shaded his eyes and squinted at the enormous crocodile that now hung in the water, its head, back and tail clearly visible on the surface. ‘I haven’t seen that bloke for ages! See those big chunks out of the top of his skull?’ The scarring was plainly visible, as if someone had taken to its head with an axe. ‘I saw him in a fight with another big croc once, must be ten years ago. Ever since then you could pick him by the lumps missing out of his head. The other croc must have come off second best, because this fellow stayed put. He used to hang around the river mouth and along the beach in front of the camp, but he’s been missing for
years. I thought he must’ve finally met his match and been killed or chased out by another big male.’
The crocodile decided they weren’t a threat, or lunch, and slowly swam back inside the mouth of the creek where it rested with its snout on the far bank, its massive bulk half submerged.
Mac turned to Sam and George. ‘Keep an eye out for him when you’re on the water. He might be spending his time up here, but it doesn’t mean he won’t turn up in the river again sometime. And don’t ever come up to the rookery by yourselves. Looks like this creek’s his territory, so it’s not safe.’
They headed slowly downstream, Sam and George watching the crocodile until it was lost around a bend in the river.
By the end of May it was clear that the weather was different this year. The rain, which was normally well and truly gone by now, still hung around, keeping the flood plains boggy and the buffalo back up on the higher ground. Twice Mac had decided the time was right, and he’d arranged for the mustering contractors, Marty Jose and his boys, to come out and help move the stock onto the plains. But each time a storm had blown in, soaking the country and keeping the flood plains too wet to be grazed.
‘Can’t we just let them out anyway?’ asked George. ‘Look at all that lovely green feed out there. The buffalo don’t mind a bit of mud!’
‘The buffalo would love it, but next year there’d be a lot of bare hard ground instead of thick grass,’ said Mac. ‘The buffalo would just wallow all over the place and gouge out the grass, and make a mess of the feed if we let ’em out too soon. Nope, we have to keep them up here for a bit longer. Nothin’ else for it.’
The boys had been helping Mac with some maintenance on the stock yards. Sam perched on the yard rails beside his father, and stared up at the sky. At this time of the year, it should have been clear and blue, but already clouds were piling up, threatening another of the scudding rainstorms that drenched the earth and kept the air humid and heavy. Mac climbed down off the rails, and shook his head.
‘Doesn’t look like we’ll be mustering this time either, fellers.’ He shrugged and began to walk back over to the house with George trotting along beside him.
Sam felt an uncomfortable prickling down his spine.
The weather was one of those things you could count on,
he thought as he jumped down from the rails.
Rain between November and April, and the Dry season the rest of the time, more or less. It wasn’t supposed to change
. He followed Mac and George up to the house,
but he couldn’t shake the feeling of foreboding that had come over him. In the distance there was a faint, barely audible rumble of thunder.