‘In the Shadow of Kakadu’, RJ Astruc

Illustrations by Ixthus (see below for copyright details)

 [ Kakadu 1: landscape © Tourism NT; collage (cc) Ixthus (by-sa) ] First time I saw the boy he was hanging about with the Americans, a pair of plump, sandy-haired kids from Texas who'd come to Kakadu with their parents. As I passed their tent one of the Americans, Patty, burst into laughter. 'I don't understand you at all,' she giggled, squeezing the boy's long, dark hands between hers. 'I don't speak aborigine-language. Can't you say it with gestures?'

The boy smiled or grimaced and then spouted a melodic chain of words, pointing toward the bush. I looked but could see nothing, only eucalypts and ferns and the shimmer of a nearby billabong, a flock of sacred ibis picking their way through the shallows. The sun was sinking, and the great walls of rock behind our campsite glowed red and orange. Patty's brother, Hutch, noticed me watching and called, 'Hey, Miss Guide-lady. D'you know what this kid's saying?'

'I'm afraid not. I don't speak any of their languages.' I'd heard plenty of aboriginal languages spoken or sung before though—Kunwinjku, Jawoyn, Gun-djeihmi…—but I didn't recognise this one. It bothered me that the kid looked about the same age as the Americans, thirteen, which was way too young to be running about in the bush alone. Whippet-thin with big eyes, he wore nothing but a pair of too-big shorts – likely a gift from his new friends - and a chain of native grass around his neck. 'I'll see if I can contact the outstations in the morning,' I said. 'See where he came from.'

'He can sleep in our tent tonight,' Patty offered magnanimously. 'Hutch won't mind.'

'Long as you tell your parents,' I warned them, before heading back to the main campsite, where the rest of my tour group were complaining about the lack of electricity and showers. Due to a booking error, the group consisted of twenty people, well over our usual limit, and I didn't relish the idea of picking up a random aboriginal kid to baby-sit too. How had he got here, anyway? The nearest outstation was miles away, and I hadn't heard anything on the radio about a kid going missing.

Behind me Patty was laughing again. 'Lost, huh?' she asked. 'That's cool, we'll hang out until the guide phones your mom. What do you Australians say? No worries, right?'

There are only about five hundred aborigines living in Kakadu these days. I spent most of the morning trying to contact the different outstations located around the park, but the reception was bad and got progressively worse as we continued our trek into the bush. While the tour group paused to look at some aboriginal rock art, I climbed up to the highest point I could find, a rock sitting precariously on the edge of a gorge, and phoned my boss. Jack picked it up on the first ring and yawned loudly into the receiver.

'Kakadu Adventure Holid—oh, it's just you, Lucy,' he said. 'Problem with the group?'

'I picked up a kid,' I said. 'Aboriginal kid, thirteen or so, doesn't speak English. Does he belong to any of the outstations? We found him last night, he's been staying with a couple of American kids. If he's from an outstation in the area we can probably walk him back home.'

'Haven't heard any reports about a missing kid. And trust me, if he disappeared last night, they'd have put out a search by now. Lots of crocs around at the moment, parents get worried quick if their babies don't make it in for dinner. I'll keep you posted if I hear anything, but the best thing to do is to bring him back here. Maybe one of the guys will know him.'

'Right-o,' I said, but I doubted it. I'd stopped at most of the outstations at one point or another, and this kid didn't look familiar.

Back at the rock paintings, Hutch and Patty were showing the boy one of their guidebooks. He was fascinated by the colour pictures and was chatting animatedly in his language, to the Americans' amusement. 'They have photos and cameras at the outstations, don't they?' Hutch whispered to me. 'I mean they'd have seen them before at least, right?'

'Yeah, they would have. So I don't know where he's come from.' For a brief moment I contemplated the possibility that the boy had lived in the bush all his life, without any human contact—I remembered stories about orphaned children being raised by wolves in Europe, or bears in America. But those kids had run on all fours like beasts and had been unable to talk, most barking or growling like the animals that raised them. The aboriginal boy was chatty, social, and seemed far more light on his feet than his chubby American friends.

'Maybe there's some aborigines living here you don't know about?' Patty suggested.

'Doubt it. Aside from all the tours, we have helicopters and the like flying around here all the time, filming for documentaries. I'm sure they'd have spotted any unusual signs of life outside of the outstations.'

We looked over at the boy, who had set aside the guidebook and was drawing in the dirt with a stick. It was a figure of a man, as far as I could tell, with long outstretched arms. A mimi spirit, maybe. I'd seen similar things in the rock paintings. Some of the other tour group members had started to take an interest, so I started in on one of my 'guide' speeches:

'There are many kinds of paintings done by the aborigines—you'd probably have seen some of the dot paintings that are in the foyer of the Kakadu Adventure Holidays office. Usually these paintings are used to tell a story, part of the aborigines' dreamtime heritage. I think he's drawing one of the mimi spirits—they were an ancient race the aborigines believed lived here before they did. They taught the aborigines a lot of things, like how to cook, hunt and paint.'

'Like how aliens taught the Egyptians?' Hutch asked, and was quickly silenced by laughter.

'Can we buy some?' his mother asked. 'For a souvenir.'

'There are a lot of local artists you can buy work from,' I said, sighing on the inside. 'But I'm afraid the rock paintings here aren't for sale. Some people have tried to steal them, cutting them out of the rocks, but when they'd brought them out of Kakadu to sell, the pictures had vanished from the stone. Well, that's the story anyway,' I added. 'Beyond the shadow of Kakadu these things magically cease to exist.'

'Magic,' said Patty's mother, rolling her eyes. 'Probably rubbed off in their bags.'

'It really was aliens,' Hutch told me, as we followed a dirt track along the base of a cliff. 'I read it on the internet. And the Egyptians could do magic too, but it was science-magic, like how the pyramids can turn back time and stuff. I bet these mimi spirits were like that, they did science things and the aborigines didn't understand so they just thought it was magic.'

A kookaburra cackled from somewhere nearby. I looked over my shoulder but couldn't spot it; the bush here was too thick, all white bark and stringy grey-green leaves. Behind us the rest of the group straggled along, panting and sweating. None of them were experienced bushwalkers, so we were taking an easier route—not that it seemed to matter to them. The weather was hot and unusually dry, and they were suffering for it. 'Pretty sure I've read something similar on the internet, kid,' I said, turning back, 'but I'm also pretty sure it's rubbish. Have you ever tried that out? Making a pyramid or something to turn back time?'

Hutch flushed. 'Yeah, for a science project once. It didn't work.'

'I didn't think so.'

We camped by the edge of a gorge that night. I hoped that none of the group was prone to sleep walking. From above the walls of the gorge looked like piled up bricks—a result of over two thousand million years of geological flux. Far below, water trickled between the rocks and tree roots. There hadn't been any rain for a while, and most of the rivers in the area had shrunk, not that this made the view any less spectacular.

What always amazed me about Kakadu, even now, was the sheer size of it. It looked like a landscape designed by giants. The aborigines believed there was magic in those rocks, and hell, maybe there really was, something left behind by the mimi spirits. A lot of things happened in Kakadu that were hard to explain: people vanished into thin air, lone bushwalkers saw strange things, and sometimes even the landscape seemed to repeat itself; often I'd swear that I'd walked through the same gully twice, or passed the same tree.

Perhaps it was those mimi spirits who were to blame, still hanging around after all these years. Now that I thought about it, the descriptions of the mimi spirits did sound a bit like aliens: tall, thin creatures who towered above humans. I decided not to tell Hutch that; I didn't want to encourage him.

While the rest of the group busied themselves making dinner—canned food cooked over the fire—the aboriginal boy did some more drawing. I stood behind him, watching as his simple lines transformed into people. He was drawing a story, of that I was sure. It began with the mimi spirits and a picture of a circle with light radiating from it in zigzag lines. Then a family with a small boy—was it the boy, I wondered—came to talk to the mimi spirits. And then the boy began to look at the circle…

'What is that?' I asked, pointing at the circle. 'Is it the sun? The moon?' I gestured towards the sky.

The boy said something in his language and moved his hands in a wide circle, then mimed moving through it.

'A door? A round door? To what?'

He didn't understand and went back to drawing.

I called Jack again that night. He'd checked with the outstations and there were no kids missing from any of them. 'Kid is a ghost or something,' he said.

'No, just very, very lost. Maybe we should run his picture in the papers when we get back. Can you arrange that?'

I was starting to worry. There'd been kids found before in the bush, but they always belonged to someone. I didn't want to think about what would happen to this kid if we didn't find his parents.

On our last day of the tour, we saw a gang of kangaroos leaping up a mountain side, their red-brown fur almost camouflaged against the rocks. At first I thought that we'd startled them, until I heard snorts and splashes coming from a nearby river and saw the familiar, heavy shapes of bathing water buffalo. Signalling for the others to follow me quietly, I pushed through the ferns to the river banks. Not that it mattered; they didn't seem scared of us in the slightest.

'Water buffalo,' I explained to the group, as the beasts below swaggered about in the muddy water. 'They're quite common in Kakadu. They were introduced in the nineteenth century and have caused a lot of problems with the local ecology, mainly in the wetlands—however, they are also beneficial from an economic standpoint, as many aborigin—'

I was interrupted by a squeak from the boy, who was staring at the buffalo with an expression of amazement on his face.

'Is there something wrong with him?' I asked the Americans.

'He's never seen them before,' said Hutch. He looked smug. 'That's all.'

Patty sighed. 'He's not in the right time,' she said sadly. 'I think that's the problem. I don't understand what he's saying but you can tell by his face that all this makes no sense to him. He thinks my clothes are ridiculous, he's never seen photographs before, he doesn't know how zips work, and he keeps drawing pictures of aliens and boxes.'

'Mimi spirits,' I corrected her.

'They're aliens,' Patty insisted, her brother nodding sagely beside her. 'You only have to look at them to tell. He's really lost, Miss Guide-lady.' Her sunburnt face creased—I couldn't tell if she was angry or about to cry. 'You said there was Kakadu magic,' she said. 'That's what you told my mom. With the paintings that disappeared. Maybe he's part of that, that—'

She trailed off, upset and searching for words. Both her brother and the boy gave her a hug, one on each side. When I turned to the rest of the group, they were all staring at me, waiting for an answer. As if, in my job training for Kakadu Adventure Holidays, I'd been taught a little speech to cater to this very situation. I shrugged—I didn't know what else to do. 'I'll call my boss again tonight,' I said. 'I'm sure they'll find his family soon.'

But when I called Jack that evening, he had no good news for me. He put me on hold while he called some of the other tour groups in the area to see if they'd heard anything about a lost aboriginal child. I nested my mobile in the crook of my shoulder and rubbed bitter-smelling mosquito repellent into my arms and legs. The nights were getting colder, the air thinner—it was coming up to the dry season.

Tonight we were camping deep in the bush, in a tiny clearing we could barely squeeze our tents into. Here we could hear all the sounds of the bush: the crackle of leaves underfoot as animals moved through the undergrowth, the growls of koalas and the sharp, angry cries of native birds. Wind hissed through the trees. I thought about Kakadu magic and the stories I'd heard about the aboriginal spirits, the creatures of their Dreamtime. The mimi, the rainbow serpent, cat-men, bunyips and creator-gods.

'Nothing,' said Jack, coming back to the phone. 'He's definitely not from around here. I'm going to call the social welfare office and see what they recommend we do. We might have to bring him to Darwin.'

'Darwin? Why?'

'I knew you wouldn't like that idea. Look, there'd be people there who could help him. Doctors and social workers and counsellors and places like that. And maybe they'd have some record of him there, something, a birth certificate, a medical record. Anything. It's not right, that no one here knows who he is.'

'The kids here think he came from another time,' I said. 'Sent here by mimi spirit aliens. It's Kakadu magic.'

'That's as good an explanation as any other I can think up,' said Jack. 'I'll see you tomorrow, Lucy, for the pick-up. Keep the kid safe, okay?'

 [ Kakadu 2: © Tourism NT ] We made it to our pick-up point by mid-morning of the next day, our inscrutable tag-a-long still with us. The Americans were starting to teach him rudimentary English. He'd said, 'Hai,' when he saw me in the morning, and then, a little confused, 'Gad-ladee.' It worried me. Earlier I'd heard the Americans' mother say something to her husband about organising an adoption and extending the family. I didn't like the sound of that; I hoped that one of the outstations would take him in.

Jack showed up with a caravan of Kombi vans to take the group back to relative civilisation. We stood amongst the greenery, swatting mosquitos and flies, while the others loaded their backpacks into the vans. It was a beautiful day: we were by a billabong hemmed in by mangroves, their roots bulging above the water line. Kookaburras chattered close by, probably scared by the sound of the Kombis. Jack offered me a mouthful of coffee from his thermos and we sat on a rock to discuss business.

'That the kid, eh?' he asked, looking at the boy. 'I don't recognise him. Definitely not a Kakadu boy.'

'That's where we found him,' I said. I'd been feeling slightly sick all day, and the coffee made my stomach churn. 'You can't argue with that.'

'I talked to the social welfare office. They said we should probably bring him to Darwin. He might actually belong there, you know—you said he doesn't speak any of the local languages. He could have got on the wrong bus or something, ended up here by mistake. Adam's driving up to Darwin today to see his girlfriend, so he said he'll take the kid along.' He paused, frowning. 'You okay with that, Lucy?'

My eyes were fixed on the other side of the clearing, where Patty and Hutch were saying goodbye to the boy. Patty in particular was having a hard time of it, sobbing, her arms wrapped around the boy's neck as if she didn't want to let him go. Hutch looked paler than usual; I could tell he was being strong for his sister. Adam, yellow-haired and tanned, stood by the open door of his Kombi, checking his watch.

'I don't know what else to do,' I said. My hands were shaking and sticky-palmed; I hid them between my thighs. 'I guess that's the only way.'

'You did good, Lucy,' said Jack. He squeezed my shoulder, the way he did with the men on the team, and for a second I felt proud. 'Must've been a stressful group to work with, even without our little runaway. Come out to the pub with us tonight, hey? Have a drink on me.'

The Americans were led away by their mother, and the boy climbed into the back of the Kombi. Adam had to help him fix his seat belt. I waved; he waved back. At the back of my mind I felt a twinge of worry. 'Sure,' I told Jack, getting to my feet. 'That sounds great.'

For a second I thought the ground moved beneath me, a rumbling discontent deep beneath the soil, and the trees around me seemed to shuffle in and out of focus. I'd been in the sun too long, it was getting to me. I was about to head to the refreshments station the other guides had set up, when the Kombi carrying the boy took off. Darwin-bound.

I turned to look. The kid must have wriggled out of his seat-belt the moment he felt the engine purring under him, because he appeared suddenly at the window, his hands splayed across the glass, his mouth open, his eyes wide and white. I couldn't tell if he was afraid or excited. The reflection of Kakadu's red rocks and greenery flashed across his features, shadow and light, and then the Kombi turned a corner and was gone.

A strange silence followed—the bush itself seemed to go quiet in the Kombi's wake. Then Patty screamed, a horrible shrill sound like a wounded bird. She made a run for the road but Hutch held her back. 'No,' he said. 'It's too late. They won't listen anyway.' It was meant to be a consolation but Patty screamed again. Her startled American parents, clutching glasses of flat soda, did nothing.

'You can't take him,' she hollered, and her eyes were on me now. 'You can't let him go to Darwin. You said it only works in the shadow of Kakadu.'

The sun was in my eyes and in my face and all I could think of were the red rocks and the tall, thin mimi spirits dancing across the cave walls. Patty shrieked, clawing at her brother's arms.

'Give me your keys, Jack,' I said, turning around. My head felt high and light.

'Lucy, don't be silly.'

'Give them to me, or I swear to god I'll quit on you today.'

He gave me the keys. I stumbled across to the main Kombi and got in. Patty was sobbing on her knees. I didn't know what I was doing. I started the engine. Hutch yelled something at me I couldn't hear. I turned the van around and headed after Adam.

I caught up with him ten minutes later. He pulled over when I held down the horn, the blast enough to raise a flock of rosellas from the nearby trees. He got out of the van and I rolled down the window.

'Open the back.'

'Lucy? What the hell are you doing?'

'Open the back.'

I climbed jelly-legged from the Kombi and stagged across a road that tilted and buckled like a eucalypt in a storm. I was beside Adam when he unlocked the side door and slid it back.

Adam said: 'I don't understand it. I checked him in the mirror before we left. I heard him rattling around in there for a while, talking in whatever weird language he spoke. I told him to sit down, it wasn't safe. He chattered on a while longer, then there was nothing. I thought he'd just lain down on the seat and gone quiet.'

He climbed into the back and started looking under the seats, as if the boy could have vanished into some dark corner in there, like a stray coin or a missing thermos. Leaning against the Kombi for support, I looked back at red rocks in the distance. The sun was high; the shadow Kakadu cast was small. My heart was racing. Echoes of Patty's screams funnelled along the bush highway and the earth moved again, perceptibly. Thin things moved between the eucalypts, their pale bodies camouflaged amongst the bone-white branches.

'Jesus,' said Adam, from the van, 'I don't know where he's gone. He couldn't have climbed out, not when we were driving. I'd have heard the door. I don't understand.'

'Adam,' I said. 'Adam.'

He was angry now, kicking and punching the walls. 'What, Lucy? What the hell do you want?'

'Help me.'

He got to me before I fainted; I fell into his arms.

 [ Kakadu 3: © Ixthus ] I left Kakadu a month later. It wasn't about the boy, as Jack claimed, not exactly. I'd known they wouldn't find him, that no search party on earth could have brought him back. I could deal with that. What sent me back to Sydney was Kakadu itself. I saw bunyips lurking in the billabongs with great frog-like heads and teeth like snakes; I saw a coloured serpent as big as a motorway weaving through an estuary; and everywhere there were the spirits, stalking through the shadows, their skin as white as paperbark. Kakadu and its magics made me run, shoving my scant belongings into a backpack and catching the bus to the nice, normal chaos of Sydney, where boys didn't vanish into thin air.

But I think of the place often, and sometimes even fondly, when I see pictures of it on television, that great wide stretch of brown, green and red seen from above. And there are days too that it seems to reach for me in return. Now and then, when standing at a bus stop, or sitting in my office, or drinking coffee at a street café, I catch a glimpse of something tall and white skulking on the very edge of my vision.

I freeze, breathless, as the mimi pass by, long-limbed and sketchy beyond the shadow of Kakadu.

Illustrations: Kakadu 1 collage cc by-sa Ixthus; Kakadu 1 and 2: landscape copyright Tourism NT ("copyright holder allows anyone to use it for any purpose", from Wikimedia Commons); Kakadu 3 © 2008, Ixthus, all rights reserved.

© 2007 RJ Astruc

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