It was as if I was standing alone on a frying pan the size of a paddock. Nothing but salt bushes, rocks, dust and heat. An image of a tall & lean man in his mid to late fifties was approaching me out of the haze. With a drawn and sun-weathered face looking more like a well-loved boot. Dressed in small khaki shorts and a sleeveless shirt. With an outstretched hand, he said, “Names Dick.” Nice to meet you, Dick. I’m JJ.
“We’re over here”, as he pointed to a Cessna parked in the distance. Along with a shed off to one side, they were the only two images out there. Looking like they could melt away at any moment. We started to taxi onto the runway while I was still fumbling with the seatbelt. Engine roaring. Plane bouncing along that dirt runway. Then we were up. As we climbed into the sky my breath was taken away. Up there you are very quickly reminded that while you think you understand the space that some of these stations inhabit. You can't help but be humbled when seeing them from the sky. So when I turned to my pilot to make some small talk about the flight ahead. I was left wondering how many hours he had spent flying across this country. Because what I found was Dick, reading a novel. The book resting on the steering wheel as we flew over some of the most majestic country I’d ever seen.
Looking out my window I was hit with a beauty that was simply too big to take in. I started seeing images from painters I’d always loved. Albert Namatjira was everywhere. Namarari, Gleeson, and Emily came flooding back to me. I could have stayed up there for days. Under a huge crop of trees, I could see Camels dancing, jostling for more shelter and a place to hide. Flocks of birds casting shadows on the ground resembling the coming of a storm. Herds of wild-looking horses that I found out later, were not considered all that wild. Dick finally put down his book and effortlessly lined the plane up with the dusty track below. As we came down to land in a cloud of that bulldust. While the wings bashed their way through the tops of scrub. I was sure I spotted a moment of concern flash across Dicks face. Which actually helped to settle my own nerves.
I have always loved the image of a bush camp. The sparse simplicity of it all. Claiming a tree as your own and rolling out your bed. All that you could see, was all that you needed. I took a quick look around at what would be my new home for a while. And then got to work. We worked and we rode. We ate and we slept. Mostly in silence. Which somehow made the bond between the seven of us even stronger. I wouldn’t say we became friends. But we were there together. All-day every day. For months on end. At night after gorging through a plate of food like a rabid dog. Whilst watching the sun go down again. I’d look forward to peeling off my clothes and collapsing onto that beautiful thin mattress under ‘my’ tree. Looking up from the dirt, through nurturing leaves, into a sky that would outdo nearly every image I would see for the rest of my life. It was the inkiest of blacks framed by a royal blue. As a backdrop for a proliferation of stars that were something akin to a fireworks display on pause. Sparkling like a dragon’s lair. A sight that could wash away anything and repair, repair, repair.
As a human being in the far reaches of the Northern Territory, you are completely dictated to by the animals and the earth. Along with the heat, winds, and rain. All of them moving at different speeds. With different needs. Time plays a very different role in this part of the country. It is exactly that old adage that our original people have shared with us. That of Dreamtime. Our waking time. Our sleep time was all time. Which somehow relieved you of the desire to dwell on your past. And this plays an enormous role in the way the top end of this country is populated. Everyone you meet in these parts (besides the original people) are from somewhere else. And you rarely get a straight answer. Either North or South or East or West is the best you'll ever receive. Wrapped up in a pigeon accent or delivered in silence.
I’d been sent away from the yards for the afternoon. Because I had managed to stab myself just below the knee with a dehorning knife. Noely - who was the eldest of the aboriginal fellas in camp (and the one I had silently chosen as my teacher for the year) and a large part of my life as it turns out. Had pulled me aside and gestured that I sit. There was quite a lot of muscle and tissue bulging out of the wound. And there was Noely in front of me rolling a cigarette. I knew I was in good hands so I just sat there waiting for his next move. He started pulling Tally Ho papers out by the dozen. He then rubbed his hands through the dirt at our feet and started to poke back what was oozing out of my leg. After each repacking, there were more Tally Ho papers jammed in to soak up and seal the job. “As good as anything,” he said. And pointed towards the camp. So I spent the rest of the day back there. A luxury rarely obtained outside of an injury. So I made the most of it. For the first time since landing on that alien landscape, I pulled up under a tree and just sat in the shade. Taking in the incredible beauty of that place. With the noise of the days work only vaguely in the background. I closed my eyes. And listened. To a land and it’s teeming life.
I was brought out of a sublime snooze by the sounds of cookie getting ready to serve up some lunch. He’d become pretty good at creatively serving up beef three times a day. Cookie had remained a somewhat elusive character to me. Outside of dishing up breakfast through to dinner he kept to himself. Always bubbly while performing his tasks. With the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old boy delivering breakfast to his parents for the first time. I made my way over to his caravan to see if I could be of some help. He assured me that he was fine. That he had his routine down pat and it was easier to do it on his own. But he did say I should sit and chat with him if I felt like it. The usual questions leaked out before we knew it. How long have you been here? Where are you from. As it turned out, Cookie was from the southern point of the compass. And that was all he was coughing up. He then started to talk about the people he’d left behind. About his wife and his two small children. The impression I got from the way he was talking about them was that he’d had to leave in a hurry. He was the father of twins. A girl and a boy of five. As he was telling me this his eyes revealed to me that he had left the Northern Territory for a moment, He was somewhere else. Maybe with one of his kids sitting on his lap while listening to the other tell a wacky story. And when he spoke of his wife. The love that was in his voice seemed to ground me in time.
It turned out that this was his second year on the station as a cook. He’d spent the entire first year teaching himself to cook for six hungry men three times a day. While worrying himself sick over his wife and children. Who knew nothing of where he was. Or whether he was alive or dead. During the last wet season, he had managed to track down his family. It was the first time he had spoken to them in over a year. The first time since he’d left. He was ecstatic with relief. He told his wife about the job he was doing. How it was an existence he could be proud of. How he had such a great feeling about the future. For all of them. So they made plans to start again. She was going to tell the kids. And he would call her after this season had come to a close. To arrange a date for them all to come up. This tall man. Covered in tattoos of skulls, chains, flames, and club badges. A beard down to his waist. His face was beaming and his eyes weeping.
We were heading toward the end of our time at this particular camp. Packing up our little homes. The towel from the tree. Toothbrushes wedged in a fork. Swag rolled up and on the truck. Cookies kitchen was hooked to the back of a Landcruiser. While the rest of us took a spot on the tray. The roads that trace their way across these stations from water hole to water hole are rough. And in some places a foot deep in bulldust that’s as light as flour. Besides the enormous clouds of dust that billow behind a vehicle travelling these roads. The other thing bulldust will do is hide large mounds in the road caused by corrugations. And like everything in this part of the world. They’re huge. The perfect ingredient for one hell of a surprise. Leaving passengers grasping for the nearest anchor.
We were in the far northwestern pocket of the Northern Territory. And it is simply one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth.The sky is so huge. One minute blue and empty. Then the next the sun could be blocked out by a flock of a single species of birds. Only to have the same spectacle happen again an hour later. By a different species entirely. The ground is a reddish-orange that I have never seen repeated. And it would drop away into gorges that were millions of years in the making. Scattered with explosions of bright green spinifex leaving you with a desire to weep in awe.
After a while I found myself looking around the tray of the ute. At the faces, I was sharing this experience with. Ben was trying to roll a cigarette, weathered to the surrounding beauty. And there was Noely. Stretched out across the tray with his head resting on his saddle. Surrine and still. As though he was lying on a bed of feathers. And then there was Cookie. With his arms stretched out resting with his back on the tailgate. His head back, eyes closed with that beautiful wind is his face. A wind that carried so many promises of peace and forgiveness. Along with the greatest promise of all. A new beginning.
The one thing I know to be true about Cookie. Is that when that ute and caravan went careening over another corrugation. And I saw out of the corner of my eye those black leather biker boots sail into the air. The last thing he would have known was that beautiful big sky.
The horse truck saw him first. Lying in the dust. It was clear on first sight that his caravan had broken his neck. There was no wallet or other papers. No photographs of loved ones. And no phone. We called him Cookie because they were all called Cookie. Nothing else was offered up and no one asked. Down south meant you could take the pic of five major cities and the rest of the country. We had no place to start. Except for the story he had shared with me.
I find that in our culture we think of death as a singular event. When, of course, it is so much more. The aftermath revealing itself through the cracks of our flawed societal design. And these flaws vary drastically depending on where you are. We had a man’s body. And that’s all we had. If we drove him to the nearest town to hand him over to the nearest authorities. It is all that they would have. He would have more than likely spent the next few days on the concrete floor of a cool room in the nearest pub. To then meet an end that was anyone’s guess.
So Cookie was laid to rest in the land of the Ngarinman people. Nestled in the shade of a ruby saltbush in flower. A cross was sourced and fashioned by the hands of some men he had learned to feed and love. With whose company he was given the chance to experience beauty.