The sun rained down, desiccating the parched earth even further. Woollagong was hot this time of year. Even the camels were listless, browsing on the barren twigs of the yarrowbee bushes as they trudged along, for some kind of nourishment.
Dangaroa whistled for his dog Grip to turn the lead camel. The day was edging away and it was time to make camp for the night. A trifle early perhaps, but in this scrub land, it was far better to prepare early than get caught out with no time to gather kindling
Jililie had already stopped at the end of the line and was gathering what sticks she could find close by to start the fire going. Once the fire was alight with enough burnable material to keep it going a few minutes, she ranged further afield, bringing back her horde to keep it blazing with a steady flame which would heat their precious water for a cup of strong tea and be hot enough to cook the damper.
“That be enough?” she asked.
Dangaroa nodded. Once he had settled the herd, he would range farther out and gather as much as he could to keep a blaze going right through until past dawn. Night temperatures dropped suddenly in the bare desert and freezing air could not be ruled out; a fire would also keep away dingoes. It might however draw snakes in so a wide patch of earth and sand was cleared around the campsite. He could spot a snake if it came close to get warm.
As the camels were herded into a semi-circular pattern, Dangaroa commanded one of the pack animals to sit. From its load he took a portable rope, compact - light-weight, but strong enough to become a barrier for the beasts, a secure area to keep them from roaming. It saved the tedious task of hobbling individuals every night; easier for Grip's attention to be focused on keeping a watchful eye for predators rather than looking out for strays that left the security of the herd. The corall also served as a central area for feeding the beasts the packages of nourishing fodder in pellet form they had brought with them to supplement naturally gathered edibles.
“Give me the billie can,” said Jililie, “making damper soon.” Dangaroa was a quiet man and just nodded again, moving over to where the fire and hot tea awaited him.
By the time they had a good fire burning, the camels had been fed, the damper was almost cooked. The sun was setting, its last red rays casting a bronze light over the scraggy trees on the perimeter of the clearing. A brilliant sunset, as always in this region but neither Dangaroa nor Jililie had time to look at the sky, their attention was focused on that night’s meal and bedding the camels down.
Jililie mixed up the flour and water blend and placed it in the damper pot then swung it over the flames. The fire was putting out plenty of heat although it was small and the damper would not take more than half an hour to cook.
The billie had been placed over the flames as soon as the fire took hold and the water was just about at boiling point now. She emptied a pouch of tea into the pot for it to brew. They liked it strong as did many other drovers.
When all the camels had been fed their ration and Dangaroa had finished gathering sticks, he called in Grip for his ration of dried meat and a drink before sending him off to do guard duty. He doubted any dingoes were close, but you never knew and the prospect of fresh camel meat might prove too tempting for a pack of the blighters.
Whilst collecting wood, Dangaroa kept an eye open for browns that liked this region. Browns venom was virulent. Grip was a good work animal but he had to look after the camels. Couldn't expect him to keep watch for snakes too so a sweep of the area was a justified precaution. They would probably keep away during the night. They seldom stuck around humans, but you could never tell for sure.
The cold night made snakes lethargic and a nice warm fire could bring up their body temperatures enough to make hunting for food an easier task, so a place to get warm was always a good option. Both Dangaroa and Jillie would of course, take turns in sleeping and keeping watch. Jililie would watch first, then Dangaroa would take over when she woke him around two a.m.
The sky was black velvet, like a woman's shawl that was covered with glittering diamonds. Dangaroa never ceased to marvel at the sight as he settled himself, blanket around his shoulders, to wait for dawn to lighten the sky. Some night insects, attracted to the low flames, buzzed around. At the perimeter, Dangaroa continually brushed at the annoyance. He wished he had one of those fancy fans the women used in the summer but that would also waft the icy air over his face and that was something he could do without.
He heard the sound of dingo calls once or twice as he watched over the herd, but they were some distance away. Far enough, he thought, for them not to be a menace.
Jililie slept soundly, her light snoring an accompaniment to the crackle of the flames, the odd grunting of sleeping camels and his own in-drawn breaths.
Finally a dark purple smudged the far horizon. Dawn was approaching. Dangaroa moved back towards the fire and added fuel. He also topped up the water in the billie and shook Jililie awake.
Jillie yawned and unwrapped herself from the blanket. She had grown cold as the night wore on and was loathe to leave the covering off. With a slight shiver, she began to prepare their meagre breakfast, adding sugar to the pot of black tea. The night had passed without danger and as soon as breakfast and ablutions were done, they would pack up the compound and be on their way, another day over and nearer their goal.
The camels bleated as the compound was wound up and replaced on the lead animal. It groaned and spat as it lifted its hind legs, then stretched its forelegs up off the ground. Dangaroa knew this was a miserable animal, but it was a strong one and a born leader so he put up with its cantankerousness.
Grip wagged his tail, yipped as he nipped at the beasts and ran around getting them to start moving, which they were loathe to do. Dangaroa called him to heel.
Pots and blankets had already been loaded so Jillie was ready to go. She just had to gather her walking staff, make sure the fire was out and the embers scattered. She spread the ashes with her shoe. As she did so, she noticed the shoes were getting a bit worn. They would have to see her through until the spring.
The sun was almost risen as they set off. In the distance, the red earth blazed where the sun hit it. It was truly a colourful landscape. One she had been brought up in. So totally different to the pictures of places in other parts of the world. There were books in the old schoolroom where she had once been taken. That did not last long. She never looked at books now. Her tribe had welcomed her back. Now she was married to Dangaroa, she followed him and the camels. It wasn’t a bad living. No restrictions now.
Ayres Rock loomed high in the early morning sunshine a week later. Again, the redness shone out like a beacon. They always stopped nearby and climbed to the top. Visitors staying around the area gazed at their ragged clothes, watched their nimbleness with awe and jealousy. Tourists took pictures of the camels, of Grip. When they came down, they asled if they could take pictures of Dangaroa and Jillie. A few years previously, they may have had a refusal. Now Jillie charged, and everyone was happy.
Finally the camel train moved on. There were still a few hundred miles to travel. They had to reach their destination before the rains came and made the last stretch soggy. They did not want to lose cahs by being late due to wet trails.
“Grip,” called Dangaroa.
Grip yipped to start the camels moving, nipping heels and leaping out of the way of the odd kick. Just a few more weeks and they would be back home. But just for a while. Only a while.
© Copyright Evelyn J. Steward. March, 2003.
(Edited and added to October, 2012)