THE FOOTFALL OF the horse was muted in soft ground and leaf litter. The path ahead glimmered with an undersheen of pale clay – forgotten gold, maybe. The forest was riddled with tunnels, had once teemed with frenzied digging, shaking, boring. It had been flayed, a long time ago, and now was porous, treacherous with sinkholes, shafts, mounds and hollows. Trees teetered on the brink of unstable heaps; others spanned dark man-made holes. It was an all but silent forest, as if contemplating its survival and recovery. From the peaks you might hear lawnmowers or chainsaws, depending on which way the wind blew, but in the valleys there was nothing of this – only the occasional gang-gang, yowling lazily through the treetops.
What a totally trashed place, she thought happily. No virgin forest, this. More like raped and stabbed and left for dead. No one could possibly care that she was bushranging on her horse, seeking out trails at random with an EPIRB in her pocket and a compass in her pack. Who would bother to regulate a place that had seen so much destruction? Nothing of what it once was remained. Had been, still was, a free-for-all. Criss-crossed with trails, some with cruel or shining names – Morning Star, Dawn Gold, Broken Neck, Deadmans. Several tracks named Nuggety. No incomprehensible Aboriginal names, with the vague unease they carried. Nothing sacred here.
And for all that, the forest was huge, and beautiful. The trees rose in straight lines, rough-barked yet glimmering with strange greys. They took and held the light in a way that wove them together and illuminated them, yet up close they were a monotonous brown. You could not know, looking at them, that each straight-limbed stand was a coppice that grew from the still-living roots of a felled forest giant.
This place had never given up everything.
The horse under her was happy. She could feel it through the relaxed, swinging loins, the easy gait and the alert yet unworried set of those black-tipped ears. This was an aloof, independent mare, who could separate with equanimity from other horses. It had taken time to develop trust between them. She nudged the horse′s ribs, and the little mare responded with a buoyant canter.
Two hours in, then a break in a secluded spot, some tucker, unsaddle for respite, then on to a waterhole to cool down. The week stretched ahead, yawning like a cave of wonders, sucking her in.
She was heading roughly east, but it didn′t matter how or when.
SHE FELT THE sudden chill as she entered a thermocline, and the horse baulked slightly at the dark shadows of the fern-filled gully. She smiled. Densely packed trees and the moist cold air were alien to this desert-and-rocks horse. Ferns threatened, could hide anything.
A bird called with a sweet and penetrating note, drawn out and twisted sharply at the end. It went unanswered. She cooed to the horse, reassuring her.
She had never really heeded birds before, but their long silences drew attention. The horse′s footfalls rang hollow here. The quartz-speckled ground was not what it seemed, with its honeycomb beneath. No wonder wombats alone thrived here.
They scrambled down a gully towards a gurgling creek, the horse resigned but disapproving. When she slid to a halt at the bottom, the horse snorted, ears pricked. Two men, one young and in road worker′s fluoro, the other bearded and with a DIY air, were perched above her in a cutaway. They were silent, their movements as furtive and shamed as clandestine lovers.
'G′day,′ she said, and they smiled uncomfortably.
She crossed the creek, grateful that the horse didn′t pick a fight, and headed up the narrow trail away from them. Out of sight, she checked her map and compass, which swung wildly and wouldn′t settle – more nervous than the horse. The map showed nothing of the network of trails – only a single dotted line variously named Rum Track, Whisky Track, Square Bottle Track. Perhaps she had just crossed Gin Creek. From below in the gully she could hear the men now, the amplified voices, and the ringing of metal striking metal.
A LONE BELLBIRD called, and the horse jumped. She laughed at the horse′s one concession to instinct: gullies were traps, the ridges safer. The horse obeyed her, but – loins taut, ready for flight, and ears swivelling wildly – clearly didn′t trust her judgement.
She held in the reins in a sun-spangled clearing, the horse knee-deep in October green and gold. She listened. The gurgle of running water, and a steady drip into a pool. Something that sounded like a cat. An aeroplane engine, remote, off-screen somehow. A breath of wind, and a restless stomp and shuffle in dry leaves from the horse. A rustle of her own clothing, and canvas, creak of leather. A stomach gurgle. A fly. The bellbird again, cut short on the second note.
It was eerie to hear so little in a space so big. She gave the horse her head and let her pick a path, which turned into a mad scramble up a steep slope, sliding and angling for purchase. It was dangerous to leave the trail, but the horse seemed to know what she was doing. There were no mines here and it would be hard for the horse to stake herself going uphill. They crested the ridge, the horse dripping with sweat and breathing hard, but much happier.
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