It’s then that I lose heart. My mind trickles to a stop at the bottom of a hill. While staring at nothing at all on the ground with downcast half-eyes, I sneak glimpses of the small aeroplane turning on its heel and strolling across the field, drawing momentum up through blades of shaved grass. Tiny faces in the windows, dirty white paint. Dad is still at my side speaking steadily, hopefully, insistently. The six-seater clenches and climbs.
We can walk, says Dad. We were going to walk. His arm, slung across my shoulders, is a block of wood. There are layers separating our flesh; we are insulated from each other’s touch. In the edges of black peppermints, rosellas can be heard above the engine noise, rosellas or goshawks, currawongs or some other primal form of this stretch towards flying that has caved in my head as though I had stumbled under the small plane’s propellers.
There is yes, there is no. There is wander back to the car or remain here, longing uselessly towards the barren strip. These are channels without water. I am dry and perhaps taking on senses of the lake that has leapt away from me, across the horizon. Draining water, resuming a shape. Is this my empty form? Now I feel his fingers, discrete joints pressing into the swells of my shoulder like he is operating machinery, as if we were already back in the car hurtling between the verges of rough grass, parading ferns and loping hills blacking out the view.
It has been a frenzy of driving; lining the roads with our cramping tyres, gear changes under strict orders. The greasy wrappers bunched at our feet, our tent and clothes and our sleeping bags slumped in the back like bored children. Dad, I would shout, Turn off, I’ve never been to Tunbridge, I want to reach into the sandstone, I want to work the old mill and flake pastry down my jeans. His eyes lying against the black highway. He is driving alone and I am the radio blending with his trance.
He has always been this way. Weeks of bushwalking through summer were hobbled by his race against days. Every ribbon indicating the track was a finish line to tear past, button grass cheering in the wind. The knee-deep mud, roots snaking our boots, a steeplechase obstructing our undulating way. No time to linger easily at a rivulet or fallen tree, to appreciate the hasty view of New River Lagoon; brisk, flickering images of wind-struck water and fluttering oars that could never settle into watercolours. Millie traipsing along with a sleeping bag snailed on her back, Dad trudging with a Sherpa’s pack mountaineering over his head.
One year we applied the inheritance from his father’s heart attack to plunge into Europe. Michael, Mum had suggested, can’t we just take the trains? He had plotted the schedules and agreed. We blurred on bullet trains from Paris to Rome; a day of cannonballing through colonnades, dragged left and right, over bridges and under catacombs and then on to the next seat of government with its checklist of crumbling splendour.
As I grew older and felt every journey’s experiences lurching away like the evening pademelons toying with our car, I dug deeper tones in my voice. Sitting shoulder to shoulder on frustrated day trips to waypoints, I would yell at him, Stop the car. Now. It’s dark, the last campsite’s coming up, quit being such a stubborn old bastard and stop the bloody car.
Every couple of days he might be persuaded to enjoy a uranium mine, a horseshoed waterfall, a jagged bridge; not frequently enough to continue travelling with him. It has been years since we have gone anywhere together, and while he has greyed and diminished, it’s only to refine himself into a keener and more determined certainty. A father-and-son trip, he had suggested.
I still don’t know how we had agreed to pack up for Easter and join the thin, intent hordes streaming out to see the impoundment that was losing itself in a tiny, simple lake. For only the fourth time in a hundred years, it was draining, letting its flood go. The rotting, saturated vegetation, the wet stench. Dead poles rising from the ground, old worms re-emerging and breathing.
Packing up their cars, I’m sure that everybody wondered, Was it energy demands? Have we been so busy playing with our electric hands that none noticed the slow drain pouring power across our towns and drying out the dams? Or wider climatic factors, the Spanish kids messing round with water fights on the beach? The distant butterflies and carbon and orbits? Every few years the reservoir would drop a metre or two, maybe even more on a rare, parched decade, but an absolute drain back to the lake was unheard of.
Bream, perch and galaxis dying, flags flapping on the ground. Confused pelicans, sandpipers and honeyeaters packing up and heading to more watery turf. The beach, the long, pink beach eyebrowed across the lake’s eastern end, glistening in the new sun.
I would have walked in myself, made my pilgrimage on aching feet squelching through the mess of soggy bottom, scouring out the track. Stepping them on the sand and dipping them in the lapping shore. But he was determined that we go together. He wanted it marked, this occasion, like a painting left in a will. Early on the first day, as we wolfed down burgers scavenged from a chained drive-through joint, it was clear that we were continuing our regular service, striving with speed limits, frustration and resentment.
Initially, the aeroplane was a pretext for further antagonism. Through tedious kilometres we had scanned the advertising signs boarding the faces of general stores, then shared a discussion late the second night. An older bloke on his way back home, taking on an interest. What you really want to be doing is going up in one of those little beauties. Different perspective, mate, nothing like it really, and you pass right over all of that stink. The next morning, as we drove past yet another historical turnoff, I told him that I wanted to take a flight. For once, speeding down the highway, he looked across at me. A flight, what do you mean a flight? We’re walking. We’ll see the thing on our own feet. Don’t need carrying.
We’re flying, I repeated. I’ve never done that. Come all this way. Might as well, it’s what you’re supposed to do. Be like the picture, framed over the fire.
The forest thinning out to highland moorland, a few cattle loping quietly. The windscreen barely speckled with whisperings of drizzle. You flew in to Melaleuca when we walked the south coast, he offered, a few minutes later.
It wasn’t to see, I said, I want to just see. We can walk as well, what’s it going to take? An extra couple of hours? C’mon, it’s something different.
This was becoming something I really wanted to do, substituting itself for all the lost opportunities to witness something unique; an expensive, vicarious extravagance.
Dad had flicked on the wipers, watched them scrape across the glass and collect the rare drops. No flight, he pronounced, We’re walking. Allied himself with the solid boots standing at attention in the back of the car, the daypacks and jackets and scroggin.
But I didn’t let up through our third day of driving. We’ll still walk, I just want to do the plane. I’ll pay. The frown trenching across his war zone face. Listen, you stupid old man, we’re going to take the bloody plane. Staring grimly forwards, fists on the wheel, at my throat. At half past six, the sun about to set and the darkness drifting in, he finally conceded dinner at Strathgordon, fried batter embracing limp suggestions of cabbage and beef. Afterwards, wiping oily hands on my trousers, I refused to get back in the car.
If you’re not willing to take the plane tomorrow I’m not going any further. Go on yourself and see the lake, I don’t care any more. Go on, hurry up, there’s a pub here with rooms, that’ll do me tonight, I’ll meet you on the way out tomorrow night. Bugger off.
He stood there, handling the door. Thoughtfully opened it wide and got in. Started the car. One elbow leaning on the window, arm bending back to press his fist against his temple, other hand on the wheel. Eyes focused directly through the windscreen. He grabbed the gear-stick, changed into first, revved the engine while riding the clutch and then eased back, rolling forward a few centimetres. Stopped. He sighed broadly and turned to look at me. All right, we’ll do the bloody flight. Now get in the car, we need to move.
Where? I asked carefully, walking slowly to my door. How much further we going to go? Not going to camp on the airfield are we?
Don’t argue, he said, just get in. He sounded more tired than angry, as though three days of driving had finally caught up with him. The concentration – hunched back and worried head throbbing. There’s a camp site about fifteen minutes on, we’ll do that, yes? Then on to the plane in the morning.
A subdued night, the motions of ripping out and setting the tent up and turning in early.
I was up with the first colour to find him sipping a cup of tea from his enamel cup, nodding towards me. Nice day for it. I sat down by the cool fuel stove and checked the stained water under the lid. Should be right, he said, Strong, but just brewed a few minutes back. I fetched a cup, washed it out roughly and drank.
There were clouds in the sky, a little wind. We packed up the tent, damp with dew, and draped it in the rear of the station wagon. Stretched out our shoulders and our necks, fell once more into the cloth seats that were moulding themselves around our worn bodies.
Mate, says the bloke at the rough caravan serving as a booking desk outside the agricultural airstrip, we’d love to take you, but you gotta get in line. We’re booked solid for like a month I reckon, basically. Got people calling and emailing from the US, China.
Made a special trip, says Dad gruffly, fingering his wallet prominently. Can’t make an exception for locals? Not got special flights or nothing?
The man shakes his head. She’s just a little plane, mate, no seven-whatever-seven, and they’re bussing them in now on tours. If we had a cancellation could let you know, got coverage out here have you? Still be days though, we got a waiting list setting up camp over by the creek. People come and they go, but they make sure their names are on the list. Got it here somewhere. He rummages around in a mess of papers spilling from a desk, to the floor, towards the bin. Yep. You’d be twenty-four and five.
Can’t do anything for us then? asks Dad. I shake my head and say quietly, Look, we’re buggered, lets just go. Nothing at all? Dad asks again. He winks, forces a smile and tilts his head towards me. The old man was on the picket on the river, back when. Boy just wants to see it all from up there.
Love to help you, the bloke says, leaning against the caravan’s windowsill. He tries to look sympathetic, helpful. Be better off going back to town. They got operators working from there, shorter trips of course but you’d see it, wouldn’t you? That’s what you want. Doesn’t matter how long it goes, just as long as you get to see it.
I walk away from their motions of negotiation and stare across the field as the latest group cluster themselves into the plane. The pilot helps the last passenger into the cab, an old man done up in travelling polo and chinos, wide-eyed camera peering from his chest. Talks them through what must be safety instructions. Dad is beginning to remonstrate, but I am drifting, flowing out of myself and my hands are on my hips and I am looking down. I watch as the engine starts and the plane begins to amble through the field. The noise is boastful, pathetic. My palms are cased in fists and there are wires in my neck; I am leaning down and staring at the toes of my boots, scuffed with paint, collisions with dirt and rock, trailing strips of rubber from their soles.
Dad has walked deliberately across and put a hairy arm across my back. What do you reckon, he says. Don’t know, I say quietly, don’t know.
We’ll walk it, he says, we were always going to walk it.
Don’t know, I say again, and feel tears coating my eyes and I know that I need to sleep or to eat; it’s the exhaustion, the blood sugar, the constant driving and the conflict. It’s all of these things and it’s losing sight of the forbidden plane as it specks the sky, speeds towards the old lake that is briefly resuming its past. How long before it would again be covered in a fog of fresh water?
He grabs my arm and leads me over to the gravel road, one step after another.
C’mon, he says. We’ve got to keep going. Get in the car. Get back in the car, mate.