Maybe you should keep this to yourselves. If I hadn’t drunk those last beers, I wouldn’t be telling it.
You know where I lived till recently: amid moso bamboo, at the end of a shared private road, out in hippie country.
That front road through our compact valley was winding, with two steep gullies. When it washed out completely in the Big Wet, it took a year before the track could be refashioned properly with gravel and good drains. This obliged me to use the almost forgotten back road through the forest. It’s long, rough and barely passable in heavy rain, but there was little choice at the time…
Now I think about it, this definitely stays within present company. You’ll see why.
Where was I? Yes, I was using the old forest road. Nothing much happens there now. The timber work all but stopped with the Green protests, then the mill closures. A big slice of the State Forest was made a Bob Carr National Park, mostly rubbish regrowth that goes up in flames every dry phase.
But I got to know that forest, especially in the Sarsparilla Creek area, where it stays moist and where they’ve left a lot of old eucalypts as seeders. Down there, you see the classic timbers fully grown: scaly bloodwoods, honey coloured tallows, iron barks in their pitted armour – even turpentines and the odd brushbox, if you go looking. That sheltered slope must be considered a prime forestry spot, since you can see the remains of plantation experiments with blackbutt and hoop pine.
After a month on the forest road, the diff dropped out of my old truck. First, I decided not to fix it but buy an old dirt bike to get to town. Then I decided just to walk that forest as needed. Why not? I could buy a normal compact car when the front road was fixed, and, in the meantime, I would simply hike to shops and to my weekend job.
It was one of those don’t-want-to-get-old decisions, but a good one. I got fitter, and started to see and hear things in the bush as never before.
When you walk, you surprise animals unused to humans on foot, wildlife adapted more to the sound of approaching motors. Feral dog packs are amazed and disoriented. Normally wily cats and even foxes can expose themselves. Kangaroos and wallabies stand and stare till you get close. In warmer months, goannas, mostly big lace monitors up to two metres long, are caught out and have to scamper up the nearest tree – though they like to work their way round the trunk and freeze, rather than risk a hurried climb on uncertain bark.
I learned to find sarsparilla along the trail, distinguishing it from similar vines like Running Postman. Sars used to be an industry in the nineteenth century, before cola drinks and other beverages became more common. It’s a true native sarsparilla, “sweet tea” to the early botanists, known to the aborigine as a tonic; you don’t dig the root, just pluck the leaves, especially the tender purple flush. Once, I was plucking away quietly when I observed a feral cat tormenting a grass snake. It all happened just feet from me, and I got absorbed by the cat’s studiousness and perfect timing, as it released and recaptured the snake over and over. It was like all three of us were caught up in a dance of death, with its precision and rhythms…till I snapped out of my trance and saved the snake.
Don’t know why I mention that. Actually, it is loosely relevant. The cat was just being a cat, nothing to hate. Hold that thought.
And please keep all this to yourselves. I know I’ve already said it, but…
The only human resident of that forest was special indeed.
Bernie was an old, old timber man, who lived in the one tiny surviving mill, well back from any road. He had the freckly, ginger complexion and smeary features which, for whatever reason, are common to many part-aborigines. You need to live a while near a community to pick up on that.
He had lived and worked the forest all his long life; now he was the last. Once he’d used horses to draw logs, then he worked with an old Land Cruiser. The logs were never pulled along the road surface, but along the drains he was always careful to maintain.
People who knew timber would find their way to his mill, only to be told to wait weeks or months for the right material. And they would wait willingly. A load of freshly milled blackbutt from Bernie had the magical property of being immediately useable. To explain his knack, he would shrug and tap at his nose. Whether that meant he could smell perfect wood or he had developed a sense over sixty years, it was obvious that, after Bernie, a tradition which couldn’t be rushed would die.
He was no hater, but he had disdain for all kinds of “wreckers”: sloppy timber men, big timber companies, big mills used as solutions to unemployment, hippies who drove in ruts instead of tamping the road surface, bee-box thieves, drug growers, litterers – and greenies, of course.
Men like Bernie are great noticers, and the way to get on with them is to notice.
We became casual friends, meeting and chatting frequently, usually along the road, but occasionally back at his mill. Any striking animal behaviour, any new bird appearance, an out-of-whack flowering of a major species of gum or wattle: he would relate or hear, make his own reflections on the matter, more often declaring things to be a mystery. Most fascinating were his observations on the major eucalypts, their uses, their problems, their surprises. He talked low between barely open lips, rarely smiling, never laughing.
Bernie was more often in a vehicle than on foot, even for short distances, and he hobbled badly on bow legs. Judging from his rounded, clawed hands, I assumed he suffered from arthritis or some such disorder.
Now we come to the bit that’s not to go beyond present company. Sorry to nag – but I mean it!
Remember the Swiss tourist mystery a few years back? No?
Well, it happened in my part of the country.
Two young Swiss, a married couple, were stopped in the Old Station Rest, a public parking area on the forest fringe and just off the highway. In the off-season, it can be a very quiet spot. As near as anyone can gather, they had been lying out in the winter sun on a blanket, with a picnic hamper beside them. Europeans love to catch rays.
They totally disappeared.
They disappeared, but nothing else did! Not even the underwear they had on that day. Their campervan was intact, the only things that were disturbed were the sandwiches, of all things. It’s true. Either they had walked off naked, or someone had taken the Swiss away while leaving their clothing and everything else behind. Bizarre to tell, their sandwiches had been pulled apart and only the meat filling taken, judging by a few flecks of corned beef stuck in the butter.
The search began. Those of us who knew the forest kept our eyes open. No signs, no hints of signs.
The usual speculations emerged. The couple were pranking, or they had disappeared to seek new identities. Maybe one had killed the other. Aliens were in the mix, as were terrorists, Wiccans, and the CIA. Even the Mayan Calendar got a mention, in the run-up to 2012.
More practical suggestions were that local bandits or crazies or drug growers or perverts had seized the couple – but nothing explained the absence of theft or vandalism. The van had plenty of valuables, none even touched; their abandoned clothing still contained wallets with essential papers, credit cards and much cash. Our local crims don’t neglect such items, even if they’re distracted by sexual or other urges.
Through all of this drama, Bernie had been bed-ridden with a bout of Ross River Fever. The virus is common amongst timber men. A few times I brought him supplies, or some sarsparilla concentrate I’d prepared. We discussed the disappearance, but he seemed very vague on the subject, even a touch unwilling to pursue it.
The drama of the missing tourists died down, the mystery remained. Bernie was on the mend after a couple of bad months.
A day came when we were sitting in his rough, bark-insulated lounge room, drinking condensed-milk tea, the way many old bush types still like it. I again raised the subject of the Swiss, hoping he, of all people, might have a clue or two.
“Well, I suppose it was my fault. Or the fault of the Ross River. I couldn’t get out and find meat for them…”
I thought for a moment he may be still a touch delirious with the fever, but knew better than to interrupt him.
“Yeah, after all the late season rain, the animals were too spread out. The koalas had their pick of trees, didn’t need to stay in the moist areas. Koalas don’t drink, you know. What water they need, all comes out of gum leaves. Mostly tallowoods around here. Anyway, even the koalas were spread right out. Not that there’s enough of them now.
“Then the snakes and goannas were gone off to sleep for the winter. And I was too weak to find meat for…for certain people. And they couldn’t find it for themselves. You’re not going to put this round, are you?”
“Of course not, Bernie. But who are the people you’re talking about?”
“Oh, just people…of an old sort. You’ve never seen them – or you think you haven’t – but they’ve seen you. Life’s hard for them. They lived all right with the aborigine, not too many fights. The black man used to burn just right, so those others could get about on the ground. But they mainly climb, and there used to be all big timbers around here, so they could pass easily from top to top. A big canopy, with not too much rubbish under foot, plenty of koalas, also goannas, and good-eating birds.
“Think about it: billions of eucalypts, millions of plump, slow koalas, feeding at night, way up in the branches. You reckon there was nothing and nobody to hunt them? That was where they fitted in, those people, even before the black man came.
“But these big, killer fires we have nowadays, and the rubbish undergrowth – that’s no good for them. Then there were the koala hunts: in one year back in the 1920s they exported over two million koala pelts. Two flamin’ million! Koalas were their main food.”
“Bernie, who are the people you’re talking about?”
“Well, some who don’t understand have called them Yowies. But that’s a stupid word. And liable to make trouble. Never talk about Yowies, okay? In my Gumbayngir grannie’s language they called them a word which means Former Ones.
“You don’t have to worry for yourself. They know you well, know you’re local. Their whole survival depends on co-operating with locals. When they’d shake down a goanna or koala for the aborigines, they’d appear way back from the camp-fires that night, to get some scraps for payment. They couldn’t make fire themselves, but they like cooked meat occasionally. If they were hungry enough, they’d approach without having helped in the hunt, but normally they always expected to help.
“The Former Ones, they’re all right. Never call them Yowies. Stupid word.”
“But…you think maybe…those Swiss…”
“Yeah, normally I’d know to leave something for them. There’s a steep slope under the Thomson Trig, with a dry cave facing east. Normally I’d shoot a few ‘roos, and leave them in that cave.
“But I couldn’t, could I? I had the fever too bad to move.
“They had to eat something that was meat. And there it was, asleep on the ground. Those tourists wouldn’t have felt anything. And it’ll never happen again. All those search parties beating through the forest, disturbing everything worse than foresters…they’ll learn to starve rather than get carried away like that again. And it’s only the rare June flooding that can thin out the game so badly. That’s the only time I need to hunt or buy meat for them: maybe once every twenty years. Really, they take so little, eat so little…”
“You can’t be bloody serious, Bernie!”
“Oh, don’t worry. Their ways are different, but the Former Ones are strict about, well, their moral code. They would never touch a local, or even anyone who had touched a local and carried the smell.”
“You mean they know us that well?”
“Of course. Their whole survival depends on knowing every one of us extremely well. And they know never to leave a sign or relic of themselves, alive or dead, anywhere. You wouldn’t believe the lengths they go to to conceal themselves, get rid of their dead.”
“But have you ever seen any of these…these Former Ones?”
“Of course. You’ve seen them too, though you may not know it. They’d like that bamboo of yours, well enclosed, heavy canopy, completely clear below, soft underfoot. Not many places like that now, not since the white man. They’d like it on your place. They’re quick, shy and smart, but if you ever see a glint at night, or hear something unexplained…
“But they have other ways of carrying on their line, going forward, surviving.”
“Bernie, I know you’ve got a dry sense of humour. You’re just about the smartest bloke I’ve known, old mate. You wouldn’t be having a lend of me now, would you? I mean, you don’t believe in these Former Ones, do you?”
Bernie sighed and sat back, pensive. Offended? Leg-pulling? Or really just thinking?
“Ah, I think I’ll take these boots off. I can never find boots that fit. People reckon it’s arthritis. All I know is, I have to spend my life in these oversize rubber boots. Excuse me.”
Bernie pulled off his boots and showed his swollen, twisted feet in heavy socks. I could see why he hobbled so badly.
“You know, I’m a mix of Irish, German, Gypsy, as well as Gumbayngir, Dungutti, Biripi. In a way, you could say those races and tribes have survived through me. Gypsy tinkers, the travelling ones who disappeared in the fifties, a bit of them lives on in me. Not just in the way I can do things with metal, but in my features, my outlook…don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I suppose so. I don’t really know, Bernie.”
Now he pulled off the sock from one of his feet. He exposed a foot that looked more like a hand, with three long central digits and a big toe growing out at an angle. No, not an arthritic foot: something else altogether.
“The Former Ones live on in one way…but also in another.”
Sitting forward with something of a jerk, Bernie put both hands to his mouth and pulled back his top lip on both sides to expose two fierce, meat-tearing blades. I started.
“Don’t worry, cobber. I’ve got a side of Austral Eden beef out back in the freezer. And even if I was peckish and running low on meat…”
Bernie passed away last year. Huge funeral. Had to travel back for it, since I’d already moved away to the coast, but not for the reasons you might think.
All the same…
This story does not leave this room!