Disturbed by the sudden shaking of the hill, a flock of budgerigars rose, swirling into a wheeling, boomerang formation. The Landcruiser’s driver paused briefly, then went back to watching the track.
“Begonning Point, site of future LNG and iron ore terminal.” Butler mumbled to himself. He eased the 4WD and trailer off-track into a good spot, under trees, and popped the annexe tent for some welcome shade.
The flies kept coming, but now he could at least take his hat off to swat and wave.
Butler, originally a mining engineer, now a fixer-of-problems for the resources giant CMG, had a pivotal role in making that terminal a reality: supervising the creation of divisions among First People and other stakeholder groups, devising a few fortuitous accidents, sudden resignations and scandals, and judiciously applying a little seed money where it counted.
The work spanned both sides of legality, in a tensegrity as taut as the 4WD’s annexe. Things were made to run smoothly and quietly with obligation, apprehension and ambition, not to mention a little blood here and there.
The Cruiser and its offroad camper were equipped for the furtherance of that work, rather than a prolonged holiday, despite appearances.
Refreshing his memory on the task at hand, Butler swiped a sweaty finger through the dossier on his touchscreen.
Roger Jeffries – self-described pain in the arse: a mostly-solitary, currently-unemployed, archaeologist.
While Jeffries’ rough nature, ferocious thirst, Tourettes-like vocabulary and sporadic publication history took some of the edge off his reputation, the man had practically gone native, which gave his voice some credibility among the more vocal, and (literally) demonstrative supporters of native title.
He was somewhere in the area, according to sources.
Reports of Jeffries’ interest in Begonning echoed with the potential of controversy: the moaners, lock-on loonies, and abseiling banner-hangers could set developments back considerably if things were left unchecked.
While Butler was, on-record and ostensibly, visiting a potential CMG site in West Papua, the truth was another thing. A little artistry and some ugly, ill-fitting dentures had brought forth in his place the fictional Paul Mooney, retired teacher and keen photographer of wildlife, registered owner of the Landcruiser.
And late the next day, it was as Mooney that Butler hailed the battered Land Rover that dragged a trailing dust-cloud along the sole, narrow, navigable gap between outcrops and boulders.
“What the FUCK are you doing in a place like this on such a bloody day?” yelled the Landie’s equally-battered driver, pulling up on a nearby sandy patch.
“A cunt’d have to be mad!”
Butler feigned shock, slipping into the friendly, if a little staid, character of Mooney.
Introductions were made, a meal shared, and a long conversation was embarked upon, continuing from the annexe’s afternoon shade to the fireside under stars.
Butler had unwillingly built up an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of the North-West’s wildlife in his time overseeing the fall of a group of do-gooders. Their self-appointed mission was saving a number of plant and animal species they insisted were unique to the Begonning region. Combined with some impressive camera equipment and a few glossies taken by a passionate naturalist who no longer mattered, the Mooney persona’s narrative was well-stocked.
In turn, as hoped, Jeffries became effusive. He was following up a Garedji legend: a songline involving a number of rock-shelters and the art etched into the local hard stone, and three water-digging sites which led to the place he was seeking.
“Pirrlu-nyarti, they call it: All The Dreaming Mother.”
“According to what I could make of the story, or as much of the song I was allowed to hear anyway, there’s a womb of the earth, or a stone cunt of some kind, and all of humanity came out into the world through it.”
“Not just Garedji, but everyone. If the oral record isn’t contaminated by influence from those trader fuckers up North, then the legend anticipates knowledge of yellow and white men by a few millennia.”
“Then the people are supposed to have spread out, and the spirits allowed only the Garedji to stay and preserve the songs.”
With a show of tired disinterest, Butler pressed another beer on Jeffries. Stronger drink had been refused earlier, almost brusquely. The dossier had indicated a man who was often drunk to incapacity: either the report was wrong, or he was dealing with that worst of types, a motivated man.
The night wore on. Despite subtle pressure, Jeffries was not forthcoming with the location of the shelter.
“I’ll have to hunt around a bit myself. You know how it is, GPS and radio seem to fuck up round here more than usual.”
Butler thought of the little black tracker he’d placed on the sweary man’s Landie, under cover of taking a piss. It should prove to be enough, but there were other ways.
Wishing Jeffries a good night, and thanking him for his company and stories, Butler gave him a case of Belgian beer from one of the trailer’s storage cabinets. “I’ve gone off this brand a bit, Roger, and I could use the space more than the beer.”
In the morning, both broke camp, and Butler departed first, taking care to raise a little excess dust as he went.
Roger Jeffries found the three soak sites with relative ease, using cues in the Garedji lore he’d picked up.
You had to take in all the stories to learn little, useful details, even if much of the explanation was spirits and talking animals. University wasn’t all that much different, he mused.
The sun was beginning its slow trudge from zenith to Western horizon by the time he found a likely-looking rock shelter, in a basin obscured by outcrops.
“Fuck! Nearly missed this. Next time, I should look at bringing a drone.” He grabbed the driver’s side doorframe and swung down from the 4WD with the ease that frequent repetition brings.
While no painted creatures or stencilled hands decorated the walls, use of a torch highlighted cut-marks, almost certainly human in origin, in the rock-face.
There was no point in bringing too much gear into unknown conditions. Lowering his bags, Roger squeezed through the small gap at ground level on the shelter’s furthest wall, taking only a yardstick, his headtorch, pocket camera, and one cold beer from the tuckerbag.
After about five metres of knee-crawling and wriggling, the passage abruptly opened on a chamber wide enough for Jeffries to extend both arms, and, at his estimate, five metres high. The walls curved inward as they rose from the floor, receding again before meeting the vault of the roof.
“I spy thighs, super-size. Freud would have a field day.”
Roger could make out the far wall, and a central dark opening, located between the narrowing sides.
“Pirrlu-nyarti, I presume.” Jeffries examined the surrounding wall: this was a very likely candidate for the focus of Garedji lore.
After a few cursory photos, and before going about the dry work of lugging in the bulkier lights and recording equipment, Roger popped the beer and allowed himself a moment of frothy, thirst-quenching triumph.
After a minute, the chamber was still. Death had come to the place of birth. Butler’s special supplies tended to be one-use-only.
It was not until the next day Butler found the Land Rover. While the GPS component of the tracker had apparently failed, the UHF beacon pinged as soon as the Landcruiser breasted the rise and came within line of sight.
Butler, no respecter of lore or heritage, drove the now-ownerless Landie as far under the rock overhang as it would fit.
The swarming flies at the cave opening confirmed Jeffries’ whereabouts. There was no need to crawl the final few metres and make sure.
“I’ll just leave him under this rock, where I found him”, said Butler, with a dry chuckle.
Butler returned to his trailer and unscrewed a wall panel. Some “insulation”, hardly fit for its nominal purpose, would finally do the job for which it was made. A few additions from the toolkit and various hidey-holes on the Cruiser, and the means to finish the job were at hand.
The Garedji language was dying. Without a significant heritage site, any valid objection to the terminal would fall, just like this shelter when the pillars exploded.
Of all the things Butler’s job required of him, Big Booms were still the most fun; a reminder of simpler days, when dirty work was more literal in nature. The charges were shaped and placed for maximum efficiency.
When the smartphone app indicated no satellites were overhead, he finally pressed the igniter.
Disturbed by the sudden shaking of the hill, a flock of birds rose, forming a curved shape which had never known a name. The immense, shaggy beasts, briefly vigilant, lowered their heads and resumed grazing.