The Law of the Outback

By Lo Guest

Many hundreds of miles away from the nearest town in the outback of Australia, the great dry red land lies silent as night approaches. A few sandhills undulate across the horizon, studded by the odd saltbush.

The year was 1956. We had been driving all day and it was time to make camp before nightfall. Nothing worse than to pitch a tent in the dark and fall over the guy ropes as you put them up. Hans and I were weary that day, for the driving had been difficult. The road at the best of times was only a track, and in the dry riverbeds we had crossed the sand was loose and treacherous, making the wheels of our Landrover spin and slither and the steering wheel jump out of our hands.

We soon had a campfire going. There is an art to making a campfire in the outback. First you dig a small pit, put a few stones in the bottom (no shortage of those), and then loosely heap on the dry scrub and twigs. If you have it to spare add a few twists of newspaper. Now comes the test of skill: strike a match, and with this match (not a second or a third), but with this very first match your fire should catch alight. If you succeed and your fire burns brightly from the one match, you have joined the band of the campfire lighters of the outback.

The pride of using one match only might seem a ridiculous waste of effort to us now. But put yourself in the position of the people living in the outback around the turn of the century. Supplies came through, with luck, once every six months and matches were precious, for making fire by rubbing stones or sticks together, as the Aboriginals do, the Europeans found a very difficult art to acquire.

A little later, Hans and I sat quietly staring into the fire, which was leaping high into the air, building fantastic shapes only to destroy them again. We had had a good meal, cooked over the then low flames, and potatoes baked at the bottom of the pit. As a concession to the twentieth century, I had wrapped the potatoes in foil before putting them in the pit to ensure getting potatoes and not charcoal to eat.

We were tired, but too lazy to go to bed, as it was nice and warm in front of the fire, and the night promised to be cold. The last color of the sunset, a deep purple, was still on the horizon.

The sunset that evening had been particularly spectacular, lasting about 35 minutes, with ever changing colors varying from pink to deepest red, to lilac, mauve, and purple. At times it appeared as if the heavens were on fire, battling the night in defiance of the natural law that dark must follow the light of day.

Both of us tensed at the same moment. Across the silence of the land we heard a child whimper. At first we thought we had mistaken the call of a bird for the cry of a child, but when it came again we started to wonder who was near, for we had believed ourselves totally alone, with no one around for miles. Reluctantly we got up, completely unenthusiastic about the idea of having company. We collected our torch from the tent and went to find out what was going on, for the cry of the child could be plainly heard now, and if we listened sharply we heard muted voices as well. Quite soon, in fact behind the next sandhill, we came across a small band of Aboriginals who had made camp there. A small half-dead fire lit up the scene. There were three men, four lubras (women) and two children.

The Aboriginals were not startled when we walked into their camp; they had heard us coming from way off as they have a way of doing, being highly attuned to the sounds made by man or beast in this land. Their English was limited but it took only a quick look to see that the children, babies really, were very sick with cold and fever. Why these people were there I do not know. They should have been on one of the stations or missions of this particular area. It could be that they had gone "Walkabout" for fear that the Flying Doctor Service would come and take the babies to hospital. Deep down they still believe that the babies who go into the big bird fly away never to come back again. The fear of the white man and his medicine is still strong within those Aboriginals who have little dealing with us.

I walked over to the lubras, smiled at them and pointed to the children. They were miserable little scraps of humanity, with running noses, hair unwashed, and clothes dirty and torn. They had the thin little legs and arms so typical of Aboriginal children. On our arrival the whimpering of the children had stopped and both of them lay with their big black eyes fixed on us in an unwavering stare.

Asking permission from the lubras with my eyes, I knelt down next to the children and put my hand on their foreheads. No doubt about it, both had a fever. I turned back to the lubras and asked them: "Medicine?" and they shook their heads as an answer.

I asked Hans to go back to our camp and fetch some aspirin and medicated menthol salve from our medicine kit. I also asked him to bring along a few cubes of concentrated beef soup. One of the men went with him, but the other two took no notice of us, as if to say that the babies and the lubras were no business of theirs.

Whilst Hans and the man were gone, the lubras helped me to build up the fire again and heat some water. When the water was lukewarm I found an old fruit can and poured some into it and with a rag proceeded to wash the faces of the children. This was not entirely an act of mercy, for I could not bear looking at them.

When Hans came back I made some soup for the children and they drank it greedily, and didn't even mind that one of the last spoonfuls was bitter with half an aspirin in it. I found an old blanket and wrapped them in it after I had rubbed their little chests with the menthol cream. The vapor from the salve would ease the congestion and let them sleep.

Now came the difficult part: how to explain to the lubras to give the children half an aspirin every 4 hours. They did not have enough English to follow me and I was frightened that if I left them some tablets they would give the lot to the children in one go.

I squatted down with them and drew a circle in the sand with a line across the middle. The upper portion I told them was "Day" and drew a sun; the lower portion I said was "Night" and drew a half moon. I then divided the circumference of the circle into six even parts and put half an Aspirin tablet on each dividing line, to show the passing of every four hours of day and night -- all the time explaining to them what I was doing. I think between my crude drawing and my talking they understood exactly what I meant. The men took no notice of us whatsoever.

There was nothing more for us to do, but to go back to our tent. When we arrived there we banked the fire hoping it would last through the night, so that in the morning enough glowing coal would be left to make toast and boil water for our billy tea.

I got up at 6 o'clock next morning to a brilliant blue sky and cool crisp air containing the promise of another glorious July day. Outside our tent lay a beautifully carved small boomerang. There was no need to go to the spot where the Aboriginals had camped the night before to know that, in the way of their people, they had silently moved on during the early hours of the morning. A few cold ashes and empty tins were the only evidence that they had been there. We had given them the help they needed, they had left their gift of thanks whilst we slept, and had disappeared as silently as they had come. The unwritten law of the outback had been observed.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1987; copyright © 1987 Theosophical University Press)

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