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Cowley Literary Award finalist: A splendid memory - Cape Arid, Nullarbor, Western Australia

The third of the finalists chosen from the Cowley Literary Award for publication is a piece by Ian Cochrane. We hope you enjoy it.

The `bus’ bumps from side to side, the wheels in deeply rutted 4WD tracks. Nearer our coastal camp, the scrub turns to woodland and we lurch to the left, drop a gear and edge across a giant slab of sloping granite. Back on sand we turn, our final descent to a wild coast shimmering in midday summer sun; a shipwreck coast of dazzling white dunes and granite outcrops. Down through patches of yate and paperbark we reach our secret grove – Thomas Fishery – the tent and bus tucked among clumps of banksia. Giant cycads are prehistoric remnants of 200 million years ago, the first seed-bearing plants on earth.
We’re 750km east of Perth, in the wilds of Cape Arid; a vast 280,000ha National Park on the southeast coast of WA. Above is the foreboding mass of Mt Arid, the late afternoon sun catches a bouldered ridge. We’ve seen no one for two days now. There is a creek, but no drinking water.
Pushing overhanging scrub aside, we follow a sandy track as it winds down to a secluded bay, sitting on the cool sand and drinking mugs of tea. A sea eagle hangs and wheels on high coastal updraughts while a gentle south easterly summer breeze sweeps in from Ferret Bay. Our eyes are drawn westward, to a red sun sinking over sculptured coastal rocks.
The tide having turned, the waves are now far off – a gentle rumbling wash – as we contemplate the past in the ensuing twilight. The first people arrived some 40,000 years ago; Europeans in 1792. They named this place Cap Arride, before the French was Anglicised by Matthew Flinders during his circumnavigation of Australia. Eventually sealers and whalers came this way, the cove protected from wild south-westerly storms. It seems Thomas was a whaler, but these days most visitors are recreational fishermen.
At first light it’s cooler, as honeyeaters chatter among clumps of banksia; black and white striped acrobats jumping between candelabra flower spikes. There’s a rustling behind the tent and the tell-tale thump of a wallaby as it bounds off into the bush. We finish coffee and I trudge the two kilometres from camp back up to the ruins of the Hill Springs homestead; the track hand-hewn in days gone by, with shovel, pick and crowbar.
I’m told the grave is near here, and find it 200 metres east. There’s a parched tussock of grass by a sunken mound, and a crumpled Coke can. Shading my eyes I gaze up and down the deserted coast as far as the eye can see, then across at the silent, looming form of my neighbour; Mt Arid. On the ground the can is an odd faded shade of lipstick pink, and the words on the headstone difficult to read: “To Strive to achieve to leave a splendid memory.”
I swipe biting March flies from my hands, flicking one to the ground and stomping the little beast with the heel of my boot. Something makes me turn. I’m being watched it seems – and I freeze – my agitated movement attracting a curious visitor at the edge of the scrub.
The emu is only five metres away, silent and watching; neck stretched upward, head turned slightly side on. I feel no sense of danger. The eye is round, of the deepest brown, set in a wizened face of charcoal. The beak is grey and crooked, bent downwards. The front of the neck and side of the head are bare and pale. The animal is panting in the heat, the throat with a blush of blue. It strikes me the feathers on its head are a straggly mess; black, windswept and wild. In a flash it’s gone.
The old man was initially from Wiltshire, having travelled to Albany; then farming at Balladonia – 200 kilometres to the north – selling up and leaving when his only brother died. He travelled alone to here, by horse and dray, settling in a deep valley to the east. He never married, grew vegetables and hay; ran sheep and cattle.
I breathe in the hot air that rises from the ground, the silence somehow heavy. Even the flies have gone.
Dragging my eyes from the headstone, I peer back over my shoulder, turn and leave the old man’s grave for Hill Springs. He would sometimes drop by for breakfast, hiking the five kilometres cross country from his place, proudly declaring to his son-in-law that a sunrise had never found him in bed.
Crossing the track I find Hill Springs and gaze down the valley to the sea. I imagine the grass green, the old man’s daughter and son-in-law having followed him to these parts and built their homestead. There was once a post and wire fence off to the left, bisecting a stand of leaning cycads; the fence leading to a central iron gate to keep a rooster and foraging brown hens.  There was a lean-to kitchen of stone, a smaller hearth and steel flue; the homestead proper, a simple rectangular gable of timber and galvanized iron. Black pigs browsed at the base of the living room hearth; a large sow and seven piglets. There were cows and ducks, fruit trees and vegetables in patchwork tilled paddocks of red loam. Just outside the fence the fold of a valley led gently down to the ocean.
But all I see is a valley parched and brown; ending in a half-moon crescent – shining white in the summer sun – the distant coast of a turquoise Ferret Bay. On the southern horizon lay a colder blue; The Bight and the hundred islands of Recherche Archipelago.
Beside me are only ruins; what’s left of a kitchen and fireplace; the owners driven out by loneliness and everything left to burn in the horrific fires of the 1920s.
With the old man’s health ailing, he was brought to Hill Springs for nursing. See a doctor?  He had no time for such things. With a boat arriving at Ferret Bay, the old man was too ill to be moved and died in his daughter’s arms.
In the morning we’re heading north toward the startling profile of Mt Ragged, a 590m high piece of rock on a flat red horizon. The track ahead is dead straight and corrugated, changing from soft sand and potholes to limestone outcrops.
A flock of seven emu appears from nowhere and glides alongside before suddenly darting away and back into the surrounding stands of mallee. The air conditioning’s on full, air vents shut tight, but the red dust infiltrates everywhere.
It’s still over 100 kilometres to Balladonia when I peer in the rear-view mirror, a billowing dust cloud trailing far behind. I’m reminded of a terrible fire that swept through these parts, but could never quite erase `the splendid memory’ of one hardy old man.