Arthur stumbled over the stones and weaved through the spinifex. He took no time to stop and admire the view. He’d been looking at it for too long, hours in fact, on the bus. He had to get down—fast—but not too fast…Not by the cliffs.
He reckoned if the mountains were part of the McDonnell Ranges, one side would be sloping, and on the other, cliffs. He’s seen the cliffs from The Spring and now he assumed from the summit.
He headed west along the saddle of the summit, only to be greeted with a fifty-metre drop. He’ll need equipment to scale down there—he had no equipment; no ropes, or hooks for abseiling.
He hoped if he went east, he’d have more joy. He tried to picture the mountain in his mind as he’d seen it from The Spring. From there it had looked like a tooth jutting above the range in between. That tooth appeared to have jagged drops on all the sides he could see.
He ran north of the summit. More cliffs. And to the east…boulders blocked his way. Was he stuck on this God-forbidden pinnacle of the Northern Territory? Was there no way out?
Arthur sighed and stared at the cairn of stones. Yes, a pile of stones. True, someone had been here. Did they land by helicopter? Or use ropes and hooks? They built the cairn, didn’t they?
Fleischer circled the cairn. A rusty can was jammed under a reddish stone. He lifted the stone and picked out the can. It rattled as he examined the can. Gingerly, so as not to cut himself, he pulled back the sharp lid. A tea-stained paper fluttered inside like a trapped butterfly.
Arthur tipped the paper into his palm and unfolded it.
‘Well worth the two-hour climb,’ he read. Well, someone got up here. Arthur squinted and scanned a mountain to the south, and the ripples of desert like a red sea to the north. ‘Yeah, okay, if you don’t have your wife and son and a bus-load of German tourists to save,’ he muttered.
Arthur read on. The ink had faded over the years this document had languished in the can. ‘Ascended by the gully to the east end of the summit. Follow the pathway west through the boulders.’
Arthur studied the boulders. ‘What path? Oh, yeah!’ He detected a crevice between the boulders. He moved toward it, and then into it.
As if in some crazy Alice in Wonderland movie, he negotiated the tunnel of rocks until he came to a two-metre drop through a crag in a clutch of boulders.
Arthur lowered himself through the hollow and plopped into a patch of sand at the bottom.
He surveyed the gully to the north and nodded. ‘That’s do-able.’ The breeze whistled through the alleyway between the peaks. ‘Very do-able,’ he said. ‘Not exactly a stroll in the park.’ He assessed the collateral damage of erosion, the wear and tear of the ancient mount. Huge rocks had chipped off the sides of the gully and scattered like ruins down the steep passage. ‘But definitely do-able, all the same.’
After the initial obstacle course, the terrain splayed out like a skirt into hills and valleys and a gorge that seemed to wind its way onto the plain and the Indigenous settlement not too far away at the base—just out of sight.
‘Why, there might even be some water.’
Arthur negotiated his way down the boulders. He was aware that his body maybe suffering some effects of dehydration after sitting in that oven of a bus, so he concentrated where he stepped, careful to hold, careful to balance. The previous climbers said it took them two hours to ascend, so, maybe he would take less than two hours to descend. But he had to be careful. He was his family’s and the busload’s only chance…that thought spurred him on—that and water. There had to be water he convinced himself. Water trapped in a bend in the gully. There’s been recent rain—surely.
Arthur plodded downwards.
The scenery blurred before him. He halted. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them. Now the land was swimming in an oily mirage. Or was it his eyes? His eyes dry from dehydration and the space travel? His head began to thump. He had to get water. He had to get down.
As if in a greasy fog, Arthur groped along the rocky walls. Stones rolled like marbles under his boots. He skidded, his legs slid from under him. And he thudded bottom-first on the one spinifex bush lurking on the path.
Arthur screamed. He jumped up and rubbed his rump.
The fog cleared, and all was sharp.
Spinifex needles stuck in his rear like pins in a pin-cushion—just another disaster he’d have to deal with, when he had time. With his bottom stinging from the needles, he hobbled down the gully to the slope.
At the base where the gully intersected the larger gorge, Arthur paused under a ghost gum. He perched on the root that coiled around a rock like a snake. As his tender buns did not appreciate any pressure from sitting, Arthur perched, crouching, barely touching the seat of his pants with the otherwise perfect tree seat.
‘Now, which way?’ he asked.
Arthur Fleischer scanned the terrain. The gorge seemed to wind its way from the east of the range down through the foothills to the north. He decided to go east as the northern way seemed to require another climb. Besides, it appeared deeper and darker and more promising for a waterhole.
Even in mid-July, the heat of the Central Australian sun was punishing. Was it always so hot mid-winter? Or was this the effects of global-warming? Arthur tried to ignore the steady beat of pain on his temples. The promise of water pushed him on.
He grabbed the trunk of the tree and hauled himself to standing. He heard a clattering, like metal hitting the stones. He looked down. Trapped in a net of rocks, an old mini billy can. Arthur scooped it up and examined the rusty but solid vessel. It was no bigger than a large five hundred millilitre cup. It looked like a metal travel mug, but old fashioned, perhaps sixty or seventy years old. Arthur transferred it from one hand to the other. With some effort he lifted the lid. The inside stank rust. Arthur found a stick and poked inside. He didn’t risk his fingers. Who knows, a spider might be lurking in there. But whatever was in there had long since deteriorated into a few small ashes at the base. No spiders. No holes.
He fitted the lid back again. ‘Hmmm, could come in handy.’
So, with the small billy can dangling by his finger-tips, Arthur advanced down the gorge.
Indeed, this ancient watercourse hid from sunlight. ‘Must be water,’ Arthur rasped. He relished the alleyway’s icy coolness as he skipped over the dry creek-bed. At every bend, every corner, he anticipated a pool—at least a puddle—a basin-sized offering of water.
Deeper and deeper, he staggered down the gully. It twisted left and narrowed. Surely something…if not water, the end soon.
Fleischer seemed to have been walking this route for what seemed an eternity. How could it be so dry?
The gully narrowed into a canyon. A faint sound of rustling. Rushing what? A spring? Or the wind? There’s enough vegetation. Green sprigs taunted him. They dotted the gully and jutted out of stone walls. On the floor were reeds, dry tufts of grass that crunched underfoot. And what’s that? Small black balls, the size of marbles—Euro droppings. Yes, there’s animal life. There must be water.
Excited, Arthur scampered further down the gully. It must be just around the next—
Spanning the chasm, a spider web. In the middle lounging like the Jabber the Hut of spiders, one huge dude of a spider. Golly! That creature was as big as a small bird.
Arthur took two steps back. Maybe he was on an alien world. Since when were spiders as big as birds?
He gazed up at the thin strip of blue sky. Could he climb up the side of the gorge and go around the spider? He didn’t fancy forging his way through the web. What if he got caught in it and eaten by the big spider? What if he angered the spider and it chased him? What if there were more bird-sized spiders?
But the walls of the canyon were high. The whole set up reminded Arthur of Stanley Chasm.
Arthur turned and dragging his feet, tramped back up the gorge. ‘Fine then, I’ll go up and down the hills and dales and probably die of dehydration,’ he mumbled.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2018
Feature Photo: Spider © L. M. Kling 2016