The following short story, Kakadu Reunion, is set in Kakadu National Park is in the Northern Territory of Australia, 171 kilometres east of Darwin.
To enhance your enjoyment of the story I’ll share a glimpse of this beautiful part of Australia with you. Kakadu is an almost entirely unpopulated landscape the size of a small European country.
The name 'Kakadu' comes from an aboriginal floodplain language called Gagudju which was one of the languages spoken in the north of the park at the beginning of the twentieth century. Gagudju is no longer regularly spoken, but descendants of this language group are still living in Kakadu.
Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land cover approximately 110,000 square kilometres, and it lies in the north-east corner of Australian’s Northern Territory. The landscape is a diverse wilderness region that is rich in aboriginal culture and nature.
Kakadu National Park is the largest national park in Australia. It contains one of the highest concentrated areas of aboriginal rock art sites in the world; the most famous examples are at Nourlangie Rock and Ubirr. I love these places and have stayed to bushwalking and paint in the area. My greatest joy was being invited to paint there by a group of Aboriginal artists who taught me how to make paintbrushes from the local grasses.
I’ve heard insensitive tourists who drive through, rarely getting out of the car, say, “Much ado about Kakadu,” and drive away with a poor impression of the place. They see very little aside from the road surface, and they weren’t welcomed by five-star accommodation and French Champagne. You would gather from this that you need to take your time to discover Kakadu. Bring walking shoes and insect repellent, rather than high heels and makeup.
If you do stay and explore Kakadu, you will find stories, secrets, and sights like you never could imagine. My most perfect moment was climbing to the top of the escarpment to watch the sun setting over the Arnhem land wetlands as a celebration of my sixtieth birthday. Later we dined on grilled crocodile tail beside the Yellow Water Lagoon, the same lagoon that features in the following short story, Kakadu Reunion. We lit a campfire to sit beside. Aside from being romantic, the contained fire helped to keep mosquitoes away. Then my husband, Reg, poured a fine Australian red wine for the two of us to drink beneath the Southern Cross and the Milky Way, and he sang happy birthday to me.
It is impossible to appreciate the full breadth and beauty of the park in a fleeting visit, If you can afford the time, spend at least a week or more there if you ever get the opportunity.
Nature and wildlife abound in this area, which is known for its level of biodiversity. I love that it is wholly aboriginal owned land. Some members of my family, as well as characters in several of my novels, identify as Australian Aboriginal. The young man Jarrah in the following short story, Kakadu Reunion, is an Australian Aboriginal.
Arnhem Land is known for its strong aboriginal culture, towering escarpments, wild coastline, savannah woodlands, lush wetlands and prolific wildlife. Closer to Darwin is the Mary River region, home to millions of birds, saltwater crocodiles, and fish, including the mighty barramundi, which makes it a fishing hot spot.
* * *
The park was established in 1981. It is governed by Environment Australia / Parks Australia and Aboriginal traditional land owners (the Gun-djeihmi, Kunwinjku, Krakeourtinnie and Jawoyn peoples). The park has recently been accepted as a World-Heritage listing.
* * *
The park contains 1,980,400 hectacres of wetlands and other terrains. It is Australia's largest National Park and is approximately the size of Israel.
* * *
Kakadu is home to 68 mammals (almost one-fifth of Australia’s mammals), more than 120 reptiles, 26 frogs, over 300 tidal and freshwater fish species, more than 2 000 plants and over 10 000 species of insects. It provides habitat for more than 290 bird species (over one-third of Australia’s birds). Its internationally important wetlands are a major staging point for migratory birds. Some of these species are threatened or endangered. Many are found nowhere else in the world, and there are still others yet to be discovered. The Creation Ancestors gave Bininj/Mungguy a kinship system linking people to all things and the cultural responsibility to look after them all. They have always understood the biodiversity of country and their traditional ancestral knowledge is a vital part of managing Kakadu’s rich environment.
* * *
If you come for the Northern Hemisphere or the southern states of Australia, you will be familiar with a concept of four weather seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn or Fall, and Winter.
In the north of Australia, those season names aren’t used because the climate doesn’t follow those patterns. Tourists often use the expressions: The Wet or Dry seasons, as that simplifies the real and more complex seasonal changes of the tropical north. Also, the seasonal changes of Kakadu cannot be set by a calendar. Nature determines them.
* * *
The Six Seasons of Kakadau
Below are the seasons of Kakadu. Two of these seasons feature in the following short story Kakadu Reunion.
Throughout the year, Kakadu’s landscapes undergo spectacular changes. Bininj/Mungguy recognise six different seasons, as well as subtle variations that signpost the transition from one season to another. This knowledge of nature is fundamental to the culture of Kakadu and its people. Bininj/Mungguy have lived with the changing landscape for tens of thousands of years, adapting and using the land for food, shelter and general well−being.
Cool weather time, May to June. The wetlands are carpeted with water lilies. Drying winds and flowering Darwin woolly butt tell Bininj/Mungguy to patchwork burn the woodlands to encourage new growth.
Early dry season, June to August Most creeks stop flowing, and the floodplains quickly dry out. Magpie geese, fat and heavy after weeks of abundant food crowd the shrinking billabongs.
Hot, dry season, August to October Hunting time for file snakes and long-necked turtles. White-breasted wood swallows arrive as thunderclouds build, signalling the return of Gunumeleng.
Pre-monsoon, October to December Streams begin to run, water birds spread out as surface water and new growth becomes widespread. Barramundi moves from the waterholes downstream to the estuaries to breed.
Monsoon, December to March. The heat and humidity generate an explosion of plant and animal life. Speargrass grows to over two metres tall and creates a silvery-green hue throughout the woodlands.
Banggerreng Harvest time, April. Clear skies prevail, the vast expanses of floodwater recede, and streams start to run clear. Most plants are fruiting, and animals are caring for their young.
Kakadau Reunion - Short Story, by Ryn Shell. Chapter 1.
‘Jem is five years and three months old.’ Dave had emphasised the three months as he considered the exact date important.
‘Thanks.’ Jarrah lowered the receiver into the cradle. It all fitted. J for Jarrah and em. Em was his pet name for his first love, Emily. Heck, it was more than first love, and he’d never quite gotten over her.
He’d been the only one to call her Em. Now Dave, a long time family friend, was telling him Emily and her daughter would meet him. This was definite. Jarrah’s facial expression altered from stunned to radiant. Now he couldn’t control his grin. The ecstasy spread through his being; he could have leaped ten feet in joy.
Jarrah looked around and saw the boss and his co-worker giving him a quizzical glance and curtailed the impulse to make a Tarzan impression. He sure felt the need for a burst physical exuberance to match his mood.
Pealing off his ranger’s shirt he yelled enthusiastically, ‘I quit!’
“I thought this was your dream job? The head ranger scowled. We need you. You can’t just quit without organising a replacement.
It didn’t matter to Jarrah that his friends, his workmates all appeared shocked. He still couldn’t wipe that grin off his face.
* * *
The look on his boss and work mate’s faces and the banter in the background as he’d freshened up and threw his gear in the truck was priceless.
‘Mango madness?” His boss said. “I thought he was handling the climate better than the rest of us.”
“Did ya get a whiff? Old Spice,” one of the junior rangers said. “He’s plastered it on.”
“He’s gone luney, more like it. That’s worse than going troppo.”
“Yep, that ‘ud be right,” the boss said. “It has to be a girl.”
Jarra turned, stretched out his hand to the boss. “It is my dream job. I hope you will take me back on when I return.”
The men shook hands.
“I’ve got a date with a dream girl,” Jarrah explained.
His workmates helped load the open tray at the rear of the truck with jerry cans of extra food, water and kept up the jovial banter.
“Didn’t know you had a girl,” the boss said. “You told us all that you hand entanglements.”
“I suspect…” Jarrah felt the hot blood rush to his face, “…. I do have—entanglements. It appears that I might be a daddy—I never knew until just now.—that phone call.”
The boss man heartily thumped Jarrah on the back. “I’ll miss you. Thought you weren’t going to be any suet us when you first got here, aside from cataloging Gouldian Finches, rock caves, and rare orchids. Well, you turned into a great bushman too. You surprised us. You pull your weight with the best of them.”
“Good luck, Mate,” the junior ranger said.
“Thanks.” Jarrah leaped into the cab of the truck, reached out the window and shook his boss’s hand again.
“You better get going,” the boss said.
Jarrah drove in a straight line across dry land toward the track.
The boss and junior ranger called after him through the dust. “Make the river crossing before Namarrgon.”
“I will. Jarrah was determined—nothing would stop him getting to Em.
Aljurr settled on the stationary windscreen wiper of a truck heading toward Yellow Water Lagoon. It stretched its red and blue wings and told the young Aboriginal man to leave Kakadu.
It wasn’t like an Aboriginal ranger not to pay attention to the messengers from nature. Aljurr’s thought the young man a little mad too. He paced along the wiper, striving to catch Jarrah’s eye. Aljurr sort to remind Jarrah that the monsoon would break; the wet would arrive that evening; the track would become a river and the land a gigantic flood by morning.
Jarrah wasn’t listening. He would not head back to high ground. Not now. Not after six long years of searching—waiting—longing.
Almost to the clearing. She will be there. Any moment now—just up ahead. Jarrah spun the truck around a bend expecting to see her. A quick breath. Quell the disappointment, another curve ahead. Has to be the last one.
The ache in the pit of his being lifted as the bend became closer. Just around that bend. With caution thrust aside he accelerated as a dazzling fork of brilliant lightning struck.
Smoke and ozone filled the air. A boom of thunder muffled the sound of splitting timber. Jarrah rounded the bend, decelerated, and fought for control. Arm-over-arm he wrestled with the steering.
The truck shuddered violently, rear axle lifted, flipped.
For a brief moment Aljurr clung to the wiper, calm, assured, he was used to flight. He hung tight as the truck landed, shattering a wheel hub.
Aljurr rose, flew east quickly to avoid being squashed by the falling tree. He rose above the splintered smoking tree and flew southwest, and dropped onto a shrub beside Yellow Water Lagoon.
Maybe here the child would listen to his warning. The monsoon was coming. The South Alligator Floodplain would soon be drenched by a violent storm; wildlife would be active again.
* * *
The floodplains around Yellow Water Lagoon bustled with honking geese and whistling duck as they congregated at the waterhole now that the heat of Gurrung, hot weather time, had dried up most of the smaller waterholes and creeks.
The hot conditions had carried on well into Gunumeleng, the pre-monsoon season. Not a single drop of rain has fallen for a month to refresh the parched ground.
A young woman of twenty, wearing a woven pandanus leaf sunhat, sat in the shade. Aside from the heat, forty-five degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and the humidity, it was a peaceful setting.
Things were about to change. Dark clouds brewed overhead.
A young child in blue shorts and white top emerged from beneath shrubs clutching ripe native green plums and red bush apples in the upheld front of her peasant blouse. “Big mob lightning—happening soon.”
As she spoke, the tail-heavy pheasant coucals ran out from the dense under-story in a thicket near the lagoon edge. “Book-Book,” they cried at Jem, and flew low, settling into dense grass under shrubs and bushes near where the track disappeared into trees.
The lagoon spat silver white dazzles as lightning flashed. The violent electrical storm shot a dozen lightning strikes in and around the tree clumps in rapid succession.
Emily looked up. “‘The locals would say that Namarrgon is waking from his Dreaming in the rock country. Gunumeleng is ending.” Sweat ran into her eyes, and she brushed it aside, swatted the mosquito that tried to settle on Jem’s upturned face.
When the girl looked at her with those brown eyes… Emily thought of the meeting with Jarrah. Would he understand when she explained who Jem was? In the past, they had bonded. But, neither of them had intended… She kissed the top of Jem’s sandy blonde hair. Like his. Don’t think of him. You don’t love him anymore.
The intense humidity made Emily’s red-gold hair frizz. It stuck to her flushed cheeks. It reminded her of reasons she’d loved him. She recalled how comfortable she’d been with him. He'd always encouraged her to be her natural self. Being natural, Jarrah loved nature; he loved her lack of sophistication.
Jem tugged at her arm. “Aljurr.” Jem twirled. “Son of Namarrgon. He’s here. I saw one.” She flapped her arms, ducking, and weaving, and then hopped with her head down mimicking the insect’s movements. Jem straightened up and pointed, her face glistening wet, rosy, dimpled cheeks. “See, like heart. Start of Gudjewg?”
Emily ’s gaze scanned to where Jem’s finger pointed. “Leichhardt's Grasshopper. Yes, that’s the sign for the start of Gudjewg, the monsoon season. Jarrah better get here soon. We need to beat a hasty path out of here before the storm.”
Jarrah… Her mind raced. They had been kids. Well, she had been sixteen; he’d been twenty, but both of them too naïve to understand it was the passion that fuelled their first quarrel. They had been too immature to restrain themselves, and unprepared when they made up.
Tummy flutters. Pull yourself together. Shit! Here in the territory, you can’t afford to be naïve. She’d got smart fast. She could stay smart. She’d even hidden a teen pregnancy. She’d hidden herself and Jem away from do-gooders who might have attempted to take a child from a single mother.
“What's wrong, Mummy?” Jem touched Emily’s face and frowned.
“It’s okay.” Emily downed her paintbrush and wiped her closed eyelids with her fists. “You noticed Mummy was crying, huh? That's good, baby. You need to notice things. You have to here.” She mustered up a smile for Jem, and then scanned the ground, not only for movement but anything stationary that might warn of danger. What looked like a log could so easily be a crocodile. “You need to be aware of what’s around you out here.”
“I remember what you tell me.” Jem’s dark eyes flashed around the landscape, lingering on a clump of motionless grass. “Could be big buggga one there—me think.”
“You can speak properly, Jem. What did you see?” Emily crouched, her arm slid around Jem’s waist, ready if necessary to lift her and run. “All a girl needs to know before she heads into buffalo territory…” Emily's eyes spotted what the girl had seen. The head of a wild buffalo rose, barely visible above the grass.
“She best have her escape route worked out,” Jem completed her mother's sentence.
That applies to reunions with former lovers too. Emily touched Jem’s shoulder. “Get in the ute, walk slow.”
Lightning splattered the sky in a dozen streaks.
“It will be good when Gudjewg hits. People are going crazy in the oppressive humidity and heat in this monsoon build up,” Emily muttered. If Jarrah doesn’t turn up soon… Something is wrong. Emily thrust her watercolour equipment, notebooks, and camera into her dilly bag and followed Jem to the ute. She needed all the money this painting could get her, but finishing the job wasn't worth risking Jem’s life by being caught in a storm on a floodplain.
Inside the utility, Jem switched the radio on.
Emily clambered into the driver’s seat. “Thanks.” She snatched up the microphone. “Base, come in.”
She waited for the answer as Barrmarrdja, the wind, blew across the lagoon from the West. Waterbirds spread their wings and took flight. Water rose as waves in the shallows. It was hard or her to stay too angry with Dave for setting up this meeting, then demanding she keep it, for the Jem’s sake.
Thousands of black and white wings beat the air as the magpie geese honked overhead. She turned to see Jem’s eyes wide in awe. Kakadu was always majestic, and now, Emily experienced the joy of sharing that experience with her child. Once she had shared her love of nature with—. The radio interrupted her thoughts.
“How's it going, Emily?” A male voice crackled through the airwaves.
Emily hesitated before venting. “You conned me. You conniving…”
Laughter crackled out of the radio.
“It isn't going to happen, Dave.”
“What? The reunion? Change of plan anyhow. You have to get out of there. Put Jarrah on.”
“He didn’t turn up.” Emily's pulse raced. How mad could he be with her? Butterflies in the belly. Her stomach did silly jumps.
“Flamin’ hell,” Dave said.
“He’s probably had to stop and clear the track. The wind’s blowing a fury here at the moment. It’ll be chucking debris all over the place.”
“Well, you can’t wait,” Dave said. “Best get you and the kid up to high ground. It looks as if Gudjewg is coming in early this year. That’ll be good. I’ll enjoy the cooler evenings when the rain comes, that is—once I know you're back—safe. Blast these soaring temperatures… You wouldn’t want to be working at base today. Everyone's off their flamin’ rockers with this sticky heat.”
‘Take it easy, Dave. Pace yourself, or you’ll blow a gasket. The humidity won’t last much longer. There are signs of season change here at Yellow Waters.” Emily leaned across to Jem and held the microphone where they both could speak into it. “Tell Grandpa what you saw.”
Jem called into the receiver. “I saw the lightning man’s son, Aljurr.”
“Get back to base,” Dave urged.
“I want to meet Jarrah,” Jem cried out. “Mummy, we can’t go without seeing him.”
“Sorry, Dave.” Emily straightened her shoulders. “No man is going to stand me up and get away with it. I got my trusty chainsaw and winch. Us gals are going into that jungle to bag us a man.” Her words, meant in jest, left her feeling lightheaded. The closest she’d been to an attractive male, lately, had been watching a bower bird decorate a nest.
“Over and out,” Jem said through gales of laughter.
“Don’t Go! Don't hang up, ladies!” Dave called out. “Listen to me. You could get stuck in there for months if Gudjewg hits.”
“Isn’t that why you set up this rendezvous? Didn’t you hope that Jarrah, Jen and me would be stuck someplace together for months, one happy and very drenched family.” She laughed. “I’m onto you and your bright ideas, Dave.” Emily winked at Jem.
Jem snickered. She held out her hand and took the microphone. “Mummy thinks you are funny, Grandpa.”
“Your mum knows me too well.”
Emily started the engine.
Jem leaned her head close to the receiver. “I’m going to meet Jarrah.”
Emily set the ute into four-wheel drive and studied the rough route ahead.
Dave’s voice came in splutters as lightning forked overhead. “See you soon, Honey—I hope.”
“Bye, Grandpa.” Jem hung the microphone on its hook. She wiggled back in the seat and clipped herself in.
* * *
Dave pulled off the headset. Stretching his neck, he searched through his cassettes and grinned when he found the tape. He popped it in the player, checked the road was clear, and drove out onto the Stuart Highway heading for Katherine.
He sang, off-key, along with Nelson Eddy's Indian love call response to Jeanette MacDonald and thought of how two chainsaws, ringing out in a jungle, operating at each end of a lightning-struck tree, might hopefully become the music of love for Jarrah and his daughter, Emily.
* * *
Grasping the sides of her child’s seat, Jem enjoyed the motion of the ute as it bounced along a narrow track, through thick grass, surrounded by forest. Ahead, a tree blocked the route.
Rivulets of water poured from Jem’s small body. It intrigued her that humidity reached one hundred percent in the truck cabin, so it rained inside instead of outside. She felt no discomfort. It was easier to breathe in the rain. Besides, this was an adventure—to rescue Daddy. Yes, she knew who he was. Adults can’t fool a smart girl. She knew that Mummy hadn’t married Daddy—yet—because he was smart, and she’d wanted him to go to that place that sounded like unibirdcity, to learn to protect nature.
Jem loved nature, so she was going to love Daddy. Her and mummy were going to rescue him, find high ground and live alone together as a family until the monsoon floods subsided to allow them out again.
Jem knew it would be alright. They could live in the ute and keep dry and safe from crocodiles. Mummy and Daddy would have to cuddle because there wasn’t a lot of space.
She was sure that by the time they did get back to base, she’d have a new brother or sister on the way, and mummy was old enough to get married this time. Adults were funny. They liked to pretend that young country children didn't know that people made babies is the same way buffalos did. She thought it probably would be done without as much grunting.
Jem watch her mother’s animated expression. She couldn’t remember her mother looking so excited and pretty.
This Kakadu reunion, rescuing daddy, then making sure that mummy and daddy never parted again, because she’d always known how her mummy reacted when she heard the name Jarrah, and how much she loved him.
The ute rounded a corner. Emily slowed the ute, and brought in to a halt on the high side of the track, in an area with sufficient space to turn the vehicle.
“Mummy! Mummy!” Jem squealed.
Emily sat speechless, her eyes locked on Jarrah. She had goosebumps, tingles, and she felt lightheaded all at the same time. The years had changed Jarrah from a slender youth into the athletic male she witnessed climbing over the enormous tree on the ground.
Jem had the ute door open. She leaped to the ground racing forward arms extended. “Daddy!”
Jarrah took that Tarzan sized leap he’d longed to do earlier. Within moments of landing on the ground, he’d swept his daughter into his arms. Hugging her, he strode toward the woman he’d never ceased to love.
If they hastened, they would get back to base. There might be time to drive to base via the Argyle diamond mine store for a champagne diamond ring. A wedding ring to follow as soon as Emily chose the date. Jarrah decided then that he'd never make the mistake of not letting Emily know the strength of his commitment to her and his newly discovered daughter.
Hey it's me, Ryn.
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