Sunday, January 27, 2013

Prompt: Ubirr

Karen climbed the narrow, rocky path winding up toward the summit. It was more of a suggestion than a path, really, and she kept a sharp eye for loose rocks, which had already landed her on her butt more than once today. She hadn’t seen anyone for the past two hours, unsurprising when the temps climbed to 35 celsius in the heat of the day. She pulled the barely-damp rolled bandana from her neck and dragged it across her face, grateful for the hint of coolness.

“Wot you doin up here, sheila?” asked a gravelly voice. Startled, she snatched the bandana off her face to find the old man sitting on a ledge a few feet above her head. Bright blue eyes twinkled from his dusky, wrinkled face. He sat cross-legged in the scrap of shade offered by the rocky outcrop.

Karen pulled her water bottle out and offered it to him, having quickly learned that was the fastest way to make friends in Kakadu. He grinned and held up his own bottle, so she offered a salute and took a long drink instead.

“I’m a photographer. I’m working on a book for National Geographic,” she said. The second fastest way to make friends out here.

“Wot you photo graphing?”

Ah, here’s where it got tricky. A question best deferred. “What do you think I should be photo graphing?” Karen had the habit of picking up other people’s speech patterns—a habit that occasionally got her in trouble, but usually worked to her advantage.

He gave her a long considering look. “You don’t want to say. You must be after the Dreaming art. No dramas, sheila. I ain’t fussed none.”

Karen was a little surprised. She had met resistance from many of the aboriginals she had met so far on this trip. That’s why she’d started being a little more evasive about her project, a collection of the phenomenal rock art found throughout Kakadu National Park in Australia’s “Top End”.

Australian legend said that the Rainbow Serpent created the world, singing the earth, plants, animals and people into being as she slithered across the infinite Dreamtime. Exquisitely detailed aboriginal art described this and other stories of people and life from long ago. Animals not seen in thousands of years lived on in the bright colors of paintings barely protected from the elements. Yet they survived.

Karen first saw them almost a decade ago, touring Kakadu with her new husband as he conducted birding surveys. She felt an instant connection to the mystical paintings, and she tried in vain to capture their power and beauty in hundreds of photographs with her little digital camera. She’d had the idea then that “someone” should produce a coffee-table book of these astonishing works of art before they were lost forever due to atmospheric conditions or human interference. In all this time, no one had, and when she’d needed something big, something different to do after her divorce, she remembered Kakadu and decided that someone would have to be her. Astonishingly, National Geographic agreed. She submitted a proposal to their “New Explorers” program, never thinking she would win out over many more experienced naturalists. Their sponsorship covered the costs of her trip and the fancy new camera she was still learning to use.

“You’ve already been to the main galleries, right?” The old man interrupted her reverie.

“Oh yes, I’ve spent a lot of time there. I was here in 2003, so I had a good idea where to start.” Karen had spent days at each of the three main “galleries” in Kakadu. These collections of art were well known, and she’d taken pictures of them and the extensive signage near each one, describing the meaning and other known details. Now she was seeking out the lesser and unknown individual paintings that were off the tourist trails.

He nodded. “Thought so. D’you go up to the Thilacene, or get it from below?”

Karen smiled, recognizing the challenge implicit in his question. The phenomenal painting of the Tasmanian tiger, extinct in northern Australia for something like three thousand years, was visible far and wide from where it stood, about ten meters up a rock cliff.

“Both,” she replied, and she was gratified to see respect flare in his eyes. “I got plenty from below, and I got a permit to go up and use the pulley chairs.”

He gave her a broad smile, and patted the ledge next to him, an invitation. “Sun’ll be setting soon. I’ll lead you down after, if you want.”

Sunset from Ubirr was spectacular. Brilliant colors flooded the sky over a spectacular natural landscape unmarred by wires, roads, or lights. And immediately after, the intense darkness was a startling affirmation that there was indeed almost no human encroachment for hundreds of miles around. Karen had learned the hard way last time, frightened and clinging to her husband for support as they carefully made their way down the narrow path in the dark. She was better prepared with a head lamp this time, but she would welcome a guide, nonetheless. She accepted his outreached hand and climbed up to sit beside him.

Dogs in house:
Houdini, Brindle

Bequest, classical guitar by Robert Sequoia

January word count:

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