After the Chinese New Year party on Sunday me and Liamh drove to Strathfield to catch the train to Woy Woy. On the platform a madman in a stained suit with missing teeth thrust his face right up to mine enunciating soundless words accompanied with florid incomprehensible gestures. When we got on the train, Liamh was still clutching in his hand the red envelope he had been given at the party, with a golden ship on the outside and a gift of money within. On the two seats opposite were a young man and a young woman; he, thin and dark with a narrow beard running from the centre of his bottom lip to his chin, cried out when he saw us: That's one of those lucky envelopes, isn't it? Did you get it at Darling Harbour? No, I said, we've been at a friend's place ... He was exuberant and charming and the conversation between us continued intermittently for the rest of the hour's journey to Woy Woy. Sometimes his girlfriend wanted a cuddle, sometimes they conversed together in low voices, sometimes he stared out the window; most of the rest of the time we talked.
He lived at the top of the ridge above the quarry at Wondabyne, in a camp where he had a tent, a fireplace and a stretch of open ground that he cleared himself in the Brisbane Water National Park. The tent was recent, he'd inherited from someone who had, he said, gone down the river with a hole in the back of his head; before that, he'd lived in a cave where quolls ran over his body at night. Wondabyne is just a trainstop on the Newcastle line where it winds up the western shore of a long inlet off the Hawkesbury River called Mullet Creek. No roads go to Wondabyne, there are no shops or public buildings of any kind, just the sandstone quarry and a few dwellings, most of them on the other side of the water and accessible only by boat. This guy had been there six months, since last August, waiting until a house came up, though he never said exactly what that meant.
His routine was, to get up every morning and come down the hill to the station and catch a train into town. He'd spend the day in the city - doing what, he never said, beyond mentioning that he asked people for money and when he had enough, ten dollars, he'd use that to get a feed - then catch another train home. That morning he'd been late and had run down the hill in his boxer shorts carrying his clothes in his hands ... until brought up short by a brown snake, one of the most poisonous reptiles in the world. This one, he said, didn't want to move, not even when he poked a stick at it, so he'd had to wait. It was too early to go home today - Sunday, 5.30 or thereabouts - so they were going up to Woy, to a mate's place, and would go back to Wondie later. He'd light a fire, to keep the dogs and bad spirits away, and be fast asleep by ten.
Climbing up to the top of the ridge in that country isn't easy. I haven't been in the bush above Mullet Creek but I've wandered all over the Hope Range, on the northern bank of the Hawkesbury just east of there, and it's the same kind of terrain. Basically all those ranges consist of three massive tiers of sandstone, like three giant steps. It's generally impossible to go straight up, you have to go along a diagonal and even then there's a lot of scrambling over crumbly outcrops to do. This guy reckoned he could make the four kilometre climb in about forty minutes in the dark, using the flashlight on his mobile phone for guidance; he said he could come down, like this morning, snakes permitting, in eight minutes.
We talked about the fires that burned through a lot of that country on New Years Day, reaching the ridge next to the one he's on before the change came through; about the wild dogs that haunt the National Park; the varieties of snake, both venomous and not, you find up there; other wild life, like the extremely annoying brush turkey and the sweet and affecting Echidna, a monotreme like the playpus, covered in spines ... he has a cross bow, with a licence, with which he once shot a Big Red, that he butchered and gave to his mates in Woy for their dogs: dogs love kangaroo, he said. I was left unsure if he also has a gun, because when I asked him he said he didn't have a licence for one and left it at that.
His only problem was with the old bloke who lives in the house next to the quarry, who wants to move him on. He said: the only thing that'd move me on is if he killed me ... and ... he's not going to do that, I said. Earlier I'd heard him telling his girlfriend that because he was half Aborigine the land was half his anyway, that's why he felt he had a right to live in and off it. Just before we entered the last tunnel before Woy he pointed out the deep green pool at the very tip of Mullet Creek which some old white guy had shown him, where you could fish for mullet and blackfish and bream and always come back with something. Ate so much fish I'm sick of it, he said as the train flashed out of the light and he turned his attention back to his dark and silent girlfriend.