I flew into Laverton from Perth in an arthritic Cessna 152 on a nice October day. It was bit warm (about 40 C, or something over 100 F), but it's a long way from any body of water. And it's sort of stuck between the Gibson Desert and the Great Victoria Desert. I was going to follow the track to the north east, towards Warburton, where it would be yet warmer. From the air, it was all red-brown except for the town proper. I had only my backpack and the clothes I had on.
I thanked the pilot (he was going south to Kalgoorlie) and asked the best way to get into town and he waved at the small building and the road. I shrugged, picked up my stuff and walked towards the shed near which a windsock was trying to do its job. I'd barely got there when he took off.
On the side of the shed, under a tiny roof, was a phone. I picked it up and a few seconds later a voice said: "What the bloody 'ell are you doin' at the field?" I felt at home.
"I need to get to the hotel. The plane just dropped me off."
"Okeh. I'll get someone to fetch you. Stay where you can be seen from the road."
And that was that.
I could see the road, so I just stayed on the shady side of the shed.
Let me introduce myself. I'm Gordy Hollister. I'm an entomologist with the CSIRO -- that's the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization. I studied at the UNSW and then worked at the lab in Brisbane. I then went to the labs at headquarters -- Black Mountain in Canberra -- and actually got a Ph.D. for work on Camponotus pitjantjatarae Macarthur, an ant. And that's why I'm here in Western Australia, in a town of about 700 folks, amid a couple of half-exhausted mines and more Aborigines than Aussies. Someone had reported anthills toward the northeast, halfway to Warburton (pop. 400). In a dry lakebed. There shouldn't have been any.
I saw a dust trail nearing me and soon saw a ute. I stepped out of the shade and waved.
"'Day. Can you get me to the hotel?"
"Yep. That's what they sent me here fer. Lessn you ain't the bloke who phoned."
"No. That was me. I'm on my way towards Warburton."
"Yep." I tossed my pack into the bed of the truck.
"Jem Finch." He extended a well-calloused hand.
"Yep. 30 years. Found and lost fortunes."
"Mostly lost, I bet."
"Yep." Jem laughed. "You government?"
"Yes. CSIRO. I'm interested in ants."
"Well, we got 'em. Big uns and teeny uns." We were in town. A few dusty streets of small houses. A few shops. A two-storey pub and a three-storey hotel. A hospital sign. Jem slammed on the brakes. "Hotel. That's two bucks, Gordy."
"OK." I paid him. "Join me in a cold one later?"
"Ain't said no to that in over 40 years."
"Too right." I grabbed my pack and walked the few steps to the door. Opening it, I was in a small lobby area with a polished counter in front of me and a flight of stairs to the left. There was a bell on the countertop, so I rang it.
I heard footsteps and the door behind the counter opened, revealing a young woman in a man's shirt and jeans.
"'Day. Can I get a room for a night or two?"
"Twenty a night. Brekker included. Other tucker you've got to git to the pub."
She handed me a key with a brass label "3" attached. "Left at the top of the stairs. Ifn you don't like it, come back and I'll give you the key to 4."
"Name's Gordy Hollister."
"Mine's Weena Scott."
"Actually, Rowena. My ma liked Ivanhoe." She smiled.
"Good meetin' you, Weena. I'll see you in a bit."
I picked up the pack and went upstairs. Right was "2" and left was "3" -- "4" must have been further up. Opening the door revealed a room with a double bed, a small night table, a clothes press, a single straight chair, and another door, which hid a small sink-toilet-stall shower. It looked and smelled clean. There were two towels and a small bar of soap. I took off my shirt, washed my face and neck, and put it back on. I locked the room and went back downstairs. Weena was still behind the counter, reading. She must have heard me on the stairs, as she looked up and smiled. I realized she was far younger than I had thought. Probably under thirty, her complexion and red-blonde hair damaged by the sun and wind and dust, but very nice-looking.
"Can I ask a couple of questions?"
"Can't see nothin' holdin' you back."
"Can I rent a car or a ute around here?"
"Yep. Where you goin'?"
"That's a lousy track. State thinks it's a road. Great Central Road."
"I'm sure it's rough."
"You a prospector?"
"No. An entomologist." She didn't flinch or ask what the hell that meant. "I'm with the CSIRO. They sent me to look around Lake Throssell."
"Hmmm. Well, we got ants and bees and a couple other things that fly around. Occasionally there's a centipede. The lizards eat everything like that. Small lizards." She held up a hand, thumb and forefinger about ten centimetres apart.
"Sounds right. You from around here?"
"Dad's the manager of the nickel mine -- about 15 miles north. I was born here, sent to school in Perth, Uni in Adelaide. I like it here. You?"
"Family has about 30,000 acres near Roma, in Queensland. We run some cattle, grow wheat, some oranges and vines, too. My brother makes wine. But we're pastoralists at heart."
I looked a my watch. "I offered Jem a snort. Can I interest you in one, too."
"I'll have a cider or a shandy. No beer for me." She came out from behind the counter, and I could see for the first time that she had a real shape.
We went out into the heat, crossed the dust, and stood for a moment in the shade in front of the pub. "And I still need that information about renting a vehicle, Weena." She laughed and we went inside to the universally familiar aroma of spilled beer. It was cooler inside and dark enough that it took me a minute till I could see again.
It looked like every other wood and sheetmetal pub I'd been in outside of one of the cities. A few tables, chairs, benches, a bar. Decorations courtesy of Foster's and some Japanese and Indian brands. And a poster for the first Crocodile Dundee movie. The calendar had a nice photo of Uluru [Ayer's Rock].
"G'day, Weena. Who's your new chap?" came from behind the bar -- the licensee looked like he was just five foot tall and about 80 years old -- most likely a 60-something prospector who'd kept enough to buy the license.
"None of your lip, Bill," she responded. "He's a gummint man from Canberra and he'll snatch your license the minute he sees you serving them underage schoolgirls!"
He snickered. "Dern! I thought you knowed you was my one-and-only!"
Weena looked at me. "Gordy, this boozer's Bill. Bill, Gordy." I put my hand over the counter and suddenly it was swallowed by a horny palm and five fingers. It turned out that Bill had been sitting. He was nearly two metres tall.
"Welcome to Laverton," Bill said.
"Bill's gonna quench your thirst and then he'll arrange for the vehicle you'll rent for our trip to Warburton."
"I told you it's a rough track; I don' want the responsibility of getting you hurt."
Bill was watching the lobs like a spectator at a tennis match. "What's yer poison?"
"I'll have a pint of draft. You, Weena?"
"Bill knows what I want."
Just about then, Jem appeared and got his pint; and I settled down for a friendly evening at the pub -- without darts and without TV.
The smells of coffee and bacon woke me in the morning. 6:30 said my wristwatch. I took a very quick shower, shaved, brushed my pearlies, and got dressed. Downstairs, I could see the coffee and the bacon and a tightly-encased bottom taking brownie out of the oven. There was marmelade and butter (or marge?) on the table.
"Mornin', Gordy. Sleep well?"
"Oh, yes. Nothing like a few pints to put you out and the smell of coffee to bring you back from the dead."
"Right-o. Now, no fancy manners. Just dig in. Do you want eggs?"
"No, thanks. This is more than enough." I cut a rectangle from the brownie, slathered some butter on it, and a spoon of marmelade on top, jamming the "sandwich" in my mouth, and burning my tongue. I made a few incoherent noises as Weena smiled and then washed everything down with hot caffeine. "This is really delicious." I picked up a rasher.
"Well, it's the least I could do for my husband."
"Now, wait. I may have had too much to drink last night, but not that much too much."
"No, you were the perfect gentleman. But this is a very small town and it's far from anywhere else. So ... my guess is that 'we' are the topic at every breakfast table today and that some of the women are already making arrangements."
I was preparing a second piece. "Right. I get it."
"The bad part is that my dad'll be phoning soon to ask about you."
"Really." She grinned. "My guess is that Ferd Thomas mentioned our date last night when he phoned the mine operator at six. Then my dad's got an elaborately embroidered version over breakfast. So as soon as he can finish eating and get to the phone in his office, he'll call."
About two minutes later, the phone rang.
"Mornin', dad ... Who else would call? ... Yes ... Yes ... And what else did they report about my fiancee? Am I preggers yet?" She smiled and waved to me to refill the coffee cups.
"You worry too much. He's CSIRO from Canberra. Now go off and take care of real problems ... Yes, you know I love you." And that was that.
Weena sat opposite me. "Did I embarrass you?"
"Not as much as yesterday in the pub."
"Sorry. Everyone in Laverton's on edge to marry me off. To a lawyer from Perth or a physician from Adelaide or some other professional git from a city. So I try to play them. And it always works."
"So ... how old are you?"
"28. I'm an RN in South Australia and here and a qualified bush nurse. I love it out here and felt crowded in the city. I came back four years ago. The hotel was empty and had been for sale. So I talked to the bank in Perth that had been stuck with a non-paying mortgage and bought it outright with my savings. And I got Bill and some workmen to fix it top to bottom. And I run it and treat cuts and bites and broken bones at the hospital. You?"
"32. Ph.D. in Entomology. Unattached. I live in a small furnished flat in Canberra. I hate the ACT."
Weena started putting away the marmelade and the butter (it hadn't been marg). I picked up dishes and tableware and put them in the tub in the sink. Weena poured off the bacon fat into a crock by the stove.
"Now, what about transport?"
"Bill's got a Land Rover with a winch that he'll rent out."
"Will we need the winch?"
"If we get stuck in sand, we will. Or if we get a gullywasher and are stuck in a foot of mud."
"We ... we?"
"Oh, yeah. I ain't letting you get lost out there."
"What about the hotel?"
"Bill'll look after it. I've got no bookings anyway."
By 11 we were in a fully-loaded Rover. Two jerry cans of gasoline, one of coolant, one more of drinking water, two loaves of bread, some cooked lamb, sugar, tea, a rifle, a tarp, some blankets, a small shovel, and our two packs. I had my maps, my compass and sample kit in a small handbag. Weena insisted on driving.
It's about 600 klicks from Laverton to Warburton. Ten hours if you're lucky. Actually, I only wanted to drive a bit over half that. Just up to Lake Throssell, a seasonal saline which I expected to be completely dry. Before we would get there, we'd pass through the Cosmo Newberry lands.
"Do you know the local tribe?"
"On the Cosmo reserve?"
"No. I went to school with a few of the kids before I was shipped off to Perth. But, no. I don't know them and I don't know the lingo."
"I guess we may not even see any."
"Well, if the lake's dry, they'll have moved to where they've got a proper hole or a seep coming out of the rocks. Probably south, to Yeo Lake."
"That's still Ngaanyatjarra Lands?"
"Yes. The extreme southwest of them."
"How long will it take for us to get to the mission?"
"The old mission? Maybe an hour or so. It's the best part of the track. I think there's hardly anything there now. It's been closed as long as I've been alive."
"1973, according to the file."
"Aha! You really did your homework."
"I try. You know, I've never been in this part of Western Australia before. I didn't want folks to think I was a complete idiot."
"Only a bit of one?"
"Certainly too dumb not to be caught by the first sheila."
"Are you caught?"
It was noon. It was hot. As far as I could see there was nothing but the ribbon behind us and the one in front of us and heat waves in the air.
"Time to stop for a billy?" I asked.
"Right-o." And Weena pulled to the left a bit and stopped.
I gathered some brittle brush near the roadside and started a small fire, abo-style. After it had burnt a bit, I set a billy with water among the ashes and waited, watching Weena. She had gotten out of the Rover, stretched (I caught my breath as her bosom strained the shirt), and jogged in place. Then she ran for about a minute up the road and back. Her shirt was soaked, as was mine. The water boiled, I threw in a scant handful of tea, and removed the billy from the fire. I nudged the twig ends into the ashes and made a sand berm with my hands around what was left of the fire. I scooped some sugar into each cup and carefully poured tea into them.
"Which is mine?"
"This one. It has less sugar."
"Oh, yes. Ladies take less. Like Gwendolyn in Importance of Being Earnest."
"You are something else!"
"Definitely. Will you get used to it?"
"Give me a few years?"
I turned toward her and took a hand. "Forever?"
"Don't be an ass. You haven't known me for 24 hours."
"It was less than one when you announced I was your fiance. And I'm not what most folks would call a professional git, though I guess Canberra's a city."
"Too true." She grasped my hand, leaned forward, and gave me a soft kiss. "Now it's a promise, sealed with a kiss." It was a nice kiss so I kissed her again, turned, and began pushing the sand berm inward, killing the glow. I dumped the remains in the billy on the embers, swished the tea in my cup and downed the sweet. Weena did the same with hers. I stood up and extended a hand. She took it and stood. I stowed the cups and the billy, and we got under way.
We drove for about half an hour in silence. I wanted to reach out and hold her hand. But I restrained myself.
"The old mission's only a few miles more."
"They must have been terrible, those old missions. Taking kids from their parents and tribe to make them neither black nor white."
Weena didn't say anything. Then, there we were: A clearly European two-storey house with symmetrical wings. It looked as though it had once been painted white. The roof had fallen in. There was no glass in the windows.
"Want to stop?"
"No." I sighed. "There should be a track off to the left, taking us to the lake."
"Right-o. Keep your eyes peeled."
It was another klick or so. "There it is!" There was a small pile of stones with a stick in it. The top of the stick had been painted red. "And it's got a tribal boundary mark, too."
"Yes. They own the red ochre mines." I fidgeted a bit. "Okay, make the left and go three klicks on the odometer."
Weena made the turn, slowed almost to a stop, and switched to four-wheel drive. "Smart girl." I leaned out so that I could see the ground clearly. I could sense we were going downhill. "That's the edge where the lake once was." There were fewer bumps. The hard surface of the lakebed was a steady support.
"Just coming up on three klicks."
"OK. Now stop, and let's have a drink and then go for a walk. Oh, and if you need to relieve yourself..."
"Good notion. Stay on your side of the Rover." And I could hear her, enough stimulus so that I let loose, too. Weena giggled. "I'll bet there'll be plants there tomorrow. Stuff just waits for water here."
I grappled in my bag and came up with my collecting kit. I grabbed the shovel and said "Let's go."
Weena took her rifle. "Do you know where we're going?"
"Sorta. There was a report about six weeks ago that someone out here saw ant hills. There shouldn't be any ants out here that do that. Most of the desert ants are burrowers and the only hills are these little things about ten centimetres in diameter and one or two high. And no one with any sense imports ants into Western Australia."
We were out on the pan, so I put down my stuff, lay down on the sand and sighted along the ground. "There's something that way," I said, point about 65 degrees northeast of where we'd been heading. Weena just looked at me and nodded. I scuffed the pan and cracked it with a blow from the shovel. "That's so we don't get lost. It's too easy to get confused out here."
She took my hand. "It might be fun getting lost with you."
"Maybe. Getting lost here, though might mean being dead in two days." I started walking, slowly, looking down and from side to side. Weena, still holding a hand, lagged a bit. After about five minutes I stopped. "Is that something?" I asked, pointing a bit south of the direction we'd been heading in.
"I think so."
So we veered a bit, and were soon able to see the remains of a dingo. Most likely dead for more than just a week or two. I squatted, pulled out my knife, and flipped the mass with the knife point, revealing a stain and a few small ants. I grabbed a vial from my kit, trapped two in it, stoppered it and rummaged for a pencil stub. I wrote "Lakebed, 3km. in, pm." on the frosted side panel, and put everything back in the kit.
"I'll identify them exactly later."
"Not what you were looking for?"
"No. He was trying to cross but it was too far without water. We'll go back to where we veered off and continue." And so we did.
Half an hour later, we paused again. "Water time," I said. It was hot, but my shirt was dry and so was Weena's.
"Thanks," she said. "Any ideas?"
"About our look-about? I've got lots of other ideas." I pointed to the ground a little to our left. "See that? A scorpion got a meal there. Probably a grasshopper."
"You're really good at that."
"I learned how to read sign the first time I went into the bush. It's the most important thing I've learned. Knowing that the scorpion was a Urodacus yaschenkoi is just tacking on a name. But this was a while back. The desert hoppers only come out after a rain, and it hasn't rained here for months and months."
"I was in Alice after the Easter rain two years ago. You couldn't walk anywhere with stepping on them."
"Right. Well, let me take another sighting." I lay down again. "It still looks as though there's something there." I knocked the sand off my clothes. Weena recaptured my hand.
"Do you know what kind of ant you captured?"
"Not yet. But it won't be hard. Certainly Calomyrmex of some sort. The give-away is how far apart the antenna sockets are. But there are over a dozen species, so I'll need to do a microscopic exam. Hopefully after they're done stinking."
"They secrete stuff at the base of their mandibles, white, orange, viscous stuff. It's a signal. And it really stinks. Even bilbies avoid eating them."
"How did you get into ants? They're all over and they seem revolting."
"My dad got me Wilson's Insect Societies for Christmas when I was nine. And that was it. I was sold." I laughed. "I had thought I'd grow up to be a pastoralist. Maybe go to Ag School. I'm not sure I even knew the words 'entomologist' or 'myrmecologist.'"
"Someone who studies ants." I poked myself. "I volunteered at the zoo in Canberra when I was a student. The kids called me the 'Ant Man.'"
"You're full of surprises"
"Yep. Aha, there's our target!" There were half a dozen small piles of dirt. Maybe four or six inches high. Each with a hole, like a miniature volcano.
"What are they?"
"Dalgites -- bilby colony. I'm a bit surprised, but not a great deal. There must be more to eat out here than we thought. They won't eat the little ants we saw. But it's the hot time of day. They're yards down in the cool and asleep. Nothing for me here. Mystery explained."
"Well, you're going to have to explain it to me, big boy!"
"Yes, dear. But first, let's get back to the Rover and boil a billy and eat bread and mutton."
We followed our track back to the car. We were nearly on top of it before we could really see it. For ten minutes it seemed like a rock, shimmering in the heat haze. Then, suddenly, it was the Rover.
"Do you have gloves?" I asked.
"Of course. I'd have to be an idiot to touch metal without gloves. Do you want to be stuck with an idiot?"
"No. Just a docile missus to take care of the cookin' an' cleanin' an' kids."
"You hadn't mentioned kids. You want kids?"
"Yep. At least two or three." We were at the car and I pulled on a pair of gloves, opened the door and got out the tea fixings. "Could you check the gas and coolant?"
I built a fire in the same place I had a few hours earlier. Weena had handled the jerry cans as though they were empties, but I could see the muscles in her back through her shirt. She got out the bread, cut four slabs, and made two mutton sandwiches while I made tea. Then she sat next to me -- nearly on top of me.
"Okay. Explanation time."
"Stop me if it's too much like a lecture."
"Weeks ago, some pilot was flying from Kalgoorlie to Wyndham, I guess. Maybe to Derby. Anyway, he reported seeing anthills in the lakebed. It must have been early morning or late afternoon, so they cast tall shadows. Now, there aren't any desert ants that make big anthills, so the report filtered to the Bureau of Entomology, where someone actually remembered that I'd done my work on a Western Australian ant. So I got sent here." I finished my tea. "Let's head back. We can talk on the road."
"Yes, professor." She leaned over and kissed me and stood up.
She turned us around, got us back on the road, and said: "So what did we find?"
"You know bilbies?"
"Right. Bilbies are marsupial rats with big ears. They live in small colonies, sort of rabbit warrens with tunnels and a bunch of entry holes in desert areas. I didn't know there were any here, but there are colonies in Victoria. So those low mounds that mark the holes must have seemed far larger when the early sun hit them."
"Fate brought you to me." We'd passed the ruined mission. "Kismet."
"Oh, yeah. Gordy the Prince Charming."
"You are, to me. I never thought I'd meet someone in Laverton. And..."
"And I'm sure my dad didn't think I would, either."
"Uh ... About how much further is it?"
"Bit under an hour."
"Could you pull over?" Weena just pulled over, stopped and turned off the motor. I leaned over, put my arm around her, and kissed her. A big, soft kiss. Her lips parted and a tonguetip ran across my lips. I opened my mouth and tried to count her teeth with my tongue. We did some tongue-duelling and I moved my head back. "That was very nice."
"Are you sure?"
"Please..." That wasn't something I could resist. I reached for a breast and found it medium-sized, soft yet firm, and unfettered.
"In this heat? I'd chafe to death."
"Smart girl. More?"
"Mmmm." She touched the outside of my jeans. "Ni-i-i-ce."
"Not too much, please. I'll explode."
"Let's get back to town." Weena pulled away. I pulled away, too.
"Okay." And we drove back, pulling up in front of the hotel without another word.
We each grabbed a pack and I took the food supplies in my other hand. Weena was holding the door and let it close on its spring when I was inside. She dropped her pack, threw both arms around my neck and just unloaded. I just let my pack go and put my arm around her.
"Put the grub in the kitchen, dear, okay?"
"And then come in here." Here was through the door behind the counter. I found myself in a large room with a bed on one side, a few chairs, a small desk and a large bookcase, and two more doors. Weena had already kicked off her boots and was unbuttoning her blouse. "Shower first or after?" I didn't need an explanation.
"Both." And I sat on a chair to pull off my boots.
It was wonderful. At some point we raided the fridge and then went back to bed. I woke in the morning with hair tickling my nose and a realization that the Rover must still be outside.
"Are you awake?"
"Yes," I said.
"Are you okay?"
"Very yes. I need to go upstairs."
"Clean clothes." Weena sighed.
"Okay. I guess it's time."
I stood up. "Is there anyone else around?"
"I doubt it."
I found my key in my jeans, picked them up along with my shirt, underwear and socks, and opened the door.
"You look cute like that."
"Hold that thought. I'll be back in 10 minutes."
"I don't know whether I can wait that long."
"Try. Patience is a virtue. Practice. Or you could make coffee..."
I was back in the kitchen, wearing a clean shirt and clean but wrinkled work pants, newly-shaven and smiling in just about that time. I could see that Weena had made coffee and that fresh brownie was in the oven. I could also see that she was wearing an apron and nothing else.
"Is this what'll greet me on future mornings?"
"If you wish, master."
"You want to have to assume the position across my knees?"
"O-o-oh. Can I get my hairbrush for you to use?"
"Yes, master." The phone rang. "Dayee, daddy."
"Of course it's you. Who else would call before seven? ... Nothing much. We drove out past the mission to the lakebed, Gordy looked around and picked up some specimens, we drove back ... Why? ... Oh, he's still here. Gotta return the Land Rover ... Oh, by the by, we got engaged ... Don't yell. Calm down ... I guess so. Hold on. Gordy, my dad wants to meet you. Care to drive to the mine? We can lunch there ... Hello, daddy? Gordy says 'yes.' We'll be out around 11 ... Okay. Bye, dear."
"Is he going to kill me?"
"Kill you? More likely hug you to death." She pulled the pan from the oven and cut the contents into nine pieces. "Now, eat up. We've got a lot to talk about before we get to the mine."
I was stuffing my face, so I just nodded. Weena held up a hand: "Okay, number one - where do you want to live?; number two - when do we fly to Brisbane?; number three - when do you want the ceremony; number four - where do you want the ceremony?"
"I was sure yesterday."
"So was I."
"Really. Weena, I love you. Will you marry me?"
"Of course, you lug. And I love you, too."
"I've no ring."
"Unprepared. I always get stuck." She came over and gave me a sweet kiss as I grabbed her bottom. "I'll accept a promise."
"You've got it."