In the middle of the morning I make my way alone to a place called Chinaman’s Pool, not far from where I am staying for the holiday. About a hundred years ago, this permanent pool was the mainstay of the town’s water supply and Aboriginal people made money by carrying it in heavy buckets to a tank in the main street. The small stretch of water got its name from the large shoulder yokes, like those of the Chinese, which straddled the dark backs of the carriers.
I did not grow up in this area of the river but a couple of kilometres further east. There is no doubt that the shady white gums, the paperbark trees and the green, peaceful water are beautiful. But I feel I am in a strange place; that this is not my river but the river of the town kids. My part of the river was wider and scattered with small islands. We named each part and knew a story about every bank and stream.
It strikes me that this was always the way for the first people of this land. The river stretches more than 500 kilometres inland and each tribe called just a small part of it home. To the Ingaada people, here near the mouth of the river, it was Kow Win Wardo but just 70 kilometres away the wilder circumcised and scarred tribes had their own names.
Now they are all gone and the river is become one river but empty of their ancient songs and laughter.
Later, I take my kids to my part of the river. It is still flowing but shallow. Soon it will return to sand until the next cyclonic rain arrives. They wrestle and run after each other in the clear stream. “Are you watching, Dad?” they yell. I am watching. I watch the trees stretched like a familiar garland along the grassy banks unchanged in all this time. And there’s the crossing where we boys stripped off one night and swam with strange exhilaration and a kind of moonlight madness. That’s the island which we lit up with matches and watched disappear in a tall conflagration like a Viking funeral. And over there, a girl called Susan and I kissed and tried to make love but both of us too young and clumsy. Later she sent me a letter, “I miss you.” About a kilometre downstream we boys camped most weekends and carved our names on pieces of driftwood and whispered naïve dreams from our sleeping bags. We heard our words float up into the night sky with embers from the dying fire.
As I watch, three boys appear on the banks. They are riding bikes and they look at us as if we have spoiled something. I wish they would come down and talk to us, tell me what they are doing. I know they will tell me they are bored and that there is nothing to do in this town and one day we are all going to leave for the city. As I did before them and muttering the same old small town mantra. One of them says something and points east. They disappear. So many have disappeared now.
Suddenly my daughter is beside me and looking up at me intently. Maybe she can see something in my face that wasn’t there before. Anyway, it’s as if she has guessed what I am thinking. “Is it still the same as when you were a kid, Dad?” she asks. I wonder then if she will come back to this place one day and remember her brother and me in the gentle autumn sun, how the river stones glistened in the light and small birds whistled in hiding. And even as I wonder this I am struck by the certainty of it. She will remember me. And the river will remember me too and the Ingaada people and Susan and some naked boys laughing and all the voices lost to the sky.
“Well,” I say but smiling now, “the water changes but the river is always the same.”